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It was a triumph of subculture against institutional might, a David and Goliath planning battle that ended victoriously for the low-slung trousered little guy. After an 18-month campaign that saw legal action mounted on both sides, the skaters of the hallowed Southbank undercroft gained 150,000 signatures of support and forced the Southbank Centre to change its plans to kick them out and fill the space with shops as part of its £120m redevelopment. The cavernous concrete warrens, it was agreed in September, must be kept “open for use without charge for skateboarding, BMX riding, street writing and other urban activities”. Against all the odds of commercial viability, London’s spiritual home of skating and graffiti was saved.
If it sounded too good to be true then, well, perhaps it was. This weekend saw a major event, conceived to celebrate the preservation of the undercroft, blocked by the Southbank Centre over claims of licensing issues.
Developed as part of the Mapping the City street art show at Somerset House, a performance was due to take place involving a lively procession across Waterloo Bridge to the Southbank undercroft, where artists would perform a ceremonial “sealing ritual”, summoning the spirits of urban culture and riffing off the mythology of the skatepark. The members of hip-hop street art group The Cult of Rammellzee were due to work themselves into a frenzy and invoke the gods of concrete infrastructure, while rolling skateboard-mounted sculptures down the skate ramps in a surreal techno-pagan pageant. But the Southbank Centre intervened to halt the plan, claiming the group didn’t have the appropriate licence.
“It’s another underhanded attempt by the Southbank to claim power over the space,” said artist Tex Royale, a member of the Cult, which had been commissioned by Somerset House to stage the performance (which went ahead on Sunday, confined to the north bank of the river). “The skating community fought for so long to win the undercroft the status of an autonomous zone, but now they’ve shown that it’s really just another private space.”
The Southbank Centre said it was only contacted last Tuesday about the plan for the performance, which was too short notice to arrange a licence for amplified music in the space, a legal requirement for such events.
“We offered to do it without music,” said Royale. “We would go from the chaos of the noisy action at Somerset House to the solemn, silent moment of the ritual in the undercroft. But they just wouldn’t budge.”
The skateboarding community sees the move as a return to the hostility they experienced during the battle to retain the space. “Creative expressions have happened in the undercroft for over 40 years,” said a spokesperson for Long Live Southbank, the group behind the campaign to save the skatepark. “But the Southbank Centre have once again shown they do not understand the creative and cultural asset they have right under their noses. The campaign for preservation was not just the integrity and purity of the physical space, but the organic and self-determining culture that exists within it.”
The Cult of Rammellzee, a 30-strong collective, has a track record of working on commissions for major cultural institutions; as subversive street groups go, they’re a safe bet not to burn down your building or bother the neighbours. Both the Barbican and the Saatchi Gallery have invited them to perform their peculiar mixture of chanting, spray-painting and breakdancing in their spaces, while last year they staged an event at the Gasworks Gallery in Oval, where an architectural model of the area was constructed and then bulldozed by “sub-cult Feral Expressways” in a “regeneration ritual”. Their trademark costumes, assembled from plastic odds and ends with a splash of hi-vis, make them look a bit like Transformers on acid, with exotic fabrics adding an ethno-futurist twist. Imagine the souped-up spawn of Optimus Prime, after going on a gap year and joining Stomp. It’s not really something for the Southbank to be afraid of.
In its defence, the Southbank Centre points out that its 2013 exhibition, the Alternative Guide to the Universe, featured work by Rammellzee, the New York street artist who died in 2010, whose performances the Cult’s own work is based on. His “letter racers” were hung in the Hayward Gallery in mid-flight, unearthly bric-a-brac assemblages stuck on top of skateboards, like a fleet of neon spaceships sent from planet hip-hop.
“It’s strange that they were happy to hang his work in a white cube gallery space, but not permit his physical legacy to be performed on their land,” said Royale. “If Rammellzee had needed a licence for amplified music for his impromptu events in the Bronx in the 1980s, do you think any of us would have heard of him?”
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News & Media Limited 2010