We have made it to the final day of the London lab and this idiot city has rarely appeared to me so exhausting as it has over the last four days, seen through the eyes of the frequently incredulous urban heat artists – the scale of it, all the noise, the frenzied pace at which everything is trying and frequently failing to happen. I’m reminded that this is how I felt when I first moved here a decade ago. And although you definitely get used to having to travel for at least 45 minutes to get from your house to anywhere you want to go, I don’t think growing to like London is just about growing used to it, instead perhaps living in the city is like swimming; all furious noise and movement when viewed from a distance, but unexpectedly calmer beneath the surface.
For our final day we escaped towards these calmer depths, retreating to a studio in an old school on a residential street in West Ham for a day-long workshop brilliantly organised by Jorge Lopes Ramos, one of the Urban Heat artists based in London, and his partner in art and life Persis Jade Maravala.
The workshop was logistical marvel, structured around a meticulously plotted schedule of precisely timed exercises – one minute to listen to the person opposite you, three minutes to describe an imagined object, ten minutes to create a game using a box of objects – the cumulative effect of which was that we all produced an incredible amount of stuff in a short space of time. Perhaps the ultimate example of this was an exercise in which we had to come up with 20 ideas in 20 minutes, with Jorge calling out the end of each minute as our cue to abandon one idea and move on to the next. It is kind of experiment in endurance spontaneity, as you desperately attempt to squeeze some thin sliver of creativity out of each quickly-passing minute.
At the end workshop Jorge told us that normally they would allow this kind of programme to stretch out over several days, and yet this very condensed version seemed entirely fitting for London; a hyper-productive, super-efficient workshop for a late-capitalist megacity obsessed with maximising value and in love with its own busyness. A city whose productive urgency can seep into you and bury itself in your bones, generating a kind of competitive busyness, a work rate that is nurtured and displayed like an ornamental plant.
Perhaps this is partly why the minute of silence Rainer requested of us at the end of the workshop felt like such a relief. After so much urgency and productivity, both in the workshop and prior to it, it felt like a necessary corrective. A pause. A caught breath. A moment to be motionless in the midst of so much direction. A soothing minute of nothing clawed back from a city. A glorious waste of everyone’s time.
I think for me one of the stories of this lab has been the search for exactly these kinds of radically unproductive spaces in a city seemingly intent on eliminating them wherever they are found. Partly what I loved about The Infinite Mix was the space the exhibition wasted, with each of the ten pieces given nearly half a floor of building to exist in. Enough space for our imaginations to expand into. Enough to space to imagine whole new worlds into existence.
The story of the Carpenter’s Estate seems also to be a story about space and what we make of it. Here in this half century old council estate surrounding by aggressively new apartments, there is at least one small corner of Newham actively resisting the remaking of place as capital; millions of pounds’ worth of real estate that refuses to recognise itself as millions of pounds’ worth of real estate. The residents campaign is in part at least an attempt to assert that a neighbourhood should not have to fulfil its economic potential to be considered valuable, to be valued by the city and its leaders. That simply existing should be enough.
Perhaps it is these spaces that rescue any modern city, gaps across which the prevailing ideology cannot smoothly pass, like the spaces in between streets across which fire cannot jump. Spaces that imagine a different set of values and a different kind of world, and simply through their continued survival, help to enact it.