It’s Friday lunchtime and I’m thoroughly enjoying gyrating inside a hoola hoop at an exercise class, currently operating within Hauser & Wirth’s Piccadilly space. By coincidence, the last time I hoola-hooped was also in an art gallery – at The Hayward’s ‘Move’ exhibition last year. But whereas then the participation was an optional extra to the work, at the The Piccadilly Community Centre it is the work, as is the transformation of the building itself. Running until the end of July, it has been refitted as a fully functioning local community venue hosting coffee mornings, drop-in or bookable classes, and courses ranging from ‘Algerian baking’ and ‘Botanical drawing’ to ‘Internet for the over-fifties’.
To encourage genuine participation in the centre, the initial press for the project was keen to play down the ‘art’ element, but it’s no secret that the person behind it all is Swiss artist Christoph Büchel. Büchel is one of an increasing number of artists known for constructing hyper-real, interactive environments. His previous projects include the creation of a seedy, migrant worker shanty town in a temporary warehouse space off Brick Lane in 2006, and a swingers’ club within his installation at Vienna Secession last year. But at the PCC, by including local groups and public users genuinely booking and using the facilities, Büchel is adding another layer to the experience.
It’s a fair point to ask where the art is in all this, but like many of Büchel’s projects, it’s often to be found in an underlying but powerful political element. His East End environment was in an area known for its sweatshops, and the Vienna Secession famously reacted against showing works by Gustav Klimt because of their ‘pornographic’ content. So it is with the PCC: the deeper one looks and thinks, the more apparent the social juxtapositions and contradictions become. There’s no irony lost in the fact that before it was a gallery this building was a bank – there’s a Western Union money transfer counter in the entrance along with a host of leaflets advertising loan and debt facilities.
The charity shop selling clothes and furniture is situated next to the Conservative Party Archive stall that blares out promotional videos for a party built on privilege rather than social concern. And the further upstairs or downstairs one goes, the more sinister it gets. The dingy basement bar with its outdated décor reminds of the uninviting kind of pub one might imagine on a sink estate. Climb the metal ladder in the upstairs kitchen and you find yourself peering into a large attic. Crawl through the hatch and you’ve stumbled into a rubbish-strewn squat, complete with anarchist posters, manky mattress bedding and TVs blaring. The senior citizens enjoying their coffee and biscuits downstairs may be one outcome of a do-it-yourself, charity-based Big Society, but up here you’re reminded that an increasingly disenfranchised underclass is another.