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Artist/Activist/Research of local authority housing databases and their role in urban regeneration

Tom Keene 2018
Goldsmiths University of London

A. Workshop aims

  • Develop an alternative understanding of what a database is and the work they do.
  • Present multiple ways of engaging with, comprehending, and coping with the complexities of governmental database technologies.
  • Create a physical map of the multiple registers associated with government database technologies.

B. Introduction. Database Estate: db-estate.co.uk

The problems of UK housing

  • UK housing is a pressing social issue.
  • Urban regeneration schemes that have aimed to address these issues have proved controversial.
    • One such example is Cressingham Gardens Estate in South West London - I have lived Cressingham since 2006.
    • Currently almost 200 estates in London are threatened with demolition by predominantly Labour councils.
  • The recent Grenfell tower tragedy brought housing issues into sharp focus.
    • A local authority not listening to residents concerns.
    • 10m documents have been sized by police, with 300+ contractors implicated in the maintenance and repair of the tower.
    • Between 2011-2017 income of £4.7m, yet only £0.5m expenditure.
  • Grenfell resonated with issues of democracy Cressingham residents have faced.

The Database

  • Databases are everywhere, but relatively little researched as social or cultural artefacts.
  • Databases are both technical and social − they are more than technical objects.
  • My project was inspired by an off the cuff comment from a Lambeth housing officer who said “The database told me”.
  • This prompted in investigation into Lambeth’s housing technologies and systems of repair.
  • Data published as part of local authority transparency codes is pretty straight forward to interrogate. Anything outside of that code is a very different picture − difficult to to determine hidden data-structures.
  • Through a forensic audit of repairs data, Cressingham residents discovered that 50% of repairs were either not completed, of poor quality, or should have been claimed on insurance.
  • Lambeth, for instance, has multiple inter-operating database systems and data-gathering practices that are continually changing and impossible to diagram e.g how do you diagram a ‘favour’ offered by a Lambeth contractor, councillor, or resident, to avoid call centre hell.
  • Invented a fictional acronym and title Housing Asset Repairs Management System (HARMS) to account for the unknowable or ambiguous.


My research methodology − a critical technical practice that combines art methods, activism, and critical theory. Critical technical practice finds its origins with Artificial Intelligence researcher Phil Agre (1997), then the former Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths University of London.

Artist. I draw from arts methods to:

  • Introduce fun and humour into what is otherwise a horrible situation.
  • Help articulate the ambiguities associated with urban regeneration.
  • Make things (programming, craft, events, conversations) to think through intersection of the technical, political, legislative, and intra-personal.

Activist. I am a resident of Cressingham, and housing activist within the @savecressingham campaign.

  • 200+ Freedom of Information Requests.
  • Lambeth initially ran a 6 month consultation in 2012. Activists have managed to delay Lambeth until this day.
  • Huge resistance from residents, including creation of ‘The Peoples Plan’ that proposes an alternative to demolition.

Research. Employ critical theory as a mode of inquiry into Lambeth Council’s databases:

  • The theoretical is equal to artist, activist, or technical modes of inquiry.
  • Acts of making and activism test the theoretical and visa versa.
  • No clear lines of distinction between theory, art, activism, and my personal life.

Conceptual framework

  • The Relational Machine
    A collective endeavour of humans and non-humans − including computers, algorithm, call-centres, and other material and immaterial artefacts engaged in a systematic gathering of information. Humans are ‘sentient cogs’ within the relational machine. Concept derived from artist and theorist Graham Harwood (2013).
  • Power/Knowledge
    Concept derived from Foucault (1980) that considers how technical objects are involved in governing behaviour. Here, the technical can be observed to instantiate particular flows of power and production of knowledge.
  • Technical individual
    Concept derived from the French philosopher Gilber Simondon (2016) who, in 1958, proposed that technical objects find their genesis in the abstract then crystallise into into individuals and collectives. Central to his concept is the notion that technical objects have an ‘essence’ that orientate their state of being and relation to other technical objects − I argue that they aspire for particular outcome.


  • Cressingham brick.
  • Lambeth Tech Timelines.
  • Regen Cheat Sheet.
  • The Peoples Plan.
  • Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV).
  • Cabinet report.
  • Service charge bill.
  • 600+ files for Judicial review.
  • Comments poster.
  • The Peoples Audit.

C. Activity

A group activity to reveal the relational machine as ANYTHING (however remote) that is associated with Lambeth’s database technologies. First identify a technical object within the artefacts provided. Then consider how that object has changed the conduct of people or things − a brick, for instance, conditions the muscle of a brick-layer, creates homes for people to live in, and keeps the elements out. Keep in mind that ANYTHING can be considered a technical object, including a house, the abstract codes such as a postcode, the entire Lambeth Council, or even a human such as a repairs contractor.

  1. Identify a technical individual from any of the artefacts.
    e.g. a service charge bill, a date, or item of legislation.

  2. Identify how this technical individual came into existence (environments, materials, abstract concepts, specific types of human) and write them on the card index’s provided.
    e.g. a concept of a ‘bill’, a finance database, postal system, histories of accounting, contractual agreements, home ownership, ‘job id numbers’, or a date.

  3. Attempt to map that process on a string attached to a Cressingham Brick. If you notice associations with other ‘strings’ then create a relation by tying a knot.
    Tie a string to a Cressingham brick, then attach index cards to the string using blu-tack or a stapler.

It may help to think about your technical object in terms of different registers such as: Technical, Personal, Ethical, Democratic, Legislative, Abstract, Governmental, Political. If you are unsure what to record about a technical object, then feel free to guess or make something up that ‘feels’ about right.

D. Summary

The exercise is about mapping and identifying complex sets of associations with Lambeth’s housing database systems. It invites consideration of database technologies as more than a technological concern. Here, Lambeth’s databases should be considered a collective of technical objects that hold potential to change the conduct of Lambeth staff, Cressingham residents, or any person or thing that is associated with with them − including the buildings of Cressingham themselves.


E. Agre, Philip. 1997. “Toward a Critical Technical Practice: Lessons Learned in Trying to Reform AI.” In Social Science, Technical Systems and Cooperative Work: The Great Divide. Erlbaum.

Foucault, Michel. 1980. Power/knowledge: selected interviews and other writings, 1972-1977. Edited by Colin Gordon. 1st American ed. New York: Pantheon Books.

Harwood, Graham. 2013. “Database Machinery as Cultural Object, Art as Enquiry.”

Simondon, Gilbert. 2016. On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects. Translated by Cecil Malaspina and John Rogove. Minneapolis, MN: Univocal Pub.