Penny Woolcock’s Installation Utopia

Crowds, curious and engaged, flow over the ruins of what could be London. Like moths, they swarm and hopelessly flow towards the light – almost desperately looking for some sort of direction. Yet, the light disappears endlessly upwards leaving the mass to wander in a dull stupor until human voices awaken them.

Disembodied voices build Penny Woolcock’s Utopia. The immersive installation, made in collaboration with Block9 at the Roundhouse might appear to have brought a city to it’s knees, but it is this reduction that makes it successful. A shadowy urban landscape emerges from the rubble; the destruction is given coherence through stories and narratives that speak the exhibit into life.

According to Penny, the use of live performers was never considered due to the practicality of the show’s opening hours and originated as a concept for a sound installation. Whilst there may be pragmatic logic behind this decision, it also works on a metaphorical level. As London is becoming increasingly gentrified and expensive, stories and people who do not fit into the capitalistic lie of success become increasingly marginalised. However, Penny’s collaborators – Londoner’s with a unflinching diverse range of backgrounds and experiences – are those who give London it’s meaning and beauty.

Estate agent signs lie scattered alongside abandoned phone boxes. Visually, this suggests that when London’s bricks fall down these stories will still survive. However, as anyone who appreciates documentaries will know, Penny Woolcock is one of Britain’s most highly regarded filmmakers. Given the amount of recognition she has received due to her skill as a storyteller, it could be quite easy to disconnect from the average Londoner. But, according to Penny, life on the margins is what inspires her creatively.

For Penny, life would be very impoverished if we became trapped in our own bubbles of consciousness. She says, ‘we can all become too busy, too shy or too afraid of being rejected or having demands made on us. There are always reasons not to connect with others if we push ourselves to be braver life becomes much more interesting’. In fact, in relation to the production of this work Penny seems to have taken her own advice quite literally. She walked round the streets of London to get the feel of the different areas, dropped into a mixture of community centres and selected people who she felt a connection with that also were comfortable to share their stories.

However, there were also some particular stories that Penny knew she wanted to amplify. For example, Penny says that she was, ‘sick of only hearing professional people talking about sex workers as trafficked and gang raped victims’. As even if this was true for all sex workers, which by the way it isn’t, she sought to use her platform for sex workers, and other groups in society who generally have their narratives constructed for them by the media, to speak for themselves.

One voice honestly says, ‘money is the main goal… the implications and trauma that can be affected on families in the pursuit of it happens but it is not about the victim or the individual’. From listening in closely, one begins to realise that this fragment of speech is becoming an explanation about crime and gang violence. Yet, in isolation, it could also speak to the collapse of the stock markets or those who turn into grey machines, losing out in love and life, due to their obsession with things rather than experiences. Perhaps this is why the show manages to speak to a variety of people. When asked whether the anti-capitalist theme might only appeal to like-minded people, Penny explained that what she found interesting was that the wealthy as well as those with corporate ties have responded well to Utopia.

In her words, capitalism is a miserable system that rewards the rich and impoverishes the vast majority. Despite being quick to assure me that she has no qualms in her ideas, she also seems slightly forgiving and doesn’t define those with privilege as utterly heartless. She believes that, ‘nobody really thinks that it’s right that some children are brought up scavenging on rubbish dumps while others buy handbags for thousands of pounds’. Indeed, it is this relationship between the poorest and the wealthiest in society that inspired the nightmarish aesthetic of the gallery. Despite it’s title, one feels as if they have been transported to the scene of a bombing during the Blitz – giving the look of a fiery dystopia rather than that of a heavenly beach. However, this is because Penny has come to see the creation of Utopia as a process rather than as a destination. She says that, ‘you need to acknowledge how things are in a truthful way. If we recognise that we are all trapped in a crazy consumerist illusion we can also break out of it.’

The exhibition is now over. Yet, there are formative plans to make it into a website and putting the audio alongside pictures and writing – although, Penny adds, it will never be the same as the actual experience. The show was supported by Bloomberg Philanthropies and was specifically designed for the Roundhouse’s Main Space.

Words by Jade Jackman