What art have I seen?

Posted in CF Writing, Exhibitions, Sited work by chrisfremantle on August 6, 2009

Don’t go and think about Dalston Mill as a whacky eco retro art project.  Think of it as architects working very hard to imagine a future for us all.  And bear in mind that they are sleeping in this structure, above the bar cafe, next to the seminar room and adjacent to the toilets.

The bus dropped me on Dalston Lane and I towed my wheelie suitcase over the uneven pavement.  Leaving Liverpool Street and the skyscrapers we’d passed through Little Nigeria on Shoreditch High Street.  I’d seen the main Radical Nature exhibition at the Barbican a few weeks ago, and Dan Gretton had said this “off-site” project was really worth seeing.  I’d caught a glimpse of the mural you are meant to look out for and seen a black painted wooden wall with words hand painted in white saying Dalston Mill, but it looked closed.  So thinking that there was another entrance I walked through a yard, caught sight of a scrubby patch of wheat, went through an opening in a builders temporary fence and wandered around.  It was 2pm and a few people were casually doing stuff.  One guy in a t-shirt and shorts was sweeping up fag butts whilst smoking.

Going to Nils Norman and Michael Cataloi’s University of Trash at the Sculpture Center, my mother’s comment “I saw this in the 70s” is still firmly with me.  She’s got a point.

And the answer may lie in the blurb about the show Into The Open currently in Philadelphia.  This was the official US representation at the 2008 Venice Bienniale of Architecture.  The sixteen groups represented are at the cutting edge of thinking about the urban, the landscape, the recycled and the social.  I immediately recognise Center for Land Use Interpretation, Center for Urban Pedagogy, Project Row Houses and Rural Studio as landmark initiatives.  I have a collection of CLUI and CUP materials, the book Rural Studio produced on my shelves and I’ve been to Project Row Houses.

The blurb goes:

“Critics noted the exhibition’s unusually sober assessment of the challenges America faces, as well as the inspired attempts by grassroots architects to mitigate these conflicts.”

But I do have a problem, and it was hell of an easy to walk in look around and walk out – to do the artworld strut – and say “seen that”.  I did end up talking to the guy clearing up the fag butts and he turned out to be one of the architects.  I nearly voluntarily got roped into making dough, and I really should have (no strutting making dough) but in the end they were just getting organised and I was heading for a train.  Vidokle does address this so directly and effectively: The Martha Rosler Library as well as the Video Store and the Night School are all about stopping (or tripping) the strut.  And I wish the University of Trash and Dalston Mill had, in addition to the events programme, something which when you walk in off the street, sucked you into ‘the sober assessment of the challenges,’ whatever time of day it was.

Because in reality, these architects and artists have created a structure which is lightweight, adaptable, portable, generates energy, supports social activities, addresses questions of food and land use, and therefore embodies some very serious issues.  And I loved the scarecrows with milk containers for heads.  And I hope that as they take it all to pieces and move on, that they clean up the site, including the archaeological trash from the periphery, which has clearly been there longer than the three weeks of this exercise, and leave the site better than they found it, whether they have left us wiser or not.

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  1. […] off-site project in Dalston, which I wrote about earlier, is a more interesting work than some in the exhibition, precisely because it was not […]

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