1 September 2014 was supposed to be terminal exodus date. Yet despite its exhortation, the ‘LET’S ALL MOVE OUT OF LONDON’ 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,’ it continues: ‘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 won’t be paying a quarter of the rents we’re paying now. All we need to do is pick a place!’
On the day I was reminded to leave London it didn’t suit me nor, it seems, those users I subsequently encountered along the city’s Hackney-Peckham axis of contemporary art – an axis serviced by the ‘ginger’ East London overground train line that unites former industrial east with residential south. One made it out: a post with a google pin dropped 10 years too late on Kreuzberg read ‘Done!!’ Glasgow was floated – post-industrial El Dorado for its towering ceilings, lower rents and funding in abundance. No one went to Coventry.
Retreat promises as many quick solutions as it does problems. Where is this frontier land waiting to be discovered? If, following sociologist Sharon Zukin’s classic study Loft Living (1982), artists are pioneers of gentrification, wouldn’t a critical mass of artists blight wherever the frontier might be? In the meantime, despite increasingly hostile conditions, the question among many young visual artists, not to mention writers, curators, musicians and dancers has become: Why do we stay in London?
It never even occurred to me to go to London after graduating from Nottingham Trent School of Art and Design in 2007. The greatest revelation came not from mandatory seminars about professional practice in the art world, but an older artist who introduced me to ‘dole autonomy’ and advised that if I really must get a job – initially I was ashamed to sign on – it shouldn’t be more than two days a week so as not to interfere with a regimen of reading, writing, listening, making, drinking and socialising. Nottingham never lacked affordable housing; friends who’d migrated south paid quadruple for mouldy flats that rumbled with each passing double-decker – bragging rights were included in the rent.
My own misreadings of Raymond Williams’s later writings on devolution, Situationist pamphlets, and a vague knowledge of Littoral and Grizedale Arts, both rural arts organisations in the north of England, fostered a high-minded anti-centrist reaction to London, alongside a naive belief in regional art’s autonomy from fashion and the marketplace. More concretely I had two valuable commodities: space and time. Like The Midland Group before, Stand Assembly, a studio-gallery space formed by Nottingham Trent Fine Art graduates in 2004, self organised, demonstrating possibilities for my peer group and a subsequent generation of graduates in Nottingham. Its legacy continues in Nottingham 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 that Shrigley-esque note on his successor’s desk – ‘I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left’ – I began administrative work at Norfolk Country Council Social Services and joined the steering committee of OUTPOST gallery in Norwich. At that time, in addition to a sometimes gruelling monthly exhibitions programme, under Elinor Morgan as chair, a vast, affordable studio block was being established in a former county records office.
OUTPOST began in 2003, its organisational structure appropriated from the artist committee model of Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, which, in December 2002, Lynda Morris, then curator of the annual EASTinternational exhibition, had invited to participate in a seminar on artist-run spaces. Morris’s interest in what a contemporary non-metropolitan art practice might be – a thread beginning with British conceptualism – wasn’t without precedent. EAST 1999 had been organised around this question: BANK, who made the exhibition ‘Field of Dreams (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…. We are the little people like you. 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 the earlier Norwich artist-led 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.’
Morris’s enlightened understanding of education wouldn’t pass today: artists learn on the job by collaborating with one another, meeting other artists, doing studio visits, or transporting work in person. Despite BANK’s caricature, OUTPOST forged direct links to Northern and Eastern Europe, circumventing, though not entirely ignoring, the cocaine orgy that was London. Hanging out there formed a specific group identity that was totalising. ‘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 how a confluence of austerity-led reforms in higher education, of which EASTinternational finally fell victim, as well as cuts to the arts, intensified the separation between London 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 geography.
Among my peer group is a recognition of the ways in which we’re all culpable for gentrification; since moving to London in 2011 my liberal guilt’s plateaued. In a 1984 article titled ‘The Fine Art of Gentrification’, Rosalyn Deutsche and Cara Gendel Ryan harpooned journalists’ portrayal 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 comes under fire for claiming in Art in America (1984) that artists are victims. ‘To portray artists as victims of gentrification,’ Deutsche and Ryan write, ‘is to mock the plight of the neighbourhood’s real victims’ – its largely black and hispanic working-class residents. When I asked Rozsa Farkas, director of Arcadia Missa in Peckham, about the effects of gentrification on artists for the frieze video that accompanies this article, 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 Heygate Estate families forcibly relocated in towns outside London?’
Artists or writers like myself, who have come from elsewhere, have a choice to squeeze every last penny to stay. And yet Owens’s comment has taken a generation to finally make sense for a younger generation today. 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, or an even older generation – before frieze magazine and Ben & Jerry’s Cool Britannia ice cream, or before the clothing chain All Saints decorated its stores with defunct sewing machines – were not victims. It 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, it doesn’t seem long until I’m forced to draft that letter to my landlord: ‘I’m afraid to tell you there’s no money left.’
This article accompanied a short film that I wrote and directed, commissioned by frieze with Arts Council England, which you can watch here.