Peckhamplex: Social Cinema

The chairman of London’s favourite cinema, Peckhamplex, reflects on community, authenticity and independence

The cinema is a sacred space, for casual and devout worshippers alike. Few, however, inspire the level of devotion as Peckhamplex, London’s most affordable and down-to-earth cinema. Founded in 1994 and two-time winner of Time Out’s Love London awards, its nostalgic bubble-gum interior has authentic sticky floors to match. Where else would you find free charity screenings of Marvel’s Black Panther on the same schedule as a 70mm cut of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey?

Port caught up with the chairman of Peckhamplex, John Reiss, to discuss the responsibility and authenticity that comes with running a thriving independent cinema.

Was does cinema offer the viewer that on-demand tv simply can’t?

There’s a place for both, but for the social experience, cinema is excellent. An audience produces live feedback to what you are watching and we’re social animals, going out is part of the experience. That’s one of the reasons we’ve kept the price low at £4.99. It’s probably the most affordable cinema in London, so that you can visit regularly and families can come without it breaking the bank. As a result, we have a diverse and growing audience, in a good week with blockbuster films we’re welcoming 10,000 through the door. There are people who’ve had their first date here and they’re coming back with their grandchildren! For many, it’s like going home.

How does it feel to have been voted the Most Loved Local Cinema in London in the 2018 Time Out Love London Awards?  

We’ve had a couple of awards from Time Out over the years, but what matters above all to us is that they are voted for by the readers. It’s very encouraging.  

How can Peckham grow and develop, whilst resisting gentrification that potentially harms long-time locals?

I’ve been involved in Peckham for the past 14 years and I don’t feel it’s changed a huge amount – apart from the cost of housing. The wonderful thing about it is that it’s always been mixed. I think ‘gentrification’ is often a politically motivated word and a balance can be determined by planning policy – there’s room for modern and traditional activities to live side by side in Southwark. It’s a big enough area. 

Why is being independent important?

Having an independent shareholder board means we can be very responsive to the local and wider market, which can be difficult when you’re a big chain. We can be flexible about programming, it means we can make the decision to give space to a one-off special screening or for a charity fundraiser with no fuss.

What joint work do you undertake with the council and residents? 

We regularly participate with the community, whether that’s helping to launch the local newspaper Peckham Peculiar, supporting the Peckham Coal Line project, the South London Gallery, or the annual Peckham Festival. We won’t do anything that takes a religious or political slant though – we’re firmly neutral. For our contribution to the community and, unusually for a commercial business, we were awarded by London Borough of Southwark their Honorary Liberty of the Neighbourhood of the Old Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell – we were chuffed to bits!

Why is affordable cinema so important?

At the end of the day, we’re a commercial business, we have to make a profit but we want to be fair to people walking through the door, and also to our employees. So unlike certain cinemas, we pay everybody at least the London living wage and give bonuses several times a year. There are people who have worked here since the very beginning and we want to share the success. 

What does the future hold for the Peckhamplex? 

We have a lease of over 75 years left to run and our understanding with the council is that if they demolish the building, they would relocate us in the local area, knowing that we’re an important social contributor. The board has big plans over the coming years, expanding the foyer, putting more screens in upstairs so we can show films for longer and introduce even more variety. We want to keep our style comfortable and welcoming – we’re not trying to be Curzon or Everyman. We expect to carry on as long as possible. I’m no spring chicken, but I’ll make sure it keeps running. I love the place.

What was the best film you saw in the cinema recently?

Cold War by Pawel Pawlikowski. Very atmospheric.

Renovation & Education: Margot Heller

The director of the South London Gallery discusses transformative renovation, social responsibility and unlocking creativity

Peckham Road Fire Station, 1905. London Metropolitan Archives, City of London

Three years ago, Margot Heller was invited to visit London’s oldest surviving purpose-built fire-station. By the end of the surprise tour, it had been gifted to her gallery. Donated by an anonymous benefactor, Peckham Road Fire Station has since been transformed by 6a architects (who Port met for issue 22) into a new exhibition space for the world-renowned South London Gallery, effectively doubling its capacity.

For over a century, nestled squarely between Peckham and Camberwell, the gallery has been showcasing the very best of British and international contemporary art. Established on its current site by philanthropist William Rossiter to “bring art to the people of South London”, entry remains completely free, providing an opportunity to experience the controversial work of Young British Artists Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas – as well as contemporary artists from further afield, such as Alfredo Jarr, Oscar Murillo and Rivane Neuenschwander – for those whom central London galleries might appear inaccessible.

Here, Tom Bolger talks to Heller about the opportunities the Fire Station will bring, the social benefits of an expanded arts program, and the first exhibition to span the two new spaces, KNOCK KNOCK, which explores humour in art.

Margot Heller

How can the South London Gallery encourage everyone, from all backgrounds, to walk through the door?

Being a welcoming place is absolutely fundamental to our ethos, and it has been from the first day I started. Part of that is to openly communicate what you’re doing and we’re very proactive in providing opportunities for people to get involved. We’ve been running children’s art programs on the Sceaux Gardens Housing Estate behind us for more than ten years, developing long-term relationships with residents who will often then go on to our Young People’s Programme. Because I’ve worked here for seventeen years, I’ve seen a generation come of age. We’ve just hired a play worker to help run our Art Block sessions who came as a child, we have people working at the gallery who grew up on the local estate. Making sure a child’s initial encounter with art is natural changes their dynamic with galleries and artists for life.

Sunday Spot with Philippa Johnson. Photo Zoe Tynan Campbell

What does the Peckham Road Fire Station expansion mean for the gallery?

The Fire Station will be completely transformative for the South London Gallery, doubling us in size and allowing us to be much more ambitious in our exhibition programming – we can have group shows that span both buildings. It will enable us to more experimental in a curatorial sense, further establishing our artists residency program now that there’s a dedicated studio. We’ll also be able to work with different communities in new ways through our education and digital archive spaces.

The South London Gallery and Fire Station are effectively time twins – the origins of the former lie in the South London Working Man’s College which opened in 1868, while the Fire Station opened in 1867. So this new relationship between the two closes a 127 year loop, bringing the social, architectural and cultural history of the local area to life in a completely fascinating way.

South London Gallery Fire Station, Photo Johan Dehlin, Courtesy 6a architects

I’m always surprised with how versatile the main gallery space is. How much freedom do you give artists to change it?

I work very closely with artists and encourage them to be as ambitious as possible. Those that do completely transform it tend to have the greatest resonance. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small space at 200 square metres, but that’s one of the things I love about it. It slows down the time between the viewer and the artwork, concentrating their experience. It doesn’t always have to be about scale.

Tell me about your upcoming exhibition, KNOCK KNOCK.

There are laugh out loud works in the show but there are also pieces that examine humour as a subject, something fundamental to human existence. They explore how humour is a cover sometimes, the dark underbelly of reality – it’s the melancholy of the clown figure. It’s a huge cross section of different types of practices, creating a surprising encounter with a broad range of artists who use humour as a device. We’re pitting works by quite established names like Maurizio Cattelan alongside newly commissioned work by young artists to reflect the gallery’s curatorial approach, which often creates a dialogue between the two.

Roy Lichtenstein, Knock-Knock, 1975

The UK has endured substantial arts education funding cuts in the past decade and yet it still produces world class talent, why do you think that is?

The UK has such outstanding museums and galleries, in London and around the country. We also have some of the best art schools in the world, so those two factors are absolutely vital. However, cuts do have an impact and that cannot be sustained. If they continue, they will have a very real impact on young people’s choices. Art GCSE entries have already been reduced by 28% since 2010. The impact of this has yet to filter through, but it will.

Can you teach creativity?

You can definitely reveal it to someone. You can unlock it, nurture it, develop it, redefine what it means to people who might not have conventional skills associated with creativity. If an arts education is too conservative, as it was for me, it’s easy to turn your back on it. Because I couldn’t draw properly by the age of 7 I thought I was ‘uncreative’ and gave up. I think that’s a common story. Education should provide skills that channel innate creativity. 

South London Gallery Fire Station, Photo Johan Dehlin, Courtesy 6a architects

Peckham and Camberwell are changing rapidly. How can they continue to grow but resist commodifying their culture?

The word ‘gentrification’ is used negatively, whereas ‘regeneration’ is positive. Often those two things go together, which can be challenging. There’s a lot of social housing in this part of London, and it’s so important to keep that in the public sector. Secondly, it’s crucial we have free, public spaces, open to all. That’s why the development of the fire station is so positive. I’ve always felt very keenly our responsibility to run a space that is a public social space, as well as an art space. 

The South London Gallery’s new annexe in the former Fire Station opened to the public on the 22nd September. The first exhibition there, KNOCK KNOCK, runs until 18th November and explores humour in contemporary art.

Peckham 24

Port‘s photography director introduces one of the most exciting events from a weekend devoted to photography in London

The third week in May is fast becoming the most important in the London photo calendar. In part, this is because of the launch of Photo London, Foam Talent opening at Beaconsfield Gallery and Offprint taking over the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. The most exciting event, however – taking place in the south London district of Peckham – is the three-day festival, Peckham 24My London, one of the highlights, occupies the trendy Copeland Gallery, tucked away behind the Bussey Building, a Victorian cricket bat factory-cum-mixed-use art space.

Since the first edition of the art fair Photo London launched at Somerset House in 2015, The Financial Times Weekend Magazine has been publishing a photography special to coincide with it. For each issue Emma Bowkett, the director of photography at the FT Mag, has invited four contemporary photographers to produce a series of images about the city. Bowkett, who was also the photography director for our 19th issue, is showcasing works from nine artists involved in the special issue of the FT Mag: Campbell Addy, Jonny Briggs, Antony Cairns, Juno Calypso, Chrystel Lebas, Tom Lovelace, Hannah Starkey, Dafna Talmor, Lorenzo Vitturi.

Tom Lovelace, Black-Marble London No.1

There are not many young photographers who can claim to be more London than Juno Calypso, who was our alternate cover star for our five year anniversary issue. Over the past few years, she has been taking the capital’s art world by storm, and it’s fitting that visitors to Peckham 24, the capital’s youngest and coolest photo festival, will be greeted at My London by Light Therapy – a larger-than-life, pink, three-meter-tall self-portrait of Calypso. Campbell Addy, who heads up Nii Jornal and Nii Agency, is showing a new series of twenty-five images of his milieu, in a work aptly titled My World. The photos sit in what is one of the most interesting and ambiguous spaces in photography – somewhere between fashion and art.

Contrastingly but also newly produced, Dafna Talmor has photographed the Thames and produced an artwork by collaging sliced negatives. The work fits within her existing practice and becomes part of her series Constructed Narratives that “references early Pictorialist tendencies of combination printing as well as Modernist experimental techniques such as montage, collage and multiple exposures.”

My London runs at Peckham 24, Copeland Gallery, Copeland Park, 133 Copeland Rd, London SE15 3SN from 18th-20th May 2018

Revisiting Peckham’s Radical Health Experiment 

Thomas Bolger speaks to multimedia artist Ilona Sagar about her latest exhibition Correspondence O, which focuses on the revolutionary Pioneer Health Centre in south London

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

Established in Peckham in 1926, the Pioneer Health Centre was a bold experiment in social connection, preventative medicine and local governance. For over 24 years, working-class citizens of the south London borough paid a shilling a week to be a part of a body greater than the sum of its parts, signing up to a research program that sought to track the relationship between social and physical health.

The centre’s transition from a Socialist reverie to gated community, as it is now, has uncomfortable parallels to an increasingly fraught and privatised NHS. Returning to the site and the principals with which it was founded, multimedia artist Ilona Sagar’s moving installation, Correspondence O, explores this historical microcosm while asking urgent questions about our current public healthcare system.

Here, I spoke to Sagar about the legacy of the Peckham Experiment, the status of community and social welfare today, and the future of the NHS. 

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

Why was the Pioneer Health Centre such a revolutionary model and how did the project come about? 

A while ago I came across the building through a friend and was drawn to its iconic architecture, but I was unware of its loaded history. I started to look at the architect Owen William’s designs in the RIBA collection and realised that I had only scratched the surface of a complex archive.

‘The Peckham Experiment’ was at the forefront of a dramatic shift in the public perception of health, yet its significance has been historically overlooked. Biologists George Scott Williamson and Innes Hope Pearse established it privately in 1926, long before the foundation of the NHS in 1948. The Pioneer Centre came out of a time of social experimentation and optimistic change, citing similar projects such as the fresh air movement. It promised wide, airy, huge-windowed spaces where people could play, exercise, and be observed and recorded. Built around principles of self-organisation, local empowerment and a holistic focus on social connection as fundamental to health, the learning from the Peckham Experiment is as relevant today as it was then.

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

How important was collaboration for this project?

There is an overwhelmingly comprehensive body of archival material and primary resources surrounding the work of the Peckham Experiment. They appear in a fragmented way across several archives, community groups, charitable foundations and within the building itself. 

The first material I came across was at the Wellcome Trust archives, where I found a series of very unusual black and white silent films. The lack of an experienced camera operator and the method used to transpose the material to archive results in films which are a disjointed mesh of body parts, glass, water, rope, architecture, small moments of interactions and activities. Through accident they almost appear as a structuralist film rather than a medical document. I was struck by how much these films resonated with contemporary editing methods. So this footage became a key overarching structure for Correspondence O, reflected in a rhythmically edited sequence of rapidly changing events and bound by the layered use of sound design and voice-over.

Correspondence O is not simply a historical account, it is a darkly speculative installation that examines our uneasy and increasingly precarious relationship to public health, labour and wellbeing. During a site visit at the Pioneer Centre, by chance I met Tom Bell, an architectural surveyor, and James Hardy, a personal trainer, who are both residents of the centre today. Their professions became emblematic material components of the film, echoing the legacy of the Peckham Experiment. 

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

Could we see this sort of self-organised, locally empowered social-health centre in the future as an antidote to the status quo? What is the tension between public and private in the work?  

The inspiring yet unsustainable ideologies established by biological and social reform groups like the Peckham Experiment has in many ways shaped our expectations of public resources. The failed big society agenda and neoliberal localism have redefined notions of the common good. Correspondence O is not a didactic illustration of the current political climate. I didn’t want the work to become a worthy polemic, but through the film and exhibition, open up a dialogue with my audience and offer a space for discussion. 

Political populism, identity politics and fundamentalism have distracted us from the privatisation of public life. Silently the definition of public interest and welfare have been rewritten, leaving us with an increasingly private and economically driven health sector, redefining health as a consumer asset rather than as an innate human right.

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

AI can now diagnose scans for cancer with incredible accuracy and at a fraction of the cost compared to human doctors – could emerging technologies like AI be the thing that saves the NHS?

There are amazing innovations in health and care using advance forms of human-computer interactions and assistive technologies, and I have no doubt that they will have a positive and lasting impact on our health in the future. Yet I have concerns about how private health companies shape our access to these technologies. Algorithms, neural networks and data forests are increasingly trusted and relied on to manage all aspects of our everyday activities. In recent years we have seen a surge of innovation in the commercial sector for products that allow users to self-manage their health and wellbeing without outside human intervention. Internationally we are seeing governments trialling new E-health initiatives in a desperate bid to solve growing structural and fiscal challenges within public health provision. 

I am deeply troubled by the contraction of companies such as Babylon Health Care, who are currently piloting the ‘GP in Hand’ digital app for the NHS. The app promises ‘efficiency’ to take pressure off an over-stretched NHS. Yet it features ‘queue-jumps’ and faster testing pay bands, piggy backing us into a ACA style system. Although there is a substantial commentary surrounding the gamification and quantifying of our health, labour and wellbeing, there has been sparse empirical analysis. 

Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection and Pioneer Health Foundation

Do you think the British public will eventually reject privatisation in their healthcare system?

I would like to think we have a power to resist, but whether we have a choice to reject the privatisation that is already legislated for is difficult to assess. Evidence of the silent shift to a US style system of insurance is embedded in the announcement by Jeremy Hunt of the launch of “accountable care organisations”. It is a system of health management directly transplanted from the US that bring private, corporate health interests deep into the structure of public welfare. Aspects of privatisation are very much in the public interest, yet corporate partnerships remain opaque and little known to the general public. 75 years after the Beveridge report, we are further than ever before from the founding notions of social insurance. We should take every opportunity to question and challenge policy and increasing health inequalities. Once it’s gone, its gone. 

Correspondence O runs at the South London Gallery until the 25th February. A panel discussion with Owen Hatherley, Nina Wakeford, Lisa Curtice and Ilona Sagar takes place at 6pm on 25th February. For more information click here.