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Walls Come Tumbling Down – Assemble and the Turner Prize

When artist, writer and musician Kim Gordon announced Assemble as the winner of the 2015 Turner Prize at Tramway in Glasgow on Monday night, she played an absolute doozy. This wasn't just because she mentioned the city's seminal 1980s Sunday psych-punk-indie club, Splash 1, where her old band Sonic Youth played an early Scottish show.

While that alone was an acknowledgment of the DIY energy that trickled down the decades into the fertile and incestuous grassroots music and art scenes that now go some way to defining Glasgow, it was more to do with the way Gordon so charmingly fluffed her lines. So instead of saying 'this year', the words “this weird” came out.

Once she checked herself, she followed up by initially announcing the award for the 2016 Prize instead of 2015. While Gordon laughed off these glitches with unflustered cool, once she announced Assemble as winners, both goofs couldn't have sounded more appropriate.

Even with the Turner's chequered history, for an eighteen-strong collective of architects, artists and designers to win it, not with some multi-media installation, but with an ongoing social housing project in an economically deprived area of Liverpool, does look pretty weird.

Given too that Assemble's quest to transform the urban landscape and the lives of those who live in it looks set to continue way beyond next year, Gordon might well have been inadvertently channeling the future.

Assemble won the Turner largely for their work on Granby Four Streets, a cluster of terraced houses in the Toxteth district of Liverpool. Originally built for artisan workers at the turn of the twentieth century, the Granby Four Streets are the last surviving streets acquired by the local authority for demolition and redevelopment following the inner-city riots that took place on their doorstep in 1981.

With entire communities forcibly displaced in a form of social engineering resembling the razing of inner-city ghettos following the Second World War, the remaining residents fought plans for the destruction of their homes. Over the last decade, those residents have formed a Community Land Trust and helped transform what has become a little republic by doing up empty houses and starting a monthly market.

Assemble worked alongside residents to refurbish ten derelict houses on one of the streets, Cairns Street, using low cost materials and hand-crafted products sold in the locally run Granby Workshop, which they set up. A showroom displaying the materials on sale forms the bulk of Assemble's Turner show.

In Glasgow, Assemble spent three years working with residents in Dalmarnock in the east of the city on the Baltic Street Adventure Playground. This initiative is a supervised, child-led playground for six to twelve year olds created through an ongoing collaboration with local children and their families. It was the lead public art commission for the 2014 Commonwealth Games.

While no-one is in any doubt about either the beauty of the artefacts on show in the Granby Workshop, or the difference that has been made to communities in Granby, Dalmarnock and elsewhere, it has nevertheless called into question whether any of it can be classed as art at all.

Assemble came together in London during 2010 as a loose-knit alliance whose members recognised the uneasy relationship between built environments and those who live in them without having had any say in how they were created. As the group sought to 'actively involve the public as both participant and collaborator', as their website puts it, Assemble turned a derelict petrol station into a pop-up cinema, and transformed a disused motorway underpass into an arts venue. Blessing each project with names such as The Good, The Bad and The Allegory, The Brutalist Playground and Folly for a Flyover, Assemble attempted to put a sense of place back into the heart of a community.

In both construction and delivery, Assemble's works are playful, participatory and theatrical. Their ethos is idealistic, hippyish and magnificently utopian, even as they become life-changing in a very real way. In terms of fusing activism, art and ideas they are nothing new, yet there is possibly nothing quite like them either. It is perhaps for this reason that they may seem so radical to some, and so heretical to others.

The last time a collective was nominated for the Turner, after all, was in 1986, when the already fractured Art & Language group made up a list that included film-maker Derek Jarman, while a series of provocative photo-montages ensured victory for the decidedly singular Gilbert and George.

In 1993, Rachel Whiteread won with House, a concrete cast of a Victorian terraced house in East London. Whiteread exhibited House at the site of the original building, which the local council had demolished along with the rest of the street. House itself was destroyed by the council in 1994.

On BBC Newsnight last Friday, Daily Telegraph critic Mark Hudson suggested that, if Assemble could be nominated for the Turner, then so could B&Q or Oxfam. In this respect, such a problem of definition is not of Assemble's making. Rather, such demarcation rests with those who compartmentalise artforms as part of a cultural short-hand to make things simpler for the rest of us. The truth is much more complex.

Assemble didn't come from nowhere. The organisation has its umbilical roots in a burgeoning community arts scene that grew out of the 1960s, and which mobilised previously disenfranchised groups with arts projects in which participation was a key component. A notable example of this was the work done by Craigmillar Festival Society in Edinburgh. Founded in 1967, CFS put arts and culture at the centre of its community, and it was renowned internationally until its demise in 2002. Assemble take this further, making art central to the everyday lives of those resident in Granby Four Streets in a way that is tangible.

In this way, Assemble themselves are a product of regeneration, both of bricks and mortar and a social-based art which has been quietly bubbling under for years, but which looks seriously out of context in the Tramway space. Alistair Hudson, director of Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art, who was on the judging panel of this year's Turner Prize, dates Assemble's oeuvre right back to William Morris and the nineteenth century arts and crafts movement.

More recently, Angus Farquhar's NVA Organisation built The Hidden Garden at the back of Tramway itself, combining civic spectacle, social space and public art in a way that is quietly subversive. Elsewhere, and in the face of encroaching gentrification that is happy to exploit art as a fast-track to one more shiny development awash with gated communities and yet another branch of Sainsbury's Local, grassroots collectives are self-organising like never before.

Whether they had won the Turner or not, Assemble have found their moment in a way that has already affected the Granby community. More significantly, perhaps, now they have won it, they have also affected the plans of Liverpool's city fathers and mothers, who would have bulldozed away that community, but who now have no choice but to let it get on with whatever it is that it's doing unmolested.

Yet, as the Granby Workshop and Granby Four Streets which it serves becomes increasingly self-sufficient in a way that the commercial art market can't touch, the rise of the pop-up, the DIY and the grassroots creates its own set of potential dangers. And make no mistake, the cultural vandals in the property business currently ripping the hearts out of Glasgow, Edinburgh, Liverpool, London and elsewhere will be watching.

If Assemble, Granby Four Streets and the Baltic Street Adventure Playground are not careful, they may run the risk of being co-opted, gentrified and ultimately bought up by those who only see pound signs were aesthetic and social cohesion rub up against each other in chaotic red-brick harmony. Whether defined as art or not, if what Assemble have achieved with Granby Four Streets and beyond is to make a real long term difference, they need to imagine an even bigger future, and build it brick by brick. .

Bella Caledonia, December 8th 2015

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