Between 1963 and 1977, the Aylesbury Estate, in Walworth, south-east London, was built as a mammoth residency that would house 7,500 residents at its peak. Often declared Europe’s largest housing estate, it went through significant decline during the 1980s and 1990s, perhaps compounded by Tony Blair making his first speech as Prime Minister there in 1997, doing little to improve the perception of the estate as a symbol of failed social housing in a rueful address alluding to various elements of a broken Britain.
“It’s always portrayed as a very sort of gritty and deprived area,” says Darren Emerson, an artist with local ties who has returned to the estate to create a novel VR documentary, Common Ground, blending archive film, interviews, drone photography and 360-video. “It fascinates me. I’m a south Londoner so I’ve always been aware of this estate.”
The challenge, says Emerson, was to tell a complex story using technology that was, to some extent at least, new to him and the team he worked with. Looming diggers enhanced the urgency, accelerating the disappearance of the history they have attempted to capture. “The estate is going through a regeneration,” he explains. “All of the blocks that you see are going to be knocked down, and new flats are going to be built.
“I hope people understand the sense of betrayal that people feel. A lot of people here are leaseholders – that means that they bought their flats, they’re not social housing tenants. But now they’re being forced to move and given a Compulsory Purchase Order. That means that whatever the local authority – or the housing association, in this case – offers them, they have to accept. They have to move on. What happens to those people who used to live here?”
One of the processes Emerson used was photogrammetry – a part-science, part-art approach of recording, measuring and interpreting photos and patterns of electromagnetic radiant imagery and other phenomena. Choosing small areas of the estate, such as flats and stairwells, the artists have methodically taken thousands of photos, feeding the pictures into software to build a 3D model of the space. “Like most normal documentaries, you’re able to use archive material in a very traditional way,” he adds. “You cut to it, you use it to illustrate points that people are making – but one of the challenges we had is how to do that in 360 when you’re in an immersive environment where you can’t cut to a screen of 2D material. One of the solutions we had to that was to use projection mapping on the environment itself.”
Although the work premiered at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival and has already won an award for immersive storytelling in China, the team are also holding a private view on the estate. Its most meaningful effect might yet be in influencing decision makers and urban planners of the future. “We wanted to bring the piece back to the residents and engage with the community,” says Emerson. “We want this to get to the communities that it might really speak to.”
Two equally intriguing works accompany Common Ground at Lighthouse over the next week or so. My Mother’s Kitchen is an eight-minute audio documentary sharing the intimate memories of eight LGBTQI+ storytellers, created by Australia-based performer, writer and producer Maeve Marsden and Tea Uglow, the Creative Director for Google’s Creative Lab in Sydney.
Echo, by Georgie Pinn, is an interactive installation that aims to enhance our empathy by allowing us to see someone else use our eyes, lips and tongues through the use of a touchscreen, animation and facial tracking technology. The work won the Best Digital Experience category at this year’s Sheffield Doc/Fest.
Alternate Realties, Lighthouse, Brighton, Saturday 12 – Sunday 20 October. Admission free, 12pm-6pm. Supported by Arts Council England, the show will tour to HOME, Manchester and London’s Barbican.
Words by Ben Miller. Images courtesy the artists.