meet the young artists fighting back against cuts in the north
With the rising cost of renting studio space in London driving artists and designers further afield, we contemplate the positive knock-on effects of building a creative scene outside the capital.
Until just over a fortnight ago, the story of Lancaster was, for all intents and purposes, the story of any other recession hit Northern town. A walk down its quiet high street told a familiar tale of boarded up shops and empty units: BHS, gone; Woolworths, long gone; HMV gone and replaced with a Morrisons Local (also gone, a hurriedly blue-tacked sign in the window reading "I assure you we're closed"). Even the local Ann Summers found itself plastered with 'EVERYTHING MUST GO' banners, bucking the idea that when the economy goes down the pan, unemployment goes up and people have more time to spend in the bedroom.
But following last month's EU referendum, Lancaster became a town divided. With a vote that saw 51.1% of its inhabitants in favour of leaving and 48.9% against, this small but historic North-West city was suddenly a microcosm for a country torn in two. In a difference of just 1,577 people, Lancaster became a symbol of a nation split down the middle and, in many ways, an acid test for its future.
Disclaimer: I was born in Lancaster. I lived in neighbouring seaside resort of Morecambe until my early 20s and, while I don't live there any more, I still followed news of spending cuts to this once wealthy manufacturing town - library and museum closures, bus service withdrawals, Lancashire County Council expected to find £200m worth of savings by 2020 - with the same mix of sadness and anger that fuelled much of the area's Vote Leave support.
As I arrive back in the city one week after the vote, the front page of Lancaster's Guardian reads 'What now for our city?' and its well liked Labour MP Cat Smith warns of far-reaching consequences to jobs and higher education. A group of teenagers going by the name of Youths For Europe are camped outside the city's Edwardian Town Hall handing out flyers in support of a second referendum, while their 15-year old spokesperson, a Bulgarian high school student named Stefan, describes being a victim of post-Brexit aggression, his family unsure whether or not to remain in the country.
Yet, amid the uncertainty, another more positive Lancaster story is emerging. Just around corner, on nearby King Street, there's talk of a creative rebirth, spearheaded by a group of local artists, all in their early 20s. And the resulting Supermarché - a recently opened shop-cum-studio-cum-hangout in a long-closed former autograph dealers - is quickly establishing itself as the centre of the burgeoning scene.
Founded by artists Ben Hall, Charlie Kondras and Josh Dring, Supermarché (so named for the poppy affordability of its products) came about when the abundance of cheap and empty commercial units in the city presented a golden opportunity for a trio in need of studio space.
"The shop idea went kind of hand in hand," explains Josh, who handles the clothing side of the collective's output, with Ben behind the shop's off-kilter pottery and Charlie the playful screenprints. "We were originally looking for studio space and then, because there was a shop, realised we could utilise it and make our work sustainable. Affordability was the main thing, because a lot of studio spaces are expensive."
We've written extensively about young artists being effectively priced out of London on i-D - finding more affordable lifestyles in Lisbon, Berlin and even Hastings - something the recently graduated artists know only too well: "The demand for space in London is too high for it be viable at all," describes Ben who, until last year, studied illustration at the University of Brighton. "Whereas here there are actual shop units that are just completely dead. And when you take a unit, that's when you actually realise how many empty shops there are, because you're looking for them."
The trio aren't the only ones who've cottoned on to the city's potential. "I stayed in London for a couple of months but quickly realised I wouldn't be able to be in the studio very often," says Louis Appleby, the 24-year old artist behind neighbouring Sound & Vision Gallery, which opened up next to Supermarché last month. For Louis, who studied painting at Wimbledon College of Arts, the choice was "between staying in London and struggling or coming back here." And with an empty unit lying unoccupied beneath his brother's eBay business, the opportunity to "attract other artists from London and try and make it a bit of a destination spot for Lancaster" was too good to turn down.
"I always wanted a scene growing up and it felt like Lancaster never really had one until now," he suggests. "They always say in times of desperation great things happen. I was just adding up all the people in my head. It's coming together quite nicely."
That night the local scene was out in full, Supermarché officially opening to a DJ set of Northern Soul and French yé-yé, as local artists and musicians - including members of the very good Kinds, Night Palms and Jarvis Cocker approved Lovely Eggs - spilled out onto the street in Brexit blues busting support. "In a big city it's hard to connect with people, whereas if you do something arty or are in a band here, everyone knows about it," says Charlie. "I've noticed a lot of young people moving back. Especially with the way the world is now, with people strangled by student debt. Here's an a lot more attractive place to do what you want to do."
And as well as benefitting the artists, for Ben, the knock-on advantages for a city full of empty spaces, some of which can be rented for as little as £300 a month, are obvious: "If some people have occupied a shop and they've got a studio, they're going to want to buy coffee somewhere. Or they're going to want to buy their lunch somewhere. So there's that snowball effect."
He continues: "We got this unit and the first thing we did is we painted the walls outside. And suddenly you noticed all the shops starting to take pride. They started cleaning their windows and repainting their stuff. These two empty units, from being a dead space on the street, have become this thing that you can walk past, that gives some sort of life to the area."
Sound & Vision and Supermarché are open now at 11 and 13 King Street, Lancaster.
Text Matthew Whitehouse
Photography Jarrad Connell