Question on ‘Run! City! Run!’ by Tom Duncan at the University of Leicester
Dear CLUSTER BOMB [collective],
My name is Tom Duncan, I was at last week’s Hackney Wick Cultural Interests group meeting, and I’m currently researching for my undergraduate dissertation on the effects of the Olympics on areas that border the park. Firstly, thanks for your interest in my project! And thank you for recommending I have a look into the Run City Run performance. This particular form of resistance to the games is something I’m very interested in including in my project, so I’d be really grateful if I could get you to answer just a few short questions firstly about the Run City Run project itself, as well as about the area of Hackney Wick itself from your own perspective. There are 8 questions below, you are not obliged to answer all of them, but any insight from your experiences in the area would be very much appreciated.
Once again thank you for your interest, I hope to hear from you soon
University of Leicester
- What was the initial inspiration for the Run! City! Run! performance?
Run! City! Run! (henceforth R!C!R!) was based initially and primarily upon a body, exercise and transitory process of our self-proclaimed “running as an artistic practice” which inspired 12 months worth of new performance works, all of which lead up to and was the process of devising the final production of R!C!R!
This particular process was developed out of our recent graduation as an artist collective and our relocation into London - a city which few of the [collective] had ever lived in before, let alone continue our artistic practice in. As with approaching all new contexts to develop new work it, it’s best to work with what you have to hand, in order to continue making work, even from the most ‘basic’ and ‘fundamental’ levels, which we realized was our own bodies moving through the city.
Soon our [collective] interests began to identify and become interested in runners in the urban context, and the particular contextual time significance of relocating to east London at the time of the Olympic Games, when the locality, city and nation became sport, exercise and body obsessed.
Our relocation into the vast metropolis of London, feeling like small fry in a huge pond, understandable and expected we agree, but without having the comforts of the academic institution i.e. access to studio space, access to technical equipment, even having our friends, peers and tutors nearby to bounce ideas off, meant we had to resort to developing an artist process that was open enough, exciting enough and energizing enough to help us continue exploring, making and motivating us to contain us as a [collective] in a new, sprawling and unforgiving city (at times).
During our contextual research into previous and current performance, writing, art, music etc. about the London Olympic Games, we read an inspirational front page to the Wick Newspaper printed and produced by the local See Studio which featured an extract from the then forthcoming new publication by renowned psychogeographer (and a [collective] favourite) Iain Sinclair entitled Ghost Milk:
“A jogger paused alongside me… Every morning he ran the same circuit, now his path was blocked… ‘There has never been such a division between the rich and the poor’”
(See: Sinclair, 2012)
Sinclair paraphrases his encounter with the runner in Hackney Wick, which inspired our approach to understand the freedom and restrictions of running, jogging and exercise in the urban context - of the corporal freedom felt, embodied, within the performing running - running as action, as performance, as exercise, as a cultural signifier of fitness, solipsism and personal endurance in the developed world - contrasting sharply with the systemtic regulations and bureaucratic constraints of where and where not to run, to perform, to congregate as a group, signalled once more as the battleground for the urban populace seeking to form resistance with the advent of the Occupy movement, contextually around Ocuppy LSX earlier in 2012.
From reading Sinclair in our local Hackney Wick newspaper, we decided to use our own investigative approach to creating text, movement, backstories etc. to R!C!R! by jogging around the local area of Hackney Wick surrounding our studio, almost literally out-running, hunting down, and running alongside other local joggers and engaging them in conversation about their feelings towards the coming Olympic Games and the wider regeneration of east London. The text from these fleeting conversations formed the opening text of R!C!R!.
- What were the specific issues surrounding the Olympics that Run! City! Run! aimed to draw attention to?
“Stay free, where no walls divide you…”
(Lyrics from Born Free John Barry & Don Black, sung by Andy Williams)
Our main (site) specific issue we wanted R!C!R! to draw attention to was the difficult divisive nature that the Olympics posed to the Hackney Wick residents, artists and locals alike, most notably with the construction and imposition of the blue wall and the metal mesh fences surrounding the entirety of the QE Olympic Park, causing tensions and questions about the use of borders, barriers, blockades, defences and fortifications between Hackney Wick and the Olympic Park.
One of our major inspirations came during the run-up to the opening of the Olympic Games when the British Armed Forces were drafted in to fix the failures of G4S security contract for the QE Olympic Park.
Instantly, and in yet another vicious repeat of the domination of the Olympic’s rule over the surrounding London Borough’s (to which Hackney Wick being part of both Hackney and Tower Hamlets) local residents were confronted with not being able to cross over to use the tow path running around the perimeter of the QE Olympic Park.
Many described the measures as ‘medieval’ - a quote and reference used specifically during the opening section of R!C!R! when one of our performers greets and talks about the performance the audience is about to see (á la Forced Entertainment opening of Spectacular). Indeed, it appeared most ‘medieval’ especially given the site we had specifically chosen - directly next to the White Post Lane bridge that originally joined Hackney Wick with the now enclosed and cut-off QE Olympic Park: It was as if the British Army had simply created a ‘moat’ from the Lea Navigation canal underneath and a ‘drawbridge’ of the White Post Lane bridge into the seemingly impenetrable ‘fortress’ of the QE Olympic Park.
For our process towards R!C!R! this signalled another momentous turn towards the site-specificity of our performance: Suddenly we were interrogated hour on hour during our evening rehearsals as to to why we were climbing the wall opposite our studio, and directly opposite the metal fences of the Olympic Park. We kept having to repeat ourselves, like stuck records, talking in circles around the same questions from different Army and London Met Police officers.
However, rather than see these interrogative methods as detrimental to our rehearsing and devising, we decided to incorporate their questions into our performance. There is a whole section we called “Interrogation” whereby the majority of the performers of R!C!R! climb over the wall into the bricked up windows, while one performer questions the audience directly, breaking - with all intended dramatic irony intended - the ‘Brechtian’ fourth ‘wall’ commonly associated with theatre and performance art.
Startled and mystified as to the abrasive and demanding questions for ‘names’, ‘addresses’, ‘identification’ etc. our audience were forced to confront the situation we had faced for over a month with the Army and Police. The audience cautious and fearful as we were, were forced to respond to the voice of the ‘other’ - in this performative context within the performance as a whole, the ‘other’ being the authoritarian voice of the Olympic security.
With the perfomer-as-security-guard questioning directly into the space occupied by the audience, prompting them to respond through its direct questioning, the rest of the R!C!R! cast climbing over the wall began ‘indirectly’ responding to the questions, almost as if ‘for’/’in place of’ the audience. This allowed the audience to readjust their unease at the fourth ‘wall’ being penetrated with the ‘rescue’ of the performers scaling the physical site of the brick wall in front of them.
There was a certain in-joke [collective] irony to our use of the physical brick wall, as the summer previous we had finished a production, WACH¦TURM, developed in residency in one of the last three remaining watchtowers on the former east side of the now non-existant Berlin Wall. And here we were, 12 months later, using a very real wall, right next door, in our own neighbourhood, in London!
Despite all the increased security measures forming our day-to-day present during the making of R!C!R! during our research into the wider contexts of our ‘site’ being the capital city of London, we remembered that this was very much part of how the city has come to define itself, especially in relation to the past division between the ‘City of London’ and east London.
A certain postmodern awareness to the relationship and ‘performance’ of history comes into play in our performances as a [collective]. We constantly layer and reveal the hidden and obvious historical returns and repetitions occurring in the present that inform how we understand the past and the future. R!C!R! paid tribute through layering in a strange, twisted dystopian vision a post-apocalyptic, post-Olympic vision of Hackney Wick through the lens of its archived past and mediated present.
In our process towards R!C!R! we researched broadly into the history of Hackney Wick, discovering the former running and athletic clubs on the borders of Victoria Park, to using the stage form of the running ‘track’ circuit and the betting gestures of the Tic-Tac men who would be found in the Hackney Wick greyhound stadium, abandoned in decline before being bulldozed over by the construction diggers building the QE Olympic Park. We read a poem by an Anglo-Saxon poet in Jon E. Lewis’ London: An Autobiography and read up on the Roman fortification of London Wall. In more present and recent history, we realized what that the strange light blue wooden panels that we kept running into, scattered, abandoned, strikingly out of place eye-sore once formed the original security defence to the construction site of the Olympic Park. The more we read, the more we ran and the more we thought about walls, we realized they were an integral and crucially inspiration source for our performance.
Sound and music also played a vital role in our drawing attention to the sheer immensity of the auditory Olympic presence. We wouldn’t be able to hear ourselves talk during rehearsals due to the noise of the Black Watch helicopters spinning overhead; noises we emulated in our performance by precariously swinging microphones around the heads of our audience and layering the last ten seconds of answer machine messages the performers recorded and looped on their megaphones - the sonic instruments of long distance control being used by the ‘Gamesmakers’ in the QE Olympic Park.
We even sang Born Free by Andy Williams halfway through our performance, as an ironic nod to the entirety of our contextual situation; a song we felt completely summed up the twisted conflict of our “running as an artistic process” in the urban, regenerating Hackney Wick context, and thus the whole of Run! City! Run!
- What other artistic forms of resistance are you aware of/have you been involved with in the area?
We can claim to have been aware of, and indeed expecting, the security forces around the QE Olympic Park to interrogate our activities. We were not alone as artists caught in the increased security measures in the run-up to the London Olympic Games. Most notably, during an artist residency entitled NeighbourHOOD organized by our present studio providers ]performance s p a c e [, during one of their walking workshops around the perimeter fence of the QE Olympic Park, they were stopped, searched and had their identification taken. The stories of their ordeal resonated highly with us, mostly because they were our peers, but also their experience was some of the first we had heard of directly affecting our immediate peers and artistic community.
However, what is markedly different about the NeighbourHOOD experience and ours is that NeighbourHOOD deliberately ‘crossed the border’ in an ‘antagonistic’ manner to provoke a reaction, whereas our process of knowing and keeping, almost ‘toeing’ the new enforced boundaries of the Olympic ‘state and our ours. was in order to create a reflexive comparison of our respective ‘defences’. As one performer succinctly spoke in R!C!R! “You have your wall, we have ours”.
- What would you say is particularly different/special about the Hackney Wick? (community etc.)
We couldn’t be happier with being resident studio artists in the Hackney Wick community: despite appearing to be the light industrial “wasteland” of east London to the casual visitor, more doors, shutters, grills and warehouses are open than as they may first appear.
Particularly in relation to the rest of London - which at times, especially during 2012, the year of our relocation and graduation from University into the ‘big, wide, scary world of ‘being artists’ outside of the comforts and security of academic institution - Hackney Wick felt like, and still to some extent does, like the supportive, experimental and proud artistic community we had left behind at Dartington College of Arts in Totnes.
- What are your views on the proposed extension of the Conservation area in Hackney Wick?
We were pleasantly surprised that such ‘Conservation’ measures where possible for a self-made artistic quarter, let alone that Hackney Wick could be recognized as a ‘protected place’ within the rest of the European Union! Perhaps there is an irony here about the defences and barriers we as members of an artistic community feel we need to establish for ourselves against wider regeneration in London, yet we are all too quick to criticize when other parts install CCTV, gated communities, metal mesh, fences etc.
Overall we naturally will support every effort for the Conservation area of Hackney Wick to be recognised, mostly because we believe it will create a sense of stability and sustainability for us as resident artists in the area, in order to keep being able to afford having cheaper studio space than around the rest of London, which means we can all continue to keep making new performance, projects and productions.
- Do you think that Olympic regeneration has (or is threatening to) harm the unique character
of the area?
In all fairness the Olympic regeneration is simply the next wave of regeneration that Hackney Wick is going through. Yes, granted it is the most pressing and decimating force of regeneration to arrive in Hackney Wick in recent years, but Hackney Wick has been undergoing a slower, ‘softer’ regeneration with the arrival of the artistic community occupying the derelict warehouses and turning them into live/work artist’s studios since the mid 90s. The [collective] understand how much a part we are of the regeneration process, and of our imposition into the pre-existing landscape of older residents whom have lived, worked and seen Hackney Wick since the end of the second World War.
We feel that the artistic community, our [collective] included, need to take note of our place within these ‘waves’ of regeneration and learn to work across all strata of the existing, surviving and arriving communities living, working and residing in Hackney Wick in order to comprehend as broadly and authentically as possible the regeneration process as a historical and continuing process for the capital city of London, as well as all cities around the world.
We feel regeneration is a natural order to the evolution of developing cities, we just need to be aware of who is regenerating for whom and for what intentions, and realize what place the arts, performance and artists can have in shifting the process.
- Much of the resistance towards the Games occurred before summer 2012 itself, often spurred on by the controversial practises of bodies such as the LDA. A year and a half after the games, would you say that the management of the legacy has improved under the LLDC (compared to before) or are there still issues?
Unfortunately, having only relocated in hackney Wick since 2012 and the opening of the Games and the height of the LLDC, we can’t really comment on how the LLDC has ‘improved’ per se since before the Games. That said, hearing the very name alone of the LLDC - the London Legacy Development Corporation - rang ominous bells to us and many other local Hackney Wick residents, perhaps again in respect to the work of Occupy LSX contra the Corporation of the City of London, giving the impression of a multinational highly governed and impenetrable conglomerate of decision makers deciding the future of all the neighbouring boroughs of east London, with it’s eye firmly locked on the rapid and rabid regeneration of Hackney Wick.
This however has proved to be disproportionate and unnecessary scare-mongering hear-say from the residents of Hackney Wick - since the establishment of the LLDC and the end of the LOCOG Olympic Games, the LLDC have done a great deal to help the Hackney Wick artistic community, from offering consultations, funding for venues, liaising with local authorities and more. What is also surprising and perhaps more concerning, is the LLDC has a time-limit to it’s operations - to which the uncertainty of whom or what will be left to help the artistic local community of Hackney Wick in uncertainty. Nevertheless, the LLDC have a 10 year plan to foster sustainability and the buzzword for the entirety of east London - “Legacy” - for Hackney Wick.