Hackney Wick is an area of East London, located between Victoria Park and the Olympic Village. I worked in the area from 2008 to 2014 and saw the area’s rapid change.
I originally came to the area as an artist looking for a studio and shacked up on Wallis Rd in what was a branch of Cell Studios. The rent was reasonable and artists were moving into the area to find affordable places to live and work.
My practice was gradually becoming more socially engaged and I was on the look-out for opportunities. I applied for an education job at the Elevator gallery, didn’t get it but met Simon, one of the Hackney Wicked Festival Directors. So in 2010 I got involved in the festival and organised its first education programme. The programme include working with 4 local schools to build a fleet of 140 miniature canal barges made out of disused polystyrene fish boxes from H Forman’s and Son (Hackney Wick based family run fish smokers). I’d moved out of my studio by now and needed a place to work on the boats. I was introduced to Bexs at Stour Space, at the time a fledgling arts space on Stour Road. Bexs and Neil (founders of Stour space) had converted a disused warehouse into a gallery space, office and a handful of live work space. They lent me a workspace and the project was a great success.
Hackney Wicked 2011 was the big one, an art festival that suddenly, through word of mouth, ballooned into a three day Mad Max celebration of art, music, culture and local talent. 25,000 people rocked up, drank, sat on top of cars, wandered a labyrinth of studios and partied. The festival just about got through the weekend. I opened ‘Exchange project space’ in Queens Yard, an open access four month residency programme. The four selected artists and I worked together to programme education events, school visits, exhibitions and talks. It was a ram shackled space, with no electricity, so during an exhibition or event I would walk from unit to unit on Queen’s Yard with a 20 metre extension cable. When someone agreed, we would borrow electricity, sometimes for free sometimes for a tenner.
The Hackney Wick I knew of 2010 to 2012 was run, in part, on an economy of favours. A projector lent for an exhibition, friends helping you paint gallery walls for a show, borrowing electric and spaces that where given for free.
As each festival took place, the education programme grew bigger and I became one of the festival directors in 2013. Every year, months before a festival, we would hold a general meeting. Back in 2010 the meeting was full of artists asking things like ‘how can we help, does anyone want to show in my space, can I sell beer in my studio…’ By the time we were working on the 2014 festival the same general meetings were full of start-up companies, organic juicers, theatre companies, brewers and graphic designers. They were all there to offer support and lend a hand but it was clear the creative demographic of the area had changed. Many small businesses have thrived in Hackney Wick; The Hackney Pearl, Stour space, Howling Hops, 90 Main Yard and Crate brewery. In fact Crate became the Festivals main sponsor in 2014.
As the area is regenerated or maybe gentrified, a new community pushes its way into an area that has historically been a transient place. Artists are often blamed for gentrification, held up as the foot soldiers of capitalist developers. In my experience, particularly in Hackney Wick, artists moved in because it was cheap, they populated underused spaces and got on with their work. The real change makers are the people who bring services to the area; cafes, bars, restaurants and arguably art festivals like Hackney Wicked. They make it cool and desirable and they unwillingly bring in rent increases, new developments and taxi loads of ‘Shoreditch twats’.
So, during the 2014 Festival, as part of the development programme of 2014 Figure Ground’s caravan took up residence in the ‘Activation site’ an area of Queens Yard dedicated to socially engaged practice and participation.
Katy, Frank, Jo and I interviewed artists with varying practices over the festival weekend. The subsequent recordings and transcriptions are a snapshot of socially engaged practice at the festival.
All the artists interviewed sat in our caravan, drank tea and spoke about their approaches to art making, socially engaged practice and working with other people in public places.
The collected interviews form a sort of ‘how it was then’ document, not only with regards each artists own practice, but also for the cultural landscape in which they worked.
As Hackney Wick continues to change I hope the interviews we made capture something of the spirit of Hackney Wick and the festival as it was.
Hackney Wicked Art Festival
The first festival in 2008 was a joint initiative from a mix of galleries & studios. In 2009 the festival expanded as local artist Gavin Turk became Patron and visitor numbers reached 10,000. Dubbed “the most vital event of the Summer” by NY Arts Mag, word spread and the festival expanded in 2011 (25,000 people) to include: 17 Galleries, 20 open studio buildings, 600+ artists, pop-up events, 2 live music stages & more. 2013 saw the return of the festival after the 2012 London Olympic Games and the streets came alive again with impromptu performance, exhibitions, open studios, live music, art markets, film, talks, development workshops, live installations and more... Firmly on the contemporary art map in 2014 with 35,000 attendees with three amazing days that have “become an energetic fixture of summer in London” (Time Out 2014).
Stour Space was once a disused, unsafe building, and through the intuition and motivation of the local community it has blossomed into a multi-functional venue, that can service a large variety of needs. Opened in 2009, it now boasts over 40 studio tenants, a 2000 sqft open plan gallery space, 20+ local grassroots programmes on site, a SHOP selling local products, a multi-purpose function space with Olympic views and a popular café, Stour Space has become a hive for local participation, business development, and niche recreation.