“How finding participants becomes a work of art”

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A report on the experiences of the artist in residence, Wouter Osterholt at The White House – Residency period November 2017 – April 2018

During my stay in Dagenham, I concentrated on the neighbourhood around The White House; the Becontree Estate, once the largest social housing estate in the world but today a large London suburb. My proposal dealt with the huge contrast between the utopian ideals from the time before the construction of the estate and its dystopian reality of today, as Dagenham is known, amongst other things, for its social isolation and low levels of civic participation. These issues seemed particularly important as the organisers of the residency were looking for an artist who could “create encounters with new constituencies” and who would be able to “meet local residents in Dagenham”. At first these objectives didn’t seem impossible but I soon discovered that in Dagenham these things are nothing less than an utopian undertaking in itself. 

As soon as I learned more about the history of the Becontree Estate, I found out that the lack of social cohesion is nothing new and even intrinsically linked to the planning of the neighbourhood itself, almost a hundred years ago. I would even go as far as to argue that one of the reasons for the construction of social housing estates like the Becontree, and there were undoubtedly many reasons, was social isolation. It’s not coincidental that the start of the construction of the Becontree Estate began only a year after the founding of the Communist Party in 1920. The majority of its voters were located in the overcrowded inner-city slums and the fear for a revolution was so big that these neighbourhoods had to be cleared. People from the slums had to find new accommodation and eventually got dispersed over to the new settlements in the periphery of the city. Social housing was part of a large-scale social engineering scheme that would reorganise society after the devastating impact of the first world war. I believe that this violent rupture can still be traced within the Becontree estate of today. 

From its beginning, the estate had to deal with the lack of social cohesion and the absence of proper community life. In an attempt to stimulate a controlled form of civic participation, the NECC: New Estate Community Committee was founded, which promoted a community association on every new estate. The Becontree Estate was made a priority. The NECC believed in education in citizenship and tried to stimulate involvement in local politics. The emphasis on local engagement was important, because there was a growing concern that new uniformity would lead to the coming of a dangerous ‘mass society’ in which the ‘undifferentiated’ mass would present a new political and social threat. Therefore, the NECC established several community centres throughout the estate in an attempt to ‘re-educate’ the working-class tenants. The committee saw themselves as enablers who would provide incentives so that the civic spirit would spring spontaneously from the hearts and minds of its citizens. They believed tenants would have enough leisure time and that they could spend time to work for the community but in reality, people were too busy commuting back and forth to their jobs in the city. Some even needed to work double shifts in order to be able to pay for the high rents. Due to a lack of success, all the community centres where eventually closed and the paternalistic attempt to ‘re-educate’ the residents failed miserably. 

As difficult as it might have been a hundred years ago, it might have become even more difficult during the last decades. Many traditional structures have been replaced by more impersonal relations and social lifehas been hugely influencedby social media. Nowadays, people show more trust in their Instagram followers, Facebook friends or Tinder partners, than in their own neighbours. This indifference to the public realm has opened a dangerous void, which ultimately has led to a political and social crisis as feared by the NECC. It’s not surprising that the borough of Barking and Dagenham was one of the five London boroughs (from the 32) that voted to leave during the Brexit referendum in 2016. But what can we learn from the mistakes made by the NECC and how can The White House offer a more inclusive approach? How can we reach out to new constituencies without becoming fanatic missionaries or paternalistic teachers? 

With these questions in mind I started my project ‘Beacon Tree’. The idea was to develop a participatory project in which I would work together with a group of students from a nearby art college in order to engage local residents in a more spontaneous manner. The plan was to make an illustrated ‘ideological travel guide’ to the Becontree Estate in order to rediscover the Utopian ideals that influenced the design of the estate, such as the idea of the ‘Garden City’, a revolutionary idea from Ebenezer Howard. The book’s aim was to re-imagine the benefits of establishing new sustainable and socially just communities. For the illustrations of the book, I proposed the format of an ‘en plein air’ workshop (the act of painting outdoors) that would take place in public space, so we would be able to meet residents and include their feedback on the design of our reimagined reality.

In the first week after my arrival in Dagenham I presented the idea for the workshop at the local art college and thought I had found a group of interested students. A week later we would come together at The White House to start the production. I had prepared everything in detail and looked forward to getting started, but the students never showed up. When I called they said they had simply forgotten about it. Disillusioned and stressed about losing too much time, I presented the proposal at a local community festival, called ‘Festival for EveryOne’, in the hope of finding participants for the workshop. Despite its promising name, only one person showed up. Frustrated with the situation I decided to skip the idea of setting up a collaborative workshop and I started working on my own. I took the easel and began painting outside on the street. 

I hadn’t painted for almost 20 years but luckily my painting skills were still convincing enough to attract the attention of passers-by. People would stop their cars in the middle of the road to see what I was painting. I had a young guy approach me while his car was left in the middle of the street, with a running engine and music still playing, others would just simply roll down their window to shout for how much I would sell the painting. Children would run towards me shouting “An artist, there is an artist!”. Or people would stand beside me silently, looking over my shoulder. Others would take selfies with me, post Instagram stories or offer me a cup of tea. I had a boy come up to me with a folder filled with his own drawings and an older lady who had gone back home to bring me a framed painting that her daughter had made before she had chosen not to become an artist and study medicine instead. I had a realtor approaching me if I could paint the houses he had sold or another person who asked if I could paint at his wedding ceremony. Everybody approached me for different reasons but they were all amazed to see somebody taking the time to make something authentic with concentration and dedication. Why did I choose to paint in Dagenham, they asked. Why in a neighbourhood that isn’t particularly famous for its beautiful scenery? 

I explained the concept to anyone who wanted to listen. I told them that I made those paintings in reference to the meaning of the name ‘Becontree’, as recorded in the Domesday Book of 1086, an old manuscript record of the “Great Survey” completed by order of King William the Conqueror. Without giving too many historical details, I told them that the name ‘Becontree’ derives from the words ‘Beacon’ and ‘Tree’ and that Dagenham’s beacon tree is an example of what is called a ‘trysting tree’; trees that were meeting places for social, political and religious gatherings. The original tree, once located at what is now known as ‘Becontree Heath’, indicated the location where early hundred meetings took place. The name was then reused by the architect of the Estate, G. Topham Forrest in order to provide the new settlement with some historical continuity. The project proposed a re-enactment of this ancient tradition through a series of paintings of characteristic trees on the green corners in the Becontree estate. 

After each conversation, I asked the passers-by if they wanted to be included in the painting. If interested, I took their picture and added them to the paintings. I made a promise to come back in the next year to give them a copy of the finished painting. This way I collected many names and telephone numbers of people in the neighbourhood. A year after my residency had finished I called everyone and invited them for the final exhibition at The White House. Unfortunately, I couldn’t reach everyone. Some numbers didn’t seem to exist anymore or were written down incorrectly. Out of a total of 80 participants, 20 people showed up for the opening. All received a printed copy and were able to meet the other residents. I asked everyone to sit together in the living room, effectively restaging the paintings that I had made. And finally, after a year and a half, I had managed to bring a new group of people together who had never been to The White House. Although it was a very inefficient way to find participants for a workshop, at least they had showed up and I could do my workshop. 

(c) Indre Neiberkaite

During a short presentation I explained about the phenomenon of trysting trees. One famous example is that of the Reformers’ Tree in Hyde Park in London, where an oak tree became the focus of protests in 1866 by the Reform League, a group campaigning to give all adult men the right to vote. After a few more examples I asked the participants to think of their own reasons why they could have gathered around the tree if the painting would have been real. For which ideal would they want to protest and gather? 

(c) Indre Neiberkaite

The people in the room gave several reasons. One said that they could form a ‘neighbourhood watch group, to “fight crime” or to set up a team of people to “clean up Dagenham, because we are proud of where we live”, after which a roar filled the room. Another person imagined the group to have gathered around the tree to save the trees that are in danger of being cut down. Another person wanted to come together in order to “save the vulnerable in the community”, whereas the person next to her said that she just wanted to organize a street party around the tree. One of the children agreed and wanted the people to dance around the tree. A man continued by saying that he had the wish to come together to “show unity despite our multicultural backgrounds” and “to show peace and harmony”. 

Furthermore, there were ideas to have people come together for an art class, “just to broaden your mind”, because all the people in the room already shared the fact that they were interested in the painting in the first place and thus already showed an interest in art. Then an older lady in the corner began to speak: “I’m probably the oldest person in this room who has lived here for over 60 years. There is a complete change of demographics nowadays. And it doesn’t pull people together, like how it used to be. There needs to be more activities that join people within the community.” She continues: “We have to rebuild the community, because we are losing it. And we need to understand each other more, I used to know my neighbours and now I haven’t got a clue”. I tell her that is one of the reasons we have gathered here today. 

(c) Indre Neiberkaite

Then I ask the last person that remained silent the whole time. I ask him: “Do you have a clue why you have gathered around the tree?” He answers: “It isn’t a great one but it looks like we are all waiting for something, we are waiting for something to happen, could be a concert or a speech, we are all looking in the same direction. Maybe we are looking at you for the answer”.