No Breathing Space – V&A, Artwashing and the Theft of Robin Hood Gardens
The V&A claims to be ‘the world’s leading museum of art and design’. Its mission is ‘to enrich people’s lives’. As a ‘non-departmental public body of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’, it is part of the UK state. V&A’s Board of Trustees are appointed by the Prime Minister as is their director. The ‘arms-length’ institution is a government quango funded directly by UK taxpayers following priorities set by the DCMS. The government awarded the V&A over £40m in grant-in-aid in 2016/17. This figure does not include funding for large capital projects like V&A Dundee (funded using more than £25m of Scottish government resources as well as several other key funders) and V&A East – a new museum in Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London. So why would an arm of the British state want to painstakingly remove a piece of ex-council housing to put in its new museum in East London – once its finished floating a section to Italy and back for the Venice Architecture Biennale where the architectural, design and art world glitterati are (for the most part) fawning a façade from the under-demolition Robin Hood Gardens propped up on an expensive piece of specially commissioned scaffold? The answer is both complex and simple.
The ‘acquisition’ of a piece of Robin Hood Gardens caused outrage when it was first announced in November 2017. I accused V&A of artwashing the social cleansing and gentrification of Robin Hood Gardens then and I repeated this accusation again when the ‘artefact’ was exhibited in Venice last week. It was little surprise that activists in London and Venice coordinated protests against the exhibition of a chunk of the council estate at a prestigious international event during the opening event. V&A tried to claim the exhibition in Venice was about opening debate but then its director, ex-Labour MP Tristram Hunt, took to the press and social media to deny any role in artwashing and to call activist, protestors and researchers critiquing the institution’s actions as ‘keyboard warriors’ and ‘art-wash agitators’, effectively attempting to discredit any opposition to his grand plan.
The V&A has a history of colonialism and theft that stretches right back to its inception in 1852. Its name, of course, reflects those of its founders, Queen Victoria and Prince Albert. Earlier this year, the Duchess of Cambridge, Kate Middleton, became its first royal patron. Its vast collection represents Britain’s colonial past and its recent and current post-colonial endeavours. With the acquisition of a chunk of Robin Hood Gardens, the V&A – as part of the UK state – has began to perform the role of artwashing the internal colonialism of working-class communities. Internal colonialism happens when those in power exploit minority and marginalised people for economic gain. State institutions (like the V&A in this case) are used as a tool to suppress and manipulate the perceptions of both those facing oppression and the general public.
This is where artwashing comes in. Artwashing creates a veneer of social responsibility which disguises the oppression of marginal community members. There were numerous campaigns attempting to save Robin Hood Gardens but they were ultimately rejected when English Heritage (another state quango) refused to grant the ex-council estate listed status in 2009. The seeds of gentrification were sewn much earlier though. The estate was, like many others, subjected to years of under-investment and a lack of maintenance – commonly known as managed decline. It was ran down and decried by state and local government alike. As soon as English Heritage made their decision, Robin Hood Gardens was earmarked for demolition, becoming part of the Blackwall Reach luxury development project. The residents were decanted, dispossessed and displaced from their homes. This is accumulation by dispossession – effectively theft. The state and its agents (here the English Heritage and the V&A) create the conditions, the permissions for twenty-first century transnational robber barons (property developers, financiers, investors, banks, etc.) to steal once public land from those most in need.
The acquisition and exhibition of fragments of ‘architectural salvage’ from Robin Hood Gardens is clearly artwashing. It ‘museumifies’ and objectifies the lives, the stories, the memories, the spirits of working-class people and working-class communities as nothing more than an important ‘design object’. The message here is that it is ‘good’ to use taxpayers’ money to purchase, restore, store and exhibit a piece of ex-council housing but it is ‘bad’ to spend money on maintaining, rebuilding and building new council housing – even though it is desperately needed to help restore dignity to struggling working-class communities. To claim, as the V&A do, that the exhibitions will enable debate about the future of social housing, is misleading – part of its artwashing of social cleansing and gentrification. The V&A are part of the government and, like the government, they not only do not care about working-class people and communities, but they actively seek to use every possible means to mislead, suppress and oppress them. If they had their way, they would happily eradicate working-class suffering – not by providing a fair and equitable society that takes care of everyone and provides proper, long-term housing for those in need of it, but by systematically destroying it. Putting bits of someone’s home in a museum and in an international biennale is intentionally exploitative and degrading. Of course – and this is the sad reality of our disintegrating neoliberal culture – the wealthy will pay good money to gawp in awe at ‘poor people’s housing’; happily tramping on false reconstructions of council housing whilst quaffing champagne and checking their property portfolio investments. The V&A and their masters, the UK state, see no irony, feel no sense of loss; no grief. They have only Dollar signs in their eyes.
Artwashing is not only deceitful, it is also the precursor to dispossession – to the theft of our homes and lives. That is why we must bite the grabbing hands of state institutions like the V&A. By fetishising and commodifying part of Robin Hood Gardens, V&A are promoting ruin-porn and poverty tourism. The idea that everyone should have a home, regardless of their economic status, has been scraped away by capitalist greed. In its place is the art object, devoid of any context or meaning.
As they tighten their aesthetic grip, they strangle us, draining the very life from our communities in the name of economic gain. Hunt’s argument that it is better to save a piece of a doomed council estate than to see it ‘lost forever’ is a false one. It did nothing to support the campaign to save Robin Hood Gardens and decided to acquire a fragment of the building in May 2017 when it took on Liza Fior’s proposal, on behalf of muf art/architecture, which came at the end of a year-long residency exploring the museum’s relationship with East London.
But then why would it? V&A is an arm of the state – of the Tory government. The complicity of V&A (and therefore the state) in the social cleansing (and indeed ethnic cleansing) of East London is nothing short of a national disgrace.