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November 09 2012

Random International: Rain Room / The Curve, Barbican Centre, London

Random International are known for their digital-based contemporary art. The London-based studio creates artworks and installations that explore behaviour and interaction. One of Random International’s most recent work is called The Rain Room, currently on display at the Barbican Centre’s exhibition space The Curve in London.

The Rain Room is a hundred square meter field of falling water through which it is possible to walk, without getting wet. Upon entering The Curve, the sound of water and a sensation of moisture fill the air, even before seeing the installation. In this video, we enter the downpour, and speak with the artists who have created this spectacular installation. More information and photo set after the break.

rAndom International: Rain Room / The Curve, Barbican Centre, London. London, UK, October 9, 2012.

For more videos featuring Random International click here!

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Rain Room is a very complex installation. It consists of injection moulded tiles, solenoid valves, pressure regulators, 3D tracking cameras, wooden frames, steel beams, a hydraulic management system, and a grated floor. The system is controlled by custom software.

Random International was founded in 2005 by Stuart Wood, Florian Ortkrass and Hannes Koch. They first met when they were students at the Royal College of Art in London. The studio is based in a converted warehouse in Chelsea, London. Random International have exhibited at art fairs, museums and biennials with works and installations such as Pixelroller, Temporary Graffiti, Audience, Study For A Mirror, Swarm Light, Self Portrait, Temporary Light Printing Machine, and Rain Room.

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October 15 2012

Interview With Artist Ged Quinn at Frieze Art Fair 2012

At Frieze Art Fair London 2012, London-based Stephen Friedman Gallery presented a solo exhibition with paintings by British artist Ged Quinn, entitled Ghosts and Benedictions. On the Preview day we had the chance to speak with the artist about his work. In this video, Ged Quinn talks about the exhibition at Frieze Art Fair, a painting called Hegel’s Happy End, and his work in general.

Ged Quinn was born in 1963 in Liverpool, UK. The artist is known for his densely layered paintings, which transform art historical painting into contemporary experience. Ged Quinn is currently included in the group show Beyond Reality: British Painting Today at Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague, Czech Republic. In December 2012 he will have a solo exhibition entitled Endless Renaissance at the Bass Museum in Miami Beach.

Ged Quinn: Ghosts and Benedictions. Solo presentation at the stand of Stephen Friedman Gallery London. Interview with Ged Quinn, Frieze Art Fair London 2012. Preview, October 10, 2012.

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October 10 2012

Bedlam / Lazarides Gallery at Old Vic Tunnels, London

One of the events that kicked off this year’s Frieze Week in London is a group show entitled Bedlam. Organized by Lazarides Gallery and The Old Vic Tunnels, the exhibition’s title refers to the term ‘Bedlam’, a term coined from ‘Bethlam’, London’s Hospital for the clinically insane. Bedlam at Old Vic Tunnels seeks to “creatively explore the term’s modern day usage to include the brutality long associated with lunatic asylums to a much looser interpretation indicative of a state of chaos, disorder and extreme confusion…” Exhibiting artists include Antony Micallef, Artists Anonymous, ATMA, Conor Harrington, Dan Witz, Doug Foster, Ian Francis, Jane Fradgley, Karim Zeriahen, Kelsey Brookes, Klaus Weiskopf, Lucy McLauchlan, Michael Najjar, Nachev, Tessa Farmer, Tina Tsang, Tobias Klein, War Boutique and 3D.

The Old Vic Tunnels is an underground arts and performance space beneath Waterloo train station. The venue consists of almost 30,000 square feet of unused railway tunnels. In 2010 The Old Vic Theatre Trust acquired Tunnels 228-232 from BRB (Residuary) formerly British Rail and transformed it into a venue that showcases productions, performances and installations.

Bedlam at Old Vic Tunnels, London, runs until October 21, 2012.

Bedlam / Lazarides Gallery at Old Vic Tunnels, London. Private View, October 8, 2012.

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August 18 2012

How the Olympics will shape the future of east London

With plans to build 8,000 new homes at the Olympic Park over the next two decades, Stratford's future depends on a sympathetic approach to regeneration…

Long, long ago, I sat in a nondescript room with an official leading what was then a grand government project to regenerate a huge area called the Thames Gateway. Her organisation, she said, was supporting London's Olympic bid because it was almost impossible to make anything happen in the Thames Gateway, which extended from east London through south Essex and north Kent to the sea, and only the Games could change this.

She was in this position because even longer ago, in the John Major era, the relevant minister, Michael Heseltine, had made a speech christening the Thames Gateway and announcing that Something Must Be Done. So the vast effort of the Olympics had to be enlisted to make some sense of a politician's figure of speech. It was and is a seriously arse-about-face way of doing a bit of regeneration.

Over the next 20 years it is hoped to build 8,000 homes around the Olympic Park, in addition to the 2,800 already created by the athletes' village, and to create 8,000 jobs – that is, to make something like a middle-sized market town. In fairness, one should add the less tangible but real benefit of a feelgood factor to a wider area of east London. To achieve all this will have required not only the Olympic billions, but also investment in public transport in Stratford unmatched anywhere else in the country, an additional grant of £290m to be spent on legacy, and more hundreds of millions of public money spent acquiring land. Some of the public expenditure will be paid back as this land is developed, but there are no obligations as to how much or when.

But never mind. Not many people now care that Olympic claims for boosting business, tourism and regeneration are tenuous. Opinion polls show that most people in Britain think that £9bn or so is not too much to pay just for the national buzz and joy that came with the Games. So the question is: how can this place so extraordinarily blessed with aspiration and funding be as great as, in theory, it should be?

The new homes and neighbourhoods could be beautiful and desirable places that would create new models and set new standards for British house building. The park and venues, such as the Aquatics Centre and the Velodrome, could be genuinely public assets, of easy access to all.

Most critically all this has to be done in such a way that the new wonderland doesn't turn its back on its surroundings but genuinely connects with them. Early in the Olympic project, the neighbouring areas were seen as destitute wastelands  be erased or shut out, and the main weakness of what has already been built is its lumpiness – the tendency of elements such as the Westfield shopping centre and the athletes' village to turn their back. It would be relatively easy, but a complete failure, to make an exclusive residential idyll here.

At the moment, hopeful signs are emitting from the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC), the body in charge. Its new chairman, Daniel Moylan, declares that he wants the Olympic Park and its surroundings to be "a very desirable area and we would like as many people as possible to live there". He wants alternatives to "the limited range of standardised products" that large house-building companies tend to produce. He wants property to rent as well as buy, and homes built by their owners. He challenges the common journalistic denigration of Stratford: "This place is not a dump. There are lots of people who are entrepreneurial and enthusiastic."

Sensible-sounding management arrangements have been set up for the park and for venues such as the Velodrome, and the Legacy Corporation swears blind that these will not be over-exploited in order to turn a profit. The park, it says, will be open to absolutely everyone, which presumably includes those who might be a bit annoying or unsightly and not good for property values. The LLDC is rightly proud that, compared with previous Olympic cities, London's planning for the future of the site is far advanced, and it has set up an impressive quality review panel to oversee the design of whatever is built.

The LLDC has produced a masterplan for the new neighbourhoods that suggests a large proportion of family houses arranged around pleasing open spaces, and with an overall coherence that is rare in regeneration projects. It is planning 29 playgrounds and has made impressive declarations of principle in relation to sustainability, accessibility and design.

In the scruffy fringes of the park there has been a change in attitude. Where earlier plans saw them as places to be obliterated by blocks of flats, the idea now is to make the most of what is already there, such as the artists' studios and small businesses and unexpected bits of canal and workshop. Muf architecture/art, a design practice that has helped lead this change of attitude, is now involved in the first of the new residential neighbourhoods, which is a good sign. "Obliteration is not in our lexicon," declares Moylan.

They still have some headaches, most notably the future of the stadium. But the real question is whether the current high ambitions can survive the pressures that will come to bear. How inclusive can the new developments be, for example, when changes to housing benefit are likely to push people out of places like this? How kindly will the big house-building companies take to alternative models to their preferred way of doing things? What if progress is seen to be going too slowly and pressure grows for quick results? It's too early to say. For now we can only observe that the masters of Olympic legacy are saying the right things, and wish them good luck.


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August 16 2012

Unilever ends £4.4m sponsorship of Tate Modern's turbine hall

Search on for new sponsor while hall closes during construction of £250m extension at Bankside gallery

Unilever has ended its sponsorship of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall annual commission that has produced some of the London gallery's most memorable exhibitions.

Tino Sehgal's These Associations, the first live performance piece in the former Bankside power station, will be the final work in the Unilever-sponsored series, which has attracted almost 30 million visitors over the past dozen years.

The £4.4m sponsorship deal with Unilever, has led to 13 commissions, including Bruce Nauman's soundscapes, Olafur Eliasson's huge, yellow, artificial indoor sun The Weather Project in 2003-04, which saw visitors stretch out on the floor of the vast space to bask in its glow, and Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth in 2007, which featured a crack running the length of the hall. Some commissions have been aquired for the gallery's permanent collection, including the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's Sunflower Seeds, although it bought only a tenth of the 100m porcelain seeds, all individually sculpted and painted by Chinese craft workers, shown in the 2010 exhibition.

The current show, in which participants stop and engage visitors with intimate, personal stories, closes on 28 October.

The Turbine Hall is due to temporarily close next year to enable construction of the gallery's Herzog & de Meuron-designed extension. The project, which is planned to cost £215m in total, is due for completion by 2016 – delayed from its previously projected opening of this year.

The first phase of the extension, the £90m performance art and video installation space called the Tanks, opened in July.

A spokeswoman for Tate said: "Due to the building works at Tate Modern, there will not be a Turbine Hall commission in 2013. We will start discussions with other companies about the sponsorship of the Turbine Hall commission from 2014 onwards.

Unilever, whose brands include Pot Noodle and PG Tips, will continue as a corporate member of Tate. But the company said it is planning a change of direction in its sponsorship programme, which is more focused on sustainability and the environment.

Other prominent Tate sponsors include Bloomberg, the business and financial news organisation, and, more controversially, the oil company BP. The Tate received £45.1m in public funding last year, and raised an additional £67.9m. Its 100,000 members contribute arbout £3m per year.


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August 11 2012

London: Portrait of a City by Reuel Golden – review

Charting urban change from the Victorian era to the modern day, this is a celebration of London's people, spirit and style

As a pictorial history of London, this handsomely produced volume is unrivalled. One of Taschen's bigger-is-better coffee-table books, it is arranged into five chronological sections, celebrating – and occasionally lamenting – urban change in London from Victorian times to now. It tells a powerful and vibrant story, zeroing in on the pubs, docks, alleys, construction sites, crowded streets, markets and shops – places where people either meet or cross paths as strangers – that give shape to daily life.

The book draws richly on urban still photography and decades of the city's photojournalism to illustrate its major themes and trends. The best pictures, aesthetically and historically, vividly reveal the city's slums. London is often depicted as crowded, intimidating, dirty and anonymous; murky images of its dank fogs – one of which claimed 4,000 lives in 1952, mainly as a result of respiratory diseases – reveal their density and gloom. Other pictures – men walking on a frozen Thames in 1894, a homeless shelter in 1901, troops at Euston on their way to the Somme – all retain a human individuality, revealing the stoicism and camaraderie of the inhabitants and capturing the city's indomitable spirit, its landmarks and its style.

Collated by Reuel Golden, former editor of the British Journal of Photography, London features work from David Bailey, Cecil Beaton, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Terence Donovan and Roger Fenton, among others, alongside a well-crafted and informative text and references from key films, books and records. Many pictures have not been used before, so there's a constant feeling of revelation, and it's fascinating to see the images presented in such an indulgent and uncrowded manner.


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August 09 2012

Why Renzo Piano's Shard is out of tune with London's historical heart

Renzo Piano's innovative buildings in Genoa are deliberately invisible from the city's atmospheric medieval and baroque district. So why has London let him break his own rules?

The eminent curator Norman Rosenthal had his say on the Shard this week. To Rosenthal, it is the most beautiful building put up in London since St Paul's and its critics – he quotes me and Simon Jenkins – are hidebound stick-in-the-muds who just do not appreciate the genius of Renzo Piano.

I am sorry to disappoint Rosenthal but I've seen plenty of Renzo Piano's works around the world. I like and admire them. I know enough about him to wonder why he has abandoned his own delicate sense of scale and space in his assault on London. Why has he departed so violently from the civilised standards I associate with his architecture?

In Houston, Texas, the Menil Foundation is a lovely example of Piano's architectural talent. I went there in stifling summer heat. This low-slung art gallery is like an idealised, airy ranch house set among continually watered green lawns. White and calm outside, it creates a soothing, contemplative, space inside. It contrasts beautifully with the characterless forest of glass towers at the heart of Houston. It is an environmentally radical building that seeks to renew the neighbourhood around it.

In Genoa, Italy, another of my favourite buildings by Renzo Piano can be found in the riviera city's old harbour. It is the most beautiful aquarium in the world, a wonderful succession of spaces next to the sea. It's not much from the outside, but sharks and octopuses have never been given such a graceful home by their human captors. Aquariums are usually dark and claustrophobic. This one is light and spacious and creates a rich, thought-provoking encounter between humanity and nature.

It is part of a project by Piano – who is Genoese – to revive a derelict waterfront by restoring old buildings and adding his own, which also include a biosphere and an octopus-like branching viewing tower. In short, Renzo Piano has done wonders for his own city.

But wait. Where is the awe-inspiring skyscraper in the heart of Genoa? Where is the towering glass spike next door to the medieval houses of the Doria dynasty?

Piano's innovative buildings in Genoa are totally, intentionally, invisible from the city's densely built and atmospheric medieval and baroque heart. You have to walk through all the narrow streets of black-and-white palaces, right down to the harbour front, to find his works. Far from a modernist who has contempt for the past, Piano is revealed in Genoa – and Houston – as an architect who builds with sympathy for the fabric and atmosphere of cities.

The idea that Genoa would let him build something as out-of-scale and arrogant as the Shard in the heart of its historical district is absurd. Why would a city spit on itself in that way?

Why indeed. Piano on his home turf builds for people, not for power. London let him break his own rules, with consequences that are here to stay.


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August 08 2012

London's Picture of Sustainability competition: the finalists - in pictures

Images from a competition designed to encourage people to consider the meaning of sustainable living in London

London street photography walk

A new guided walk of east London includes a hands-on photography lesson – and lunch thrown in – all for £30

"Always treat a jar of gherkins like a person." This eccentric piece of photography advice, from Eleanor Church of Fox&Squirrel Lifestyle Walks, struck me as deeply profound. At last: the key to taking great pictures! In hindsight, I may have got a little carried away, but at least it was a good reminder to get up close and personal with your subject, however banal it may at first seem.

In fact, that was one of the main lessons I learned on a street photography walk in east London: anything can make a good picture. What might seem meaningless now could be of interest to future social historians. (OK, it's unlikely that anyone will write a thesis on the Pickled Foods of Early 21st-Century Britain, but you never know.)

I took the pickle picture as part of a warm-up exercise at the start of the walk. Over coffee and a chat with Eleanor at Allpress Espresso in Shoreditch, one of London's excellent New Zealand-owned coffee shops, I was told to pick a colour (I chose green). The walk began on Brick Lane, where I had to take photographs of anything as long as it was green. Eleanor advised me to keep an open mind and be – or at least act – confident.

I felt a little nervous aiming my camera at assorted shoppers, cyclists and street sweepers, but most didn't seem to mind. Street photography is so common now, thanks to the ubiquity of cameraphones, that no one bats an eyelid. And in this part of London, half the population choose their outfits with "street style" photographers in mind. I was soon snapping every green object in sight: shop fronts, shoes, bikes, sunglasses ...

When we went through my shots, any embarrassment I felt at having an award-winning photographer and documentary-maker looking at my out-of-focus snap of a woman in green trousers soon dissipated. Eleanor was positive and encouraging about every photo, even finding something to praise in the most prosaic picture of a green door, and making gentle suggestions of how each could be made "even better".

I was on a private preview of the walk, a new one for Fox&Squirrel – they also run art, fashion and vintage walks – so I had Eleanor all to myself, which probably meant I got more detailed feedback on my photographs than the average customer. Usually there will be a group of up to eight with one guide, or up to 12 with two, and people will be encouraged to critique each other's photographs. At lunch, the guide – either Eleanor or Stuart Beesley, another professional photographer – will give feedback on each person's pictures. That kind of personal attention usually commands a premium, so this walk is remarkably good value for £30, especially as lunch is included.

Eleanor stressed that the experience is a guided walk, not a photography lesson, but I found I was focused entirely on finding photo opportunities rather than enjoying the stroll. I picked up lots of useful photography tips, but I didn't really learn anything new about London, as you might expect to on a city walk. On the other hand, I noticed things that I would usually stride right past: a sculpture of a crushed car high above my head; a clump of grass pushing through a sea of concrete; a cyclist with six baguettes poking out of his rucksack.

These details were important in the next exercise in and around Spitalfields, which was all about capturing a moment and telling a story. This was a lot harder than just photographing anything green. At the end of the segment I felt I'd done badly (not that it was a test). But actually my favourite shot of the day, of an elderly woman at a tea dance I stumbled across (pictured below), was taken during this exercise. It just goes to show that you have to take a lot of bad photographs to get one (relatively) good one.

After lunch at the Barbican's Foodhall, a modern cafe with light installations and tables out on the terrace next to the lake, my next brief was to use the arts centre's brutalist architecture as a stage for photographs. I tried to implement the things I'd learned: symmetry, the rule of thirds, straight lines, light and shade, colour, detail. The end results weren't exactly thrilling, but I felt I was starting to frame my shots with more purpose.

The walk usually ends with a photoshoot at King's Cross St Pancras, but Eleanor had been warned by a police officer that anyone taking pictures at a train station during the Olympics would have their camera confiscated and destroyed. On balance, we decided to skip that part.

A bonus feature of the walk is the aftercare: Fox&Squirrel send out instructions on editing your pictures for maximum impact, and there is a Flickr group to add to as you practise what you've learned. For as Eleanor says, good street photography ultimately comes down to a little bit of luck – and a lot of practice.

The three-and-a-half-hour guided walk was provided by Fox&Squirrel (foxandsquirrel.com); it costs £30pp, including coffee and lunch. Next walks on 11 and 15 August. Suitable for smartphone cameras, compact cameras or SLRs; lomography walks also available


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August 07 2012

The Shard is a St Paul's Cathedral for our time | Norman Rosenthal

Who cares who built it or why? The Shard is simply London's most magnificent building since Wren's masterpiece

The reactions to London's latest mega-structure have not been moderate. "The Shard has slashed the face of London forever," wrote Simon Jenkins in the Guardian a month ago, invoking the destruction of Timbuktu, Dresden, Moscow and Peking, not to mention the bulldozing of the great Buddhas of Afghanistan. Jonathan Jones, the Guardian's art critic, has described the Shard as "self-evidently a monument to wealth and power run way out of control. It screams with dazzling arrogance that money rules this city and says money inhabits a realm way above our heads."

But when have great buildings and structures – since the pyramids of Egypt and before – been anything other than monuments to wealth and power? The fact is that, in recent decades, in this country and all over the world, power has resulted in many vulgar and nasty blots on the landscape. London, of course, was terribly damaged during the second world war. Bomb sites scarred the city and, for the most part, what has come to replace them has been pretty abominable architecturally, with only a few honourable and sporadic exceptions. Any sensitive person crossing the Thames on Norman Foster's pedestrian bridge, looking left and right towards Christopher Wren's Baroque masterpiece, can only want to put on blinkers. Nasty skyscrapers have been built all over the West End and the City of London, from Centrepoint to the former NatWest Tower, not to mention London's Barbican. Here, many wonderful cultural events take place, but it can only be described as a city planning monstrosity. Think too of the expensively hideous Portcullis House, built to house the offices of our MPs next to the beautiful fantasy of Westminster Palace.

Finally, along comes something that is genuinely magnificent to look at – namely the Shard, as it has affectionately come to be known. I don't care about its function or who built it, or even who financed it. It is a masterpiece of visual design by one of the great living architects, Renzo Piano.

Elegant and as inspiring to look at as a great cathedral, I keep discovering it from all sides – near and far. Its apparently broken apex makes for one astonishingly poetic image. As a pure glass edifice it resembles the most amazing cut diamond, both by day in the sunshine and at night lit up as a beacon over the city, as thrilling as the Eiffel Tower in Paris – which was also hated by establishment figures when it first went up. Now we cannot imagine Paris without it. I cannot now imagine London without the Shard and would go so far as to say that it is arguably the greatest and most beautifully skyreaching building to be erected in London since St Paul's Cathedral.

Critics who profess to be concerned with London and the way it looks would spend their energy better if they were to turn their attention to those ghastly sculptures mushrooming up all over the city's squares and parks. The idea of walking around Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens now fills me with horror as my eyes are continually assaulted by absurd and corrupt objects such as the horse's head at Marble Arch, not to mention the stupid jelly babies nearby, or the monument to the poor animals killed in the two world wars.

The beautiful Royal Artillery Memorial of Sargeant Jagger has been horribly upstaged by a succession of hideous monuments commemorating fallen heroes of the Commonwealth, most recently a ghastly parody of the beautiful screen of Decimus Burton next to Apsley House. One can argue about the rights and wrongs of erecting a monument to Bomber Harris, who in the understandable hysteria of the second world war caused, among other things, the destruction of the beautiful city of Dresden. What one can also argue, if one has any aesthetic sensibility, is that the retrograde and cheap monument, which is impossible to overlook as one passes through Hyde Park Corner, is the most ghastly eyesore and should have been prevented.

In the meantime, one can only be grateful that at least the Shard is here to give continual visual pleasure from all aspects and distances across town. Don't you love the story of the fox that climbed to its top? How happy it must have been!


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August 06 2012

London 2012 cultural festival's free events draw almost 10m people

Cultural Olympiad organisers say 2.9m rang bells to mark the start of the Games as part of Martin Creed's artwork

An estimated 9.6 million people have joined in the free events and exhibitions of the London 2012 festival, the cultural side of the Olympics, including 2.9 million who rang bells to mark the start of the Games.

Church, cow and bicycle bells were rung as part of Martin Creed's extravaganza which launched the event 10 days ago, Work No 1197: All the Bells in a Country Rung as Quickly and Loudly as Possible for Three Minutes.

The London 2012 festival and Cultural Olympiad director, Ruth MacKenzie, said audience numbers were running "well ahead of expectations", with at least another 5m free places to come, and the explosion of arts in the Edinburgh international festival included.

Ticketed events have already taken attendance to more than 12 million, with more than 2m tickets sold, and the figure is expected to rise as full audience statistics are compiled.

The festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad, began on 21 June, and will continue until the last day of the Paralympic Games, 9 September. Major free events still to come include Neil Mullarkey's attempt to create the world's largest improvised comedy event in Barnsley next Friday – free but tickets must be booked in advance; YesYesNo – Connecting Light, a line of pulsating colour created using LED bulbs inside weather balloons along the length of Hadrian's Wall; another light-in-the-darkness art installation up the steep slopes of Arthur's Seat in Edinburgh; and many free events in Happy Days, a new festival of the work of Samuel Beckett in Enniskillen in Northern Ireland, where the Nobel-prize-winning playwright went to school. The opening event of the Happy Days festival, which will continue in future years, is a free concert titled Play It Again For Sam.

"We are cautiously pleased with ourselves," MacKenzie said.


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August 04 2012

Lost Olympians - in pictures

Colombian-born photographer Caroll Taveras is helping lost souls reach their destinations in return for a quick portrait in a studio at east London





August 02 2012

London arts venues report mixed fortunes during Olympic Games

London 2012 Games causing low turnout at British Museum and West End theatres but National Theatre and BFI report boom

Despite the eerily deserted streets of central London, arts and entertainments bosses are reporting very mixed fortunes during the Olympic Games. Some have seen visitor numbers plunge since the Games started, such as the British Museum where visitor numbers are down by 25% and some West End theatres down by a third, but others including the National Theatre report business as good as last year, with near full houses every night.

Although box-office figures have not yet been compiled, anecdotally many venues report that business is picking up this week as Londoners realise there are bargains to be had, and that travel – after warnings of transport chaos initially scared people into staying home – has so far been easier than before the Olympics.

Terri Paddock, editor of the Whatsonstage website, said many of their posts are reporting empty streets, and theatres surviving by heavy discounting and last-minute sales. "I live in Lambeth, work in Tottenham Court Road and am walking through the West End throughout the day and evening. I can tell you personally that I have never seen it so quiet during my 20+ years living in London," she said.

The British Film Institute is on track for a record month, with the Batman film The Dark Knight Rises sold out for the next six weeks on their giant Imax screen, and at its South Bank cinemas spectacular advance sales for its season of every Hitchcock film. "We are forecast to exceed target for attendance during the month," a spokeswoman said.

However at the British Museum, normally a heaving mass of overseas visitors in August, visitor numbers are down 25% on July/August last year, and there are plenty of tickets available on the day for the major exhibition, Shakespeare: Staging the World – which was expected to be one of the blockbusters of this summer. "We know this is the general picture from speaking to other venues," a spokeswoman said. "We've very deliberately scheduled the Shakespeare exhibition to run on to 25 November, and we're expecting a very different picture after the Olympics and when the schools go back. It's actually a really nice time now to visit cultural attractions, without the usual crowds and it's so easy to get around in London."

In stark contrast, at the National Theatre it has been standing room only on many nights for all their shows, with the starriest, Simon Russell Beale in Timon of Athens – traditionally regarded as one of Shakespeare's least appealing plays – selling out for almost all shows, and 90% sold for all the Olympics dates. George Bernard Shaw's The Doctor's Dilemma is doing least well, but has still already sold 60% of available tickets for the same dates.

A spokeswoman said the bulk of ticket sales are to their regulars in London and the south-east, but sales to overseas visitors wandering in on the day are healthy too, and all the free activities in and around the building on the South Bank are very well attended.

The Society of London Theatres, representing 52 theatres mainly in the West End, said numbers are picking up this week, compared to last week when many had banks of empty seats to rival any of the Olympics venues. They also report that people are recognising there are bargains to be had: business is brisk at the TKTS discount ticket booth in Leicester Square, operated by the society. Ticket sales for the Kids Week promotion, now expanded to the whole month of August, which offers free or heavily discounted tickets to under-16s accompanied by a full paying adult, are well ahead of last year – 100,000 tickets have already been sold, compared to 70,000 for the whole promotion last year.

The Tate Modern gallery has been on a roll this summer, with massive publicity for its new Tanks underground space, a string of new exhibition openings, and many of the Festival 2012 events happening around it on the South Bank. However a spokeswoman said that although the place is still buzzing, ticket sales are down for the charging exhibitions. Further down on the opposite bank Tate Britain – not helped by its main restaurant closing until next year for renovations – has also seen a sharp drop in ticket sales.

At the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, which would normally expect 20,000 people a day at this time of year, and long queues outside the gates before opening time, staff say they are "still busy, but noticeably quieter". A spokeswoman added "it makes it a really fantastic time to visit". The Museum of London also reports visitor numbers well down, and suspects that their mainly family audience was put off by the warnings of transport problems.


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July 30 2012

Thomas Heatherwick: the man who designed the Olympic cauldron

Find out more about one of Britain's most celebrated designers, hailed by Terence Conran as 'the Leonardo da Vinci of our times'

Since his emergence in the late 1990s, the work of designer Thomas Heatherwick has been hugely acclaimed. He was called "the Leonardo da Vinci of our times" by his mentor and fellow designer Terence Conran.

However, it is Heatherwick's design for the Olympic cauldron that has made him a household name. When the cauldron, codenamed Betty, was lit by seven young athletes, and its 204 copper "petals" rose to create one huge flame, it caused jaws to drop around the world.

Heatherwick revealed that his cauldron was made in Yorkshire in what he described as "the most sophisticated shed in Harrogate ... like the Bond gadget workshop".

Though the secrecy surrounding it was so complete that the young athletes lighting it didn't even tell their parents, the design was cheekily hidden in plain sight on wallets for the tickets to the opening ceremony.

Here, Oliver Wainwright of Building Design compares Heatherwick's Olympic torch to its predecessors.

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Heatherwick's work is currently the subject of a retrospective at the V&A in London. He took the Guardian's Steve Rose on a tour of it in May. Read Rowan Moore's review of it here.

Nicholas Wroe interviewed Heatherwick about his career just before the show opened in May. We also made a gallery of his studio's most famous designs.

In February, Heatherwick's redesign of the London bus was revealed to acclaim, though only eight of them are currently on the roads.

His design for the UK pavilion at the Shanghai Expo in 2010 won the gold medal and ended up on the cover of the last album by cerebral dance act Junior Boys.

Before the Olympics, Heatherwick's involvements with sport had been less happy. B of the Bang, his sculpture to commemorate the 2002 Commonwealth games, had to be dismantled after fears that its spikes – one of which fell off – could present a danger to passers-by.


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Hats on: London statues get makeover

Hatwalk has millinery stars including Philip Treacy and Stephen Jones design headgear for famous sculptures around the capital

It was in the dead of night that 21 hats were placed on some of London's best known statues in, organisers cheerfully agree, one of the more wacky arts events to take place this summer.

By Monday morning, two were missing: the baseball hat from Shakespeare in Leicester Square was thought stolen while Beau Brummell in Jermyn Street had his multicoloured turban removed by Westminster city council cleaners.

The setbacks hardly dimmed the enthusiasm for an event described by the deputy mayor for education and culture, Munira Mirza, as one of many "bonkers, mad, wacky" things happening in London as part of a project called Surprises.

The surprise in this case was seeing a fetching Philip Treacy number on Sir Henry Havelock in Trafalgar Square, a Spam-themed hat on Franklin D Roosevelt in New Bond Street, and a giant orange fedora on Francis, Duke of Bedford, in Russell Square.

Curated by millinery superstars Treacy and Stephen Jones, a total of 21 emerging and established designers took part. A "hatwalk" trail has been created from the Duke of Wellington near Hyde Park in the west of the city, to the Duke of Wellington outside the Bank of England in the Square Mile.

Some might say it is disrespectful to put on General Sir Charles Napier a hat which would not look out of place during Ladies' Day at Ascot. "Yes, that is something we were absolutely conscious of and one has to be very careful," said Jones. But he said the Olympic opening ceremony, with the parachuting Queen, had shown this country's talent for both showing respect and not taking things too seriously.

Jones admitted his first reaction on hearing of the project was: "Oh Lordy!" He added: "But then I thought what a fantastic idea. It is a bit like the arrogance of youth – what you don't know can't kill you."

Organisers had to get a myriad of permissions to stage the event. "In retrospect, we had no idea of the complexity and the problems we were going to face," said Jones, who created a Brighton Pavilion-themed hat for George IV.

It is not yet known what will happen to Shakespeare in Leicester Square, whose baseball hat, designed by Paul Bernstock and Thelma Speirs, was stolen in the early hours of the morning.

Would-be thieves will have more of a job trying to get the most out-of-reach hat in the project, the union flag and Olympic torch-inspired bicorn on Lord Nelson in Trafalgar Square. It has been created by the company which made his original hat, Lock & Co. Chairman Nigel Lock Macdonald said: "Locks are very proud of their history and making another hat for Nelson over 200 years after we made the original has been an unexpected honour."

The hats will – hopefully – stay in place for four days before being auctioned off for charity. The Hatwalk event was commissioned by the Mayor of London and is part of the London 2012 festival, the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad.


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London 2012: Olympic cauldron relit after move to southern end of stadium

Cauldron relocated from centre of Olympic Stadium and relit by torchbearer who carried flame during London 1948 Games

The flame in Betty, the Olympic cauldron, was temporarily transferred to a lantern on Sunday night as the 8.5-metre structure was moved from the centre of the stadium in preparation for the start of the athletics at the end of the week.

The cauldron, which was one of the highlights of the opening ceremony, now sits at the southern end of the stadium, ahead of the 100m finish line in a nod to the position of both her predecessor at the 1948 London Games and the spot occupied by the cauldron in the old Wembley Stadium.

It will take 80 hours to turn the Olympic Stadium from the prop-filled setting of Danny Boyle's opening ceremony back to an 80,000-capacity sporting arena in readiness for the competitions. The flame was taken from the cauldron at 9pm on Sunday and placed in a special miners' lantern before work began to relocate the structure.

The cauldron, made up of 205 steel pipes and individually designed copper petals inscribed with the competing nation's names, was moved to a position inside rather than above the stadium, and relit at 7.50am on Monday.

Austin Playfoot, a torchbearer from the 1948 Olympics when he carried the flame from the Horse & Groom pub in Merrow to the Municipal Offices in Guildford, did the honours of relighting Betty by transferring the flame back from the miners' lamp using a 2012 torch.

Playfoot described his role as an "honour".

He added: "When I ran with the Olympic flame in Guildford I never thought I would get this close to the cauldron, it brought me to tears when it lit up. It will be an incredible inspiration to the competing athletes here at the heart of the Olympic Park in the stadium."

The cauldron will to be dismantled after the Games and each of the petals will be given to the competing 204 national Olympic committees.


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London 2012: Olympic cauldron moves from centre of stadium

The Olympic cauldron is put out and the flame transferred to a lamp as it is moved to the edge of the south stand



July 29 2012

Betty the Olympic cauldron moves away from centre stage

After an elegant opening ceremony performance, the flame shifts across the arena to make way for the sports

Sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning a team of workers will head into the Olympic stadium to shift the majestic Betty from her pride of place at the centre of the arena to a less focal, but scarcely less important, spot.

Along with the Queen, Daniel Craig and a cast of thousands, the Olympic cauldron acquitted herself elegantly at the opening ceremony, raising her fiery petals at the end of the night to form a perfect dandelion of flame and set a new standard for understated first-night aesthetics.

Her job now done, Betty – codenamed thus by the secretive organisers in honour of the executive producer's dog – will be moved to the end of the arena in a nod to the position of both her predecessor at the 1948 London Games and the spot occupied by the cauldron in the old Wembley stadium.

To make way, the 23-tonne, harmonically tuned bell that Bradley Wiggins rang to herald the beginning of London 2012 will, very carefully, be carted away into storage while it waits to find a new and more permanent home.

Although the decision not to hoist Betty above the stadium where she could be glimpsed by visitors has been questioned by some, the International Olympic Committee said her relocation was a matter solely for Locog.

"We allow people to have the cauldron where they want to," said an IOC spokesman. "London Games organisers did not want to compete with other cauldrons. We are fully supportive of that."

The cauldron's creator, the designer Thomas Heatherwick, resisted the temptation to join the global cauldron race, opting for grace and originality over sheer bulk.

The 8.5-metre-tall cauldron, which was crafted in a workshop in Harrogate, North Yorkshire, was intended to stand apart from the fiery troughs that had come before it.

"We were aware cauldrons had been getting bigger, higher, fatter as each Olympics happened and we felt we shouldn't try to be even bigger than the last ones," he said. Betty's design, Heatherwick added, had also allowed the organisers to stress the diverse but united spirit of the Games.

"This incredible event has 204 nations coming together, so we had a child from each country bringing these copper polished objects in."

However, despite all the thought and planning, the drilling and the secret rehearsals, Betty was not without her last-minute troubles.

According to Heatherwick, the cauldron failed on one of its final test sessions when one of the stainless steel rods holding the burning petals became jammed in the early hours of Thursday.

"We had been perfecting it throughout the week," he told the Sun.

"At the last test session a pin on which one of the petals pivoted had not been put in right."

The 42-year-old designer said his team did not let him know about the glitch, but worked desperately to fix it before Betty became Friday night's showpiece.

"On the night I was watching in silence, staring, not aware of anything around me and gripping the bars in front – 'What's going to happen, what's going to happen?'" said Heatherwick.

"When it worked there was an outpouring of relief.

"It really would have been a head-in-your-hands moment if it had not happened on the night."

Equally important to the success of Friday night – and every bit as secretive as Heatherwick's team – were the seven young athletes who confounded bookmakers and journalists by being the ones to light Betty.

Speculation that Sir Roger Bannister, the Queen or even Doctor Who would perform the deed proved unfounded as the seven did the honours, having been nominated by some of Britain's most famous Olympians.

Several of them said they had been sworn to such secrecy that they did not even tell their parents.

"The easiest thing was not being able to talk to anybody," said 18-year-old Jordan Duckitt. "Otherwise I would've let something slip."

Duckitt, who was chairman of the London 2012 young ambassador steering group for two years and was nominated by Duncan Goodhew, told BBC Radio Lincolnshire that he had got the call asking him to be part of the finale eight days before the opening ceremony.

He had been due to go on holiday with his parents, he said, but had to cancel everything. Unaware of his starring role, the family went away anyway.

Aidan Reynolds, a budding javelin star and the personal pick of the former Team GB captain Lynn Davies, also kept schtum about his role.

The youngsters' moment of glory came at the expense of Sir Steve Redgrave, who had been favourite to light the cauldron, but who instead passed the torch to them inside the stadium.

On Sunday, he admitted that he was "a little disappointed" that he was not the one to put flame to cauldron.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, Redgrave said being the last Olympian to carry the torch had been a great honour.

But he added: "Of course, looking back, I must admit that when I was told it would not be me lighting the flame at the opening ceremony, I was a little disappointed.

"It was not a question of arrogance. It was about the expectation of everybody I knew, who kept saying that it had to be me when I knew deep down that it was not going to happen."

He had been called around two-and-a-half weeks before and given a rough idea of what would happen, he said.

"As an extremely competitive individual with an ego, there is a part of me that would love to have lit the flame.

"I never had any problem with the seven youngsters taking the torch, because it was a genuinely humbling spectacle. But it was the expectations of others that I found difficult."

Fittingly for the man who took his Slumdog Millionaire Oscar to his father's working men's club in Bury, Danny Boyle also appears to be his usual modest self.

Two days after his directorial triumph, he cemented his status as Britain's latest national treasure by being snapped queueing for sausage and mash like any other Olympic visitor.

As for Betty, she will suffer the fate of all flowers when the games end.

Having bloomed so brightly and so perfectly, she will lose her blackened petals as, one by one, they are borne home by the 204 countries that carried them into the stadium on Friday night.


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July 27 2012

London's top five architecture walks

Check out 1,000 years of London's history written in stone, bricks, mortar and steel

Hackney Wick

To understand how the Olympics is changing London, rather than visiting the Olympic Park, walk around it – through Hackney Wick, Bow and the thrusting new landscape of Stratford. Start with coffee at the Hackney Pearl (11 Prince Edward Road, thehackneypearl.com), and the surreal sight of a tree growing in the middle of the road. Head past industrial goods yards and artists' studios. At White Post Lane drop into The White Building (thewhitebuilding.org.uk), London's newest arts centre. Since the towpath across the canal from here has been closed for the Games, pick your way through one of London's last light-industrial landscapes to Dace Road, where Bridget Riley and many others have turned these Victorian warehouses into an artists' enclave.

Smithfield

This is a taste of ancient London. There has been a meat or livestock market at Smithfield since medieval times, and it still operates today, despite attempts by developers to redevelop it as offices. There are pleasures to be had either side of the grand Victorian central market building: to the north on Britton Street is the Jerusalem Tavern (stpetersbrewery.co.uk) and the tiny Museum of the Order of St John on St John's Lane, (museumstjohn.org.uk), while to the south is the church of St Bartholomew the Great, parts of which date back to Norman times. Around the church, in the narrow alleys and passages off Cloth Fair, for instance, you can feel the atmosphere of the medieval city.

Southwark's backstreets

Three parallel streets between Waterloo and Southwark combine, in their modest way, to create one of the jewels of south London. Whittlesey Street is almost theme-park London, a perfectly preserved brick terrace from the 1820s that is used endlessly as a location for Victorian period dramas. A block to the north is Theed Street, which doglegs round to meet the saw-toothed pitched roofs of Roupell Street, a block to the south. These few blocks, with their secret gardens behind brick walls, are a microcosm of a London that no longer exists.

O2 to the Thames Barrier

Turn your back to the former Millennium Dome, look east and imagine that you're going to walk out of London. This would be the way to do it, and before you're too far along this river path you will smell the sea. But the route starts with the capital's newest addition, a cable car across the Thames to the Royal Docks (tfl.gov.uk/emiratesairline). From here on, you're in London's industrial hinterland. On the north bank is the Tate & Lyle factory in Silvertown, while on this side you negotiate a cement factory. In the early evening, the great pleasure of this walk is the silence – except for the odd plane landing at City Airport.

Hampstead

If Hampstead retains a bohemian air, despite being an enclave of the super-wealthy, it is because its picturesqueness muffles all else. Any number of routes will reward a stroll, but do head down Flask Walk and then Well Walk to number 40, where John Constable lived in the 1820s when he was painting his cloud studies on the Heath. Then amble down Willow Road to two more famous houses. One is at number two, the home that the modernist architect Erno Goldfinger built in the late 1930s to test his ideas. The other is just around the corner on Keats Grove, the Regency house where the young poet wrote Ode to a Nightingale.


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London's Olympic Park – before and after

See how the area around Stratford, east London, changed in the years since London won the bid to host the 2012 Olympics





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