01.10.08 Helga Steppan, 'Consume Peckham', ArtArtArt Issue 3, October 08, Faye Nicholson

Consume Peckham
Arts Festival
Peckham, London
14 July – 20 July 2008

Consume Peckham, curated by Kieron Dennis, was a programme of exhibitions, installations and events that took place in a range of local businesses around Peckham. With interventional artworks dispersed over twenty two venues the festival created an opportunity to experience a diverse array of artists in an unusual context.

Accompanying the myriad of art works was a leaflet, containing a map and a list of events, and an essay by Sam Gathercole outlining the issues addressed by the festival. Within this text Consume Peckham’s fragmented setting and structure is said to ‘recall the radical possibilities of the modern, the festival revisiting modernist and avant garde intentions that equate real space with that of culture, and to break down a separation between the two’ . In this way the festival examines two issues that frequently recur in contemporary art projects: returning to the modern and integration.

By a return to the modern I mean a re-examination of the ideologies and practices rooted in the belief of the grand narratives of progress and history. As well as revisiting the ideology (and resulting aesthetic) of modernism many contemporary arts projects also address the act of returning to, recalling and reusing this past material. However, these references often only remain decipherable to the art-initiated portion of the public. Integration, on the other hand, is a term that saturates social policy, education and public arts projects. In this context it is used to address separations between the art elite and everyday public space. By referencing both the age of politically radical art and issues of cultural integration, Consume Peckham set high expectations for its progressive potential.

In practice, what and who did Consume Peckham address? Well, once on Peckham High Street my own experience of the festival was dictated by the habitual patterns of sleepy Sunday commerce. I arrived on the last day of Consume Peckham to find many of the shops that housed art work closed and all of the events had long passed. Yet, clutching the information leaflet like a long shopping list, I trawled the streets of Peckham to consume as much as possible before closing time. At first it remained difficult to delineate works of art, finding the right shops was a challenge in its own right, and once located there was often no way of telling whether art work was there or not. This fitted into Gathercole’s description of the festival ‘as discrete and interventionalist’ , but this merger between art and real life left space for confusion, perhaps even frustration, as if embarking on a treasure hunt for invisible chocolate.

One piece that succeeded in both drawing attention to an interesting public space and playfully disrupting its congruence was Phil Biffin’s ‘And the Architects did not care’. This model-like sculpture was situated in a small room on Platform 3 of Peckham Rye station. The installation, half way between a toy train set and an architectural model, merged humour, nonsense and narrative. Was it an allegorical microcosm reflecting back aspects of our society or merely the fantastical creation of a model railway fanatic? This piece managed to enter the imaginations of both Consume Peckham pilgrims and non expectant local commuters, fulfilling the festival’s aim to ‘stimulate and register a range of possibilities’ within the everyday public realm.

Back amongst the chaotic bustle of Rye Lane, Helga Steppan’s installation in the shop front of Ace Hair and Beauty window displays whilst illuminating the processes of gazing, desire, consumerism and fitted seamlessly into the landscape crowded identity that underlie the act of shopping. Steppan displayed a plethora of mirrors, some cosmetic and others functional, overlaid in a way that seemed excessive and haphazard to a passing viewer. If this piece then sustained your attention, as it did mine, it opened up into a labyrinthine space of reflected fragments. Gazers, window shoppers, and the passing trade of the street formed a kaleidoscopic scene that was both mesmeric and nauseating.

Away from the hubbub of the high street, amongst the delicate Georgian housing of Choumert Rd, Mark Tovell’s piece also acted as a mirror onto the practices of Peckham life. His bank of video research, installed at the Review Bookstore, captured moments of discussion, singing and prayer taking place within local Pentecostal churches. Perhaps like any social / anthropological research undertaken by an outsider, this piece offered an insight into a particular community’s practices whilst reasserting its exotic nature or otherness. This was exemplified by the calm, cosmopolitan atmosphere of the book shop and the ‘middle class-ness’ of the immediate surrounding area.

After experiencing some of Consume Peckham I regret missing the events, such as Francis Thorburn’s pub crawl down Rye Lane and Jo Dennis’ ‘Rorschach’ event that took place with customers in The Hope Pub. It would have been interesting to see how a group of people responded to live work and less subtle interventions. I am particularly curious about the ‘Boycott Coca Cola Experience’ performance, as part of Consume Music at the White Horse, and how it was received.

One of the interesting aspects of Comsume Peckham as a whole was the way that the street became the gallery, local businesses and public space taking the place of an institution. The fragmentation of events throughout several days and locations rendered the viewer the active party in discovering and interpreting art works. This made the viewing experience non prescriptive and adventurous, allowing for confusion, diversions and various interpretations. These are qualities sometimes lacking in large public arts projects that can tend to simplify and distance art work from habitat. Perhaps the only danger of saturating art into an everyday environment is the risk that the whole of Peckham will itself become a spectacle, a haven of strange juxtapositions to the eyes of an intrepid art tourist.

In terms of audience, artists are open to unconventional ways of experiencing art and the project succeeded in providing an alternative venue. But how far did Consume Peckham succeed in providing local non-artists with a new way of experiencing their surroundings by integrating art into their lives?

An interesting addition to my pilgrimage would have been a tour guide. Perhaps one way to extend the project further into the community would have been to work with local schools or community groups in a workshop setting to explore art pieces and their effects on the local area. Local individuals and groups could have then offered short personal tours of the festival recounting their own impressions. This then reflects the project’s recall of modern radical possibilities by incorporating ideas of change, education and audience activation, and offers one more crossover between art works and the real life they infringe upon.

By leaving the leg (and brain) work up to the audience and by facilitating art works that reference the activities and history of the local environment, Consume Peckham was a valued event. For some it may not have recalled the radical drives of the avant garde or integrated all aspects of public life and art but the festival did raise the issues that enable and hinder cultural integration, both through its shortcomings and successes.

Faye Nicholson