In 2017 I rented a studio on a peninsula along the London docklands, at a dirty bend of the river, where the skyline of Canary Wharf loomed over us like a threat or a promise, depending on the weather and the time of day. The studio was inside an apartment block on London City Island, a Ballymore Group development that had a swimming pool, a gym, a bar, two art galleries, a marketing suite, and over twelve hundred apartments of varying levels of 'luxury'. Getting to the self declared island by foot- actuallly a peninsula - you had to go underground, through a train station, take a lift back up on the other side, cross a footbridge and then pass through brand-new gardens, and pass through a tunnel at the back, where the entrance to council flats and studios was hidden out of view.
I was in the studio because I wanted to shoot the docklands and to write something about the weirdness of Canary Wharf, but I couldn't find the right words to, and I still can't. In research, I learned that Canary Wharf was devised by Thatcher's government, that local councils were dissolved so that all planning for the hub could be centralised and report directly to the government, that there was an effort amongst the people who had lived along that area of docklands to resist, or at least be involved, in the destruction of their neighborhoods and the future of the area. I learned that the area was largely owned by foreign corporations, and has an average yearly income of £100,000. (The global average is about £10,000)
Despite the fact that London Dockland has been an epicentre of trade, on and off, since the 1st century, that many of the banks there now were funders of the trade of enslaved people, that it was in the 18th and 19th centuries home to the busiest port in the world, that it was the site of labour strikes so large they affected the history of the modern worker's Union movement in Britain - there is a creepy and persvaive absence of anything to really feel about history in Canary Wharf. As a symbol, it looms very large, but as a place to actually be in, to experience, the lack of anything substantial to grasp hold of, to pull apart and to experience, is kind of maddening. In other words, the central thing is always absent, and what you're left with is a series of bad illusions. Structural references to the height of the Britsih empire look postmodern and cheaply made. Nods to New York or Chicago modernism read both as fake and a little shameful, like library wallpaper. Everything needs to be seen from either far away, or through very blurry glasses, to be believed. And the further into the centre you go, the more you're pushed, by images and advertising, back out of it, and the more invisible the infrastructure around you becomes.
Maybe the central thing that is captivating about the skyline of a financial district, and of more and more cities, is that they work as a symbol of power, while the mechanics of power become increasingly more invisible. Canary Wharf is there to be photographed from above or at a distance; and that image works to counterbalance other, truer symbolic images of capital - factories, slums, dumps. Of course, there's nothing here but shopping centres and offices, screens, billboards, armed police, private security. But what do you want? What do you expect?