A timelier subject for an exhibition than our current housing crisis would be hard to imagine. This bold show starts a conversation on this fundamental problem symptomatic of much wider social inequalities in the UK. Britain’s housing market is notoriously dysfunctional. In the past twenty years UK house prices have more than doubled in relation to earnings and private sector rents have soared. The commodification of houses played a crucial role in the 2008 global financial crisis. The survivors and bereaved families of Grenfell are still seeking justice. This exhibition, divided into four chapters, looks at the political nature of where we find shelter on a micro and a macro level and provokes often uncomfortable thoughts.
A large room titled The Housing Question contains a wealth of material relating to housing throughout the twentieth century, with featured case studies and archival material. It is titled after Friedrich Engels’s study The Housing Question (1872-73) and the space is punctuated with red and white panels containing short excerpts from the text. Horrifyingly, they could be describing the situation today, 150 years later: The housing shortage from which workers and part of the petty bourgeoisie suffer in our modern big cities is one of the numerous secondary evils which result from the present-day capitalist mode of production.
He describes workers forced to live on the outskirts of cities as suitable dwellings are rare, expensive or unobtainable; landlords driven solely by profit, the state siding with the ‘possessing classes’. Engels even predicts Thatcher’s selling off of council houses: The cleverest leaders of the ruling class have always directed their efforts towards increasing the number of small property owners in order to build an army for themselves against the proletariat. Engels does suggest expropriating luxury houses to shelter workers trapped in crowded conditions but goes on to argue that the housing question cannot be solved in isolation but requires the total abolition of the capitalist mode of production.
It was Engels who coined the term ‘social murder’ in The Condition of the Working Class in England (1845) to describe the early deaths of working class communities forced to live in unsafe dwellings. Engels wrote this book on the appalling conditions he encountered in Manchester, which led him to co-author the Communist Manifesto three years later with Karl Marx. In The Housing Question Today (2017), a newly commissioned essay hung on the wall, Stuart Hodkinson looks at our times through the lens of Engels. Hodkinson describes buying a house as a fantasy for more and more people. Meanwhile, the privatisation of public housing means “Generation Rent” must struggle in the barely regulated private rental sector and established communities are displaced by gentrification.
As an overthrow of the current order looks unlikely, Hodkinson calls for ordinary people to build a social movement to defend and expand the right to secure decent, affordable and safe housing for all; to resist the further marketisation of social rented housing. He calls for the creation of new collectivist spaces of shelter, ‘the housing commons’ by requisitioning empty homes, regulating private landlords and creating new housing cooperatives.
The collective Freee present Postlandlordism (2017), a set of four football scarves you can wear and take a selfie in. You can select you preferred slogan from these: NO LANDLORDS! NO RENT! / HOMES NOT PROPERTY / ALL HOUSING IS SOCIAL / THERE IS NO HOUSING SHORTAGE, ONLY THE MONOPOLY OF PROPERTY. A nearby display of Stephan Willats’ photo-diagram series Sorting Out Other People’s Lives (1978) reminds us that conversations around social housing have been happening for decades. This work documents a woman living in a council estate in East London active in community organisations that improve conditions, by providing children’s play areas for example. Books and information panels introduce a plethora of radical approaches to urban architecture from around the globe, from the celebrated Le Corbusier to the less familiar Shack Dwellers of South Africa.
Next door in a smaller room titled Untitled City Plan vitrines of material from Teesside Archives relating to Middlesbrough housing developments are interspersed with artworks. One is a video by artist duo Sam Levack & Jennifer Lewandowski Peace Flags 4 Chaos (2017), a hallucinogenic journey from the hermetically sealed office blocks of Docklands to rural Somerset and the Glastonbury festival on the eve of the solstice. The fantasy of a rural idyll is denied however, as the artists instead ask unsettling questions about current divisions in England.
At the heart of the exhibition, a note of optimism is sounded in a room devoted to Assemble’s Granby Workshop, First Collection: Products and Process. This pivotal work was acquired by the museum in 2016/17 with support from the Contemporary Art Society’s Omega Fund. Assemble, founded in 2010, are a collective of 18 architects, designers and artists and won the Turner Prize in 2015. With local residents, they set up Granby Workshop, a social enterprise in Toxteth, South Liverpool, an area that has faced dereliction and is most remembered for the riots of 1981. The scheme offers the participants new skills and an income, with profits going back to support creativity in the community.
The workshop designs and produces items that use materials from the local area. Granby’s philosophy is to use simple, experimental methods that incorporate chance and improvisation. Objects should appear obviously homemade; every piece is different. On view are prototypes: striking block printed fabric in indigo, an elegant fireplace made of concrete impregnated with pieces of salvaged brick, tiles and slate and Mersey grit, ceramic tiles with decal paper inserts and door knobs made of ‘sawdust’ ceramics. Granby is an inspiring model of a ground-up regeneration project and an example of arte útil, whose philosophy the museum practices.
Under the banner A Room of One’s Own the final room is a showcase for a range of furniture and domestic furnishings created by artists and collectives. They celebrate the importance of our domestic surroundings to our wellbeing. The legacy of William Morris and the Arts and Craft movement is writ large, but there are also cheeky references to Minimalism. Emily Hesse uses clay from the nearby River Tees to parody Carl Andre’s brick sculptures, while Matt Calderwood makes a series of lamps from kitchen utensils and Tupperware, as well as chairs from estate agents signs. Bloomsbury also gets a name check in Kate Hawkins’ beautiful wallpaper that pays homage to Charleston with its frolicking nude figures.
This exhibition, which mixes fascinating archival material with aesthetic objects and innovative strategies is typical of the museum. Part of Teeside University, it works hard to fulfil its stated mission as a ‘useful museum’, a museum with a social function, responsive to the needs of its audience. Under the directorship of Alistair Hudson, who will be moving to direct the Whitworth in Manchester in the New Year, and programming by senior curators Miguel Amado and Elinor Morgan, the museum uses art as a tool to cultivate civic engagement and to develop alternative strategies of regeneration.
Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, Centre Square, Middlesbrough, TS1 2AZ. Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday 10.00 – 16.30, Thursday 10.00 – 19.00, Sunday 12.00 – 16.00. Exhibition continues until 18 February 2018. www.visitmima.com