Flashback to this summer. I’m just starting to co-curate the Talks programme for Frieze London. With Gregor Muir from London’s ICA and we are whittling down our list of subjects for panel discussions, ranging from talks on queer archives to the Greek economy. ‘Total Burnout!: On Sleep and Attention’ gets tossed out because the key speaker, Jonathan Crary, can’t come to London that week. My idea for a cryptoparty gets slashed because I panic I might be the only attendee. But one idea remains untouched from beginning to end, because we both feel the weight of its importance and urgency: the threat to artists in London because of rising rents and real-estate development. ‘Can artists still afford to live in London?’ I jot down in my notes during a brainstorming conference call.
Flash-forward a few months and we announce the complete programme of Frieze Talks online. Frieze creates a Facebook event for the panel officially entitled ‘Off-Centre’, but with that slightly clunky, blunt subtitle ‘Can artists still afford to live in London?’. The comments arrive swiftly: ‘Should be a short discussion.’ ‘Pompus [sic] middle class art debates are half the problem!’ Many critics pointed out the obvious, rhetorical nature of the question. Others noted the irony of having the discussion in an art fair that has an admission price. I reassured myself that the online comments might be offset by the 2,300 people who RSVP’d, and, on the day of the talk, a packed auditorium. (You can, incidentally, listen to the entire talk online for free.)
I didn’t intend this column to be a defense of us hosting that panel. But I will say that it was not simply paying lip service to a hot-button issue. Gregor, who has been working in London long enough to remember the heyday of artists in Soho, had organized programming at the ICA and written passionately about the issue. frieze had just published an article on the topic and was in the midst of producing a film, There Goes The Neighbourhood by Jonathan P. Watts, about gentrification in London, which traces – through interviews with local artists – those artists’ displacement due to increased rents. The subject was also personal. I left London after finishing my MA in 2003 because, simply, I couldn’t afford to live there. In my two years I lived alternately in a suburb with infrequent train service to the city centre, in a 12-year-old girl’s former bedroom, and a boarding house in Shepherd’s Bush. I drained my bank account and borrowed money I’ll never be able to repay. When I was done, standing with all my belongings at the Ryanair counter at Stansted airport, after purchasing the cheapest possible one-way flight to Berlin, it was just a final slap in the face when the airline charged me £450 – the remainder of my savings – for the extra weight of my luggage.
I still wake up and thank the gods that I live in Berlin. What I exchanged in access and cosmopolitanism in London 11 years ago, I got returned in quality of life in Berlin, and an atmosphere among artists that felt more inclusive and less fragmented. Insert here: a lot of platitudes you’ve already heard about the differences between the two capitals. But it was still a wake-up call when the chair of the panel at Frieze, Justine Simons from the London Mayor’s office, revealed that the average property price is 50 times that of the average salary of an artist in London, and, in the next five years, dedicated studio space for artists in the city will be cut by 30%. (Meanwhile, the British Museum alone has more visitors per year than the entire country of Belgium). Had I been taking it for granted that artists can still flock to Berlin, that they are its secret sauce, even if that’s become its own cliché, as in the recent New Yorker cartoon with the caption: ‘He moved to Berlin to pursue something creative he would be bad at here’. Indeed, in Berlin you can afford to be a good artist – or a bad one. Another panelist, Katharine Stout, crunched the numbers: the rent for an artist’s studio in London is five times its equivalent in Berlin.
There’s no reason to believe this won’t be the fate of Berlin, though we still have a chance to learn from London. A current exhibition here at HKW, Wohnungsfrage (The Housing Question), is convening panels and debates with artists, architects and urban planning initiatives to not only discuss but come up with real models for live/work spaces for artists. It’s the kind of sustained, in-depth and radical approach that this subject calls for. And, at the height of the refugee crisis in Berlin, it takes on an even broader poignancy. It also reminds me that lamenting the cost per square foot of artists’ studio space should be set in perspective with tens of thousands not having access to basic shelter or clean drinking water. I feel a certain affinity with Stefanie Sargnagel’s piece in this issue of frieze d/e, which is an unabashed expression of the hazards of artists or others in privileged positions attempting to address this profound issue, and the clumsy fumblings that can result from these well-meaning gestures.