The Artist Pioneer

This article was published by 3:AM magazine in October 2014, and is republished with kind permission from 3:AM.




Our contemporary stripped-pine pioneers have recreated a pattern of street life that originally belonged to the old working-class East End […] Their crescents and squares are turning into one-class communities of neighbours […] The easiest way of making house prices soar is for two people to move into a decrepit square and paint their facades white. The point should be taken within a few weeks, when these ghost pioneers should these be able to re-sell their houses at an amazing profit.’ (Jonathan Raban, Soft City, 1974).

Since the 1960s a picture has emerged. A collective language of urban development, which paints artists – to use a generic conglomeration of fine artists, writers, architects, photographers and filmmakers – as urban pioneers. It would seem this has become the portrait of urban renewal. Artists as what Jonathan Raban so cuttingly called the ‘stripped-pine pioneers’. First-wave foot soldiers of gentrification. Bolding marching beyond the frontiers of well-trod quartiers, in search of new, cheap, interesting spaces to live and work. Renovating, retrofitting and renewing areas of the city which have often lain degraded by economic and industrial decline. Rebuilding them from the rubble up, towing eager property developers in their wake. Creative pioneers, who, in the following decades will be kicked out as future rich ‘yuppies’ move and property prices were pushed into the stratosphere.

This language of the artist as pioneer has a long history, working alongside a Romantic vision of the artist as outsider. As practical craftsman. As bohemian in their ability endure the rough and ready lifestyle of run-down spaces, and poet in their re-vision of them. However, it is this direct connection to housing – with artists as pioneers of urban renewal – which is particularly traceable to a period in the late 1960s and 1970s, voiced first with the loft conversions of New York’s SoHo district, and later transposed, to areas to the East of London. In Hackney, Bow and Wapping, artists of the late 1960s eagerly took over industrial warehouses, laid dormant by declining industry. Housing cooperatives like S.P.A.C.E and Acme, made these shells of brush and lightbulb factories, into studios, and into loft-living spaces. In areas still left standing after the Blitz, and after the exuberant demolition and tower block construction of the 1950s and 60s; artists also took up occupation in Victorian and Georgian properties which had been largely left to rot. Renovating them, and renewing part of East London like Shoreditch and Hoxton from areas of declining population, to the now fashionable hubs of recent years, with booming commercial and residential, and creative economies. In a fascinating BBC documentary, ‘Ours To Keep’, the late, great Denis Severs – whose house in Folgate Street, Spitalfields, was a beacon for these creative incomers – espouses the freedoms of these artist renovators. As he puts it in 1985, ‘I think most people think of it as a new frontier [..] that is what makes it so special’.

It was Ruth Glass, the Marxist sociologist, who first introduced that clunky portmanteau, ‘gentrification’ to our vocabulary in 1964, describing the advancing middle-classes in Islington. Just north of the East-End. Over a decade before Thatchers housing reforms, Glass’ sociological survey led the way for property to become an indicative linch-pin in the analysis of urban change. She outlined the process of opportunism as (often) left leaning, young liberal intellectuals and creative graduates moved to ‘shabby, modest mews and cottages’ in run-down areas, transforming them into ‘elegant, expensive residences’ with escalating price tags. In East London, half a decade later, it was the very demands of new waves of graduate artists, seeking cheap living and working space, which brought new middle-class inhabitants to the East End of London. Established housing associations, like S.P.A.C.E and Acme studios; and working collectives like the London Filmmakers Cooperative, in the late 1960s and early 70s. These semi-organised groups took advantage of the disordered local housing systems, and large numbers of derelict buildings. Utilising them from their own individual and collective purposes. Like New York a decade earlier, it is through housing that one can see this perfect curve of transformation. Artists moving in, areas being ‘done-up’, priced-up, and later, when these prices sky rocketed, with artists being priced-out.

While Glass’ report in 1964 was ahead of the curve in reflecting this process, her tone is far from glorifying the activities of these middle-class incomers. She describes Islington as being ‘invaded’, and states that, ‘once this process of gentrification starts in a district it goes on rapidly, until all or most of the original working-class occupiers are displaced and the whole social character of the district is changed’. Other writers have given even more violent accounts of this process. The historian Jerry White has suggested these gentrifiers were a Trojan horse, whose belly has burst […] the bastards […] fanning out through the streets, burning, looting, raping. Trampling our memories, stealing our treasures, destroying our history. Stripping our assets. From White’s perspective of ‘our’ history, the history of residents of East London before the late 1960s, these in-coming residents are colonialists. Ransacking the old East End. Though White’s metaphor is somewhat overdramatised, his perspective does highlight how divisive the language of the ‘pioneer’ is. It’s whitewashing of the people who lived and worked in East London long before the gentrification of the 1960s, and whose culture, traditions and industries long pre-predated this period. It is the pioneer as adventurer, crossing the unknown frontier, which presupposes the East End as a ‘non-place’, without characteristics, culture or economy before these artists moved in. And nothing, of course, could be further from the truth. In direct opposition to this, it is extremely interesting that the artists moving to East London, were themselves so interested in the culture and history of the area. Indeed, it was the historic vibrancy, the multicultural mixing of East London which intensified interest in artists moving to the area in the 1960s and 1970s. We can see it in the works of artists like Gilbert & George, Jock MacFadyn; in the films of Derek Jarman and Stanley Kubrick. An interest in the reality, the grit and industrial culture of East London, which was slowly being eroded by this process of gentrification.

The East End has always held interesting communities of artists, writers and thinkers; long before the YBAs of the 1990s. To name but a few key groups; cooperatives were set up, like the East London Group including John Cooper and Walter Sickert in the 1920s and 1930s, keenly interested in the landscape and workers of the East End. Public institutions like the Whitechapel Gallery have been important supporters of local artists since first opening in 1901. Exhibiting international shows of Jackson Pollock and Picasso, to the people of the East End, as well as providing a exhibition space for local artists. Areas like Whitechapel and Bow have long been the historic location for craftsmen, and important place for artists and writers of immigrant communities who made East London their home; from the Huguenot silk weavers, to the Yiddish community. Groups that emerged include the important ‘Whitechapel Boys’, with members like Isaac Rosenberg and David Bomberg, whose work is keenly interested in the Jewish community in this area at that time. Artists who moved to East London in the 1970s clearly did not wish to whitewash these previous communities. Indeed, in recent literary traditions, from writers like Iain Sinclair, there is a certain scavenging mentality which draws heavily on a certain historical nostalgia for an East End before they themselves arrived.

In the years just before groups like S.P.A.C.E studios emerged in East London, a key documentary by Robert Vas’, Belonging (broadcast by the BBC in 1967), is an incredibly interesting record of three artists living in and around Stepney in the mid-1960s. Vas himself was a Hungarian emigre, forced from Prague after the uprising in 1957. His early films, like Refuge England, were included in Lindsey Anderson’s pivotal Free Cinema movement, and as such portray a neo-realist stance with a humanity which exposes individual stories behind big political and social events. In Belonging, Vas follows the painter John Holmes (known as Johnny Martin for the purposes of the documentary), the poet Johnny Quarrell, and the Yiddish poet, Abraham Nahum Stencl, each struggling with their work and the context of their surroundings in East London. On-one-hand these artists represents a strong cultural and artistic life in the East End, and yet, there is an implicit acknowledgement that these men are outsiders to the traditional or commercial systems of London at the time.

This is particularly evident as Vas follows John Holmes, working through the night in his modernist sixties council flat, as he tries to break into the commercial galleries in West London and in the world of advertising. Throughout the film is evidence of artists working and living in East London, and yet it is equally clear that their horizons are focused on central and west London, or even abroad, to have any commercial or public success. This is also true the other artists from East London, like David Bomberg, who necessarily involved themselves in circles in Camden, or in North London, in order to have opportunities to exhibit and be significant within the art worlds of their time.

What changed then, from the late 1960s to today? Why did East London establish itself as such a hub for working artists from 1968-1980? The answer can perhaps be found in this very language of the artist pioneer, which I have suggested is so culturally divisive and historically inaccurate. Artists organisations like S.P.A.C.E studios, set up by Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgeley in St Katherine’s Dock in 1968, while by no means being the first group of artists in the East End, were pioneering in the way they approached and provoked the systems of the art world which had been long established. They muscled their way into these warehouse spaces, seen at the time as blighted symbols of imperial decline, and negotiated with the Greater London Authority for their temporary use. Many of these artists also pioneered a new forms of open criticism to public funding organisations like the Arts Council, challenging their narrow systems of arts funding. They actively encouraged change in the system which would allow new, young graduates to pursue avant-garde art forms of, not only bigger in scale but also beyond the remit of the commercial gallery as a space of display. Particularly in performance art, in mixed media, in film and in sculpture. It is interesting that, with many of those involved in S.P.A.C.E and Acme at this time, materials gleaned from local dumps and street corners were increasingly valued; with artists like Richard Deacon, using worn out domestic appliances and scrap wood, occupying an Acme studio at Acre Lane at the time.

It is new attitudes to exhibiting art which were key to how East London expanded in this time. While Johnny Holmes, in Vas’ documentary of 1967, was forced to look towards traditional commercial galleries in West London; only a few years later, large numbers of pioneering gallery spaces had been set up, fundamentally reforming the centre of art distribution and display. Groups like S.P.A.C.E were early adopters of the idea of ‘open studios’, encouraging collectors, gallerists, critics, and importantly other artists to visit their studios and view their work. This was not pioneering, the idea of open studios had been initiated centuries before in the salons of Paris, had been developed within the cultural circles of the Beat Poets in New York, and in Warhol’s Factory. But the idea of inverting the traditional flows of artistic production and dissemination, manifested at the time in exhibitions like When Attitudes Become Form, which was brought to the ICA in 1969, and indeed the writing of artists like Daniel Buren; radically altered the centre of the art world, bringing the space of the artists studio back into the centre of the art world.

Housing associations like S.P.A.C.E and Acme, not encouraged a critical mass of artists to move to East London, but also allowed a far more vital and communal attitude to art practice and exhibition to emerge. When Acme was founded in 1972 by young art graduates Jonathan Harvey and David Panton, S.P.A.C.E studios had already laid the way for working with local authorities to use and renovate derelict spaces in London, which Acme took full advantage of. Seeing the need for new forms of exhibition space, Acme established the Acme Gallery in Covent Garden in 1974, moving to The Showroom in Bow from the start of the 1980s. Many of the early residential properties Acme offered, by Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Leyton councils, were in a considerable state of disrepair and dereliction. So artists who took over these properties need to be innovative in their renovation of them, on very limited budgets, working within the limited planning controls imposed upon them to create spaces which would work best for them. Knocking through ceilings, walls and opening their spaces to allow them to get their pieces in and out, and to be spaces of production which they could life and work in. It was also as a group that they could share the skills of many of the artists who moved into these properties, with artists often supplementing incomes as builders, painters, plumbers ect. Indeed, in 1975, Acme brought out the first of many collectively published guides to doing up properties titled Help Yourself to A Studio, which was repeatedly republished in different forms throughout this first decade.

This DIY approach to making your own space also enabled many of these artists to create domestic galleries, and to show their own and each others work. Acme properties like the 1950s prefab houses on Conder Street, in Stepney, were used by artists like Bobby Baker, as temporary galleries. In 1976, Baker staged her performance series An Edible Family in a Mobile Home, allowing visitors to walk around her home over a period of two weeks and shockingly to consume the edible family she had created. A key street was Beck Road near Broadway Market which, in the 1980s, was home to artists like Genesis P. Orridge, Helen Chadwick and Mikey Cuddihy, and the centre of a tight knit art community. The American émigré, Maureen Paley, opened her gallery Interim Art in Beck Road in 1984, showcasing local artists in her converted home, including Hannah Collins, Susan Hiller, Stuart Brisley, Langlands & Bell, and her neighbour Helen Chadwick. Interim Art became a key gallery, not only because it launched many artists early careers, but also because the fluidity of the space and the experimentation and scope it encouraged, allowed new forms of work and reception to be developed. The centre of the art world was increasingly de-centralised, with, as Daniel Buren put it, the spaces of production, exhibition and commerce being fused and blended.

It is perhaps in the work of artists like Chadwick and Bobby Baker, both Acme residents, that the pioneering impact of these new gallery spaces is illustrated. Chadwick’s celebrated In the Kitchen series, first shown in 1977, like Baker’s Edible Family, used the houses as a space of performance and display, to say something new and politically current about the role of women, the family and the traditional representation of the home. Beyond the novelty of their use of space, and the DIY, ad-hoc construction of their shows; it was the spaces themselves which aided the pioneering of new forms of work, especially for women and from a feminist perspective. But this was pioneering as briocolage, as re-assemblage, rather than as something new. Artists playing with and inverting the ideas of other artists and thinkers. For example Bobby Baker’s implicit play with the works of male artists likeClaes Oldenburg’s Store (1961), which she admired, but equally wished to ‘domesticate’. Many artists in East London were putting these thoughts into practice. In their renovated Victorian properties or even pre-fabricated modernist blocks, it was the very scale and domesticity of these independent galleries, which brought a visual critique and oppositional context to the work. And more importantly, brought critics and collectors to their own front doors.

While, in the 1960s, avant-garde artists had lamented the lack of funding from sources like the Arts Council into new artists and spaces, by the early 1970s these pioneering projects and organisations had begun to attract significant grants and funds from the Arts Council, the Gulbeiken Foundation, and later, others like the National Lottery from 1994. Indeed, in her reflections on the late 1980s and 1990s, the filmmaker and performance artist Rose English, a long term collaborator of director Sally Potter and Acme resident, suggested that funding for performance art went into serious decline as funding was sucked into refurbishing properties. To an extent, the feedback loop of the surge of interest in East London since the late 1960s, particularly in terms of property and building regeneration, has been a victim of its own success. One cannot and should not circumscribe a blanket generalisation about the impact of this period of the 1980s and 1990s, on artists in East London, but under Thatcher, many artists living as tenants in properties like those of Beck Road under Acme, were invited to buy their properties, cementing and stabilising the situation of many artists who had been living in temporary, short term or squatting situations. Many were able to buy properties, maintain cheaper studio spaces through many of these continued housing associations. Some even profited significantly from the ensuing housing bubbles, and from new audiences and interest in their work which developed as a result of this new interest in East London. I say one cannot generalise because this is certainly not the whole story. At the same time, the price of properties rose to the extent which surpassed the means of many. Living prices also increased, and with new, more wealthy residents, many parts of East London have been cleansed of the tatty, self-made roughness, which at once galvanised residents in the 1970s towards change, and formed such an indelible part of the identity of the East End, which artists often revelled in.

If we look at this period, from 1970 to the present day, can we say this was a period of pioneering? Since the 1960s, many areas of East London have been completely transformed; both by the large government driven re-developments of the Docklands, and most recently at Stratford. But, at the heart of the re-invigoration of East London, has been the impetus and creative re-imagining of the area, often by incomers during this period of early gentrification. In the long-duree of East London history there is a problem in invoking the language of the pioneer. These artists were by no means the first, nor will they be the last to transform the area. Nor was this the East End the only area which was so transformed. Now, in areas like Deptford, Lewisham, Peckham and Purfleet, new generations act as stripped pine-pioneers. Rediscovering the suburbs, new outskirts of London. Seeking cheap living and working spaces. Looking for fledgeling communities of like-minded people.

Like the decline and fall of civilisations, as Gibbons would label it, gentrification sweeps into areas, transforms them, and then ultimately supersedes them. It is a waxing and waning process, which possibly, leaves the possibility for some further re-incarnation in the future. At some point, maybe soon, East London will cease to be nest of creative output. Artists moving to new areas, urban professionals replacing them, prices going up, creative industries moving on. Wave on wave on wave. And where is the pioneer now? Those artists pioneers of East London in the 1970s. Most are now in their 60s and 70s. Many have moved. Some made money in the ensuing property boom. Some not. Those who have stayed often look in horror at the influx of ‘hipsters’, at the new bright-young creatives and professionals leaking into East London, and turning every corner into a Climpson’s coffee shop. So generations roll over each other, re-making the city. It is not the city as a tabula rasa, with its populations pioneering new unfound territories. It is the city as a palimpsest. Continuously re-written, over-written, malleable. Reformed in continuous amorphous evolution.


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