Penny Woolcock: Parallel Worlds

Penny Woolcock

Penny Woolcock is an artist, filmmaker and director, amongst other things. But hers is an art that is not the preserve of the gallery. Rather, Woolcock seeks to create art that contributes towards real impact in the world, exploring issues of social inequality that we encounter every day on the streets, though we may not always realise it.

Indeed, Woolcock turns her lens to the streets to expose the ‘parallel worlds’ that coexist, often imperceptibly, in daily life. Whether it be the difference in experience of taking a walk in North London on a summers evening between a middle-class resident and one of the “Cally Boyz”, of Caledonian Road, as in The Same Road is a Different Road (2018), or acting as a line of communication between rival gangs in Birmingham as in One Mile Away (2012), Woolcock seeks to tell the stories of often overlooked social groups, helping us to ‘imagine a different way of living’ together.

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[Penny Woolcock] I have a lot of really kind of strong connections with people who are living different kinds of lives, and they allow me into their world, and they come into mine.

[Zimbo] I’ve heard a lot of people say, ‘Penny didn’t have no right to come in and do that’. But I’m saying, we’ve had community leaders and community workers trying to stop us from killing each other for years, we’re talking decades. Nobody did it. Nobody tried hard enough. She had a vision, she had something that she wanted to do and she wasn’t going to stop till it was done. She helped to change a lot of people’s lives. So, I know from experience that the arts have the power to shape your character.

[Penny Woolcock] I describe myself, if anybody were to ask, as an artist. I’ve made art exhibitions, but you know, sometimes I’m a filmmaker. I’ve done some radio, directed operas. In each case, you’re telling a story and you’re using whatever medium it is to tell that story in the best way you can.

I live in Barnsbury and its quite a sort of affluent, middle-class area. There’s lots of sort of barristers and judges. There’s a big house across that little park that Tony Blair lived in before he became Prime Minister. And so most people who live here are completely oblivious to the fact that there’s a parallel world, where this is also a frontline between young people who are at war with each other.

[News report] One neighbour said he heard a car racing down the street just before the stabbing.

[Female interviewee from news report] To think that at any point your child steps out of their home and they could potentially not come back.

[Male interviewee from news report] We live in a bubble right, where we just have our own kind of world and it becomes like, ‘oh right, this is what’s really going on…’

[Penny Woolcock] If you’re from the Caledonian Road, then you’re considered to be a ‘Cally Boy’ and the Cally Boyz are one of these so-called gangs or crews. Each area has its own crew and it’s very difficult to move out of their own areas. They’re really trapped. There was one night where I was in the local youth club, on Copenhagen Street. One of the young men there said, ‘Yeah, I could decide this is a nice evening’, it was summer, ‘and I could decide to walk to Angel. And that would be a really bad idea, because if I stick to the road then there might be somebody passing by in a car or on a bike who could just pick me off’. And, I was thinking, ‘this is where I live!’

What I decided to do, was a sort of point of view walk. So, I’m doing the walk with my own voiceover and the kind of inner narrative and then I asked one of the boys from the Caledonian Road and we worked together on it to voice his same experience of that journey.

[Penny Woolcock voiceover from The Same Road is a Different Road, 2018] Coming up to the Caledonian Road, the “Cally”, I think about buying dry cured olives at Yassa’s, up there on the left. But I decide to buy olives another day and walk straight up Copenhagen Street instead.

[‘Cally Boy’ voiceover from The Same Road is a Different Road, 2018] The Cally road’s ours. But anything can happen here. One of our boys, Alan Cartwright was on his pushbike and one of the other side, EC1s, “Easy Cash” they call them, ran up, stabbed his leg and robbed the bike. He hit an artery and Al bled to death. I could get dropped, popped, clapped, ghosted off, duppied, quenged, drilled. There’s a lot of these words for dead. One wrong step and I’m gone.

[Penny Woolcock voiceover from The Same Road is a Different Road, 2018] It’s almost like science fiction, isn’t it? That there’s a portal through which you can slip into a completely different reality.

[‘Cally Boy’ voiceover from The Same Road is a Different Road, 2018] When the same road…

[Penny Woolcock voiceover from The Same Road is a Different Road, 2018] … is a different road

[‘Cally Boy’ voiceover from The Same Road is a Different Road, 2018] When the same road…

[Penny Woolcock voiceover from The Same Road is a Different Road, 2018] … is a different road

[repeated till fade]

[Penny Woolcock] I was born in Argentina, in the British community and like most expat communities; very, very conservative and insular and cut off from the culture of the country therein. And so, you grow up in this bubble and I suppose, you know, I could be, I was like the Cally Boyz, but I was in a different kind of bubble. And becoming increasingly, kind of, curious about what was going on outside that bubble and that is, kind of, what Big Girl is about.

[Young girl voiceover from Big Girl, 2018] I was trapped in my bedroom behaving, behaving myself. Going to bed, behaving. Sitting at the table, chewing my food.

[Penny Woolcock] So what I wanted to conjure up was this sense of being squashed into a space that’s too small. Feeling quite stifled in this community both intellectually and creatively and sexually and any way you want to describe it.

[Penny Woolcock voiceover from Big Girl, 2018] I’d had enough of it. I knew I had to break out.

[Penny Woolcock] I love Big Girl, but then I suppose she is meant to be me.

I ended up then coming to England, really for the first time, obviously I hadn’t been brought up here. So, anyway, I pitched up in Oxford and I thought well, now ‘I’m free, I’m free from my parents! Well, now I’m an artist…’ But I didn’t know how to be an artist. I didn’t know any artists and I hadn’t been to art school, or university, or anything.

So, going to Modern Art Oxford was where I got an art education. I remember seeing Mary Kelly’s work there, and she had framed her son’s nappies, and I remember feeling, ‘Is this really art?’. And, you know, on the other hand thinking, ‘well, this is a woman who’s actually making work out of her own experience.’ It sort of began to make it seem possible that you can make work in a different way. That you didn’t have to be known, that you didn’t have to be a man, you didn’t have to do things that looked a particular way, that were monumental in that sense. So, it was a really formative time where I got a certain education.

[Female voiceover from Dreaming Spires, 2018] Would you tell me please which way I ought to go from here? ‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to’ said the cat.

[Penny Woolcock] At any time of day, there’s like six to eight little tours going on, all of which talk about the same things, they talk about Inspector Morse, Harry Potter, and you hear these same, same stories about Oxford. But I knew, because I lived in Oxford years ago, that there are, a bit more like Paris and London, these huge housing estates. In fact, I think Blackbird Leys is perhaps the biggest housing estate in Europe.


[Black Jack Tha Activist from Dreaming Spires, 2018] A small council estate hidden from the public eye, a stone’s throw from the city centre lies another life. Pockets of poverty surround us that you’ll never see, one of Europe’s largest council estates is Blackbird Leys. Rose Hill to Barton, Cowley to Marston, we stand on a stage trying to march from the darkness.


[Penny Woolcock] I went to a gig and I saw these two young guys Black Jack and SIDE and I invited them to write lyrics, taking us on a tour of the Oxford that they knew and hopefully trying to do it and hopefully trying to do it in a visually interesting way. So, in that case it’s not The Same Road is a Different Road, in that people from Blackbird Leys would never come into those areas, even though tourists are coming in and out, they think that they’re forbidden from entering these spaces.

[SIDE from Dreaming Spires, 2018] You can see the tears and the tissues, there’s bigger issues for those selling the Big Issue. Deep water I see the struggle, tourists have a fish view, homeless refugees from the Middle East to Mogadishu. They ask the council to help us, pillowsand beds things, but they closed down the shelters and the police kicked their heads in. Box like a bread bin, but no food to deal with hate so that’s why some just go back to prison for three meals a day.

[Penny Woolcock] It’s amazing how a sentence can turn on a word and suddenly spin off into something else. And it’s a way in which people who are voiceless are telling their story.

[David Cameron from news report] This is criminality pure and simple.

[Young man in One Mile Away, 2012] We’re arguing over postcodes that don’t belong to us. Street corners that don’t belong to us.

[Penny Woolcock] I have a lot of really, kind of, strong connections with people who are living different kinds of lives; and they allow me into their world, and they come into mine. In Birmingham there are two, at that time, it’s changed now, two big crews; the Burgers and the Johnsons. And one of the Johnson guys called me, actually, I was standing exactly where I’m sitting now, and said, you know, that maybe it was time to stop the beef and would I help him.

[Zimbo] One Mile Away was about the two main gangs in Birmingham and the gang war that had been going on for around 15 to 20 years. It followed the journey of two guys: Dylan Duffus and Matthias Thompson, ‘Shabba’. And it followed their journey, basically trying to bring about a truce.

[Shabba in One Mile Away, 2012] I’ve lost a load of friends, I’ve lost a load of people. A load of people around, misery, and a load of angry people.

[Dylan Duffus in One Mile Away, 2012] When you wake up in the morning you think ‘argh, I can’t be living like this’, it’s not a joke, yeah, it’s not, you get me? You’re burying your friend and you’ve done your crying and your friend’s mum is crying, and you think, you can’t be living like this, it’s just crazy.

[Zimbo] I was part of the Johnson’s crew and probably one of, I was one of the main guys within that, on that, side of town. Before she made the film, we thought she was police. She’d been sent in by the police to come and infiltrate.

[Penny Woolcock] It started off with all of the people involved in it being very, very angry with me and the guys who’d initially asked me whether I would help them do this. And saying, ‘Who do you think are? My brother, my best friend…’, whatever, you know, ‘has been killed over this and you’re saying its bullshit? Who do you think you are?’

[Zimbo] I said I was going to meet them loads of times, I didn’t go to meet them. And then one time I thought ‘forget it, I’m just going to go to meet them and give them a piece of my mind’.

[Zimbo in One Mile Away, 2012] No one don’t want a truce, man don’t, man don’t want a truce, man don’t mind having beef. Man don’t mind, we don’t, the life that man are living now, we don’t care. Man don’t care about, it is what it is innit? So, when you come to man, you’re talking about a truce and this and that blud, man just looking at you and thinking ‘yo, you’re chatting shit blud, you’re a dickhead bruv’. When I see mine, I’m going to f— him up, when I see this man I’m going to f— him up.

[Zimbo]Penny had a lot of arguments, when she was first, when she first came around to do the documentary and she was arguing with some mean guys, guys that I wouldn’t argue with.

[Penny Woolcock in One Mile Away, 2012] I’m, I’m really fed up withjust going to people and they’re going ‘turn the cameras off’, it’s just a waste of time.

[Dylan Duffus in One Mile Away, 2012] We’re young men, black brothers.

[Young man in One Mile Away, 2012] Fair enough, but when they see you, either, so you want to stop whatever, whatever…

[Dylan Duffus in One Mile Away, 2012]… yeah, yeah, bruv, I’m, I’m, yeah, yeah, bruv, that’s what I’m saying, I’m going to stand, I’m going to have to be a man that’s what I’m saying, I have to be a man and say ‘alright, alright then’.

[Zimbo] The film, it kind of, it kind of got everyone speaking. Most people didn’t agree with what was going on. But I mean, the impact that it had was crazy because nobody was shooting no more.

[Penny Woolcock] And so the talk kind of overtook the violence and then eventually, people started to meet each other and in the music studio to make tracks and you go ‘you’re the same as me, why am I fighting you? I don’t have any reason, I don’t hate you.’

[Zimbo] We kind of started to see that, yo, we’re not that different. The Burger Bar crew were most like us. They were the people that are most like us within the city, so we’ve kind of got that understanding. We went through a twelve-month period where there was no firearms incidents reported to the police. It probably doesn’t sound like nothing but, if you like fifteen years prior to that, there were shootings every day, every, if not every day, every other day.

[Penny Woolcock] At that time in Birmingham they’d spent, I don’t know how many millions attempting to address this gang problem. And through making a documentary, it actually stopped.

[Zimbo] To be fair, my whole way of thinking has changed. I’ve literally gone from a gunslinger, someone that is running around town shooting after people, to someone that is sitting around with the city council, the Police and Crime Commissioner, you name it, and helping them to develop strategies around making a social change.

[Penny Woolcock] You know, if we at least understand each other and we’re not afraid and we listen to each other, I think that’s a very powerful thing.

[Music: Zimbo Freemind: MIND OF A SLAVE (ft Twisted Revren)] The streets that are holding me, shackled up and chained. Trapstar n—– you know how I spend my days. Imma never leave the row ‘less they put me in the grave. Welcome to the mind of a slave.

[Zimbo] A lot of music and films advertise a lifestyle. So, for me, this is, this is why we’ve got this passion now of using the arts to really change the way young people are thinking. This kind of show me the power, the power of art.

[Penny Woolcock] I would never be sitting here saying ‘Oh, art can change the world all by itself!’, that’s ridiculous. There are many other things that people need to do to create social change, but I think stories are pretty fundamental in terms of how we can even imagine a different way of living.

With thanks to

Dats TV
English National Opera
Emma Ridgway
Modern Art Oxford
Rare Day
Roundhouse, London



Getty Images



Audio Network


Filmed on the occasion of

‘Penny Woolcock: Fantastic Cities’

Modern Art Oxford, 17 November 2018 – 3 March 2019


List of Artworks

Big Girl Studio in Hoxton, London, 2018

C-type print on paper

Courtesy of the artist, Sarah Ainslie and Modern Art Oxford



Penny Woolcock, 2015

Single channel colour video projection, audio

Courtesy of the artist, Roundhouseand Modern Art Oxford

Commissioned by Roundhouse, London


The Pearl Fishers

Dir. Penny Woolcock, 2010

Footage courtesy of English National Opera


The Same Road is a Different Road

Penny Woolcock,2018

Single channel colour video projection, audio

Courtesy of the artist
Commissioned by Modern Art Oxford, supported by Wellcome Trust


Photographs of Penny Woolcock and Family

Courtesy of Penny Woolcock


Big Girl

Penny Woolcock, 2018

Mixed media: Polyester, hollowfibre, cardboard, plastic,

drainpipes, wood, thread and audio (looped)

Courtesy of the artist, commissioned by Modern Art Oxford


Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1985
Documentation image courtesy of Modern Art Oxford


‘Post-Partum Document I-V’, Mary Kelly

Installation view at Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1977


Art College group show

Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1971


‘Mounting’, performance by Rose English,

Jackey Lansley and Sally Potter

Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1977


‘Walking a Labyrinth’, Richard Long

Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1971


‘Mounting’, performance by Rose English,

Jackey Lansley and Sally Potter

Museum of Modern Art Oxford, 1977


Dreaming Spires

Penny Woolcock, 2018
Courtesy of the artist, commissioned by Modern Art Oxford


One Mile Away

Dir. Penny Woolcock, 2012
Rare Day


Zimbo Freemind (ft. Twisted Revren)

Dir. Penny Woolcock, 2018




Vehicle and pedestrian traffic traveling the streets,

Oxford, England, 1982

BFI HD Collection / Getty Images


Oxford University appeals for cash, 1989

ITN / Getty Images


Mary Kelly’s ‘Post-Partum Document: Documentation II’

Lawrence K. Ho / Los Angeles Times / Getty Images


London knife crime:

18-year-old stabbed to death in Forest Gate, 2018

ITN / Getty Images


Crime across England and Wales rises by 13 per cent, 2017

ITN / Getty Images


London fatal stabbings and shootings

Israel Ogunsola murder, 2018

ITN / Getty Images


Freesound contributors:



Penny Woolcock: Fantastic Cities’, Exhibition, Modern Art Oxford, 17 November 2018 – 3 March 2019

Claire Armistead, ‘‘I had guns pulled on me’ – Penny Woolcock on filming with gangs’, The Guardian, 15 November 2018

Ashley Clark, ‘Penny Woolcock talks to gangsters’, Sight & Sound magazine, 12 April 2018

Discover: The Pearl Fishers’, English National Opera

Zimbo Freemind, ‘MIND OF A SLAVE (ft Twisted Revren)’, Dir. Penny Woolcock, 2018 (via YouTube)

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