Introduction for Eastenders book for photographer Robert Glowacki, 2010.
Eastenders has been one of the central soap-opera touchstones of England’s self-consciously working class moralisms for over two decades. The continual mess of intrigues reaching throughout the community around Albert Square both holds it together and threatens to rip it apart. An encyclopaedia of tabloid taboos is reflected in the relationships unfolding on screen, these then forming instructional cartographies in how to navigate our own, how to deal with the people and events encircling us and defining our lives. The voyeuristic addictiveness of Eastenders’ hyperbolic exaggeration and cathartic tragedy of trash culture has carried its vision of east London’s working class into the heart of the mainstream. Perhaps, in this way, we are all Eastenders – a little bit of the Mitchell clan or Dot Cotton living on in us like an undead frog in the throat.
The photographs that Robert Glowacki has collected together in this book offer us another east end and portraits of very different east-enders. It would be nigh-impossible to capture all of the many beautiful juxtapositions and ruptures between worlds that make up the rich cultural collage of east London: from the Asian communities in Tower Hamlet’s deprived estates and the culinary tourismo of Brick Lane’s curry houses; through the art boom fuelled and soul-destroying gentrification of Shoreditch; Dalston’s grimey italo-disco basement clubs; and, the scenesters triangle of the London Field’s park-based catwalks; to the proto-bourgeois living in Hackney or Clapton’s Victorian houses; and, the yummy-mummy strip of Stoke Newington’s Church Street. Full of latent creativity and inspiration, east London has attracted people from all over the world to come and make it their home. It is a life fuelled on vibrancy and desperation in a city where one must continually strive amidst near crippling rents and an extortionate cost of living just to survive.
Asking people why they came to east London or what they thought of it when they arrived, some might say that it was exactly what they thought it would be before they arrived, others that London reminded them of late-70s Lower East Side New York. At that time the Big Apple was almost bankrupt. Sold down the river by successive Presidents, vast housing projects stood pregnant in their dereliction and vacancy. The downtown art scene that crystallized from the influx of young artists into these spaces still resonates today as one of the most energetic and charged periods of artistic experimentation. It spawned a dizzying quantity of sublime quality; just consider the lasting impact of the music scene and how punk, new wave and no wave have implicitly or otherwise inspired every guitar and noise band since.
Inspired by the example of New York, artists, gallerists, musicians and (perhaps most importantly) students started flocking to London’s east end during the recession years of the ‘90s. Cheap rents and derelict buildings offered spaces of possibility, a vacuum within which creativity could flourish unfettered. The resultant proliferation of art shows and galleries, gigs and clubs, market stalls and shops, design studios and fashion houses, all serialized and celebrated in DIY publications, transformed the area and made east London a Mecca of global cool.
Within the current global financial turmoil, however, it is no surprise that east London is no exception in having a fin-de-siècle atmosphere. Much of the current cultural produce smacks more of Mecca Bingo than the feted Elysian heights of yesteryears. As the cultural successes anchored in the east end, such as the YBA fuelled art boom, filtered down and outwards successive areas have been gentrified. When Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas opened The Shop on Bethnal Green Road in 1993, Spitalfields was a picture of urban desolation. Now it features a host of global chains and expensive boutiques, the area’s history, its character and charm, lost beneath globalized design and the ubiquitous non-spaces of consumer retail traps. Likewise, the nightlife of Shoreditch and Hoxton has been increasingly swamped under a deluge of overpaid, trendy city boys descending from the glass plated peaks and valleys of their corporate sweatshops to the south. These influxes of capital have squeezed out the cultural aborigines who gave the place its lustre, leading to a mercurial drift of people moving ever outwards in search of affordable rents and creative spaces. This waning of east London is perhaps clearest within the art scene itself. With recession threatening to burst the art bubble, there has been a notable decline in quality of the galleries along Hackney’s Vyner Street and the work on such. Many of the most interesting exhibitions recently have appeared south of the river in Peckham, in particularly at Hannah Barry Gallery and through the Auto-Italia group.
If we’re to ask where or what the future might bring perhaps we could turn to the famous Adbusters article by Douglas Haddow claiming that the hipster is the death of western civilization. An endemic ideological infection of irony and cynicism whereby everyone and everything is cool in the shallow superficiality of pervasive referentiality, hipster-ism is paradoxically post-modernism as hegemony. Plaid shirts, fixed gear bikes, hard-core music wearing Ray-bands running about in cliques and castes, feudal scenes and fiefdoms of socially networked movers and shakers, as a thousand little emperors and empresses carve out their niches within the demographic of the hip. It’s a generation in limbo, offered all the skills and tools to remake their worlds but waiting unendingly for the event(s) of their lives like Godot with no vision, blind to their future and rendered mute through their slavish appropriate of the past. Perhaps all this unmeaning banality is a phase, co-extensive with the death of an underground. Any new scene or style is instantly co-opted and capitalized. Plucked from obscurity and placed centre-stage into the mainstream, nothing is allowed to gestate or mature independently. This means that any potential transformative impact it could have is quelled. Revolution is sold to us stillborn and ersatz, branded under the stencilled mane of Che Guevara.
But for all that, the hipster is perhaps the first truly globalized youth tribe or lifestyle choice. Hipsters may happen to live here or there but in essence they’re a transitory breed, a circulating diaspora transfusing ideas and influences across physical expanses and cultural borders. It is this hint of the outsider within someone simultaneously freelancing for luxury brands – unashamedly part of the mainstream and everything that might be wrong with it whilst also vociferously critiquing it through Situationist agit-prop art works – that offers our cues for the future.
Within the advent of a new recession a new generation of artists, musicians, photographers and writers are forging their own scenes. Like NYC, London is brutally unforgiving. One must always be doing more, never resting, be driven ever on by the city’s unquestionable thirst to make one’s name, to shout it writ large and thunderous amidst the cacophony of a million other self-published voices. Eschewing corporate co-option, D.I.Y. music and art projects continue to spring up through gigs played in kitchens, record labels run from bedrooms, exhibitions in empty shop windows or funeral parlours, and in nearly any imaginable way.
Inhabiting interzones between a multiplicity of worlds, between those of life (leisure) and work – the feted warehouse lifestyle is itself almost a parody of the post-modern collapse of the live-work divide and a holism at once frighteningly consumptive and liberating – arched between an array of different cultures without ever quite touching or meeting them, we today live on the edge of a radically decentred and multi-polar future. It is this cultural multiplicity that has fuelled the creative booms of east London and it is this alternative eastender, portrayed in the following photographers, that perhaps will prove to be the greatest agent of regeneration.