Caught by the River

The Can House

Michael Smith | 24th January 2013


by Michael Smith

From the first moment I saw the long, unedited rushes of The Can House, the idea intrigued me – a Hansel & Gretel-style gingerbread cottage that sprouted on a Hartlepool estate, only one constructed out of Fosters’ beer cans by a family of chronic alcoholics – a truly heroic/tragic/comic hymn to alcohol, and proper outsider art from the Russian winter that is the age of austerity Up North.

The can house is on the worst estate in one of the worst towns in England (according to government stats). In a time when the social fabric of old communities is disintegrating, every pub in the area has closed down, and the streets themselves have lost their names, a group of locals have spontaneously created this Can House, which has sprouted like a wildflower in the dereliction, a strange kind of hymn to the inviolate human urge to create, and the sanctity of the inviolable human imagination.

The Can House is art from somewhere that’s fallen off the edge of the map, from a place as far from the centre of English society and culture as it’s possible to go, economically, socially and spiritually – as close to the edges and ends of England as it gets.

The creators of the Can House don’t really think of it as art – ideas of “art” or “culture” come higher up the food chain – they just know instinctively that what they are doing brings meaning and beauty into the harsh and brutal world that surrounds them – in this sense the Can House is art in its purest, most untampered and transparent form. It’s art as an instinctual urge rather that art as a cultured concept, an unfiltered expression of the realities of the local life.

Maxy’s an old friend of mine who’d never studied film, never picked up a camera, and certainly wouldn’t have considered himself a filmmaker before this project. Like the creators of the house itself, he’s had no artistic education, permission or sense of entitlement to make this film. Maxy’s “Can House” film is folk art about folk art, outsider art about outsider art, which for me only makes it all the more urgent and remarkable an achievement.

– Michael Smith is the author of The Giro Playboy and Shorty Loves Wing Wong, and regularly appears on BBC2′s The Culture Show. The Can House has its own Facebook page – find it here.

Tickets for RE-TOX with Faber Social have now sold out, but there are still tickets available for February’s Caught by the River Faber Social event, Shall We Gather at the River?