'Where Do You Go?' with artist, Ellie Laycock
The Brixton-based photographer on gentrification, snare drums and climbing on rooftops
Every now and again we like to ask people for their personal take on London. We get them to tell us the places in the city that they turn to for different reasons: the spots that excite them, inspire them, make them feel calm, happy or just make them want to spend money.
We call it ‘Where do you go?’.
This time it’s the turn of Ellie Laycock who we first became aware of through the Artwork of Resistance she created for the #FightTheTower campaign to stop the proposed Hondo Tower in Brixton. That giant billboard at the junction of Atlantic Road and Coldharbour Lane led us to her Signs of Development series, which in turn led us to her 1500 Days of Gentrification project… And by that point there was no going back. We had to speak to her.
As it turned out, when we did end up speaking to Ellie we ended up chatting about more than just the places she loves. We talked about her work, gentrification and displacement in London, her personal experiences of being evicted by a private developer, and her hopes and fears for the community she has lived in for the past twenty years. Instead of cutting all that out we’ve created a special ‘extended version’ of this issue for paying subscribers. If you’d like to read it you can subscribe below:
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Who are you?
I’m Ellie Laycock, an artist living and working in Brixton.
I mainly work in documentary and architectural photography and my practice looks at gentrification and its impact on communities, exploring ideas of power, politics and the passage of time, often incorporating historical research.
Some of my recent works include a solo show at Photofusion, ‘1500 Days of Gentrification’ (above) which used photographs taken 1500 days apart to show the hyper-gentrification taking place around me in Brixton, and two public art commissions; ‘Spectemur Agendo’ which explores leadership in Lambeth and was exhibited in the Town Hall Art Programme, and ‘Low Income Displacements’, a public billboard commission by Save Nour - Artworks Of Resistance (below).
Your work obviously has a strong connection with Brixton and with the area’s development/gentrification. How conscious was that direction? Was it something you felt that was a necessity given your personal experiences?
It really became a central theme to my practice when all of my neighbours and I were no-fault evicted from our live/work studios because the building had been sold to a prolific local property developer who emptied the entire building so he could double the rent. There wasn’t even the option to remain and pay more rent. My son had just started primary school, the community had been settled there for years and then, on a whim, we were all booted out. It was quite traumatic. That’s when I started really looking closer at what was going on in the area and how gentrification impacts on communities.
There’s a lot in your work about the way that the landscape around us shifts and changes over time, those almost imperceptible changes that add up to places becoming unrecognisable over along enough time frame. Is that something you think video and photography can help us do - see things that we can’t with the ’naked eye’ and maybe inspire us to alter the path we’re on?
Yes absolutely. It is something I am fascinated with. For my project ‘Spectemur Agendo’ (below) I was digging around in Lambeth Archives to find out about a local photographer R. Lang Sims (who had a studio on Brixton Road, next to the tube station) and by poring over late 19th Century and early 20th Century photographs of the high street I was able to find evidence of his studio signage and see how the high street building line had advanced forwards during that time to where it is now.
I find the evolution of urban spaces quite fascinating. That strip of land was once part of Rush Common, going really far back, which ties in with my current project ‘Commotion Time’ which looks at the theft of common land by the gentry in Norfolk in 1549 and Kett’s Rebellion, the uprising that fought against it. I think if anything can inspire us to alter our path it should be learning from history. It always pays to zoom out and look at things from a wider perspective.
Do you draw a line between ‘art’ and ‘protest’ or ‘activism’? Do you think the two can exist alongside each other? Where do you think your work sits or do you prefer to not try and label it too much?
I do not draw a line here at all, and deliberately so. The best art has something to say and something to fight for and leaves the viewer in a different state than before, whether that is moved by beauty or inspired to action or something else.
What are your hopes and fears for Brixton as we head into 2022? Are you optimistic for its future?
Global investment into London means it is changing more rapidly than in any time in its history, you only have to glance at the skyline to see that. There were more than 100 applications lodged to build new skyscrapers at one point recently. We are currently fighting a 20-storey tower that looks like it will be approved even though it isn’t needed and smashes the local plan. Many Londoners I know, know that these towers are not for them and in the current climate it seems that the divide will only get bigger however I can’t bear being pessimistic. I also know that Brixton is based on its community, not its buildings, and that is what makes me feel optimistic about the future. It’s the people that make the place, after all.
On to the usual questions...Where do you go if you want to feel comfortable?
I absolutely love the vibe at Peckham Levels. I feel completely at ease there. It reminds me of being back at art school. I loved the Hip Hopera Foundation scratch DJ workshops on a Sunday afternoon.
Where do you go to impress someone?
That’s not my style.
Where do you go to be alone?
I like to take my camera and wander around the city. I'm drawn to the building sites and areas that are rapidly changing. I started my ‘Signs Of Development’ series this way and it is still a work in progress as the city is constantly evolving.
Where do you go to cheer yourself up?
I try to find something to do that I have never done before. Last thing I did was a samba bateria percussion workshop at Paraiso School of Samba (above) at Brixton Rec. They taught me how to bash seven shades out of a snare drum whilst samba dancers swirled all around us. It was exhilarating and very, very loud.
Where do you go that's within walking distance of your house?
I go to Lambeth Archives, currently in a tiny former library building that narrowly escaped being turned into a gym. It is a treasure trove and so are the people who work there. It will soon be rehoused in the former Olive Morris building on Brixton Hill where I hope it gets the space and support that it deserves.
Where do you go that can never close down, because if it does you might cry?
Photofusion. They’ve been in Brixton for 30 years or more and they do amazing outreach work with local young people and it’s a really important creative hub that has got a national reputation. They have recently been forced to relocate from the market because Hondo bought the market and hoiked the rent up. They have moved into International House behind the Rec, but I hear that the future of International House as a building is not secure. If they were to end up without premises I would be gutted. If Brixton lost Photofusion that would be very sad.
Where do you go if you want to switch off?
I had the best time seeing Sleaford Mods at Crystal Palace Bowl (above). I had never been there before but it was amazing. They had built a stage out over the lake and it was a natural bowl landscape, a rainbow even appeared over the stage at one point! After all the lockdowns it was joyous to be with other people and enjoy live music for the first time in ages. Blissful.
Where do you go to get inspired?
I like getting onto rooftops. Legally of course. It's that zooming out thing again - it gives a sense of perspective. City living can be really intense. I was shooting in Kingston this week and from the top of an eight storey tower block I could see the whole of South London, the lie of the land, the rising hills, the sun going down. It's hard to see the whole city like that from street level. I saw across to Hampton Court Palace and the way the river ran up to it. I could imagine Henry VIII sailing down it towards the palace on his royal barge.
Where do you go to think?
I like to go and fill the well and look at art or artefacts. Favourite haunts are the White Conduit Projects gallery in Islington (above), which specialises in showing work by Japanese artists; The Wellcome Collection on Euston Road both for their permanent collection and rota of exhibitions; and The Building Centre, just off Tottenham Court Road, which often has really interesting exhibitions at the intersection of architecture and art and is always worth a visit.
If you know of anyone that you think would make a good interview for our ‘Where do you go?’ series then let us know on Londoninbits@gmail.com.