I finally presented the fruit of my summer’s research at the beginning of September at the 8th Art of Management and Organisation Conference. Here it is:
The video is made up of dozens of still photographs taken over six months in north London’s Wood Green High Road. These stills are interspersed with moving footage of a glamorously dressed ‘migrant’ pulling a suitcase and sound-tracked with moving traffic, pockets of inaudible conversation, market traders’ calls and out of synch foot steps. These are the sounds of a busy urban environment. There are a number of interruptions into this land and soundscape comprising video footage of a still-life comprising a cheap mannequin bust, a jewel-encrusted denim baseball cap and a variety of colourful minerals.
The still images are loosely clustered into sections and themes; the first section presents shuttered shops, closing down sales and to let signs, the next shows the interiors and exteriors of (often temporary) independent stores that quickly occupy vacated retail spaces. A further theme presents, what I describe elsewhere, as the ‘vernacular aesthetics of the global city’ and demonstrates Wood Green as a place of superdiversity and one with a struggling economy. Here we see signs in Arabic, Greek, Polish and English – sometimes they are handwritten like the notices in the newsagent’s window, sometimes they are made on a PC and printed out on a domestic printer. We see adverts for low-cost, pay-as-you-go international communications and international money transfer; we see emblems of a struggling economy in signs for pawnbrokers and betting shops. Sometimes we see the Victorian fabric of the buildings in which these businesses are housed reminding us that these spaces have been occupied many times over. Next we are presented with interestingly laid-out shop windows and non-professional visual merchandising. These window displays communicate to the shopper a semiotics of ‘value’ at the same time as they resist the corporate aesthetics of large fashion chains. The displays rely upon the skills and creativity of those invested in the business directly communicating with their customer, rather than those of the ‘expert’ merchandiser shipped in to dress a window to strict brand guidelines. We see the names of these shops, ‘Aqua Affordable Luxury’, ‘Rumours’, ‘Swishy’, ‘Bardo’ and ‘WOW’ but don’t recognise the brands. They may not be there for very long and some have already gone since the video was made.
One might imagine that it is the experience of the migrant walker that we are party to in this video. And perhaps these images of businesses, cheap commodities, fragments of architecture and glimpses of people recreate something of the affect of the global city and the perplexity it engenders for newcomers and natives alike. Unlike the masculine flâneur of modernity with his privileged gaze the migrant walker is representative of a de-centred subjectivity. This is a zone of many gazes, and it doesn’t matter what or who one is here, but it is daytime and a busy commercial street where a woman may freely wander. The suitcase is the emblem of both her dislocation and her subjectivity. She is a person who frequently changes home, location, country, language, job, as well as outfit. In Haringey one is almost always in earshot of the sound of a suitcase dragging along the pavement or bumped up or down stairs.
The walking provides a kind of narrative (or rhythm at least) to the video, but it is interrupted a number of times by the still-life scenes as mentioned above. We move from stills to video, outside to inside, natural audio to silence and distortion. A blurry, difficult to read scene slowly comes into focus and we can see rhinestones on a baseball cap spelling out the word fashion. It is an ugly item, cheaply made in China and emblematic of the world of fast fashion. The fake jewels on the cap are a reference to real gemstones, items that could be formed hundreds of millions of years ago much like the colourful ‘real’ minerals they appear alongside. These minerals sometimes appear for a millisecond or quickly zoom across the screen during the street scenes. This odd juxtaposition draws attention to the illusionary space of the photograph/screen and is intended to collide the different time scales represented in the video: the frozen moment in time of the photograph; the ‘real time’ nature of the video excerpts, the pace of the world of contemporary globalised fashion and commerce; and deep geological time. It is also a reference to Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors with its anamorphic depiction of a skull drawing attention (as I see it) both to the pointlessness of the gathering of earthly things, and a different representational dimension.
The final ‘cluster’ of still images are ‘street style’ shots of Wood Green shoppers. These shoppers are emblematic of the diversity of Wood Green, white, black, muslim, young, old, British, European, African, Asian…local. Working with people and making portraits is a departure for me, and not sure if it’s a successful one. Their direct gazes change the video’s meaning and intention and draw attention to the relationship between photographer and photographed. This negates the anonymity and confusion one might experience in a global city to one where people and places are knowable. A future edit I think.
Navigating the relationship between practice and research was not always easy in this project. To publish a paper I would need different data, interviews, facts and so on. It might have been easier to have visualised my research by making a documentary or illustrated essay. But I’m an artist and the purpose of this piece was to investigate an aesthetic, but how to do this without setting up a problematic power relationship? How to eliminate the risk of ‘othering’ the retailers and shoppers of Wood Green? My decision to perform the role of migrant walker in the video was a way to site the work as a subjective auto-ethnographic study rather than an objective, distanced observation. I have lived in and around Wood Green for nearly twenty years and this video could also be seen as a way of dealing with and understanding rapid (and sometimes unwanted) change and my own relationship to this perplexing place.