Sponsorship and Censorship: Why ASH is withdrawing from the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019

The recent arrest and subsequent imprisonment of the Wikileaks founder Julian Assange has sent out a clear message to whistle-blowers and those who dare publish them that the freedom of the press is not so much under attack as under lock and key. But the truths to be considered out of bounds for publication from now on are not limited to the war crimes of the US military, but include those closer to home. London’s housing crisis, for example.

For the past four years Architects for Social Housing has faced censorship for our attempts to publicise our analyses of the causes of, and solutions to, this apparently intractable crisis. This censorship has come not only from the London councils implementing the demolition of what’s left of our council housing and replacing it with largely market sale properties for overseas investment, but also from an architectural press too busy courting developers and celebrating their designs to consider the social cost of their commissions.

Faced with this blanket indifference, ASH has looked for other forums in which to disseminate our work. This year we have been approached by a number of art and architecture institutions to collaborate on exhibitions, and our proposals have continued our attempts to expose the economic causes, social effects, and design and policy alternatives to London’s estate regeneration programme. Behind its facade of ‘regeneration’, this programme is both socially cleansing Inner London of its working-class communities and physically clearing the land for the construction of the deposit boxes for global capital that have driven housing costs in the capital up to the point where 1 in every 52 Londoners are now registered as homeless.

Unfortunately, the financial roots of this crisis have burrowed so deep into our economy, and spread so wide through our cultural institutions, that the art world has proved anything but the garden of free expression it likes to paint itself as being. On the contrary, these roots, which over the past four decades and more have turned the art world into an arm of the public relations industry, is just as adept at closing down publicity when it threatens to expose its workings.

This article is about ASH’s attempt, over the first four months of 2019, to collaborate with institutions of art and architecture, in both the UK and abroad, to produce and publicise its analyses of the economic causes of London’s crisis of housing affordability: causes in which, strange as it may seem, such institutions play the role of accomplices, propagandists, and where necessary censors.

ASH design proposal for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, 22 March 2019

1. The Chicago Architectural Biennial

‘I think it is important to distinguish between the traditional notion of patronage and the public relations manoeuvres parading as patronage today. The American term “sponsoring” more accurately reflects that what we have here is a real exchange of capital: financial capital on the part of the sponsors and symbolic capital on the part of the sponsored. Most business people are quite open about this when they speak to their peers.’ 

– Hans Haacke and Pierre Bourdieu, Free Exchange (1995)

In January of this year, one of the Curators for the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019 began discussions with us about the possibility of ASH contributing to the exhibition, which opens in September 2019 and runs to January 2020. We weren’t interested in simply exhibiting ASH’s design alternatives to the demolition of the estates we have helped save, but wanted to use whatever funding was available to produce new work.

In August 2017 ASH had taken up a week’s residency at the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London, during which we produced a wall-sized map identifying every London housing estate we could that has recently been, is undergoing or is threatened with regeneration leading to the loss of homes for social rent. We identified 237 such estates. In response to this map, whose publication on our website has had over 5,000 visits, we have been asked by numerous people for the data on these losses – by campaigners wanting to use them, by academics wanting to quote them, by politicians wanting to challenge them. Compiling that data, however, is the work of many people with specialist skills and knowledge over a protracted period of time, and we have been unable to find the funding required to pay them to do so. Until, we thought, now.

Our project proposal for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which changed in how that data would be displayed but not in how it would be compiled, was for a team of 8-10 ASH researchers – both architects and engineers – to assemble as much data as we could about London’s estate regeneration programme over a roughly 5-month period. This data would include the information allowing us to calculate the number and tenure of homes demolished on each estate (homes for social rent and leasehold properties), the number and tenure of dwellings on the new development (affordable rent, shared ownership and market sale properties), and therefore the total number of homes for social rent lost to each regeneration scheme. Plus, of course, the names of the London council responsible for demolishing it, the architectural practice responsible for designing the new development, and the property developer responsible for building it.

Although we initially imagined displaying this data on a wall-mounted interactive map, we subsequently changed this to a more low-tech display (above) consisting of a floor map in which each demolished or threatened estate is marked out, and surrounded on four sides by a visual representation of London’s estate regeneration programme. This was to be composed of an A4 sheet for each estate comprising a photograph together with some of the key data. Stacked up for each borough, this would form a city-scape of London’s property developments arranged north, east, west and south around the map. All the data we had managed to compile would then be uploaded into an online map that would be launched at the opening of the Chicago Architecture Biennial, and to which campaigners and researchers could add further and updated data long after the ASH display had been taken down. In this way it would constitute a resource on which residents, campaigners and researchers could draw to establish the real costs, social, economic and environmental, of London’s estate regeneration programme.

Finally, because we didn’t want our display to be only a record of the catastrophic loss of social housing this programme is implementing, we also proposed producing two architectural models of ASH’s design alternatives to demolition for the West Kensington and Gibbs Green estates in Hammersmith and Fulham and the Central Hill estate in Crystal Palace, both of whose campaigns of resistance are still alive. Our aim in doing so was to show that the current mass-demolition of London’s housing estates in a middle of our crisis of housing affordability was not only contributing to that crisis but architecturally unnecessary. On the contrary, what the ASH model of refurbishment and infill has demonstrated on the half a dozen estates for which we have produced design alternatives, is that we are able to increase housing capacity on estates by around 50 percent, make at least half of the new dwellings available for social rent, while selling and renting the remainder to generate the funds required to bring the existing homes up to the Decent Homes Standard plus, as well as fund the new dwellings.

We quickly found the researchers, model makers and map designers for the project, all of whom were enthusiastic about contributing to a project they felt had potentially great social significance and widespread use in combating one of the primary causes of London’s housing crisis. And we were pleased to find that the Chicago Architecture Biennial agreed with us, and were equally enthusiastic about our proposal. Until two weeks ago.

This article is to explain – not least to the 14 or so collaborators we had so far assembled to work on it – what happened to this project, the data for which no other salaried academic, Greater London Authority researcher or UK Government department has compiled, and why the ASH proposal to assemble that data for public scrutiny has been terminated. The quotations from Free Exchange, a discussion between the French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu and the German artist Hans Haacke about corporate sponsorship of art institutions, are offered as context to this termination. The following chronology charts the stages of the proposal, development and sudden cessation of what we believe to be an important project, for which ASH continues to look for funding.

7 February. On behalf of the Curatorial team, the Executive Director formally invites ASH to submit a project proposal to the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019. In the letter the Biennial, titled . . . and other such stories, is described as:

‘Developed through a research-led approach, . . . and other such stories will address the potency of space, architecture, and the natural world as they relate to four areas of inquiry: (1) No Land Beyond, which draws inspiration from indigenous approaches to nature, ecology, and landscape that transcend property ownership; (2) Appearances and Erasures, which explores both shared and contested memories in consideration of monuments, memorials, and social histories; and (3) Rights and Reclamations and (4) Common Ground, which foreground aspects of rights, advocacy, and civic purpose in architectural practice, including affordable and equitable housing.’ (our italics)

18 February. ASH sends our initial project proposal, for which we propose an estimated budget of £20,000 for the research component, with further estimates for the exhibition display to follow.

12 March. Following a Skype conversation with the Curator, who encourages us to make a larger estimate for the entire project, ASH sends a total estimate for a budget of £50,000, with the research costs again £20,000.

13 March. In response to a request for a breakdown of project costs, ASH sends a detailed budget for £49,900, with research costs at £20,760.

14 March. ASH’s participation as one of the Exhibition Contributors to the Chicago Architecture Biennial is made public. In the press release the Curatorial Focus repeats the description of the biennial as being ‘Developed through a research-led approach’.

22 March. Following a reconsideration of the display component of the proposal, ASH sends our revised project proposal, the display component of which we estimate will cost less to produce.

5 April. ASH has a Skype meeting with the Curator, who gives our revised proposal the ‘green light’, and the Deputy Director, whom we take through the revised proposal. She is positive about it. We emphasise to her that, as the research will be extensive, we are eager to make a start, and have the budget for the research confirmed by the Exhibitions Manager.

9 April. ASH holds the first research meeting with four of their project researchers. We advise them that the budget has not yet been confirmed, but that they are free to start researching.

11 April. ASH sends the Chicago Architecture Biennial the revised and reduced budget estimate of £42,284, a reduction of nearly £8,000, but with research costs still at £20,760.

12 April. ASH has a Skype meeting scheduled with the Exhibition Manager, from whom we are expecting to have the budget confirmed, but this is postponed on the day. However, the Assistant Curator writes to us that she has informed the Exhibitions Manager about our Skype meeting with the Deputy Director, and that the former ‘feels pretty comfortable and has seen your updated budget’.

16 April. ASH holds the second research meeting with four more project researchers. Again, we advise them that the budget has not yet been confirmed, but that the Exhibitions Manager is ‘pretty comfortable’ with our proposal.

17 April. ASH receives an email from the Assistant Curator informing us that they will be allotting ASH $20,000, with $2,500-$5,000 for materials and installation of part of our proposed display, and the remaining $15,000 to be used as we wish. Since $20,000 is the equivalent of £15,400 for the entire project, and $15,000 is £11,500 for the research (leaving aside the two models), it isn’t clear to us what they expect us to spend it on. In response we write back:

‘We are a little surprised as the last email you sent was that [the Exhibitions Manager] was ‘comfortable’ with our updated budget. $20,000 (£15,000) is a prohibitive reduction in what we had been discussing with [the Curator]. The project we have proposed can’t be produced for that, so we will have to have a complete rethink. It’s a shame the funding constraints weren’t communicated to us much earlier, as we have now spent considerable time working on this proposal already. We are now available on Friday, so let us know when you can speak.’

Lendlease international property developers, one of the sponsors of the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019, announces that it has completed:

‘26 townhomes, six penthouse apartments and penthouse-level amenities at The Cooper at Southbank, its 29-story, 452-unit luxury apartment tower at 720 S. Wells St., in Chicago’s South Loop. Together, the deliveries represent the final phase of construction on the riverfront high-rise, the first of several residential towers planned in Lendlease’s 7-acre Southbank development.’

18 April. ASH has a phone-call with the Curator, who informs us that no other contributor to the Chicago Architecture Biennial she is aware of has had their proposed budget cut by two-thirds. However, contrary to both our invitation to participate in the Biennial and the published statement that the Curatorial Focus is a ‘research-led approach’, she now suggests that the Biennial does not support research-based proposals. We explain that without the funding for the research our project cannot be completed, and ask her to speak to the Exhibitions Manager – with whom we are yet to have a meeting – and ask why our funding has been so drastically cut.

19 April. ASH receives an e-mail from the Curator suggesting we either reduce the scope of the project and use the £15,000 to research only Inner London (a suggestion that is impractical since maybe 80 per cent of the demolished or threatened estates are located in Inner London), or that we ‘rethink’ our proposal. She says nothing about the reason why our budget was cut. In response we write back to the Curator, the Assistant Curator, the Exhibitions Manager and the Deputy Director of the Chicago Architecture Biennial asking for an explanation of why our proposal has been rejected:

‘Thank you for your email, although unfortunately it doesn’t address what we discussed this morning. In our conversation we asked you to answer two questions, which you said you would put to [the Exhibitions Manager] and get back to us with answers. These were our questions:

‘Why has our budget been cut by two-thirds from £45,000 to £15,000, when our proposal has stated from the beginning that the research on which the proposal is based would cost £20,000? This isn’t a budget cut, this is an outright rejection of the ASH proposal that you, as the Curator, gave the ‘green light’ to on 5 April.

‘Why, if the biennial is not willing to give money to research-based proposals, as you said in our conversation this morning, have we been allowed to develop this proposal over the past two months, having submitted it to you on 18 February? If we were told outright that there was no money for research we would either have rethought our proposal or declined the invitation. As it is, we’ve wasted two months of work, not only our own, but that of web designers, model makers, and the 8 researchers we have engaged. We anticipated that our entire budget might not be fully met, and we were willing to sacrifice the models, which would have accounted for £10,000 of the budget, a reasonable cut. A £30,000 cut, in contrast, isn’t reasonable, its prohibitive.

‘As we explained to you, given the political dimension of our proposal and the fact that the Chicago Architecture Biennial has chosen to accept international property developers Lendlease as one of its sponsors, we are understandably suspicious about why this late and outright rejection of our proposal has been made. Until we receive answers to these questions, we are not willing to spend any more time developing a proposal to work with an organisation that may reject it again, unless that organisation is willing to be honest with us.

‘As we also said, we would consider submitting the ASH models alone, though in the absence of the map they would require contextualisation within London’s estate regeneration programme, a programme in which Lendlease plays a prominent and aggressive part. We are not willing to submit ASH’s work without that context, which would open us to justified accusations of “art-washing”, or to put our name to an exhibition that censors the content of exhibitors’ proposals. We look forward to hearing your response.’

ASH is yet to receive a response from the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which has subsequently ceased all communication with us. Now, this sudden slashing of an contributor’s budget by two-thirds after two-months of discussions and the termination of communication with a contributor after two months of meetings may be usual practice for the Chicago Architecture Biennial, but we don’t believe it is. To understand why, it’s necessary to go back to the previous year, and ASH’s involvement in an exhibition that is still being held at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery in London at the time we publish this article. Although our involvement in this exhibition was initiated several months earlier than our involvement with the Chicago Architecture Biennial, the bulk of that involvement runs parallel with the time-line above.

2. The Serpentine Sackler Gallery

‘In order to avoid censorship, artists and institutions applying for public funds are now driven to exercise self-censorship. It is well-known that self-censorship is often more effective than open censorship. And it doesn’t leave a dirty trail.’

– Hans Haacke and Pierre Bourdieu, Free Exchange (1995)

18 July 2018. ASH is invited by the Community Projects team at the Serpentine Galleries to be a Research Partner on the artist Hito Steyerl’s exhibition, Power Plants, at the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, and to develop one of the Power Walks that accompany the exhibition.

6 September. The Community Projects team reiterates its wish to commission ASH for a walk on research ‘related to the Royal Borough of Kensington and Chelsea.’

27 November. ASH agrees to organise and lead a Power Walk, and informs the Community Projects team that its focus will be Kensington Palace Gardens, the most expensive address in the UK, and the London residence of 8 billionaires, including the British property billionaire Jonathan Hunt, the Saudi Prince Abdul Aziz bin Fahd, the Ukrainian oil billionaire Leonard Blavatnik, the Chinese property billionaire Wang Jianlin, the Russian oil billionaire Roman Abramovich, the Indian steel billionaire Lakshmi Mittal, the Sultan of Brunei Hassanal Bolkiah, and the British motor-racing billionaire Bernie Ecclestone.

5 December. The Community Projects team writes that it is ‘great’ that ASH ‘already has an idea of how you’d like to frame the walk and where.’

17 December. The Community Projects team writes that it is ‘excited’ to develop this walk with ASH, commenting on Kensington Palace Gardens: ‘That road is crazy!’

21 January 2019. ASH meets with the Community Projects team to share the content of the Power Walk. ASH tells the Community Projects team that it will produce a booklet to accompany the walk. The Community Projects team says the Serpentine Gallery will produce the booklet, and that to do so they need the text one month before the Power Walk itself.

31 January. Following the meeting, the Community Projects team writes that it is ‘really excited to be working on this’ project with ASH.

8 February. ASH sends the Community Projects team a one-page summary about the walk for the Serpentine Galleries website. This clarifies that the walk ‘will be accompanied by an information booklet containing a map of Kensington Palace Gardens and short financial biographies of its residents and landlords.’ ASH sends a jpg of this map (below) with the individual buildings numbered. ASH agrees to get the text for the booklet to the Community Projects team by 23 February.

Kensington Palace Gardens

18 February. The Community Projects team informs ASH that the date of the Power Walks has had to be moved back. ASH agrees to lead the walk on the revised date of Saturday, 13 April, and asks for confirmation that the Serpentine Galleries is ‘still willing to print this [research] as a short booklet that will be available as part of the walk, as we discussed’. Given the changed date for the walk, ASH requests a new deadline for the text of 13 March, to which the Community Projects team agrees.

4 March. ASH sends an audio recording of the booklet text to the Community Projects team for editing by Hito Steyerl, to accompany which they are filmed walking in Kensington Gardens from the Serpentine Sackler Gallery to the entrance to Kensington Palace Gardens.

5 March. ASH sends the text for the booklet to the Community Projects team a week ahead of the deadline. In it we write that the purpose of the walk is two-fold:

‘To explore the relationships between investment in London residential property by high net-worth individuals – of which the residents in Kensington Palace Gardens represent only the extreme end – and the crisis of housing affordability and rising homelessness in London.

‘To test – by our presence and actions on Kensington Palace Gardens – the legal limits of our rapidly-diminishing rights of way, public assembly and freedom of expression on UK land in the wake of new Government legislation on anti-social behaviour and anti-terrorism over the past two decades.’

14 March. The Community Projects team introduces ASH by e-mail to Evening Class, a collective of designers that have been commissioned by the Serpentine Galleries to design ASH’s booklet for the Power Walk.

20 March. At the request of Evening Class, ASH sends them a word document of the text for the booklet.

21 March. The Community Projects team write to ASH saying they have questions about  the ‘centring of details and background and names and addresses of everyone on the road.’ ASH responds:

‘The names and addresses of the people owning the properties on the street are publicly available, so we don’t see a problem with that ourselves, although the gallery might. If the Serpentine Gallery is worried about upsetting its patrons we’d rather you say so, so we know.’

ASH additionally informs the Community Projects team that the human rights lawyer, Jamie Burton of Doughty Street Chambers, will be attending the walk and informing walkers of their legal rights. ASH reiterates that we are looking forward to seeing the design of the booklet.

25 March. The Community Projects team write to ASH, claiming that ‘this print piece has evolved from our initial conversations about making a bust card or information on the legalities of public access.’ The Community Projects team agree an honorarium for Jamie Burton. ASH clarifies that the text we submitted on 5 March, 3 weeks ago, ‘is what we’ll be reading from during the walk,’ adding: ‘It’s up to you whether you want to print it as a booklet. It’d be nice, but we never expected it.’

26 March. The Community Projects team writes that they will ‘send over the edited version of potential print when we receive it.’ This edit never arrives.

3 April. The Community Projects team write to ASH that:

‘We are really keen to support you to share the research you have been gathering in relation to the walk and your wider campaigns. For example, how the housing crisis is linked to overseas investment, alongside the facts about increasing legalisation affecting our rights to access space in the city. With this in mind, and also taking into consideration advice from our legal team about the naming of people in the booklet, we’d like to suggest that we don’t print the information on the day but that Evening Class (who have already drafted a design) continue to work with the content as a PDF that we then share with you, and you make available to those that are interested. For example, at the end of the walk you can say the content of this walk is available in a PDF that we (ASH) can share with those that are interested in following up. As a document it can then continue to be used in other contexts also, where useful to ASH or others thinking through/researching these issues.’

ASH responds that, given that they have discovered that both Leonard Blavatnik and Lakshmi Mittal, both of whom are residents of Kensington Palace Gardens, sit on the Council of the Serpentine Galleries, we understand their decision not to print the booklet, but adds the following:

‘Just so it’s very clear, though: whatever your lawyers say, there is of course no legal barrier to identifying who lives in a property and what they do for a living, and the Serpentine is merely protecting its financial interests. ASH will, therefore, be reading this information on the walk itself, and we won’t accept any attempt to censor us from anyone associated with the Serpentine Galleries. If any of you are not happy with that, it’s best you don’t accompany us on the walk, as we don’t want to be resisting both you and the police.’

The Community Projects team responds that: ‘We are happy for this information to be shared on the walk, and to be present of course’, and that they will ‘speak with Evening Class, so that once the designed PDF is finished, this can be shared with you.’

8 April. The Community Projects team sends ASH a transcript of Hito Steyerl’s edit of their audio recording for the film in the exhibition. In addition to information about Kensington Palace Gardens, this includes biographical information about one of its residents, the Sultan of Brunei, though nothing about Leonard Blavatknik or Lakshmi Mittal.

10 April. ASH attends the press preview of the Hito Steyerl exhibition. The data ASH contributed to the exhibition as Research Partner, and which is exhibited in that part of the show titled Actual Reality, includes the statements: ‘Commonly known as Billionaire’s Row, Kensington Palace Gardens is the most expensive address in the UK’; and ‘Billionaire’s Row does not appear on Google Street View. Both photography and filming are strictly prohibited.’

At the preview ASH is filmed by the Serpentine Galleries’ Communications team, explaining why they are leading a walk along Kensington Palace Gardens. ASH had been informed by the Community Projects team that: ‘There will be a very quick turnaround for the edit of the films, which will be shared with you by the end of the week for your sign off.’ ASH never receives this final edit for signing off, and the film never appears on the Serpentine Gallery website for the exhibition, while the films for the other three Power Walks are posted on YouTube.

During her speech to the press, Hito Steyerl raises the issue of the sponsorship of the Serpentine Sackler Gallery, linking it to the Sackler family’s pharmaceutical company, Purdue Pharma, which produces the highly addictive opioid painkiller OxyContin, and likening the relationship to ‘being married to a serial killer’. In response to this speech, which is widely reported in the art press, a spokesperson for the Serpentine Galleries said:

‘The Serpentine is a gallery that supports artists and their right to express their views. We have heard what Hito Steyerl has had to say today and the important issues that she has highlighted. Donations to the Serpentine from the Sackler Trust are historic and we have no future plans to accept funding from the Sacklers. We remain committed to being an open platform where emerging and established artists can be seen and heard.’ (our italics)

11 April. Evening Class writes to ASH:

‘We were contacted by curators at the Serpentine gallery to work on the design of the Power Walk booklet. After recent correspondence with the Assistant Curator we understand the booklet is no longer going to be printed (not even for the walk) and no design for a PDF/digital publication is needed. We were actually ready to share the first draft for the first round of feedback but they asked us not to share the design of the booklet with you. We were baffled to hear this news so here are a few questions and thoughts we would like to share with you.

‘How do you feel about it? Have you got more information about why they have taken this decision? Do you know if Hito Steyerl is aware of the Gallery decision not to print/publish the booklet at such a late stage? We believe there is enough content to produce relevant material for a broader conversation on, amongst other things, the role of publishing, transparency and financial dependency of cultural institutions and so on. Given the topic of the exhibition and the participants involved in the projects we feel strongly about continuing the publication of your research and even potentially expand the text with a foreword by the artist which could presumably give international resonance to the above issues. Evening Class is interested in continuing the collaboration with you and happy to discuss this further.’

12 April. ASH responds to Evening Class:

‘Yes, we are interested in continuing the publication of our text, and we like the idea of asking Hito to write a preface. To your other questions we don’t want to give an answer at present. There’s a lot of opposition to our walk from the gallery, and we don’t want to give them any reason to cancel the walk tomorrow. Could we ask you, therefore, not to communicate anything about your e-mail to us to the gallery until it’s over? Once the walk is done, we’d be happy to meet up and discuss your idea, and answer your questions as best we can.’

In a telephone phone that morning, as ASH is printing the booklets for their Power Walk, the Community Projects Curator puts pressure on ASH not to ‘name names’ the following day. ASH reiterates its stance not to be censored, citing in this context the arrest the previous day of Julian Assange, the founder of Wikileaks, in the Ecuadorian Embassy and the necessity of defending our ability to publicise the names and activities of powerful and dangerous individuals.

13 April. On the day ASH leads their Power Walk, in addition to the two Directors of ASH and the human rights lawyer we asked to accompany us, in attendance are no less than six employees of the Serpentine Gallery, including the Community Projects Curator, the Community Projects Producer, the Assistant Digital Curator, the Head of Communications, the Exhibitions and Architecture Curator, plus someone who had been contracted by the gallery to collect participants’ feedback on the walk. We had previously been told by the Community Projects Curator that the Chief Executive Officer of the Serpentine Gallery, Yana Peel, was so concerned about the content of our walk that she was going to attend, but as far as we could establish (as we were never introduced to her) she did not. However, the opposition to our walk increases throughout the day.

First, of the 30 tickets allocated to the walk, only 20 people attend, even though there is a waiting list of 30. Second, the microphones and headphones we and the walkers were given don’t work. Third, two Serpentine employees filibuster for 25 minutes about the exhibition at the start, eating into the 2 hours we had been allocated for the walk. During the walk itself, the Community Projects Curator, who otherwise doesn’t listen to any of the readings from the booklet, continues to attempt to dissuade ASH from entering Kensington Palace Gardens, quoting a lack of time, etc. Then, as we approach the gate to Kensington Palace Gardens, the Community Projects Curator announces that the entire staff of the Serpentine will not enter the street, and are dissociating the Serpentine Galleries and themselves individually from the ASH Power Walk. The contractee who was meant to collect feedback from the walkers continues with us, but she is called back half-way down the street. The rest of the participants on the walk are understandably confused by all this, until we stand outside the properties of the eight billionaires resident on the street, and read out the list of their financial interests in the UK, which for two of them, Leonard Blavatnik and Lakshmi Mittal, includes sitting on the council of the Serpentine Galleries. Then the penny drops.

Finally, having returned to the Serpentine Gallery, as ASH and several other participants, including our human rights lawyer, are discussing the walk in the Serpentine Sackler cafe, the Community Projects team, who refuse our invitation to join us, ask to speak to us in private at the next table. Here they demand that we remove their names and the name of the Serpentine from all future publications of the ASH text. Since we had only mentioned their names to thank them we are happy to do so. However, since ASH’s name hadn’t yet been removed from the Serpentine Gallery website, we saw no reason to remove its name from ours. When we once again explain to the indignant staff that ASH doesn’t accept being censored by people who invite us to work with them, the Community Projects Curator responds: ‘How dare you accuse us of trying to censor you!’ At this point one of the two leaders of the ASH Power Walk gets up and re-joins the rest of the participants at the next table, who have witnessed the conversation. After he leaves the Curator of the Community Projects team accuses him of being ‘aggressive and violent’.

Apart from these clumsy attempts to sabotage it, the walk itself was very successful. Many of the participants participated in reading the texts at the various points we stopped at on the walk. They were reassured by the human rights lawyer’s clarification of their legal rights on Kensington Palace Gardens. On our own behalf,­­­ Jamie Burton had read the booklet through and confirmed that there was nothing libellous in it. We all observed the conditions imposed by the Crown Estate not to photograph or film on the street. And even though we had run over the 2 hours duration of the walk due to the deliberately delayed start, about 15 participants walked along Kensington Palace Gardens, about three quarters of the ticket holders that had turned up. At the conclusion of the walk, around 4.30pm, ASH was rather profusely thanked by the participants. Unfortunately, since the Serpentine Gallery had stopped the person they had paid to do so from attending, there was no-one to register the positive feedback.

Oddly, the opposition to the walk we anticipated from the police and security services on Kensington Palace Gardens didn’t materialise beyond being trailed by a Crown Estate guard up and down the street, although he didn’t interrupt us; plus an amusing exchange with someone we presumed to be one of Leonard Blavatnik’s security guards. As we were standing outside Blavatnik’s property at 15 and 15b, a guard came out and asked to see the booklet we were reading, which is titled Inequality Capital, and asked: ‘Are you against inequality?’ Then, realising what he’d said, he answered his own question: ‘Of course, we’re all against inequality!’ He laughed, said it was clear we ‘weren’t trouble makers’, and went back inside with a copy of the booklet. Whether he showed it to his employer we don’t know. But the strange truth is that if there was any manifestation of the power of the billionaires who own property on this street, then it came through the Serpentine Gallery itself. If it did – and we have no proof that it did – this would be an example of how ‘soft’ power works, and say something about the function and role of art institutions.

In fact, ASH’s walk was never about this function, and our original draft of the booklet said nothing about the link between the residents of Kensington Palace Gardens and the Serpentine Galleries, of which we were, perhaps naively, unaware. It was only when, on 3 April, ten days before the walk, the Community Projects team told us that the Gallery would not publish our booklet, that we began to look for the reasons why. However, we did not draw attention to this connection on the walk itself, nor did we read the preface, which we felt necessary to include only as an explanation of why we were collaborating with an institution with financial connections to such individuals, and what we hoped to achieve by doing so. We only mentioned the presence of the residents on the Council of the Serpentine Galleries at the end of the walk, when we were reading the individual biographies, which the other participants – rightly or wrongly – interpreted as an explanation of why the entire staff of the Serpentine Galleries had rather preposterously marched off. The purpose of the walk, however, as clearly stated in the booklet, was to test the limits of our ability to complete our discussion about the causes of London’s housing crisis and rising homelessness, of which the private residents of Kensington Place Gardens are both particular and emblematic. As the opposition to our walk increased, we became convinced that, in a walk about power – which is both a cause and an effect of inequality – the Serpentine Sackler Gallery had emerged as the unlikely site of its manifestation. As the unpleasant events on the day of the walk proved, we were right.

14 April. The following day the webpage for ASH’s Power Walk is deleted from the Serpentine Galleries website.

17 April. The link to the entire Power Walks webpage on the Serpentine Galleries exhibition webpage is removed, deleting not only the contribution of ASH, but also of the other Power Walk organisers, Constantine Gras (on 27 April), The Voice of Domestic Workers (on 28 April), and Disabled People Against Cuts (on 4 May).

(As reported in Part 1 of this article) on the same day, ASH is informed by e-mail that the budget for their display at the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019 has been cut by two-thirds from £45,000 to £15,000, effectively rejecting our proposal that had been formally accepted by the curatorial team two weeks earlier.

18 April. Having brought the deletions of the Power Walks from the Serpentine Galleries website to the attention of Hito Steyerl, who contacts the gallery, the webpages are restored. In conversation ASH is informed by a source who does not wish to be identified that an unidentified employee of the gallery was sent on the Power Walk with instructions to text back to the Chief Executive Officer, Yana Peel, what was said, and that it was this that led to the Chief Executive Officer instructing the Community Projects Curator to stop any employees of the Serpentine Gallery from entering Kensington Palace Gardens, and to formally dissociate themselves and the gallery from the ASH walk in front of the other participants. Our name having been restored to the Serpentine Galleries website, ASH publishes the text of our walk, Inequality Capital: A Power Walk by Architects for Social Housing, on our website.

19 April. (As reported in Part 1 of this article) ASH e-mails a written request to the Chicago Architecture Biennial asking for an explanation of why our proposal has been rejected at such a late date. At the time of publishing this article, two weeks later, at a time when we were scheduled to be signing a contract with them, we are yet to receive any response from the Chicago Architecture Biennial, which has subsequently ceased all communication with us. Faced with this silence, we have belatedly discovered that the Artistic Director at the Serpentine Galleries, Hans-Ulrich Obrist, is also one of the London representatives on the International Advisory Committee of the Chicago Architecture Biennial. Unfortunately, as it turns out, we had informed the Serpentine’s Community Projects team of ASH’s participation in the Biennial. In the e-mail to our fellow collaborators on the ASH project informing them it has been rejected, we ended: ‘The level of opposition we’ve had to this map from the moment we first started it two years ago is some indication of how powerful it may one day be.’

Seduction expenses not only serve the marketing of products. It is actually more important for the sponsors to create a favourable political climate for their interests, particularly when it comes to matters like taxes, labour and health regulations, ecological constraints, export rules, etc. The strategic goal is to “neutralise critics”.’

– Hans Haacke and Pierre Bourdieu, Free Exchange (1995)

Postscript. The day after we published this article the name of Architects for Social Housing was quietly deleted from the list of Exhibition Contributors to the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019. One of the four themes for this year, Appearances and Erasures, is described in the Curatorial Statement as exploring ‘sites of memory and the politics of remembering and/or forgetting in contested spaces, considering space as a marker of past and present social imaginaries, visible or otherwise.’ This screen-grab (below), and this article, is ASH’s contribution to that politics of remembering.

Postscript 2.

14 June. The Guardian reveals that Yana Peel, the CEO of the Serpentine Galleries, co-owns Novalpina Capital, a private equity firm that in turn controls a majority stake in an Israeli cyber-weapons company, NSO, whose software has allegedly been used by authoritarian regimes to spy on dissidents. The NSO Group is the subject of multiple ongoing lawsuits, and has been criticised by human rights groups, including Amnesty International, which has asked Israel’s ministry of defence to revoke the company’s export licences. Human rights groups, activists, and surveillance experts have accused NSO of licensing its powerful Pegasus software to countries, including Saudi Arabia, that have used it to target individuals, hack into their phones, and monitor their communications, as well as those of their associates. In response, Yana Peel says:

‘Throughout my entire adult life I have campaigned in public and private for free speech and defence of human rights. This is something I feel very strongly about and these values guide decisions in all aspects of my life and work.’

18 June. Yana Peel resigns as CEO of the Serpentine Galleries. The Guardian reveals that Pegasus software had been used to target Saudi dissident, Jamal Khashoggi, who was murdered by government operatives, as well as by Mexican authorities to target the phones of activists and journalists. Last year Peel had served as a judge for the international freedom of expression awards held by Index on Censorship, the free-speech campaign group. In a statement on her resignation Peel says:

‘In light of a concerted lobbying campaign against my husband’s recent investment, I have taken the decision to step down as CEO of the Serpentine Galleries. I am saddened to find myself in this position. I have dedicated the majority of my professional life to public service in the cultural sector. The work of the Serpentine – and its incomparable artistic director – cannot be allowed to be undermined by misguided personal attacks on me and my family. These attacks are based upon inaccurate media reports now subject to legal complaints. I have decided I am better able to continue my work in supporting the arts, the advancement of human rights and freedom of expression by moving away from my current role.

‘A word for the wonderful community of artist and supporters, with whom I will continue to engage. The world of art is about free expression. But it is not about bullying and intimidation. I welcome debate and discussion about the realities of life in the digital age. There is a place for these debates, but they should be constructive, fair and factual – not based upon toxic personal attacks. If campaigns of this type continue, the treasures of the art community – which are so fundamental to our society – risk an erosion of private support. That will be a great loss for everyone.’

Legal Disclaimer

The timeline of events presented here and the written statements quoted within it can all be verified by ASH’s e-mail exchanges with both the Serpentine Galleries and the Chicago Architecture Biennial. ASH would like to make clear that we make no accusation against, or attribute any motive to, either the institutions or the employees of the Chicago Architectural Biennial or the Serpentine Galleries; and we have deliberately removed the names of the employees with whom we had contact during our collaboration with these institutions. What we are presenting here is a factual account of this collaboration. Whatever conclusions readers draw from this account are their own, and do not necessarily reflect those of Architects for Social Housing.

Architects for Social Housing

Architects for Social Housing is a Community Interest Company (CIC). Although we receive minimal fees for our design work, the majority of what we do is unpaid and we have no source of public funding. If you would like to support our work financially, please make a donation through PayPal:

Architects for Social Housing (CIC), company no. 10383452

One thought on “Sponsorship and Censorship: Why ASH is withdrawing from the Chicago Architecture Biennial 2019

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