1 September 2014 was supposed to have been terminal exodus date. Yet, despite its exhortation, the ‘LET'S ALL MOVE OUT OF LONDON TOGETHER’ Facebook page, created by London-based artist Sara Nunes Fernandes, didn’t have the desired effect. ‘Now that London has been nuked by gentrification,’ the ‘About’ column reads, ‘foreign investment and criminal and corrupted councils, let’s all move together somewhere else! If we all move together, we can mimic the community support we give each other in London. We can make our own art spaces and add to the local art audience AND we’ll still have £££ to spare to come to London whenever we want because we will be awarded regional funding and [will only] be paying a quarter of the rents we’re paying now. All we need [to do] is to pick a place!’
But on the day I was reminded to leave London, it didn’t suit me to go. Nor, it seems, did it appeal to those I subsequently encountered along the city’s Hackney–Peckham contemporary art axis – an area serviced by the overground train line that unites the formerly industrial east London with the primarily residential south. One person made the move: a post with a Google pin dropped (arguably ten years too late) on Berlin’s Kreuzberg district, read: ‘Done!’ Glasgow was floated as an option – a post-industrial El Dorado with its towering ceilings, low rents and abundant funding. No one went to Coventry.
A retreat from the capital poses as many problems as it promises solutions. Where is this frontier land waiting to be discovered? If, as sociologist Sharon Zukin’s classic study Loft Living (1982) proposes, artists are pioneers of gentrification, wouldn’t a critical mass of artists blight wherever that frontier might be? In any case, despite increasingly hostile conditions, the question for many young visual artists – not to mention writers, curators, musicians and dancers – has become: Why do we stay in London?
It never occurred to me to move to London after graduating from Nottingham Trent School of Art and Design in 2007. My greatest revelation came not from the mandatory seminars about professional practice in the art world that I attended, but from an older artist who introduced me to ‘dole autonomy’, advising that if I really must get a job it shouldn’t occupy more than two days a week so as not to interfere with a regimen of reading, writing, listening, making, drinking and socializing. Nottingham never lacked affordable housing and friends who’d migrated south were paying quadruple the rent I was, for mouldy flats that rumbled with each passing double-decker bus.
My own misreadings of Raymond Williams’s later writings on devolution, some situationist pamphlets and a vague knowledge of Littoral and Grizedale Arts, both rural arts organizations in the north of England, fostered in me a high-minded, anti-centrist reaction to London, alongside a naive belief in regional art’s autonomy from fashion and the market. More concretely, living outside of London afforded me two valuable commodities: space and time. Like the Midland Group before it, Stand Assembly, a studio-gallery space formed by Nottingham Trent fine art graduates in 2004, was self-organized, demonstrating possibilities for my peer group and a subsequent generation of graduates. (Its legacy continues in the city with One Thoresby Street and Primary, as well as the commercial galleries tg and Syson.) Later, in 2010 – in the very month when former Labour Treasury Chief Liam Byrne left a note on his successor’s desk reading: ‘I’m afraid there is no money.’ – I started working in an administrative post for Norfolk County Council Social Services and joined the steering committee of OUTPOST gallery in Norwich. At that time, in addition to a sometimes gruelling monthly exhibition programme, under Elinor Morgan as chair, a vast, affordable studio block was being established in a former county records office.
First published in Issue 175