Last night I had been filming Bob and Roberta Smith reading from his journals at Tate Britain and decided to walk along Millbank to Westminster to get the tube home. As I reached College Green, outside the the Houses of Parliament I came across the encampment of news crews still trying to untangle the mess of the General Election. It was 8.30pm, and there were only a few teams still broadcasting.
The was a strange feeling of tranquility hanging in the Westminster air, it was all very calm and quiet. Inside nearby rooms men, educated at the most expensive private schools in the country were working out who was going to be in charge. Earlier Bob and Roberta Smith had shown the audience at Tate a postcard from his recent show called ‘I Should Be In Charge’ – his painting of this declaration is on display in the windows of the Hayward Gallery just over the river from Westminster. Bob would make a brilliant Prime Minister
I contemplated whether I should get my camera out and film, and it was then that I recalled the scene in Patrick Keiller’s brilliant film, London, shot on the day after the election of the Conservation government in 1992. I have none of Keiller’s finesse nor a 16mm Bolex but felt I had had a duty to run off a couple of minutes of tape as an homage to Keiller’s opus.
On my two previous visits to New York I had failed to venture beyond Manhattan, it seemed more than enough for me and I had little idea what lie beyond it. This time I had a motivation to cross the water – to interview Joe at the Perogi Gallery for my ongoing documentary about Bob and Roberta Smith. This was also a chance to cover a bit of ground on foot beyond my habitual drifting.
Downtown from SoHo all is quiet, sun out, an April like the first time I came here in ’98. As warned Brooklyn Bridge was heaving with walkers – at once a brilliant and heart-sinking sight. Is this what the pedestrian highways I once proposed to Wycombe District Council would look like – a sweating mass of agitated perambulators.
From the bridge I got a very different sense of what New York appears to be – I think it’s often easy to forget that many cities are defined by what is at the periphery; so caught up are we by the buzz around the urban core. Maybe that’s the city dweller’s fear of nature – the force in that water so evident when looking down from the bridge; we scamper inland to cower behind bricks.
On the other side of Brooklyn Bridge I am without bearings for a bit and follow my nose. I have a strong image of Henry Miller wandering round here implanted by several readings of Tropic of Capricorn.
I want to find the apartment that Bob lived in on 3rd Street and amble in that direction.
Smith Street is a real hive of activity – loads of heaving cafes – people really lunch here eh? I go into Book Court and literally the first book I see is Alfred Kazin’s ‘A Walker in the City’ – “When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world”, he writes of Brooklyn.
The literary version of Brooklyn I’d built up was of somewhere rough-and-ready work-a-day and I see straight away how out of date that has become because at times I feel like there must have been a mass photo shoot for American Apparel in the neighbourhood. It’s a nice vibe though, a comfortable place for a wander.
I turn into 3rd Street and the mood soon changes – becomes run-down industrial, deserted except for a few cyclists. I stand on the bridge over the Gowanus Canal and suck in the rust. I don’t find Bob’s apartment – must have been knocked down. I move on round the corner to Perogi on 9th Street, hungry and stiff legged now.
This is the Brooklyn of my imagination.
The American Legion club, people milling around outside Liquor Stores. 177 9th Street is a locked industrial unit. I ring Joe, “North 9th Street Williamsburg” he corrects – miles away – but only about 4 subway stops from my hotel it turns out. I laugh, my walks are always wild goose chases – mis-guided excursions following after lost scents. People had very kindly offered to show me round Brooklyn but I know at heart that I need to get lost to find what I’m looking for.
I jump on the subway back to Manhattan then over to the gracious Joe who gives me a great interview at Perogi, complete with accounts of the show he did in Bob’s shed – The Leytonstone Centre for Contemporary Art. Strange how a walk round the corner from my house in London one evening led me here to Brooklyn.
When I first moved to Leytonstone I was intrigued by a poster on the stairs leading down from the Eastbound platform at the tube station for an exhibition at the Leytonstone Centre of Contemporary Art. The LCCA turned out to be a purpose built shed in the back garden of 49 Rhodesia Road E11 the work of artist Bob and Roberta Smith. For the show Hearing Voices, Seeing Things the gallery (shed) was relocated to the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park.
Later venturing round to 49 Rhodesia Road I was confronted by a turn-of-the-century terrace much like the one I live in not far away with no visable sign of a Centre of Contemporary Art. Suspecting it to be an art prank by a self proclaimed “jester of the art world” I dare not knock on the door and enquire of its whereabouts.
Bob & Roberta Smith appears to be a genuinely original and intriguing artist. In an interview Bob described the project as “a little model of the art world”. Bob (he’s one person so I’ll drop the & Roberta bit for now) also produced a series of his trademark hand painted signs to promote the cause of local shops in a work cryptically titled ‘Shop Local’.
The LCCA does seem to have made a genuine impression upon the art world, proudly appearing on the CVs of many an artist. How many took place in E11 or in the re-located shed I’m not sure but one exhibition, Fight, from September 2002 promised “A crazy day out in Leytonstone” and mentions another gallery space in the area The Leyton Wall Modern at 3 Brisbane Road E10.
I’m not sure whether Bob and Roberta Smith is still living at the house, maybe the forthcoming Leytonstone Arts Trail will give me the plausible cover to buck up the courage to find out.