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Does House Squatting Create The Artists Of Tomorrow?

Published 24 March 2010

If the word ‘squatting’ makes you think of ragged paupers or die-hard activists clamoring for the salvation of the planet from ruthless capitalists and Russell Brand, a second guess might be required. The art squat is the new trend in a city full of gallery aficionados, craving for aesthetic extravaganza but not willing to pay the rent…

Squatting has always been popular in London, given that the occupation of an empty property is not an unusual practice since the revolutionary ’70s. With the economic downturn, there has been an explosion in the number of luxury properties that have been abandoned by bankrupt landlords or foreclosed by the banks, sitting empty while awaiting a fire sale. However, except from the traditional squatters resorting to this expedient out of a lack of residence or due to political beliefs there is now a new version in town. Many up-and-coming artists perceive squatting as an idiosyncratic break in the competition for artistic luster. Not without a reason, given that squatting in a metropolis like London provides a unique opportunity for publicity and easily gained high-brow insignia. And even more so when the high-end property occupied is located in Mayfair or Belgravia…

In this case, house squats operate as hangouts, workshops and offbeat exhibition spaces for aspiring artists, offering them gratuitously what is not available in the posh Chelsea galleries; space, intercourse with their likes and quick publicity in no-strings-attached collectives. This is the case of the freewheeling Temporary School of Thought in Mayfair. The name couldn’t be more telling, as makeshift workshops including finger dancing and French book-binding were transferred from one Mayfair mansion to another last year. The masterminds of the project, the members of the self-styled ‘The Da! Collective’, were forced to move from their last squat due to a court order in January 2009, but their project is not finished yet according to their website. These posh revolutionaries used the Internet and in particular online social media as a means to communicate their cause and share their experience with fellow squatters and art buffs, and that seems to be a common practice in the squatting community.

Another version of the trend is the Oubliette group, a bunch of artists occupying several buildings in posh neighbourhoods who denounce the term ‘squatters’ as an ill-reputed euphemism. Their overtures to the legal owners of the buildings have brought squatting to another level, making it a possible module in the syllabus of art schools. The group claims that using a vacant space as a gallery is not a downgrading activity but on the contrary might even boost the property’s price and reputation. The Oubliette group even call their project an ‘arthouse’, a financially self-sufficient artistic hub giving space to young artists. And this might not be a futile argument, if we take into account the case of the Hannah Barry Gallery, hosted in a warehouse in Peckham, South London. What started as a modest squat grew up into a prestigious gallery, hosting exhibitions of many promising painters and sculptors; all that due to the tireless efforts of the enterprising Hannah Berry, an artist herself and currently a gallery owner.

Creating an art squat is not as difficult as it seems. All that it takes is an abandoned building, preferably owned by an obscure offshore company that probably has not the time or the money to monitor its property. The next step is to hang on the entrance a ‘Section 6’ notice of the Criminal Law Act 1977, asserting that you have legally occupied the place. The membership of the group is equally important. In contrast with political squats, the artistic ones tend to be quite elitist, with artists only accepted as members. What’s more, publicity for an art squat is not a means but an end, even if not an openly admitted one. Perhaps the day that a Celebrity Big Brother series will be shot in an art squat is not far away, and one can imagine contestants squabbling over nothing more trivial than the superiority of Picasso over Dali. However, media-savvy squatters might flourish for a while but publicity is a double-edged game, infuriating in some cases proprietors & landlords, as in the case of the Da! Collective. Publicity can also be the reason why such ventures sometimes prove to be short-lived utopias, mired in the exuberant egos of the participants.

The important point is that squatting is not an irrelevant issue to the artistic revolution; rather, the house squatting phenomenon has played a crucial part in making London a world art capital during the last few decades. Many prominent artists, such as the cross-dresser Grayson Perry, have risen from the ranks of squatters. Perhaps the future of this achievement will be determined by the way London treats its own artistic talents. Today, the economic crisis and the inflation of the ranks of art school graduates have made the art industry more frugal, and the path to glory seems to be taking a detour to the most unexpected places. So, if you are thrilled at the prospect of running into the next Jeff Koons or Damien Hirst, taking a look at the squat next door might not be a bad idea.

Article written by Alexandros Katsomitros.