Art v Politics: Why the Foundry Was Doomed

Leo Schulz runs a blog called Hoxton Live and has written a good article about the 'regeneration' of East London and the Foundry. It mentions Openned:

The Foundry is one of the original roots of the East London Renaissance. Coming in from Old Street Station, it’s the first thing you hit up against that is different to anywhere else.

Uncomfortable, unwelcoming, semi-derelict, stuck out in the middle of a 24-hour traffic overload — you make your own fun at the Foundry, and what makes it so cool is that is exactly what they let you get on and do, no interference, no art-lit-crit, no questions, no cares, nothing nicey-nice: sit inside or out, upstairs or downstairs, just take up the space and pay £3.40 for a pint of Stella as ordinary as it gets.

I always laugh at the sign on the wall which says ‘we know nothing about art, we’re a pub’. If there was no sign, you might not be sure — I mean, you might not be sure they know they’re a pub. There are always lots of chairs outside, though I don’t know where they come from. Inside, the seating is long past the accepted limits of collapse. There is one table, in a room to the side, a complete shambles of a place, looking like a long-forgotten storeroom, where you half expect to find some eon-ancient skeletal geek still playing Space Invaders on an Atari cursed with immortality.

The shows and performances at the Foundry are what hardcore Hoxtonaires know are the best and the worst on the manor. Sometimes it can take a while to figure out what is the art, what is the furniture, what is some pile of dust-encrusted jumble added by a long-gone bar manager in a ketamine-numbed attempt at ‘decor’, and what is actual rubbish waiting to be put out, and what is an editorial meeting of Vice magazine, which has its UK headquarters round the corner on Leonard Street.

My favourite London poetry night is Openned, a quarterly event held in the basement of the Foundry. It’s run by a group of friends with fairly mainstream London jobs. They get good readers and some right-out-there avant garde musicians. People whose post-tonic sounds are made with water pouring, or remote controlled cars, or things they found the night before in their mother’s kitchen. I think what really carries the night for me is that they are so right down deadweight earnest. You just wouldn’t dare chat or blow your nose or get up for a go to the lavatory during a performance. You just wouldn’t.

And now it’s all about to end.

The management of the Foundry always knew they didn’t stand a chance. It was not just the entrance on the scene of a mega-corporation and large amounts of money. It was the run of local politics. Hoxton and Shoredichhave changed out of all recognition since the Foundry first started making use of the lower floors of a building that is otherwise wasted. There is no taking time back. And, hopefully, there is no turning London into a museum in the style of Paris or Rome. The good die young, and that is what’s happening to the Foundry.

The new hotel, designed by Squire and Partners for the — I kid you not —Art’otel range of Park Plaza Hotels (the same people who bring you TGI Friday and Pick Up Stix) is everywhere acknowledged to be hideous and misplaced. The property will be owned by a 50/50 joint venture consisting of Park Plaza and Adersgate Investments, the property business of the Reubens brothers, through a vehicle called Aspirations, fronted by Motcombe Estates. If you are likely to suffer from ASS — aesthetic shock syndrome –  look away now. The picture below is of the proposed Art’otel Hoxton. If you really hate yourself, clickity click here to see more.

There is a significant split in the demographics of the two southern wards of Hackney, Hoxton and Haggerston, the latter containing the parish of Shoreditch. The majority of the people who live in the area are social grades C2 and under, living in the remnants of post-WWII council housing, with a preponderance of the ‘established white working class’. They are Pauls and Paulines, pitbull-touting chavs, Litte Britain re-directs, the oddest mix of endemically criminalised, asocial dis-integration and profound respectability.

They are a world away from those who work and play in the area, who are social grades C1 and above, the digital natives, the designers, musicians, publicity gurus, the swankers and groovers and poets and temporary bike-couriers who populate the bars and studios from the Foundry to Shoreditch House.

Just as their social grades predict, these two populations do not mix. They see each other. They know of and to some extent understand each other. But there is no actual integration at any level. The former do not frequent the Foundry and they are not members, they are not even staff, at Shoreditch House. The latter will not be found watching football in the Lion and Lamb on Aske Street — they will not know where Aske Street is, nor where or what is the Lion and Lamb. The former will frequent the Macbethand the Bacchus on Hoxton Street, the latter will be found a few yards away at the White Horse.

But the critical difference between these two populations, in political terms, is that the former have a vote and the latter do not. Let me clarify that just slightly — the former have a vote in Hackney and the latter have votes in other places, places whose politicians have no say whatever in the fate of the Foundry, or any other bar or club or place of licensed entertainment in the ward of Hoxton or the parish of Shoreditch.

Few Hackney councillors will do more than nod at assertions on the importance of cultural activity. They understand that it’s a good thing, but the benefits of the arts are notoriously difficult to define or predict, and even more difficult to politicise. It is nice to have live music, poetry, art, but what do you do with it when not one of the people who vote for you are either on the stage or in the audience? The question is even easier to answer if you are a councillor in Hackney, where the people who do vote for you are dealing with over-crowding, poor healthcare, unemployment, crime, struggling schools, addiction. I mean, is post-modernism so over or what?

The Foundry pays minimal rates, provides, at any one time, between 0 and 3 jobs to local residents and is of no social or cultural signifcance to Hackney voters. The new Art’otel Hoxton will pay maximum rates, provide scores of local jobs. It is unlikely to be used socially or culturally by Hackney voters, but its kitschie art galleries and screening room are a pay off to the cultural vitality for which Hoxton and Shoreditch are world famous.

And at this point, an effective political argument does arise. The Art’otel is a thoroughly parasitic entity. It feeds off the creative economy that the Foundry helped to establish and maintain. Before the Foundry, before the whole massive shambang of the East London Renaissance, when the entire cultural life of southern Hackney consisted of the Bass Clef Jazz Club and the deeply well-intentioned and totally dopey Lux Arts Cinema (both long subsumed into the Hoxton Bar and Kitchen), Hoxton and Shoreditch were grisly, oppressive, oppressed, the worst slums in Western Europe.

The Foundry itself may, in any direct or material terms, contribute next to nothing to the electors of Hoxton and Shoreditch. Its indirect contribution, in making the area an attractive location for the myriad of creative enterprises which have set up in the area over the past 15 years, is enormous, valuable — and quantifiable. If the politicians of Hackney want to lose the momentum of that regeneration, they have only to discount the views of the people who work and run businesses in the borough, and who travel from across London, from around the world, to spend their money in our cafes, restaurants, clubs and bars.

If you are reading this today, on 20 November 2009, you can make comments on the proposed development by clicking now, or contact the planning case officer –

Gillian Nicks

Planning Service
2 Hillman St
Hackney E8 1FB
020 8356 8350