David Hancock writes about ‘Unstable Ground’ Artist Laura Oldfield Ford and her relationship with the Urban Environment.
The Halifax born and London based artist, Laura Oldfield Ford, incorporates Debord’s Dérive into her own artistic practice. Ford, who during her youth led a particularly nomadic existence, moving from squat to squat across the many boroughs of London, uses the Dérive to re-examine both her own personal history of a specific place, alongside its own the socio-political history. Mixing politics, psychology, popular culture, and her own diaristic ramblings, Ford creates a unique history of the urban environment.
Walking around a specific neighbourhood, she creates a spontaneous prose, later adding historical fact, word of mouth recollections, or appropriated newspaper reports. The text appears disjointed, shifting between sources and author, weaving a timeline of the specified borough. In his introductory essay to Savage Messiah (2011), a compendium of Ford’s London fanzines, Mark Fisher discusses “the perspective Ford adopts, the voices she speaks in – and which speak through her – are those of the officially defeated: the punks, squatters, ravers, football hooligans and militants” (Fisher, 2011, p.5). Ford’s voice, however, is that of experience. Once a participant in several subcultures and hybrid overspills, she meanders through 80s punk, squatter cultures, and the 1980s/1990s rave scene, in one instance recalling the vivid events of the Poll Tax Riots, in another fighting NF skins and a ruined lace dress covered in blood.
In assembling an issue of her fanzine, Ford will wander a borough, finding the lost, undiscovered, or forgotten places, dormant and derelict. This urban decay provides a backdrop to her autobiography of place. These experiences have coloured her life, and also her work – though the fanzines maybe printed in black and white, the original biro drawings are overworked with graffiti in lurid florescent hues. The relentless commentary provides a clear indication of the author’s legitimacy. Ford’s recalls “drifting through a London haunted by traces and remnants of rave, anarcho-punk scenes and hybrid subcultures at a time when all these incongruous urban regeneration schemes were happening” (Fisher, 2011, p.7).
In essence, Ford is recording these soon to be lost places. Places that mark “the aftermath of an era, where residues and traces of euphoric moments haunt a melancholy landscape” (Fisher, 2011, p.7). What Ford does is tie these lost subcultures to their place, marking them alongside her own history in her fanzine, Savage Messiah, and placing it on record. Ford concedes that London is a “conquered city; it belongs to the enemy. The translucent edifices of Starbucks and Costa Coffee line these shimmering promenades” (Fisher, 2011, p.6). Ford’s London is in the midst of a massive regeneration for the London 2012 Olympics, where to “resist neoliberal modernisation… you consign yourself to the past” (Fisher, 2011, p.6). Yet, through Savage Messiah, London is rediscovered as a site for drift and daydream (Fisher, 2011, p.9).
Ford seems to yearn for a romanticised view of the city, a view imbued with nostalgia. Quoting Jon Savage in England’s Dreaming, his seminal biography of punk, London is described as a city still recovering from the Second World War in the late seventies, he speaks of a “bombed-out city, full of chasms, caverns, spaces that could be temporarily occupied and squatted” (Fisher, 2011, p.8). This situation was clearly still in evidence in the early nineties, as Ford conjures “liminal zones where the free party rave scene once illuminated the bleak swathes of marshland and industrial estates” (Fisher, 2011, p.15). There is a clear sense of nostalgia evidenced in Ford’s work, but not a sentimentalised view, Ford looks to “Walter Benjamin’s thesis on history, about shards of messianic time hidden in the built environment waiting to be realised. Modernist architects were trying to build a better world, the construction of these buildings was an oppositional act” (Berry-Slater & Iles, 2009)
In littering her work with these brutalist structures of social housing, Ford hopes to reactivate modernism’s progressive nature of looking forward to an idealised utopia adhering to the Corbusian theory of space, light, and order, which has become lost in our present climate of mock housing design. The nostalgia in Ford’s work is about creating historical documents, marking places and their people before they disappear. She returns to these sites haunted by their subcultural history and records them for posterity.
Written by David Hancock, 2014.