Friday, December 04, 2009

The Peckham Experiment

Review of 'The Peckham Experiment'.
Camberwell Space, 28 September to 7 November.

As published in Art Monthly, December 2009/January 2010.

Curated by Jo David and Rachael House, directors of Space Station Sixty-Five, ‘The Peckham Experiment’ takes its name and focus from the Pioneer Health Centre. This modernist expanse of glass opened in South East London in 1935. The architect, Owen Williams, specialised in the use of complex engineering techniques, which are shown off in this building’s open tracts of space, built around a central swimming pool. Its function was, however, as implicated in notions of engineering as it was in its form: action and observation become interchangable through an obsessive attention to visibility throughout the structure.

The Health Centre was designed to provide a location for an ambitious social project, dating back to 1926. Founded by George Scott Williamson and Innes Hope Pierce, it was an attempt both to transform and observe behaviour relating to that most general of ideas – wellbeing. Health was not imagined in terms of diagnosis and medical treatment, but rather as an integrated sense of education, physical fitness, and an emotional connectedness to family and society.

The findings of the experiment were intended not for clinical use, but for the active improvement of the community itself. There was no actual treatment on offer, neither was there any form of enforcement of lifestyle change. As a result of this unorthodox approach, the Centre was not absorbed into the state health system when it was established in the late 1940s, leading to the Centre’s closure in 1950.

In 1935, as the Centre opened, a booklet was distributed to homes within a broad catchment area. The booklet offered, for the modest fee of a shilling per week, a chance to contribute and cooperate within the activities and facilities offered by the Centre. This was not offered up as some precursor of the leisure centre, but as an act of co-production in a social experiment. The activities and facilities on offer were diverse and numerous, including swimming, amateur dramatics, music, dancing, first aid classes, family planning discussions, a nursery, school, gymnasium, bikes and scooters, and a cafeteria offering far healthier alternatives to the regular diet of the community. Ideas and good health were envisaged as things that could be spread by contagion.

Split between Camberwell Space and Space Station Sixty-Five, ‘The Peckham Experiment’ was sulemented by performances and events, including a day-long symposium. If nothing else, the symposium offered an audience two screenings of A Pool of Information, a documentary video by Jini Rawlings made in 1993. Rawlings interviewed people who had used the Centre and creates a narrative history with period footage in a conventional but informative work, which offers an effective insight into the background and context for ‘The Peckham Experiment’. The symposium brought together artists with an architect, a local community activist and a representative of the Pioneer Health Foundation, which seeks to continue the legacy of the original Centre. Situating the symposium as an integral element within the project led to a shift away from a reading of ‘The Peckham Experiment’ as an exhibition – an accumulation of autonomous works – in favour of prioritising the presence of the Centre itself. This was never reduced to theme, but allowed to exist as both a genuine context, and a simultaneously extant point of departure and destination.

The exhibition components of the project manage to cover a lot of ground. Much of it has a playful dimension, such as Nicholas Cobb’s dioramas made from plastic containers and Gayle Chong Kwan’s constructed photographs. Dean Kenning’s Past Present Future ensures that the conversion of the Centre into luxury apartments, complete with oversized SUVs nestled behind security gates, does not escape attention. The question is one of property, a dramatic transition in both status and purpose from public to private. Kenning summarises efficiently through collaged image and polemical text. Other works are, understandably, less direct in their reference to the Health Foundation. Annie Whiles’ untitled embroidered banner, with its secondary narrative of the unhappy retirements of seaside donkeys, situates itself between the specific local history framing the show and an alternative terrain of social history. Yet despite the consistent presence of works that are, on their own, engaging, playful and of interest in the way that they may relate to societal concerns, the gallery-based elements overall are of less interest here. The harmonic cacophonies of the Strawberry Theives Socialist Choir performing at the opening set a tough precedent for the more static elements of the show to follow. Similarly, a reading group discussing Piers Anthony’s Macroscope, a science fiction novel with a focus on the Centre, does not need to skirt around discontinuities between artwork and social agency. Perhaps this is a simplistic distinction, but the excitement generated by the more discursive and participatory implications and acticitivities tended to leave the majority of the work here behind, despite the fact that none of it deserves any particularly negative criticism.

Arguably the exception to a peceived gap between the project as a whole and the individual contributions to the exhibition comes from Freee. A large circular mirror is fixed to one of the walls of Camberwell Space, the words ‘Revolution is Sublime’ cut into the surface in a stencil-style typeface. The work suggests inclusion of the audience through reflection, as well as alluding to surveillance and an excess of visibility. However, the object is as much a prop for their billboard poster Revolution is Sublime as it is a work in its own right. In the poster Mel Jordan, Andy Hewitt and Dave Beech are seen so that sky and tree tops are reflected, an imaging of the picturesque as constructed posture. The image also serves as the cover for a manifesto, designed to be read aloud at one of the show’s many events by a participatory audience, with readers selecting passages that they agree with. It calls for a political engagement that needs to be earned. Drawing on √Čtienne Balibar, Jacques Rancier and Alain Badiou, they call for a transformative social action and discourse in which the aesthetic realm is an active and effective component. The claims are ambitious, to some perhaps verging on the absurd, but, alongside the legacy of the Centre itself, their demands need to be recognised in terms of realism and concreteness rather than impossibility and failure.

The Peckham Health Centre was established during a period in which a new Britain was forged. This short-lived experiment in social organisation was a startling move towards self-regulatory structures, the widescale significance of which have yet to be realised. It is an overlooked element of a period of radical transformation that reshaped class boundaries, as new social posibilities were imagined and realised. Freee’s engagement with the spread of ideas, their belief in collectivity and action, living structures, social cohesion and agency over pure individualism, are well suited to the task of retrieval implied here. Freee is able to provide a determinant trajectory: the closure of the Health Centre is not to be conflated with failure. Rather, it offers configurations of hope not specific to the social field of art, but applicable at a larger scale of society and democratic process.