Steve and I have returned to our haunts after almost a year. It has been an interesting experience for me: having become something of an outsider in this previously local place, I have a feeling my perspective is shifting. It’s hard to say what exactly it means in terms of my attention. But Wormwood has become little more exotic, little more precious. This is why I am here on my one and only day back in London. Not at Tate, not in Hampstead, but here, in this polluted and overlooked in-between place. And because of Steve, of course. We have a lot of fun exploring.
Today we retrace one of our usual routes: through Kensal Green Cemetery, across the Cargiant wilderness, joining the Grand Union Canal and then on towards the Wormwood Scrubs. It is reassuring to be back. We check on some of the landmarks: a wall that featured plants coming through cracks in the Disappearing Wormwood film is now painted white. Our mural by the “Cargiant Bridge” has a graffiti squiggle over some sections and a protective fencing over others. There is a looming sense of its fate coming to a close. Steve snatches a rounded piece home with him.
In the tunnel passage where I once filmed Steve trying to commit, rather reluctantly, a small act of vandalism with a pot of white paint, we find a trace of the brush strokes on the floor.
We pass the Cargiant and head towards the canal. I film a man with an eclectic selection of junk who calls to me enthusiastically. Steve initiates a chat with a young man in a cafe which in the past has always been closed when we passed. Today it is actually open, fighting vigorously to survive in the midst of this fevered transformation of Wormwood towards an idea of middle class. They serve Steve oat milk with chocolate.
We cross the canal bridge and once again we are greeted by the familiar view of the expansive and vast field of railways, assembled of countless tracks most of which are covered by trains. We watched this being built over the years. Now some gaps have appeared as the trains are being utilised to carry passengers along the new Elizabeth line, which has literally just opened two days before.
The Wormwood of the previous years is still very much here – a criss crossing of wires, footpaths, industrial wasteland and wild, beautiful nature all locked in a kind of dance, rhythms of back and forth, squiggle here and wire there, high note of wild weed and rustling bell of a rusting can wrestling together gently in a tightening embrace.
I enjoy this layering of histories, even more so now that our own personal ones have become intertwined with this area. We have memories here that we can revisit, small marks of our present and we have mementoes and souvenirs in a form of films, frottage and gathered objects. We have been meeting here for 7 years already, Steve and I, and that is a significant amount of time.
Despite the cycle of seasons, which repeat, there is a race towards the future. Being away from London now, I am struck by this forward propelling, relentless energy, the sheer amount of people, the manic force that drives this aspiration that cannot allow land to sit still, but needs to harness it and monitise it.
After our cafe experience we walk down towards Wormwood scrubs and have a strange encounter with some guards, who do not speak English, but seem agitated by our presence. They want to know what we are doing, even through we are only walking by on a public road. We stop and try and explain but get nowhere.
Bit later, already in the Scrubs, I realise that my camera stopped filming. There is a gap instead of the footage I hoped to capture.
The video that is missing would have shown fences with various circular and rectangular openings, like windows, framing the developments behind the protective walls. These windows are an interesting concept to me. You can see one in this photo below. A kind of framing, a screen behind which views of transformation are unfolding. These windows allow us to glimpse, but we cannot enter. The view is framed and distant. Wormwood is no longer free to touch.
This was one of the first discussions Steve and I had, in 2015, when we first met and decided to film. The fact that this liminal industrial corner of London gave us a sense of freedom, we could become lost and anonymous while feeling affinity to the place which let us be. With each new structure and train line added, as the money is pouring in and people and corporations are beginning to exercise their ownership over it, we too are being transformed: from romantic flaneurs to trespassers.
The great expanse of Wormwood scrubs is till stretching gloriously in all directions, even though a section has been gnawed away by a new development. We can still cling onto our illusion of freedom here, for a while longer.
It all feels good and slightly sinister on this warm sunny day, on an open green plane stretching freely and mockingly in between the infamous prison where lives are incarcerated and the fenced-off mysterious developments shrouded behind long green fences. We are still defiantly free in Wormwood.
Disappearing Wormwood (2020), will be shown as part of Chiara Ambrosio’s Raft: A fragile display programme at the Horse Hospital on Sunday 26th June. Check out the programme here: https://www.thehorsehospital.com/events/city-theatres
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