Today was set as a counter point to the Meschac Gaba exhibition. We encountered another artist’s practice set within a curated space. Edward Padilha has been living/working in “Balin house”, Bermondsley. At first a rented Council house, he has recently bought the property and is now in the process of acquiring the adjacent Laundry room.
We left Tate in the rain after a brief introduction to and by Padilha and walked the 10 or so minutes to the Tabard Gardens council estate through tourist attractions and middle class shopping and housing. The project was on the fourth floor – no lift – and all 25 of us crushed into one of the small rooms.
The first phase of the Balin House Project was as a gallery/work space for artists, largely from outside the UK, who had no opportunities to exhibit in London. A parallel strand of work in the community – workshops for local children, support for local community history – was also developed. A third phase saw artists commissioned to undertake work in both the community and Balin house – grants were obtained to cover this activity. Padilha is now in transition to the fourth phase – he intends to operate his house/laundry room as a ‘salon’ and as an archive of community histories and narratives. Torange Khonsari, from the art and architecture firm Public Works, has worked with Padilha to re-design the small space to enable this to happen. Work is expected to be completed by the beginning of November and the first exhibition/salon will then be held.
Padihla explained all of this while we were standing shoulder to shoulder in one room and the corridor. Khonsari then introduced us to the key architectural elements she was working with – the wall, the library, the parlour, and display windows and the strong door. Then there was time for questions.
Most of the discussion centred on relations with the community and neighbours and ranged from how the neighbours felt about and participated in the various activities, to an expression of unease with the class dimensions of the project – would the same thing happen in a middle class neighbourhood? Was art a catalyst for social change? Was the artist bringing art to the people or were there already existing art practices in the community? Was the artist just feeding off the “exotic”? Were the concerns about middle class artists and working class people just stereotypes? Where was the boundary between public and private when life was on offer as a practice and there was very little domestic space left?
We then walked back to a Moroccan restaurant for a shared lunch – continuing the theme of generosity, sharing, hosting.
In the afternoon we moved into one of the two Meschac Gaba library rooms for a further discussion. Khonsari explained her participatory architecture practice and showed some examples, and the discussed her approach to working with found and reclaimed objects and their stories (bricolage). Peter Carl raised a set of questions about both the Balin House project and the art/architecture approach we had been told about. He questioned the nature of public/private – private – were people visitors, guests, friends or family? Not all public spaces have the same sociality and many are now heavily marketised.
There was further discussion about art, ethics, power, agency, gentrification, hospitality, generosity, intimacy, legitimacy, space.
At the end of the day we returned to our base in the Tate Clore Learning Centre and reflected for 20 minutes – paper, card, tape, markers were all in use. The ‘results’ were then attached to our individual squares in the ‘reflection grid’ in the gallery room. A final discussion was held and this focused on teaching practice, and how the questions of public and private, ethics and agency, identity, ownership, space and hospitality played out in educational settings.