Rory Olcayto reviews Assemble’s work on show at Glasgow’s Tramway for the Turner Prize 2015
Could there be a better place for Assemble to show their Turner Prize-nominated regeneration work? The Tramway in Glasgow is one of Europe’s leading arts venues, but its backstory – a derelict tram depot revived by thespians and artists in the 1980s and then further developed by local communities and collectives into the busy social ‘hub’ it has grown into today – fits neatly with the DIY approach that Assemble has become famous for. The East London collective, one of four ‘artists’ vying for Britain’s top art prize, has built a life-size copy of one of the derelict homes it is redeveloping alongside local residents in the Granby Four Streets programme in Liverpool’s Toxteth. In terms of accessibility, it fares well alongside its rivals, even if the Tramway and its audience has long been comfortable with ‘difficult’ art, which the installations by Bonnie Camplin (a reading room set exploring ‘consensus reality’), Janice Kerbel (a choral performance relating ‘a cycle of catastrophic events that befall an imagined body’) and Nicole Wermers (a room of chairs with fur coats hanging on the back of them, which memorialises ephemeral moments of human activity) most certainly are. But it’s Assemble’s work that asks the most relevant questions.
As its own PR states, Assemble ‘seeks to address the typical disconnection between the public and the process by which places are made, working across the fields of art, architecture and design to create playful environments and spaces’. In light of the ongoing housing crisis – partly brought about by the current government’s unwillingness to back state-funded provision and the previous government’s flawed Pathfinder programme, which demolished decent homes to make way for newbuilds that never materialised – Assemble’s collaboration with the Community Land Trust organised by Toxteth residents is very much a project of the times. It embodies both the localism agenda encouraged by the prime minister in his first term of office and the DIY start-up culture evangelised by the UK’s emerging tech sector. But it also embodies the post-crash culture of graduates making their own opportunities rather than sleepwalking into practice.
Assemble’s work is retro - a throwback to the 1970s
Yet Assemble’s work – which in essence has seen it bring professional design guidance to a resident-run regeneration team striving to dignify its own, state-abandoned neighbourhood – is also very retro, a throwback to the 1970s, and the grassroots architectural activity that embodies that era as much as the hi-tech projects of Norman Foster, Richard Rogers and their like. Glasgow, in particular, was at the forefront of that movement, with its resident-led tenement refurbishment projects – indeed the pioneering work and community activism of Reidvale Housing Association in the east end of Glasgow paved the way for the Housing Association movement across the UK and has much in common with the work undertaken by the Granby Four Streets CLT.
Interestingly Assemble has also worked in Glasgow too, and recently, on the Baltic Street Adventure Playground, in the city’s Dalmarnock district, although this does not form part of its Turner Prize show. That project is more challenging than Granby: the local community is more fractured than Toxteth, even more ‘forgotten’ by the powers that be. There is no success story to tell there – yet. With this in mind it might have been worth showing this project too – its premise is a playground for children where the children are in charge – if only to highlight the complexities and limitations involved in ground-up, activist and community-led regeneration.
Turner Prize 2015
Source: Keith Hunter
Still, Assemble’s ‘installation’ is compelling. ‘We didn’t build it ourselves,’ explains Fran Edgerley of the 15-strong collective, which is famous for mucking in on its own projects. In what is also a hallmark of how the team operates, Edgerley is keen to give credit to all the parties involved. She tells me local firm Silo Design & Build are responsible, and that the Granby residents involved in the CLT are arriving later in the evening for the Turner Prize launch party in Glasgow. Collaboration is at the heart of everything Assemble does.
Edgerley goes on to explain that the replica house is a showroom for the Granby workshop, a ‘new social enterprise manufacturing handmade products for homes’. The range of products for sale has been designed with residents for the refurbished homes in Granby to replace elements – mantelpieces, door knobs, furniture, light fittings and fabrics – stripped out of the houses when they were boarded up by the council under the now abandoned Pathfinder programme. You can buy these items in a Granby corner shop or online at a dedicated website.
The whole project is about homemaking
The idea is that the profits will help fund the continued development of the area. ‘The whole project is about homemaking,’ she says. ‘We’re not really part of the art world. We’re using the Turner Prize, we are capitalising on it.’
It is an interesting response to having their work labelled as art, which has become a major talking point in the art world. When the BBC’s arts editor Will Gompertz asked them outright ‘Are you artists?’, Edgerley stayed silent for what felt like an age, before turning to her partner for an answer. When I asked her how she responded to the shortlisting her initial response was, ‘It must be some other Turner Prize. Not the Turner Prize.’
But Assemble are far from naïve. By adopting the mechanics of the ‘How to spend it’ property sector – the house as showroom is a direct borrow – Assemble is presenting both a smart critique of the rampant commodification of the everyday, what some would simply term, ‘lifestyle’, as well as providing a revenue stream for Granby. But in doing so it also flies close to the sun. A fabric print chair sells for £400, a timber bench is £350 and you can pick up a lamp for a hundred quid. The products are well designed, but unless you’re daft, or far too rich, none are worth the money. Piggybacking on a paranoid consumer culture, even if it is benefiting those who so often don’t, is cynical too, a reinforcement even, of the current inequalities that define contemporary Britain. Here’s the rub: as Assemble’s work in Granby has only come about because of those inequalities, winning the Turner Prize, which it deserves, can surely only ever be a bittersweet victory.