In Limbo: Artists and Gentrification

This piece was commissioned by and first published in Doggerland Journal, Issue #2, Fall 2016

Gustave_Doré_-_Dante_Alighieri_-_Inferno_-_Plate_11_(Canto_IV_-_Limbo,_the_Viruous_Pagans)

Artwashing Balfron Tower

In the last couple of years, a new term has entered the lexicon of the ever buzzword-hungry English speaking press on both sides of the Atlantic – “artwashing.” Sadly, it doesn’t refer to scrubbing a grubby sculpture with fairy liquid or forcing an overzealous durational performance artist to take a good shower. Instead, it’s shorthand for the idea that artists and artistic activities are being used by large property companies to add superficial integrity to what would otherwise be just another big, dirty, intensely profitable redevelopment project. Think “greenwashing”, but with art and artists rather than unplugged solar panels.

It seems a logical theory to subscribe to, and anti-gentrification protesters, from London to Los Angeles, have adopted it with angry enthusiasm. Many east Londoners are watching aghast as swathes of social housing are sold off to eventually be developed into flats for workers at nearby Canary Wharf. As former council tenants are also ‘decanted’ to other boroughs and even other counties, it seems the situation is perfectly epitomised by Bow Arts Trust and Poplar HARCA’s live/work scheme at Balfron Tower in Poplar. Started in 2008, the program’s aim was to rent otherwise empty properties as temporary live/work spaces to some of the capital’s growing population of artists.

At the time, these flats were being boarded up, causing remaining residents to feel isolated and insecure,…” Michael Cubey, head of creative workspaces for the Bow Arts Trust, told me. “Additionally these were often then squatted, then re-squatted, resulting in various anti social activity and crime on the estate, drug dealing etc.” The trust, he says, brought these uninhabitable flats up to a liveable standard, completing basic health and safety and security work, and leaving any cosmetic jobs and ongoing repairs up to the artists “…in return for an extremely affordable rent.”

In a climate of diminishing studio provision and increasingly unaffordable rental prices – both results of what many still perceive as an unstoppable takeover powered by the engine of neoliberalism – many artists have jumped at the chance to live in Erno Goldfinger’s Brutalist icon in the eight years since, even as it has fallen into increasing disrepair. The longest standing participants I spoke to were Paul Good and Kirsty Wood, who make large scale sculpture, installations and sound work. The artist duo and couple were originally supposed to be resident in Balfron for six months after moving from a space in another of the Bow/Poplar HARCA-run estates in 2010, but ended up staying for six years.

We couldn’t say no to it” Paul tells me. “We had a three bedroom flat with a massive front room, meaning we had a studio and two spare rooms, loads of space, so we can’t mock that really. We do a lot of casting so we were able to make a mess… The cheaper rent meant we could afford to buy music equipment to make our album, things like that we just couldn’t have done otherwise. So it’s very difficult for us to be anything but positive about it”.

It’s a sentiment Cubey, unsurprisingly, agrees with, as he vociferously defends the scheme against charges of gentrification: “There have been particular criticisms and accusations of ‘artwashing’ at Balfron Tower,” he says, “…but the fact that our involvement there over the past eight years has provided hundreds of artists with access to affordable housing, affordable workspace, opportunities and income, and has enabled us to invest hundreds of thousands of pounds into the local community can only be a good thing.” 22 23

All four of the former Balfron artists I interviewed were less than idealistic about the reality of living in a still less-than-salubrious area of the city, in a building badly in need of considerable maintenance and alongside tenants who were either being forced out of a longstanding home or who couldn’t wait to leave. Their general attitude towards the scheme, though, was of the ‘Bow Arts/Poplar HARCA are making the best of the shitshow that is the London property situation’ variety. The biggest issue for most was, unsurprisingly, one of conscience, as Kirsty Wood explains: “The huge downside is obviously that Balfron was meant to be social housing and it’s now going to be posh flats,” she tells me. “ You know, the history of the building is council, and it was built with that in mind – it was built for the community and now it’s been taken away from the community.”

The Complicit Artist

In the last two years especially, there’s been a veritable chorus of journalistic voices bemoaning the role Balfron and similar schemes have played in apparently ‘glossing over’ the depth of the wrongs being committed here, primarily by greedy developers and shortsighted council housing departments. The sheer amount of derisive, negative press, locally and nationally, has consolidated the well-trodden linearity of the gentrification narrative: working class areas are ‘discovered’ by artists and creatives in need of cheap space and shabby chi-chi-ness; the area is now seen as more desirable to those with less imagination and more money; property prices go up; boutiques and coffee shops move in; the original inhabitants are priced out.

The reality, of course, is considerably more nuanced and damaging in the long term. In those cities where the forces of gentrification have been the most bemoaned and widely discussed – London, New York and San Francisco – the phenomenon has now been around long enough that we can start to gauge its longer term impact. Though many of the original residents of gentrified areas have apparently been less displaced than you might expect, this is only one of the issue’s dimensions: its tentacles stretch far beyond just the residential, into psychological, conceptual and social territories.

The term ‘gentrification’ has gone far beyond the (now relatively small scale) wealthy redevelopers and blue-collar displacement of the Islington and Notting Hill of the 1960s, the areas that inspired Marxist sociologist Ruth Glass to coin the term. The mind-boggling prices of property that exclude even successful middle-incomers (including visual artists) in favour of the very wealthiest, and the replacement of long-standing local businesses with pricey alternatives are, as Rebecca Solnit said with reference to San Francisco: “…just the fin above the water…below is the rest of the shark.” In Solnit’s quasi-apocalyptic vision of the city of the near future, “…most of us will be poorer, a few will be far richer, and everything will be faster, more homogenous and more controlled or controllable.”

Of course, as a building so explicitly designed to house lower income residents that is now to be sold off in its entirety to those at the very top of the income chain, Balfron is an extreme, artificially accelerated example of this whole process – you might call it hyper-gentrification.

In many cases, the press has succeeded in casting artists and arts organisations as complicit, weak-willed artwashers, happy to betray architects such as Goldfinger’s socialist visions by providing cheap guardianship and cultural kudos for otherwise philistinic developers in one handy swoop. The end of this sorry tale involves what were originally intended as affordable family flats being sold for £700,000 or more to members of what you might call ‘regeneration X’, who work at the Wharf, see themselves as far too ‘out there’ for west London and just can’t get enough of its bang-on-trend Brutalist aesthetic.

Schemes like Balfron then, and its less formalised, older relations (most pointedly artists squatting residential buildings before this was outlawed in 2012, but also the artist takeovers of former industrial buildings in New York in the 1970s) are conveniently presented as key, guileful cogs in the gentrification machine. But there’s plenty of research that points to a more nuanced reading. While artistic activity is certainly involved, it’s actually neoliberal, capital forces, rather than cultural ones, which are providing the process with its real fuel.

Marxist social geographer Neil Smith, in his thorough reassessment of the gentrification cycle, The New Urban Frontier, tells us of the developers’ desire to ‘revalorise unproductive spaces’ by whatever means possible. According to Smith’s narrative, after an area’s original inhabitants have been squeezed out, it’s art and artists that have historically been the next unwitting victims to the bulldozers of capital and neoliberalism. He uses the Lower East Side of the 1980s as an example, describing how, after initially welcoming artists and galleries to the area during the era that saw the beginnings of the intense artistic commodification, landlords initiated a rash of extraordinary rent hikes at the time of the 1987 financial crash….

Left in the lurch by the real estate industry, many Lower East Side artists were also summarily dropped by a cultural elite that had found other dalliances – but not before the cultural industry as a whole had spearheaded a fundamental shift in the neighbourhood’s image and real estate market.1

By Smith’s logic, the forces of capital have successfully used art and artists to make an area more palatable to middle class incomers in areas like Poplar. But it’s also important to distinguish (as he does) the various types of activity that are often all mashed together in the traditional, ‘straightforward’ gentrification narrative so often propagated by journalists – there’s a considerable difference between profit-driven commercial galleries and small artist-run spaces, between artists who make a respectable income through their work and those finding it much more of a struggle (bearing in mind three quarters of UK artists receive 66 percent or less of the living wage from their practice).

Screenshot from www.themodernhouse.com/past-sales/balfron-tower

1. See Smith, Neil; The New Urban Frontier: Gentrification and the Revanchist City; Routledge; 1996; p 2024 25

On top of this, it’s been proven time and again that strategically shoehorning ‘creatives’ into a deprived area won’t magically transform it into a modern day Hackney or Lower East Side. Witness the awkwardly received, state-funded galleries, hugely expensive public art projects and ‘cultural quarters’ in cities from Leicester to Gateshead.

The Rise And Rise Of The Artistic Precariat

So where, you may ask, is the ‘ordinary’ practicing artist left in all this? Whether they’re part of a program like Balfron’s or chancing it on their own resources, there’s one idea that continues to ring true: to commit to making art in one of the ‘major centres’ of the art world in 2016 means tacitly agreeing to exist in a limbo. Precarity itself is built into many people’s rather romantic idea of the artist’s lifestyle, with a longing for permanency and stability still seen as at odds with the way a ‘real’ artist should want to operate. This sentiment is noted by arts writer Matt Bolton:

The artist, in effect, is the archetypal post-Fordist worker: never tied down for long, floating from one short-term project to the next, constantly thinking outside of the box, always on the lookout for new ideas, with no discernible split between “labour-time” and “leisure-time”; willing to carry the risk of a “creative” life on their own, rather than look to the state or a collective organisation for support.”2

The program at Balfron Tower, while providing an element of short-term stability, plays into this idea of the inherently peripatetic creative existence – the practitioners I spoke to had been resigned to a constant state of what they described as “not knowing” how long they could remain on the estate because of constant delays by developers for months, which turned into years [ed – see our endnote at the back of the journal on this matter]. This isn’t to claim that the scheme’s organisers placed artists in this position maliciously, just that it’s going along with a status quo that’s been in place for decades, even centuries, and has only been exacerbated by the extraordinary level of London property prices.

Ultimately, then, is this scheme really a pertinent example of genuine ‘artwashing’ at work? Though undoubtedly a valid term in some instances, the more you dig around into what’s really been implemented at Balfron over the last six years, the more you get the feeling that the program has been clumsily tarred with far too broad a brush. This is not an overpriced public art commission attempting to make a shoddily constructed noddy estate less nausea-inducing. Neither is it a multinational developer which, after spotting land that exemplifies Smith’s rent gap, capitalises on artistically-generated vibrancy for its own profitable ends and – directly or indirectly – pushes both original inhabitants and practitioners out. The Bow Arts Trust clearly has a genuine desire to help artists in an environment that is increasingly against them, making the best of a situation where capital wins the day and local authority tenants and artists alike feel the consequences.

What If…?

Artists shifting to the east end forty years ago moved for very different reasons to their predecessors. Whereas Barbara Hepworth, Ben Nicholson and the Bauhaus practitioners had moved to Hampstead to escape the filthy London air, and Soho was chosen by ‘misfit’ artists of the same era who wanted to participate in the area’s lurid rebellion, the east end of the ‘70s had much more practical appeal. It was cheap, it had huge industrial buildings after dock containerisation was introduced in the 1960s, and it was very sparsely populated.

Acme and Space studios, still two of the primary providers in the city, moved in – organisations established by artists to try to find ways of working with local authorities and private owners in the provision of live/work spaces. They set up the precursors to Bow Arts/Poplar HARCA’s initiatives, founding the first ‘short life’ schemes in collaboration with the GLC to set up live/work spaces in Devons Road E3 and Beck Road E8, for example. Then, as now, it was capital growth that interrupted any stability the locations could have provided – as property prices shot up in the ‘90s, so a now-recognisable pattern started to emerge: the benefits of these schemes for practicing artists had only as much longevity as the buildings available to them.

There are enough ‘if onlys’ in the history of London’s studio providers to make today’s artists weep. If many more of the oft-discussed (but never implemented) plans to use National Lottery money to invest in freehold studio space when there was a depressed period in the London property market in the mid-90s had come off….if they had acted on similar advice put forward in the 1999 Space conference on studio provision – a time when freehold purchasing by these organisations was still just about feasible. Most fist-bitingly of all, if Acme had managed to make good on the long-term strategy it proposed in 1976: “Permanent property,” they suggested, “…must be found and acquired as short-life property will not always be available.” They could hardly have known just how eerily and presciently accurate this idea was, and how much London artists would have thanked them for managing to see it through.

Helena Haimes, August 2016

2. See Matt Bolton’s Is Art To Blame For Gentrification; Opendemocracy.com; for The Guardian; 30 August 2013

Devons Road, the first properties to be managed by Acme Studios were 105 & 117 Devons Rd. Image c/o Acme Studios.

“These redundant and semi-derelict Victorian shops, licensed to Acme in 1973 by the Greater London Council (for 21 months), marked the beginnings of an organisation which would become the largest provider of working and living space for artists in the United Kingdom. As part of the licence artists were required to carry out extensive repairs in exchange for very low rents (£3 per week) and agreement to hand properties back when required for demolition.” <http://archivesoftheartistled.org/projects/acme-studios-devons-road>26 27

Leave a Reply