Tom White

Peckham weekends

So I work in Peckham, at the really brilliant South London Gallery, and have done for over two years now. Before I starting worked here, I’d only traipsed down Peckham Road once before, and that was to the SLG ironically enough, to see Michael Landy’s Art Bin in 2010.

And so it’s been fascinating to witness Peckham’s evolution – or the increased visibility of its evolution – over the last couple of years towards fully fledged ‘art scene’.

The hipster epidemic (which could also be the gentrification epidemic and/or the cheap-rent-means-poor-artists epidemic) has been ably assisted by the summer institution Bold Tendencies. This an annual sculpture exhibition is held on the top two floors of the Peckham Multiplex carpark and comes replete with a Campari Bar and astonishingly good views of the city. I’m not sure how many people go to Bold Tendencies for the art alone - I’ve yet to see it really announce itself in this architectural, cultural context - and it always feels a little underwhelming; a little too reliant on the novelty value of its unique location.

Having said all that, I was there on Friday night, not for the art but to see a performance by the Melodions Steel Orchestra. They were there as part of the four-day Copeland Book Market, promoting Jeremy Deller’s English Magic catalogue from his British Pavilion exhibition at the Venice Biennale. The orchestra recorded the soundtrack to one of Deller’s video works in Venice, at Abbey Road no less, and it was without doubt a coup to have them perform in Peckham as part of the Book Market. It took the usual Bold Tendencies experience to a whole other level (which was impressive considering we were already on the top floor.)

The calypso versions of everything from the Beatles to Bowie via ABBA had everyone on their feet and it was so joyous – and the evening so unbelievably balmy – that even the half hour wait at the bar was tolerable. When London summer gets it right, it’s intoxicating.

I was back in Peckham yesterday for work but took the opportunity to experience artist Tom White’s off-site commission Public Address. White has been working with some of my colleagues in the education team, collaborating with children on the local estates to create a work in dialogue with the current main space exhibition exploring sound.

Over a series of workshops, White and the kids used digital and analogue recorders to document the sounds they generated through play and exploration. Think singing, running sticks along metal fences and just generally generating ‘noise’ using the immediate architectural surrounds of Southampton Way estate. The film documenting some of these recordings is anarchic and innocent and life-affirmingly loud. But Public Address had a whole lot of other subtleties and statements to make.

A series of loud speakers attached to a large fence facing one of the taller blocks on the estate, these booming speakers projected the children’s play onto and literally at the building. It was a surprisingly beautiful case of being heard but not seen and an almost poetic lament about the invisibility of children and their inability to play freely – and loudly – outside the conventional constraints of an urban environment that bans ball games and much else besides.

There was something defiant about these speakers, like David staring down Goliath without having any sense of the magnitude of who and what Goliath might be in this instance. It’s a remarkably elegant work – for one made entirely of children’s chatter and creative play – and I was surprised at how much it moved me. It only ran for four Saturdays through June and July so I should probably thank work for getting my weekend arse to Peckham and giving me the chance to see it.