With 11 days left to enter the Aesthetica Art Prize 2016, we highlight the Painting & Drawing category, shining the spotlight on longlisted artist Jessie Brennan. In her work, Brennan explores the representation of places through drawing and dialogue, informed by their current contexts and a direct engagement with the people who occupy them. As part of our official Call for Entries Countdown, we speak to her about her practice.
A: A Fall of Ordinariness and Light marries drawing with key political and urban planning themes. In your opinion, what makes drawing the appropriate medium to illustrate the future demolition of a brutalist social housing estate?
JB: A Fall of Ordinariness and Light takes the form of a series of four graphite drawings that imagine Robin Hood Gardens’ planned demolition. In the meticulously rendered drawings, the building appears to be in stages of increasing collapse and the story is one of social failure – the fall of post-war aspirations of progress, the end of architecture for social good. The crumpled ball of paper is also, of course, a common image of the artistic process – a visual shorthand for ideas considered, tested and then thrown away.
Drawing is a way to bring an intimate scale and human quality to debates around the politics of regeneration, particularly the redevelopment of brutalist social housing estates. Such estates have had a history of igniting contested views – around their perceived architectural successes and social failures – but these buildings have now become strangely fashionable to live in (just look at the Balfron tower, a listed estate whose former social housing is planned for refurbishment and private sale).
Through drawing, A Fall of Ordinariness and Light responds directly to the problems associated with Robin Hood Gardens’ representation. Here, we see a building perceived first as architecture within a digital photograph, then translated to paper, and finally articulated as a drawing. As a drawing, the work reveals the intensive labour of its own production; it carries, too, all the weight of political struggle under which the building will eventually collapse.
A: The series’ sub-titles, The Order Land, The Scheme, The Enabling Power, and The Justification, are taken from the compulsory purchase order that was issued by Tower Hamlets Council in 2013 when it acquired land around Robin Hood Gardens. Why is it important to attach these titles to each of the four drawings?
JB: The sub-titles are quite Orwellian. They point toward the power structures at play in redevelopment. Although new research shows refurbishment of estates has less social and environmental cost than demolition, the advantage of a new build is that existing (low-income, working class) residents can be moved out and, following viability studies, developers can make their non-negotiable 20% profit while providing a small percentage of so-called ‘affordable housing’. This is justified through policies that value private ownership over state-funded homes, a legacy of Thatcher’s Right to Buy.
I intended for the work to raise questions about the language, processes and intentions of regeneration, namely: whom is it for? When Robin Hood Gardens was first built, New Brutalism had become a key architectural expression of the welfare state and today the estate embodies those socialist ideals of progress. The planned demolition doesn’t merely sweep away an entire social housing estate, it is symbolic of a wider attack by government policy: the ideological attack on council homes, and the actual dismantling of public housing and social security. In assigning sub-titles – The Order Land, The Scheme, The Enabling Power, The Justification – I also attach to the work its political context.
A: Many of your drawings appear to take on a three-dimensional form or performative role. What drives you to challenge the boundaries of the discipline?
JB: Challenging the boundaries of drawing (if indeed that’s what I’m doing) feels quite natural to me now. I consider my practice to be a situated practice (as discussed by Claire Doherty or Jane Rendell), engaged in ‘critical spatial practices’ (a term coined by Rendell). These critical spatial practices explore political and social issues between public and private, art and architecture, theory and practice, and so an interdisciplinary practice is very appropriate to my own concerns about place and space, and who owns it.
I’m really interested in drawing as performative. Another artwork entitled Conversation Pieces (2014) is a series of drawings in collaboration with residents of Robin Hood Gardens, which was a catalyst to explore with them a kind of ‘lived-in’ brutalism. The drawings are made on site by rubbing graphite across the surface of a sheet of paper, revealing the pattern, and everyday wear and tear, of a doormat beneath. They reflect the apparently unlikely human qualities associated with brutalism and bring to mind the day-to-day experiences of lives lived within the concrete blocks. These drawings are performative in that they perform – through the very act of their making on the estate – a critical engagement with the building, its history and politics, and the people who live within it. The drawings led to recorded interviews with residents – inside their homes and workspaces – for my book Regeneration!
A: You claim that the impact of urban regeneration is an “ongoing concern” in your work. How has the rapid redevelopment of London and other cities in recent years impacted your thinking and making processes?
JB: More and more I’m thinking about art and its relation to activism. My practice explores political and social issues because I’ve come to a point in my life where it feels unethical not to do so. Like many other people, I have been indirectly impacted by redevelopment which has made east London, my home for the past 11 years, completely unaffordable. But this isn’t just about minor, personal, selfish losses; it’s about what’s happening to our cities on a huge scale: that is, the displacement and dispossession of the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society.
For me, the way to a more equitable society is to actively have a hand in the making – and collective ownership – of places. My work has developed as a direct result of my experiences living in London, but also working beyond the capital. I have encountered deep resistance to the kind of development (driven by the financialization of land and property) that we are witnessing in London and elsewhere. My processes have responded to the changing political and social landscape and have been impacted by the people with whom I have been fortunate enough to meet and collaborate.
A: You were longlisted in this year’s Aesthetica Art Prize and won Second in the John Ruskin Prize 2016. What does this exposure mean to you?
JB: It’s always an honour to receive acknowledgement and support for one’s work, and exhibiting alongside other artists can spawn new ideas, discussions and critical friendships. It’s important to me that the political content of my work reaches a broad audience. And yet, as time goes on, in many ways recognition becomes much less important (at least it has for me) because I’ve found that I can often make more happen under the radar. Of course, I’m grateful to have found the best way I can to engage in the things that matter to me most.
A: Can you discuss your upcoming projects, such as your participation in group show Resident in collaboration with Metal?
JB: Resident, an exhibition of work by Marc Atkinson, Matt Lewis and I, is the culmination of my year-long residency hosted by arts organisation Metal and in collaboration with The Green Backyard, a community garden in Peterborough threatened by a proposed redevelopment. During my time as ‘artist in residence’ I repurposed a garden shed into a community darkroom, where, together with The Green Backyard trustees, volunteers and users of the garden, I documented the site in the form of over 100 cyanotypes (camera-less photographs) and more than 100 voices (oral recordings), creating a visual and audio archive. This ongoing archive shows that the garden is not simply a place of rest and repose from which to escape the world, rather: it is a site for critical thought and action in which democratic struggles for the ‘right to the city’ are contested and fought for.
I have also created a new, site-specific artwork for The Green Backyard. If This Were To Be Lost (2016) takes the form of a temporary, large-scale, sculptural installation (text in painted birch plywood on scaffold) in the garden. The phrase is adapted from an oral recording by a contributor to the GBY archive – an outcome of my residency. If This Were To Be Lost raises many questions about what this community (and many others engaged in voluntary-run, urban green spaces) stands to lose if the land were to be lost to a proposed redevelopment. Look out for the artwork from the East Coast mainline train between Peterborough and London, and share using the hashtag: #IfThisWereToBeLost.
Resident continues at Peterborough City Gallery & Museum until 28 August. Inside The Green Backyard (Opportunity Area), 2015–16, is hosted by Metal and supported by The Bartlett Visiting Research Fellowship, Seedbed Trust, Peterborough Presents, and public funding from Arts Council England.
1. Jessie Brennan, A Fall of Ordinariness and Light- The Enabling Power (2014). Courtesy of the artist.