Dispatches: London

A new set of policies and increased possibilities for artists’ studios mark a shift – but is it too late?

BY Chris Fite-Wassilak in Critic's Guides | 27 OCT 17

It all started with Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991). As the dudular duo plummet through nothingness after dying, it was then that the concept of eternity dawned on a seven year-old – and inspired a lifelong fear. In a semi-fictionalized interview with the artist Ruth Waters in her short video REDSKY66 (2017), an anxious middle-aged man discusses his downward spiral of living with apierophobia. His fear had been relatively contained, until recently when an online comment he made went viral: infinity, it seems, is always waiting there in our pocket, latent in online space and only a tweet away.

Ruth Waters, REDSKY66, 2017, video still. Courtesy: the artist and PEER, London

Waters’s video is part of the group show ‘Seep’, that just ended at PEER, an exhibition of four recent London MA graduates (including Kristeps Ancans, Josh Berry and Caroline Streck) who, along with three BA graduates (who are in turn developing a forthcoming project with the non-profit space Auto Italia) recently completed a year-long studio residency with Acme Studios. The Acme Graduate Programme, which provides free studios, a bursary, mentorship and an exhibition, is, for those lucky few, a temporary relief from London’s own long Bogus Journey that has come to a more pointed head the past few years: fewer studio spaces, endlessly rising rents. Several recently launched initiatives mark a turning point of sorts in this timeline: just last week, arebyte launched their new set of studios and project space on London City Island – the name developers have branded a new neighbourhood on the Leamouth Peninsula near Canary Wharf.

Richard Wentworth in collaboration with architects APPARATA, Concertina, 2017, installation view, arebyte_Gallery, Java House, London City Island. Courtesy: arebyte, London; photograph:  © Gigi Gianella

The ‘island’ gallery space features an installation by Richard Wentworth and APPARATA architects, housed in a new building with 18 studios and shared work spaces for artists and creatives; the space was opened in collaboration with developers Ballymore and Studiomakers, an initiative led by Outset. Studiomakers last month launched their own graduate prize, the Tiffany & Co. x Outset Studiomakers Prize, which gave seven recent London MA graduates a year rent-free in studios in north London. Black Tower Projects, a new privately owned not-for-profit set of studios and project space in Sydenham in south London, launched with an evening of performances in September (their inaugural exhibition, a solo by Keef Winter, opens 11 November); and studio providers V22 recently launched their Workspace Crèche studios in Dalston, offering desk spaces to 13 artists, for a fee that includes eight hours of childcare a week and access to more. All this alongside new studio holders just being announced at the studios in the New Wing of Somerset House after their launch a year ago, with just over 30 studios and desks currently occupied by 75 artists, an increasing amount of events and activities taking place, and five more studios scheduled to be built soon.

Detail of the V22 Workspace Crèche, Dalston, 2017. Courtesy: V22, London

The word from the top is ecstatic: while these initiatives might not provide for all the tens of thousands of London’s artists, or stem the tide of those decamping to more affordable climes, it is a definite shift from the Boris Johnson-era of giving developers right of way on pretty much everything. Sadiq Khan’s City Hall has made creativity policy, putting forward concepts like Creative Enterprise Zones to protect areas of the capital, and a Creative Land Trust to help provide affordable spaces for artists to work in, big ideas that have as yet remained undefined – more details are to be announced later this year. An updated version of a 2014 study of London’s studios is in the works; the previous study put things in terms that investors and developers can understand: the ‘creative industries’ contribute over GBP£21 billion to the city every year. Studio organizations are struggling to ensure ownership or long-term rental of the buildings they use, and the resolve put forward by City Hall might help solve, or ease, this eventually. The aim to provide infrastructural support to artists is at least there, an overall shift that can’t be underestimated.

‘We Were Having An Argument About Kenneth Koch's “One Train May Hide Another”’, 2017 (Mark Bleakley, Toby Christian, Rose O’Gallivan, Milly Thompson), installation view, Kingsgate Project Space, London. Courtesy: Kingsgate Project Space, London; photograph: Tim Bowditch

The word from the bottom, however, is considerably more muted: for those who can actually get a studio, with some waiting lists of several years, such policy assurances seem like a distant dream. The average cost across the city per square foot three years ago was just under £14; some studios, such as at Space’s Deborah House in Hackney, have seen their rent rise almost 50% since then – policy shift or no those rents won’t be coming back down again anytime soon. Add the several hundred pounds a month for a reasonably sized working space to London’s high rents for living and its no wonder more artists are conceptual computer-based SketchUp slingers these days. Terms like ‘affordable’ and ‘creative’ become elastic rhetoric, the boundaries of which, once set, might determine the actual inhabitants of the city.

A studio at Kingsgate Workshops, London. Courtesy: Kingsgate Workshops; photograph: Helen Innes

An article in the RA Magazine this summer, ‘Six ways to tackle the London studio crisis’, examined many of these issues, which included the helpful suggestions to ‘have faith in politicians’, or to just ‘move out of London’. One thing not mentioned in the article, but that did come up in a talk the RA hosted three weeks ago, ‘The Artist’s Studio 2.0’, was another option: to skip this reality entirely. Artist duo The Mycological Twist described their own recent use of exhibition and residency opportunities to occupy an online gaming universe, more specifically the post-apocalyptic scavenger game Rust. Working against the game’s narrative of grim, violent individualism, they invited other artists to collaborate in making a shared space for their avatars to gather and survive. It’s a pertinent image, constructing an ideal communal space in the face of hard-nosed adversity, even if it is just temporary, or ends as their experiment did: in a gleeful mass suicide. Though some things are meant to die, as curator Cory Scozzari, who runs the space Cordova in Barcelona, pointed out in his presentation that day: and sometimes discussing things purely in terms of ‘sustainability’ is ‘toxic’. True as this may be, the studio 2.0, apparently, is something not that far off the hackspaces of the ’90s: anywhere with electricity and wi-fi to sit for half an hour or two days.

Patrick Goddard, No Ironic Tip of the Hat to Class Consciousness Can Save Us Now!, 2017, performance documentation, Black Tower Projects, London. Courtesy: the artist and Black Tower Projects, London

Given the trajectory of recent years, it’s hard not to imagine the not too distant London like a bad knock-off episode of Black Mirror: with a feudal dystopia that sees on one side a comfortable investor class of propertied citizens, and on the other a set of nomadic sub-citizens who move from space to space, all mediated by an abysmally dry doublespeak. The citizens speak of themselves as beneficial innovators, stoking creativity through proving space for experimentation. The nomads pay exorbitant rates for access to such temporary spatial services, all the while referring to their peripatetic existence as a ‘critique’ of the tyranny of ownership, permanence and space itself. Everyone’s a winner, right?

 V22 Workspace Crèche, and Dalston Eastern Curve Garden, London. Courtesy: V22, London

Unhelpful sarcasm aside, these recent openings and opportunities might point to a sea change in the city’s stakes for its soul. While smaller and mid-sized commercial galleries struggle to find the elusive ‘new models’ for renting and exhibiting, London’s studio project spaces like ASC, Assembly Point, Cell, Cubitt and Kingsgate Workshops are taking up the slack in providing the ambitious and experimental exhibitions the city needs. These initiative bolster that ecology; what we have to hope is that this actually enables subsequent generations to both imagine and inhabit a London that is actually ‘affordable’ and more than just ‘creative’.

Main image: Toby Christian, Untitled (detail), 2017, 500 copies non-replenished single-side A4 text, A-wall, desk fans, installation view, Kingsgate Project Space, London. Photograph: Tim Bowditch

Chris Fite-Wassilak is a writer and critic who lives in London, UK.