Artist shines his light on one night in the life of Balfron Tower

A night in the life of Balfron Tower, Photo: Heather Bishop

It hasn’t rained yet: a fact that the assembled crowd at Balfron Tower seems to be clinging to. It’s a freezing Thursday evening, and a group of maybe forty people have gathered for an interactive art project months in the planning. Above us, the tower looms and leers, lit with enough watts to rival the nearby Canary Wharf. Music is playing from the run-down social club at Balfron’s base, where arts workers are doling out free tea and promising curry for anyone who lasts the duration.

Residents are dotted along their balconies, as those at ground level mill around or perch on concrete ledges. Despite the cold, the music and lights create a growing atmosphere among the crowd. Chatter centres on where the next hour will take us, and every now and then an arm goes up, pointing out a blinking light atop the nearby Glen Kerry House.

This light is central to why we’re all here. It’s mounted beside a large format still camera, and is the proverbial birdie we’re all watching out for. Over the next hour, artist Simon Terrill will remotely take ten photographs, taking in the whole of Balfron Tower and the people who live there. It’s an ambitious feat that took months to organise, under Terrill’s guiding hand and the backing of Bow Arts Trust.

It’s part of an ongoing project for Terrill, whose ‘Crowd Theory’ series has seen similar works produced in his native Melbourne. The works are site specific, operating as performance events that rely on high degrees of (completely undirected) crowd interaction.

With Balfron, Terrill’s aim is that “the residents will be choosing how they want to represent themselves.” His expansive works is reminiscent of Spencer Tunnick’s urban photos, bringing the human element back into its own grandiose creations.

The music suddenly cuts and Terrill’s voice booms into the forecourt, warning us the first photo about to be taken. At the sound of an 80s gameshow jingle, we’re to hold our pose for the ten second exposure.

Just think one thought about the Balfron,” Terrill encourages us, “and the camera will do the rest. The camera will read your thought.”

The camera, for that first shot, has its work cut out. At the sound of the jingle, we all suddenly freeze, staring expectantly up at Glen Kerry House. A little stiff, we’re like bemused and unamused Victorians, holding our collective breath lest the camera steal our souls. The seconds pass and we eventually exhale. A nervous cheer goes up, we’re on our way.

Photo: Heather Bishop

It’s not the first time Balfron’s taken centre stage though; you may recognize it from films such as ‘28 Days Later’, an Oasis music video, or multiple TV appearances in shows such as Whitechapel, The Fixer and The Hustle.

Designed by Ernő Goldfinger in 1963, the inherent Brutalist influences have matured into modern-day connotations of grit and urban deprivation. In the case of Balfron, this perception often threatens to become the story itself; a story that Terrill is keen to counteract.

So too, are the residents, who are proud of where they live. “It’s a multicultural community” notes resident Nessa Ashrafun but, observes her companion, Jalal Sardar, “a strong one where you get to know most of your neighbours.”

The photographs start to come thick and fast, and the crowd loosens up with each one. Someone’s made a cardboard model of the tower, which is now being sported as a hat. Residents from a fifth floor flat have unstrung one end of their fairy lights, which now dangle down to a couple sitting on their window ledge on the third. The string of light looks like a shifting crack in the building itself, a peak through the harsh exterior to the glowing life within. A life that is really starting to spill out onto the balconies, as residents break out lights, flags and ever more elaborate poses. Photo by photo, personalities start to emerge.

Artist Simon Terrill, Photo: Heather Bishop

Jason Atomic, an artist who lives in the nearby Caradale House, has come down with his partner for the shoot. Armed with sparklers, the couple stands out from the crowd by their colourful outfits alone.

We figured we’re being shot from a distance, so we needed something that can be spotted in the finished work” Atomic admits. But the 43-year-old isn’t just here to be seen. “We’re also Goldfinger residents, and we’re artists as well, so we wanted to show a bit of solidarity.”

This relationship between residents and where they live is key to Terrill’s work. The imposing scale of Balfron is captured, but also opened up like an enormous dollhouse, foregrounding the individuals inside and bringing to light the relationship between building and resident, setting and subject.

In the hands of the crowd, the building is continuously transformed according to their whim, but always in the context of this relationship. While the camera lens takes in the scene, the crowd returns the gaze. In the process, though it may not be the ultimate intention, a portrait of the Balfron is teased out, from the multiple viewpoints of those who know it best.

It’s time for the last photo, and by now everyone has shaken off their reserve. A couple with several small children join hands in a circle and mime a still and silent ‘Ring a Ring o’ Roses’; people are hoisted on shoulders as others pretend they’re falling, mouths agape, from windowsills and death drop concrete stairwells. The jingle sounds, the posers hold, and at count of ten we’re done! Cheers, congratulations, a bee-line for free curry.

Terrill seems pleased, as do the crowd and the descending residents. Despite the cold, you’re left with a warming sense that you’ve taken part in something worthwhile, special even. For one night only Balfron Tower, and the people who live there, got to write their own story.

For more on the Balfron Project, and to see the finished product in January, check the project’s website. To see more of Simon Terrill’s work, visit his site here.

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