The Deed and Prosper by Elizabeth Kane
The Deed and Prosper - Elizabeth Kane
The great swathe of land that makes up London’s Dockland’s is a malfunctioning time machine. Vast glass office walls scrape against the charm of what once was the noble entrance to the London Docks, reiterating the moment the bulldozers beat monuments of Britain’s industrial past to the ground. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. The grand splinters
of the enterprise zone drone upon the skyline; an untouchable, distanced reality that envelopes and distorts the areas original purpose.
Walking along the waters edge from Wapping to Limehouse, where great warehouses once housed the cacophonic sounds of industry – rope makers spinning and twisting raw fibres to cord, machinery monotonously performing its duties, clouds of exotic spice particles wafting into the air as they were packaged for sale, the clanking chimes of metal forgery for boat repairs, the scurrying buzz of black market sales – the air is now filled with an eerie silence. The tide gently laps at the embankment echoing its emptiness. Looking out upon the river where more than 900 ships, amongst 3500 cutters, barges and punts crowded its surface; the quietness resonates.
Towards the end of the 1960s the effects of the de-industrial revolution on the areas surrounding London’s Dockland’s were clear. Unemployment was rising in the riverside boroughs as related industries closed. By the mid 1970s more than 150,000 jobs had been lost. Images of the area in the early 1980s are reminiscent of a lost world, giant machines watching over the waters surface as if in mourning of the stillness. What the area no longer had to offer in terms of trade, engineering and manufacturing was an opportunity for those in tune with the sound of the changing landscape.
In 1981, under Thatcher’s rule, the London Dockland’s Development Corporation was established to manage the redevelopment of the area. Designating parts of the old docks an “Enterprise Zone” where planning restrictions were alleviated and financial incentives introduced, tantalized the taste buds of potential developers. Gradually the crumbling relics of history came to be ground down to dust, or, in some cases, were polished to perfection, stripped bare and salvaged to make way for the new.
The dilapidated landscape, and its politics in the making, provided a feedback loop not only for those who saw the economic and social advantages of developing the area. A generation of musicians and artists, many of whom had taken up the opportunity of derelict and abandoned post-war properties, rose from the backdrop of deterioration as “an urgent reaction to the materialistic drift and reactionary conservatism of the prevailing musical and political culture.” They forged a visceral sound that reflected the surrounding environment, transforming industrial debris, scrap metal and machinery into instruments that wrought a sonic assault upon the auditory systems of those who chose to listen.
“The industrial instrumentation came from the situation we were in, in London. We lived near the docks, which were all closed down, and it’s quite a desolate place. We didn’t have any money to buy instru- ments, so we found our instruments there, amongst the ruins.”
The industrial music group Test Department, formed in 1981, were far from alone in making mutated soundscapes that reflected the condition of contemporary society of the time. Cabaret Voltaire had risen from the embers of Sheffield’s steel works, coming to London to play music and share interests
in the near-shamanic sound that had evolved in post-industrial Britain UK. 23 Skidoo recorded music in Throbbing Gristle’s studio in Hackney, The Death Factory, fragmenting and reconstructing the resonance of Britain’s changing landscape through the mediums of music and film. Richard Heslop worked closely with 23 Skidoo, producing hand-polarized colour film assemblages for their music, often projected live at gigs. Heslop’s graduation film “The Child and the Saw” reflected the ethos of industrial music, using the debris of trade to shape something new.
Heslop, after meeting Derek Jarman at an event organised by Genesis Breyer P-Orridge in 1982, The Final Academy, went on to work as the cameraman for Jarman’s art house feature film “Last of England” (1988). Partly shot on the south side of the Royal Victoria Docks, within Millennium Mills, the film sombrely muses upon the destructive effects of advanced capitalism on smaller communities of
the metropolis. The abandoned flour mill that provided a stage to various filmic endeavours, has listened closely to the area’s cacophonous history since the turn of the 20th century. Once standing monumentally ten stories high into the skyline, Millennium Mills now gazes upon the vast skyscrapers of Canary Wharf, deafened by the sound of planes propelling to and from London City Airport.
These artists, among many others, translated the ever-growing vibrations of regeneration, the endless grind that orchestrated a landmass’ metamorphosis into a story that reverberated the situation of “Britain’s forgotten youth.” By physically using landmass and architecture as a point of departure to raise questions and probe uncertainties about the transitions forced by Thatcher’s government, and against the caricatured essence of quintessential England, these artists constructed some of the most resourceful and imaginative works to come from underground movements of the 1980s.
These buildings scars cannot be silenced
The monolithic structures that break the vista when gazing out across the Thames from Rotherhithe to Canary Wharf transpose the melodic intonation of the landscape. It is as though they stand in mourning for London’s industrial past, the empty spaces between the buildings resonating apologetic pleas for that which they overshadow at ground level.
It is still possible to hear the teeming hum that lies beneath the buildings’ foundations, stories of the past shared between these structures, a sonic preservation of the truths of the land on which they sit.