sign crime


SIGN CRIME

 
 

Around the time of Recent History we were invited to talk about our work at the Royal College of Art. We did not expect many to turn up as it was getting close to the end of the academic year, nevertheless we talked about collaboration and theoretical suicide. 1

We commented that whenever we’d been invited to visit an artist’s studio we would reply that the only advice we could give would be to “destroy all the work in your studio … work in public.” We then went on to talk about the re-use value of art and re-making Yves Klein’s Void as deconstruction rather than transcendence.

Either before or after the talk we were invited to meet with Gavin Turk to discuss his work which, as we recall, consisted of large-scale wooden display cabinets … of course, we told him to destroy his work. Some weeks later we went to the opening of the Royal College of Art degree shows. 2

 

Cave. Gavin Turk 1991

Cave. Gavin Turk 1991

Some five years later, we were involved in Reclaim the Streets and the next day, galvanised by the experience, we decided to clean up the buildings where we were living. Although owned by Camden Council, Gray’s Inn Buildings in the then cultural wasteland of Clerkenwell was a ‘short-life’ community. However, all attempts to foster any communal ethos always failed. This was for various reasons, but largely it was due to the destructive presence of the caretaker – a self-styled Stalinist ‘torch-bearer of revolutionary socialism’.

For the twenty years that we had lived there, we did our best to avoid him but occasionally he would corner us and, pointing his finger accusingly, would scream “Sooner or later … come the Revolution … we are going to find out whose side you are on!”

Although he had a flat in the Buildings he slept in the basement, every room of which he filled from floor to ceiling with all manner of discarded junk – from toys to traffic signs to toxic waste – and proudly proclaimed that he had given up washing, in protest against Margaret Thatcher becoming Prime Minister … over a decade before.

As a consequence, he stank, and the whole of the estate, on every staircase, outside of every door and including the flat roof; was littered with inflammable rubbish – mattresses, broken furniture, fridges, etc.

We set to work … and the caretaker set out to stop us. However, as the appearance of the buildings began to improve, to his dismay more and more residents began to join in the clean-up. Over the next few weeks we worked every day and filled more than a dozen skips with rubbish. Each night the caretaker could be seen hauling what he could back into the Buildings. We phoned the housing association (which had recently taken over ‘managing’ the property) and complained that the ‘caretaker was attempting prevent the community from cleaning up the estate.’ They did nothing.

One sunny morning, as we were sweeping and hosing down the courtyard where tables with vases of flowers had started to appear in place of broken bottles, the caretaker emerged from his basement yelling that he had had enough.

We also had had enough and decided that it was time to hose him down, along with the courtyard. “Time for a bath” we said, turning the hosepipe on him as he fled back down into his lair. Eventually the police removed him and warned the housing association not to allow him back on to the estate.

A few days later we celebrated by placing a memorial blue plaque on the wall above the entrance to the now emptied basement.

 

Blue Plaque, Gray's Inn Buildings

 

With both the caretaker and the rubbish gone, the atmosphere was transformed. However, on occasion, some of the methadone addicts who sat around the courtyard drinking all day, would get nostalgic for the past and the fractious quarrels created by the caretaker; so we decided to take down the plaque and move it into one of the basement rooms now used by the community.

One day shortly afterwards, there was a loud knock on our door and a voice called out excitedly “Quick, get your camera, the Mayoress of Camden is in the courtyard … come on down!”

It turned out that the Mayoress of Camden and the Mayor of Haringey were being driven to Islington and as they passed Gray’s Inn Buildings the Mayor of Haringey asked for the car to stop saying something like ‘Let me show you where I lived as a boy … I grew up here.’ They got out of the limousine and together with the driver were standing in the courtyard as we arrived.

He was talking nostalgically of days gone by and pointed out that the estate had been built for the “respectable” (employed) working class; that the gates were locked each evening at 10.00pm and that there used to be workshops in the basement.

We then invited them down to take a look around and as we entered the ‘community room’ we asked with a smile if they would pose for an ‘official’ commemorative photograph of their visit.

 

Mayoress of Camden, Gray's Inn Buildings

 

 

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