Looking at Mark Cawson’s sublime portraits of London squat culture in the 1980s, what’s striking is how little has really changed. Some people today squat out of necessity – forced outside the housing system by the complex knots of bureaucracy, or simply unable to afford the capital’s sky high rent. Others choose to squat; signing themselves up for an alternative way of living built on foundations of community and eco-values, or drugs, or a romantic idea that squatting removes them from the shackles of conformity.
Back in the early 80s, when Mark – known as Smiler – was shooting, there was no Camelot organisation to help well-meaning folk looking for a cheap, alternative lifestyle. What there was, though was a sense of alienation and the uncertainty born of political and social upheaval. Smiler photographed the often unseen squats of the 1970s, 80s and 90s using black and white film. Most of his subjects were found in King’s Cross and West London, including the communities of Cromer St, the School House in Hammersmith and Queens Gate.
The images are going on show at London’s ICA this month, and paint an intimate portrayal of a time when salvaging was cool (ring any bells?) and people sought a different life from the slog of other Londoners’ existences. Sexual overtones and smouldering rebellion abound, and it’s these glimmers of insouciance that take the images beyond peopled ruin porn or nostalgia for a more exciting time, free from Foxton’s neon chairs and the artisan coffee shops everyone’s so keen to denigrate.
“With the housing crisis dominating the headlines today, this exhibition serves as timely reminder of how the city has transformed and poses questions about the direction it is taking,” says the ICA. “Smiler’s compelling photographs are a lens on London as a hotbed of rebellious anti-establishment sentiment and brings into focus how dramatically different the city feels today.”
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