Featured in
Issue 175

There Goes the Neighbourhood

How London's gentrification impacts on artists

BY Jonathan P. Watts in Critic's Guides | 23 OCT 15

Kerry Trengove, An Eight Day Passage, 1977, performance documentation. Courtesy Acme Studios Archive, London.

1 September 2014 was supposed to have been terminal exodus date. Yet, despite its exhortation, the ‘LET'S ALL MOVE OUT OF LONDON TOGETHER’ Facebook page, created by London-based artist Sara Nunes Fernandes, didn’t have the desired effect. ‘Now that London has been nuked by gentrification,’ the ‘About’ column reads, ‘foreign investment and criminal and corrupted councils, let’s all move together somewhere else! If we all move together, we can mimic the community support we give each other in London. We can make our own art spaces and add to the local art audience AND we’ll still have £££ to spare to come to London whenever we want because we will be awarded regional funding and [will only] be paying a quarter of the rents we’re paying now. All we need [to do] is to pick a place!’

But on the day I was reminded to leave London, it didn’t suit me to go. Nor, it seems, did it appeal to those I subsequently encountered along the city’s Hackney–Peckham contemporary art axis – an area serviced by the overground train line that unites the formerly industrial east London with the primarily residential south. One person made the move: a post with a Google pin dropped (arguably ten years too late) on Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, read: ‘Done!’ Glasgow was floated as an option – a post-industrial El Dorado with its towering ceilings, low rents and abundant funding. No one went to Coventry.

A retreat from the capital poses as many problems as it promises solutions. Where is this frontier land waiting to be discovered? If, as sociologist Sharon Zukin’s classic study Loft Living (1982) proposes, artists are pioneers of gentrification, wouldn’t a critical mass of artists blight wherever that frontier might be? In any case, despite increasingly hostile conditions, the question for many young visual artists – not to mention writers, curators, musicians and dancers – has become: Why do we stay in London?

It never occurred to me to move to London after graduating from Nottingham Trent School of Art and Design in 2007. My greatest revelation came not from the mandatory seminars about professional practice in the art world that I attended, but from an older artist who introduced me to ‘dole autonomy’, advising that if I really must get a job it shouldn’t occupy more than two days a week so as not to interfere with a regimen of reading, writing, listening, making, drinking and socializing. Nottingham never lacked affordable housing and friends who’d migrated south were paying quadruple the rent I was, for mouldy flats that rumbled with each passing double-decker bus.

My own misreadings of Raymond Williams’s later writings on devolution, some situationist pamphlets and a vague knowledge of Littoral and Grizedale Arts, both rural arts organizations in the north of England, fostered in me a high-minded, anti-centrist reaction to London, alongside a naive belief in regional art’s autonomy from fashion and the market. More concretely, living outside of London afforded me two valuable commodities: space and time. Like the Midland Group before it, Stand Assembly, a studio-gallery space formed by Nottingham Trent fine art graduates in 2004, was self-organized, demonstrating possibilities for my peer group and a subsequent generation of graduates. (Its legacy continues in the city with One Thoresby Street and Primary, as well as the commercial galleries tg and Syson.) Later, in 2010 – in the very month when former Labour Treasury Chief Liam Byrne left a note on his successor’s desk reading: ‘I’m afraid there is no money.’ – I started working in an administrative post for Norfolk County Council Social Services and joined the steering committee of OUTPOST gallery in Norwich. At that time, in addition to a sometimes gruelling monthly exhibition programme, under Elinor Morgan as chair, a vast, affordable studio block was being established in a former county records office.

Keith Coventry at his home in Shoreditch, London HD video still from There Goes the Neighbourhood, 2015 

OUTPOST, which launched in 2004, appropriated its organizational structure from the artist-committee model of Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery, where Lynda Morris – then curator of Norwich’s annual EASTinternational exhibition – had been invited to participate in a seminar on artist-run spaces at the end of 2002. Of course, Morris’s interest in what a contemporary, non-metropolitan art practice might be wasn’t without precedent. EAST had been organized around this premise in 1999. BANK, who curated the exhibition ‘Field of Dreams’ as part of EAST, caricatured the London/provincial divide thus: ‘We are quite famous and we live in London, which is very fashionable and Metropolitan, but we at BANK, we see ourselves as very much the little guys […] Not for us wild nights spent snorting cocaine and indulging in sex orgies […] We’re just like you: provincial, slightly dodgy nationalistic views, privet hedges and retractable garden-hose dispensers.’

Morris (controversially) redirected EAST’s educational budget to establish OUTPOST, a name that riffed on an earlier artist-led Norwich gallery, Frontier. ‘As I saw it,’ co-founder Kaavous Clayton explained to me, ‘London drained the activity away from Norwich once students left the art school. It felt like domination. The gallery gave it a focus and a community.’

Despite BANK’s caricature, OUTPOST forged direct links with Northern and Eastern Europe, circumventing, though not entirely ignoring, London. By hanging out at the gallery, artists formed a specific group identity that was totalizing. ‘It was workplace, pub, club, cafe, second bedroom, library, cinema, jobs reference and art storage,’ Jacques Rogers, co-founder of artist-led gallery Piper Keys and former OUTPOST committee member, told me.

In retrospect, it’s clear to see how a confluence of austerity-led reforms in higher education and cuts to the arts, to which EASTinternational fell victim, intensified the separation between the capital and elsewhere. What Hal Foster optimistically called ‘recessional aesthetics’, rather than refashioning art and patronage, gave way to a greater entanglement between art, global capital and London’s geographical location.

In their 1984 article titled ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’, Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan harpooned journalists’ portrayals of artist-led gentrification on the Lower East Side in New York as a natural fact. It wasn’t, as one claimed, ‘unaccountable’; it was by design. Despite his thrilling diagnosis of the gentrification of the avant-garde itself, Craig Owens came under fire for claiming in his 1984 essay ‘The Problem with Puerilism’ that artists are victims. ‘To portray artists as the victims of gentrification’, Deutsche and Ryan wrote, ‘is to mock the plight of the neighbourhood’s real victims’: namely, its largely black and Hispanic working-class residents. When I asked Rozsa Farkas, director of Arcadia Missa in Peckham, south London, about the effects of gentrification on artists, the response of the Peckham born-and-bred gallery owner was familiar: ‘What about the key workers who can’t afford to live round here, or the local families being forcibly relocated to towns outside London?’

My peer group has a keen awareness of the ways in which we’re culpable for gentrification and, since moving to London in 2011, my liberal guilt has plateaued. But artists or writers like myself, who have come from elsewhere, are now having to save every last penny to stay here. It may have taken a generation or two, but Owens’s comment is finally starting to make sense. Those older artists who rode the millennial property boom, long before Damien Hirst’s bejewelled and benighted skull failed to sell on the eve of the Lehman Brothers’ collapse, were certainly not victims. Nor were those from an even earlier generation – before the launch of frieze magazine, before Ben & Jerry’s ‘Cool Britannia’ ice cream, before the clothing chain AllSaints decorated its headquarters in the former heart of the city’s textile industry with defunct sewing machines. But it now seems clear that, in London today, it is capital not culture that drives gentrification. Young artists, writers, curators, musicians and dancers are victims, too. Regrettably, I don’t think it will be long before I’m forced to draft that letter to my landlord: ‘I’m afraid there is no money.’

Jonathan P. Watts is a contemporary art critic based in Norwich, UK.