An inside look at three of London’s Artist-led spaces

By: Naomi Ellis | Date 14.02.2017
Throughout history artists have organized themselves into networks with the vision to develop innovative ideas and present alternative ways of living. Artist-run spaces often have a non-profit and non-commercial ethos, thus allowing further scope for more experimental and politically charged projects. We take a look into three of London’s artist-run spaces of today, how they’re surviving and what they’re offering the city.
Truth Futurism, Metahaven (2016). Presented as part of Metahaven: Information Skies, Auto Italia, London 2016. Image c. Corey Bartle-Sanderson / Theo Cook.

Disused industrial buildings, empty shops and other abandoned spaces have long been used by artists for exhibitions and studios. Damien Hirst and a group of his peers, now known as the YBAs, put on the 1988 group exhibition ‘Freese’ in a disused docklands warehouse. The show helped to propel their careers, whilst also increasing the economic value of the area creating new creative focus and interest.

With soaring prices of rent in recent years London has become an increasingly hostile environment for this kind of art activity to take place. However, somewhere between 9% and 11% of commercial buildings in London are currently empty, which almost creates an imperative to find ways to negotiate their use for the arts. SET opened it’s first centre in November 2016 with exactly this in mind. Using a charity model and working with guardianship companies for landowners, SET has so far negotiated the use of two buildings. The first of which is located on Alscot Road, Bermondsey, in an old DIY Law pack distribution warehouse.

Now reformed into an open-plan arrangement of affordable artist’s studios and a project space, the Alscot Road Centre hosts a community of over 25 studio holders of varying practices. Studio holders contribute to SET’s arts and educational programme in the form of talks, workshops, reading groups and collectively curated exhibitions. SET hopes that the program will bridge gaps between different genres and mediums allowing for further experimental practice and collaborative work.

SET hosts Chats café; an artist food-residency developed by Berry Patten, Leah Walker and Danni Russo. Chats opens to studio artists and the public on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays between 11 and 4pm, offering affordable and delicious food. January will see the launch of REX Cinema at Alscot Road featuring a film by Sam Austen, the continuation of Chats residency and the beginning of various public reading groups and workshops, such as the Contemporary Literature Reading Group. On February 16th SET will host a performance evening with studio artists East Anglia Records.

Auto Italia

Auto Italia South East was opened in 2007 by Kate Cooper, Amanda Dennis and Rachel Pimm; after recently having graduated from Central Saint Martins College and Kingston University. It began as a group of artists squatting in a space with the vision to continue making art and presenting the work of artists they admired.

Auto Italia claims the status of an Artist as an organization itself; emphasizing a core concern to provide a space for autonomous practice. It intends to operate outside of the art market, exploring alternative ways to distribute, disseminate and produce work. Edward Gillman and Marianne Forrest, two of the current Directors of the organisation, describe Auto Italia as a “fictional shell company”; a model that can be manipulated and transformed to act under alternative guises to provide new vehicles for manoeuvre.

Approaching the organisation this way they can use each project as a different way to support artists. A recurring theme in projects is interrogating what it means for artists to come together and work collaboratively. It’s perhaps best known for the project Auto Italia LIVE; an artist-run TV series, performed before a studio audience and broadcast live over the Internet. The project allowed artists to explore ideas of co-authorship whilst engaging with all aspects of production.

Artist-run spaces often have to grapple with issues of their own ephemerality and the role they play as the foot soldiers of gentrification. Their first space, a former car showroom-house, was located in Queens Road, Peckham. Since then they have moved around various locations across London using donated spaces and receiving support from housing associations. A previous space was in a building situated in the midst of the re-generation work happening in Kings Cross. The challenge of working in these often-temporary buildings has meant that Auto Italia has become a “shape-shifter”, molding to fit into London’s contingent environment. Their current location is on Bonner Road, Bethnal Green where they have secured a more permanent rent agreement through Acme Studios.

Forrest and Gillman are aware of the insular tendencies of London’s art world. They view Auto Italia as a borderless network that can bring in international voices to London. To launch the new Bonner Space this year, Auto Italia presented ‘Hailweed’, an exhibition that hosted an array of artists, writers and collective agencies that each interrogated power relationships between artistic exchange and oppressive infrastructures. This included Syria Mobile Film Festival; a group working with artists in and from Syria exploring alternative frameworks of making and sharing work. The most recent exhibition at the Bonner Road Space ‘Information Skies’ saw the inaugural solo show for Amsterdam-based collective Metahaven. This show presented a cinematic installation exploring how new realities can be weaved and informed by VR technology.

With a focus on critical discourse, a self-conscious quality pervades much of Auto Italia’s projects as they interrupt the politics of their own self-organisation. In 2017 they will continue to create further opportunities to strategise on a national and international level. In January, Auto Italia will show a new commission by performance artist Ruth Angel Edwards. In the following months they will present work in Sydney and Prague, as well as collaborating with the Birmingham artist-led space Eastside Projects and South African art collective NTU.

Block 336

Block 336 is located in the basement of a stark brutalist building on Brixton Road that surprisingly once served as a computer centre for the upmarket private bank Coutts & Co! The artist-led project space, studio provider and UK registered charity was founded in 2011 by Jane Hayes Greenwood and Xabier Basterra.

By providing a generous exhibition space and necessary funding for artists, Block 336’s remit is to allow artists to drive their practice forwards without previous constraints. Artists are allowed up to three months working in the gallery and a 4 to 8 week exhibition with a series of events to follow. The space is broken into two gallery spaces hosting two different exhibitions at every opening; thereby expanding the audience of respective exhibiting artists.

Director, Jane Hayes Greenwood believes that being an artist herself allows for a certain mutual understanding when it comes to working with other artists. Seeing what is possible in the work developed by another artist can be a confidence boost for ones own work. Block 336 upholds a practice-led approach to their exhibition programming as a means to remain as closely connected to the creative process as possible. Previous exhibitions have shown a variety of work ranging from paintings, sculpture, video installations and performance.

Through collaborating with charities and professionals in their field, artist-led spaces can help deliver a service that is unique, whilst supporting communities and spurring off positive social change. Block 336 are committed to expanding their audiences and widening participation for marginalized groups through working with the local community. Located in the same building are a number of charities working with people with mental health problems and disabilities including Lambeth and Southwark Minds, Wheels for Well Being and Age UK Lambeth. Block 336 offer tours for some of the organisations, staff and service users in the building. They also host Lambeth and Southwark Mind’s annual lecture (coming up in February) and promote their work including the launching of their free psychotherapy service. The human psyche has provided much inspiration for artists throughout history. Block 336 demonstrates how the topic of wellbeing is relevant and important for artist-led spaces to engage with today.

Also coming up in 2017 for Block 336 is it’s fifth year anniversary in March. Artists who have collaborated with Block 336 over the years will be showing redevelopments of works previously displayed in the space. In April Block 336 will have two exhibitions; including sculptural installations by Sarah Roberts alongside selected paintings by Mark Jeckson.

SET, Auto Italia and Block 336 are each a collaborative endeavor to produce projects, which come from a community working together. They explore the future potential and transformative power of former industrial spaces in the city. Rejecting societal norms with a spirit of optimism, they operate on a level of precariousness necessary to allow them to take risks. The future is indeterminate for these spaces but their legacy will carry on through the people they have impacted as a result of their outward looking but localized activity. Perhaps these self-organised spaces provide the patterns for a wider alternative political model. Either way, the existence of these spaces is vital in order for London to flourish as a city.


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