What is the relation between art and regeneration? Do artists play any role in the redevelopment of an area – or should they?
According to Verity-Jane Keefe, a visual artist who has worked in Barking and Dagenham for 10 years, exploring the relationship between people and places, there is huge potential for artists, developers and local authorities to work together to benefit each other.
“My work is about showing how people live regeneration, what it is like on the ground,” she tells BOLD.
“What does ‘regeneration’ really mean? What I have learned through my work is that the word has a much more complex meaning than we normally assume: it affects everyone, from council officers to residents and developers. It represents social change.
“When estates and tower blocks are demolished, it is not just old buildings that go: it is also the people who go, and the community changes.”
She describes her relationship with Barking and Dagenham as an “accidental love affair”.
Keefe, who has a fine arts background, came to the borough in 2005 while collaborating with muf architecture on the Barking Town Square redevelopment.
And she fell in love with the area: “I like the view it offers on London as a whole, it has everything in it.
“Barking and Dagenham is changing at a very rapid pace, and as an artist I am interested in describing it as it happens.
“The council has always been very supportive: they put me in touch with the right people and gave me full access to demolition sites.”
An example of her work is a film called Legoland, commissioned by Barking and Dagenham Council in 2013, about the redevelopment of Goresbrook Village, now known as Castle Green Place, which saw developer Countryside replace three tower blocks with 149 homes.
The project’s name refers to the fact that local people used to say the towers looked as if they were ‘made of Lego’.
The shooting took 18 months, showing the estate before and after the redevelopment, and included interviews with residents, housing officers, developers, images of the demolition and the reconstruction of the site.
“A lot of residents were happy about the redevelopment, because they were all rehoused and moved from a tower block to houses, sometimes houses with gardens. What they missed the most was the community, because they were not all rehoused in the same place,” Keefe says.
When the work was finished, the new residents had already moved in, so the screening, in February 2015, saw people who used to live there, new residents, councillors and developers, all coming together in the same place for the same event, sharing their experience and showcasing their work. “That is what I mean when I talk of the role of artists within regeneration,” says Keefe.
The artist is currently working on the Mobile Museum and the Creative Map.
The first is a project borne out of the work she has done in Barking and Dagenham over the years, collecting items from old housing estates, many of which have now been demolished. Keefe realised she had in her hands a collection of what was going on in the borough and decided to put it into a Ford Iveco van, travelling around the area for a series of workshops and events.
“The feedback is really positive: people are quite pleased that something is just about them, about the places they live in or they used to live in.”
The Creative Map, conceived as “a foldout map for the cultural explorer”, aims to show the location of artworks, commissions and public realm schemes in Barking and Dagenham.
“There is a very fragmented knowledge of artistic work in the borough,” says Keefe.
She gives the example of Barking Town Square folly, the 7m-high faux ruin built at the rear of an Iceland supermarket, which was included in the list of the 10 best public works of art by The Guardian in 2010.
“Artworks are there, people see them every day, but no one knows who did them and when. So what I wanted to do was to present them, put them in their contest.”
Looking at the future, Keefe shows no intention of leaving the borough. Her mind goes to the capital’s largest regeneration scheme, Barking Riverside.
“I would like to get involved in it, because it would be great to be ‘on the other side’: I usually meet the communities at the end of their lives, when an estate is about to be demolished.
“But in Barking Riverside they are building a whole new town, so I would witness the creation of a new community.”
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