The Brand Nobody Knows video – finally!

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.

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Utopia Closing Down

I’m not sure I need to say anything about this! Taken in Southend in September.

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The ‘Perfect’ High Street

I just found this film called ‘The Perfect High Street’ in Monocle “a magazine briefing on global affairs, business, culture, design and much more”. This vision for the global high street is unlike anything most would recognise, or have use for. This vision is overwhelmingly white and hipster catering only to a wealthy middle-class. The British street I recognised here was Primrose Hill, an area of extreme wealth. If this is a vision for the future of high streets recognised by those driving regeneration, those of us invested in super-diverse areas such as Wood Green should be worried.

Compare with this film ‘Ordinary Streets’ about Rye Lane in Peckham made by LSE Cities. This is a much more balanced and thoughtful piece that recognises and values the intersections of cultures and classes and the creative adaptations already being made to ordinary streets from those that are invested in them. In the words of the narrator of the film “diversity is crucial to urban vitality”.

 

List of works cited:

LSE Cities (2015) Ordinary Cities. Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9bKWr2IjylM (Accessed 19 July 2016)

Monocle (2015) The Perfect High Street. Available at https://monocle.com/film/business/the-perfect-high-street/ (Accessed 19 July 2016)

 

 

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Brands, Intangibility, Resistance

As an Associate Lecturer at the London College of Fashion I am developing my knowledge of and interest in academic fashion discourses. Fashion discourse is extremely varied and fashion theorists borrow from many other theoretical areas, many of which I am familiar with from my own work in cultural studies and visual theory. My great weakness is my engagement with the discourses of fashion business, perhaps because it often seems at great odds with the kinds of critical discourses and practices my own work is embedded in. I recognise this as a weakness, particularly when I am responsible for the learning of students who religiously follow the latest collections at the various fashion weeks, know about new designers and curate and commodify their fashion selves on Instagram. Helpfully the Business of Fashion Digest enables me to have a little knowledge about the machinations of the global fashion system as well as providing fuel for critical debate. In today’s digest alongside the usual information about the profitability of Burberry and Hermès and an interview with someone who says there are no more subcultures there is a section dedicated to the future of the fashion store.

According to B. Joseph Pine II (2016) in the experience economy stores need to deliver “memorable events that engage each individual in an inherently personal way”. He argues that in the digital economy consumers are driven by price, therefore only online and hypermarket style ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ retail can survive. If stores cannot compete on price then they must deliver experiences. Pine also writes about ‘omnichannel’ approaches to marketing and retail, 3D printing and augmented reality being the future of fashion retailing. Similarly, Kate Abnett (2016) writes, “Shopping in stores must either be as cheap and convenient as buying from Amazon, or entertaining — offering memorable experiences that can’t be replicated online.” Abnett and Pine explain how omnichannel marketing and retail are also a challenge to brands. Competing for attention and visibility in consumers’ crowded digital lives isn’t easy

Whilst this isn’t news (these discussions have been around for some time within and without academia) what is significant about this, and other mainstream fashion discourse in general is its focus on luxury and high-end brands and retailing when discussing the ‘store of the future’. Mainstream fashion discourses are obsessed with luxury brands that most cannot afford and therefore never buy. Similarly mainstream discourse around fashion cities, even new ones, also focuses on high-end retail (see for example Leach, 2015) that have very little to do with the ordinary streets of metropolitan areas, even if they fall within a ‘fashion capital’. The kind of fashion retail and consumption I am exploring in my project is ignored by mainstream, business-oriented fashion discourse. It is not ‘street’ fashion and it is unlikely to ‘bubble-up’ into the consciousness of designers and fashion image-makers or on to the runway. It is also not a marketed attempt at an authentic ‘real’ fashion. That is not to say it is non-fashion or anti-fashion. The garments sold in Wood Green independent fashion stores are subject to many of the same design, manufacturing and exporting processes as others (more on this in another post). The designers and/or manufacturers still respond to or speculate on consumer desire. Customers care about their appearances and carefully select garments using complex criteria.

My video project The Brand Nobody Knows will be shown at the 8th Art of Management and Organization Conference at the IEDC Bled School of Management in September this year. The theme of the conference is the Intangible and the strand in which I am presenting the film is called Fashion Futures. How are these themes expressed in the work and how have they informed it?

I posit that Wood Green High Road, as one of London’s super-diverse metropolitan centres, represents the last iteration of the British high street as we have known it. This has been marked by the recent closure of mid-level fashion brands (M&S, Dorothy Perkins, Wallis, Topshop) and the rise of the independent budget fashion store and multiple occupancy stores or ‘mutualisms’ (one store containing multiple independent retailers). Independent retailers struggle to survive but they do so by adaptation, reflexivity and cross-cultural cooperation. This is a high street that is serviced by and caters to a super-diverse population of a lower social economic class. Perhaps Wood Green High Road in the incarnation presented in my project is a pre-ruin, the end of days for an urban poor priced out by mega-rents and the high cost of living. Alternatively, perhaps it is a portent of a further stratified fashion and retail sector to come? Luxury brands will continue to inhabit our minds through ever more clever and personalized marketing, mid-level brands will continue to flee lower-end high streets, offer shopping ‘experiences’ and invest in flagship stores or stores that function as e-commerce showrooms. Wood Green and streets like it will become zones for un-hip pop-ups, quickly fitted out stores selling inexpensive products and garments where branding is an afterthought, experience something that just happens and where external communications are limited to external store signage. With no web-presence, brand story or advertising campaigns consumers must act on their own creativity, create their own stories and invest products with their own images.

Brands constitute the ultimate in intangibility whereby consumers buy into the stories, images and affects that have been carefully constructed by marketers rather than the products themselves. The symbolic and exchange values of a luxury branded product often outweigh its use value. Perhaps the kind of retail and consumption practices and environments presented by stores in Wood Green can repair the link between object and its use value. Perhaps they have the potential to resist dominant fashion ideologies, the commodification of self and the continuing intrusions of brands into one’s consciousness.

List of Works Cited

Abnett, K. (2016) ‘The store of the future’ in Business of Fashion, [online] Available at https://www.businessoffashion.com/community/voices/discussions/what-will-the-store-of-the-future-look-like/the-store-of-the-future (Accessed 14 July 2016)

Leach, A. (2015) ‘The 15 most important cities in fashion right now’ in Highsnobiety [online] available at http://www.highsnobiety.com/2015/08/24/fashion-capital-list/ (Accessed 14 July 2016)

Pine II, B.J. (2016) ‘Stage experiences or go extinct’ in Business of Fashion, [online] Available at https://www.businessoffashion.com/community/voices/discussions/what-will-the-store-of-the-future-look-like/op-ed-stage-experiences-or-go-extinct (Accessed 14 July 2016)

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New Works

all-welcome-flat

All Welcome, 2016

Everythig-flat

Everythig, 2016

Future-is-a-lifeship-flat

Future is a Life-ship, 2016

Voodoo

Magic, Voodoo, Obey, 2016

Here are some new 2D works that are by-products of my Wood Green Project. I’m hoping to show them soon, please visit for news…

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Wood Green High Road – an Ordinary Street between austerity and Brexit

We find ourselves in a strange limbo somewhere between ‘Austerity Britain’ and Brexit. How might one look upon and describe Wood Green High Road, its retail culture and its vernacular aesthetics at this particular moment? What does this mean for my project The Brand Nobody Knows?

In recent weeks my focus has been on looking at the buoyancy of Wood Green’s economy and the creativity and entrepreneurship of the street’s lower-end retail whilst charting the disappearance of traditional high street brands such as M&S, Dorothy Perkins, and soon BHS. It seems however, that the super-diversity of London – and specifically that of Wood Green (as opposed to the West End for example) is becoming increasingly central in this work. Super-diversity can be described as “a condition in cities where diversity may mean over one hundred nationalities, but also a diversity of legal statuses, of socioeconomic conditions and a greater diversity in how people choose to live and define themselves” (Cities of Migration, 2012). Last month Britain voted to leave the EU following a problematic Brexit campaign that played on citizens’ fears of immigration. If we value the part that migration plays in our lives (either as migrants ourselves or as beneficiaries of the richness migrants bring to society) then we must, of course, resist the notion of migration as problematic. In the light of Brexit it feels more important than ever to pursue my exploration of the vernacular aesthetics of Wood Green’s High Road that have been shaped by super-diversity.

The position I take in this research is akin to that which LSE researcher Suzanne Hall sets out in her paper Migrant Urbanisms: Ordinary Cities and Everyday Resistance. She writes that ‘[t]hinking about ordinary spaces and everyday life opens up ways of understanding complex global processes of urbanisation and migration” (2015, p. 854). She describes migration as a “participatory rather than an invasive process of change” and explains that it is “integral to ongoing processes of societal change and diversification, rather than as the exception to it.” (2015, p. 854). Hall writes about the ordinary city in opposition to the global city characterized by the corporate elites of the financial, creative and other industries. In this study I locate Wood Green as an ordinary city in part to refuse “the categories of economic hierarchy in a global order, and with it the relegation of seemingly less prominent or less valuable cities and citizens” (2015, p. 856).

How do migrants and non-migrants make and re-make Wood Green? Hall describes ordinary streets as places of overlapping urbanism and urban collage. Wood Green High Road is a place of “trade and exchange, where a diversity of proprietors and customers intersect. Individual allegiances and affinities locate, both through a coalescence of intercultural city-making and/or a side-by-side retention of cultural distinctions” (Hall, 2015, p. 858). Wood Green High Road is not an example of a ghetto or ethnic enclave, it is a commercial metropolitan centre of outer London that caters to a super-diverse clientèle and is serviced by a super-diverse work force.

As mentioned in a previous post Wood Green’s retail space vacancy rate is much lower than the national average, 5.92% compared with 12.3% in July 2014 (Haringey.gov.uk, 2016, p.32). Whilst shops close frequently, the sites are not empty for long. However this is not because is is an easy environment for retailers to operate in. Many shops have become multiple occupancy retailers such as the Factory Outlet recently opened in the former Marks and Spencer site (see images above). Here there are multiple till points for multiple businesses comprising low-cost fashion, furniture, toys, shoes, accessories, luggage and the ubiquitous mobile phone counter. The usual trappings of high street retail, such as branded shopping bags, receipts, signage and an online presence do not exist. Hall describes these “collage arrangements” as “closer in nature to a market or bazaar, but within the given street structure” (2015, p 859).

The much smaller single fronted shop at No. 87 (see image above from February 2016) is similarly divided into different retail sections. At the rear handbags and shoes, behind a glass counter on the left mobile phones and other electrical goods. Half of the exterior signage is given over to an advertisement for low cost, pay-as-you-go international mobile telecommunications company Lycamobile, the rest to the retailer ‘KMK Mobile Phones’ along with a list of services offered (mobile repairs, unlocking etc.) and photographs of products sold. In a super-diverse street such as this canny business owners understand that language barriers exist and pictorial messages mean more than carefully constructed brand images. The handbags and shoes retailer operating from inside the shop is not represented on the exterior signage. On revisiting this shop last week (July 2016) the handbag retailer was gone with a to let sign in its place. The proprietor told me about the difficulties of meeting the high rent and how he needs to sublet this space in order to be profitable. In her paper Super-diverse street: a ‘trans-ethnography’ across migrant localities, Hall describes these subdivided shops as ‘mutualism’ where “arrangements of economic and cultural coexistence have emerged” (2013, p. 32). She explains how these ‘mutualisms’ enable proprietors, such as Koram at KMK Mobile Phones, to respond swiftly to emerging market trends as well as to mitigate negative economic shifts. In addition Hall found that “the impulse to subdivide, mix and remake these shop interiors is not simply driven by mercantile interests; it is also driven by cultural ones,” that these shop interiors also provide a “home-away-from home” (2013, p. 33).

At no. 83, the exterior sign is for JK Mobile Phone & Computer Specialist but the shop now sells women’s clothing and jewellery. Advertising signage for Lebara can still be seen on the frontage although Lebara products can no longer be purchased in store. Fashion shop Rumours displays ‘closing down’ and ‘everything must go’ signs in its windows – from its opening day. In February 2016 this shop was called WOW. Permanence is not valued and cannot be sustained in this economy not unlike pop-up shops in London’s rather more hipster locations. In this ordinary, and resolutely ‘un-hip’ street, stores bear the names and traces of their previous incarnations inside and out. Multiple businesses in the street offer the same services but rarely differentiate themselves with developed branding strategies. In super-diverse streets in ordinary parts of this city, where migrant populations live, work and shop the nature of the high street is changing, diversifying and adapting to new conditions and challenges. My position documenting this urban retail vernacular is neither to mock or to celebrate, but to capture and make visible this particular moment, in all its overlapping messiness and complicated richness.

Works Cited

Hall, S. (2015) ‘Migrant urbanisms: ordinary cities and everyday resistance’ in Sociology, Vol. 49(5) 853-869

Hall, S (2013) ‘Super-diverse street: a ‘trans-ethnography’ across migrant localities’ in Ethic and Racial Studies, 38:1, 22-37

Haringey.gov.uk (2016) Wood Green area action plan: issues and options report, Available at http://www.haringey.gov.uk/sites/haringeygovuk/files/issues_and_options_part_1.pdf (Accessed 7 July 2016)

Cities of Migration (2012) ‘Conversations in Migration’ Cities of Migration, Available at http://citiesofmigration.ca/ezine_stories/sarah-spencer-super-diversity-and-the-city/ (Accessed 7 July 2016)

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Don’t forget BHS!

And of course another high-street brand about to go from Wood Green…

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