El Warcha London by Inês
“How was your weekend?” - The workshop always starts with the morning coffee routine that is followed by checking on everyone and seeing if they had a good time during the days we haven’t been there. The conversation always takes a long time as this is the time that everyone ventilates about their issues or funny moments. I often put music on in the workshop to make things feel lighter and to brighten the mood . I believe that the time that we spent together having conversations, lunch and having cups of tea is a big part of our practice especially in this setting. For a generation that is often on the margin of society and left behind by our economic system it is important to have these sorts of projects that besides creating new ways of sharing skills, they open up for new relationships to be built and create a sense of community. The people make the space.
Myself, Martin and Barbara exchange a few jokes while we try to understand how Barbara would like to design her new door stopper. We decided to go upstairs to her flat to measure a few bits and pieces. We get out of the lift and we walk slowly towards her flat. Martin and Barbara exchange a few jokes about songs and how old those songs are. We arrive at her flat and understand that Barbara has a whole choreography to open her door and to keep it open. The door is too heavy for her, as Barbara has mainly strength in one arm and no strength in her legs, she has to use a walking stick. We realise that she has difficulties bending, so we decide to do a door stopper with the same height as her walking stick, also it needs to be quite heavy to hold that door. Barbara knows exactly what she needs and wants to do it. We go to the workshop and do a quick sketch of how it could work. We decided to recycle the frame of an old half chair that we had in the studio that has almost the perfect height. Martin cuts all the pieces to measure and me and Barbara sand everything, me handling the material and Barbara holding the machine. I am the other Barbara’s strong arm. After that Barbara screws all the pieces together and we do the finishing, this is divided in between two workshop sessions. At the end of the second one, we go up all together again to her flat to try our finest odd object, as it works. We keep chatting a bit more and Barbara shows us her family pictures and tells us a few stories. When we are about to leave she points out that she needs 4 picture frames broken and a table that needs to be fixed! This gives us work for the next few sessions.
I think this can’t describe better the connection that the space has in relation to our work. We are there, in their communal living room, next to their flat. We are there in their privacy. The relationship that we create quite quickly is of trust, complicity and empathy. They are the ones telling us what they need and we are building it together as a collective effort.
We quickly understood that relationships can’t be forced especially when you are coming to their communal living room. People come down from their flats if they want to engage. The reason for that engagement can be really different, from drinking coffee and having a piece of cake to wanting just to have a few hours of company. I don’t think it is necessarily about what we build but more of an excuse for us to be together. I don’t mean to dismiss the practical side, I see it as a fruitful and important aspect, but the relationships that we create are probably the most important. Our practice is not to be there to entertain people or teach them new skills per say but instead, it is to share experiences and moments with individuals who might otherwise not cross our path or be part of our daily lives because of the generational gap.
For us each workshop brings questions of accessibility, inclusivity and shared space. We are there every monday and tuesday and if they need to, we support them however we can. It could be just a chat, to replace a lamp bulb or fixing up a shelf that is falling.
The building where we are located is managed by Homes for Haringey, this means that everything that happens is developed in collaboration with them. With a number of cuts made through the years to this service, people feel less and less heard, cared for and disconnected from the environment that surrounds them. Our workshop is divided between our workshop space and the communal living room that stopped in time. The fact that we work in the communal living room might sometimes be destabilising for the residents and even create tensions. In a way we are creating new activities that can be enjoyed by everyone but also we are disturbing the usual peace and quiet of that space. It is a difficult equilibrium to find.
I remember when we built a massive structure of 4 meters inside of the lounge area for a local community group: Friends of Hartington Park as part of their christmas celebration . We had people passing by, looking at us in a really suspicious way until John came along and looked at us and asked: “What are you doing? What is it?” Me and Ben looked at each other asking ourselves the same question, not really sure we had an answer. Something that was supposed to be a christmas tree became a really weird and high structure. The next challenge was to take that structure to the park through the living room double doors, but how? John decided to help us, he gave instructions until we managed to pull the whole structure outside, we were quite surprised that we managed. John after that offered to read a poem and sang a song for us. John doesn’t come to the workshops regularly but he always checks on us and is there to help and give creative input.
This is also the nature of what we do, people can have their input in the form that they feel more comfortable. The most important is that we speak about what matters and each person feels free to find their own material and ways of working.
I was overwhelmed when I visited our workshop in Tunis, which opened in 2016. I could feel that the space had a completely different dynamic, in this chaotic but productive spirit full of life. After we opened the workshop we would have people already organising their materials to work on a project, kids passing by and entering the workshop and neighbours passing by and sharing with us the latest news. While this is happening, everyone is sharing their life and having a laugh in a busy but super informal environment. It really felt like a big family that overshares everyday work and friendship. I guess that from my point of view coming from the studio in London was great to see how impact it has in the dynamic of a space is social and cultural context and that organically El Warcha develops it’s own dynamics depending on the people and context where the workshop is located.
El Warcha Tunis by Marlène
We often ask ourselves whether we could document, analyse and theorise a methodology from our way of working. This is a question that has always been difficult for us, , for the whole "El Warcha community", namely: what is El Warcha? And what is our methodology? Can we talk about an El Warcha "model"?
It was a question that we explored in more depth when we started the creation of a Warcha in Nefta, in the south of Tunisia. We first had to go back to what El Warcha was, how we functioned, our dynamics, in order to be able to think about the creation of a workshop in Nefta, with the inhabitants of the town. We realised how difficult it was to define ourselves, we were throwing out key words, great theories, sometimes with great distance from who we actually are and how we function. But when one just think about it, there is nothing rigid or strict and formal about the way we operate. Principles and values that define us emanate from working together everyday . Habits, codes, simple things,, there are as many elements that could define our way of functioning as there is people in the workshop .
Each day is full of habits, instinctive reflexes and signs that are repeated.
The fact that the workshop is open every day, Monday to Friday, gives us the opportunity to really anchor ourselves in a routine - in the positive sense of the word - that makes us part of the life of the Hafsia neighborhood. Like the corner grocery store or the bookstore across the street from the college, our doors are open every day, and we are a sort of landmark. A few month ago a mapping exercise for kids was proposed by a friend of us. The game consisted in creating mental maps of the "flagship" locations or functions within the neighbourhood. All the children placed El Warcha very easily on their map, and they had no problem to finding their way towards the workshop, the school or the grocery store. When I saw the children locate the workshop on the mental maps they had created. I thought that if I had to do this exercise, El Warcha would be a bit like a living room or a kitchen at the scale of Hafsia: the place where we all get together and share things, moments of creation, and where we express ourselves. A place where we create, where we experiment, and we do that all together.
We are visible from the inside, as well as from the outside.
We are easily spotted in the neiughborhood by the multiple installations that we have carried out on the street in recent years. We are recognisable by the colours and the pile of material at the entrance of our workshop, and which are the same elements in our installations present entirely or partially in public space. When you look around in the Hafsia, you can come across a broomstick structure that merges with the branch of an old tree. When you look carefully at the walls of the buildings, you can see traces of the blue stamp "El Warcha" which seems to serve as beacons to find the way to the workshop.
The fact that our activities - even the very simple ones of everyday life: eating, drinking, playing cards - spill over into the street, onto the pavement, gives great porosity to our workshop functioning between the common space and the so-called "private" space.
Sometimes we wonder whether these habits can be sometimes be experienced as invasions? Investing the streets in this way, as an extension of one's home - place of life, place of work - could be perceived as something invasive for street users. However, little or no negative comments are made about us in this way of operating. Do we belong to the street?
This freedom of expression and occupation of space is also visible within the workshop itself. Even if certain things ,gestures or acts are very codified there, it would seem that something very organic and spontaneous inhabits El Warcha. One can come and build an object,play with material , sit down and observe, drink a coffee, share the latest gossip from the neighbourhood without there necessarily being a hierarchical sense given to these different actions. I imagine that this spontaneity and this freedom of expression is conceivable and possible by the people who make this place alive. I am always fascinated and seduced by the ease with which all types of people enter the workshop. Some days we see dozens of different faces walking through our doors, some of them well known, others not at all. Not everyone who comes in will have the same wishes or goals, but at least people feel free to come and ask something, build, just watch or share a moment with us. I always feel uncomfortable when we close our front doors, those big glass transparent doors which always seem to welcome everyone. To me, when we have to close them, it's as if we were closing our minds or our creativity. I really feel uncomfortable when we take back one of our chairs while someone is sitting on it because it’s the end of the day and we need to close. It gives me the impression that we are breaking this rule, our rule, of being accessible to all, all the time we are open. However, this rule has never been defined as such "leave the doors wide open". This is also possible thanks to the spatial nature of our current workshop. Our previous workshop, for example, was sometimes more conducive to its confinement and had less porosity with the street. This porosity was created or recreated by our way - users of the workshop - of grasping the limit between the inside and the outside.
I also believe that "who we are" is an integral part of defining what El Warcha is. In the Tunisian team, we can differentiate ourselves by our ages, our cultures, our neighborhoods, our fields of study. This plurality raises the question of belonging to this project and to the whole, which goes beyond all other more individual questions. I still love to see how many "Warchachou" (the way some people like to call us in the neighborhood) there are. I love to see that the project, which originally mainly concerned children, has now reached a wider and more intergenerational audience. Just this way of being called the “Warchachou”, whoever we are individually, shows the recognition of a whole, a group and an identity that represents us.
So how can we not define El Warcha as a sense of belonging? Like artistic movements, whether literary or architectural, our functioning seems to reside in a desire to belong to one or another group, from constructing methods, to materials specific to our environment. And this belonging changes over the course of human encounters, seasons, places, ideas and utopias.
Questioning one or more methodologies specific to El Warcha is even more complex when I imagine how El Warcha works in London, having never been able to see with my own eyes how it operates . Knowing the values and principles that unite the two workshops, I can easily project myself on the global objectives that are brought to London. Knowing that the workshop is present directly in a private space, in this case in the common room of a retirement home, brings me a very different reflexive dimension on the way we operate in Tunis.
The impact of a workshop that would be present directly in the private space offers a completely different vision of making things together. Belonging to things and spaces seems more complex or questionable: what can we do in a space that belongs to a group of people that lives there on a daily basis?
We have been writing some reflective pieces on our work at El Warcha, if you would like to check other texts please follow this link: