Lifeisland, Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park
Standing on the new Knights Bridge in the Olympic Park looking north. The bulldozers are still at work and the earth is exposed. A few years ago I would have been right there. On old community gardens, the Manor Garden allotments, which would have been stretching south along the river. We have gone from sleepy vegetable plots and allotment sheds made from throwaway doors and disjointed windows to a virgin landscape in which everything looks to have dropped freefall in space. Which would be perfectly true because in reality then I would have been standing on a pile of rubbish - buried glass, animal bones, industrial tipping and German bomb rubble. According to Atkins Engineering who were responsible for the clearup, waste material had raised the ground level by 'as much as 10 meters in some places' amongst them the 'Hackney Fridge Mountain, by itself a towering 20-foot heap of castaway appliances'.
This then is the location of the second of my parks, Lifeisland. The term Lifeisland came out of a brainstorming session for a campaign name for the Manor Garden allotments once they came under threat from Olympic Development Agency in 2006. The meetings were at our studios by Broadway Market. The campaigning web site lifeisland.org emerged from that. Arguably most campaigns against the London Olympics were too narrow in the demographics of participation to be effective as political counterpoint to the Olympic machine and its 'greater good'. But the question of how we remember the dislocation of living and working communities that the Olympic project entailed doesn't go away. It lurks on the borders. It may not be an exercise for all to be involved in but for anyone interested in social memory, an ecology of culture, it becomes an important one.
And Lifeisland is central to this exercise as the allotments are entitled to a 'Right of Return' to the original site. For all its travails, Lifeisland is the bearer of memory, of a different conception of the landscape. At the heart of it is space to do your own thing, make your own life, earn your own livelihood. It enabled a culture of independence, the East End way of doing things. An irreverence, which grew out of the rubbish and on this particular patch perhaps always lived on borrowed time as Pedronicus put it:
I used to work in Carpenters Road for 13 years when the area was a shit-hole.
It was a shit-hole because the area was always earmarked for development or compulsory purchase. It was to be flattened for the 2002 Commonwealth Games and the Channel Tunnel high speed link route was always planned to go through it. No business owner was going to spend any money on premises when a nice payday was around the corner. What this shit-hole did give was jobs. Proper jobs. Jobs where you got your hands dirty and took something of little value and sold it on for a profit.
A picture doesn’t tell the whole story. That picture of the wrecked cars in Marshgate Lane was a shot of a road that had car breakers down the whole of its length. Blokes covered from head to toe in black engine oil but with a nice big roll of banknotes in their pocket with a rubber band round it.
Not clever blokes, but grafters earning a decent wedge.
The Olympic clearup was a doing-away with a way of life. But unlike the dirt, it's mighty hard to shift; there were just too many who drew their living here but now that's all in thin air.
Just as Westfield Gardens explored in the last post flows out of Westfield shopping centre and looks East, Lifeisland is an extension of the Hackney marshes, it unites the park with life on the marshes. The river Lea flows as one through them and brings with it with all of the teeming life on the Lea - all the dimensions of life that Westfield Gardens seeks to dissociate itself from.
Indeed as a park Lifeisland has no understanding of Westfield Gardens any more than Westfield Gardens understands Lifeisland. Whilst Westfield Gardens is borne out of global exchange and universal consumer values, Lifeisland is a paradigm space for different forms of collectivities ill at ease with such forms of socialisation. Iain Sinclair is quoted on lifeisland.org saying, ‘We don’t want it imagining for us. We don’t want it overimagining. We want to imagine it for ourselves.’
And it is not only that imagining for ourselves means both just that and conflicting things but that the imagined is now also the critical thing that connects; in the networked world of global scapes, reality may not do that for us any more.
So it's no longer a matter of picking up the pitchfork and shovel and growing vegetables on Millrace Meadow or sitting down to enjoy Hassan's olive bread with fresh herbs as we did at this very place back in 2006. Not only has the landscape changed but all the social and historical entanglements that surrounded it; the imagination of the ground has changed. The ground is no longer there to support such self-produced social intimacies and that's the big shift. If indeed the ground has sunk, it's nonetheless there to support a new set of social interactions and interrelations.
But in this scheme of things, just as the park needs Westfield Gardens it needs Lifeisland even more so. Without the return of realities it has exorcised, the park would be handicapped by its own making, afraid that it cannot carry the weight of historical rights re-asserting themselves in the park. The more it understands this, the more it markets the community as its legacy, 'Villages' in a new London postcode E20, affordable housing which exercise and stretch the meaning of 'affordable' as with the soon-to-open athletes village, now called East Village.
'Built to become part of the fabric of London, East Village will be a lasting reminder of the joy, dedication, and sense of community first brought about in this space.' But in reality other imperatives precede the construction of community and they always prevail with predictable outcomes as the fabric has to be sold off to overseas investment finance. The pattern is all too predictable now as the park becomes a mechanism to naturalise a model of community construction. On its completion, it requires community to fill and animate its reality.
How would Lifeisland as a part of the park fit in with this?
In Lifeisland an imagination with a different structure of addressing social needs takes shape in this virgin clearing. Lifeisland is built on an economic foundation based on land: life is land. Unlike the other villages in the Olympic park, on Lifeisland land rights in the Olympic park are secured in perpetuity for the public good and self-owned through community trusts; its an enclave in the park with a different economic model which is allowed to evolve and grow. Lifeisland as land has an economic weight which acts as a brake on a frictionless monetary financescape where everything is subject to competition though the predictable few can determine the outcomes - as at other new model projects with the same pool of financial actors.
Inevitably landscapes are products of contests marked by calculations about power, which are as disabling of possibilities as enabling. The way the waters of Lea have run has been manipulated to serve political ends since the time King Alfred diverted it in order to strand the invading Norsemen in the 9th century. A bridge at the edge of Hackney Marsh symbolically marks the old border between different value systems; the pagan Scandinavians and the Christian Anglo-Saxons. We have such borders in this park though in the present networked age, the battle-lines are on different planes with actors who barely know of each other. The political contests on the scapes of global modernity are not continuous, they no longer 'face' each other. 'It is this fertile ground of deterritorialization, in which money, commodities, and persons are involved in ceaselessly chasing each other around the world, that the mediascapes and ideoscapes of the modern world find their fractured and fragmented counterpart', says the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai.
Thus the vast gymnastic landscapes these global processes contrive to produce are experienced by ordinary people in their remaking of pieces, each in their own imagination, their finding of the fractured and fragmented counterpart. The ordinary, at the last, is given both the burden and the freedom of returning life to these processes.
Thankfully Lifeisland is a paradigm space that plays a different game in the Olympic park and provides its resources on a different basis. Thus Manor Garden allotments return to meet the challenges of a new environment and slowly re-create themselves. Using the waterways Lifeisland becomes a different kind of village. Here the boaters from the Lea flow in across the yellow security booms that socially segregate the waterways in other parts of the park. The boating community tend the waterways. A new reciprocal community of allotment growers, narrowboat dwellers evolve over time along the banks of Lifeisland; they connect with the Timber Lodge and i-City technology centre in other parts of the Olympic park. New articulations of landscape emerge; this is not the Lifeisland of old but Lifeisland borne anew. Leisure and livelihood come together to create new paradigms for financing homes and shared spaces. Another kind of park in the 21st century with its unique structure grows, not through marketing culture but ground up in clean fresh soil. All thanks to the taxpayer's sacrifice for the 2012 London Olympics.