Revised Project Descriptor: Beating the Bounds in the Rising East

The urgent demand for new housing has put particular pressure on the outer boroughs of east London, where a combination of availability of disused industrial sites, neglected housing stock, social demand and aspirational local government has led to a proliferation of large-scale housing developments. These regeneration projects have dramatic impact on both the environment, and local communities. 

This project (which is part of a wider engagement with community and activist groups) uses visual means to explore and convey a personal emotional response to the impact of three major developments in Barking and Dagenham, which is both the poorest and the most rapidly developing borough in London. The first of these is the transformation of Barking town centre, through an ambitious, but fragmented, mix of high rise housing and new retail outlets, described by the leader of the council as the creation of a ‘mini-Manhattan’. The second is a strip of large high density developments along the River Roding, transforming moribund retail and industrial parks into ‘the Roding Riviera’. The third development, Barking Riverside, runs along the Thames and is surrounded by industrial units, scrap yards and waste processing plants. It sits on marshland adjacent to former sites of two power stations (a decommissioned gas-powered plant and an older demolished coal-fired plant) and chemical plants, which have left high levels of pollutants in the land. This development is one of the largest in Europe, comprising of over 11,000 units, and ultimately housing a population equivalent to a city the size of Derby. The aspirations of the council leader are to create a ‘Barcelona on the Thames’, a reference to the regeneration of the derelict industrial eastern Barcelona waterfront in preparation for and following the 1992 Olympics.

Whilst the wider project address questions of social infrastructure and community empowerment, the work presented for the FMP specifically focuses on the relationship between human activity and the natural and built environment, and our relationship with the land. The principal images result from walks around the perimeters of the developments (all of which are on private land),  informed by engagement with community and activist groups and archive work; a contemporary form of the ancient practice of ‘beating the bounds’ in which the boundaries of an area are physically experienced, re-established and committed to memory. The images combine elements of human activity and the environment in different ways. The use of analogue and digital forms of image making, processing and distribution reflect the transition from material/chemical to symbolic/digital production in the area (the site of a large chemical plant, for instance, now houses one of Europe’s largest data centres, and an electricity substation built to serve its power requirements). The play between digital and analogue forms also resonates with the impact on the environment and the lived experience of citizens of ‘datafication’ and use of algorithms in social planning and development. The area has strong links to China, and is the UK terminus for ‘the new silk road’, with a train from Yiwu in northern China arriving once a week with 34 containers, following an 18 day journey, adding a further dimension to the the notion of the borough as ‘the rising east’ and raising questions about where the boundaries for an area can be drawn.

The outcomes of the project are in the form of three sets of images with contextual material (texts, maps, diagrams, sound recordings and artefacts), which together serve to provoke engagement with different dimensions of the impact of rapid urban development on this area of east London, and more widely. The images and materials are presented in three artist made archive boxes, and can be configured and used in different ways (for instance, as an exhibition, as the basis for a group activity or for individual handling and reflection). There is no predefined order to the images or expectations about how viewing of the images should be combined with the contextual materials.  The work is non-didactic, and is designed to eschew conveying a single narrative. Rather, the sets of images are presented as a lyrical response, and designed to offer the viewer the opportunity to construct their own narratives and sense of place from their engagement with the work, and, indeed, to reconfigure and add to the collections. 

The photographs in the ‘mini-Manhattan’ collection combine images of everyday human activity in the area with images of the natural environment and the process of transformation of the built environment. The ‘Roding Riviera’ photographs use the river as an enduring form of mediation of images of construction and environmental transformation. In the ‘Barcelona on the Thames’ series, the unruly industrial and natural periphery of the Barking Riverside development is explored through the chemical and digital degradation of images of the development. In each case, the principal images are juxtaposed with a range of contextual contemporary and historic images and other material.

The work will be presented publicly in a sequence of pop-up exhibitions, workshops and presentations, including an exhibition (5th March) and a trade school on community archiving (9th April) at the Participatory City Warehouse in the Barking Riverside area, a series of workshops (5th, 10th and 25th March) and an Open Table exhibition (18th April) at Everyone Everyday in Barking town centre, and a presentation to the London Prosperity Board (29th April).

Barcelona on the Thames – glitched

Some of the results of running the Processing 3 pixel sorting procedure on images from the periphery of the Riverside development. Interesting how the structure of the Riverside blocks leaves them almost unaltered by the sorting process. Had to experiment with the sorting thresholds for each image. In all cases, the sorting is in columns by the whiteness of the pixels (with the threshold set at around 300 to 600).

Vincent Desailly, The Trap book launch

31st January 2020. The Photobook Cafe, London EC1.

Interesting to talk to Vincent about the project and process of producing the book. He’s known as a portrait photographer, and has an image in the 2018 Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize exhibition (see below – also from The Trap).

Vincent Desailly, Red Dawn, 2018

It took three trips to Atlanta to complete the project. He was disappointed with the images from the first trip, principally because they were predominantly portraits which gave little sense of the distinct context (as he observed, they could have been taken in London). The images from the next two trips convey much more of the context and the relationship between people and place. For the editing and sequencing the images, he worked with an editor who asked to look at all of the images, and some images (including the cover image) were included in the final edit that had initially been rejected (this reinforces the importance of working with an experienced editor). It is interesting to see the manner in which images, which may not seem strong in their own right, can form effective bridges and transitions between other images. I particularly like the manner in which maps, on tracing paper, are included in the text, further emphasizing the importance of place in this particular project.

References

Desailly, V. 2019. The Trap. Edited by Hatje Cantz – 51 pictures, 128 pages, English text, introduction by Gucci Mane. https://www.vincent-desailly.com/

TWCP exhibition at the Warehouse

3rd February 2020. TWCP 4th Resident Growth Summit, The Warehouse, Thames Road, Barking.

This gave me the opportunity to try out the idea of a rapid set up (and demount) exhibition, and to show the work I have produced with the Thames Ward Community Project. In total there were 120 prints, which took a week to produce and mount. Putting the work up took about four hours, mainly because pieces had to be clipped to each other to adapt to the space. I feel more confident about exhibiting in these kinds of challenging spaces, and being able to put together sets of images and other resources that can be displayed effectively and quickly.

The exhibition was easily taken down and stored at the end of the day. I need to produced appropriate storage boxes for the mounted images and the materials needed to put together the display. I am not going to use any of these images for my final project, though the work I have done with TWCP will influence the form and content of the work and the manner in which it will be presented to an audience, and the exhibition is part of a sequence of project engagement activities. I’ll write about this in the Critical Review of Practice.

Shedlife portraits

First shot at playing around with different ways of representing the group, taking influences from forms of group and individual portraiture. We spent some time looking through Dutch 17th Century paintings of civic leaders. This one by Bartholomeus van der Helst appealed, so we had a go using a simple single strobe set up.

Bartholomeus van der Helst, Four aldermen of the Kloveniersdoelen in Amsterdam, 1655.

We’re going to need a shorter table … More to follow maybe, after the group have looked at the prints. Followed a session of individual portrait work.

We took a look at the Taylor Wessing Prize catalogues for 2018 and 2019 and thought about different forms of portraiture for future sessions.

Analogue/digital

I’ve used the time over the break to explore practically the analogue and digital dimensions of the project, and how I can visually, and in terms of process, explore both the ‘datafication’ of decision-making in regeneration, and the transition from chemical/material production/distribution to digital/symbolic production/distribution in this part of east London (and, of course, the residue of the former lies alongside, and acts and is acted upon, by the latter (I’ll post a project statement that encapsulates this later). So moving back and forth between chemical processing, handmade bookmaking, coding and image manipulation (whilst initiating three new projects, starting the London Creative Network intensive artist development programme, and preparing for two pop-up exhibitions in the coming month, and all the ongoing work).

The algorithmic manipulation of images is a new strand, but important as it addresses part of the overall project that I have been struggling with (particularly finding a way to relate the quantification of community characteristics, and use of that data in decision-making on housing and social policy, and the lived, and located, experiences of residents). Using the Processing language (see Reas and Fry, 2007) to automate, through the use of algorithms, the manipulation of images is promising. To explore this, I have used Kim Asendorf’s pixel sorting (a term coined by Asendorf in 2010, according to Hight, 2013) code (available for download here; see examples of Asendorf’s work here and here).

Kim Asendorf, Mountain Tour series, 2010

At this point, I am playing around with changing the thresholds in the programme to produce different treatments of some of my landscapes and portraits, as well as some archival material. Here’s a version of the Barking Harbour image featured in an earlier post.

Andrew Brown, Barking Harbour treatment, 2020

Each image is uploaded onto a surface as a bitmap and the procedure (sketch in Processing terms) runs along rows or columns (this can be set) to look for pixels in terms of darkness, lightness or brightness (this can be set). If set to search for ‘darkness’ along rows, the algorithm searches along each row for a pixel which lies within the thresholds set for ‘darkness’ and places these in order until it reaches a pixel that falls outside the defined limits. The number of iterations (loops) for this process can be set. The thresholds for each can be set to create different forms and levels of ‘mutilation’. This gives me an opportunity to contrast chemical degradation of images (using the immersion methods developed by Matthew Brandt) with these forms of digital degradation. I want to go beyond playful data-moshing, however, and see if I can feed in data (for instance, social progress indicator data) relating to the specific communities that I am working with.

Andrew Brown, Barking RIverside treatment, 2020

This raises again the question of how to present the outcomes of the manipulation. My intention here is to continue to move back and forth between the digital and the analogue, and the abstracted and the located. So printing these could take us back into the analogue, local/located and visceral. As with all this work, the question is what is gained and lost in each translation between forms, if translation is possible, of course, in any meaningful sense (see Apter, 2013).

References

Apter, E. 2013. Against World Literature: On the politics of untranslatability. London: Verso.

Hight, J. 2013. An introduction to Kim Asendorf. Unlikely Stories, Episode IV. Online https://www.unlikelystories.org/13/asendorf0913.shtml [accessed 23.01.2020]

Reas, C and Fry, B. Processing: A programming handbook for visual designers and artists. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press.

neuropolis book

Experimenting with different book forms. The challenge with the neuropolis series has been to show the relationship between each final image and its three constituent images. I used Japanese stab binding for this book. As the pages are folded (with the open edge at the binding), I have been able to print the grid of initial images ‘inside’ alternate folded pages, and cut windows to show the three images that are used for each of the final images.

The paper is double-sided matt 170 gm. Heavier than I would have liked, but OK for a trial. More difficult is getting photo paper with the right grain direction. To get the book pages to sit properly requires short grain, but this paper is long grain. The only solution, for small scale production by hand, would seem to be to use watercolour or sketching paper (which can be bought in larger sheets and cut to size with the correct grain), and to coat it for inkjet printing.

Stab binding isn’t ideal for this kind of book. It would be better to use a form of binding which would allow the pages to lie flat. I also still like the idea of presenting these images in a portfolio box, and allowing the reader to order the images in different ways. More experiments to come.

Prototype displays

I am working through ideas for a portable exhibitions, and seeing what can be produced with existing resources. Following earlier consideration of work by Dayanita Singh, I have produced some prototype accordion books, to explore size and format, and the suitability of different types of paper (in terms of printing, use in book production and in display). I’ve used the following images of housing developments in Barking, for instance.

I’ve used 200 gsm single-side coated matt photopaper for this. There is a problem in getting stock from which I can get A3 sheets which are short grain. The print surface is good (certainly works well for these monochrome images) and it handles well for book making.

There is work to be done on how they would be used in display, and how different angles of view and light can be used creatively (and, consequently, how images are sequenced and arranged). Some kind of clip that holds each fold at 90 degrees would be helpful (I saw something like this used at Paris Photo last year). The next step is to explore other formats for books/displays and other sequences of images.

I have been looking at work by Heather Weston, a book artist who explores ways in which established book forms can be used creatively to produce resonances, and tensions, between form and content, for instance in her works a diction (2004) in which the pages are the shape of a pint glass, and unfold into a circle, READ (past, tense) (2000) which is printed with heat sensitive ink that responds to the touch of the reader and Paper Cut: relief (2007) dealing with self harm and taking the form of an accordion book with cut outs (below).

Heather Weston, a diction, 2004
Heather Weston, Paper Cut: relief, 2007

In Bookcraft (2008), she refers to Karen Hanmer’s Destination Moon (2003) which takes the form of a ‘flag book’ (a kind of accordion book) that juxtaposes archival photographs of the Apollo Manned Space Programme with John F. Kennedy’s “Man on the Moon by the end of the decade” speech and a whimsical song about a romantic journey to the moon.

Karen Hanmer, Destination Moon, 2003

This dynamic handmade book form, which has been produced using an inkjet printer, is well suited to the forms of juxtaposition and change that I am exploring in my own work, and warrants some exploration.

As a foonote, the black and white images above are all reflections of developments along the River Roding taken from the same place as this 1832 drawing of Barking town (the vantage point is now a supermarket car park).

References

Weston, H. 2008. Bookcraft. London: Quarto.

FMP mid-point review

According to the schedule, at this point (Week 14) I should have completed my fieldwork, and be working on composites and other images for the outcomes of the project. Seems like a good time to review progress to date and map out activities for the next 4 months.

Photographic Fieldwork

Image making for and with community groups has been pretty intense over the past few months.

Thames Ward Community Project (TWCP). Following on from a series of photographs of the members of the Citizens Action Group, I decided to focus on activities within the community. Consequently, I have made images of the following activities: TESOL for Parents (two sites – Riverside and Thames View), Mums with a Mission (Thames View), DJ workshops (at Riverside Campus: see selected images below), Thames Ward Health Stakeholders, Young Citizens Action Group.

A repository of photographs has been created and I have made prints for the project leaders and participants. Prints from projects have been used to raise awareness of the different activities amongst the project team (for instance, at the recent project dinner).

Sharing project images, TWCP dinner, 18.12.19

Photographs have been used in press and promotional material. The 100 images made for the Thrive Community Day have been given to the Mental Health Foundation for the report on the Thrive Thames View project. Next step is to produce a collection of larger prints for the TWCP to use in promoting its work.

New View Arts. My Shed Life photographs (of participants, the area and the models produced) have featured in the press and funding campaigns. They have also been used in the report produced by University of East London architecture students and in support for the planning permission application. I would like to submit images to the WISERD Civil Society Photography Competition, which closes on 13th January. I will continue to make images with the group to feed in to the exhibition planned for the opening of the Shed and any prior promotional work. The Arts Council funded film on the Creekmouth flood and displacement, to which the summer workshop for children contributed, was presented to residents on 2nd November and I gave to prints of photographs used, including archive photographs, to the group. The film was also shown to the public at the Sue Bramley Centre, with accompanying pop-up exhibition of my images and photographs taken with and by the workshop participants, on 13th December. Future showings are planned.

Everyone, Everyday. This is the local incarnation (and most prominent project) of Participatory City. I have joined the project and attended events, and discussed the possibility of exhibiting at the Warehouse with the facility manager and running workshops with the project officers. Their next planning cycle starts in January, and I have a meeting with the Barking project team on 9th January to explore contributing to the programme of activities, which starts on 25th February.

Eastside Community Heritage. Photographs of the demonstrations relating to the Riverside Estate fire, and images of the estate, are being used in the independent report and the website being produced around resident accounts. They have been used in press coverage, and a BBC feature was made with footage from the demonstration on 19th October. Follow up with residents planned. Possible collaboration with ECH producing images for their Becontree Estate project. ECH has previously collaborated with Studio 3 Arts on the Open Estate project, focusing on the Gascoigne Estate.

Barking and Dagenham Heritage Conservation Group. I have continued to to attend meeting and kept in touch with activities. I have made images of developments around Barking, and collected a list of proposed developments from emails about applications for planning permission. May be possible to draw work together for a pop-up exhibition in the town centre (for instance, at the Barking Hotel). Another possibility would be to do a collaborative piece with Keith, who has a particular interest in photography, particularly with film, or to focus on some of the members of the group and their concerns. Might fall outside the scope of the FMP.

Greatfields School. On 8th October, I ran a workshop for GCSE Photography students to introduce a collaborative project focusing on the impact of changes taking place on the Gascoigne Estate. Kiran (the photography teacher) repeated this with another group, and invited proposals for projects from the students. These have been submitted and projects selected. We plan to run the sessions after school on Thursdays, alongside the photography club. Pressure of work around the end of the year have led us to postpone the project start to 23rd January (to run for 6 to 8 weeks).

Exhibition and engagement

Work has been exhibited locally in pop-up (such as the Creekmouth film showing) and other exhibitions (such as the IG11 Art Trail, which ran until 9th November) as planned, and used in community engagement and dissemination activities (for instance, the Community Day, TESOL for parents and DJ workshops). These opportunistic exhibitions will continue. For the FMP outcome, however, something more formal will be needed, which can incorporate and showcase my own work. I am pursuing a number of possibilities, and the London Creative Network will give rise to new opportunities, including the new block at Barking and Dagenham College and the Warehouse. Most likely is the Sue Bramley Centre, which has good outside space in which work could be displayed without danger of vandalism (which would be a problem with the hoardings in the areas, which would otherwise provide a good display surface).

I have discussed this with the centre manager, who is supportive of the idea. Other site specific exhibitions could also be organised. I have also discussed the possibility of running workshops at the Centre, for TWCP project leaders and at the Warehouse. At this point, there are ample viable sites for exhibition and engagement, but this will have to be tied down in the coming month, and work produced for exhibition if this is to be a principle outcome of the FMP. I am also exploring handmade books as a way of displaying photographic work in easily portable form (I’ll make a specific post about this).

Next Steps

I am currently collating images and other material (including maps, planning documents, data and archive images), and exploring how these can be juxtaposed. Ethically and practically, I am inclined now to identify a number of key collaborators, and a narrow range of themes, and to work with them as models, and in selecting images with which to work. Over the next two weeks, I need to produce a range of images to exemplify the form of outcome, and/or to act as base composite images to which to add images of members of the community. Alongside this I will identify the most appropriate ways of disseminating and exhibiting the work. I will also produce a range of forms of book to illustrate how the work might be transported and shown. In addition to the photographic work for and with community groups, I have been exploring the boundary between the Riverside development and Footpath 47, which runs alongside the Thames. Currently this gives direct access to the riverbank, but under plans for the estate development, will become a paved walkway between the housing and the river, which will dramatically change the local ecosystem, and access to the marshland environment. In addition to the community related composite work, I will explore the environmental aspects of the development through the incorporation of environmental effects on the images themselves (see, for instance, the discussion of work by Matthew Brandt; I have collected samples of water from the marshes and rivers to experiment with the effects on images). Related to this, I want to visually explore the boundaries that are being created, and the conceptual limitations of the notion of boundary in understanding the entanglement of human activity/well-being, the built environment and the natural environment. From this work I also need to produce a clear statement of the focus of the FMP (as a subset, or intermediate stage, of the wider project) – a post will follow about this. Commencement of the LCN programme at the end of January will also have an impact on the development and ultimate focus of the FMP outcomes.

Revised schedule

Whilst progress with the work has been good, and largely to schedule, there is a need to fix the focus of the FMP and revise the schedule to ensure that adequate time can be give to the work that needs to be done. The revised schedule looks something like this:

Composite image-making and preparation of prints prototype books (16th December 2019 to 12th January 2020)

Week 13 Collation of images and documents
Week 14 Creation of initial composites and other images
Week 15 Printing and preparation of images and prototypes
Week 16 Final determination of project focus, collaborators and outputs. WISERD images submission.

Sharing of composites, creation of images, feedback and preparation of cumulative outcomes (13th January 2020 to 23rd February 2020)

Week 17 Image making with participants. Commence work with Particatory City.
Week 18 Image making with participants. Commence Greatfields project. Commence LCN programme
Week 19 Image making with participants
Week 20 Image making with participants. Thames Ward Growth Summit exhibition
Week 21 Production and presentation of work
Week 22 Reflection and follow-up with participants

Final outcomes: exhibition, artists book/archive and workshops (24th February 2020 to 5th April 2020)

Week 23 Preparation of material for exhibition and workshops
Week 24 Warehouse exhibition and workshop. Complete Greatfields project
Week 25 Falmouth workshops and portfolio review
Week 26 [Singapore & Canterbury]
Week 27 Workshops and exhibition
Week 28 Finalisation of outcomes.

Preparation of FMP submission (6th April 2020 to 1st May 2020)

Week 29 Review CRJ and online portfolio (Easter)
Week 30 Finalise Critical Review of Practice (Easter)
Week 31 Finalise Project pdf
Week 32 Submit Project pdf and Critical Review of Practice