Open House failure, Thompson success

The professionals booked their favourite Open House events weeks ago, and entered the various ballots, and probably planned their weekends. I didn’t even pick up a paper copy of the programme until last weekend, during a trip to the not quite so local library I’m having to use while the local library is being blessed with a gym. Hmm. In fact, I brought it with me a couple of times this week, thinking I might read it and make a Schedule. This didn’t happen, of course. None of my ballot entries succeeded. Hmmph.

The thing is to have a Theme, I suppose. Perhaps only go to things in Redbridge, out of municipal loyalty. Or only go to the strange private houses that are considered important enough to commemorate their opening. Or pick a borough and see as many things as possible there. Or be a grump and avoid it entirely. Oddly, I woke up about two hours later than normal, which wasn’t propitious. I did want to explore Waltham Forest Town Hall, which looks so enticing when going past on the 123. It was only open on Saturday and last entry was at 12pm. Bah. The evening was to be taken up with Emma Thompson talking about screenwriting at the BFI, so I tried to work back from there. Maybe the Crossrail site at Canary Wharf and then something else in that vicinity, then up to Camden Arts Centre then back down to Waterloo.

I started with that vague intention, briefly thought of Canning Town things instead, then swerved to the Thames Barrier Information Centre. Through haste and optimism, I had some idea that there would be tours of the Barrier itself, which I’d seen from the West at the end of a riverboat trip a few weeks before. The Greenwich Peninsula seems to be riven with construction and demolition and enormous shops and cinemas. At least there was a walk through a pleasant little park to the river bank, rewarded by a view of the Barrier, then the Information Centre. There were banners for Open House London and I saw people wafting their guides about, meaning there would be something to see, something would happen. In the event, below the café was the Information Centre. A video about the construction of the barrier was showing on a loop.

“How to create a hole in the river? The engineers had the answer.”

It had a tone somewhere in between a public information film and a promotional video, and included lots of synthesised incidental music, worthy of Gelg, covering a range of tones from sprightly to concerned. I can remember seeing the opening on the news. Why did it take 8 years to build, though? That seems a little lackadaisical. Elsewhere was a model of the operation of the barrier, which started when you moved your hand in front of an optical sensor, another strange touch. Lots of notices warned sternly that filming and photography weren’t permitted. Security-based theatre/paranoia? Anyway, it gradually sank in that this free admission to the Centre was the extent of Open House here. No secret doorway to the Barrier, even via an unlikely convoluted tunnel, could be found. Eheu.

Pigeon takes ownership of factory-turned-studio

Flickr set for the Thames Barrier Information Centre

The bus stop for the Barrier was Royal Greenwich University, and it referred to the University Technical College, which was in fact also participating in Open House. Even though it had visible photovoltaic cells on the roof, I didn’t explore and took the bus back to North Greenwich instead. On the way I saw a massive Makro. Does that still exist? It was a feature of my childhood, trips to Makro over the bridge, near the Manchester Ship Canal. The objective here was Ravensbourne College, the last tour of which was at 3pm. On the way I saw a big queue of people at what looked like a gallery, perhaps, based on the sign at the front, something related to the London Design Festival. They were all brandishing green and yellow folders. Something to investigate later.

An interior design student took us (me and two others) around. It was interesting that the emphasis was on everything being flexible and open-plan, whereas I thought it had been pretty well established by now that open-plan offices are actually a pretty bad idea. The facilities she showed us were very impressive, especially the prototyping lab on the ninth floor, with lots of 3D printers and scanners, laser cutters and various other fabricators. She was keen to point out that it wasn’t a finished building. Lots of changes had been made since it opened five years previously, and they would continue. Some open areas had been turned into new office facilities, the equipment loan service had been expanded, what looked like foam had been added to the overhead trays to reduce noise and blinds had been added to some of the windows, because of excess light. Instead of too much overt promotion, select items of students’ work are left around the building, so that visitors and commercial clients can see what they’re capable of. Apparently the redevelopment around the building will mean that in a few years their only external views will be of the O2, which is a shame. One thing I noticed was how many power sockets there were in the floor, the better to charge those phones and laptops with. I hope the students there realise how lucky they are… They gave me a nifty USB stick forming its own pouch, and an Oyster card holder which made me smirk with its embossed “rave.ac.uk” URL.

Back outside, I investigated the queue I mentioned earlier. The student showing us around mentioned that some of her peers’ work was exhibited at the NOW Gallery and I could see a sign for that within this building. However, when I asked the man refilling piles of the blue and green folders, he explained that the gallery wasn’t open and that there were some show homes inside, relating to the “regeneration” that’s so prominent in that area.

“They’re queueing up for houses, basically.”

When he asked whether I would be interested, I pointed out the financial barriers in my way.

“Why do you think I’m standing here?”,

he said. Back at the station, I saw a couple, with those folders, embracing – with the joy of possible property ownership, everyone’s Dream? It was a little deflating that my thought of very keen Design Festival attendees was so totally wrong. I think it was here that I saw a boy holding a single wrapped red rose, waiting for someone to emerge from the platforms.

A relatively long journey from there to Finchley Road, from where it was a short clomp up the hill to the Camden Arts Centre. Having given up on more Openness that day, I thought I’d take in the Shelagh Wakely show that was in its final week, thereby, as promised, improving on my usual final day system. On the way there I couldn’t resist taking a look at a black cat nonchalantly having a wash in the doorway of a Russian health food shop. The cat will reappear later in our story.

When I visited the café there with a friend in August, we’d heard intermittent chimes from the garden, which we surmised must be part of the exhibition. I heard them again when I had some food there, but thought it best to see the show itself first, before the responses to it. As usual, kids were roaming about, finding the grassy slope irresistible. So much so that a sign had been erected to ask that the children were prevented from damaging the artworks in the garden.

“Everyone. Everyone? Where have you all gone?”

cried a boy plaintively, with his hoped-for minions all dispersed.

“Chocolate chocolate rabbit poo”

was another simple verdict.

There’s something interesting about the layout here, with the atrium from which the three main galleries sprout, meaning you can dip in and out, if you wish. I liked the gilded plums and limes in one of the atrium vitrines, which looked like ritual skulls. The videos Rainsquare and Aguadorado were typical of her interest in weathering/decaying, and shiny metals. A lady watched them too and asked me if I’d been to the South London Gallery, though I didn’t understand the question at first.

“I suppose not. This is North London, after all.”

This was a bit miffing, because I range all across this ridiculous city for Art, and have been several times to Dulwich Picture Gallery, Peckham and Clapham, but not the South London Gallery. And I don’t live in what she perhaps thinks of as North London, anyway. That would have taken far too long to explain, and would have stretched her level of interest, of course.

Another video, further into the atrium, and shown on another of these TVs that only exist in galleries (Sony, at least, rather than some totally obscure brand), was The Practice of Enchantment. Here there were her floral patterns on the floor, comprising small photos of fruit. The end of the video revealed the end of the show, when large fans were deployed to disrupt the patterns formed by those photos, sweeping them up into chaotic piles, and the paper walls of the gallery were ripped off. The people watching tinkled their glasses in appreciation.

A group of three women were breezing through, alternately dismissive:

“Let’s do this and call it art. It’s just loads of doodles. She might be horrified at some of the things we’re looking at”,

and enraptured, as they were by the stencils composed of perfume adverts in women’s magazines.

Shelagh Wakely: A View From A Window

I liked the preparatory drawings, replete with ideas and slogans, that they seemed to be disparaging, and I liked the way you could see ideas being explored and refined. Wakely kept returning to shape motifs inspired by flowers and leaves, which reminded me of Matisse’s ubiquitous “alga” forms in the recent cut-outs show at Tate Modern. I couldn’t smell anything in the room filled with the pattern on the floor in turmeric.

In the garden, the café and the entrance were responses to Wakely and her work by various artists, including some who collaborated with her. I heard the end of the chimes and found the sign describing them. They were by Susan Hiller, and were repeated on a changing cycle, every hour, half-hour and quarter-hour, the speakers being hidden within a bush. I took in the rest of the pieces in the garden, then waited a few minutes for the Hiller cycle to come around again. I came away with a strong appreciation for Wakely’s themes and obsessions, which is the sign of a good show, I think, particularly given I didn’t know anything about her beforehand. The show is on until 28th September.

Flickr set of Shelagh Wakely at the Camden Arts Centre

On the way back to FInchley Road, I passed the health food shop again and by now the black cat needed a lie down.

Cat at Beryezka, Finchley Road

Because of my usual trip to Foyle’s, I passed through the Royal Festival Hall and the presiding demographic for Joan Baez was rather different than that for Jon Hopkins, the previous night.

It was lucky for me that I was early enough to go to NFT1 when the ten minute call was announced. Emma Thompson was already on stage, though I didn’t realise at first it was her. What I did notice was the palpable excitement and fluttering amongst the audience. She was wearing an informal outfit, in which she:

  • briskly cleaned her writing table
  • paced about muttering
  • wrote something then screwed up the paper and threw it to the floor
  • lay with her head in her hands, on the table
  • lay down on the purple yoga mat and executed some positions and stretches
  • at last, pulling out a hoover from behind the back of the stage and started to clean up

Emma Thompson

All this was accompanied by laughter and applause from the crowd and was, of course, her documentary recreation of what writing a screenplay is like for her. While she changed, we watched an episode of the Magic Roundabout, the voiceover for which was written and performed by her father Eric Thompson. I don’t actually know who the interviewer was, but he seemed to know her well (he referred to her as ‘Em’) and they kept recapitulating what was clearly an extended pre-performance discussion. She was just as warm and engaging as I’d expected, though stern when she needed to be, such as when she said that an audience member’s question about when a character in a screenplay would tip over from feminine to masculine was in itself the problem. Several women were leaning as far forward as possible in their chairs, with constant smiles on their faces, appearing to me to want to get as close to her as they could. Advice she’d received that she passed on included that when adapting a book, you should dramatise everything, then leave in only the scenes that work, and find some way of joining them together. One thing she stressed repeatedly was the need to have a reprieve from the process and, related to that, the need to put a draft aside for a month or two, in a drawer. While it’s in the drawer,

“something happens in the drawer, and something happens in your mind.”

She referred to a drawer because she writes the first drafts by hand (she had a box on stage containing all the drafts for Sense and Sensibility, in folders). When writing out each new draft, things change automatically, because of the imperfections of the process and when they stop changing, that’s the time to commit them to the computer. She referred to Alfresco, which I remember watching in my bedroom on a black and white TV in the 1980s and she quoted Agnes de Mille:

“Living is a form of not being sure, not knowing what next or how. The moment you know how, you begin to die a little. The artist never entirely knows. We guess. We may be wrong, but we take leap after leap in the dark.”

The concluding clip was the final scene from The Apartment, the end of the script apparently reading:

“That’s the end, screenplay-wise.”

and that was an exemplar of the dictum for how to make a film:

“Have all the good scenes, no bad scenes, and one great scene”.

Over the past two years I’ve seen many discussions at the BFI and I think this was the one I’ve enjoyed the most.

At home, I put on 6 Music, only to hear a discussion about the Magic Roundabout theme tune, which they’d just played…

Taking the same way home as the previous night, I was waiting at Waterloo. A couple were taking photos of the tunnel when the train arrived. The woman boarded the train but the man dallied, and ended up stranded on the platform, as she moved off in the carriage with us. Realising nothing could be done, she started laughing, and others laughed with her…

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