It feels that the entire research so far has been preparing me for London; and yet everything I learnt – from Madrid to Berlin to Paris to Rome – was completely blown out of bounds by the sheer magnitude of this city. If I felt I had some kind of overview in other cities, then in London I found none of this self-assuredness. Even on a simple physical level, London no longer functions on a human scale - walking as a form of transport is surely possible, but verges on ludicrous when arriving for a 10o’clock meeting means starting to walk at 6AM.
I’m coming back to the walking briefly mentioned in the last text: a method to measure a city with ones body; to see sites in passing; to punctuate my meetings with independent art spaces and initiatives with the streets of the city they inhabit. As mentioned in the previous text, these spaces tend to occupy the peripheries of cities, and ‘the periphery’ takes on a whole new meaning when physically walking out to meet it. But much as I wanted to continue this mode of mapping, in London it started to become senseless. The distances one needs to travel began to encroach rather than enrich; taking more energy than it eventually could give. Without the aid of public transport, it would have at times been impossible to fit even two meetings into a single day.
The term ‘periphery’ connotes an edge, a slow fading out of a center –the last wisps of concentration before (what? The void?)- but London’s periphery (perhaps due to the mode of getting there) does not feel like this at all: the edge of the city feels much closer to a sea - one that plays host to several islands.
One of these islands is Black Tower. Located in Sydenham at the south edge of the city, Black Tower is a not-for-profit project space and artists’ studio provider, who focus on collaborative practices as a way to work in, and invite artists to, their outer-city location. Occupying an industrial building, Black Tower has neighbours who span anywhere from car to set producers – making a fitting environment for their largely self-sufficient ecosystem focused on (art) production. This, alongside the collaborative effort of hosting, is reflected in the structure of their exhibitions, which offer one-month working periods for guest artists on site, followed by an exhibition that facilitates the continued development of the project. The idea is to create a working structure that encourages deepening relationships between the artists and hosts, while also opening up the exhibition format to include moments of incompleteness and process. Which is a theme that may connect Black Tower back into the archipelago of spaces existing in London.
In each city I have visited for this research I have caught onto some kind of thread that, perhaps in my own search for logic, has become a lead to follow. In Rome it was collaboration; in Paris collectivity; in Berlin perhaps (in)accessibility? And in London the word I heard again and again (and then began actively searching for) was Production.
I can probably trace the focus on this term back to an arbitrary series of events that led me to it. And yet the arbitrary no longer feels like something I should reject or shy away from. Time and time again I have encountered spaces that use subjectivity, and personal whim, precisely as a way to structure their programs. And rather than resulting in un-relatable, hermetic niches, I found that this embrace of subjectivity consistently presented programs that genuinely caught my attention - perhaps precisely because of the impossibility of pinpointing their centers; or due to the lack of ‘missions’ through which action is intended to exceed the limits of a space’s walls.
But back to production.
Many of the spaces I contacted in London are connected to studio complexes in some form – either organizationally, such as Arebyte Gallery and Black Tower, or circumstantially, such as artist-run organization Auto Italia. Even artist-run space Piper Keys, who is momentarily borrowing space from non-profit exhibition centre Raven Row, is inadvertently sharing the building with spaces currently dedicated to art production. And I don’t think its because there are so many studio spaces around. In fact, it feels much closer to the opposite – with studio space being so hard to find that the only way to attain one is to organize collectively.
But the permeation of production as a focal point in London does not stop there. Other spaces –quite detached from places of production- also have strong focus on it, with many programs in London built on the premise of commissioning works. To help artists produce, as well as exhibit, feels as strongly ingrained into the attitudes of spaces here as the act of running a space ‘full stop’ seemed to be in Berlin. It’s almost presented as a given: production is practically impossible in London and therefore to give aid in any form is almost an assumed responsibility: I hardly come across a space that doesn’t give artist fees; I hardly come across a space that doesn’t contribute to production costs.
But I only manage to speak to approximately ten spaces – a tiny fraction of the overall organizations in London. My initial research leaves me with thirty organizations to contact and each meeting leaves me with five new organizations to approach - it’s abundant for a city that is so extraordinarily expensive to live in; for a city with a fairly single-channeled funding system. Which brings me back to a particular conversation.
I visit Piper Keys and begin my ‘interview’ in my way that is becoming increasingly close to a casual conversation. I let an initial confusion lead to questions about space acquisition; leading to previous spaces and team composition; to role distribution and overall focus. The answers to which are all -as I may have expected- arbitrary: a personal connection; a lucky encounter; a natural array of focuses and interests. Which leads to mention of another interview in which the interviewer asked about the initative’s ‘model’, in a survey attempting to grasp that illusive way in which independent initiatives work. But Piper Keys is once more a case that has no model, in a series of initiatives that also have no model – becoming a connection through that lack as such – but, once again, not as a form, but as a circumstantial quality; similar to this thread following production.
Which leads me to one of my only somewhat-conclusive thoughts in regards to this research: If there is anything really tying these independent initiatives together, I believe it is this term ‘initiative’. As outlined in previous texts, the term ‘independent’ is fraught with contradictions. But ‘initiative’, the broadest term I have found to describe this loosely connected group, feels to be the most consistently accurate description of how they work: taking the opportunities that arise and embodying them to their full potential. It is an attitude, not a model; a motivation, not a need. And it is this eye for opportunity that leads to the composition of some of my favourite places:
There is no need for a hair salon where mirrors are swapped out for art beyond Daniel Kelly’s personal initiative to intertwine these activities and spaces. There is no need for contemporary art exhibitions at city summer pools besides Nele Heinevetter’s personal fascination, and her will to imbue each with the others’ qualities. There is no need for a group studio to invite artists to exhibit, other than an interest to do so; no need to inhabit peoples’ living rooms each Sunday other than for the love of cake and art.
These examples, of course, extend beyond London. I feel these spaces, initiatives, organizations that I have met through this research work beyond need: they exist through a want. A want to do something more, or less, or forwards, sideward, or pulling back. To see, or find, opportunity to move - and to do so. Independent initiatives have a tendency to live for four to five years and if I have learnt anything that is close to definitive, then it would be that this tendency comes from a general ability for one (or a few) people to attend to, and care for, a particular activity and idea, with no consistent support other than the desire to do so. If these movements take greater hold, they do so by finding ways to reform into a more sustainable, stable form – often sacrificing some of that initial symbiosis between motivation and actualization that to me feels so characteristic for an independent initiative. And of course there are anomalies. And of course none of these initiatives follow the same paths or find the same forms. And none of it can ever be wholly replicated; because each one is so specific to the place in which it lives, to the people who create it, to time, events, energy, motivation, whim. Every little detail down to a movie seen or a road name lived on; to a pairing between Argentina/Paris – or London/Mexico - to opening art school conversations into public form. Everything. Which, if I think back to before starting this research I suppose I somewhat knew. But perhaps took a search, from city to city to city to city, from warehouse to kiosk to cafe to living room, to really see it.