An unhealthy obsession with science fiction fuels Liam Johnstone’s practice. The graphic designer, who is still studying for an MA in Visual Communication at the Royal College of Art, describes himself as being interested in “idealised worlds, both utopian and dystopian, fictional and real.”
The former Leeds Beckett University (formerly Leeds Metropolitan) student uses design to interrogate what happens when everyday life begins to surpass the realities that were once thought to be impossible, and while his head might be full of deep space fantasies, his most recent project is grounded in the cold, hard reality of life in a concrete-heavy south east London enclave.
Blind Corners, a multi-disciplinary work in progress that features video, installations, and publications, sees Liam asking us to join him on a visual journey of the footpaths of the Thamesmead estate. For the uninitiated, Thamesmead consists largely of mid-60s social housing that was built upon what was once marshland, between Woolwich and Belvedere.
Calling the area a “social experiment from the 1960s that was never finished,” he found himself fascinated by how the place had been “so obviously shaped to affect its inhabitants and their lives.” And thus he carted himself off to a semi-neglected bend in the river Thames to examine just what it’s like to live in a large-scale utopian estate 50 years after the foundations were laid.
“The multi-disciplinary approach came after interviewing my main contact in Thamesmead,” Liam says. “She was a resident there and we spoke at length about the struggles she’d faced as a member of the community. When it came to the architecture, she said that it had caused her some anxiety, but I think it was a drop in the ocean when compared to the larger problems in Thamesmead.”
Keen to distance himself from the kind of coffee table brutalism that privileges the writer, photographer, or designer above the actual residents of the schemes, that men in austere jackets chin-stroke themselves silly over, Liam handed authorial control over. “I let someone else do that talking, someone from outside the creative world who is just concerned about some of the shit they have to put up with,” he says.
“I find that, for me, that created a more honest commentary on the issues that I was looking into, as opposed to the project being an entirely self-authored, contrived critique on European modernism, something I have no business commenting on myself.”
The work uses the act of navigating the grid-like space to mirror anxiety and isolation felt by residents, mapping how the community has evolved and adapted to changes made by its local governing bodies.
“If anything I’d only scratched the surface when I wrapped things up a few months ago,” Liam says. “My intention is to stick with Thamesmead and dig deeper, to create a more narrative piece of work. My ultimate goal is to document what has been revealed to be a transitional period in Thamesmead’s history (as it is redeveloped in the wake of the Elizabeth Line’s arrival, making it a destination living location for the affluent, regardless of those living there now), gathering interviews and material from people that surround the issue on all sides.”