A new video installation by Hackney-based artist Larisa Blazic is currently on show at Dalston’s Gillett Square.
The project is the result of a collaboration between the artist and over 30 local contributors, who have together created a giant video collage of Dalston’s streets and buildings.
Tall, blonde, strident: Serbian-born artist Larisa Blazic appears entirely at home marching up the Kingsland Road, deciding on Evin Café when we find Ochre to be closed, ordering a handmade Turkish spinach pancake with the worldly air of one who could be at ease just about anywhere.
However, after almost a decade in Hackney she still recalls feeling conscious of her outsider status- a duality which governs the perspective of much of her work: “When I first got here, I thought, I’m a migrant worker, who’s going to listen to me?”
Eight years later and her latest piece is being supported by both the Arts Council and Hackney Council, and is to be projected across a 20m screen in Dalston’s Gillett Square.
Mezzo Moderno, Mezzo Distrutto is the latest in a string of inclusive cultural events commissioned by Hackney Cooperative Developments, the economic development body that oversees the Dalston Culture House and counts the Vortex Jazz Club and numerous local businesses and charities amongst its tenants.
Blazic’s work is a video installation on a vast scale, a collaboration with more than 30 contributors who were invited to capture the changing face of Dalston, as seen through their mobile phones.
The fact that the work itself is to be produced in the flagship site of the Mayor of London’s ‘100 new public spaces’ initiative means that it is intrinsically bound up with the process of regeneration that it seeks to examine. So far, so postmodern.
The title of the work reflects the contradictory, recycled nature of its genesis, owing itself to a snippet of conversation overheard by a friend on the 26 bus: ‘these two Italian guys were talking and one was describing the area- “Mezzo Moderno, Mezzo distrutto.” These four words- they say everything about Hackney.’
It is testament to the much-documented renaissance of E8/ N16 enclave that it found its way into Zadie Smith 2005 Orange Prize-winning novel, On Beauty: ‘Howard was taken aback to hear twice in five minutes the destination “Dalston”…’
More recently the neighbourhood has been dubbed ‘fashion capital of the world’ and ‘coolest place in Britain’ by Vogue and The Guardian, respectively. A mixed blessing in Blazic’s eyes: “I think that people who have moved into the area in the last eight years have created this kind of hype. It’s a direct consequence of regeneration.”
‘When I saw the Dalston urban development plan for the next 20 years- it made me angry but we all need to accept the fact that cities change. The population is increasing constantly and you cannot continue living in a 19th century city in the 21st century. But how do you make that change? That’s what’s crucial.”
Blazic’s ambivalence towards the ubiquitous march of regeneration has underscored her rationale for collating the visual diaries and associated oral histories of assorted Hackney dwellers.
Did she actively seek out people from different social backgrounds? “Yes. We did a series of workshops with the Silver Surfers (run by Age Concern Hackney) with Studio Upstairs (a therapeutic arts community) and presentations at the Arcola Youth Group, Stoke Newington Youth Group and the Petchey Academy.”
Perhaps surprisingly for a project touted as ‘Dalston’s own You Tube,’ the strongest response was from the older generation. “They have been living here for 50, 60, 70 years and they were full of stories, full of anger. That was the motivation for them to participate.”
Mezzo is not an exercise in nostalgia however, as Blazic admits frankly that there is little ‘architectural significance’ in the historic skyline of the Kingsland Road, a hotch-potch of residential terraces and retail premises, interspersed with former warehouses.
“With the possible exception of the Rio,” she adds after a moment. Yet she enthuses about the idiosyncrasies of independent shop fronts such as Northwold Road’s iconic ‘Sell-fridges’ that inspired a particularly memorable submission.
“This is the first time I’ve worked in community groups,” she admits. “I was relying on their investment of their time, their effort, their labour and it starts with establishing trust and with the shared time we spent together- they realised that I wasn’t there to use them and abuse them but to work together. ”
“This was so deeply embedded in the conceptual background of the work- community based work, incorporating everyone’s views, collective creativity. I found it really exciting engaging with people, exchanging histories, stories, ideas information.”
“Our (specially developed) software is like You Tube, the participants upload the material to a server, and then I downloaded and edited it. In order to make sure that this whole process was working, we had to have people using it and testing it.”
Did it help her to feel more of a link with the community herself, I venture?
“Well, I already saw myself as a member of the community- this is why I started the project- I am one of the people, especially one who is suffering at the moment. There’s a lot of artists living here and creative industries, but with the prices going up, I don’t know how many are going to stay. We’re not all Tracey Emin.’
Quite. There’s a risk, isn’t there, with artists being pushed to the periphery, living in colonies on the outskirts of town- that community engagement would become rare?
“Yes. Historically, artists have always been used to start the regeneration process, Shoreditch and Spitalfields, for example. When you first let artists in to a run down area, they hype it up, make it really attractive and then the money starts pouring in and they can’t afford to stay. That’s a tried and tested recipe, it’s been done in London on many occasions, in New York, in Berlin, in many cities.”
The proliferation of New Media is integral to Mezzo Moderno, Mezzo Distrutto. But the younger generation in particular often gets a bad press for abusing it, ‘happy-slapping,’ ‘sex-ting,’ you name it . Was she actively trying to change that, I wonder?
“Well, this is media convergence, this is everything now (she holds phone to demonstrate) this is a media player, an mp3 player, a video camera, a still camera, a telephone, a notepad, yadda yadda…
“When you think that this little card takes one gigabyte- think what that would have looked like ten years ago! So here we are, new technologies are dramatically changing the way we live, it’s very hard to work in ignorance of it.
“It makes it easier, in many ways but at the same time, this is what I’m trying to do with all of my students- I’m trying to show them that you can intuit, there is freedom, to view technology in a creative way, rather than just consuming, consuming, consuming.
“Therefore the open source movement, which is all about viewing technology in a creative way, self-developing software- and the freedom to say ‘I want to make my own tools.”
What would she say to those who believe we’ve become prisoners of it- people constantly connected, as if we can’t work without it, that we’re too reliant on it?
“Well this is human nature- how many new versions of a piece of software do you have to buy per year, how many new mobile phones? We’re creeping into the realm of psychology and advertising here, the manipulation that we’re all really exposed to and abused by- capitalism, really.
“Disposable culture- you have to buy new things, otherwise you aren’t anything, you aren’t going to be considered handsome, intelligent, interesting. So it’s all about the values and value systems, and how you choose to spend your time. Do you ever switch off the phone?”, she challenges me.
I admit I’m slightly taken aback. “Me, personally? I switch it off at night.”
“Good, finally. You’re a rare person! I really like switching my phone off, it gives me a little control left in my life- at least I have the button! As long as there is certain critical distance from it, we will be able to develop it in such a way that it supports human creativity, because that’s one of our core urges.”
Although she insists that this work is about asking questions, rather than giving answers, and is not beyond pragmatism, there is undoubtedly an agenda behind the aesthetic: “I’m wondering whether regeneration can ever really engage the people, though I appreciate that it is hard to reach a consensus.”
Did she see the application of technology in this project as a direct way of democratising art? An anti-elitist way of bringing it back to the people?
“Yes, there’s a strong current of this in the art world now- Joseph Beuys said, ‘everybody’s an artist.’ You know, now technology is becoming cheaper and cheaper, that is a reality, even in this medium…
“Since this is the first piece of moving image public art in Dalston, the whole process was me going out to people, aggregating and manipulating their videos so that we all made a contribution, and all of our work will be together, displayed on a 20 metre long screen.
“I think 10 years ago, you would have had to be MGM to have created work on that scale. I think today, with mobile phones, everybody owns their own means of production, and with relatively cheap projectors that you can hire, you can make a piece of work that will generate conversation: What has regeneration done for this area? And can that process itself be democratised?”
Do I detect a socialist undertone?! Is this about activism through art?
‘Yes, Communism! It was a joke, a subversive element; I’m coming from a background of growing up in a former communist state. I have all sorts of memories, both good and bad, about the whole historical period. I think that there are some valuable ideas that we should still think about.”
But just how did she make the leap from having studied architecture to becoming a video artist?
“When I was studying architecture I found it way too restricted by rules and regulations. At that time, Serbia’s architectural ambitions were not as high as anything I had in my head!
“And the second and equally important reason is that there was war in Serbia and in that whole region at the time. I’m being trained to build things, whilst everything around me is destroyed, is being destroyed.”
A parallel with Dalston and the work’s title, then, I suggest…
“Yes, good point. I really like experimentation and breaking the rules- going off with something completely unorthodox, let’s try something completely different.
“I spent the mid 90s experimenting with just about every medium there is- painting, sculpture, in 96 I started working with sound, then the year after video, then computers, and that was it- I found my medium. And then, because it’s a new thing, computer-related art, I think that the challenge of every project you do is potentially filled with inspiration- it makes you super-engaged, excited.’
Even after diversifying to such an extent, does the architectural discipline still inform her practice?
“This is the first time I’ve worked in the middle of the space- normally I would use facades and project on to windows – I really like the challenge of making an intervention that is not artificially planted, that is not too strong for the space, that grows from the existing architecture and yet has an impact.
“In my experience of moving image installations in public spaces, you really have to have giant screens to have some sort of impact, otherwise the work gets lost.”
Despite her adaptable nature, Blazic admits to feeling conflicted over her instincts of artistic autonomy and her comparatively objective roles as researcher/ curator/ editor.
“As an artist I had to relinquish control over the creative material. As a video artist, to create a video installation without switching the camera on was a real challenge.
“I was really nervous- am I going to be able to create something that fits my own visual language? Should I apply my own aesthetic sensibility to whatever everybody else is doing? I would like to try and do a piece of collaborative work, in the community, where I engage in the creative process, instead of just being a facilitator.”
But does she ever feel that her position, identity, livelihood as an artist is compromised, or threatened perhaps? Trained professionalism undermined by a rise of amateurism and dumbing-down?
“There’s always a place for both. Everybody should have a chance to express themselves, both professionals and non-professionals. Sometimes people who are self-taught reach incredibly high levels of visual articulation and why not recognise that?
“When you choose to be a professional artist, it’s not an easy job, but we all should have an equal right to express ourselves. Creativity is the essence of the human being- without art, we’d all die, I’m sure.”
So, she believes the work should simply speak for itself?
“I really like that quote, ‘it’s not where you’re from, it’s the things that you do that define you.'”
In the spirit of popularising art in the public arena, then, I wondered what she thought of the controversial Antony Gormley work, One and Other?
“I have to admit I didn’t see that piece. However, I went to one of his talks at the London School of Economics (LSE) last Spring, just before I started work on this piece. I genuinely appreciate his way of working and he’s thinking about a lot of the same things that I was when producing this work – so I thought, okay, that’s some sort of validation!’
They were both giving people a platform, giving people a voice, I suggest.
“Contemporary art is a lot about experience, that piece can be read in so many ways, just by standing up there, you’re removing yourself from a real life context, and also as an audience experiencing an individual standing up there on the plinth.
“In this case you’re empowering, you’re taking an individual out of the mass, allowing that person another point of view, to experience an extraordinary situation, which I hope then creates a completely new set of views on how we understand the world. I think art as a catalyst for social change is really important.”
Is there a misconception in the cultural mainstream that art should also entertain, I ask her. I recount a scene I had witnessed in Trafalgar Square in the summer, involving a crowd heckling the latest subject to grace the Fourth Plinth and demanding impatiently , “do something, dance for us!”
“In that case, go to Hollywood. If you want to lead a richer life, you need to move beyond that. My piece is taking you away from entertainment and advertising- that will keep you on a superficial level, will prevent you from dealing with any issue in your life, will keep you a happy consumer so that you will live a cycle of wild weekends and the return to slavery from Monday to Friday. But there’s so much more to life than that! Art helps you understand the world in a way that entertainment never will.’
So, finally- is Dalston the coolest place in Britain?
“I don’t know, I haven’t been to many places in Britain. Have you been to London Fields recently?”
I can’t deny it, I’m a regular at the lido.
“Yes, me too.”
I’m relieved to find common ground.
“But most of the people who are sitting in the park these days are wearing three-inch heels and look like they’ve spent seven hours in front of the mirror- it’s quite discouraging.
“It’s all cosmetic, trends come and go. But the people who have suffered, especially around Broadway Market, who have lost their businesses because of the profit-making, their stories will stay, like bad ghosts.”
Mezzo Moderno, Mezzo Distrutto runs in Gillett Square, Dalston from 18- 21 November, 5pm- 1am.