IMPLANTED GEOGRAPHIES - by mattias malk
Since the beginning the docks have mediated between London and the rest of the world, being deeply tied to the powers of global capital, but at the same time generating distinct local identities in a very short span of time. In relation to the city, the docks are interlaced with dichotomies of inclusion and exclusion, local and global as well as memory against continual regeneration. The inescapable role of capital in forming the space can be witnessed in various developments, such as the ExCel centre, City Airport and the overall impact of the Olympics on the area as well as newly built gated commuter homes that dot the landscape in close proximity of the DLR and new Crossrail stations.
My very first perception was to think of the remaining industry as foreign, not belonging to the city, as temporary. These sites are noisy, often smell and are separated from their surroundings by fences, gates and signs. In their contrast to more homogeneous environments, they invite attention. It soon became apparent how deeply manufacture and industry actually permeate the fabric of the space, both historically and in the present.
The Docklands have connected the regional and local to the global 'outside' since their beginning, as the marine gateway to London. Within a few centuries, they became the largest port in the world and ultimately became redundant within only a few decades. Although the docks are no longer used for their original purpose, the area is still defined by connectivity to the 'outside'. Although some industry remains along the riverside, the main asset of the Royal Docks is to the development of the Thames Gateway and as a space for further connectivity to the CBD as well as business centres elsewhere in Europe. There is a noticeable emphasis on infrastructural renewal as catalyst for redeveloping and shaping the perception of the area.
In places that are still in industrial use the road layout is focused on enabling access for large vehicles and as such are inhospitable to pedestrians. They still make up much of the immediate riverside, but are increasingly slotted between housing and recreational development. These are exclusionary spaces to the point that they attempt to be completely removed from perception; hidden behind fencing, yet still very present. Therefore walls and borders define the lived space and are important in understanding the ways the docks have been appropriated since the 1980s.
In a similar way, the new rail systems and housing draw borders of their own, especially in the immediate vicinity of the stations. The DLR creates small hubs of commuter housing development and shapes the perception of the Docklands, especially for people who do not live in the area, such as those visiting the ExCel centre, City Airport or University of East London. The railway passes, at points, literally over the existing infrastructure. In this sense it is less obtrusive than if it had demolished the structures in the way, but it results in a visual contrast of the stagnant old in the way of new mobility and its inherent promise. It also complicates the way these new improvements could be understood from the point of view of those the tracks pass directly over or in contrast too far to benefit from.
Consequently infrastructural renewal has created new ways of inclusion as well as exclusion. Transport links have made new development viable and integrated the area into the urban fabric. But as a result the population is being reconstituted, as 'yuppies' move into the previously workingclass area, giving rise to various claims of authenticity. The process to retain a certain identity, both local and national, can be seen in displays of signs and symbols in the fronts of houses and estates, especially in the already established neighbourhoods.
These visual implants both serve romanticised concepts, of past and future, and as such represent the 'dual' aspect of city space in the midst of a class-based struggle. By looking at the final sequence of images, a set of conversations emerge, played out using various signs and methods. Often the topics of these visual-as-statement findings overlap, as in the case of 'You need to see it to believe it'and 'The hammers'. Both seemingly about football, one advertises the commercial aspect of a global game and the other is deeply tied to the history of the Docks (West Ham United was originally formed from the workers of the Thames Ironworks shipbuilding company). These are one-way conversations; signs suspended in space open to interpretation, but not facilitating response. Two sets of ideals and criteria for assessing success in the Docklands, they mediate identity, but only in a very broad sense of the word.
As I moved through the space, more subtle signs began to emerge. These could be infinitesimal, in the form of flyers for UKIP, empty billboards and graffiti, or contrastingly realisation on a much larger scale, as with the role and problematic nature of the City Airport. Where the docks were the original implant on the marshes, literally cutting out slices of the landscape, the airport does the same to the dock itself. This is a process of rapid super-implantation, where the implant, surrounded by a 'moat', creates increasingly close polar opposition (see MacRury, 2008). Yet in order to avoid reactionary and simplistic interpretation of the space, it is helpful to refer to and include archive imagery along my own photographs.
The archive expands on the various identities and realities the docks have taken on. Although these images are also subjective and have their own sets of hierarchies (see Foucault, 1972; Pink, 2001), they serve to extend the 'sociological imagination' and contribute to the interpretative narrative. It becomes clear, that the global has always played an important role in defining the Docklands, where the latest shift is only one of many. The archival images also open up a parallel with the archive of the city-space itself, where an implant lays over an old structure (see 'Petrol station') or placebranding (ab-)uses historicity.
The series ends on a fittingly summary triptych: a girl greasing pie dishes followed by a solitary building and finally a gate, as the last standing witness of a once bustling factory. The girl provides the closest contact with a person in the series, while, simultaneously, the identity she embodies is slipping further out of sight. The D building in its deeply specialised function-derivative form still stands, undecided if the D marks demolition or redesign. And finally, the gate, appropriately closed and evaded by the footpath, still proudly displays the name of the shipbuilders it once corralled. Its psychological and visual effect, though, is much more than nostalgic. Although only a slice of a past reality, it psychologically extends to create imagined factories, narratives of identity and the ongoing global aspirations and anxieties of a nation as well as those of the locals who used to work the docks. This study hopes to evidence these shifts as well as my perception of their implications on the area and document the current state of the Docks in order to keep studying them in the future.
- Mattias Malk