‘Utopia’ at The Roundhouse by Penny Woolcock from 2015

Penny Woolcock’s excellent ‘Utopia’ at The Roundhouse was part installation and part theatre. It ran from Tuesday 4th to Sunday 23rd of August this year. The work was a collaborative effort with Block9 which carefully and very cleverly deconstructed the consumerist mechanisms that underpin, dominate and ultimately control our lives. Hidden or overt, these are forces that forge our hopes, fears and dreams. Of course, ideals of ‘Utopia’ are forever changing. They can be seen to reflect the values of a particular period or as a satirical commentary. Quite often, those who imagined the perfect society or place, ended up in an unexpected and dreadful reality.

This artist spent a great deal of time and effort liaising with the local residents of Camden to inform her work. Stories of their lives were presented in the show; forming the basis of many of the component parts. With ‘Utopia’, Woolcock ultimately created a space for dialogue. This included a performance platform to allow many of those in the area without a voice to share their views and experiences. More of this in a bit.

Preoccupied with what we want, made to feel inadequate in ourselves and to suspect those around us (both in and out of view), we frequently fail to ask the right questions. In the interests of whom do we live and die? What are we actually left with after our money’s been spent? What conclusions about happiness and security can we make? These are just a few among many of the questions that this exhibition encouraged us to consider. Also, issues of housing, education, gentrification, crime….

As an artist, Woolcock has consistently asked the right (often difficult) questions about the nature of our society. About the problems that increasing numbers of people encounter on a daily basis. The consequences so often of damaging, ignorant political policies. Problems and dilemmas that many other better off people either misunderstand or deny even exist (we heard several of these kinds of people muttering in the audience). Having had to struggle as a single mum and in low paid factory work, she has worked her passage to become a distinctive voice for the disenfranchised.

Woolcock has directed theatre, but I first encountered her work in the form ofthe brilliant film ‘Tina Goes Shopping’. This was a collaboration starring the real residents of the Gipton estate in Leeds. I was struck by the subtlety and conviction with which she revealed the day to day lives of those struggling to survive on low incomes and benefits. However controversial, the film was never patronising or condoning, but rather demonstrated the complex ethics at work for so many people in poverty. She won a British Academy Television Award for it.

When I entered into the main space of The Roundhouse, I was confronted by a huge wall of cardboard boxes that were dramatically lit from behind. One gazed at it as if at the walls of Utopia itself. Each box had printed on it it’s assumed content, labelled alphabetically and stacked architecturally. That which contained ‘Spirituality’ is next to ‘Glamour’ and ‘Cool’ (a much bigger box I hasten to add). Our dreams and aspirations there for the taking.

Through a hanging door of the kind that separates the chilled area from the shop floor, we could view the production line for these boxes. Left behind on the work benches were tools and what I presumed to represent factory workers’ personal possessions; a mobile phone here, a lighter there. Traces revealing the silent voices of those who toil out of sight and out of mind.

On the hanging door was projected a film that juxtaposed images of poverty and human fragmentation with those of hyperconsumerism. Over the images were voices and sound. The artist musing on paying over £100 for footwear. One of the soundtrack voices was a young man. He reflected that ‘they’re only trainers’ after all.

Opposite the illusory promise of the wall of boxes, an abandoned car had been left full of stuff, outside what looked like a run down secondhand bookshop. Books littered the broken landscape, torn and ignored in the rubble. Crushed and torn were the boxes too. Among the remnants of shelves, debris and an abandoned fridge, we heard tales of local people’s dysfunctional lives.

The visual impact of the installation was reinforced by an evening of thought provoking performance. Local musicians, campaigners and a few famous faces had been on the stage over past few nights. Russell Brand and Owen Jones were there, but this night it was Charlotte Church. Charming, smart and funny, she did a great set of songs too. Also, I felt it was good that each performance reached a much larger audience through streaming and social media.

However, I found the most moving and uplifting person to take to the stage that night was a mum from a local housing association. She and several others on their estate had found their rent about to be pushed through the stratosphere by some Tory developers. So systematically, with determination and courage, they fought them off through legal processes. As she said herself, if people campaign and stick together, even seemingly insurmountable obstacles can be overcome.

All in all, the art, together with the platform Penny Woolcock had created, posed much food for thought. In these troubled times, I felt this kind of work is more than ever needed.

(C) Gideon Hall 2015

(This article was first published in Femalearts Magazine in 2015)