"London is not interested in our ideas" - Andy Field encounters the corporate greed which defines the city's visions of the future. This is part of a series of dispatches from Urban Heat – a new project exploring the future of theatre’s engagement with urban space and communities.
First published online at exeuntmagazine.com on 27 September, 2016.
The artists of Urban Heat are in London for their next city lab event. We are here to think about digital technology and the future but we can hardly hear ourselves for the noise. London is screaming at us, bellowing its sociopathic aspirational fantasies like some deranged motivational speaker. Early on it becomes clear London is not interested in our ideas. It has already seen the future; we can be richer, we can be happier, we can own smart computers in smarter houses, we can drive electric cars through halogen-lit half-empty streets, we can live designer lives of frictionless consumption. The future is ours to imagine, as long as we imagine this future. London is wearing a tight designer suit over its withered old bones. London is trying not to let the desperation show, but it isn’t fooling anyone.
Our four days in London begin at FutureFest, a digital arts conference taking place in the skeleton of a failed 1980s shopping centre inside an old Tobacco Dock in the East End. The conference is primary colours and deafening rhetoric. I listen to two American men deliver a talk called Designing Your Life, which is also the name of a book they are trying to sell. They speak with the slick confidence of rich white men. They both used to work for Apple and are currently at Stanford, one of the wealthiest universities in the world, where they teach Silicon Valley libertarianism to privileged students who are encouraged to confuse self-interest with self-actualisation, and to couch their private greed in the language of corporate manifest destiny. At one point one of the two says ‘the best way to predict the future is to design it’ and I think that this could be the motto of the entire event. This is not a conference for predicting the future, it is where privilege comes to consolidate itself. It is a place where the already-powerful can conspire to design the same future over and over again.
Like so many pioneers before them, the digital pioneers at FutureFest seem less concerned with discovery than they do with the expansion of their territory. Innovation is the process of finding new spaces neoliberalism can occupy, and this process is seemingly never ending. ‘To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we can never reach.’ Said Cecil Rhodes ‘I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to see them so clear and yet so far.’
This insatiability finds its mirror in London’s current property boom. On the third day of the lab we walk though Newham accompanied by Alberto Duman and Clare Qualman, who described the council’s aggressive attempts to decant residents from the Carpenters Estate in order that the space can be used for gleaming high-rise apartments of the sort already appearing across the surrounding landscape. The estate no longer fits with the council’s aspirational ideas for the borough’s future, an ideological shift that is equally present in the high-end chains of the new Westfield shopping centre and West Ham United’s desperately flawed move from the Boleyn Ground to the former Olympic Stadium. As we walk across the Olympic Park in the bleak almost-rain we can see a construction site that will eventually become Olympicopolis, a new £850m arts hub involving major institutions including Sadler’s Wells, the V&A and the Smithsonian that the London Legacy Development Corporation describe as ‘the perfect illustration of how London is open [for business] and will remain so.’
Robert Morris described construction sites as his favourite part of the city; ‘small theatrical arenas, the only places where raw substances and the process of their transformation are visible, and the only places where random distribution is tolerated’. In London however such theatrical pleasure is denied to us. Instead every construction site is surrounded by billboards displaying idealised renderings of the completed development. Steel and glass, clean lines and smooth surfaces, faceless people wandering in tastefully planted courtyards bathed in soft pastel sunlight. Seductive visions of an imagined future. Except that such images do not have anything to tell us about the city of the future, they are a deliberate distraction, a slight of hand.
Perhaps we should recognise these billboards not as representations of the future but as a material fact belonging to the present, in which context they speak to us not of the city as it will be but of the city as it is. They speak of enclosure and restriction, of private ownership and forbidden access, of the aggressive separation of the ordinary citizen from process of the urban redevelopment. They show us also how the rhetoric of futurity is used to conceal from us the means by which power perpetuates itself, hiding its mechanisms under the smooth, pastel-coloured sheen of inevitable progress.
If we have learnt anything in London it is to be distrustful of all this talk of the future, to recognise it as a strategy used to legitimise neoliberalism’s totalising encroachment on our lives and our cities. In turning away from these future fantasies we found ourselves drawn instead to attempts at describing anew the present world; new vocabularies that can serve as spaces of resistance and hope.
In the vast and satisfyingly inefficient spaces of the Hayward Gallery and The Vinyl Factory’s exhibition of ten recent video works The Infinite Mix I lost myself in a kaleidoscope of dreamily transformative visions of the present world. From Khalil Joseph’s fragmentary, hallucinatory portrait of Compton, to the palimpestual glimpses of the actual cityscape emerging through Rachel Rose’s semi-transparent film, to Cyprien Gaillard’s Nightlife, a woozy, intoxicating window into a single moment in time held out for us like a cut flower, the pieces in The Infinite Mix employ familiar technologies to create new ways of seeing and questioning the world around us. They make space for us to think of this world as something strange, something other; a fleeting but exhilarating escape into another way of being.
The same might be said of the stories of the residents of Carpenter’s Estate, told to us by Alberto as we walked its quiet unspectacular streets. Here, surrounded by a radically changing city, ordinary Londoners were creating new meanings for their neighbourhood. Rewriting the story of this space with mutuality and solidarity, recognising it not as proposed real estate with potential future value, but as actual empty houses to be lived in by people who currently need them. In doing so they have effected actual change, allowing empty houses to be opened up for new tenants and helping slowly transform the discourse around housing across the city.
By the end of lab London is still screaming, but in these pockets of resistance it is possible to find some silence and some stillness. To burrow into a version of the present more radical than any of the empty dreams of the future the city is trying to sell us.