Talking Gentrification at Germany’s Documenta Art Fair

Top right: guerilla art in Hackney Wick, Berlin and (here) Kassel as part of The Hackney Wall project.

Documenta is Germany’s 5-yearly art fair in the relatively quiet city of Kassel. Almost completely destroyed by British bombers in WW2, the new city has been hosting this massive event since 1955 as part of a ‘fresh start’ for a then new Federal Republic of Germany. Along with academic Sarah Scarsbrook, Hackney Tours was invited to speak as part of Critical Art Ensemble‘s ongoing series of free talks and displays at the 13th incarnation of this epic event. Epic, because Documenta lasts 100 days…

On a roasting hot 23rd August, we took to the floor at midday to discuss “Artists Behind the Wall: Regeneration Games in East London”. We talked about Olympic-led regeneration in East London and specifically Hackney Wick, where our tours have been running for some time. We also discussed Hackney Tours’ artistic response to the Olympic perimeter, The Hackney Wall.

Sarah’s work has focused on the role of artists in this planned rebranding of what is now ‘Europe’s largest artist quarter’ and fast becoming a case study for urban planners and arts administrators around the continent. Who is using who? Are they aware of it? Do they have a responsibility? How is the area changing? Who is benefiting and who is losing?

These are some of the questions that were asked as we zoned in on the Olympics and the effect they are having on Hackney Wick. We might not burn cars like they do in Berlin, and we might not have the Mileuristas of Barcelona, but things are changing in Hackney and fast. And it’s worth remembering that the Games are only part of a bigger plan to redevelop East London called the Thames Gateway.
This Games, more than ever, was sold on the idea of a ‘legacy’ of regeneration. Some of this was already planned before the bid was won in 2005. For Monday & Tuesday of this week, the plans for the fruit of the 2012 Olympics will be on display at an exhibition in Hackney Council’s pop-up event space Hackney House. This legacy, we always reply when asked, will be the true test of London 2012 and what it meant for this great city of ours.

The woman in the front row from Barcelona nodded in recognition at the post-Olympic process about to unfurl; the journalist from Stuttgart at the back closed his notebook; then we all retired for a coffee in the former freight yard at the Hauptbahnhof to look through the pamphlet we produced for the event and discuss our conclusions. Chatting over drinks is a universal pleasure; gentrification, a universal controversy.

Limited copies of the pamphlet produced for Documenta 13, containing a summary of Sarah’s work and The Hackney Wall project are available for £4 (to cover lo-fi printing costs) via

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