East London's Hackney Wick is responsible for the development and output of so much art: housing artists from the Chapman Brothers to Gavin Turk, Conrad Shawcross to iconic fashion designer Pam Hogg, as well as endless people running small businesses, galleries, and studios. The once abandoned warehouses of Vittoria Wharf in Hackney Wick—previously an old tyre factory, car storage units, and the site of the invention of toilet paper—is now home to Europe's largest active artistic community, proffering live-work spaces for over 100 artists surviving on cheap rent, communal living and their creative output alone.
But since the arrival of the Olympic Park back in 2012, the areas surrounding it have been fighting London's seemingly inevitable bulldozers of gentrification and development. And just two weeks ago the residents of Vittoria Wharf received notice of their eviction, to be followed by the eventual demolition of their warehouse complex, to complete plans for a footbridge over the canal, promised by the London Legacy Development Corporation (LLDC). "But we are a community, and we don't know who in the community wants this footbridge," visual artist and resident Conrad Armstrong told i-D.
"We've had consultation with the LLDC, and asked them where the community who want the footbridge can be found, which was met with no real response. But this way of life that we have in these warehouses is something which is fast becoming very rare in London, and it's something that's given everyone that's been here in Vittoria Wharf the time and space to develop as artists," Conrad, who has been evicted from four previous live-work studios all lost to new developments, continues.
As a riposte to the news of re-development, emergency meetings and open forums for the residents of the complex were held, from which the group have begun their #savevittoriawharf #savehackneywick campaign: the point of which is to demonstrate the strong, effective, hard-working community already in existence in the area, a community on the brink of removal.
"When we first sat down and started to conceive of resisting this imminent development, there was a tiny glimmer of hope in the corner of our minds that maybe we could stay here and maintain this artistic community; but really our main aim was that we just have to do something," musician and resident Henry Gibbs added. "We can't be apathetic any longer, we couldn't let Hackney Wick go without a whimper. Since the news we have organised ourselves, and we have uncovered quite a few possibilities for staying here."
Under Sadiq Khan's new 'London Is Open' campaign, the group are hopeful. A series of actions are planned between now and their eviction date of September 5th to demonstrate the collaboration and cohesion between the members of the wharf. 'Wickstock'—their first event—is happening this weekend. "Wickstock is about voicing our opinion and being vocal as artists on our own land," musician and organiser Candice Holmes told i-D. "We had the idea of putting on a festival of all of the artists that use, and benefit from these spaces. The essence of which is to celebrate the artists here. The news [of the eviction] is a catalyst: we are galvanising on this energy and this fear—with Wickstock and other forms of mobilisation—and trying to create a blueprint for winning these kind of fights and showing other artistic communities that maybe they can win too."
The LLDC's aim is to enable communities surrounding the Olympic Park to thrive after the Olympic Games ended almost four years ago. The group are hoping to appeal to the company's better nature in demonstrating just how many hours of artistic work have gone into making Hackney Wick a centre for cultural and artistic output, giving it its global reputation.
The rhetoric of a lot of London's anti-gentrification campaigns comes down to 'retaining cultures' and 'reputable, iconic areas'. But these warehouses are the home to so many people who couldn't survive in London otherwise, people who have existed in these studios for over a decade. "I think the thing that keeps the fire going is the emotional connection attached to the different pockets of friends I have in this area, and knowing that the core thread of the things that they are experiencing through this displacement is psychological trauma," Candice adds. "It's a lot to do with identity for those who have lived here for ten years: this is their way of life, at a human level, and we must remember that. This is a very valid fight, not just for artists but for people."
The need for a footbridge, in place of the community in Vittoria Wharf and their potential contribution to culture both inside and outside the Wick, remains to be seen. In deleting the community which exists in these artistic spaces we lose what makes London, and specifically Hackney, attractive as a site for gentrification.
"Essentially it's about how much work goes in by artists to create work, and how easy it is for people to step in and use others' work for their own gain, which includes developers moving in on a 'trendy' part of town. And how many years this area has been an important contribution to our society, and people want to come in, use that and make a bundle off it and then delete it," Henry continues. "They are cashing in on years and years of hard work, and the unquantifiable hours that have gone into it."
What is happening in Hackney Wick is no new occurrence. The cycle of gentrification capitalises upon, then swiftly erases, already thriving cultures in replacement for homogeneity. But this group of artists are resolute in their fight to save their community. In a post-Brexit Britain, with so much instability in our futures, perhaps there's more liberty for young artists like the residents of Vittoria Wharf to organise and reimagine a future that is defined by their own rules, or perhaps there's just nothing more left to lose. #savevittoriawharf.
Text Tom Rasmussen
Photography Thurstan Redding