This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
If you live in London, you're probably so used to social inequality that it's easy not to think about it as you give the homeless guy outside Whole Foods £1 [$1.50] change from that £9 [$14] salad you bought for lunch. Maybe that's not you. Maybe you don't buy expensive salads. Maybe you signed one of those online petitions opposing plans to evict an entire community from their homes to make way for new luxury flats already sold off-plan to foreign investors. Whoever you are, however rich or poor, if you live in London you probably don't mix with people outside your income bracket. But what if you could?
Filmmaker, writer, and artist Penny Woolcock spent months searching for stories of Londoners across the social spectrum—from gang members, former offenders, and sex workers to the elderly, housewives, and university graduates. She then teamed up with radical design duo Block9 (Gideon Berger and Stephen Gallagher) to mash up all those parallel lives and turn them into a multi-sensory installation that is taking over the Main Space at the Roundhouse this month. I chatted with Penny, Gideon, and Stephen about their vision for Utopia and whether art can change the world.
VICE: Tell me about Utopia. Where did the idea come from and how has it developed?
Penny Woolcock: One of the central ideas is that when you live in a big city like London, the same street can be really different for different people. There are lots of different stories, but we never get a chance to really step into each other's spaces. And Camden is probably one of the most unequal boroughs in the whole world, where you have billionaires living in these massive mansions and also pockets of extreme poverty. So it was about somehow trying to get those voices—generally voices you don't hear from—into the Roundhouse's Main Space.
Gideon Berger: I don't know if we're calling it a show or an installation, but it feels less like a show where you arrive and spectate and consume, and more like an installation. You actually walk through different environments and realities that we've built, based around these snippets of stories.
How do you go about finding people to interview?
Woolcock: I find people in random ways. There was a lot of wandering around streets and community centers, loads of cul-de-sacs, and then someone would catch my eye and there would be an energy between us—I don't know how else to describe it.
I also did go looking for specific people. For example, I really wanted to find a sex worker who wanted to speak for herself, because it's so dreary the way women only get talked about as hapless victims. I also wanted to look outside my usual comfort zone so I pushed myself to do that and I'm glad I did.
At what stage did Block9 come on board?
Berger: We started working on it at quite an early stage when Penny was trying to organize all of these different seeds of stories and personalities that she'd been collecting for several months. We sat down at a big round table and sort of played dot-to-dot, joining up all the different stories and snippets of personalities and lives, trying to make sense of them all.
Something that was fascinating to us was that everybody was touching on the same sort of overarching theme. A lot of people were talking about the same stuff, just using slightly different vocabulary. We found that a Primrose Hill dinner party talked about gentrification, crime, and inequality in the same way that the front line kids or someone sat in prison did. And also being pretty far out and philosophical, talking existentially about the state of mankind and humanity.
We found that a Primrose Hill dinner party talked about gentrification, crime, and inequality in the same way that the front line kids or someone sat in prison did. –Penny Woolcock
Do you feel you have a responsibility in the way you represent these people and their lives?
Woolcock: Yeah, of course you do, but I invited people in good faith and everybody was incredibly open. There's a trust there that I'm not going to stitch them up, so I was able to push things to quite an extreme. When I wasn't sure if somebody would be happy about an idea, I contacted the person and asked how they felt about it.
Berger: Penny was definitely the soldier protecting all those stories. So she would say, "We can't frame this person in this environment because there's implications and associations you'd make by putting a certain person in a certain space."
Stephen Gallagher: We were pretty careful to make sure that we're not judging anyone. I hope this comes across. We're merely presenting their voices and telling their stories and interpreting those in the way that the three of us think is most appropriate.
What do you hope the audience take from the experience?
We're quite excited by the idea of challenging perceptions and taking that into the design work as well, so all is not what it seems. We're challenging your preconceptions of the actual space that you're in, so it's different to what you might imagine the Roundhouse to feel like.
Berger: It's funny, lying in bed at night in anticipation of this installation actually happening and how it will be received. It's perfectly conceivable that we're going to fuck loads and loads of people off. At the same time, we'll probably please a bunch of people, amuse some people, wind some people up, open some people's eyes. It's got the potential to annoy the fuck out of the whole crowd in a different way. That's quite nerve-racking, but it's exciting as well.
Woolcock: If it doesn't do all of those things then really we've failed.
I'm aware that a lot of the people you've interviewed might not be regulars at the Roundhouse. Are you hoping to attract more of a diverse audience?
The second failure will be if people like that don't come. We're actually going out of our way to give free tickets and to make sure that those people feel not just invited but encouraged to come. If you have a theatre or gallery, even if it's free, the people who will usually come are the upper middle classes who consume cultural events. So we're doing everything we can not to exclude people, because it would really be a disaster if we set something up like this and the same people come to it that always come to everything.
The title you've chosen isn't a word I'd associate with the themes of this installation. Why Utopia?
I'm an optimist and I don't think things have to be like that. We can get locked into our own bubbles that we live in and think, This is the way it has to be—there has to be extraordinarily rich people and at the same time people living on rubbish dumps. Why? It does not have to be like that. Let's actually do something about it. There are very exciting things that are happening, particularly amongst young people. I find it a really encouraging time—the first time I feel that radical revolutionary politics are being talked about and are potentially possible. We don't just want to sit there and go, "Oh no, another person's been stabbed in my neighborhood," or, "Oh no, a load of people have been blown up by a bomb."
Do you think that's something that art can change?
It's a contribution. We can do what we can, and what we do is make art. Other people do different things.
Berger: We're linking people and linking their ideas. Fundamentally, it's good to plug voices into other voices, because at the moment they're disparate voices. They're in very different parts of London—a hundred yards away from each other but worlds apart.
Without giving too much away, what can the audience expect to experience?
We hope that it will feel like you're inside either a video game or a film. You're not watching it, you're actually inside that experience.
Berger: There are two journeys that each individual visitor can take. Both of those journeys lead you through very different realities, and the stories that you will encounter are giving you part of the overall picture. There'll be quite a lot of different experiences you can have in the main space and there's no shortage of things to do. If you want to spend the whole day in the main space and go really deep, you can do that. In a way, Block9's mission statement is to build an environment around audio. In our usual work it's music, but in this case, those sound bites are coming from people, from lives.
Woolcock: We won't really know until we put it up, but in a way there's no point doing something if we could predict how it was going to work. I think all of us are interested in taking risks and trying to do something that's impossible. Playing it safe is not really the game here.
What's your vision of utopia?
Woolcock: I think it's where everybody feels that the public space is theirs and that they can move freely around it without being oppressed by others.
Berger: I'm going there on Sunday. Downstairs, Berghain, Berlin, on Sunday afternoons.
Gallagher: I have to be honest, I don't know what my utopia would be. It's just so hard to imagine. I think that's the point of this piece. It isn't Utopia with a question mark, but it could be. And maybe that's the thing I'd like everyone to take away from this. Is this what you want? Is this what we want? Is this it?
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Utopia runs at the Roundhouse from August 4 through 23.