(Photo by NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images)
Artillery Row

The death of Soho

After a recent incident in London’s Carnaby Street, Brice Stratford laments the “dire state” of corporate Soho

On Thursday 8 April artist Dave Crocker woke early and sat down in an almost completely empty Carnaby Street to paint the fifth open-air landscape in his current series documenting the life and culture of Soho in 2021.

The first thing he did was find a corner of the street where he’d be most out of the way, up against some bins. He set up his easel and his stool, he placed the blank canvas down and activated his time-lapse camera. He looked at the wide, empty streets and the glossy sign strung above which reads “Welcome to Carnaby London”. His eyes went beyond, through the generations of art and rebellion, as he breathed it in and leant forward to start capturing all of that on canvas.

“You can’t do that here, mate.”

Dave looked up to the security guard employed circuitously by the investment company which has bought up the bulk of the shops in Carnaby Street and the surrounding areas. “Can I ask why?” Dave responded.

“It’s private and it’s not part of our corporate image.”

1973: London’s fashionable Carnaby Street, featuring new rubberised, coloured paving tiles (Photo by Graham French/BIPs/Getty Images)

Dave picked up his empty canvas, packed up his stool, easel and camera, and went somewhere else to paint.

If I had been trying to come up with the perfect encapsulation of the dire state of corporate Soho, I couldn’t have fictionalised a better example.

Carnaby Street and the surrounding area was, of course, the famously groovy heart of 1960s Swinging London: home to mods, hippies, The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, Christopher Gibbs, Lady Jane, and many more. In 1966 it appeared on the cover of Time magazine, and its reputation was thus secured. I won’t drone on about it, but this was a reputation of art, youth, and rebellion. It was a culture: a movement and distinct aesthetic that could only be Carnaby Street, and it has been resting (and capitalising) on those brightly coloured laurels ever since.

There is no personality left to be found anywhere on Carnaby Street

Dave started his Soho project (working title Sohos) to capture the natural diversity of culture, people and humanity in Soho as twined with its streets, architecture, and the slice of time in which each portrait is painted. The project is one of subjective documentation, in which the experience and context of documenting is a part of the document itself (as opposed to the current trend in art which imposes interpretations on the piece and enforces them on the viewer). Dave didn’t set out to pose or preach, but to find honest, unprepared action and reaction; painting on canvas in the open air and filming the people passing by in time lapse video as he did so. The response prior to the Carnaby Street incident had been fantastic.

In 1973, with hippy wigs in Woolworths and the 60s firmly buried, Carnaby Street became pedestrianised. It has been degrading and corporatizing ever since. Much of what is left today is owned by Shaftesbury PLC, who seem to have mistaken the obligations of building maintenance and tenant care for some sort of feudalist corporate orgy where what they say goes. If it does not serve their corporate strategy, it is not welcome in “Carnaby London”.

If you visit their website you’re greeted with a bland and insipid video of their investment portfolio properties, intercut with shots of overpriced street food, wholesome-looking people in clothes branded with fashionable political causes, closeups of hands drumming or salsa dancing, an emaciated Ronnie Wood, more fashionable causes, more brand names, and dead eyed influencers. It could easily be the corporate vision of any “vibrant” street in any “vibrant” city in anywhere in the world. There is nothing here which is archetypally Carnaby, nothing here that could only be London. There is no identity or culture on show, only a blandly non-specific corporate image.

The corporate image of Soho grows from strength to hollow strength

Shaftesbury PLC’s business model and strategy apparently involves “curating vibrant and thriving villages in the heart of London’s West End” with “new concepts” and “innovative formats”, using “targeted, multi-channel marketing” to “promote villages to a wide audience”. Quite how or why they think that past-middle-aged property investors are in any way qualified to understand, let alone curate, “vibrant and thriving” communities or cultures is beyond me. From my position in the cheap seats, it just looks like some rich idiots in suits bought something that they remember being cool from their childhood and then choked it of all the scruffy artists and undesirables so they could sell the corpse to tourists to post on social media. It would be laughable if it wasn’t so devastating.

Of course, the security guard, whether he knew it or not, was lying. Carnaby Street is not private. Shaftesbury PLC do not own it. Their employees have no special powers to police artists, and Dave had every right to be left alone to paint. Nevertheless, the security guard moved him on, and the painting was never finished. The corporate privatisation of our streets is a huge issue — thoroughly explored by Anna Minton in her book, Ground Control: Fear and Happiness in the Twenty-First Century City — but what is happening to Soho is far more insidious.

This is sheer presumption of power: the normalising of the “corporate image” as king. Individual rights and freedoms are dismissed as irrelevancies next to the swaggering assumptions of the security guards and the knee-jerk whims of their god-like employers. The rest of us just believe them when they tell us that they’re in charge. We don’t know what’s allowed, so we assume the least. We censor and police ourselves according to the inferred edicts of the “corporate image” that are drilled into our brains with every poster, billboard, and shopfront.

What Dave set out to do was to capture the reality of Soho in the brief snatches of time that he was painting it. The irony is, of course, that the blank canvas he left for Carnaby Street does exactly that. There is no culture left in Carnaby Street. There is no life. Nobody belongs there anymore, especially not artists.

Today, all is tourism, all is investment, all is end-of-year profits. There is no personality left to be found anywhere. Art is dead on Carnaby Street. The public flinch and tug their forelocks as the Corporate Image grows from strength to hollow strength.

Dave will exhibit his work in due course, though probably not in Carnaby Street.

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