Cheap & Plastique interviews London-based artist Laura Oldfield Ford for Issue 10.
See more of Laura’s work here.

C & P: In your artistic practice do you focus mainly on drawing and collage? What other materials find their way into your work?
Laura: I trained as a painter, I am currently working on series of large scale canvases about abandoned housing estates and militant cells operating from them. I am also collaborating with other artists on film and writing projects.
I don’t really compartmentalize my practice, it doesn’t make any sense for me to do that. The paintings, the billboards, the blog posts, they are all manifestations of the same force. They have different intensities and speeds and that’s why I move between different processes but I don’t privilege one over another.

C & P: Sometimes there is a wash of color overlaying your drawings (often a bright pink or fluorescent green mainly used for overwritten text or graffiti). What effect to you hope to achieve by adding these day-glo colors and text over your stark grey subject matter (depictions of a post-industrial landscape; crumbling tower blocks, deserted trash strewn streets, overgrown non-places)?
Laura: I use flashes of fluorescent colour in an attempt to articulate those fleeting moments of epiphany, those little rushes of euphoria that you encounter when you’re drifting in the city. I suppose it is the city filtered through a narcotic lens, those heightened moments, flashbacks from raves and punk gigs, all day drinking sessions in squatted pubs.
The translucent layers of paint also allude to the textures and surfaces of the architecture I’m walking through, the way concrete is weathered, marked by its inhabitants, the patina of decay and the possibility of rupture.
By building up layers with the paint I am also attempting to describe the city as palimpsest, of layers of writing, erasure, and overwriting.

C & P: Your work is very much about the state of affairs in London at the present time. Can you imagine making work about another place? Have you lived outside of London/the U.K.?
Laura: I am indelibly marked by London as it the city I have spent most time in but I also feel how it relates to other cities and explore these paths. I am about to embark on a six week residency in China and also Korea later in the year. I am interested in exile, in landscape as a mythologized, intense mental space. I lived in New York for a while, I had a studio in Hell’s Kitchen, which was a massively contested site at the time.

C & P: Do you feel that the London/Tottenham riots of August 2011 are just the beginning of a time of unrest in the city? Did the riots bring about any policy change? Or are things pretty much the same as they were before these events occurred?
Laura: I think those moments of incandescent rage were the signal of better times. Those currents of anger have always been there pulsating beneath the surface of the city, oscillating above it and through it like mobile phone signals. I was impatient for those channels to be activated and in August they were. I think this year we will see more intensive periods of fighting. I can visualize the flashpoints now, all we need is a couple of prolonged heat waves in June and July.

C & P: You relate your walks/drifts to Guy Debord and the S.I.’s idea of the dérive. Do you feel that people have become so pacified by the predictable and monotonous experiences of everyday life that they are not really living anymore?
Laura: I think less pacified, more exhausted. I genuinely believe the social terrain can shift very quickly. A few years ago when I started my zine, in 2005, my work was considered by some to be exotic, to be an amusing anomaly, massive social upheaval, strikes and economic crisis were deemed to belong to another era. I knew it would all happen again, I was willing it to happen, I knew people weren’t pacified to that extent, I knew it was all close to breaking. Now a lot of those same people find my work a lot less amusing since it has shifted into the terrain of documentary and reportage of the contemporary moment. A lot can happen when you’ve got so many people on the dole in a city seething with viciousness.
In the introduction to my book Savage Messiah, Mark Fisher talks about this, that if all our time is taken up trying to pay rent and mortgages it leaves us too wrecked to wander and drift and think, As Jon Savage points out in England’s Dreaming, ‘the London of punk was still a bombed-out city, full of chasms, caverns, spaces that could be temporarily occupied and squatted. Once those spaces are enclosed, practically all of the city’s energy is put into paying the mortgage or the rent. There’s no time to experiment, to journey without already knowing where you will end up. Your aims and objectives have to be stated up front. “Free time” becomes convalescence. You turn to what reassures you, what will most refresh you for the working day: the old familiar tunes (or what sound like them) on ITunes. London becomes a city of pinched-face drones plugged into iPods.’

C & P: When I moved to Bethnal Green (from Boston, Massachusetts) in 1999 my interest was immediately piqued by the council estates sprinkled throughout the East End / Tower Hamlets area. I had never seen such architecture in Boston, or in the US, for that matter. I was drawn to these massive housing projects, intrigued by their coldness and also slightly frightened by the sprawling nature of the structures and the strange, empty areas surrounding them. I would wander around the back streets of the East End daily, photographing and exploring all of the dilapidated sites. You also photograph while walking/drifting around certain parts of London and base your drawings on the images you collect from your wanders. What draws you to these neglected (and now changing) parts of the city? Do you aim to document the disappearance of these types of areas in the city?
Laura: Brutalist architecture has always fascinated me. I have always been enthralled by the dark theatricality of it, the levels and walkways, the networks of courtyards. I am enraptured by the moment when the modernist grid starts to unravel and succumbs to the labyrinth, those moments when planned uses of spaces are subverted, like when it kicked off on Broadwater Farm (in Tottenham) in 1985 where the aerial walkways were used for observation and aerial bombardment, and also the Crescents in Hulme in Manchester that were squatted and surrounded by the nomadic architectures of traveler sites.

C & P: When I was in the East End last summer I was shocked at how different Bethnal Green looked, one of the council estates that I walked by every day seemed like it was slated for demolition. My friend told me this was because of the Olympics coming to London in 2012. You address this redevelopment in your work. How do you see the East End changing in the future? Will the East End just be another area for the yuppies to sip fancy cocktails in their new luxury condos, displacing the artists and the middle class/poor people that have called that area their home for so long?
Laura: When I started the zine this was one of the biggest concerns to me, the class cleansing that was happening around the East End. I was directly affected by it when my own estate was evicted. Certain areas have had whole sections of the population forcibly ousted, parts of Dalston, Hackney and Bethnal Green have become massively gentrified and a lot of people have been forcibly ‘decanted’ to sink estates in places like Poplar and Edmonton. The scene you describe has already materialized. I am interested to see what the East End will look like in 2013 when we’re steeped in the second wave of a double dip recession, the collapse of the Eurozone, the backlash against the failed Olympics. A lot of people who bought into the idea of property investment and aspirational lifestyles are going to be defaulting on mortgages in hugely contested areas, these boroughs are riven by strife along multiple lines.

C & P: I read online that you once lived in Aylesbury Estate in Elephant and Castle, which is also under redevelopment at the current time, what was the experience of living there like? Were you squatting there or living in a legitimate space?
Laura: I was staying there for a year or so in someone else’s council flat. It was pretty grim then, (ten years ago) there wasn’t much happening around there unless you were into BNP pubs and African churches. Now it’s better because there has been a massive influx of Equadorians and Colombians and they have better bars and cafes.
I used to spend a lot of time walking from there to the bawdy drinking dens of Peckham and New Cross, that route across Burgess Park, along the ghost of the Surrey canal became suffused with a sense of excitement, the euphoria of escape from stifling misery, when I walk it now I still feel it.

C & P: In addition to making drawings you also produce a zine, Savage Messiah, and artwork for outdoor billboards (both which showcase your drawings). When you hang the billboard pieces throughout the city are you doing this illegally? Do you hang your work over paid adverts or do you choose disused billboards? Do you include any sort of tag on the work or is it anonymous (except to those that recognize your artwork)? Have you ever
been in trouble for vandalizing?
Laura: I like the immediacy of going out flyposting, it’s the best way of responding to shifting situations. With the more organized commissioned posters you have a certain luxury in the sense that the work is durational, it exists in the street for a certain amount of time. This means you can burrow into a place over time, be more subversive in the content, with the flyposters I like to be quite brutal and direct.

C & P: Could you tell me a bit about the WE ARE BAD collective? What role do you play in the organization of this group’s activities?
Laura: We are Bad doesn’t exist in that exact incarnation although the other members of the cell are still active and we do work together occasionally for certain projects. I do a radio show called Abject Bloc with them. I like working as a collective. I am currently collaborating with other people now on projects around the Diamond Jubilee, Olympics, and 2012 riots.

C & P: Tell me about your zine, Savage Messiah. How long have you been producing the zine and how many issues have you made? Do you produce and finance the zine yourself or do you receive artist grants to help you with production costs, etc…? How long have you had the Savage Messiah blog online? Is it a direct translation of what appears in the zine?
Laura: Savage Messiah started in 2005, I have made 13 issues so far. I have always made it on a very ad hoc basis, just photocopying them and distributing to whoever is close at hand. I like the fluidity and dynamism of zines, I thought of it as a current, operating outside the designated white cube zones. I thought of it as sending out a message in a bottle, that it would drift out on its own and who knows who might find it and how they might relate to it. I always trusted it would be an effective way of contributing to a critical milieu and allowing the right people to gravitate towards me. Now it is a book it has become something else, it operates on a totally different level. The blog has been going for a year, when it started I was posting fragments from the zine, writing, photos and drawings, now I post new writing, reports from recent dérives.

C & P: Have you always kept a written record of your thoughts about the situations you experience in daily life while living in London? Are the texts in the zine culled from personal experience, other people’s experiences, or a mix of both?
Laura: I write a journal, I usually spend an hour a day on it, sometimes more. This is important, it becomes the genesis of other trajectories, I always draw on memories of walks around the city. It’s not so much about a quest for authenticity in the work, that doesn’t really interest me, it’s more about having lacerating detail in the writing and a connection to those desires and anxieties that end up being hidden.
I also write up my dérives, these become fractured narratives, a conflation of detailed recollections and conjecture, the walk becomes a structure to weave desires and fictions.

C & P: What projects are you working on currently?
Laura: In April 2012 I have a residency in Shenzhen in China where I am making work for a sculpture Biennial. When I return to London I am doing a residency in Deptford, South London where I will be using a disused police station as a HQ for various activities. In September I am making work in Korea for the Gwangju Biennial, then in November I am in a show at Caja Madrid in Barcelona called Desire Paths with Francis Alys, Mark Ariel Waller, and Cyprien Galliard. I am making an intervention at Tate Britain in August, this will involve walking around Vauxhall and Pimlico and photocopying drift reports and flyposters.

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