I still have lots of notes to write up from my residency in Christiania – in particular from my walk with Peder Agger before I start working on the map. It’s been a week since I returned to South London, and I’m still so grateful for my time there because it helped me really reconnect to my core values. Living in the city and in particular, working in the city proper deeply distorted my perspective. In 2012, I had realised the depth of this distortion, so we, my husband and cat, moved onto a boat on the London Waterways to live in a way that was separate from the destructive mechanisms of the high net value consumer economy, without having to leave.
We had to ration our water, had limited electricity, no internet, small gas ring, porta potty. So we were, probably for the first time, forced to confront our withdrawals and deposits in and out of the landscape like water and goods, and rubbish and our fecal matter!
Like the Christianians, we cycled everywhere, mainly to avoid the horrific tube crushes and cost. We had to deal with our own recycling, lived modestly out of choice, and our decision to live in such a way, also meant that we had to coexist with unsavoury sorts, like speedboat maniac drug dealers on the rivers.
I took my current job as a software tester as a temporary means to support my studies and art work, and now, a few months after finishing my MA, I’m still there. I work across a number of sites, but the one that I dislike the most is Holborn.
Holborn caters to the legal and banking elite of London, and there are hundreds of coffee places and lunch places that fuel that stomachs of the analysts, barristers, bankers. Everything is on demand here, food, sex, love, and since it is so readily available, it is equally disposable.
The pressures of working in the city are incredible. The high salaries come at a high cost, long tense complex days with ever increasing work loads but concrete deadlines. I’ve watched dozens of my coworkers, skip breakfast, skip lunch, as though it were a badge of honour. They are locked into the grind by a debt contract, a mortgage, or the motivation to provide a world class lifestyle or education. They are not happy, or at least 98% of the people that I know personally aren’t.
People would argue that the presence of these high earning individuals drive the service economy, and they are right. I feel sorry every time I see a city Barista between the hours of 7 and 9 am. It is like being a 19th century factory worker, working at a relentless pace, which carries the risk of severe burns and physical exhaustion. My husband works as a chef, I’ve seen it first hand.
Even the homeless people in Christiania, seemed to me, to be more at ease psychologically that the average city worker. I often watched them from the Green Room on the benches outside of the grocery store, their free and drunken bonhomie. I am not trying to trivialize or deny their lived experiences. Having spoken with the people at the Health Clinic, the homeless people have incredibly deprived and complex health and psychological issues to deal with as a result of their homelessness and past experiences. (I also have worked with homeless people when I was a frontline health promoter for the NHS in West London.)
However, for a low level city worker like myself working as a temp, the constant stress levels are unsustainable and make for a pitiful existence. Struggling to live in a tiny room, spending hours each day standing on crowded transport, constantly having more work dumped onto your desk, but with no more time to complete it, knowing that if you refuse that you will no longer be able to afford your tiny room. Having no savings at the end of the month, because you have masses of student debt.
Having no life because you have a headache when you get back from work and you can’t really go anywhere because you live in a boring and dangerous suburb and going out means spending more time on public transport. Just sitting in your little room doing the best that you can, trying not to give up and stay positive, waiting until you are tired enough to go to sleep and repeat the process. After a few months of being in the office, I started to feel like a constant passenger in my life, a numbness crept in.
Some would say that these are choices, made because of a lack of determination or imagination. But, I find that deeply insulting. Most people are not working in their dream careers, they are simply trying to survive from month to month and they are trying to do better.
What I’m trying to get at, is the lack of autonomy as a city drone that I’ve encountered. How the city and technology creates a passive consumption, which in turn, creates a passive and nullified existence.
But, I also understand that most people would argue that what I see as a lack of self expression of self determination, is also convenience and stability.
Cities are vampires of natural and human resources. I enrolled in further masters studies in Urban and Environmental planning because I deeply believe that by creating sustainable streets, we can create sustainable cities that do not rob people of their autonomy, or completely destroy the local landscapes that they are situated in.
I’m going to do another residency in the North and then I’m leaving London for good this time so that I can have a work/life balance which allows me time to work equally on my studies and art works.