We've begun work on a new commission for Abbey Gardens in Newham, right next to the Railway lines coming from Stratford Station & a short walk from the 2012 Olympic site. Due to the discovery of archaeological remains on the site (The Gatehouse of a Cistercian Abbey - St. Mary Stratford Langthorne, Essex) local developers can't include it in the massive regeneration programme happening all around this area. Along with the cottages opposite (Bakers Row) this little patch of land forms a kind of hole in the structure of a changing area. The site is very close to the allotments run by my friends Gordon & Louise, and on Sunday this week Gordon organised a walk in the local area which I went on.
I've known Gordon since our early days on the Internet and in the beginning he was one of the only people I knew with email, his on-line presence has remained a constant in the life of Somewhere but we rarely get to meet in person. Whenever we do its interesting though, and he often seems to be spookily in touch with lots of things we are thinking about or working on. This Sunday proved to be no exception.
I can't actually remember how the conversation began but Gordon started to talk about '*structural holes', making me laugh as I loved the term - in fact I often feel like I inhabit in a 'structural hole'. This walk was no exception, included in our little group were: Chris, of the great Newham Striders, Louise, who runs the allotments, & Lucy Harrison, an artist who I've never met but have read about due to her project on Canvey Island. We all walked to look at our Abbey Gardens site where Andreas joined us (who lives on Bakers Row but is also part of Public Works), by now I was feeling pretty pleased with the structural hole I'd found myself in on a snowy Sunday afternoon.
Just as I thought the 'linking in' couldn't get much better a white van pulled up and 'Dean' the driver started to question me about Abbey Gardens & what I knew of the site. To cut long story short he lives locally and has had his eye on the site for years, he runs the local flower stall in Stratford station, plus an out-of-town stables ... and what he really wants is to run a stable with pony & cart rides to the Olympic site from Abbey Gardens. As he was enthusiastically outlining his vision Andreas and I looked at each other in that way you do when these sort of project chance meetings occur - a sort of "is this a completely great idea/coincidence or is it just mad" look. Not wanting to stop the links flowing we all exchanged numbers: Lucy for her Stratford station project, Louise for a manure drop off from his stables to the allotments ... and me. What he really wanted to know from me was whether the site had ever been a stables in the past.
We continued our walk over the Greenway and into the current structural hole that is the Olympic site. I tried to work out where the lovely Manor Garden Allotment site would have been before the bull dozers moved in ... Chris and the others knew the site well, and could point out where familiar landmarks had previously stood.
At a recent conference about collaboration, I talked about Somewhere - Karen & I's now 12 year relationship. The chair wanted to know if there were aspects of collaboration I saw as negative. One of the few I could describe was actually what I also feel to be completely positive about working together - that we can afford to be in a 'structural hole'. Since there are two of us, we can in fact build our own little world and remain largely autonomous from art world structures most artists would perhaps have to engage with in a more sustained way. I have always felt that Somewhere spins in its own system and have been happy that way, others may see our lack of engagement with other structures as negative though.
In fact, I increasingly feel that artists generally but Somewhere specifically are asked to come into projects when a 'structural hole' develops that the existing organisations involved don't know how to fill. Abbey Gardens is just such a hole - there are lots of stake-holders, all with opinions, but maybe none with enough flexibility to move around in this hole and even invite other more tangential agents to drop in with them! I'm looking forward to it.
On the Monday I went to Newham archives and looked through old maps of the site. In 1916 the area immediately behind the site (now factories) had indeed been the "Corporation Stables for West Ham Boro.", so I guess I'll be calling Dean.
*"Ronald Burt describes the social structure theory of competition that has developed through the last two decades. The contrast between perfect competition and monopoly is replaced with a network model of competition. The basic element in this account is the structural hole: a gap between two individuals with complementary resources or information. When the two are connected through a third individual as entrepreneur, the gap is filled, creating important advantages for the entrepreneur. Competitive advantage is a matter of access to structural holes in relation to market transactions."
Thanks to Gordon for forwarding this description.