Utopia invites visitors to take a walk in other people’s shoes

Steven Gallagher, Penny Woolcock and Gideon Berger at the Roundhouse. Picture: Helen Maybanks

Steven Gallagher, Penny Woolcock and Gideon Berger at the Roundhouse. Picture: Helen Maybanks - Credit: Archant

Artist Penny Woolcock tells Anna Behrmann how she’s breaking down barriers for the Roundhouse’s latest project

Penny Woolcock, the award-winning filmmaker, writer and artist, is venturing into the world of installations and imagined landscapes with her new piece, Utopia.

If it sounds a bit airy fairy and difficult to visualise, that seems to be the nature of Utopia – you have to be there. The installation has been created to fill the main space of the Roundhouse over the summer and was created in collaboration with radical designers Block9, who create fantastical worlds at Glastonbury festival.

As visitors walk through, they will hear a city soundscape. They’ll also hear the voices of various people, all Londoners, who Woolcock interviewed for her piece. “We hope it will feel like being inside a videogame, or inside a film,” she says. “It will evoke the feeling of being able to crawl inside the heads of people that you would normally just walk past without thinking anything – or you might be a little afraid.”

Woolcock, who lives in Islington, spent months talking to people and recording their stories for the installation. Many of them are from Camden. When Woolcock was first commissioned, she asked the Roundhouse to introduce her to someone who could give her an insider’s tour of the area.

The performing arts venue is also a youth charity, and they introduced her to a 23-year-old called Hassan, whose voice features in the installation. “Most young people who come to Camden at the weekend see it as a place to hang out with their friends,” Woolcock says. “For him, it was a business opportunity – to hang around the corner selling fake weed.”

Woolcock explores the different pockets of Camden – for example, how if you turn down a side street you can cross from a council flat to the Regent’s Park mansions. Her installation includes voices from both the well-to-do and the impoverished, and the ages of people range from those in their early 20s to people in their 80s.

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“I think film and art tends to be made by people from a more privileged position looking at people from a less privileged position,” she says. “What I’ve tried to do is flip that on its head so that part of the installation is actually given over to people from the pockets of poverty in Camden looking at us and freely talking about their experiences.”

Woolcock first started planning the piece about two years ago, but she says that the driving force behind the installation has stayed the same. “It’s come out of my obsession with the fact that in big cities we all live very close to each other – people who are very rich, or very poor – with very different kinds of experiences, on the same pavements, and we very rarely cross over to see what it’s like walking in other people’s shoes.”

Woolcock believes that part of the reason people feel that they can talk to her is because she has experienced different walks of life. She grew up in Argentina in an upper-middle class community, but her life changed when she rebelled as a teenager and she had a child at 19. “I ended up almost running away from home and ending up on a kind of income support and in very low paid jobs for about 15 years.

“I experienced what it’s like to be very short on money,” she continues. “What’s important to me is that I didn’t lose my humanity. My life was still really interesting and vivid and fully lived. So I don’t go around feeling sorry for people.”

Now 65, she is haunted by her experiences as a young girl in Argentina. “We’d see shanty towns out of the car window, but we would never dream of going into that space,” she says. “I feel like my whole adult life has been about crossing that road and not driving past.”

As well as exploring Utopia, visitors can also go to live events inspired by the installation. There is spoken word, circus and cabaret, and talks from Charlotte Church, who has recently been campaigning against austerity, and the infamous Mr Russell Brand. “There’s a lot more really radical and exciting talk now than there has ever has been in my lifetime and in a much more interesting and shambolic way,” Woolcock says.

She hopes that Utopia will introduce people to voices that they might otherwise miss. But there is also the sense that extraordinary stories can be found on the streets outside the installation. “All of us have encounters – if we’re lucky it can happen every day,” she says.

Utopia runs from Tuesday (August 4) until August 23 at the Roundhouse. For details and tickets, visit roundhouse.org.uk/whats-on/2015/penny-woolcock-utopia/

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