words Chris Hall
On my walk to work in King’s Cross there used to be three cast-iron gas holders on derelict wasteground – elegiac monuments that will now be relocated across Regent’s Canal to become exoskeletons for 144 apartments by Wilkinson Eyre. I would walk past these gas holders, day-dreaming of The Ladykillers. Now, there’s a new street called the Boulevard, where scores of private street cleaners attend to paving stones and hoardings. Part of the 67-acre King’s Cross masterplan, this road is the de facto access to the new Central St Martins art school and has the veneer of a public space, with modular benches and streetfood stalls. Look more closely, however, and you see little signs that say: “Please enjoy this private estate considerately.”
These simulacrums of public space exist all over our towns and cities. This is one of the concerns of the artist Laura Oldfield Ford’s in Savage Messiah, an A5 paperback collection of all 11 editions of her cult zine from 2005 to 2009, in which neoliberalism is the filthiest word imaginable. It’s a very particular kind of psychogeographic project – the publisher calls it “part graphic novel, part artwork” – and its staccato prose-poetry is cut and pasted on to a shifting kaleidoscope of grim black-and-white photographs and drawings of those people and areas most resistant to gentrification – the Isle of Dogs, Lea Bridge, Hackney Wick. Ford stirs up a witch’s brew of class war, poll-tax riots, yuppie flats, squats, raves, punk, the dole, amphetamines, all-day drinking, riots and strikes – the 1980s folded into and cut up with the 21st century.
Throughout Savage Messiah there is a drawing of a “ubiquitous eye” that keeps watch, perhaps the eye of Horus, a symbol of protection to ward off evil spirits (in this case, “middle-class wankers”), perhaps CCTV. There are also anarchist black crosses that lace the book, like a barbed wire fence. There is poetry here (“the hostile ravine of the Euston Road”); there is anger (“The battle is on to get us all living in some Thames Gateway dead zone”); there are calls to arms (“SMASH THE VILLE RADIEUSE, SAVAGE MESSIAH IS CALLING FOR A MASS RETURN TO THE LABYRINTH!!!”); and, thankfully, there is humour – an hilarious account of a shift in a biscuit factory that could have come from Irvine Welsh.
In the first issue, Ford takes a north-west passage through the Isle of Dogs, training a keen eye on temporary architecture – “warehouse corridors, pallet citadels and avenues of Portakabins, transient architectures emerge, unfold and wrap up again”.
Ford talks brilliantly about Reclaim the Streets marches and their tactic of converging on a space and disrupting normal relations and how it became a “sanitized version with the flash mobs and then ended up as some flimsy mobile phone advert featuring hordes of synchronized dancers in Liverpool Street”, in which commodification seemed as inevitable as entropy. She wants to reclaim the anarcho-punk radical critique of the 70s and 80s from Shoreditch club nights.
But if Ford’s right and Leyton is indeed the “last shred of hope” in the resistance, then perhaps it’s time to leave the barricades, wave a white flag and head for the nearest Starbucks.