We have a name for the project inspired by this strange photograph of the Plaistow Landgrabbers taken from 'The Newham Story' ....
" ... At this time there was still the view that if you were unemployed it was your
own fault. Then in July 1906 a group of local men occupied some waste
ground in St Mary’s Road, Plaistow. They were led by Councillor Ben
Cunningham. They cleared the site and laid it out in four triangle shapes and
planted vegetables. It became known as Triangle Camp.
The men had two aims: to show that waste ground could be put to good use
and to show that the unemployed were willing to work.
The Council saw things differently and served the men with an injunction.
Eventually the men were removed but they had made their point. Locally at
least attitudes started to change towards the unemployed."
The men have painted the back wall of the plot with the phrase WHAT WILL THE HARVEST BE? For some reason it reads very much like a contemporary URL.
Nothing like a bit of Pickaxe action to get folk involved! I think the residents of Bakers Row felt sorry for us on Saturday by which time the soil inside the shape had dried out and compacted to the point where a pickaxe really was the most suitable tool ...
We made quite slow progress on the 'seed shape' we were laying out last week ... as usual what Karen & I thought would be a days work turned into three. We did see the sun though.
The friends of Abbey Gardens were at hand with refreshments during our digging. The kids are already really into the space - despite it essentially being a mud bath - or maybe because it's a mud bath.
This car appeared in the lane next to the site last week ... the smell that wafted over as we were digging was disgusting. Apparently it happens quite often.
We're really interested in using seeds and propagation in lots of different ways for the project and we've made a start. Whilst they raise the money for the final garden designs the council are going to seed the whole site with a mixture of wild flowers and grass ... before this goes down we decided it would be interesting to try and preserve some of the original soil and see what grows from this seed bank.
So, to do this we're fencing off an area, the same shape as the foot print of the ruins and digging back through the new top soil to the old layer ... it's quite tough work though.
We have found a friend in the Council Depo behind the site - Robert Rogers who is a real font of local knowledge ... what's more he obviously reads our blog!
"Nina, I saw in your blog about the Corporation stables at Bridge Road
Depot & thought you might like to see a photo of them.
They were demolished when the depot was rebuilt in the early 1980`s.
Although I have not been here long enough to have remembered the horse
and carts, I can remember the stables which were used for storage, with the
old rings to tie up the horses still in place.
Thanks to Pat in our depot who had this photo in her collection and
allowed me to get it scanned... kind of
Amongst the buildings in the distance you can see the Adam & Eve Pub."
I've also been told (by a different source!) that the Adam & Eve pub incorporated stone work from the original Abbey into the walls and that it had secret tunnels below it ...
It's funny how working on a project can make you get on with things you've put off in your personal life for weeks, months or even years. Finally I have joined Hackney's Freecycle, and far from the deluge of unwanted emails I'd expected it to be, to date it's been a rather fruitful and interesting experience!
I've joined as we're about to start what commissioners would call our first 'artists' intervention' (a term I loath & in fact it just means we're about to do something) on the Abbey Gardens site by actually leaving some ground untouched. The idea is to cordon off an area (the same shape as the ruined remains) and protect it from the wild flower seeds about to go down over the rest of the site. We're interested to see by doing this what comes up from the existing seed bank ...
I thought I'd already sourced the wood we need to mark out the area but on a second visit it's much bigger than I thought!
We've begun work on a new commission for Abbey Gardens in Newham, right next to the Railway lines coming from Stratford Station & a short walk from the 2012 Olympic site. Due to the discovery of archaeological remains on the site (The Gatehouse of a Cistercian Abbey - St. Mary Stratford Langthorne, Essex) local developers can't include it in the massive regeneration programme happening all around this area. Along with the cottages opposite (Bakers Row) this little patch of land forms a kind of hole in the structure of a changing area. The site is very close to the allotments run by my friends Gordon & Louise, and on Sunday this week Gordon organised a walk in the local area which I went on.
I've known Gordon since our early days on the Internet and in the beginning he was one of the only people I knew with email, his on-line presence has remained a constant in the life of Somewhere but we rarely get to meet in person. Whenever we do its interesting though, and he often seems to be spookily in touch with lots of things we are thinking about or working on. This Sunday proved to be no exception.
I can't actually remember how the conversation began but Gordon started to talk about '*structural holes', making me laugh as I loved the term - in fact I often feel like I inhabit in a 'structural hole'. This walk was no exception, included in our little group were: Chris, of the great Newham Striders, Louise, who runs the allotments, & Lucy Harrison, an artist who I've never met but have read about due to her project on Canvey Island. We all walked to look at our Abbey Gardens site where Andreas joined us (who lives on Bakers Row but is also part of Public Works), by now I was feeling pretty pleased with the structural hole I'd found myself in on a snowy Sunday afternoon.
Just as I thought the 'linking in' couldn't get much better a white van pulled up and 'Dean' the driver started to question me about Abbey Gardens & what I knew of the site. To cut long story short he lives locally and has had his eye on the site for years, he runs the local flower stall in Stratford station, plus an out-of-town stables ... and what he really wants is to run a stable with pony & cart rides to the Olympic site from Abbey Gardens. As he was enthusiastically outlining his vision Andreas and I looked at each other in that way you do when these sort of project chance meetings occur - a sort of "is this a completely great idea/coincidence or is it just mad" look. Not wanting to stop the links flowing we all exchanged numbers: Lucy for her Stratford station project, Louise for a manure drop off from his stables to the allotments ... and me. What he really wanted to know from me was whether the site had ever been a stables in the past.
We continued our walk over the Greenway and into the current structural hole that is the Olympic site. I tried to work out where the lovely Manor Garden Allotment site would have been before the bull dozers moved in ... Chris and the others knew the site well, and could point out where familiar landmarks had previously stood.
At a recent conference about collaboration, I talked about Somewhere - Karen & I's now 12 year relationship. The chair wanted to know if there were aspects of collaboration I saw as negative. One of the few I could describe was actually what I also feel to be completely positive about working together - that we can afford to be in a 'structural hole'. Since there are two of us, we can in fact build our own little world and remain largely autonomous from art world structures most artists would perhaps have to engage with in a more sustained way. I have always felt that Somewhere spins in its own system and have been happy that way, others may see our lack of engagement with other structures as negative though.
In fact, I increasingly feel that artists generally but Somewhere specifically are asked to come into projects when a 'structural hole' develops that the existing organisations involved don't know how to fill. Abbey Gardens is just such a hole - there are lots of stake-holders, all with opinions, but maybe none with enough flexibility to move around in this hole and even invite other more tangential agents to drop in with them! I'm looking forward to it.
On the Monday I went to Newham archives and looked through old maps of the site. In 1916 the area immediately behind the site (now factories) had indeed been the "Corporation Stables for West Ham Boro.", so I guess I'll be calling Dean.
*"Ronald Burt describes the social structure theory of competition that has developed through the last two decades. The contrast between perfect competition and monopoly is replaced with a network model of competition. The basic element in this account is the structural hole: a gap between two individuals with complementary resources or information. When the two are connected through a third individual as entrepreneur, the gap is filled, creating important advantages for the entrepreneur. Competitive advantage is a matter of access to structural holes in relation to market transactions."
Thanks to Gordon for forwarding this description.