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A Curious Calling: Marek Wasniewski

Xanthi Barker uncovers what keeps Floating House Productions above water

Written by . Published on October 24th 2011.


A Curious Calling: Marek Wasniewski

LATE on a British summer Sunday night is not usually a time you want to spend huddled on the banks of a canal in Hackney Wick. The outcomes and images that this scenario generally conjures are not exactly positive. But a couple of weeks ago I found myself in this precise situation, and I was neither terrified, nor miserable (at least, no more so than any other Sunday evening). With candles for lighting and a fire for warmth, about 30 people were gathered, watching several musicians being sailed over to an island – a grass-covered raft with a wooden tree in the middle – and playing to us across the water.

It’s about creating a space where people can interact and share. My role is to bring people to the canal and then to get them thinking about what might be done.

The impression was strange, eerie. My fingers turned blue. Passing police sirens occasionally pierced through the music. But with the spiky Olympic buildings leering in the background, the shimmering, floating island took on an almost mystical quality – a last drop of homemade curiosity as the East End is turned to steel. Later in the week I headed back to the boatyard to meet Marek Wasniewski, founder of Floating House Productions – the man behind the boats.

Originally you’re trained as a dancer?
I came late to my school, in the third year, so I was always a bit of an outsider. But I got involved in the basketball team and the Christmas show. I was Baby John in West Side Story. We had to dance on stage and I was terrified. There was a school disco before Christmas so I thought I’d have a go. I shut my eyes and started moving and just went for it, a freak out thing. I opened my eyes and there was a circle around me. I was quite chuffed. I had a few moves! I ended up studying engineering at university but I found

Maths very difficult. I liked making things, solving problems, tinkering with objects, using tools. Engineers generally do the Maths. I left the degree and went to dance college.

 

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How does that translate into making boats?
I knew I wanted to have the freedom to explore theatre and stories outside the pressure of becoming a professional dancer. I got a job as a dispatch rider on a motorbike, saving money with the intention of building a boat. I wanted to make my own home. I wouldn’t have a mortgage. I’d have my own little space to go and explore with. The idea of being part of the slave wage mortgage economy – that scared me. But it fell through because I split up with my girlfriend, who had some money in the boat, so I sold it and went travelling.

 

What planted the idea in your head to start Floating House Productions?
I was living in America and found the support they give entrepreneurs was great. Here, I always find people go, “Who do you think you are? Why do you think you’re special?” In America, anyone is given support who has an initiative. I thrived on it. It awakened a desire to create my own work, to be self-employed.

What drew you to the canal?
I love the canal because it has its own pace. If you never had any spaces when you could just let things happen, you’d be shutting off opportunities. The canal really slows people down. On the water, you relax. People on the banks project their sense of freedom, their hopes and dreams onto you. They imagine you’re living a life that they want to live. It’s not really like that – you get grounded, you’ve got the empty the toilet, the engine breaks. You have to really enjoy that lifestyle. But there are other freedoms – you’re much closer to nature, you watch less TV.

Do you think that’s why people stopped using them?
The canals have a history of about two hundred years. It was at the start of the industrial revolution. They were the motorways of the UK. Because things moved so fast the railways came and took over before some canals were even completed. It limped along through the war and into the ’50s. Then British Waterways bought them all up and were intent on closing them, but this chap Rolt started Inland Waterways Association to challenge them. He was an activist. He broke the law to protest and claim the waterways off the government for public use – direct action in the ’50s! British Waterways later took back administrative control and next year it turns into a charity. Now they need to have local communities take ownership and responsibility so the canals have a future.

 

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That’s where you come in...
I’m designing the facilities that can allow people who don’t have a boat to create projects on the water. It’s about creating a space where people can interact and share. My role is to bring people to the canal and then to get them thinking about what might be done. I don’t know what could come out of it.

Recently you did a Captain Pugwash story-telling project...
The Floating Picture Book – it’s a subsection of Floating House. It includes storytelling, literacy and animated storytelling. Captain Pugwash was one production we’ve done, as part of Hackney Wick festival. We made the characters last year for a pirate party and I realised I could use them to tell stories. I put him on a galleon, moored next to the island where the kids could sit.

What future ideas do you have?
I’ve just put an application for another project: Poems on the Waterway. I met Judith Chernaik, the originator of Poems on the Underground, when I was working on her house and she liked the idea. Floating House is the technical side – we solve the problems of being on the water that you don’t realise until you have a go. I’m working on this idea to float the poems. We’ve got big railway sleepers – they’re long and can be anchored so they wouldn’t drift and cause a hazard. I have a number of platforms – canoes, pontoons, lanterns – then other people come along and complete the picture. It’s all about collaboration.

To read about more curious callings, please click here

Photos by Daniel Barker

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