I was in a fraying queue in Piccadilly Community Centre, surrounded by a shifting group of elders. We were all waiting to sign in and there was some hold up at the front. Younger people, walking with some purpose and probably at work, smiled apologetically. On reaching the front of the queue I leant down to the too-low tabletop, feeling a press of bodies still behind me. “Name”, “time in”, “purpose of visit”… I stalled. What was my purpose of visit?
This was one room in the sprawling exhibition by Christoph Büchel at Hauser & Wirth, incorporating a computer room, charity shop, community canteen, non-denominational prayer room, a pub and a squat. Parts functioned and seemed to thrive – there were no spare seats in the computer room, and people clicked away with that idle focus common to these places; people browsed the hangers in the charity shop; older gentlemen sat down for lunch in the community canteen; a tea dance started up as I climbed some stairs leading to a large, multifunction hall.
There was no door keeping me out of the tea dance, just a friendly barrier of “this isn’t for you.” I looked, amused, at a pair of seated women; they looked back, just as amused. I lingered by the entrance for a time before feeling like I’d used up my credit, then nipped into the non-denominational prayer room. It was one of the inactive rooms, empty of people to distract my eyes from a detail in a glass cabinet. The cabinet contained a very knowingly chosen ornament – carved from wood, the figure leant forward, its head fusing with a digitless arm. I found the choice of this ornament rather smug, and felt I was expected to laugh at it. My displeasure drew me to other objects in the room that had a mocking tone, like the greying computer which looked too old. He’s overdone it, I thought.
There was more space for exploration in other inactive rooms. The pub, taking up several rooms in the basement, hovered somewhere in between real and false – I almost believed I could have ordered a pint from the woman thumbing a magazine in one corner, but something about the stillness of the place told me the transaction would fail. Through a door marked ‘private’ I was confronted with something more straightforward: an obviously inactive room. It had Büchel’s signature aesthetic: grimy shed detritus, minus the layers of dust. Twisting along an unpromising corridor I found an extra, hidden space with a mattress and piles of lad’s mags. It was fun squeezing along this corridor, ducking shadowy shapes hanging at head height – and amazing to think that this space was a genuine discovery, that through some quirk of the building a narrow and almost useless corridor had been left between an external wall and the wall of a room. Büchel had exploited this existing feature. This pleased me – finding strange things that are real and presenting them, rather than inventing new strange things. Back in the ‘private’ room everything felt a little too displayed, a little too displaced.
The last room was was accessible only through a small hole at the top of a ladder. It was an attic squat and, again, didn’t ring true: it felt too purposefully chaotic and too knowingly unpleasant.
So it was with relief that I returned to the buzzing ground floor. The plates had been cleared from the community cafe – the gentlemen’s lunch was over – but they still sat and chatted, occupying the space in a way I couldn’t. Music drifted down from the tea dance upstairs. A pin board listed upcoming events and services offered with the look of something unmonitored and in flux.
I languished in the feeling of being excluded. All this activity was taking place in a gallery and I wasn’t invited – at least, I didn’t seem to be the target demographic for most of the activities on offer. That’s not to say that a feeling exclusion is unfamiliar to me: I often feel uncomfortable in galleries, particularly commercial galleries – silently observed and judged, though never expelled. I may not be wealthy, influential or famous, but I know most galleries want me as a visitor. I pad out their visitor numbers, don’t make a fuss and might tell my friends to go. While thinking about this I noticed that two nights in a row, when walking to separate events held in two different galleries, I was approached by someone on the way asking me directions to the same event – both times, a passerby had identified me as someone who was going to the gallery purely based on my appearance and proximity to the space. Small details like this happen all the time, and contribute to a feeling that I’m part of the club.
But so many people are not part of the club, including (I make an assumption here) the ladies and gentlemen at the tea dance. I thought back to the signing in sheet, the blank space I’d left under “purpose of visit”, and realised that the discomfort I often feel comes from the mixture of inclusion and exclusion. Do these places really want me there? But here, in the Piccadilly Community Centre, things were much more straightforward – the place simply didn’t care if I was there or not; it would carry on without me.