Hackney Transient Arts Project is a research-based arts initiative that investigates Hackney's cultural identity. Their recent in/flux exhibition on Kingsland Road was the brainchild of Lucy Tomlins and Marnie Baumer, and curated by Marsha Bradfield and Miriam King. It took inspiration from Hackney as a place in transition and generated a wealth of art and research material which the team are now hoping can take the project further. Nikk Quentin Woolf from Xstream East Radio asked Lucy and Marsha how the project came about.
LT: We started about a year ago. My colleague Marnie had just been to the Hackney museum and we started talking about the transient nature of Hackney’s community: people coming individually and making Hackney their home for awhile. I’ve never got the same kind of feeling as I have since I’ve lived in Hackney. A lot of that has to do with people coming in and sharing their experiences. All the artists in the area have a lot of drive to make things happen. It just feels like there is more developing out of this mix of cultural diversity then maybe there is elsewhere. So we wanted to interview other members of our community, to find out about their story in a very personal way, where they’ve come from, what brought them here, what they do here in Hackney and create an oral history archive.
And of course Hackney itself is changing a lot right now.
MB: Of course, and I think we were specifically interested in thinking about transience as sort of a way of being, even a mindset. I’m very interested in the sociality of art. So we were fascinated by the possibility of having a project that would change in response to the needs and desires of the people involved. Transience is not context or subject: it was really the form of the whole initiative.
How did the project develop?
LT: We didn’t want to ask the twelve artists we chose to come up with an idea for a new piece of work; we wanted the work to come out of engaging with the interviews, which we screened for them.
MB: In the show we tried to tease out how the artworks responded to the interviews, and how the art could explore areas that maybe were not so accessible through conventional research models. In the main space of the exhibition we showed artworks, with a smaller space behind that featuring the research, including some done at the Hackney Wicked Festival.
LT: I created a map of Hackney, designed like a board game, with thousands of different tokens representing different ideas and daily routines...things like that. So for example, people could use the tokens to mark on the map where their local pub was, or where their best or worst experience in Hackney happened, or places people would want preserved. They could improve an area that they felt could do with a bit of TLC or ‘bulldoze’ a certain area of Hackney if they wanted. You got to listen to people’s stories.
Was there consensus on a favourite place in Hackney, or one that people would least like to preserve?
LT: It was really spread, but Ridley Road Market was just covered with preservation tokens. The Dalston Kingsland Shopping Centre got destroyed a couple of times.
MB: We presented that work as research; it complemented the artworks presented specifically for this exhibition. They shared some themes: for example one research project in the mapping portion of the exhibition looked at objects that were collected along bus route 38 and there were also two projects in the main area that explored the experience of riding this particular bus, a major form of transportation through Hackney.
You’ve held some community forums, too?
LT: That’s right. The first was about Hackney’s cultural hybridity: past, present and future. There was an artists’ round table and we asked people who came along to think about what Hackney would look like in 2020, and why. In the second forum we discussed some of the challenges of socially engaged practice and the tactics of other artists and groups to overturn some of these issues.
So what’s going to happen to all this research material and art now you have exhibited it?
MB: We’re really excited about the possibility of thinking about a kind of a catalogue, maybe it goes beyond print, maybe it becomes an oral history archive in its own right, but is really engaging with the issues, not just tracing, some of the themes and ideas explored in the exhibition. Also we hope to create a loose community of practice that will in the future work together again on other initiatives.
You’re keen to distance yourself from the term ‘community art’.
MB: Yes, it has been important to us to distance ourselves from the idea of some overseas artist parachuting in, diagnosing a particular problem and saying ‘I’m going to fix it with an art project’. Instead these are Hackney residents talking about issues that are deeply personal to them. We have been using art to engage with them not only in terms of creative practice but in terms of politics and also sociology which is something that fascinates me.
And dialogue seems to have played a key part in the reflective nature of the project.
MB: Yes, dialogue has been key throughout this entire process, for example dialoguing with people who have just come in off the street, who haven’t seen any advertising for the exhibition but who are struck by themes or images that speak to their personal experience. It’s tremendously satisfying.