Subversive Genius

Roads protesters are bringing art and necessity back together, sowing the seeds of cultural renewal

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 7th December 1994.

The bailiffs brought a new tool to Claremont Road. It was a bladed hook about two feet long, cleverly designed to extract arms embedded in barrels of concrete without tearing too much flesh.

At first it was devastatingly effective, and people who had expected to spend three hours being dug out with pneumatic drills and angle grinders were freed in just five minutes. But as news of the device spread along the rooftops, the protestors started binding their arms with tape and plastic hosepipe, plugging the holes down which the arm extractor would be pushed. This hindered the bailiffs but failed to stop them. Next time the protestors will have evolved a new tactic, and the Department of Transport will have to find another means with which to combat it. While the government has the technology, the protestors have something which can never be definitively suppressed: an ineluctable upwelling of creativity.

With picks and shovels, hacksaws and hand drills, they created defences that took the most powerful and sophisticated demolition machines three days to dismantle. Six protestors managed to bury their arms in the road: the contractors spent three and half hours digging them out. A rolling bridge between the rooftops and a treehouse took the hydraulic hoists and chainsaws forty minutes to dismantle, while the one hundred foot tower of greased and welded scaffolding kept the bailiffs busy for two days.

But the creativity of Claremont Road extended beyond the raw necessities of keeping the sheriff away. This grim little corner of east London was transformed into a baroque, apocalyptic pagan wonderland which made the set of ‘Mad Max’ look like Berkeley Square. If hierarchy contains creativity, then anarchy appears to unleash it.

Split-level pixie treehouses, festooned with tinsel, cartridge belts, High Court exclusion orders, gnarled metal and the amputated limbs of tailors’ dummies, overhung a road adorned with symbolically exploding cars, from whose torn bodywork fluorescent scaffolding poles and living plants erupted. At either end of the street were barricades of concrete-filled tyres sprawling with wild sculptures of mangled household appliances.

Two things place this among the most significant cultural phenomena of the decade. The first is its sense of purpose. The outrageous installations of Claremont Road were manifestly functional. The tyre and washing machine sculptures at the ends of the street held back the bulldozers while people consolidated their defences. The cars full of scaffolding proved to be excellent tank traps. The bits of metal nailed to the trunks of the trees had to be painstakingly extracted before the chainsaws could start work, while the amputated limbs were waiting to be dropped as memento mori at the bailiffs’ feet whenever they became over-enthusiastic with the chainsaws or bolt cutters.

Claremont Road and the creative exuberance attending similar protests in Pollak Park in Glasgow and Solsbury Hill near Bath expose the self-referential emptiness into which so much of our recognised fine art, performance and fashion has wandered. Behind the barricades, for the first time in decades, without the help of tutors, grants or critics, art and necessity have been brought back together.

But most importantly, while creativity elsewhere means a few people producing and everyone else simply paying to watch, the creative impulse which erupted in Claremont Road was one in which everyone participated, rebuilding the world as it suited them. Dispossessed city youths knocked holes in the walls between the terraced houses and established tracks across the rooftops, building a communal space from the architecture of alienation.

The protestors were not only creators, but part of the creation. Dressed absurdly in sombreros and shades, bicycle helmets and miners’ lamps, dresses, braces and pixie hats, headscarves and animal masks, they re-asserted their culture in a world deprived of its initiative by the technology of convenience. This creative engagement has made the roads protestors the romantic heroes of the 1990s. They are sowing the seeds of the cultural renewal Britain so desperately needs.