Opportunity Area - panel discussion, 6 June 2016

(Elephant & Castle shopping centre)

An open discussion with an invited panel to discuss ethics, tactics and place-specificity in artistic practice, with particular reference to Elephant and Castle and its labelling as an ‘opportunity area’. Panelists include: JaneRendell, Barbara Steveni, Isaac Marrero Guillamon and Andres Mendez (La Bodeguita), chaired by Sam Trotman.
This event was organised as part of UnearthingThe Elephant project, led by Eva Sajovic, Rebecca Davies and Sarah Butler. Building on more than 10 years of work in Elephant and Castle, Unearthing The Elephant is a response to the demolition and reconstruction of Elephant and Castle’s shopping centre. 
Opportunity Area is part of the London Festival of Architecture 2016. 

Some thoughts after the event, ‘Opportunity Area’ – a discussion of ethics, tactics and place-specificity in artistic practice, with particular reference to Elephant and Castle and its labelling as an ‘opportunity area’, with panel: Jane Rendell, Andres Mendez, Barbara Steveni, and Isaac Marrero Guillamon, chaired by Sam Trotman, 6th June 2016

Where do we stand – as artists working in an area undergoing dramatic change, in a place where the process of regeneration is so problematic and contested? We initiated the event ‘Opportunity Area’ because we wanted to critically reflect on our position in relation to Elephant and Castle, its communities, and those steering and implementing the current programme of regeneration. We wanted to ask:

1.    What is the role of art versus the role of activism? Can they coexist or do they threaten/contradict each other?

2.    What tools and strategies do we need in order to communicate the voices and experiences of local people in order to have an impact on the change? Is there a way of working together with others to achieve this? Are there other successful models that we can look to?

3.    What is or might be our role now? Do we need/want to change our position?

4.    How can we negotiate the issues of funding and influence in relation to our work in Elephant and Castle?

The conversation was rich and wide-ranging, with a focus on the ethics and negotiations involved in being funded by, and attempting to positively influence those in positions of power (in this case the developers involved in the regeneration scheme). Below is an attempt to sum up the key points raised and think about how we might move forwards.

Art and activism

They are not the same thing, and one cannot replace the other. However they might exist alongside each other, finding moments of connection and ways to strengthen and enrich each other. In addition, artists may be able to get access to people and places which activists could not.

The importance of the archive

Much of the work we do and have done is driven by a desire to document and archive the stories, lives, aspirations and frustrations of people living and working in Elephant and Castle. This is active rather than passive. There is power and importance in hosting particular stories and memories. Our ambition is to construct a platform from which people can speak for themselves and self-represent.

The power of the material object

The book, newspaper, image, etc. can operate in the public sphere, creating possibilities for communication and collaboration. These objects are portable, able to move through space and extend the platform for these voices and stories.

The need to negotiate

Trying to work in the ‘dirty context’[1] of a globally affected urban development is complex, but art and artists are not just a ‘clip on’. There needs to be negotiation, on both sides. We need to know what an organisation’s belief system is in order to engage with it.

Occupy or object?

Can we affect more change by working with or by boycotting? Wewant to occupy and interact with organisations rather than just objecting/criticising.

Thinking about criticism

Due to the heightened urgency, and the imminence of demolition in the area, our work is now being more scrutinised than ever. How do we address this?

The desire for transparency

We need to try and establish the rules of the game; the motivation of funders in supporting us, the value of what we are doing for them, and how that may or may not affect our freedom to create new and potentially critical work.


There is a tension between payment and action. Can we expect to influence and not be influenced ourselves? It is a dirty context, but there are opportunities and possibilities there. Can the arts survive without private funding? How do we decide who we are prepared to be funded by?


Can we trust what is being said, by the council, by the developers?


Who is responsible and for what? Who are we responsible to?

Establishing protocols

We need to look to other examples, other experiences, as well as our own, to establish protocols and methods of working. This is something we intend to investigate and pursue over the coming months.

Where next?

We are hugely grateful to our panellists and audience for the rich, challenging and generous debate. We were expecting to come away with more questions than answers, and feel that the questions raised will further focus our thinking and actions over the coming months and years. Our intentions include:

·      Continuing this conversation, with the panellists, other artists, and those who are influencing and being impacted by the regeneration programme in Elephant and Castle.

·      Looking to build alliances of interest in order to move forward with more impact.

·      Clarifying our ethical standpoint and creating our own set of protocols; finding ways to communicate these to funders and participants.

[1] Aphrase used by Barbara Steveni during the event.

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