Avril Corroon’s exhibition, Got Damp, is a reflection on living with damp, collective action and housing inequality
A recent government study found that up to 6.2 per cent of social housing in the UK has damp or mould issues – working out to almost a quarter of a million homes. It’s also a problem in private rented accommodation, with the English Housing Survey discovering in 2021 that 11 per cent of rentals in the private sector had damp problems. And it’s this uneasy balance between the human and non-human [mould] inhabitants in our homes that drew artist Avril Corroon to create her newest work, Got Damp.
Commissioned to create a project for TACO! in Thamesmead, Corroon sought inspiration from a protest that took place in the area in 1971. “It was [during] the second stage of this development of Thamesmead, an estate which at the time was publicised as the town of tomorrow and was mainly social housing. However, there were damp issues in the first 1,200 accommodations and on the eve of a press preview, which was attended by architects from all over the world and politicians, the first residents put up posters saying ‘I’ve Got Damp’ on the windows.” The resident’s refusal to accept substandard housing inspired Corroon to conduct her artistic investigation into the state of damp today. “I was thinking about a project that used damp and protest, and ideas about a crisis of nature in the home.”
With the help of funding from Arts Council England and Arts Council Ireland, Corroon provided 55 households in London and Dublin with dehumidifiers and asked them to collect the water. “I was interested in doing something that would use damp and mould as a material itself,” Corroon says. “Mould has its own agency, as does damp, and it doesn’t care about human existence.”
The result is a ghost of a domestic living space sketched out using Perspex screens and metal studs, creating a place that is at once eerily recognisable and alien. A stack of uniform plastic jerry cans containing litres upon litres of water gathered from participants’ dehumidifiers sits in the entrance, while a hulking beast of a pump discharges the water into the transparent walls. On the far wall, a screen plays a 30-minute film of interviews and thermal footage of participants’ homes. In one, a participant speaks about having to throw away her daughter’s toys after they became infested with mould; in another, the camera pans up from a pristine living room to reveal a gaping hole in the ceiling. It was important to Corroon to put their stories on display, not only to put a human face to the problem but also because, as she explains, “The process of the work of art is happening in the pouring and in the actual collection, rather than just what is going to happen in the exhibition.” It’s cyclical in nature — the water in the gallery, once extracted from the air, now returns to it, transforming the simple act of emptying a dehumidifier into a collective ritual.
“I was thinking about a project that used damp and protest, and ideas about a crisis of nature in the home” – Avril Corroon
The exhibition grapples with issues of inequality and the inextricable links between our finances, our housing security and our health. Damp can happen in any home, Corroon explains, but carries an unfair social stigma – those who deal effectively with damp are those who can afford to. “[The subject of damp] feels very present at the moment, especially after the death of that baby boy Awaab Ishak, but there are also more housing actions happening, led by people like Kwajo Tweneboa.” As well as obscuring participants’ identities, using thermal footage was another way to explore an issue that feels particularly relevant during the current cost of living crisis. “What really came to the forefront in the use of the thermal camera is thinking about heat: energy and energy costs and fuel poverty.”
Even in the controlled environment of the gallery, damp cannot be tamed. The Perspex in front of the film screen is clouded with condensation; it drips down the walls and pools on the floor. While damp in the home feels like a never-ending struggle (Corroon notes that a dehumidifier can only help ease the symptoms, rather than tackles the issue at its complicated root) in the gallery it feels ephemeral, ever-changing. It’s a form of haunting, in a way, as well as a call to action.