The opening scene in series 2 of Peter Kay’s Phoenix nights sees Den Perry, owner of rival club “The Banana Grove”, lob a lit cigar into the paper waste basket after sarcastically remarking to his eager friend: “Long live the Phoenix!”. Cut scene as Brian and Jerry screech on the emergency brakes exiting the car park:
“JERRY! THE CLUB’S ON FIRE!”
In late August of 1979 Butler’s Wharf, on the banks of the Thames just south-east of Tower Bridge, fell to similar flames for the last time under the hold of the artists who resided there, coincidentally around the same period notice was given for residents to leave the building and haul it’s arse into 1980s redevelopment for studio apartments.The history of its studio spaces, the perpetual fires that caught on and the eventual burn out, both of the studios and the artists being turfed out, resonates as equally today as it would have done back then. Artist like Derek Jarman, Stephen Cripps, Kevin Atherton along with a list of others that may or may not mean much sit on a long plane of spaces glued to the persons and personalities who inhabited the buildings. V22 Bermondsey, Woodmill, WOWOW, Auto Italia South East, City Racing and many more provide a meandering lineage which only skims the surfaces of spaces rising and falling to the ashes of development and redevelopment. But their activity also slots within a contemporary nostalgia towards those that have fallen. Buildings such as Butler’s Wharf and equally recent re-gen developments are obviously a fluid continuum yet their activity can, through rumour, myth and a murky or incomplete archive, become over-romantic ideals, a nostalgia that for those who were external to it can feel critically untouchable. The problem is not and will never be ‘new’, it in fact becomes a well trodden axiom for all space, industry and buildings. “But this repeated requirement for relocation enacts a kind of renewal….” and the spaces left over become merely “…simulations of their former existence” (Alice Hatrick: Essay in ‘After Butler’s Wharf’).
The first trickles of this symptom are beginning to find routes into cities outside of the capital, often seen as safer havens for cheaper widespread post-industrial space where supply and demand for such territories are not at the same heights as those comparatively to the capitals of the world. But we are neither at no new state, nor in an equivalent position to that which is recomposing London and the likes. Manchester’s industrial heritage and swift collapse has meant that spaces within the peripheries are already dominated by exclusive compounds for the relatively well off. New build fortresses as pillars of low level capitalist gain butted hard against working class neighbourhoods which contain a rich history of diverse families. The term post-gentrification has been jokingly bandied about in certain circles, yet seems like an apt descriptor more relevant to Manchester and similar industrial (Northern?) cities where certain phases have leapfrogged the usual formula that is recited in gentrification *think-pieces*. The supply and demand has yet to abruptly affect actual spaces since there are more easy routes towards available brownfield sites (see New Islington developments or the Middlewood Docks scheme as beacons of this activity).
This is contrary to the displacement in London, which affects several tiers of communities, including working class families who have witnessed the decline of their industries fall to the hands of outsourced production, migrant families who have made homes within areas, and thus communities, with strong roots and businesses adding to an areas cultural and civic wealth, yet through limited economic options (or greater economic powers), have been uprooted, and the creative “class” for want of a better term who in part situate themselves in area with a semi-knowing precarity.
So when we consider the sale of Rogue Studios, Hotbed Press and similar studios being swiped aside (note to all at the non-creative businesses also housed in these buildings who are, through sales, losing their site of production and primary income) is it part of a wider future affecting cities outside the capital, and should we be concerned?
Short answer: No.
There should also be an assessment of what actually is being disrupted before the overflowing locks of tears floods open. Is it that we are actually too concerned at times with upholding the ideals of these places, and in turn attempt to uphold the organisations to their last drops of creative application. In part the North is symptomatic of a much stronger sense of bereavement for such loss since it directly correlates to the relative low level artistic density comparative to cities with a greater distribution of both people, spaces and activity (both creative or otherwise…).
Rogue is symptomatic of a city-wide reverence for the “Old Guard” remaining unchallenged in systems of cultural production and dispersion. Throughout is a city dominated by cyclical validation, top down bomb-drop-style culture (exemplified by MIF and HOME) and a structural stability in the higher tiers that feeds into the mindset of those in the emerging ranks. It exemplifies a state of terms that problematises a lack of understanding for the histories alongside a culture of gestural cultural politics that feeds into certain mid-level organisations such as Rogue which assimilates production and activity as valuable by proxy of it existing or being active. Plugging a gap doesn’t mean you’ve stopped the leaks. And all this is fed directly from an art scene rising from the city’s art school, indebted to its history, but also shaking under its dubious present, where you can now attain both a BA and MA in (・_・) ☆・‥…━━━★ * * * Curating * * * and yet actual activity is relatively invisible (invisible here doesn’t mean inactive, but that, as throughout all art scenes, activity is complicit in the cliques it envelops itself in), or otherwise activity for the sake of itself. Where tutors have held posts for longer than is healthy, both for the students and themselves. And as such may now present a warped, 90s style vision of schooling, indebted to standard gallery systems, the linearities of careers, of narrow outputs and of an opposition to the rhizomatic activity needed. We can’t exactly cause a revolt towards a system that is more a service than eduction these days, but can at least call out the gloopy, static mess of the eduction systems that in part has a direct impact on emerging practices in a city.
It is thus for mid-rank organisations, alongside the art school to continually deal with challenging and re-challenging how those emerging can *EMERGE BETTER*, both within and away from safe constructs, which from there can then feed up through the system(s). How to effectively create complex, dynamic and mixed communities that don’t perpetuate consistent internal validation.
The top can be collapsed if the bottom and middle are porous enough to adapt and mutate into the sockets that they can plug. We should stop treating production, activity, spaces and practitioners with a priori value, and be prepared to disregard the systems or interject above what others reach for or achieve. It is maybe a mindset initiated from the beginning fed through those ‘Old Guard’ whom can hold court in the institutions. And that the dismantling of long run studios and exhibition spaces could provide a time for hard reflection on the actualities of what went on, and then maybe fling the nostalgia in the trash. High spec flats assimilating the aesthetics of these post-industrial, latterly creative spaces will come, go, and come again. A city of glass walls and facades that glamourise the dirt and hard labour of the past. This is in effect boring. It’s how we parasitically fill the available gaps, the un-safe havens, that ignites a city’s creative ecology, and everything else around it.
Between 2011-2012 Woodmill, an artist complex based in Bermondsey housing studios, workshops and exhibition spaces shifted from its original site within a series of ex-council buildings to a GP’s Surgery not too far away. The move and effective model encapsulated Woodmill’s spirit for “avoiding its own establishment” (Oliver Basciano: Off-Space no 9: The Woodmill, London, Art Review 2012) and stipulated a desire to resist either institutionalising themselves nor threatening how they need to act. As Basciano puts it: “It was always going to be temporary…”, and in that respect “…won’t be forced into an upward trajectory.” If we begin to see these shifts of ecologies and sites of production and activity as a positive force to reassess how we act within the systems of our socio-cultural landscape, publicly, exclusively, or inclusively, we may be able to better form future models as springboards for ongoing development.
Beyond scene 1 in the 2nd series of Phoenix Nights Peter Kay weaves a tales of the rising of a car crash club from its ashes; beautiful, diverse, absolutely mad yet acutely amazing; both hilarious and vibrant yet necessary as an outpost to those who frequent it.
I’ll stop the metaphor short there…