A few doors down from Fortnum & Mason’s on London’s Piccadilly might seem like an odd place for a community centre offering free computer classes, tea dances, free legal advice and a charity shop. Someone just happening upon the place might find that it jars somewhat with its surroundings. Who would have thought that in such an upmarket area there were groups of people who had need of such facilities?
The community centre has not been opened by the council, however. There are rumours among the people who use it that a mystery benefactor is behind it. And indeed this is the case; although the centre’s staff are not eager to spread the information around, the centre is the creation of the Swiss artist Christoph Büchel.
However, for those visiting the centre as an art work rather than to use its facilities, it is disorientating to experience just how much the installation, which seamlessly occupies the entirety of the premises of the Hauser and Wirth gallery, is functioning as a fully-formed community centre, with large groups of mostly older people enjoying the facilities and making the space their own. There seems to be a general sentiment that it is a shame that a facility which is clearly both necessary and appreciated is not provided by local councils and that it will also close at the end of July.
The artwork, then, is not merely the flawless simulation of a community centre in the vein of, say Thomas Demand’s purposely sterile cardboard recreations of office environments. What is being produced, in fact, is an actual community.
This might be seen as a cynical gesture by the artist. After all, what will become of this community after the closure of the centre? There is after all no chance of a public institution offering to keep such a laudable project going after the end of July. The gallery obeys the needs of the international art market rather than any local community.
Perhaps one solution would be for a high-minded philanthropist to provide a similar space nearby for the recently-formed community to use. Or, perhaps the members of said community could somehow band together and create their own space, staffed by volunteers. It is unlikely however that either solution would be able to find or to afford a such an ideal location, right bang in the middle of some of the most lucrative real estate in the world. Also the people who use the centre come from diverse parts of London: Camden, Southwark, Chiswick and elsewhere. Where could they find a space which would serve their needs as a community, and how would they sustain it?
The centre, then, is haunted by the ghost of its own future absence, and of the inevitable dissolution of the community formed by those who use it. In it one hears an echo of a comment made by Slavoj Zizek a year or so ago, when he was asked about the identity of this ‘we’ he refers to when he talks about what ‘we’ must do in the face of the multiple crises that we face. Is such a political identity discernible today? His answer seems particularly perceptive now, in the light of the first few months of 2011, of Tahrir Square and Plaza del Sol and, closer to home, Stokes Croft. He said that the ‘we’ he refers to is a ghost from the future, a political subjectivity not yet formed. In Buchel’s installation we can see how this can happen. A space has been created in which a social identity, if not yet a political identity, has come into existence.
So is this then a version of the social centres which have sprung up around Europe in the last few years, such as the Rampart Centre in East London and the 56a infoshop down the road in Elephant & Castle? Büchel is clearly keen to draw this comparison, providing a meticulous recreation of an communal anarchist squat in the building’s loft, beyond the reach of the centre’s elderly clientele. I would say that something entirely different is on display downstairs. For one thing, the people using the centre are not doing so because they already share a political identity. In this case, their social need for a space to commune may, indeed will, give birth to an idea of themselves as a distinct group which needs to make specific demands of power (space, facilities, resources) if it is to go on existing. Although what this particular group needs cannot be provided by the market, it can be safely assumed that the centres users are not about to occupy the space.
Of course occupying premises on Piccaddilly in order to emphasise the primacy of social need over the demands of the market has a very recent historical resonance. The rich generally have no need of community centres proving free classes, meeting rooms, free legal advice and therapy sessions, tea dances and free tea and coffee. They have Fortnum and Mason’s.
In the basement of the community centre there is a door marked Private. Visitors to the exhibition, as opposed to users of the centre, are quietly encouraged to enter. It is an uncomfortable experience; an intimate space filled with the seemingly chaotic detritus – bedclothes, notebooks, piles of books and VHS videos – of an intensely private existence. It is an emphatically non-public space which conjures up the same feelings of being an intruder that Büchel worked with in his creation of a bizarre abandoned hotel/warehouse in Coppermill in 2006, with its piles of seemingly abandoned ethnographic mementos, rooms full of unmade beds, collections of dogeared pornographic magazines and rooms full of second-hand electrical appliances. That feeling of possibly intruding on a space which was not mine I also felt when I made my way upstairs to the floor where the tea dance was in full swing. To the left of the room is a cloakroom, which I felt distinctly disinclined to enter. A salutory experience, of course. Even in the context of what was for me a visit to a gallery, I was forced to recognise that I was not part of the community of users, that despite the absence of a sign explicitly warning me that I was not allowed to enter, an automatic sense of respect for the community prevented me from doing so.
The installation, if it can be so called, is destined to provoke a sense of unease in those who visit it purely as an object to be contemplated. It constitutes a lesson in the distinction between what is and can be shared, and what is private, and the need for respect for a community of which we are not part, and it also raises a series of difficult questions about how a sense of social belonging is created and how it can be sustained. The community centre can and should be visited, with respect for the users of the facilities, until the end of July, when it will, like so many treasured and desperately needed public and community institutions, be suddenly and heartbreakingly closed down in accordance with the wishes of the market.