Downsview School closed its doors on the final day of August 2013. The SEN school with the mediterranean blue and white colours, sat on the north-east corner of Hackney Downs, would make way for housing. Whilst nearby replacement school The Garden has been widely praised and received an ‘outstanding’ from OFSTED, the mooted, massive tower block has proved less popular.
The idea was panned by the Hackney Society and local residents, and Hackney Downs’ user group HUG also expressed concern. Nonetheless, exactly three years to the day of the school’s closure, those plans were approved, and demolition took place soon afterwards (see image below.)
But for one 14-month period in the middle of this clamour, Downsview School was home to 9 property guardians – the name given to those who pay a cheap rent to occupy and protect buildings in limbo.
Among them was Hackney-based photographer and producer Enter HUMAN, whose debut solo exhibition Guardians: the school we lived in ran for a short time at Dalston’s BSMT Space last month, where we met.
HUMAN didn’t wish to reveal her real name, citing conflicts of interest in the tight-knit world of guardianship as much as the cultivation of solo-artist mystique. To that end, her erstwhile housemates are also given nicknames – The Scribbler, The Collector, The Dynamo. “We didn’t use them when we were living with each other”, she laughed. However, it is a sign of the closeness of the group that she “felt able” to dole out these monikers.
The sense of finding and celebrating communality in such a large, poignantly empty dwelling is writ large in the exhibition’s audio installation, which literally emerges from a piece of the school, an MP3 player laid beside a foraged brick. In with the cut-up, sparse footsteps and other field recorded noises, sounds of humanity emerge: the hum of a fellow guardian’s birthday party for example.
Next to the audio feature was a collection of found objects from the school, such as the plastic dog pictured below:
The next room was labelled the ‘emotion room’, named for its selection of inked faces which the Downsview inhabitants stumbled upon. The behavioural management tool takes on a strange edge – HUMAN sets them out in a circle around the walls, a cartoon panopticon.
HUMAN still lives in a property guardianship in Clapton, and wants to communicate to people its viability as a housing option. The mod cons aren’t especially ‘mod’ – “one shower between us, one hot water tap between us” as HUMAN explains. But she also stresses: “despite [the] difficulties and the strange living situation, we really managed to make such a wonderful home.
“Each of the guardians lived in a different classroom, and they obviously made their mark. It was almost like a studio flat in each of the classrooms.”
Sounds good to me, especially given the housing crisis in London, which we also discuss at length. If you can deal with the edginess of not knowing when you’ll get your notice to leave (not to mention having to watch out for potential buyers traipsing through your foyer unannounced) then maybe you could find yourself calling a pub, hospital or indeed another school your home.