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November 5, 2018

In conversation with Peoples Bureau, after their artist residency at The Collective

Bria Woods

Rebecca Davies and Eva Sajovic are the artists behind People’s Bureau, a multimedia collaborative practice based in Elephant and Castle. Their latest project brings them to the Park Royal area, where they have been commissioned by Create London (with the support of OPDC) to engage with the community on issues relating to urban change. As part of their process the pair moved into  The Collective Old Oak for a week in September, during which time they invited locals to join them for discussions on the future of living.

They documented their journey along the way, and showed the outputs as part of an installation in The Gallery during Open House weekend. Following their exhibition, Bria Woods had a chat with Rebecca and Eva to learn more about their creative process.

Bria: What do you do and why?

Rebecca and Eva: We are both artists – our practices stretch from photography, illustration, film to performance and events. Due to the collaborative nature of the work, the outcomes are unpredictable: we learn as we make and do all this publicly, with transparency. Why do we do this? I think we share a strong view that everyone has a right to a platform, to speak or share their experiences – so the work is partly about justice. Why do we work together? Because we really enjoy it, and it’s good to check each other and a project when it’s in full speed. We also have different networks, knowledges and understanding so that helps to make working together quite a rich, fulfilling, but also grounding experience.

Can you explain what Peoples Bureau is, and tell us about its origins in Elephant and Castle? 

Peoples Bureau is a collaborative practice, led by the two of us – working with residents, community groups, artists and commissioners.

We met in Elephant and Castle nine years ago. Eva was making photography work in the area, deep in a project called Home From Home, when Rebecca got in contact about her work, inviting Eva to share Home From Home at ‘The Elephant Project’. Nine years later in Elephant and Castle we have created temporary studio spaces, residencies, skill exchanges, a series of newspapers and publications and a film, Unearthing Elephant which won the AHRC research in film award last year.

How and where did you two meet?

Southwark Council gave Rebecca Eva’s contact – it started with a phone call and shortly after we started collaborating. It was our mutual love of our home, Elephant and Castle, that begun it all, and what kept it going.

What messages, topics, theories, concepts are at the centre of your work?

We have a common concern around human rights: our right to home; public space; speech and each other – community. To quote our website: “People’s Bureau is intended as a rallying cry against the crude and merciless logic of corporate capital. It is intended to distill and to highlight:
1)     The role and function of public space and public commons.
2)     The capacity of the community to self-organise.
3)     Economic alternatives to cycles of consumption.”

Our influences, interests and research cross practices – art, design, architecture, activism, town planning, community – and we fold and invite people who are experienced in those respective practices to work with us, helping our learning and understanding and making the projects we do multi-layered.

Courtesy Peoples Bureau Courtesy Peoples Bureau

Most recently, you’ve been working with Create and Old Oak and Park Royal Development Corporation (OPDC) on a project which involved you staying for a week at The Collective. How did the project come about? 

Create were aware of the work we had done in Elephant and Castle over the years and invited us for conversations. We really love the work that they do and it’s been brilliant to work with them on this. We have learned lots through the process, and Create and OPDC have been very supportive and generous with their time towards this project.

What does co-living mean to you? How did your experience at The Collective gel with your definition?

I don’t think we have really thought about ‘co-living’ before this residency. Although we have both always shared living spaces with others, and lived in social housing. Co-living for us feels like a new concept, as it’s not a co-operative. So throughout this residency, we were constantly asking, what is co-living? But also, what is the ‘co’ in co-living? Is it co-operative, communal, collective? And by the end of our week we were asking whether this co was also convenience, control? We haven’t been able to define it because it is subjective – residents there have different experiences to each other and want to live there for different reasons. It was important that we went with an open and objective mind; we can’t fully surrender ourselves to a concept in such a short space of time (and also we’re quite self sufficient as a duo – so need unlearn this to truly co-operate), but we tried out everything, and really explored the building and all it has to offer.

We invited guests to the space, cooking for them and sharing lunch, having discussions in different spaces in the building. Our constant reflection throughout the stay was ‘the future of living’.

During your week-long stay at The Collective, what did you enjoy the most? 

We really enjoyed having guests and sharing this experience with them. We relished having space to think, reflect and be in one another’s company – something that happens rarely now that we live in separate cities. The spa was good, and one evening we took a laptop down (we’re so used to watching film on small screens!) and suddenly we were watching it on a giant screen with booming sound in the cinema. That’s luxury!

Peoples Bureau and guests at The Collective Old Oak
Peoples Bureau and guests at The Collective Old Oak. Photo courtesy Peoples Bureau
Peoples Bureau's installation at The Collective Old Oak
Peoples Bureau’s installation at The Collective Old Oak

Peoples Bureau's installation at The Collective Old Oak

How did you come up with the concept for your installation?

We initially wanted to exhibit in the room but as that was not possible and we were given the installation space instead, that idea came to us quite naturally and the question of the future of living begs a representation. And what better way would there be to enact that publicly in a different but yet indexical form and to draw attention to our perception and open it as a process of questioning and dialogue.

Can you walk me through the process of preparing for the installation?

Our residency at The Collective was informed by a period of research (talking, meeting and walking with the residents) in the area, prior to us taking up a space there.

We have been gathering material from the moment we started the residency, documenting our feelings and actions through writing, analogue and digital photography, sound recording and drawing. The way we work is usually practice-led and these artistic forms (that we normally use) help us think through problems and ideas and help us observe what we haven’t actually come to think about. The installation was actually a collation of the materials we gathered. We also knew that we won’t have much time between the engagement and research period, and the installation (one day), so knew that this will have to happen quite quickly.

Peoples Bureau's installation at The Collective Old Oak
Photographs in Peoples Bureau’s installation at The Collective Old Oak
Visitors to the installation
Visitors to the installation

I noticed that even though there are two of you, the overall voice of the installation appears to be told by one person. Was that a deliberate choice?

Our collaboration is based on shared values and perspective on the world. It is very dialogical, and we are close to each other. There is a lot of trust and also since we have been working together for some time we have developed one voice.

What were you hoping that viewers took away from your installation? Or was it more open to interpretation?

To an extent our work is always open as it hopes to provoke questioning. But we also wanted to question further thinking about our living, values in society, progress and profit based structures that form the mainstream ideology.

Is this the future of living?

I think again this is something that is left to interpretation. It is a complex question and answering it in one way would be simplifying things massively and also watering down all that we have been discovering over the period at The Collective and in the area.

What are the next steps now that the residency and installation have come to an end?

We are looking to continue the work in the area – the concrete next step is to pull our research and materials gathered into a publication that will be designed by Europa.

We are also discussing the idea of bringing together some of the residents of Park Royal and the Docklands to exchange experience and learn from past findings. Docklands was, similarly to Park Royal, a largely industrial zone, and has undergone regeneration a couple of decades ago, and we now have Canary Wharf. Some of the residents that we involved in the issues related to regeneration in that area at the time are still around. We thought it would be very useful to share what their findings were.

To learn more about OPDC, head here and for Create London, here. And visit Peoples Bureau at their website

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