the ​south london art scene: 2005-2015

From its beginning in underground squats 10 years ago to the rapid gentrification of the last few years, we chart the rise of the artists, galleries, and collectives who make up London's most distinct and creative scene.

by Felix Petty
10 November 2015, 1:26am

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With all its outsider spirit, South London's art scene has usually bubbled under the commercial radar. Occasionally it has bubbled over, but often it has been content to be ignored.

From Elephant & Castle, through Camberwell, Peckham, the Old Kent Road, Bermondsey, down to New Cross and Deptford; south of the river was the scruffy down at heel brother to the champagne world of the West End and the lager-and-lads YBA-saturated East End. It was haven of squats and studios and project spaces and all-weekend-long parties; it was cool, ephemeral, temporary, finding niches in the old buildings and the warehouses of broke down industrial estates. Spaces sprung up and disappeared just as quickly. Artists too, they came out of the art colleges of Camberwell and Goldsmiths and moved north, across the river, to East London, as they got a taste of success.

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South of the river was cheap to live in and weird to be in, but its singularity, its uniqueness, like many of London's boroughs, has been eroded in the course of the last few years by the rapid pace of gentrification.

Things have changed so much, so quickly: even five years ago Peckham didn't have a rail link. East London was at least an hour away by bus, more at night or during rush hour, and pre-Uber, well, good luck getting a taxi. Good luck too, getting any of your mates from Stoke Newington and Dalston to come to a party here. This seclusion led to a sort of enforced insularity, which alongside its ephemerality, forged its character.

South London though, as ignored as it has sometimes been, has a long history of being at the forefront of the changing artistic styles and scenes; home to two of the city's best art colleges, in Goldsmiths and Camberwell, it's a conveyor belt that's produced artists, and in Goldsmiths' case, musicians, comedians, MPs and everything in between. It survived and flourished because even though it was overlooked, its history is tied up with the art colleges and the constant wave of new ideas, students, faces, sounds and styles that came out of them.

Samara Scott, The Sunday Painter, Frieze London 2015

At this year's Frieze London, two young South London galleries, Arcadia Missa and The Sunday Painter, exhibited for the first time. Not only that, they were two of the best booths in the fair, both picking up gushing praise from art critics, The Guardian, and in i-D, too. This was preceded in August by Vogue calling out Peckham as "London's cultural epicentre", in a large feature. It felt a bit like the final culmination of ten years worth of cultural activity in New Cross, Camberwell and Peckham. That picked up from the death of the YBAs and drove a new vision of the area and art scene from the underground to the verge of the mainstream.

This cultural epicentre can roughly be traced back to four squats that dotted the landscape between about 2005 and 2012, which were killed off one by one by gentrification and regeneration. Firstly, Area 10, a massive old timber warehouse that was located just behind the award-winning monolith of regeneration that is the Peckham Library. Tragically it was closed down by Southwark Council, demolished, and never replaced with anything. There's still just a massive gaping hole there now. Founded in 2002, Area 10 was nominally a performance art venue, but it was also a massive club and gig space, as well as simply a place to hang out. US President George Bush's daughter once came to a party there, flanked by menacing CIA goons. Its programme, though hardly revolutionary, was necessary, and provided a home to all those strange art practices that slip through the gaps, out of choice or ignorance, of the commercial art world.

Then there was Squallyoaks. Not an art space, or a gallery, but still the weird heart at the heart of the whole weird scene, a moveable feast of ketamine and hair dye that defined the style and sound and attitude of the time, and was home for a time to Matthew Stone, Is Tropical, Shitdisco, Dominic Jones, Karley Sciortino, and The Fat White Family. It moved around too, there was a basement flat off the main road in Camberwell, a massive old plumbing factory and then an old council building in Elephant and Castle.

Squallyoaks was a sort of spiritual heir to the !WOWOW! squat of a few years earlier, which was based out of an old Co-op in Peckham and was home to Gareth Pugh, Hanna Hanra, Matthew Stone, and painter James Balmforth. James Balmforth was instrumental in setting up another squatted space on Lyndhurst Way in Peckham, which in 2007 was home to the first Bold Tendencies exhibition, which later grew into the Bold Tendencies / Frank's on top of the Peckham Multi-Storey Car Park, and into Hannah Barry Gallery itself.

Somewhere in the alchemy of those four squats, between the parties and exhibitions, the South East London art scene of the 21st century was born. For all Goldsmiths' and the area's associations with the YBAs, the scene shared almost nothing in common with them stylistically beyond finding form in easy access to big empty buildings to show in. It wasn't obsessed with money, celebrity, the ready-made, shock tactics, or entrepreneurialism as an art practice.

So as the shock of the new became the boredom of the old around the time of Damien Hirst's diamond encrusted skull in 2007, this new generation seemed primed to take over. As the YBAs ran out of ideas this was where the new ones were coming from. They were more interested in patience, form, new technology, multi-disciplinary activities, the areas where art overlaps with music, theory, fashion, literature, and the networks that form in their wake. They were creating their own infrastructure, almost exclusively apart from the market, hosting rag-tag pop-up exhibitions in the backrooms of pubs, shopping centres, club nights, any and every unused building they could find. There was The Bun House pub (now a bookies) on Peckham High Street, which hosted weird, terrible, and funny group shows by students. The Woodmill (now luxury flats), in an old NHS building in Bermondsey, which was, for 18 months, a massive exhibition space, live-work studios, and sometimes a club, too. There was a small space in the Elephant & Castle shopping centre that featured a gallery for two weeks. Or Rye Lane Studios, which housed artists and a gallery space last year, and which is now being turned into flats.

This generation of artists just existing on and around the boundaries of the commercial art world; who were more likely to work with big non-profit institutions than succumb to the rich art collectors like Charles Saatchi, more likely to reject art as business practice or a get rich quick scheme; nothing was really for sale, few collectors came, it was defined by a collective mentality, it was for us, by us. Everyone was in an art collective too, a conscious rebellion of the Thatcherite-Blairite-YBA axis cult of personality that this generation were born into and grew up under.

Hannah Black, Arcadia Missa

The galleries that did go commercial generally started as not-for-profit artist-run or project spaces, they birthed physical networks that were soon enabled and expanded by the rapid of rise of the internet, its insularity turned global, connected between similar art scenes in LA, New York, and Berlin. It wasn't a scene united by a style; it took in Lucky PDF's hyper-networked curation, Hannah Perry's subcultural sculptural nostalgia, Jesse Wine's ceramic sculpture, Arcadia Missa's radical intersectionality, The Sunday Painter's inquisitive formal boundary pushing. The blind chaos of the ephemeral living of squat life or of running projects in spaces that could be gone tomorrow turned the aesthetic away from homogeneity.

Around the time this was happening the old East London Line reopened as part of the new Overground Network. South East London was suddenly reconnected to the rest of the city. Bold Tendencies and Frank's started to become a fixture on London's social calendar. For years resolutely ignored, the area was slowly becoming a thing. It didn't help that, if not in the country at large, at least the city, was beginning to worm its way out of the financial crisis. We all know the narrative of gentrification, but it's still shocking to see how quickly an area transforms itself; first the warehouses and squats go, then the bad pubs, then the cheap rents, and then the nice pubs open, and the cool bars, and expensive restaurants, and on and on and on. It wouldn't be a problem if it didn't push out, not just artists, but communities, key workers, families, the poor. It's easy to blame artists, but they are a symptom of, not a cause, of the process of gentrification and regeneration. They after all, don't control the housing stock or set the rents, or cut benefits.

The same year the East London Line reopened, the newly elected Conservative Government put new anti-squatting laws in place. It was a blow upon a bruise for the scene. It was followed by cuts to Arts Council funding that supported a lot of these spaces. The weirder ones closed down and the others turned commercial out of necessity. The art scene stills thrives, but you'll be hard pressed to find many young artists still working and living in Peckham; artists studios are almost non-existent, and The Sunday Painter, Arcadia Missa and Hannah Barry Gallery the only remnants of the old world left standing, as gentrification pushes people further out, and redevelops the warehouse spaces that once housed artists into luxury flats.

In a rather depressing, if ironic, twist of fate, Hannah Barry Gallery's and Second Home's proposal to turn the multi-storey car park into a permanent art space, with 800 artist studios, has been shot down by the council, who have instead decided to sell the property to a Mayfair-based property developer. Vogue might've called it London's new cultural epicentre, but it's hard to think how it can maintain it for much longer. 


Text Felix Petty
Main image courtesy of The Moving Museum and Joe Walsh

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