space

2. The citizen artist

Sunday Lunch at BalinHouseProjects
Sunday Lunch Taken Over at BalinHouseProjects, 2018

This transcript is from a conversation between Russell Martin (artist and director of Artquest), Eduardo Padilha and Adelaide Bannerman.

Eduardo Padilha (EP) is an artist who runs BalinHouseProjects, a not-for-profit space, at his flat in Balin House, Tabard Gardens North Estate in Borough, London. It provides space for exhibitions, dialogue and platform for connection with other artist-run spaces and organisations. It also creates an opportunity for the estate’s residents to experience contemporary art of a professional and international standard, locally and in a familiar environment.

Adelaide Bannerman (AB) is a freelance project manager and curator based in London. Bannerman initiated the research visit and residency programme Never Done in October 2018.

RM
Eduardo, why don’t you start off our conversation by explaining the initial impetus to set up BalinHouseProjects, particularly in terms of its position in a residential area rather than a more traditional art-world pop-up or white cube space?

EP
I started BalinHouseProjects in 2006 when I moved into this council estate – this building is called Balin House, and that’s where the name came from.

Initially, I didn’t have any formal intention to start a programme here. It was spontaneous, and I never imagined how far the programme would go. Before moving, I’d already been living in London for ten years and had moved to very different neighbourhoods according to the rent that I could afford and the specific situations I was moving to: for example, I moved from Holland Park to Plumstead, and then to Herne Hill, and mostly I’ve lived in south London. During those ten years, since I’d been so nomadic, I lost my sense of having a local neighbourhood, missed feeling like I belonged somewhere geographically: it was pretty depressing and I felt disconnected from the city. The only thing that connected me to London was Chelsea College of Art, where I studied. So I knew that when I had somewhere more permanent to stay that I should get to know the neighbourhood in order to make more sense of the city that I was living in.

Looking back, BalinHouseProjects connected with my thinking about citizenship, about ‘artistic citizenship’. When I moved here, I wanted something to happen that would help me connect more fully to society, perhaps combatting my nomadic disconnection from the ten years before. I started thinking about myself as an artist, and all the ways that I could exercise my citizenship: I decided to offer this space, my flat, for events or exhibitions. That meant I could introduce myself to my neighbours beyond just “I’m the new neighbour”. The introduction instead became “I’m your new neighbour, I’m an artist, and by the way I do events at my flat, you are welcome to come, there’s a free bar”. That was the initial idea.

RM
When you introduced yourself like that, do you think your neighbours knew what an artist did? Was there some resistance about it?

EP
I felt no resistance: actually, quite the opposite. They were quite curious, especially during the first few events, why someone would open their house the way I did. I lived in one corner and I didn’t have any locks, and I sensed that people felt trusted. They could walk freely around the place. I was also around to introduce them to colleagues from the art world that they didn’t know.

Now I’ve been here twelve years. Most of those people are still in touch, even the ones who didn’t really want a social or regular connection with me, or with any of their other neighbours: they still have to live around here.

RM
And when did you start to get involved with BalinHouseProjects, Adelaide?

AB
In 2013 Harold Offeh and I organised the Tate Summer School for Teachers, and we invited Eduardo to introduce what he was doing as a model of engaging audiences around art, looking at other forms of learning, and how and where it happens. Since then, I’ve participated in two Sunday Lunch gatherings, and now we’re working on two projects for 2019.

RM
There’s a way of thinking about what you’re doing here in terms of the traditional art world model of ‘audience engagement’ and ‘community building’ that Adelaide has just mentioned, but the words that Eduardo used are ‘citizenship’ and ‘being a neighbour’, essentially of building friendships. Because the art world follows short-term project funding cycles, there is no model that allows for an artist to be embedded in a neighbourhood in this kind of way over such a long period that public funding could deal with, and yet you need this sustained engagement to make friends. As a curator, Adelaide, how do you navigate some of those issues?

AB
I’m interested in how artists can establish for themselves connections around where they live: how they come into being, how they can connect with their neighbours, how sustainable these relationships are, if whether those residents actually feel that the programme is theirs too in some ways. I grew up on a council estate in Lewisham during the 1970’s and 80’s and left when I was 20 and an undergraduate art student. I got a place in a housing cooperative also in Lewisham where I lived until the late 1990’s. Lethbridge Close is being demolished, but during my time, there was a community events programme run by the Tenant’s Association which featured some cultural activity including visual art, the most memorable being a series of mural paintings. I guess in hindsight my interest in this activity was stimulated by the confluence of those experiences, but I distinctly remember being engaged by artist Renee Green’s activity for the site specific Project Unite (1993) at a Le Corbusier designed concrete housing development Unite d’habitation (1965) in Firminy, France.
I had long been interested in similar programmes: such as those by Michael Needham who ran Neighbourhood Watching from St Peters Estate in east London, where he lived. Jordan McKenzie is starting up again a programme on the estate where he lives, LUVA, or Lock Up for Visual Arts (previously he ran Lock-Up Performance Art from 2011-13) hosted in a lock-up garage. Commercial gallery Rachmaninoff’s ran from social housing off Kingsland Road, also in east London.
There are more around the world of course: the artist/curator collective Oda Projesi ran a project from 1997-2005 in Istanbul from an apartment complex that they lived in. Issa Samb (1945-2017) who co-founded Laboratoire Agit’Art in Dakar, Senegal had an open atelier where I think he also lived, if I’m not mistaken.

It would be interesting to do a mapping exercise to see what initiatives are actually out there amongst more domestic settings such as Eduardo’s projects. It’s difficult to know what that raft of activity looks like, and how sustainable it is.

RM
I like the difference between BalinHouseProjects and those more traditional community- or audience-building programme that a big institution might set up. Usually, it is an institution that works with a community: it could be any number of different artists involved in their programme. With Eduardo, it’s very specifically him, again about that citizenship he talked about, just being a neighbour – he works with things that are individual-specific rather than simply programmatic.

AB
Yes, and in this situation the artist is on the frontline because there is nowhere else for you to go. You live here, you see your neighbours on a daily basis, and there will be other interpersonal issues at play that you’re having to navigate too.

EP
Because of the organic way BalinHouseProjects began, there was no obligation to do community outreach, or gather evidence about audiences and make a plan. I just wanted people to come and see the work. Now, I think, because I am at the frontline, as Adelaide said, local people come here first because of me, and then to see the art. They come here because I interact with them and persuade them that there is something going on they could be interested in.

It’s very different from lots of the art world where the subject, the art, or the event brings the audience to interact with a programme. A programme is not really something specific to the artist as an individual. It’s difficult to explain that in terms of audience numbers, because it has this organic connection in the neighbourhood via myself.

RM
In a sense I suppose you’re always translating the informality of those relationships, about the people who come to the exhibitions and events that you do, the artist residencies, you’re translating that from a domestic or social setting into a more formal, quantitative art world language when you’re applying for funding or having other contact with the art world. Is there a tension in that – do you feel that translation, does it feel artificial?

EP
There is a translation from the activities that happen here, to the immediate outside area, and then further away. I explain myself in different ways to different people, because there is no direct explanation as to how BalinHouseProjects works in this setting: a home becomes a gallery and all the time has a dual meaning and performs a double act. It’s a space for art activities but at the same time it’s my home.

AB
Personally, I think it’s a tricky thing to achieve. I view your position as quite vulnerable as well: on the one hand, BalinHouseProjects is a structure that could be used as an outreach tool for galleries and museums. At the same time, it’s a space in which you have been making connections and finding a sense of community as well. Having to describe it in a way that makes sense to a funding body which needs to ‘get it’ immediately makes it more complex: how do you portray what you’re doing in a very clear-cut way when it’s a lot messier? They’re also probably looking for ways in which to quantify what you do It’s tricky to clarify very neatly.

RM
When funders do finally ‘get it’, it must be like catnip to them – they must love it because, even if it’s difficult to meaningfully measure, there’s a guaranteed genuine engagement with people. They must be quite keen to lever some of their aims into your project as well. Do you ever feel a pressure in that, whether it’s a commissioning relationship or a funding relationship?

EP
Financial pressures are always there, anyway: to keep the basic structure together, the space and the people, the main pressure is always economic. Funders always want something in return for their grants, of course – that’s the nature of the funding relationship. I need to make sure that having limited money doesn’t impinge on my freedom to organise the programme how I want, and to apply for grants that allow me not to have to compromise too much. It’s hard to tell what pressure I put on myself, and what comes from funders to fulfil their aims, but there is a pressure there always.

AB
It feels somewhat quantifiable via funder evaluation and application questions on public engagement – that’s a key measure that they’re going to look for in a project like this. When I look back on public engagement projects that I have been involved with, they could quantify people in numbers because you can do that when you’re in those more traditional gallery spaces; but here, at BalinHouseProjects, how do you measure that in the short and long-term? Fortunately, Eduardo has built a track record doing this kind of work.

EP
There is a double edge about BalinHouseProjects. On the one hand, I have total freedom to choose what I want to do, and I can respond to the more immediate needs that I sense. On the other, I cannot predict how many people will come. That is the double edge about BalinHouseProjects. It’s very exciting, but it also feels like each time I need to build up everything from scratch, that for each new project I’m regrouping and I need to explain myself again.

RM
What kind of themes or topics do you cover? You mentioned about the stuff that you’re interested in that also has a resonance outside, can you give me an example of a few?

EP
In the early days I invited artists that were either in London or visiting London, doing other programmes where I could help extend their stay, because I couldn’t afford to pay for them a full project.

That meant, in the beginning, I couldn’t pick on a specific kind of practice: it was more interpersonal. From 2013 I began asking artists to reference their projects to the local history of London Bridge, and specifically the history of the Tabards, the name of this estate, where Balin House is. It’s the largest estate in the country and the second oldest – it has a lot of history to tell. I invite artists to work with either the geographic or social history here.

RM
Given its focus in a housing estate, and the current controversies around estate regeneration and social justice more generally, do you feel that there’s any sort of activist element to the programme?

EP
It’s very subtle. Activities come from working with residents: that will reflect social housing conditions that they live in, and the current housing problem. The artists are also limited by space and budget. There is a lot of freedom for the artists, and they have to have this empathy for our aims prior to developing their project, but it is not necessary for the artist to be an activist.

RM
Where – and this might be a question for you as well Adelaide – we’ve talked quite a bit about where BalinHouseProjects fits in the community, neighbourly, citizenship side of things, but where do you see it placed in the art world? There’s not necessarily a hard-and-fast distinction between the two, but the art world has its own hierarchies and structures and I always think about it as quite self-obsessed.

I mean, for example, the Sunday Lunches [a monthly event over lunch for invited guest to meet, discuss and share ideas], where I know that you meet up with a lot of curators and artists and various other people in the art world in a very direct but informal way. That project feels related to the idea of your citizenship; it seems to have similar aims within the art world as well, about those personal connections.

You’ve said that the artists who work here have a profile in the wider traditional art world, galleries and residencies and that kind of stuff. Do you feel that you as an artist and BalinHouseProjects as your project also have that profile and those opportunities?

EP
There are a couple of aspects to that. My studio practice and BalinHouseProjects used to work in parallel: now, after twelve years, they are starting to intersect. They were very distinct in the beginning, but they have started making more sense together now. But I’m still struggling with the question of myself ‘out there’ in the art world – whether or not if I get opportunities to develop my work. I think that’s quite a difficult question.

I have been offered many opportunities to develop these two sides of myself, the two identities of my studio work and BalinHouseProjects. There are a few people that I feel know my work very well: besides Adelaide, of course, I have also invited Paul O’Neill [artistic director of Publics, Helsinki] to work with me. Paul has known my practice for over fifteen years and has seen close-up how I have developed. We understand each other well, and he has encouraged me to bring together both of these practices at the same time to see where they meet, rather than consider them as different bodies.

AB
Yes, I agree with that. I think there isn’t a clear distinction: when you walk into the room, people are not necessarily thinking “BalinHouseProjects”, they might be more straightforwardly thinking about Eduardo Padilha. I’m not quite sure how to bring the two realms together so that the art world understands what you come with or what you’re about. That’s what we’ve been doing over the last few years, to bring it all together in an integrated project, even though at times they have to be handled and managed differently. We’re slowly working on it.

EP
This process has certainly been slow partly because BalinHouseProjects exists somehow, partly, outside of the formal art world. It’s a kind of a balancing space, I could say, where I can deal with the outside world. And how artists work here and respond outside of the formal art world makes a difference: in each of their projects I could see some aspect of myself. That makes it a slow, reciprocal experience.

AB
I think there are blurred lines: you operate between the public and private social spaces in Balin House, and you also operate as both an individual artist and as an arts organisation in terms of the art world. All of that makes it harder for some to understand what you do and how you operate. How do you get what you need as a private individual, while still being able to offer something as an artist? Then, as some of your activity has become formalised as an organisation, how do people know what they’re getting when it’s BalinHouseProjects?

EP
I think I separated BalinHouseProjects and my own practice in the beginning because BalinHouseProjects needed to form itself, to take off and therefore give me a distance to observe it more neutrally. I needed to see it grow and which direction it would take on its own. Then, as an outside individual, I can approach it again: I can interact with it more easily now because I have a better idea of what it is, after twelve years, and at the same time I can distance myself from it when I need to without disrupting either its activities or my own practice.

This freedom to look from the outside started only recently, and I’ve been inviting people to discuss it with me, looking at the two identities of myself and BalinHouseProjects. We actually touched on it at the start of this conversation, when I mentioned needing a way to create my identity in London, as someone not from here, who was moving around a lot. I created BalinHouseProjects as a platform to help me look at myself in society, of how I could play a role and think about ‘artist citizenship’. It was a stepping stone to let me go out of the art world and come back again, creating a link to wider society – I needed something outside of myself to help me negotiate with something that I didn’t know.

AB
The project becomes a proxy – it’s speaking on your behalf, running that conversation for you, but at the same time it accords you some distance.

RM
Because it is a very generous and open project, and, as you said before Adelaide, it makes you quite vulnerable – this is where you live as well as where everything happens.

So, to recap, you needed to build a strategy to deal with all that context: one that allows the openness, the generosity, the citizenship, the conversations, but that also gives you a little bit of space to recharge and be a human being outside of the art world as well. And there’s of course a long tradition of artists setting up organisations or institutions, or seeming to do so, as a vehicle for conversations and projects without it being completely 100% associated with them, using institutions as a mechanism to distance themselves.

At this stage, perhaps we can talk about the next steps for BalinHouseProjects. I know that you have bought a small, difficult-to-develop plot of land in London that you’re hoping to develop using the sale of the flat that currently hosts BalinHouseProjects. Is that approximately correct?

EP
Well, at the moment BalinHouseProjects is still running here while I wait for planning permission for the new place. At the moment, there’s just a plot of land, no building – but a very big and protected tree. For now, we’ve nicknamed the plot “The Other Space”. I’m developing, with Adelaide and Paul, a project that covers one project in this flat, and next year a project at The Other Space. There is no programme beyond that because until planning permission is received there can be no plan anywhere else.

The ultimate idea is that a new residential building will be built where I can continue living and working. The surroundings are familiar to me, since it’s nearby Brixton and Herne Hill. I used to live near it, and my studio has been a few blocks from it for the last twelve years. I already have a connection with the neighbourhood. It is a new phase for BalinHouseProjects and it will, as now, be a platform to link myself to the neighbourhood and make a new negotiation with a new community.

AB
I think that the projects that we’re developing elaborate on this notion of Eduardo as artist, and as BalinHouseProjects. This will be the first opportunity for Eduardo to present his own work at BalinHouseProjects, and it’s the last project at Balin House. We’re planning new terms of engagement at The Other Space with the surrounding community, looking at what the area offers in terms of organisations and resources, to illustrate the work that already happens in the neighbourhood so we can make a connection in advance of the move. It’s all a part of the resettlement of BalinHouseProjects into The Other Space. It’s another phase of the project and another aspect of Eduardo’s life that he’s waiting to start.

RM
It’s like setting up BalinHouseProjects again with all the experience that 12 years of running it has given you already, so all of the activity and relationships can be planned in from the start. Unlike here, which was more organic and unexpected.

EP
More than that, it’s also an extension of all of my experience of living in the UK, now I am dealing with the planning system and other bureaucracies. If I wasn’t doing this, it would take much longer for me to understand how this society operates, both legally and culturally. For example, The Other Space is in a conservation area, and I need to understand what I can build there; I also somehow learn what conservation means here. Historic layers accumulate through planning guidelines that tell you what you can and cannot do, and how you argue with these constraints to do what you want. I am finding out literally how I can build a home within the constraints of the law in this country, as well as the constraints of the plot itself: I cannot adapt the footprint of the site, only construct within it.

RM
So, this potential new building – that is now almost a physical manifestation of what you were saying about finding a synthesis between Eduardo as artist and Eduardo as BalinHouseProjects?

EP
I think it will be so fulfilling to participate in building my own home, also thinking through my practice as a sculptor. I think it will merge BalinHouseProjects and myself in much more literally concrete ways.

AB
You could anyway describe the activity that has gone on at BalinHouseProjects as social sculpture, with the difference that it takes shape determined by the kind of relationships that you build up, depending on who’s involved.

EP
Over the 12 years I have lived here, I feel like I’ve worked through this environment, responding to the histories of building, social housing and of London Bridge. The Other Space is an empty plot, so I have freedom to bring my identity and choose what to do, within the restrictions of conservation area planning permission…

AB
And the new neighbours! They are directly next to you, as there is a housing estate on one side and semi-detached houses on the other side of the road– so you’re right slap bang in the middle of it all: very, very visible.

Maybe it would be useful, Eduardo, to talk about how you identified the plot, and maybe a little about what you’ve been finding out about it along the way.

EP
It felt like a natural step to find a new plot. When I moved to Balin House in 2006, it was just a one bedroom flat. To begin, I started to investigate the history of the building. It was constructed in 1938: at the time it was catering to a specific domestic set-up. For example, each floor of the building had a tiny, communal, laundry-drying room. With new technology and labour-saving devices, these weren’t being used any more, the needs of residents had changed. The laundry room on this floor was right next to my flat, sharing a party wall: when I discovered that it wasn’t being used, and that I could buy it since I lived next door, I remodelled the flat to incorporate it.

I also found out that the other laundry-drying rooms on each floor in Balin House were mostly empty. Other spaces were unused too, cupboards and other storage areas, and some of the garages. I contacted the council to find out about these rooms and spaces, if I could use them for BalinHouseProjects, but they refused – I don’t know why.

Because I could not use these spaces in Balin House, I started instead to look for places beyond the building, around London: I found out that there are a huge amount of relatively cheap small plots of land in London owned by property developers who are waiting for the neighbourhood to flourish before applying for planning permission and make a profit.
After four years of research, I found my plot of land, a former parking space in Loughborough Junction that has been empty for 70 years. There had been unsuccessful attempts made to get planning permission: as I mentioned, it has a mature tree on it which demands a very specific kind of planning permission.

RM
I think it’s fascinating that you seeing the process from a slight outsider’s position too: although you’ve lived in London for a very long time, you can also treat it like artistic practice and bring the same curiosity to it. You still want to work with this very challenging plot with this giant tree on it…

AB
We’re really inspired by it!

RM
…yes, that you’re seeing it as a challenge rather than as something to avoid in the way that a property developer would, along with the conservation area and the other planning regulations that would put other people off.

EP
Well, in this case, the tree is the major feature of the plot, and also is the reason that the plot has been empty for 70 years, because there are very restrictive laws around tree protection. The tree is a kind of symbolic feature that will always be the centre of attention.

Before we finish, I should mention that BalinHouseProjects has been often been at risk of closing down. A lot of personal effort goes into each project. It has been really fulfilling, but now I need to move on to something else – not just a new project, but a new phase in my life.
In working with the new plot, this precarity persists, because I don’t know what will happen with the planning permission. There’s of course Brexit in the middle of it all too, you cannot avoid that in any conversation: that brings a real threat to devaluing this flat – and without the proceeds from this flat, the new build cannot happen. I’m working on this new phase in the same way as it’s always been for BalinHouseProjects, without any certainty. I want to build a new home but honestly, I don’t know if it will happen, that’s the reality. It’s always been that kind of suspense, that risk.

RM
Yes, it’s a huge risk, any property development within such incredibly tight financial constraints is very risky: I wonder if anyone but an artist would to take it on, to be honest. It takes a certain kind of insanity to even think about it as a possibility.

AB
Yes. I don’t quite think I’d have the gumption or access to resources to do it myself.

EP
It’s a venture that I feel very much reflects my circumstances of arriving in Europe, trying to find ways of surviving. Probably as a foreigner I look at different opportunities than someone who is from here. Through the eyes of others’ it could look naïve, and that’s partially true, but it’s a way to allow myself to play. If I were only to work with the law, I wouldn’t have done anything without this ability to play. BalinHouseProjects has this aspect of myself too, letting things happen, allowing chaos, and trying to fit in.

AB
Yes, it’s emblematic of a migrant experience, really. It’s a London story, about trying to get to another space and trying to establish some kind of certainty and community, establishing a place.

RM
And bringing your previous existence to bear on how you interact with that new place. It’s one that resonates a lot around London, I’m sure – something like 40% of Londoners aren’t born in London – how many of them are from the EU I don’t know, but a big chunk I’m sure, especially in the art world which is a very highly mobile sector as well. So, it’s something that I think is partly artistic practice and it’s partly, as you said, a migrant’s story of working out what’s going on, making it up as you go along, improvising things, being naive as a strategy for finding things out, asking the questions that other people would just assume that they know the answer to and have therefore never asked. There’s a great strength in that, I think.

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About the author

Russell Martin

Russell is a graduate of The Glasgow School of Art who has lived in London since 1998. Initially working in gallery education, his self-initiated projects include workshops, residencies, peer mentoring, artist-led galleries, radio programmes, and a series of interdisciplinary arts social events. Russell is director of Artquest, a member of the board at Block 336 and City and Guilds of London Art School, and an advisor for PRAKSIS, an artist residency in Oslo.

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