I recently wrote an article about artist-run festival Hackney Wicked published in this Hackney-Wick based newspaper ‘The Wick’.
Festival giant Glasto has been called off this year as the 2012 Olympics have reportedly nicked their cops and loos, but we’re more concerned about cancellations closer to home, such as Hackney Wick’s very own street n studio festie Hackney WickED. Looking across the canal at the military-scale preparations, from the windows of Elevator Gallery, one can’t help but assume that five-year-old Hackney WickED was also wiped off the table as a direct result of the games.
The art, party and performance surrounding the community-run Hackney WickED has become renowned and much loved for it’s unpredictability, drawing tens of thousands to the industrial creative quarter every year, never quite knowing what to expect. Over the years we have been treated to many a weird ‘n’ wonderful spectacle – a punk choir, a floating forest, a coracle regatta and the burning of a wicker chicken -always polished off with a labyrinth of all night ware-parties. As Savage Messiah zine creator and Hackney WickED participating artist Laura Oldfield Ford tells us “There’s nights out, and there are nights out!”
But, for all its random glory the scenes surrounding last years festival appeared to go from spontaneous to spontaneous combustion. Hackney WickED 2011 was especially hot and especially wild. I remember getting off the train around 3pm to find a solar-powered crowd stalking a mobile sound system around the baking streets, like the pied piper of Hackney. By the evening the numbers had grown and the feverish masses eventually ground to a halt just under the railway bridge around 11pm where they proceeded to rave.
I remember a passer-by filming the whole scene on her phone, and laughing it off as ‘an-art-chy.’ However, when we read, on a daily basis, the drastic measures to ensure the Olympics are kept as dissent-free as possible, it comes as little surprise that the authorities are not keen to have such spectacles on the doorstep of the games. Yet perhaps the right support and funding could ensure colourful and much loved community projects like Hackney WickED aren’t stamped out in favour of a mainstream one-off. This apparent void of support for the event appears all the more baffling given the Cultural Olympiad (a giant creative platform for artists and community projects sponsored by the likes of the National Lottery and Arts Council UK) whose website boasts ‘is the largest cultural celebration in the history of the modern Olympic and Paralympic Movements.’ A culmination of these funded projects will then make up the London 2012 festival which will take place across the city during the games period. Artistic movements from across the country have been granted sponsorship to bring their projects to the event, so how has an exciting and local artist-run festival like Hackney WickED slipped the net?
Laura May Lewis, co-founder and organiser sheds some light: “Although the organisers of Hackney WickED would have liked to continue the festival in its 5th year, attracting an international audience of around 45,000 people over three days in 2011, the festival was brimming at the seams and moving forward it was clear that it would require a serious funder to be able to build the infrastructure to safely manage the crowds expected for 2012. The festival was also met by opposition from local councils and the police. It was made clear that during the London 2012 Games it would not be possible for Hackney WickED to obtain the necessary TEN licenses which were required to run the festival; and should we wish to continue it was necessary to build the necessary infrastructure and security provision, to the cost of around £100,000.”
“Having applied for funding from the Arts Council, Create and various bodies, we were unsuccessful in gaining the financial support required” Laura May continues. “Likewise, on an in-kind basis, the Arts Council and Local Councils have not, and seem reluctant to, find the infrastructure (management and production) to support the development of the festival properly. It is unfortunate that grassroots events such as Hackney WickED have not been supported as part of the Cultural Olympiad and in contrast prevented from taking place, especially when infrastructure has been provided for similar large-scale events and festivals in the area.”
This is all very depressing news but Elevator Gallery curator and Hackney WickED co-director Simon Reuben White has some good news for us. “Hackney WickED is going ahead but in a different way” Simon reassures us. “We have broken down the key elements of the festival and spread it across the year in little chunks, we’ve already had an evening of artist films and performance this year at the recently opened ‘Sugarhouse Studios’ in Stratford to kick off the year.”
Laura May Lewis agrees. “Rather than be bitter, the people behind Hackney WickED prefer to move forward in a positive light and continue to do what we do best, support and celebrate local art and artists. The choice therefore was made to proactively develop Hackney WickED by running a year-long programme of events representing the festival (art exhibitions, open studios, film, music, development) to continue to support and promote local artists and to show our commitment to developing the international reputation of the area. We hope the film festival in October and open studios in December will have the vibrancy of the festival whilst being a lot more focused and therefore of a higher standard. Likewise the Hackney WickED curated shows aim to highlight the talent we house in the Wick. We hope that our focus on improving standards within the elements of Hackney WickED this year, will enable us to bring the festival back in the future with all its grass roots dynamism but with a deeper level of commitment to the artists involved plus a serious reputation from funders. A year out might be just the thing the festival needs to not get too big that it has to lose its integrity.”
“It’s true to say that we have had to break it down like this as Hackney Council and the Police did not want the festival happening at the same time as the Olympics, or rather they stipulated such rigorous limitations it made it impossible to run the festival as we have done before,” says Simon. “A community run arts festival that’s been four years in the making, so much for the Cultural Olympiad!”
Over these past four years, Simon and Laura May, along with several other artists and studio owners have taken the festival a long way. It all started in 2008 when local artists and gallerists rustled up the idea over some cider in the back garden of artist and curator Ingrid Z’s Residence Gallery. “A bunch of people interested in art got together and BOOM,” recalls Laura May “A lot has changed since then. 2008 was sheer chao, we built a stage from scavenged creates, using a ping-pong table with a sheet draped over as the back drop. We were just gathering junk at the last minute because the boat we had organised to host the stage couldn’t dock as the canal was too shallow. The heavens opened and we took cover in an artist studio, and the bands just played there.”
By 2011 Hackney WickED had evolved into a large-scale tightly organised event, spanning the distance from Oslo House, home to the famous Hollywood style Hackney Wick sign right down to the cluster of the old Percy Dalton peanut factory warehouses on Fish Island. The Open Studios element of the festival, whereby resident artists open their doors to the public, consisted of 17 buildings and featured hundreds of artists and designers. Artists Fantich & Young’s new work went down a storm at the 2010 opening of their studio when they unveiled a new work ‘Double Games, Red in Tooth and Claw’ – a razor blade gym, featuring vintage gymnasium apparatus covered in over 300,000 razor blades! Over the years the coordination of Open Studios has allowed the public to explore the industrial maze, and check out the hidden but thriving artistic community. Another popular component of Hackney Wicked has been ‘Fete for the Wicked,’ which hosts artist run stalls offering up everything from art and zines to shoes n shots. The underground art-world’s most loved bands have graced the stage here, which by 2011 was a far cry from a ping pong table and a couple of crates. Hackney Wicked has also grown in its fame and by last year it was the most tweeted event in Europe.
The festival has not only been a great way of supporting artists, but is also serves the community well. The queues outside the local shops, kebab house and pubs in the ordinarily desolate wick often wind down the road during the three days the event takes place. As Laura May tells us ‘Hackney WickED is about the spaces and the people here connecting, the festival is an opportunity to celebrate what we have. It is also very good for local businesses’.
Just as importantly, Jack Maltby, Hackney Wick resident and front man of punk-step band Nova (who even have a song called ‘Hackney Wick’) tells me how the festival is helping the area keep its blunting edge. “Having been a local for over two decades, I can tell you this: Hackney Wick, once a beloved asylum of misfits, runaways and creatives, is nowadays slithering down the slippery slope of gentrification stagnation. Little uproars like Hackney Wicked give the community some much needed traction.”