Passing Clouds is one of a kind

Other | Tuesday 7th July 2015 | Christina

Passing Clouds is a unique live music venue and community arts centre, born from the vibrant Hackney music scene. As well as putting on amazing events, the Passing Clouds team is passionate about activism and supporting the local community, making them truly one of a kind – like they say “Passing Clouds is not just a venue: it is a state of mind”. We caught up with Events Manager Gudrun Getz to learn more about the fantastic work that they do. 

How’s it going? Everything good with Passing Clouds team?
Yes, we're awesome thanks! Slightly melting in the heat but we're about to have ice cream - it's a beautiful time to be alive :-)

Tell us a bit about how Passing Clouds came into being.
There are so many rumours about how Passing Clouds started - everything from being an illegal squat to the vanity project of a member of the Cartier dynasty! I quite enjoy the rumours but here's the actual truth: Passing Clouds was founded 9 years ago by the force of nature that is Eleanor Wilson. She was heavily involved in the African music scene and wanted to open a space that would showcase all this incredible talent, as well as being a community hub for creativity, activism and grassroots political and artistic movements. She saw this empty building one day, knew it was The One and managed to talk our landlady into the idea. With a team of musicians and creatives (many of whom still play and put on nights here) she transformed the building from a burnt-out warehouse into the first version of Passing Clouds. It was all a bit ramshackle - the bar was just an actual canoe (still lovingly worked into the room upstairs), the till was a bag stuffed down Eleanor's top, the accounts were on the backs of envelopes…We've gradually built the place up into what you see now and we're still constantly growing and evolving. And Eleanor's now gone off to the Gambia working on her next community project and figuring out how to eradicate ecocide. Force of nature like I said.   

Activism is at the heart of Passing Clouds and this is something that sets you apart from other arts venues. How do you support and fight for the issues that are important to you?
We try to focus on doing the small, everyday things that can contribute to a wider change. We're strictly a vegetarian venue and don't allow meat in the building as a way of trying to get everyone who comes through our doors to be conscious about what they're putting into their bodies, even just for the time they're here. Likewise we have a ban on Tesco products and Coke (long live Dalston Cola!) We really try to support local businesses and initiatives, on the basis that localised action spreads out even further.
Campaign-wise I'm very much working for Team Woman myself, so I'm on a big Mooncup campaign at the moment. The amount of landfill taken up with disposable sanitary products is so depressing. Pads and tampons have a tragic effect on wildlife and our beautiful rivers and oceans, as well as being horrifically expensive and a health risk. Anyway, I ordered a massive box of Mooncup flyers and stickers for the ladies loos - everyone in the office thinks I'm obsessed but it's actually working! Loads of women have said it gave them the push to finally try it out which is awesome. I also signed us up for the Good Night Out campaign to try and help combat sexual harassment in the venue. I think because we're so liberal and hippy sometimes men think they can get away with it here, but Clouds is largely run by women and we have an absolute zero tolerance stance on sexual harassment. We try to get the message across that it's not acceptable and women are encouraged to always report these kinds of incidents to our security team so we can do something about it. And of course we're big fans of online petitions to affect change on larger issues. It's easy to get petition fatigue and wonder if they do any good, but they do actually have an impact. Avaaz and SumOfUs petitions are having great success so I urge everyone out there to take a few seconds to sign petitions they feel strongly about - it does make a difference. 

It can’t be easy to run a venue with such a diverse schedule whilst also staying committed to various causes and remaining commercially viable. What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced in running Passing Clouds?
Finding ethical tonic water is probably our biggest challenge right now! I think one of the hardest things is trying to be 100% ethical, and I'm not sure if it's even possible. Like, many of us are vegan for environmental reasons but now the wonderful animal-free protein source that is quinoa is messing up the lives of people in Bolivia thanks to Western demand. We do our very best to remain conscious and our bar stock reflects that by being as organic, Fairtrade and free from big brands as possible, but then we end up having to have something like Jagermeister because people want it and there's no real alternative. And of course the costs involved in keeping a venue open are immense, particularly if you're trying to maintain the kind of principles we have. We don't make any profit as any money we do bring in is poured back into the venue (there's always something to fix!), so there are some areas where we have to make less green choices just to stay afloat. It feels like we always have to make compromises but we do genuinely do our best and the whole team is totally committed to being as green and ethical as we possibly can. But, yeah, if anyone knows of an ethical tonic water that tastes good and won't bankrupt us, get in touch! 

And can you pick out a highlight from your time at Passing Clouds?
For me it was the very first Spring Equinox Forest Party we held back in 2012. It was my first experience of programming a night (along with our former events manager Olivia) and I had this really strong desire to put on a 21st century pagan party to celebrate the changing of the seasons. Olivia and I were SO nervous that no-one would come, and then I looked down Kingsland Road and saw this massive crowd of people all dressed up as forest faeries and wood nymphs, stomping towards Passing Clouds all covered in ivy and glitter with huge smiles on their faces. It ended up being our biggest party to date, the birth of Cloud Factory Adventures (the theatrical wing of Passing Clouds) and I think that's when I really fell in love with creating amazing events. It's such an incredible feeling to just stand back and watch all these ecstatic people having the absolute time of their lives because of your little idealistic vision. 

“Think Global. Act Local” is your slogan, so as well as wider concerns you are passionate about the local community. What are the biggest issues that Hackney is facing at the moment?
It's been said a lot but it's definitely true that gentrification and the impact it has on the housing market is a huge issue for Hackney, as it is all over London. There are people who have been living here for generations who can't afford to stay, meanwhile their streets have been taken over by rich City kids wanting to live somewhere trendy. It's heartbreaking to see this strong and proud community feel like they don't belong in their own home. Some of that has definitely been reflected in the audience at Passing Clouds too, which has changed dramatically in the 5 years I've worked here. That's why we'll always keep the Sunday Jam running, even though it doesn't make us any money. It was the flagship event at Clouds where people from all backgrounds, all walks of life could come together and connect through music, and it's a very powerful and important staple of the community. 

East London is renowned as a creative hub, what do you think is so special about the area?
I don't know, ley-lines?! Apparently Passing Clouds sits on the cross of two ley-lines. I think true creativity always lies just outside of the mainstream and in the cheaper areas of the city because artists are all skint. Central London hasn't had an art scene since the '60s because it's become so representative of capitalism and is too expensive to live in. When I first moved to London 13 years ago, the creativity was all in North London - mostly Finsbury Park, Crouch End and Muswell Hill… Then it got taken over by yummy mummies and luxury flats so we all went East. Now the same thing is happening in Hackney and artists are moving on again, mostly further east to Walthamstow or onto boats. To be perfectly honest I think real art will always be one step away from whatever is mainstream, popular and culturally dominant, and that's exactly how it should be - art has a duty to subvert and comment on the status quo and it can't do that from the inside. 

Recently a lot of arts venues have had to close - we saw it with The Arches in Glasgow and a number of nightclubs in the capital have suffered. What are your thoughts on this epidemic?
Man, last summer we spent ALL our time, energy and money trying to stay open in the face of noise complaints from new neighbours. We were on the brink of getting shut down and had to soundproof the absolute shit out of the building. It was the height of summer so of course the temperature in the venue skyrocketed with the new insulation from the soundproofing, and we had no money left for air-con. Those were seriously tough times and we were all on the brink of nervous breakdowns. Fortunately we made it through thanks to our awesome team and wonderfully understanding visitors (we told them we'd just invented Bikram Clubbing). We still have to be cautious with our noise levels, but we made friends with our neighbours (who are really lovely and just want a good night's sleep) and now they come to us with any problems rather than go the council. I do largely blame the property developers though who decided to build flats next to a live music venue, and the law that puts them under no obligation to soundproof their new flats, so we're the ones who run the risk of closure. 
It's absolutely tragic that arts spaces suffer in the face of property developments and gentrification because we're the people who make areas exciting and desirable to live in in the first place. I also think it's a wider societal problem in that we don't value the arts in this country, despite art being the heart and soul of a society and its culture. People who happily buy a Taylor Swift album will complain about their loud musician neighbours, not making the connection - all music makes a noise mate, sorry! That's why we're big on supporting the Music Venues Trust and Frank Turner's Agent of Change campaign. Anyone out there who loves music, please sign and share this petition and help keep the independent music scene alive. 

You have such a varied programme of events - holistic healing, spoken word, swing dance classes, film screenings, live music – do you have a favourite?
I absolutely LOVE The Cakewalk Café on Wednesdays - it's one of the jewels in our crown and was the first event I worked on here, so it feels like one of my babies. We have swing dance classes downstairs hosted by Swing Patrol and live 1920s through '40s ragtime and swing music upstairs with Ewan Bleach and a whole host of virtuoso musicians from across London. It's a gorgeous intimate night - it feels like being in New Orleans in the prohibition era. Ewan is an absolute musical genius as well: the man lives, breathes, eats, sleeps music and that comes out in every single note he plays. The dancers all love the music and dance all night long - we have to literally sweep them off the dance floor at the end of the night. We get people in their 20s right up to folks in their 80s who danced to this stuff the first time around. You don't need to come with anyone and you'll instantly be welcomed into this lovely little family. If you've only ever been to Passing Clouds on a weekend I highly recommend coming on a Wednesday to see a different side of us. 

How important is music to Passing Clouds?
Music is our world! It lies at the heart of everything we do and we're very particular about our programming. We have carefully handpicked our promoters to make sure the quality stays at the high level that earned us our reputation, and we don't just give a night to anyone who wants it - no 90's pop DJ nights, we have standards! We constantly have to be vigilant, though. The other weekend a DJ dropped ‘Barbie Girl’ - I'm absolutely mortified and it's going on the list of banned songs we have in the booth, along with ‘Blurred Lines’.

You have a radio section on your website, could this become a fully fledged station one day? It seems like it would complement the venue perfectly!
I hope so. We've had the radio dream for years and every now and then try to really make it happen, but the problem is we've got SO much to keep on top of that it's difficult to spare the woman-hours. What we could really do with is a passionate crew of people who get where we're coming from and want to help us make it happen, so if anyone out there is interested please get in touch! 

What are you listening to at the moment?
Our Routes by Gypsy Hill is pretty much on loop at the moment - they did the launch party here last year and it was a total roadblock. Perfect album for the summer and my predecessor Olivia and I were thanked in the liner notes so it means a lot to me personally. Always had a lot of love for Gypsy Hill - they're getting massive now and I'm so proud that they're part of our family. 

Is there an event that you would love to host at Passing Clouds that you haven’t already?
I really want to sort out a license to have weddings here. So many people have met and fallen in love at Passing Clouds and would love to get married in the venue where it all began. I'm getting married next year myself and it's really hard to find a venue that is affordable, suits my kooky taste and will let us do something more casual, weird and less formal than your traditional wedding venue. I'm sure I can't be the only engaged hippy that's having this problem so we're starting to look into the practicalities of it. I would be SO thrilled to bring all that love and romance and life-long commitment to the Clouds :-) 

What have you got in store for the rest of the year?
We've got an awesome summer schedule on the horizon, with a highlight being our carnival party on the 22nd August. Halloween is always a big one and one of my favourite Cloud Factory nights. We also decided to have a massive clear out of our attic and have a jumble sale of all the awesome stuff we don't use so we can clear some space and raise some cash for new decor. That's going to be unmissable for anyone who’s a fan of our interior design and costumes. After that we're going to be renovating our downstairs bar, at long last. It means we might have to close for the best part of a week (last time we renovated we tried to stay open the whole time and it was a logistical nightmare) but we'll be back with a proper efficient bar, hopefully a new floor if we've got the pocket money and a bigger cloakroom for the amazing Marcus. Once that's out of the way I'll start looking ahead to next year's programming and getting some fresh and exciting new stuff in the calendar, as well as making plans for Passing Clouds tents at festivals! 

What’s the best thing about working at Passing Clouds?
Oooooh, that's a tough one - the endless awesome music, glitter and Harajuku wigs as your work uniform, obligatory face painting, Friday afternoon cosmopolitans in the office! There's so much I love about working here but if I had to choose one it would be that you really are part of a family. I know that might sound a bit cliché but it's true - everyone here totally loves each other (and hates each other sometimes like any proper dysfunctional family!) and we are all 100% there for each other. You just know that if you ever have a crisis in your life you've got a dozen people you can call who will instantly take care of you. We're all connected by a common cause, which is to make the family house as awesome as possible and to bring as much goodness to the world as we can, so we all take care of each other on the way. 

How can someone become part of the Passing Clouds community?
Just come and get involved. We're too busy keeping the venue together to sort out proper volunteer programmes but if you've got some initiative and something to offer, just get involved. Rock up, hang out here, start talking to people, get to know us, share yourself with us, ask questions, think about what you can bring to the family and start making it happen. Just the other day I had someone wanting to host an event here who tried to bribe me to throw someone else's event out of the calendar. It would have made us more money but the attitude was all wrong. We're a genuine family collective and you can't instantly buy your way into that. Our community is very organic and based on human connection - there's not an app for it, you just do it. 

Follow Passing Clouds on Twitter