Interview with Hilary Powell

Hilary Powell’s fifteen-minute film ‘The Games’ stages a surreal Olympics amid the disorientating wasteland sites set to become the 2012 London Olympic Park. It documents a condensed competition of absurd sporting activities performed under guerilla conditions: discus-throwing with old car hub caps, trampolining on abandoned mattresses, weightlifting with tyres. 

Leaping over rubble and debris, the athletes overrun the decayed urban landscape of this forgotten part of London which stands poised on the brink of total transformation. It is about to be lost forever as the glass-and-steelification of London marches on apace, now shielded by a blue perimeter fence covered in sponsorship advertising. 

Powell obliquely passes comment on the real impact the 2012 Olympics, heavily marketed to Londoners as a Good Thing, has on our environment and communities. When Hackney’s wasteland is appropriated and transformed into a glossy Olympic Village, what will become of its histories and memories? Powell’s film takes a humorously subversive look at the psychogeography of this area by projecting the future into the past.


AM: For me your film The Games is the antithesis of the heroics of  Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia. With its school sports day aesthetic, it is joyful and nostalgic with a certain English eccentricity. Where did you find you the initial inspiration for The Games?

HP: It’s very much inspired by London’s earlier Olympic Games of 1908 and 1948 – most particularly the 1948 Games and its post war DIY attitude. London was war scarred and still subject to rationing and yet, in the spirit of making do and getting by amateur athletes practiced in parks and literally amid the rubble, stayed in RAF camps and the women of the teams were sent the patterns to make their own kits! I loved these stories and the fact that it was the first televised games and used this as a source of inspiration for our DIY outing into the Olympic zone. The BBC were on site early filming for their long term ‘ Building the Olympics’ and activist film makers were busy documenting the plights within this story. I wanted to find my own way of marking these changes in a creative and thought provoking way. Derek Jarman’s 1987 film ‘The Last of England’ was also a key source – not in style but in its inherent methodology – as a critical and creative occupation and comment / critique of a site  (in his case the London Docklands) on the brink of massive change.

AM: As a local, what’s your relationship or personal connection with this area of London? What changes have you noticed or been affected by? 

HP: Living in the factories of Hackney Wick, dog walking on the marshes and cycling the streets with a camera meant that little glimpses of the changes to come could be seen early on. As the capital geared up for ‘The Bid’ the area that is now behind the ODA’s blue hoardings underwent both subtle and drastic changes. The massive Hackney Wick Sunday market was closed down early on, ‘fridge city’ and the Acme studio factory next door disappeared and at the same time as news reporters struck the area – jumping out of vans to present a piece to camera in front of glamourously derelict sites - the graffiti started to appear. NO BIDS NO GAMES and (now in almost every ‘Olympic’ photo collection) FUCK SEB COE. Graffiti removal vans moved in to keep up with the pace of change and more and more prowling documentarians patrolled the site as its transformation seemed ever imminent. Local photographer Stephen Gill has taken photographs of glimpses of ‘future archaeology’ – the painted crosses on doomed trees and the surveyors lining the canal paths. 

Most of the sites in which we filmed are now completely gone and I do feel a certain sense of loss and frustration at this process of complete ‘tabula rasa’ and also cynicism in relation to Olympic Legacy plans for the area turning wild green space into ‘photoshop’ green space. 

AM: Could you tell me about the making of your film? How long did it take? Who are your actors?

HP: There were a lot of failed funding applications and no exhibition strategy and the site was changing so rapidly I knew our window of opportunity wouldn’t be open for long. We were lucky to gain the support of URBIS in Manchester just before Christmas 07 with the help of the OSA (Office for Subversive Architecture) who supported the film and worked on set construction. They gave as £5000 for the film and a deadline of March for its inclusion in their exhibition ‘ Play: Experience the Adventures of Our Cities’. 

It was all done ‘guerrilla style’ with no site permission and by its nature had to be organised at the last minute with constant visits to check sites were actually still accessible as construction work really began in earnest in the area. Whilst getting together costumes I cycled around everyday, meeting people in Clays Lane Housing estate, the Manor Park Allotments, etc asking for permission to use their locations. A lot was achieved under cover of darkness which helped and any kind of ‘road closing’ activities worked out fine as there weren’t any cars! Even our fireworks and bonfire went undisturbed.

The people involved were a great mixed bunch of friends and contacts, actors and extras and locals. Even the journalist from Blueprint writing about the piece took part. It was filmed over 2 action packed weekends (the last weekend of Feb and the first of march) in freezing cold conditions and everyone really was a ‘jolly good sport’ wearing thin white shorts and vests and running around in soggy mud. I had arranged to use The Griddlers Café on Carpenters road as base camp and Rosie the owner was brilliant – sharing the café with construction workers we set up a screen in the corner for kit change and the massive portions of sausage and chips really helped combat the cold. We did encounter a few problems with the new breed of marauding security guards but generally our hit and run method went unhindered.  It was just good timing – any later and the security was pumped up and what was once a really ‘wild west’ zone became more and more policed and surveyed.

AM: Where has working on The Games project led for you? Have you become something of an expert on the 2012 Olympics and the regeneration/ gentrification of the area?

HP: The Games itself has screened widely and prompted debate amongst a variety of audiences from universities and research organisations to festivals audiences and local groups. I’m also happy that the BFI asked for the film to be part of their national archive and is now in their ‘London Calling’ collection.

It’s really an ongoing engagement now. We drove the roads of the ‘zone’ the night before it’s final closure in July saying a rather sad goodbye to what had become in a way our ‘adventure playground’ (also the site of two bikes stolen and a violent attack during the production period so it’s not all rose tinted glasses). 

When the blue fences came up myself and Dan Edelstyn were looking for ways to continue our work on the impacts of the changing site and its fringe lands. Our new project is called ‘Olympic Spirits and Foodstuffs Ltd’ and involves gathering the last wild harvest (blackberries, sloes etc) of these fringe zones and marketing and selling this extra special produce. As with ‘The Games’ we have to get funding to make the first 3 x 30 second commercials in May as we aim to launch our spoof company in collaboration with LIFT this summer and the various Olympic events as the Olympic torch arrives from Beijing, the cultural Olympiad is officially launched and the countdown begins in earnest.

In this timeframe I am working with Birkbeck developing a course for their London Studies program on ‘The Olympic City’ exploring the social, economic, artistic and political impacts of the Games and working closely with Space Studios developing their Olympic Artists Forum and network. This leads directly into my application for an AHRC fellowship in the Creative and Performing Arts at the Bartlett, UCL. This will involve a 3-year project called ‘ Structures of Enchantment: Olympic Stories’ working with the stories and myths of the site and the Olympic movement though pop up book and animation techniques. So yes, the Olympics and the related regeneration of east London are definitely a major part of my practice and research!

AM: Your projects bring to light sites on the brink of development and transformation. When did you first start focusing on the potential inherent in the junk-spaces of urban environments in your practice? 

HP: After my Fine Art degree I headed off to Prague during an MA Scenography run through Central St Martins. It was here, working with site specific performance groups with a real passion for the potential of derelict spaces that it began and I returned to Amsterdam where my final piece involved organizing a concert/ballet for cars and people on the cities drastically changing waterfront. Back in London, I met a group called Luna Nera who were working in a similar way and who opened up possibilities of work in other European sites from factories in eastern Berlin to incinerators in Montreal. All of these projects led to and fed into my PhD research investigating a form of ‘event art’ operating in the junk spaces of the city with playful and imaginative affect. 

AM: In London you have made interventions in derelict hotels, forgotten lidos and abandoned tube carriages, as well as making works in neglected areas of Berlin, St Petersburg and Montreal. Which projects do you feel have been most successful? 

HP: ‘THE GAMES’ marks a point in my practice where urban engagement, film and elements of scenography and performance combine. Inspired by Jacques Tati there is always a touch of the surreal and comic. This is continuing with ‘Olympic Spirits and Foodstuffs Ltd’ and with my other projects in development ‘Wilderness Road’ and ‘The Bends’ which involve a darker vision of the city.  In terms of past projects the most successful are always those in which the original vision is not compromised for example ‘Fleeting’ – the installation I made in the London Field’s Lido in which I was lucky to have the freedom of the whole space to myself and the project.

AM: As the holder of an interdisciplinary Ph.D in Cultural Studies from Goldsmith’s College, and an  Honorary Research Fellowship at The London Consortium, do you take a theoretical approach to your subject matter?

HP: I wouldn’t say I’m very theoretical in my approach but contextual research is a vital component of my practice and takes many forms. I’m more of a collector or gleaner, gathering and clustering information and materials from diverse sources from local history, myths and conversations to photographic and archival research building and amplifying atmospheres and narratives. 

I’m committed to interdisciplinary debate and cross fertilization and to wide audience engagement so being able to weave in and out of academia and also broadcast media provides ways of doing this. 

AM: How long have you and Dan Edelstyn collaborated on the film production company Optimistic Productions? What projects are you currently working on?

HP: Dan set up Optimistic Productions in 2001 but it is only in the last couple of years that our working relationship has led to real collaboration and the development of something exciting as we optimise our professional and creative skills. Our roles on each project change – Dan’s current film ‘ From Bolshevism to Belfast’ sees me using my visual skills to create all the model city sets needed for animated drama sequences whereas in our current pitch project for channel 4 (Seaside Seers) we are our own crew collaborating on direction, camera work and final edit. We are a partnership able to provide optimum support for each of our projects.  With Dan’s maverick business edge we are increasingly aiming for and finding that we are able to fund our work through no strings attached corporate work to maintain our independent practice…. That said its always a struggle and direct project funding is always good!

Ali MacGilp and Hilary Powell

Still from Hilary Powell’s ‘The Games’. Photograph by Federico Figa Talamanca

Still from Hilary Powell’s ‘The Games’. Photograph by Federico Figa Talamanca

Still from Hilary Powell's 'The Games'. Photograph by Federico Figa Talamanca

Still from Hilary Powell's 'The Games'. Photograph by Federico Figa Talamanca

Still from Hilary Powell's 'The Games'. Photograph by Federico Figa Talamanca

Still from Hilary Powell's 'The Games'. Photograph by Federico Figa Talamanca

Still from Hilary Powell's 'The Games'. Photograph by Federico Figa Talamanca

Still from Hilary Powell's 'The Games'. Photograph by Federico Figa Talamanca