An Arcades Project: Brixton
Walter Benjamin, philosopher, cultural theorist, writer and critic wrote about the city through a series of ‘city-scapes’ and ‘urban pen pictures’ – experiments in the representation of the city; a way to represent the momentary and fleeting and contingent. His was a kind of archaeology of the city – its structures of social life, buildings, objects, spaces and configurations of myth. Benjamin’s ‘thought images’ consider the city-as-text: a way of mapping personal history and the objects and traces of the past that modern society threatens to destroy. The memorial, he said, must oppose the propensity for amnesia: to remember those whose struggles and sufferings would otherwise be forgotten.
For Benjamin, living means leaving traces and his accounts of the city – Paris, Berlin, Marseilles, Moscow, Naples – have experience embedded within them. To write of cities involves the writer as part archaeologist, part collector and part detective: to mine the underworld of the urban experience in an excavation project of the discarded debris of space. The city he saw as a continuous ruin, a salvage project through which to reveal the hidden; a space to consider the discarded and marginalized and through which to create a counter-history, unmasking the city as a site of myth where the marginal are empowered.
Benjamin’s ambivalent relationship to the city – as space of overwhelming stimuli and continual source of inspiration, memory and anchor of identity, is also a site of anxiety. In Brixton Market’s arcades – Grenville, Reliance and Market Row – modernity is also labyrinthine. In the 1960s, Bon Marché was a bustling department store. In the 1970s and 1980s, Villa Road and Railton Road were part of an international movement for alternative living and politics and the history of radicalism in a movement of housing activism and experimental living. With other streets across London such as Prince of Wales Crescent, Tolmers Square, Hornsey Rise and Cornwall Terrace, they were part of a collective utopia, developing urban self-managed communities and skill-sharing through sculpture workshops, communal gardens, bakeries and vegan restaurants. (Steve Platt, A Decade of Squatting).
An MA student discussed an idea for a project about leaving and arriving: ‘…and about how I feel a sense of myself.’ The project was about her hair. ‘Black women’s hair is really important to them; something to celebrate and display; part of how we see ourselves.’ She recounted her own history of arriving in Northern Ireland from Ghana with her family when she was 8 and the struggles she had with being the only black person in her class, in her school and in what seemed like the whole of Derry. How she faced ignorance, rudeness and personal affront from people wanting to touch her hair, ask if it was a wig; trying to pull at it, drag at it, stroke it and wonder aloud why her hair yesterday was short, and now it’s long – how come? And generally fixate on it. ‘You see, black women like to create a mystery about their hair and we spend a lot of time over it. It’s a way of connecting with other black women – we all have our hair in common, and a search for authenticity – what makes us feel ‘real’. I thought I would make my hair speak for itself – give it is own voice. It is as a kind of metaphor for repressed subjecthood, and part of the search for the real me.’ She quotes from Stuart Hall, that matter of ‘becoming’ which belongs to the future as well as the past. ‘Identity’ is a thing which undergoes constant transformation and subject to the continuous play of history, culture and power. Far from being grounded in the recovery of the past, our identities are positioned by the narratives we give them.
Amma explained to me the difficulties in finding hairdressers in Derry who understood her hair and what a relief it was to come to London. There do seem to be quite a few hairdressers – illuminated spaces full of people – women – and I was suddenly seeing them everywhere – not only at street level but in other unlikely places – through top floor windows above solicitors’ firms; in a hospital reception area which only seemed open at night, metal shutters rolled down during the day and rendered invisible. These places were all animated with women getting their hair done, no matter, it seemed, what time of day, the weather or circumstances, absorbed, engrossed, oblivious to the outside world, the rain, the dark, the suffering. They seem to radiate warmth and energy, chatter and music, embodying Benjamin’s nature of the everyday: spaces of spontaneity and exuberance. It’s the social architecture of such places, their brilliant light spilling out onto the street, the movement and internal intensity evoked and immersed engagement – the immanence.
There’s a hairdressers opposite Chic N Grillz, the local takeaway, its theatre of life seems always open and full of people. For some, to enter would involve crossing a cultural threshold into an unknown world where fact and fiction, appearance and myth converge and navigation would become difficult.
Brixton had seemed resistant to change, yet in constant flux; separate from the rest of London with its bland drive to modernity, spreading concrete and erecting towers, establishing new infrastructures of roads, tube and railway networks and ideologies of value. Benjamin denounced such mythic, smug complacency of ‘progress’, seeing it as a mask to hide catastrophe and failed emancipation, where continuous improvement is a signal for the mystifications of capitalism. Ironically, in its Grade 2 listed status, Brixton Market is a constellation of the ‘now’ and the lived: not resistant to newness, but existing in a different kind of order outside chronological time, in the cyclical. Julie mangoes, Tolly Boy, plantain, Home ‘N’ Fashion, The Wig Bazaar, Candy Fingers, Beauty Africa, Music Temple, Perfection Ventures, dried fish, Golden Penny, Haircraft Body Line, Senovita’s, Amilambi’s, okra, Agik Cash n Carry, Seafood City, Kumasti, Atlantic Silk – compete for your attention, and the comings and goings…the comings and goings. In the covered arcades; in the streets transformed into an interior, in the repetition of goods, there’s a strange anarchic ennui.
‘Mapping’ the city, was for Benjamin, a way to create an ‘interior cartography of subjectivity’. A mirror of this ‘mapping’ was displayed at a TED –X Brixton event. In Brixton, history overlaps with a palpable humanity in its seething streets: it’s a sense that you are at the heart of things which spool out around you, unpredictable, impassioned, tense. Like Benjamin, we allow ourselves to be enfolded by disorientation through the Market, Coldharbour Lane and the Village, marveling at everyday life as dramatic performance; immersed in a porosity of chance and the use of the senses; losing ourselves within the transience of the improvised – until the next time.