We interview artists JJ Chan and Sarah Howe about their contribution to Art Licks Issue 24 (2019), 'Low Rise'. Low Rise is a lived space at Medina House in Peckham, and its projects reach out to the Medina neighbours and community; creating space for conversations, collective activism, support and reliance.
Holly Willats, Art Licks: Your contribution Low Rise to Art Licks Issue 24 (2019) reflected on the project space you run from your flat at Medina House, Peckham. Could you describe the reasons for setting up the project, and how you decided on its parameters?
JJ Chan & Sarah Howe: Low Rise is a space for projects but it is not really a project space, as a project space implies that it is reserved for certain kinds of activities. Instead, it is a lived space constantly in conversation with the community it exists within. We set up Low Rise because we wanted to use Art Licks as a platform to operate at the edges of socially engaged practice, where things are still rowdy, rebellious, non linear, adaptable with no clear outcome, and not funded by institutions, developers or government initiatives.
Social practice has its roots in community activism and that is the only way that it can be. This is not community outreach: we are not artists reaching out to a community outside of us, but rather we are part of the community stretching out through the arts. What Art Licks affords us is a recognised platform within the arts that does not determine the parameters of the project, but that hands over power to the community. Low Rise relies on the community to exist, as much as it creates a community through which the parameters continue to be reestablished each year.
After the Grenfell Tower disaster, which happened three years ago last week, it became apparent the safety of many other blocks across the country were substandard, including ours. By the first Low Rise (October 2018), Medina House was the only remaining council block in Southwark that was still coated in flammable cladding. The lack of accountability from the government and local council increased our dependencies on one another, and the anger and sadness fuelled collective activism. The cladding has since been removed but is still left stacked up against the front of the building.
You have been a fantastic participant in the Art Licks Weekend festival, having taken part over the last two years with Low Rise. How do you feel the project has developed over this time?
In last year's iteration we hosted an artist to be a house guest in the lead up to the festival, and we hope to do this in the coming years. We did this in a bid to continue reaching outwards and continually shift the focus of what we do.
Each year we create a publication and hold a public event. The project remains a platform for collective social change. Earlier in the year, resident leaseholders were charged upwards of £40,000 each for block repairs, forcing some residents to relocate and others into significant debt. Collectively we are campaigning against these exclusionary and discriminatory practices, which often target former council Right-to-Buy tenants and first-time buyers.
In the face of adversity our community has become stronger and Low Rise has gained more of a presence within our community calendar. Residents have started to come up with their own ideas and we have met ever more people from the wider estate. As a community we are finding ways out of crisis that are sustainable and self-reliant.
Other estate residents are also running community initiatives; last week a food bank was set up in our tenants and residents’ association hall, opposite Peckham Rye Park. The organisers are doing an amazing job providing food and a hot meal delivery service for anyone affected by COVID-29, including students, furloughed workers and key workers. We hope this can last beyond the crisis and I have included the link to their JustGiving page here for anyone who is able to support us.
We asked Debby, our neighbour, this question too. Debby has contributed to Low Rise for the last two years and featured in both publications. The first iteration was dedicated to her late partner Alan, and their Dog Charlie. She said, “It’s nice to be part of a community that we have at Medina House, I feel I made good friends after losing Alan and Charlie, and I can turn to anyone here if I need anything.”
For the magazine, you presented items from the ledge. I really like the idea of this arrangement between residents—it perfectly sums up a communal nature and interdependence. Could you explain the process of the ledge for the reader, and how this appeared in your piece for the magazine?
The ledge is an informal arrangement. It's a place where people can leave objects that they don’t need anymore but could be used by someone else. There have been video games, toys, furniture, books, plates, bowls, lamps, and some more unusual finds.
When starting to think about the idea of interdependence we looked around the house and realised just how many things from the ledge we use in our daily lives. We began to imagine those objects that we had put out living new lives in other peoples homes.
The works in the magazine are a series of polaroid still lives, and glimpses of details of communal spaces; these images accompany the writing.
The text is very beautiful, which I assume is the voice of Medina House—the building that holds everything together, that feeds and nourishes. There is a melancholy to it though: "I am not what I used to be." Can you explain the two voices that appear through both the typed and written texts?
The two voices were written together as one text; there is the voice of the building that is then annotated by someone/thing who loves it. Both voices attend to the struggles the ageing body of the building has slowly come to accept, that are then stirred by the optimistic philosophy of the caring voice.
At the time it was written, there was a leak from the roof that came into our flat that we soon realised had also been affecting other flats. Coincidentally, we had been thinking about waterways as systems that connect us all. So this text reflects the mood of the building at that particular moment, as its water systems were malfunctioning, creating lines of flight between its floors.
Finally, how has life been at Medina House over the last few months? What do you feel the building would say now of this time?
Over the last few months in lockdown the body of Medina has continued to operate, even though all of its parts are separated. We now speak through closed windows, posted notes and whatsapp chats; sharing meals left on doorsteps and anonymous gifts of milk and chocolate. The building is witness to the silent struggles each household has faced, whilst granting us all protection.
We would like to thank all the residents at Medina House for being such good neighbours and collaborators.
Sarah Howe is an artist based in London. Through expanded portraiture and self-portraiture, Sarah reaches to sculpt and navigate heightened inner states, producing wide-ranging outputs, from photography, written prose to large scale multimedia installations. Recent exhibitions include ON EDGE: Science Gallery, London 2019; and Present Tense, Materia Gallery, Rome, 2019.
JJ Chan is an artist based in London. Their work draws from lived experience and stories stolen from eavesdropped conversations on the train and at the bus stop to explore borders of fictions and realities. Their work has been exhibited across the United Kingdom and in Europe. JJ currently teaches at The University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, UK.