Along the Thames, 50 live performances, sculptures and installations explored home truths of gentrification, domesticity and colonialism
Home no longer answers to its name. Before Grenfell, we called it a safe space that the barbarity of capitalism couldn’t access. Before the Windrush deportations, we called it a base where memories, relationships and a sense of self could be constructed. Before data protection breaches, we called it the right to privacy. So what do we call home now? This was the theme of this year’s Art Night – London’s nocturnal contemporary arts festival curated by Hayward Gallery. On 7 July, from 6pm to 6am, free events took place at galleries, new-builds, parks, and television studios along the Southbank between the Hayward Gallery, Vauxhall, Nine Elms and a scaffolded Battersea Power Station. More than 50 projects were open to the public, ranging from live performances, stand-alone sculptures and installations, many of them exploring gentrification, colonialism, domesticity, nationalism and immigration.
A rapacious landlord’s ability to make a ‘home’ out of anything isn’t dissimilar to that of a cash-strapped curator’s ability to turn a bedroom, garage or unused shop into an art space. At Subsidiary Projects, an artist-led project curated by Natalia Gonzalez Martin and Georgia Stephenson – in Martin’s house on the famous Bonnington Square – was a group exhibition, ‘The Floor is Lava’, featuring work by Helenda De Pulford, Jack Evans and Oona Wilkinson. Wilkinson’s work explored the history of the street’s squatters, who in the 1980s, worked to introduce a functioning plumbing system to the surrounding houses. The other two artists further explored ideas of self-made architecture with Evan’s grey speckled plaster doric columns framing the doorway and De Pulford’s installation of two giant wax smiling faces melting outside in the humidity of the evening. While in the space it was easy to forget that it was someone’s accommodation until you turned around and caught a glimpse of the lived-in kitchen, but it was the inability to avoid encountering the unglamorous objects that spoke to our aspirations to elevate our environments beyond their modest states.
A 30-minute walk away, Larry Achiampong provided an enchanting audio-visual installation at StudioRCA at Riverlight in Nine Elms. A profound and poignant exploration of otherness, particularly African diaspora otherness, it delved into colonization and displacement. At 10pm amidst a crowded near-silent room, the artist emerged in front of a set of decks, wearing a white hoodie stitched with a black mesh that covered his face. The hour-long hip-hop, video game and science-fiction-inspired set was interjected with emotive soundbites. One of them was instantly identifiable; an infamous BBC interview with West Indian writer and broadcaster Darcus Howe during the 2010 UK riots in which a reporter ignorantly asks whether he too, has rioted. Achiampong’s use of prose, film, music and text to discuss displacement, rejection and racism was both up-to-the-minute and the same old story.
Belonging was also explored in Halil Altındere’s multi-media installation Space Refugee (2016–18) at The British Interplanetary Society. Based on Muhammed Ahmed Faris, the first Syrian cosmonaut to travel into space in 1987, the exhibition featured faux commemorative artefacts, portraits and a film where Faris talks among other refugees about the hardships related to leaving and returning to Syria. At one point in the film, Faris says, ‘I hope we can rebuild cities for them in space, where there is freedom and dignity and where there is no tyranny, no injustice.’ Despite a transient ‘what if?’ moment, a future where refugees desperately ‘occupy Mars’ in a bid to find a place to inhabit without opposition is symptomatic of our paranoid investment in sustaining perimeters. It is the plot-line to the ultimate dystopia. Futuristic ideas were also explored in Queertopia (2018), screened in the foyer of the BFI. The film is a collection of work about queer communities in their spaces and also looks at building environments and landscapes that ‘nurture new radical possibilities.’
In Vauxhall Park, Prem Sahib’s sculpture 500 sq ft (2018) replicated a new-build one-bedroom apartment, emphasizing the perpetually changing landscape of the local area, as well as its contemporary gay nightlife scene. The black-walled installation felt like a maze or the corridors of a nightclub. Gentrification often feels like it happens overnight and the constructed-then-deconstructed nature of Sahib’s work embodied that same hurried sense of timescale. Cécile B. Evans performance Amos’ World is Live (2018), at production house Spectrecom Studio, also dissected the relationship between public and proprietor. Developed around a fictional TV show about a ‘socially progressive housing estate’ Evans directed a cast and crew before a live audience, with a plot centring around tenants who become increasingly alienated from the empty promises of the architect.
The more playful works of the festival included Lendable Mendable Vendable (2018), an interactive performance installation by Harriet Fleuriot and Sarah Cockings which explored the dissatisfaction or unfulfillment owners have with the objects that they own. These unwanted items were put through ‘a series of physical and virtual transformations using a custom-built, human-controlled machine.’ The elaborate set, replete with green screen and obstacle course, felt like a rejection of domesticity, or perhaps a rejection of the kind of futile domesticity that consumerism has fabricated. Another light-hearted work, Marinella Senatore’s The London Procession (2018), began at Battersea Power Station and made its way towards the Hayward Gallery, featuring singers, dancers and cheerleaders. The procession which often felt like a dislocated but endearing carnival explored the emancipatory power of ‘communal creative processes’ in an environment where urban landscaping is increasingly prioritized over community cohesiveness.
Overall, Art Night 2018 was a trail of timely works that couldn’t have come on a more fitting night considering UK Pride was simultaneously taking place and celebratory chants of ‘It’s coming home’ from World Cup watchers filled every other road. But in a climate of high rents, work and living space merging into one, aggressive borders and deportation, is the idea of home now defunct? Being a resident holds little resonance when so few can attain it physically, legally, even emotionally. Perhaps it isn’t art’s role to remedy these issues in one night, but it should open up the floor for discussion, while also acknowledging art’s own unfortunate role in social cleansing. There is something restorative about seeing streets busy with people seeking out art on foot in the the early hours of the morning, but free accessible art in areas of affluence and vast investment can’t be considered a middle ground until we discern who, when populating these spaces, is at home and who outstays their welcome when the show is over.
Art Night 2018 took place across various venues in South Bank, Vauxhall and Nine Elms, London, on 7 July.
Main image: Lara Favaretto, I poveri sono matti (The poor are mad), 2005–18, installation view, Nine Elms Lane, London. Curated by Hayward Gallery for Art Night 2018. Courtesy: the artist and Art Night; photograph: Thierry Bal