London’s arts community breathed a collective sigh of relief on Friday after a year which gave scant comfort on the political front. Above all the city is still looking ahead to the Mayoral elections, where residents will be asked to choose between Tony Travers’s Olympic vision of a city free of debt or Boris Johnson’s sentimental “banana belt” wishlist.
On Friday night, however, the main event took place at Southwark Playhouse. Outside, workmen were wheeling a huge decontamination crane to Rydon, the new multisectorial gallery space in the heart of the City of London. Inside, the building’s first public event had come together and created a synchronised hell of sound and performance.
Opaque chamber organs were channelled from huge playing cribs and amplified by arcade consoles. A palette of images hung from the ceiling from the old National Railway Museum. The images were changed on a daily basis by nights-only residents’ initiatives such as the Hackney Agency Film Club and established cultural organisations like Departure, a disused airship hangar in Rotherhithe.
“We’ve never had a big box office”, said Pippa Newstead, an arts campaigner behind this experiment in subversive public programming. “[This project] has been a world away from festivals which end up being the presence of other people who were not, or were not, part of the planning process.”
So far, this quiet, improvised experiment has been extraordinarily popular, with 900 registered and 600 in attendance each night. Her outfit is not short of academic engagement, though – Newstead is an adviser for a research project on the coalition government’s cuts to arts organisations at the London School of Economics. “The government wants to take a huge chunk out of cultural and artistic organisations”, she said. “But the private sector is desperate for investment and they are not prepared to fund cultural institutions in the same way”.
Inside, the audience were given headphones to plug into art installed in their surrounding areas. These contained a range of integrated audio and visual effects, including computer-generated models of dancers dancing on a five-tier bed and sheep and goats queuing for coffee at an abandoned railway cafe. All in all, the audiovisual effects looked like something out of the Los Angeles film district or the Hollywood Hills.
After midnight, the lights came up on the shimmering illuminated dome. This room has a long history: the original dome project was intended to be an office block for fund managers and banks – an aesthetic that’s in keeping with the chambre de commerce of the City. But in 1979 the proposed building was voted down by the people and the dome was demolished in 1979. The brightly coloured hulk of metal scaffolding that replaced it has become part of the local landscape.
A window on to the past brought together performers from Cornerstone, the Civic Theatre and re:structure for a mysterious first-night programme conceived by Erika Ross, who is behind a large-scale performance at Hammersmith’s OEH next month to bring together scientists, artists and community activists. “Because of the rough-and-ready design of the building [created in the 1930s and 1950s] it’s been used for huge experimental projects”, she said. “And we’re basically turning it back on by taking the archive we found and putting it back together”.
The building was also part of an edifices-architecture project to rehearse the potential for building occupier flexibility for the new 2030 Conservative plan for a “vertical growth” strategy. Just how this will play out in the present economic climate is not known. Rydon project manager Gabriella Lilley summed up the project’s past few weeks: “There were lots of surprises”.