An Artistic Critique of Gentrification: The Hoxton Story

The Hoxton Story is a walkabout performance that took place in 2005, organised by the radical theatre group, The Red Room.[1] The project explores the regeneration of the area, beginning in the 1980s with the arrival of the first artists in Hoxton Square. The Hoxton Story intertwines fictions and oral testimonies from the perspectives of residents, artists and developers.

Hoxton is often held as a paradigmatic example of culture-led urban regeneration (Seymour 2004). A group of artists, later known as the Young British Artists (YBA), moved into disused warehouses surrounding Hoxton Square. The buzz of artistic and social activity generated by the YBA created a ‘seminal cultural quarter’ (Pratt 2009,1041). The artistic milieu has been commodified (Cameron and Coaffee 2005) and Hoxton has been transformed from a ‘down-at-heel and marginalised district into a highly desirable residential and commercial location’ (Harris 2011, 228).

The relationship between art and the gentrification of working-class neighbourhoods has been highly documented. However, the role and responsibility of the artist varies within the literature. Ley (1996) is empathic towards the plight of the artist and plots their consequent displacement due to high rents. However, Harris (2011) documents the implicit entrepreneurial role of the artists in Hoxton, including Joshua Compston, owner of the gallery Factual Nonsense and organiser of events such as the Fete Worse than Death. Harris (2011) argues that the artists indulged in ‘fantasies and performances of the urban pastoral’ using this as a means of marketing themselves and their work, this created a ‘cultural landscape of gentrification’ (ibid, 227).

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 20.04.36

Figure 1: Damien Hirst at the Fete Worse than Death. The event played on and mythologised ‘East End working class traditions for street parties’ (Harris 2012, 230)

The Hoxton Story is an example of how artists can work to critique culture-led gentrification. For example, the performance highlights the commodification and mythologising of the working-class outlined above.

'Urban East End mythologies'

Part of the artwork

In the scene above, the artwork presented to the audience by a property developer,  is based on ‘Two Fried Eggs and a Kebab’ by Sarah Lucas. The performance plays with the idea of how the artwork aims to represent the working-class, bringing ‘low’ culture into ‘high’ art (Malik 2009). The property developer confuses a boy from Hoxton as “part of the art work”; this starkly highlights the power-relations at play in presenting the working-class as an exhibit for onlookers.

Screen Shot 2015-03-23 at 21.05.13

The performance culminates with the metaphorical funeral of Hoxton, mourning a process of death by culture-led gentrification.  The audience are participants in this melancholy event and are driven to the funeral in a hearse.

The Funeral of Hoxton

Artists are often ‘implicated in gentrification’ (Harris and Moreno 2010,21); however, The Hoxton Story highlights and criticises this implication and helps to provide insight and provoke debate about the transformation of the area.

The Red Room worked with locals in the production, interviewing and acting of The Hoxton Story and is therefore not a top-down account. However, it is important to note that the theatre group still had power in framing the artistic performance. Equally, whilst The Red Room held a certain artistic legitimacy through funding from the Arts Council, the grass-roots community arts and drama group in Hoxton Hall had their funding cut in the same year.

Links

The Hoxton Story Book: https://southwarknotes.files.wordpress.com/2009/12/hoxton-story.pdf

The Hoxton Story full video on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y1j4VGqyl4k

Anniversary event of The Fete Worse than death in 2014: http://www.factualnonsense.com/fete.php

Footnotes 

[1] The Red Room, founded in 1995 by Lisa Golman and Emma Schad, creates ‘films, live and digital events that challenge social injustice and promote human rights’ http://www.theredroom.org.uk/about/what-we-do/

References 

Cameron, S. & Coaffee, J., 2005. Art, Gentrification and Regeneration–From Artist as Pioneer to Public Arts. European Journal of Housing Policy, 5(1), 39-58.

Harris, A. 2011: Art and gentrification: pursuing the urban pastoral in Hoxton, London. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 37(2), 246-241.

Harris, A. and Moreno. L. 2010. Creative City Limits. (online: http://www.ucl.ac.uk/urbanlab/news/urbanlab/docs/creativecitylimits)

Ley, D. 1996. The New Middle Class and the Remaking of the Central City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Malik, A. 2009. Sarah Lucas Au Naturel. London: Afterall Books.

Pratt, A. C. 2009. Urban Regeneration: From the Arts ‘Feel good’ Factor to the Cultural Economy: A Case Study of Hoxton, London. Urban Studies. 46(5&6), 1041-1061.

Seymour, B. 2009. Shoreditch and the Creative Destruction of the Inner City. Variant. 34, Spring. unpaged.

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