Towards the middle of May, Architects for Social Housing became aware that we were being subjected to what appeared to be a trolling campaign on Twitter. Knowing its origins – both the people behind it and their motivations – we blocked them and ignored it, hoping that they would tire of the publicity they got from attacking ASH and eventually go away. However, over two months later the trolling has not stopped, and has in fact expanded to include anyone who has anything to do with ASH, including the organisers of the Small is Beautiful festival, whose conference on ‘Housing Justice’ we spoke at in June, and the Architectural Workers, who last month organised a debate on ‘What is the Architect’s role in the housing crisis?’ at which we also spoke; as well as general call-outs to individuals and groups such as the Focus E15 Mothers and others not to share a platform with us. I must admit we sort of hoped that a knight in shining armour would come along and defend our blemished honour, but – alas! – it seems these days a girl must fight her own battles. Also, a number of people attacked by association have asked us why we haven’t responded. Unpleasant as it is, therefore, we feel we must explain where these attacks are coming from and why, and refute the accusations they make against ASH.
1. With Friends Like These
The first tweets to be were directed at us were posted from the accounts of @RabHarling, @BalfronSocial and @PplRism. These, we know, are just some of the different Twitter accounts of the same person, Rab Harling, but we suspect he has more, as he appears to keep a close track of what we’re doing. I think we probably met Rab at the Real Estates exhibition put on by Fugitive Images in March 2015, around about the time we set up ASH. We were impressed by his photos of the inside of Balfron Tower, where Rab was living. I don’t think I’ve met Rab in person more than two or three times, as he’s very much the keyboard activist; but ASH held a meeting in Balfron Tower in August of that year, where he spoke about his photographs. Since then ASH has been supportive of Rab’s work, advertising his exhibitions on our Facebook page. Personally, however, I never managed to make it to any of his exhibitions, despite being asked by Rab, which may have caused some resentment. We communicated quite a lot on Facebook messenger however, but I noticed he kept leaving membership of the ASH page, and I kept having to let him in again. Last June he told me that he had unfriended me on Facebook because I never commented on his posts, which gives you some idea of his narcissism. That same month Rab sent me a draft copy of a book of his photographs that he’s hoping to publish, and asked me to write something for it. Again, I was extremely busy at the time with ASH work and never found the time to do so. I also remember that Rab made a few snarky comments about the times I appeared on RT news talking about the housing crisis. At the time I took them as a good-natured dig by a mate, but I was wrong.
Things came to a head, however, when the Royal Academy announced a panel discussion called ‘Forgotten Estates’, to be held in September 2016 and focused on Robin Hood Gardens estate. Rab was furious that the panel included Mark Crinson, a professor of Architectural History at the University of London; Paul Watt, a Reader in Urban Studies, at Birkbeck College; Kate Macintosh, an architect and designer of Dawson’s Heights, among other estates; and Jessie Brennan, an artist who had made work about Robin Hood Gardens. Rab’s photographic work was focused on Balfron Tower, but he regarded neighbouring Robin Hood Gardens as very much his domain, and that July wrote a letter to the event Chair, Owen Hopkins, asking to be put on the panel. I was a little surprised when Rab copied me into the letter, as his desperation for acceptance by the establishment ‘elite’ he makes such a song and dance about hating was at odds with his otherwise rebellious persona:
Owen – in a message that Rab also copied me into – responded by inviting Rab to join the audience. Rab’s response – to me, not Owen, though he might have sent something similar to him – was this:
This childishly narcissistic reaction didn’t really surprise me. When we met Rab he was embroiled in a legal case, the details of which I never fully grasped, resulting from a long Twitter trolling campaign of a Tower Hamlets councillor, I think, and which culminated in Rab threatening him online. Rab was subsequently arrested, and in all the time I knew him he was living under the cloud of what the repercussions would be. I was told that at the trial Rab was instructed by the judge that if he didn’t plead guilty he was facing a custodial sentence, so Rab did as he was told and got off – I imagine with a caution and a restraining order. I wasn’t particularly aware of all this, but I began to realise that Rab had a problem when, the week after his trial, when I was congratulating him on not being sent down, he told me he had started another Twitter campaign against a Guardian journalist, Dawn Foster, whom Rab accused of stealing his research.
Now, from my experience of writing for ASH, I know that journalism is largely based on theft; but while it is unpleasant to have academics and journalists steal your stuff and publish it in the mainstream press, the bigger picture is that your message gets out to a much larger audience – even if you’ve been cut out of that picture; but Rab’s trolling of this journalist made me realise that what he wanted above all was not to make the social content of his work public but to receive public recognition for it. From what I’ve seen from his recent Twitter exchanges with Dawn Foster, Rab is still chiseling away at this particular chip on his shoulder.
I wasn’t that surprised, therefore, when last September, having not been accepted onto the ‘Forgotten Estates’ panel, Rab announced that he was leaving London to take up an artist’s residence at a gallery in Amsterdam. I asked him if it was a permanent move, and the real reason for him leaving London became apparent:
Shortly after, ASH was invited to speak at an exhibition called ‘Lived Brutalism: Portraits at Robin Hood Gardens’, that was being held in October. I wrote to Rab to ask whether he was exhibiting, and also about the people holding the show and what their agenda was. He responded that he wasn’t and that the people looked sound. That was the last time Rab and I exchanged messages.
Now, I wouldn’t usually share what are personal messages between me and a former friend, but Rab’s subsequent and unrelenting attacks on both ASH and individual members have been so vitriolic and personal that I feel I need to explain – partly to myself – what is motivating them. Since these attacks started in May, we’ve been informed by someone who knows both us and Rab that the watershed was a follow-up panel discussion to ‘Forgotten Estates’ titled ‘Future Estates’, which was also held at the Royal Academy, and to which ASH member Geraldine Dening was invited to speak alongside other architects.
We hadn’t attended the previous discussion at the Royal Academy, though I had watched the recording of the live stream. Rab had urged ASH to organise a protest outside – which was of course ridiculous; if we were to protest every panel discussion on housing that didn’t include exactly who we thought should be on the panel ASH would be – as some try to characterise us – nothing more than a protest group. Rab himself, naturally, organised nothing. In the event, the art-historical contribution of Mark Crinson was borderline absurd in its seeming indifference to the fate of current residents; but Paul Watt, in particular, spoke very well, and both Jessie and Kate made informative contributions.
When the invite to speak at ‘Future Estates’ came, therefore, we accepted, and did what we always do when speaking from within the institutions of power. In both Geraldine’s presentation and in my own comments from the floor, we were critical of the role of the other speakers in colluding with the demolition of the estates whose ‘future’ we were supposedly there to discuss. In particular, we accused Adam Khan, an architect, of being involved in the social cleansing of Marian Court in Hackney, and John Lewis, the Executive Director of Peabody’s Thamesmead estate regeneration scheme, of deceiving residents about what would be built in its place. Rab wasn’t at the discussion, but we have subsequently been told that our attendance marked some sort of turning point for him, and that from now on ASH was to be the object onto which he would offload his resentment at not being invited to speak at events, not financially compensated for his work, and generally being ignored.
In truth, though, Rab was being a little too modest about his success as an artist. A look at his website shows that since graduating with an MA in Photography from the London College of Communication at the University of the Arts, London, he has exhibited his work and given talks at numerous shows, including at the UCL Slade Research Centre at University College London; the Royal Geographical Society; the Centre for Cultural Studies at Goldsmiths University of London; the Centre for Social Justice & Inequality in the Department of Sociology at the University of Warwick; the London School of Economics & Political Science; the Limehouse Art Foundation, London; and, most recently, at the Diffusion International Photography Festival 2017. Rab has also been invited onto the panel at the screening of Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle in the Glasgow Film Theatre. Besides his residency in Amsterdam – from which I presume he has now returned from what, judging by the photos, was a rather nice flat on one of the canals – Rab has also been a Leverhulme Artist-in-Residence, again at University College London, and has just accepted another residency, again at another art gallery, in Prague this time.
Despite this rather impressive CV, which shows Rab being well nested in both the art and academic worlds, his initial attacks on us were directed against our own educational backgrounds – Geraldine having studied at Cambridge University and I at University College London. It’s a little bizarre, given Rab’s own long history of exhibiting at UCL and those other ‘elite’ academic institutions from which he has such a need for acceptance, and suggests his real motivations lie elsewhere. The particular focus of Rab’s plentiful bile, though, was the accusation that ASH is participating in ‘art-washing’.
People with a grudge often need to find a larger canvas on which to paint their resentments, turning personal grievances into political posturing; but ‘artwashing’ is an issue within London’s estate demolition programme. ASH has been critical of its use in places like Balfron Tower, where artists were invited to occupy and use flats evicted of tenants to put the gloss of gentrification on the social cleansing of the estate community by Poplar HARCA. It’s ironic – to put it mildly – that Rab was one of these artists, living in Balfron Tower on a two-year residency and pursuing his career as an artist from doing the very thing he is now accusing ASH and everyone else of doing. Ah, that green-eyed monster strikes again!
As an architectural practice, however, ASH’s focus has been less on artists, who play a minor role in the propaganda of social cleansing, and more on architectural practices, who play a far larger one. From the protest we organised at the AJ120 Awards in June 2015 through to our protests at the Stirling Prize in October 2015 and 2016, as well as our critical debates with the RIBA and our public condemnations of individual practices such as Mae, PRP, HTA Design, Levitt-Bernstein, Hawkins/Brown, Haworth Tompkins and Karakusevic Carson, ASH has sought to bring attention to the role architects play, not only in managing estate residents on behalf of councils and developers, but of actively colluding in the false image of estate regeneration presented to the public. As anyone who has followed our campaigns knows, ASH doesn’t need lessons in challenging ‘art-washing’ from an artist who thinks a twitter account makes him an activist.
But where, then, did the accusation come from that ASH, against all expectations, is suddenly involved in ‘artwashing’? And not only in art-washing but in ‘plotting to profit from estate demolition’, in ‘illegally engaging in political activity’, in ‘complicity with the establishment in the housing crisis’, in ‘promoting establishment values’, in ‘offering a socially cleansed vision of London for the rich’, in belonging to the ‘Oxbridge establishment’, indeed in ‘social cleansing’ itself?
2. Antagonisms of the Academic
At this point we need to introduce the second character in this two-and-a-half month trolling drama, someone who tweets under the name @etiennelefleur. This is Stephen Pritchard, a PhD student writing his dissertation on art-washing. Like Rab, Stephen is well entrenched in the academic world, having taught or presented at the Royal Geographical Society, the Association of American Geographers, Durham University, the University of Warwick and the Arts Council of England. This is how Stephen describes himself in the entire page he devotes to himself in his blog, ‘Colouring in Culture’:
‘I’m a gamekeeper turned poacher. I like to move from outside in and inside out. I’m interested by the spaces in which we live. I’m an art historian, writer, activist and community arts practitioner. My starting point for this blog: Everybody’s socially engaged nowadays. I enjoy the tensions created by antagonism.’
We can’t answer for the truth of these rather self-regarding descriptions, since we’ve never met Stephen. The first time we heard about him was when Paul Sng – the director of Dispossession, and also a friend of Rab Harling – sent us a text Stephen had written about Loretta Lees, Professor of Human Geography at Leicester University, who had just won a research grant for £615,341 to study ‘Gentrification, Displacement, and the Impacts of Council Estate Renewal in C21st London’. From my own brief time in academia I know that nothing brings out the green-eyed monster in academics like the grant they didn’t get, and Stephen’s text was highly critical of the research project’s involvement with the arts organisation Platform 7.
Stephen had a point, as Platform-7 looks exactly like the kind of corporate front involved in art-washing; but his argument, as far as I can remember, was restricted to tracing the business links of the organisers and the boards they sat on. Stephen wanted ASH to publish his text on our blog, but we refused for two reasons. First, the text was all insinuation, and never actually made the argument about how Platform-7 are engaged in ‘artwashing’. In other words, it was a bad article, and I didn’t have the time to research and rewrite it for him. Just as importantly, though, Stephen refused to put his name to the text, without which it was no more than slander, whose repercussions would be felt not by him but by ASH. I told Stephen why we refused his text, and also said that part of being an activist is standing up and putting your name to something, not hiding behind an alias – or, I could have added, behind an anonymous Twitter account. Stephen accepted this, but said that as a PhD student he was afraid of jeopardising his chance of getting a job in academia. So much for moving ‘from outside in and inside out.’ The text Stephen wrote ended up being published – still anonymously – on the London School of Economics’ blog of some students, at which point Loretta Lees called her lawyers and had it removed. That’s another story, but again, it gives some insight into the motivations – and character – of the people who have been attacking ASH.
Like Rab Harling, Stephen Pritchard is someone who works within academia while at the same time leading a fantasy life of rebellion (‘gamekeeper turned poacher’), all the while desperately hoping for a securely remunerated position in that world. I know that position well, having flirted with it myself for a few years in my long-lost youth, and I know its resentments, its humiliations, its desperations, its indignities, its self-loathing, and above all the fantasies on which it relies to maintain is self-deception. It’s a form of false consciousness particular to artists and academics that like to think of themselves as community-based activists and campaigners. As Stephen describes himself on his blog:
‘I’m a final-year PhD researcher at Northumbria University exploring how activist art and radical social praxis might create spaces for acts of resistance and liberation. The research particularly focuses on interventions which support movements that oppose gentrification, displacement and corporate capitalism and seek creative new approaches to developing radical socialist democracies. My work is deeply rooted in critical theory. My deeply intradisciplinary approach spans urban geography, aesthetics, politics and political theory, cultural policy, economics, decolonisation and border thinking, psychodynamic and psychoanalytic theories, sociology, and visual and material cultures.’
I’m only surprised Stephen doesn’t have his own theme tune embedded in this page. So what – besides us rejecting his text for publication on the ASH blog – could have turned such a multi-talented radical against us?
3. The London Festival of Architecture
Over the past three years ASH has organised Open Garden Estates, an event hosted by London estate communities whose residents organise walks around their estate, show visitors into their homes, tell them about their campaigns to save their estate from demolition, and also make contacts with residents from other campaigns facing the same threat. In 2015 Open Garden Estates was hosted by the three estates ASH was working with; last year it was hosted by around a dozen estates across London; this year three estates hosted the event. The last two years we have advertised the event as part of the London Festival of Architecture, which runs through June. This has meant that, in addition to other residents, architects and those interested in architecture, particularly the post-war Brutalist estates most under threat of demolition, visit the campaigns to save them. ASH has been anathematised in the architectural press because of our criticism of the profession’s role in estate demolition, so advertising Open Garden Estates as part of the London Festival of Architecture is also a way for us to circumvent the lack of publicity about our work and make our design alternatives to demolition more widely known to other architects and the general public. More importantly, though, the more people turn up to the individual estates and talk to residents, the stronger their campaign will be.
For Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, however, none of these benefits outweigh the corporate links to the London Festival of Architecture. We didn’t actually follow what the argument was – if indeed there was one – but I think the accusation was that the LFA had given a platform to Poplar HARCA, the housing association responsible for the demolition, privatisation and social cleansing of numerous Tower Hamlets estate, including Balfron Tower. At ASH we have no time for this sort of virtue signaling, which is always a substitute for the action neither Rab nor Stephen have ever engaged in. Instead, again and again their tweets begin with the repeated accusation ‘Artwashing!’ – which for them has come to represent the key crime in the estate regeneration programme, rather than the actual estate demolition it is meant to conceal – about which they are unable to do anything from the safety and comfort of their academic and art institutions. As in so much within the so-called activism of so-called radicals within the so-called housing movement, the accusation of ‘artwashing’ has become the fetishised substitute for action, the jealously guarded archive of their academic studies, the topic of their art practice, the political justification for their personal grudges, the hook on which to hang the hooded top of their inactivity. For ASH – which is more interested in opposing the actuality of estate demolition rather than deconstructing its representations – there is no contest between, on the one hand, the purism of the principles of student radicals about who and what they associate with in the virtual reality of their keyboard activism, and, on the other, the real world benefits the increased publicity of advertising Open Garden Estates in the London Festival of Architecture brought to residents fighting to save their homes from demolition.
As an example of which, during Open Garden Estates ASH visited the Excalibur estate, which is under threat of demolition by Lewisham Labour council. On the edge of the estate is the Moving Prefab Museum and Archive, which was originally set up in December 2014 by Elisabeth Blanchet and Jane Hearn, and on Saturday 24 June it hosted an open event at which they showed films by Lucia Tambini and Elisabeth Blanchet that told the history of the estate and the campaign by residents to resist its demolition. Elisabeth had previously got in contact with ASH, and the organisers made the event part of this year’s Open Garden Estates. Because ASH member Senaka Weeraman had taken the initiative to advertise Open Garden Estates as part of the London Festival of Architecture under the title ‘Estates of Memory’, the online architectural magazine Dezeen listed Excalibur estate as one of its ‘top ten picks’ of the Festival, and every ticket on the Eventbrite invitation was taken. A map allowed visitors to take a self-guided tour around the estate, and after the films residents and organisers answered questions about the history of the prefabs and the campaign to save their homes, and we followed our visit up with a report on the campaign.
We know neither of these keyboard inactivists would bother to leave their late night tweeting and make the visit to meet them, but we invite Rab Harling and Stephen Pritchard to explain to the residents of the Excalibur estate faced with losing their homes exactly why they shouldn’t advertise their campaign in the London Festival of Architecture. They won’t, not only because their so-called activism is entirely inactive, but because to do so would be ridiculous and insulting to the residents they daren’t face.
Besides which, neither Rab nor Stephen manage to maintain the same high principles when it involves their own work at institutions like the London School of Economics and University College London, both of which have been complicit in estate demolition and social cleansing. Rather, both have sought to build a private fiefdom within the housing movement out of their career interests. Indeed, they have recently founded a group with the familiar title of ‘Artists Against Social Cleansing’. Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but in order to advertise themselves these green-eyed sons seem a little too intent on killing their symbolic father – such Oedipal fantasies being characteristic of the eternal rebel . . .
If Rab and Stephen had been genuinely concerned about the London Festival of Architecture giving a platform for social cleansing, they could have turned up at the events at which this platform was held and voiced their protest. For example, unknown to us, Lib Peck, the Leader of Lambeth Labour council, appeared on one of the festival’s platforms to congratulate herself on working with Lambeth’s communities to build more homes. As chance would have it, that same evening the residents of Central Hill estate – which the Cabinet she heads had just condemned for demolition – were attending the Scrutiny Committee they had called to review the decision. What an opportunity for them to voice their protest at the Leader of Lambeth council’s estate demolition programme! Neither Rab nor Stephen turned up, of course; and to our knowledge neither have once left their laptops to voice their disagreements in person with the speakers at the platforms they accuse the London Festival of Architecture of giving to social cleansers. But then that, of course, would require action.
By contrast, in the weeks leading up to the General Election ASH attended several hustings across London at which we voiced our objections to the local programme of estate demolition, and on 31 May we organised our own hustings for the Vauxhall constituency. We weren’t surprised that our two Twitter trolls didn’t turn up, but instead confined themselves to calling on the candidates not to participate – ‘no platforming’ being the signature inactivism of the student radical.
On 17 May ASH also spoke at the Institute of Contemporary Art on a panel discussion on ‘Urban Planning as Social Cleansing’. This drew paroxysms of rage and incensed accusations of ‘artwashing’ from our armchair inactivists. The fact that at the talk ASH met residents from three estates who wanted to work with us meant nothing to them. Nor that the story we told about estate demolition was entirely new to most of the audience. How could it – when they were both safely tucked up behind their keyboards, polishing their principles into the small hours when it seems most of their tweets against us are rubbed off?
In response to our talk at the ICA, ASH has subsequently been offered the use of the Upper Galleries for one-week this August. We will be exhibiting the design alternatives to demolition from our work with various estates across London, as well as collectively creating a map of every estate regeneration currently taking place in the capital. We’ll also be hosting various talks by other groups about the housing crisis, as well as holding a meeting about the Grenfell Tower fire, on which we have recently published an extended report. As we anticipated, this has drawn further vitriol from our two Twitter trolls; but we can safely say we don’t anticipate seeing either of them turn up to give voice to their tweeted insults in any public forum more exposed than an anonymous social media account.
4. Blogs, Lies and Innuendo
In the meantime, the next product of their anonymous clictivism arrived on 22 May, when Stephen published a blog post titled ‘ASHwash: Architects for Social Housing AND for Establishment Values?’ As those who read the ASH blog know, we often publish articles that are a form of investigative journalism, producing a case study of a particular estate regeneration or analysis of a piece of housing policy. Reading Stephen’s post we were struck by how much it tried to imitate the ASH articles, reproducing screen grabs of apparently damning information, including footage of incriminating evidence of art-washing, highlighting textual proof of criminal behaviour, etc. However, much like his earlier text we had refused to publish on the ASH blog, Stephen’s article – which is less investigative and more Carry-On journalism – is a series of innuendos and nudge-nudge wink-wink questions his argument is too weak to answer. The responses of people who read his post and contacted us ranged from ‘Pathetic’ and ‘So what?’ to ‘I find this kind of purity competitiveness both pathetic and pointless.’
As an example of the sort of innuendo on which Stephen’s article relies and which Rab’s trolling repeats ad nauseum, the blog post starts with a photograph of Central Hill estate taken by ASH and used by us to publicise Open Garden Estates. So beautiful is the image of the estate that it has also been used widely in numerous articles, including that by Zoe Williams, who reproduced it without our consent in an article about estate regeneration that nevertheless praises the work of Studio Egret West, an architectural practice working with Poplar HARCA on the regeneration of Balfron Tower. Without any argument actually being made, therefore, Stephen’s caption to the image insinuates that because ASH took the photograph we are somehow connected with the social cleansing of Balfron Tower. That’s about the level of critique in the blog post; however, since we’re discussing this, I’ll very quickly answer the questions he asks.
As if unearthing the Hitler Diaries, Stephen has ‘discovered’ that ASH is a Community Interest Company, something we became in September 2016 as a condition of a (failed) grant application to the Tudor Trust. This required that we set up a bank account for any anticipated funds before making our application, and in order to receive funding ASH had to have a constitution. We looked at the options, and a Community Interest Company (CIC) fitted our needs and abilities best. It also means that any payments we receive for design work, such as we are currently receiving from the Patmore Co-operative, are registered in the ASH bank account, and will appear on our tax returns lodged in Companies House. But Stephen needn’t get too excited about what he and Rab have denounced as our ‘profiteering’; the grand total of payments ASH has received this year is £6,000.
That’s about it, as far as the attack on ASH goes. There’s another issue Stephen raises about the political dimension of our activity, which I’ll return to later; but the rest of his blog article is about the association of Geraldine Dening, the co-founder and director of ASH, with SPID Theatre. This make up by far the largest part of the article, and consists of a series of snide insinuations about Geraldine’s integrity based on deliberate or otherwise misunderstandings and lies. Geraldine does indeed have her own private practice, but – alas! – it did not win the RIBA National Award 2013, as Stephen wrongly asserts; and although many years prior to this she did, as a young architect, work for larger practices designing schools and other developments, she does not now. It’s not exactly clear what crime would have been committed if she had, except in the unemployed mind of the perpetual student Stephen is; but one would hope a PhD candidate had a better comprehension of a CV than this demonstrates.
The focus of Stephen’s expose, however, is the entirely unclassified information that in February 2014, one year before ASH was formed, Geraldine became a Board Member – not a Director, as Stephen inacurrately asserts – of the SPID Theatre Company. We had first attended several of SPID’s productions several years ago and liked what they do; and when they asked Geraldine to sit on the board she agreed to act as an architectural advisor. Stephen’s blog post is largely taken up with tracing the connections between SPID Theatre and Kensington and Chelsea council, and specifically the work SPID has done with Trellick Tower, which lies within the borough. Again and again he demands that the reader – those who have stayed with him through his gripping account – look at SPID’s sponsors, which include such corporate criminals as the Twentieth Century Society; but he never bothers to make any argument more damning than the one that people who work on other arts organisations like the Battersea Arts Centre and the Tricycle Theatre also sit on the board of SPID Theatre, or that members of the council and TMO who own and manage the estate on which SPID Theatre is based do too.
Such relations with councils inevitably come with their own compromises and dangers, and that is not a route ASH has chosen to take – even if there were a council left in London that would talk to us! But the alternative is not always available for a theatre company that does not have private financial backing, does not operate – as Rab Harling does – out of paid residencies in art galleries, and does not have a government grant – as Stephen Pritchard does – in an academic institution. In attacking such arrangements with empty insinuations, Stephen betrays his own lack of knowledge of how to work outside the paternal institutions in which he lives and studies; but he also – to my ears – protests too much and too loudly to cover up his own protracted adolescent dependence upon them.
To substantiate his demonisation of SPID Theatre as a corporate front for – you guessed it – ‘artwashing’, Stephen includes the link to a BBC report of SPID’s production at Trellick Tower, which Geraldine and I attended, and writes: ‘There is a whiff of artwashing here.’ Cutting edge stuff, Steve. It is clear, however, that neither he nor Rab have ever been to a SPID Theatre production – just as they will never visit the similarly attacked Excalibur estate – so let me fill these armchair inactivists in on the work they so bravely expose.
SPID Theatre is based in Kensal House, a council estate in Labroke Grove. It produces plays that are written by its own members and which dramatise contemporary issues, particularly those facing children and young adults in London today. What makes the productions we’ve seen particularly compelling is that the plays are acted and co-produced by young people from council estates in the borough. We have seen a number of productions in both Kensal House and Trellick Tower, and have always been struck by the confidence and abilities of the young people given the responsibility of putting them on. Beyond the social issues dramatically explored in the plays, the productions themselves act as a means for the young people in them to explore the world outside the council estates on which they live.
To dismiss the benefits such involvement can potentially have for these children both socially and creatively as – in Stephen Pritchard’s words – ‘bang on, straight-down-the-line arts and cultural policy speak’ – is the judgement of someone who comes from a world where theatre and creativity were the price of a ticket away. Similarly, to denounce the theatre group that gives these young people this chance in the name of an academic critique of ‘artwashing’ is the action of someone who has no knowledge of the stigma that comes from living on a council estate, and no interest in the potential of the children who live on them. To troll both in order to further your own career in academia is the action not of an ‘activist and community arts practitioner’, as Stephen describes himself, but of a careerist and green-eyed opportunist.
Following the Grenfell Tower fire, SPID Theatre and its young actors put on a benefit production of their play iAm 4.0 at the Playground Theatre in North Kensington, and in the process raised £1,700 for the Grenfell Tower Fund. I’m willing to bet that’s £1,700 more than either Stephen or Rab have ever raised or given in their time or work to any council estate community.
What Stephen Pritchard hasn’t bothered to reproduce in his blog post is the film SPID Theatre produced themselves called Cheltenham Tales, which they screened at this production, and which far from being artwashing for the regeneration of the estate is about precisely the threat to the graffiti wall and skateboard park that regeneration presents. Perhaps, if he left his ivory tower in Northumbria University and visited the people and places his mass of theoretical models are so clueless about, Stephen Pritchard, PhD, might find a way to apply the many and truly astonishing array of gifts he claims he has to the world outside his social media accounts.
5. Architects for Social Housing
Stephen Pritchard admits he has never met us – and of course, just like Rab Harling, he has never worked with us; so let me tell him a little bit about what Architects for Social does. Perhaps this will give both of them an idea why the institutions whose acceptance and invitations they are so desperate to receive invite us to speak at their venues. Who knows – one day, if they leave social media and do something worth talking about, they may have something worth listening to.
ASH is an organisation that sets up working collectives for the various projects we’re engaged in. After two-and-a-half-years of work, we’re receiving an increasing number of offers from architects, students, writers, photographers, film makers and others to work with us on these projects. In most cases, after a long day’s work with which Stephen and Rab – to judge by their plentiful Twitter activity – are completely unfamiliar, young architects meet with us in the evening to offer their labour for free on our design work. Sometimes, as in the case of West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates, this leads to us being commissioned to produce a feasibility study report, for example, on ASH’s designs; and when we receive payment for our work that money is used to pay the architects working on the designs. But by far and away the bulk of the work we and those who work with us do is done for free.
Despite this, neither ASH nor anyone who has worked with us has been spared their accusation that we are somehow ‘profiteering’ from estate regeneration. Since neither Rab nor Stephen appear to have any idea of what goes on outside their keyboard worlds, they won’t know that it is work like this that constitutes a housing campaign – not virtue signaling and trolling on social media. Their accusations that the architects giving their time and labour and skills for free on ASH’s projects are somehow profiteering from their labour are the fantasies of keyboard onanists.
Where ASH has been paid for its work – specifically on our designs for West Kensington and Gibbs Green, who were able to raise funds from charity grants – we were paid around a tenth of the usual cost for such work. Indeed, we were originally approached by the campaign to find an architectural practice for the brief, but no-one would touch it at the price. All the funds we received were spent on paying the architects who worked on the designs. The hundreds of hours of other work we spent on consultations, workshops, publicity and all the other myriad things ASH does when it works with residents was done for free.
On Central Hill estate, with which ASH worked for two years, architect Geraldine Dening – the target of continuing online insults by the brave Rab Harling – gave an estimated £20,000 of her labour to drawing up an entire design alternative and feasibility study for free. As, indeed, did everyone who worked with ASH on this project – architects, photographers, film-makers, writers, graphic designers, environmentalists, quantity surveyors, engineers, campaigners – everyone who gave their time and skills for free because they believe in ASH’s larger project.
For artist Rab Harling and academic Stephen Pritchard, remunerated and housed by institutions of culture and higher learning, to dismiss the enormous generosity and energy of the people who have worked on ASH’s projects here and at numerous other estates across London as ‘profiteering’ really is beneath contempt – and if we thought either had the character to do so we would demand an apology on their behalf.
6. Oh, Jeremy Corbyn
But if the cause of Rab Harling’s apparently unending spite is his long nurtured professional jealousy and resentment towards ASH, what is the motivation for Stephen Pritchard, someone we’ve never even met? I must admit that this was a cause of some confusion on our part. All this bile and slander because we wouldn’t publish his scribbles on our blog? Even taking into account the pettiness of Twitter trolls it didn’t make sense. Then I decided to have a look at Stephen’s Twitter page – which by the sheer number of his tweets seems to be where he lives out most of his life – and the penny dropped.
Last September Stephen, like so many student radicals, joined the Labour Party, and a quick look through his Twitter account will show the depth of his fervour for Jeremy Corbyn. Now, as anyone who reads our blog will know, for the past two years ASH has been consistently critical of the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils, which we have designed architectural alternatives to as part of our support for resident campaigns. But we have also been critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s silence on estate demolition, and in the weeks leading up to the election we published a number of articles on the housing policies of the Labour Party. These that revealed that – far from there being a split between the practices of Labour councils and the principles of Jeremy Corbyn – the Labour manifesto based its housing policy on the estate demolition schemes of Labour councils.
This is a bitter pill to follow for the acolytes of Jeremy Corbyn, but two years of fighting Labour councils has shown us that in a choice between the residents whose homes are threatened by Labour housing policy and the electoral hopes of the Labour Party, Labourites will always chose the latter. And so it is with Stephen Pritchard, who despite painting himself as a ‘intradisciplinary, border thinking, psychodynamic’ champion of working-class residents, is more than willing to sacrifice them to Labour council demolition schemes if it means getting Jeremy Corbyn into power. For him, as for so many housing campaigners who have placed their faith and hope in Corbyn, anything that contradicts this message is a threat to their simple narrative. ASH’s article on the contents of Labour’s manifesto, the publications of Labour’s Housing Minister, the statements at Labour’s conferences, and above all the practices of Labour’s councils, was a fart in their lift to heaven.
In his hatchet blog job on ASH, therefore, Stephen dug up a condition of our conversion to a CIC, this being that we will not be ‘a) a political party; b) a political campaigning organisation; or c) a subsidiary of a political campaigning organisation’. On this sleuth-like piece of detective work this PhD researcher comments most solemn like: ‘ASH needs to be very careful to differentiate between its social enterprise function and its broader, collective functions.’ Thanks for that bit of advice, Steve. In fact, from the very beginning of ASH’s existence activists of every political stripe have tried to divide our design work – which they are happy to accept for free – from the political dimension of our campaigning, which has consistently highlighted the Labour Party’s collusion with the programme of estate demolition.
But to put Stephen’s investigative antennae to rest, ASH is not a) a political party; nor are we b) a political campaigning organisation such as Momentum, to which we wouldn’t be surprised to learn he belongs; nor are we c) a subsidiary of a political campaigning organisation, such as Axe the Housing Act or the Radical Housing Network, both of which are pullulating with his fellow Born-again Corbynites. Unlike these grass-roots fronts, whose overriding concern is the electoral victory of the Labour Party, ASH has no interest in Parliamentary politics. Our concern is for the estates and communities the political parties in Parliament threaten. Whether Stephen regards this as political activity depends on his academic understanding of the term, in which we have not the slightest interest; but his attempt to expose us with this bit of information really is pretty weak. I hope his PhD has a better grasp of what constitutes primary research, or the academic standards of Northumbria University must have fallen.
This is not the first time ASH has been targeted by Labour activists and apologists for estate demolition – far from it. Ever since we started identifying the Labour Party as complicit in this programme, Labour activists from Momentum and the Radical Housing Network have periodically trolled us on our Facebook page and even gone as far as to warn residents against working with us. In the case of Central Hill estate, this extended to a campaign with which we had been working for a year-and-a-half, and for which, as I said, we had produced an entire design alternative to demolition for free. None of that mattered to the members of Unite the Union and Lambeth Momentum, who successfully managed to convince the organisers of the Save Central Hill campaign to denounce us publically. It’s unclear to us exactly what Lambeth Momentum offered in our place, except their subsequent betrayal and denunciation of the Save Central Hill campaign when it attacked the Labour council that threatened their homes. But it is clear to us that Stephen’s empty insinuations were simply another attempt to discredit us and what we do in the weeks leading up to the General Election. Unfortunately for the Corbynites, everything ASH has published on Labour housing policy – unlike Stephen’s article on us – is based on facts and not innuendo, reasoned argument and not sly insinuations; and until Stephen or some other Labour activist can refute either we will continue to hold the Labour Party accountable for its record of estate demolition.
7. Trolling in the Real World
What has disgusted us most about these attacks on ASH is not, however, either their vitriol or even their personal nature, but how both Rab Harling and Stephen Pritchard are willing to use their supposedly heroic defence of estate residents to promote and further their own careers as artists and academics within the safety net of the institutions they inhabit. Over the past three years we’ve watched with increasing amusement at the fetishisation of the activist as the latest figure on the scene of identity politics. It’s for this reason we’ve always refused the description of what we do at ASH with this meaningless term. ‘Activists’, for us, are the earnest young people who door-knock for Labour MPs at election time and wear T-shirts saying ‘We love Jeremy!’ But there is, also, a strange sense of entitlement among those who, having marched to Parliament one weekend or titled their Twitter account something like @BalfronTower, rather grandly designate themselves as ‘activists’, and – without having actually done anything – regard any platform, conference, exhibition, workshop or panel discussion to which they haven’t been invited as a personal sleight on their green-eyed ambition. It never seems to occur to them to do anything that the organisers of these platforms would want to invite them to talk about, or – Jeremy forbid! – create a platform themselves. In this respect, the yawning gap between the actions of keyboard inactivists like Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, and their sense of entitlement to speak at events they treat as an opportunity to further their careers, is an example of precisely the sort of artwashing and careerism they accuse everyone but themselves of being party to.
As I said, the trolling of us by these two over the past two-and-a-half months is no longer confined to ASH, but has extended to the organisers of the Small is Beautiful festival, whom they called on to ban us from their conference; the Focus E15 Mothers, whom they have warned not to share a platform with us; the Architectural Workers, whom they accused of being social cleansing profiteers; a resident of Cressingham Gardens who used the London Festival of Architecture to launch a book containing testimonies from her fellow residents facing demolition, and whom they also accused of art-washing; as well as the candidates for the Vauxhall constituency, whom they called on to boycott the Lambeth Estate Hustings organised by ASH. Even the horror of the Grenfell Tower fire didn’t stop Rab Harling from attacking the Green Party’s GLA member Siân Berry, one of the handful of London politicians to speak out against estate demolition, for the ‘crime’ of having attended Oxford University. There are no doubt even more groups and individuals these two trolls have targeted – either because of association with ASH or because Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling, from the glorious purity of their keyboards, deem them to be ‘artwashers’ – but since we have blocked all communication with them we are, thankfully, spared both their bile and their ambition.
Unfortunately, however, this trolling has not been without consequences in the real world. Last September ASH was contacted by residents on Hackney’s Northwold estate, which is under threat of demolition by the Guinness Partnership. Since then, we have worked with their campaign to save their homes, advising them on the tactics that would be employed against them and some of the things they might want to do in setting up their own campaign. We have published several articles publicising that campaign, including exposing the Guinness Partnership’s plans and motivations for the demolition; held a number of open meetings with residents about what estate ‘regeneration’ will mean for them; and with the collaboration of individual architects and the Architectural Workers, ASH has produced a preliminary design alternative to the planned demolition that equals the increased housing capacity proposed by the Guinness Partnership without demolishing a single existing home. We have done this for free – not, as Rab Harling claims, in order to profit from the housing crisis, but because we believed in the Save Northwold campaign and wanted to help residents in their struggle to save their estate from demolition.
We thought, therefore, that we’d at least earned a little solidarity in return. Unfortunately, one of the residents and organisers of the Save Northwold campaign is also a member of Artists Against Social Cleansing, the pet project of Stephen Pritchard and Rab Harling. When she told us about the project we thought it a good idea; but under the influence of these two Twitter trolls she has subsequently shared and publicised their innuendos and attacks against us. And – quite incomprehensibly for us – despite the fact that ASH has given several hundred hours of our time and labour to their campaign, Save Northwold has similarly shared in spreading these attacks on social media.
When we contacted the members of Save Northwold to point out the motivations of their new collaborators, and asked them why they would attack ASH, which they were expecting to work with over the next few years, the member of Artists Against Social Cleansing – whom we won’t name here because we believe she has been badly misled by these two careerists – wrote back: ‘There are important debates to be had and in the interest of all in this struggle’. Yes, there are, but we don’t see how those are being had through the public trolling of ASH on Twitter by her fellow members.
Speaking on behalf of the Save Northwold campaign, one of the organisers subsequently wrote to us – not to explain how they had made a mistake and to unreservedly condemn the slurs against Geraldine they had unwittingly shared – but to inform us rather grandly that: ‘We need to be clear about boundaries, transparency, and what we are each getting out of any future collaboration.’ If the Save Northwold campaign wished to know about ASH’s structure, they had only to ask us at the meeting we were about to have with them to discuss our future collaboration in producing a design alternative to the demolition of their estate over the next year. For future reference, publically re-tweeting a personal attack on the integrity of our lead architect, and refusing to condemn snide insinuations against ASH after we have given so much of our time to their campaign, is not the way to build trust, establish transparency or promote future collaboration. As for our own future collaboration, as a result of this trolling and the breakdown in trust and respect it has fostered, ASH is no longer working with the Save Northwold campaign. We trust they will find their future collaboration with Artists Against Social Cleansing more conducive to their needs; and we hope this article will provide the transparency about their new collaborators they asked for.
ASH does not have the financial backing and support of academic institutions, art galleries, unions, the Labour Party or private benefactors, and we are not in receipt of any grant funding. We are an entirely voluntary organisation working almost entirely for free. As such, we have no obligation to work with anyone, least of all those who attack us, whether for political or personal reasons, or out of some bizarre sense of entitlement to our time and labour. We will make the results of the design work we have already done available for the use of Northwold estate residents; but it should be clear – and if it isn’t we make it clear now – that ASH cannot enter into a long term contract with groups or individuals with whom there is a lack of trust, and we will not work with groups or individuals who attack us or seek to undermine us, or with groups or individuals who openly support and promote groups who attack us or seek to undermine us. The open season on ASH is over.
Once again, we regret having to address this rather sordid matter in public and at such length; but there comes a time when you have to defend yourself and those who work with you against sly innuendo, slander, accusations and personal attacks from careerists and disgruntled artists. This is our last word on the matter. We leave it to you to decide whether you wish to work with ASH in the future – and, of course, whether you choose to associate with the green-eyed Twitter trolls whose behaviour has compelled us to make this public statement. We’ll leave you with this public statement from Rab Harling, artist and housing activist:
Architects for Social Housing