Thursday, 5 May 2011

Me & Muf in Dalston

Liza Fiore of Muf came to visit the PhD seminar yesterday, to tell us about their work in Dalston. Their project(s) are a response to the Dalston masterplan by Matrix , which was, according to Matrix' website, commissioned by the Borough Council to 'serve as a basis for planning and investment decision making'. Muf's reaction to the bread sweeping moves of the masterplan was a much finer grain of response, developed gradually in a reciprocal process, with interested (and disinterested) Dalston stakeholders. Through a process of mapping, conversations and workshops, they generated topics (eg. that there is no green space within 500m of Dalston junction) which because concrete proposals. These proposals exposed points of conflict amongst the stakeholders, encouraging greater participation as relationships of trust developed between they and Muf.

This process clarifies a problem of imbalance of scale and power amongst interest groups, which is ubiquitous in our social and economic system. A masterplan is so huge, so all-controlling (this essence is even contained within the word 'master' plan), that only a very powerful group could ever begin to hope to fight against it. This results in no response from small stakeholder groups - after all, why try and move a mountain? Liza made this point very saliently; millions were spent at Daslton Square to barely a peep of resistance, yet hours and great anger are spent discussing how ten thousand pounds should be spent in one of Muf's micro-projects. The masterplan is also very vague, in complete opposition to the spatial and formal specificity of one of Muf's works. Again, this creates a conflict in a way that a masterplan can never do, because people have something solid which stimulates opinions and emotions. Maybe a parallel could be drawn with the way that charities campaign - they always focus on the narrative of one suffering individual; rather than on an intangible notion of thousands of people suffering, which is impossible to imagine and therefore easy to dismiss - either as irrelevant to our own lives, or impossible to change, because it is so huge.

The point here is that the work that Muf does, indeed all participatory projects, are a distraction from the real source of power and control. Individuals are alienated from the grand scale process of city-making, but given access to decisions about relatively paltry sums, on a very small scale. I think in the present context it is undoubtedly better to have people like Muf slaving away to improve soulless, placeless masterplans, but there is something very fundamental wrong with the system that this is all we can offer.

The work also brings to mind questions about how the personal attributes of the researcher and their social position influences the research (or architecture, or place making, or whatever it is that Muf are doing). This principle applies to the type of place or project a collective like Muf chooses to respond to - Dalston, and latterly Hackney Wick. These are both places colonised by artists; with edgy bars and all the trappings of the moments before a thorough and complete gentrification. I suspect there is a reciprocity between the involvement of a group like Muf, and the gentrification process. There are other places (lots) and other masterplans, which are just as bad, and just as desperate for advocates to try and ameliorate their effects. There is an ethical judgement made in choosing such places, above others. The fact that these particular ones are the ones which are attracting the focus of all this time and effort, I would suggest, is worth questioning and worth further discussion.

. . . . Which is not to say that I am not enmeshed in the economic process of gentrification and change as deeply as anyone. My husband and I have just bought a flat in Dalston, just around the corner from the new 'cultural quarter'. Before too long we will be sipping lattes, riding fixies and sporting our curious glasses along with the rest of them; helping along the process of wealth polarisation, and making money as our flat rises in value, pricing out the people who have lived in Dalston for generations.

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