Where There's Smoke
This is my drawing of the fireplace at home. Something that has been successfully polluting Luton for 107 years.
And here is a pile of rubber bits and pieces that I picked up last summer, off of High Town Road in Luton.
You could argue that this material would not have made its way onto High Town Road were it a gentrified, pedestrianized thoroughfare, as most of the rubber seems to have fallen off cars and vans.
After washing the dirt off, I used this unlikely ‘harvest’ to print a series of 75 prints entitled “The Beaten Path”.
To anyone seeing these, it’s an opportunity to look twice at our local environment. Lots of people have probably stepped over these bits of litter on their way to work.
I am guilty, if that’s the right word, of gentrifying this detritus, so that a new level of understanding of them is revealed. In my art practice, I romantically look at championing things like dirt, celebrating neglect, commemorating the anti-heroes of my town, and reveling in the grubby environment around us. I am using this appreciation of things like dirt and smoke as a metaphor in getting to grips with what the gentrification of Luton can be if we look beyond what gentrification has meant to people elsewhere.
Where is there smoke?
Before looking at the smoke of Luton, you’ll be pleased to know that I have been to other exotic places as well. Here is a series of drawings I made of air pollution in Istanbul. On the island of Buyukada, I spent an hour capturing the exquisite pawls of smoke billowing from the funnels of the tourist boats. So I sat on my balcony of the semi-decrepit “Splendid Hotel”, and smudged.
This is a typical subject for me, a gentrifying artist, but it represents the sort of thing that might not survive the realities of the gentrification process. Is that good or bad? I don’t know.
Back in Luton, ask yourself; is a metaphorical obsession with smoke, the smoke from industrial pollution? Does it come from cigarettes? Or does it represent the smouldering passion of the town?
For the purposes of this article, ‘smoke’ serves as a metaphor for the challenge we face in deciding what is kept and what is purged in the process of the generally beneficial gentrification of our urban places. This is assuming that the gentrification process has the intention of ‘improvement’ of space as well as profit margins. What is improvement in this regard, and who is the improvement for?
Following the radiating pattern emanating from London, it is assumed, that the gentrifying process will come to Luton. It might bring with it investment and opportunity and even creamier tasting capuchinos. What we should seek to avoid is the effect of a cultural and social cleansing. This is no mean feet when we are at the dictate of property, finance and ‘big business’. Gentrification has a tendency to rid us of the dirt and grime, and the supposed failings of earlier local models for living and working. Magnifying the value of property, and the price of rents, will make many locals who have striven for years suddenly sell up, and take the money and run. That’s understandable. That the process ends up serving as a giant urban de-tox, is my concern. I want to see Luton survive the process of gentrification, if it happens.
Which begs the question, can we gentrify or clean Luton ourselves, from the inside, and not suffer the negative impact of being tarted-up, to a familiar style model, from the outside in? I suppose local involvement might help to guarantee the interests of the local community, and should be encouraged. Discovering what it is that we stand to gain and lose by this process is crucial.
Do we have a chance to create a model for gentrification that avoids throwing the baby out with the bath water? And anyway, who is it that decides what is baby and what is bath water?
Here we have an example… of bath water.
Bath water and baby; which is which?
I believe there is a lot more ‘baby’ here in Luton than there is ‘bath water’. Say, 10% bath water, 90% baby? It is ‘the baby’ that provides the attraction, and represents the richness of spirit in Luton. Luton may have no sense of its spiritual self, at all. It may not have the time or interest in ‘self-reflection’. But does Luton need this sense forced upon it? And should this ‘urban awakening’ be achieved by having its hand forced by some formulaic application from out of town? A coercive, generic approach that might not be loyal enough to the place itself.
Often, it is the artists who are unwitting instigators of gentrification. My work gentrifies Luton, whether I like it or not. It is a role with great responsibility to set the tone for what comes next. We (artists) perform the opening ceremony. We are the people who are there to cut the ribbon. But, personally speaking, that is pretty much all we should do.
Reviving a place might just start with a greater level of ‘cleaning’. (A crazy thought.) Maybe we should just be cleaning the windows of Luton? By properly cleaning and maintaining the infrastructure of the place, it might be possible to revive and preserve the assets, before any of the big ideas step off the St.Pancras train.
Here’s an early reference to the cleaning of Luton’s industrial spaces …
Was Billy Bottoms the first gentrifier in Luton? He was a man in the early 1900s, who used to break into industrial spaces and clean them, for no financial reward. His only reward, according to Aubrey Darby, in his excellent book “A View From the Alley”, was to be placed in an asylum! Is that how we treat our business start-ups? Justin at the Bear Club isn’t in a padded cell.
I have more examples of smoke, local ones this time, to give you a realistic picture of the town, and to emphasise the significance of my chosen metaphor for ‘smoke’, that is loosely billowing around us.
Smoke is an indication of activity, of life and death, of character and idiosyncrasy. It is an indicator of things which might be totally out of fashion and out of favour with contemporary society, like Luton itself, but which are over-looked and under-valued, and yet they surround us, like a comforting blanket of smog. That’s life! You make an omlette by breaking eggs. Smoke is the representation of a rich tapestry of urban ‘stuff’, in my book anyway.
I’d like to raise your awareness of the locations where smoke is pretty much a permanent fixture in Luton town centre. And I mean that you can 100% guarantee the odour of smoke in these thrillingly dangerous places…
Here we have the half-time ritual at Luton Town football ground at the top of Kenilworth Road. A chance to relish the fifteen minutes in which to squeeze cigarettes, creating this demonic blue cloud, hanging over the penned-in turnstyle area between the stands and the outside world. The whiff of, what is to many, nostalgia; the exoticism of tobacco leaves, dried, exported then subsequently rolled into fags and set fire to; the dangerous and dubious power of nicotine to focus the minds of Luton fans, on what they will have just witnessed on the pitch. Here is a time and a place for methods of meditation and relief, rightly or wrongly activated by the evils (or not) of firms like Lambert & Butler, JPS, Marlboro, Park Lane and Mayfair.
Moving back into the town centre…
As the Arndale (or Mall) is a smoke-free shopping centre, it is currently the duty of the handful of entrances and exits, to serve as smoke zones. Shoppers requiring a break from the unrelenting benefits of ‘Retail Therapy’ will head for the nearest door to drag on a cigarette. In fact, the convenience store at the Chapel Street entrance was once named “Smokers’ Paradise”, though it has sadly adjusted itself to “Sandherson’s Premier Express Store”. It is in these grey doorways that the scent of smoke can be experienced on a permanent level.
Interestingly, it had been stated in the local press, that the owners of the Arndale (or Mall), have tried to distance the smoke from their empirical retail monopoly, as it creates what they call an ugly impression of their retail experience. How ironic that, the company responsible for roofing over 17 acres of Luton town centre, and thereby creating an abundance of stale, internalized air, should be suddenly concerned with the availability of fresh air for the Luton population!
Moving on, to Gas Work’s Path…
One of Luton’s gas works used to be housed in Bury Park, and the utilities building for the “Luton Gas and Coke Company” was situated in nearby Dunstable Road. Over the main entrance was the chiseled motto, in stone, in latin, “EX FUMO DARE LUCEM”. This translates as “out of smoke came light”. The idea that smoke is paradoxically the provider of light is pretty much my whole point here
Near to the “Gas and Coke Company” building one can still negotiate a legendary and affectionate rat-run of an alleyway, on the way to and from Luton Town’s football ground. Gas Work’s Path. There is more smokiness here.
This is where the smoke, by association, takes on a seemingly higher class, entirely by being the product of the charcoal stoves from the back of the “Mevlana Turkish BBQ & Grill” on Crawley Road. It is charcoal-infused smoke, and therefore already gentrified.
It is worth noting that Gas Works Path, in this particular ten yard stretch, also carries the dense and permanent odour of household bleach, located as it is, at the rear of the “MKVita Hair salon”.
To me, it is exciting to think that the ‘sense’ of a place can be determind by smell alone.
Enough of bleach, let’s get back to ‘smoke’…
Back, all the way to the year 1919, to celebrate the outbreak of peace following the First World War. It was on this bittersweet occasion that aggrieved local servicemen of Luton ended up accidentally destroying the first Luton Town Hall by fire, on the 19th July.
As you can clearly see in this cherished photographic postcard of the time, there is a familiar vision of smoke rising from the ruinous pile at the end of George Street. The postcard to Miss Hilda Leath of Folkestone, is dated 12.00pm 25th July 1919, incredibly on sale as a form of souvenir, just 6 days after the actual incident! An early form of ‘pop-up’?
This gesture of destruction, a clear representation of the concept of “defecating on one’s own door-step”, has somehow, over the years, installed in the people of Luton a perverse sense of pride. The incident displays bravado in terms of taking hold of one’s own justice and destiny, through fire, smoke, and destruction. With this incident in mind, in my work as an artist, I detect this same sense of place, but prefer to celebrate it in other significantly less violent means than those chosen by irksome local citizens, fresh from serving their King and Country, and intent on “smoking out” the local mayor Henry Impey.
I should stress that I am not here to champion pollution and rioting, or even serve as a representative of the tobacco industry. These are just some examples of the undesirable elements in my chosen metaphor.
There are other forms of potentially undesirable and tainted material elements for consideration by prospective gentrifiers of Luton, including the following...my 'Luton Elbows".
This photographic series of mine, constituting 40 images, shows the formica table-tops of the old Scandinavia Restaurant in High Town Road. The meaning I sought to extract from these photographs is, I feel, on a par with the Peace riot 97 years previous. How exactly? Well, the marks on the table-tops were a result of 42 years of agitation by Luton elbows. The prolonged and subtle wear and tear of elbow movements. Their manifestation on the tables, to me, represents insolence, boredom, exhaustion and impatience. Afterall, what else can the rudeness of a ‘tabled elbow’ mean? In this respect, the marks in the formica are identical gestures to those of the rioters on the night of 19th July 1919. I see no difference between the two events, and that was my precise intention for the ‘Elbow’ series.
To summarise then, the use of waste materials in my art practice, and the damage to these materials with their focus within my practice, coupled with the significance of their local resonance, sits compatibly alongside the dirt and grime, caused by smoke or otherwise, of our pre-gentrified life.
This is the area I work in.
I am not even sure that I like the general concept of gentrification at all. In my work, I am so interested in human frailty that I am not convinced I can comfortably push for gentrification on a grand scale. I suppose I have a romantic notion; where I get to see the attraction in the ungentrified, and the ugliness in the gentrified. Of course, I might have it all the wrong way round!
I see it as a duty almost to make the gentrifiers role as hard as possible, by using my practice to present revelations of apparently worn-out versions of local life, and to promote a significant display of the alchemy that we can foster. Each revelation may well be impregnated with the smell of smoke and the threat of misanthropy. I think gentrifiers understand this. Many of their processes have at their core a desire to strip back and reveal. And that’s fine by me.
However, I still think that gentrifying should be made difficult, if only to guarantee a type of gentrification that has maximum empathy for a place in its original state, and to encourage the sort of improvements that are considered, well-tailored, consultative and beneficial in respect of the local population.