Over the past nine years Auto Italia has grown into one of London’s most loved spaces for young artists. As they start a fundraiser and move into a new space, we spoke to gallery and their origins, their ideals and their direction.
Hailweed, exhibition detail (Syria Mobile Film Festival - still from “One Precious Thing” by Ayaz Ismail), Auto Italia, 2016.
Since its founding in 2007, in a squatted garage (hence the name) Auto Italia has developed into one of London's most treasured platforms for young artists. In a city with scarce public funding, and where market dynamics taint every aspect of creativity, the project space and organisation currently based in London's East End is a welcomed oasis of artistic experimentation and community-oriented art.
Collaborating with emerging artists, writers and filmmakers, it functions as an open-ended commissioning platform for the creation of new work, exhibitions and research. Metahaven, Hannah Black, Kerstin Stakemeier, Eddie Peake, Lucky PDF, Rachel Pimm and Francis Frederick form just a fraction of the artists and artist groups who have worked in and around Auto Italia over the past nine years, often in collective formats and ways that blur or diminish the importance of individual authorship.
Auto Italia seeks to revisit to the notion of community-based practice, examine what it means to self-organise, and the politics of collaboration. With the digital condition as a thematic backdrop, the organisation seems to ask what it means to make, live and work in our current socio-economic reality - and how we might propose an alternative. This comes to fruitition in their most recent exhibition Hailweed, the first in their new space in Cambridge Heath in East London, in the former premises of Acme Project Space. Inspired by parasitical vegetation, the group show acts as host body for external individuals and institutions - including Berlin-based Research Center for Proxy Politics (growing out of artist Hito Steyerl's classes at the UDK) and the Syria Mobile Film Festival - to explore how one project might benefit and 'use' the other for its advantage. We sit down with the institution-in-the-making to discuss the many metamorphoses of Auto Italia - mirroring, in a way, the drastic change of creative London in the past decade.
How did Auto Italia start?
Auto Italia started as most artist-led projects do, as a group of graduates who wanted to build an autonomous space to make, show and produce work. In many ways it was an investigation into what was possible as a group, beyond what is possible alone. How do you self-organise and what are the politics when you actually do this? We didn't have a fixed agenda but instead access to a building: a place where we could meet and show each other's work.
From the beginning there was a desire to understand what it meant to have space - none of us could afford studios and didn't know what we would use one for, the internet meant you could make, produce and share work from a laptop. The original founding members and key artists who have run the project over the years were always interested in how collaborative forms could take shape within new communities in London and exploring labour, gender and the role of performance within these spaces.
When the project started nobody cared about the art market or how institutions functioned, instead we were just excited to invite friends and artists we really admired - and to some extent this is still at the core of what we do. We wanted to dream up wild projects with other artists and activists - inviting people who we felt were important to learn from. We all had other jobs and were exploring what the physical space meant and what radical position we could embody through occupying it. The landscape of what we might call the art-world has changed so much since then - at the time, the art market wasn't as dominating as it is now - and Auto Italia at this point feels both completely complicit but still slightly outside it.
Which shapes have the project taken through the years?
The project has had many guises, however there has been some consistent ideas that we keep returning to; the rise of how we produce work online, what does autonomous space mean, the current precarious conditions we live and work in, the role of gender and how these all play out within various institutional frameworks. At the core of our project has been a certain flexibility in how we use and present Auto Italia as an artist, an organisation, a collaboration, a community or a space. Within these different modes of operating there is also a degree of resistance; we can create space to work in different and even contradictory ways which is fun and hugely rewarding.
In many ways we see the project as an artistic studio where we produce projects as a group but also oversee a programme. We are interested in this dual role and what can artists do, or what are we given (perceived) permission to do. We were always really interested in the history of artist-led initiatives - especially in places like London with BANK, or New York where you could trace a lineage of projects such as Group Material, Art Club 2000 and Bernadette Corporation. There has always been this draw to how artists work together in precarious and difficult cities, creating new scenes as a way to assert independence and autonomy. We have always looked to work with groups of artists or activists such as Metahaven, DSG or more recently with South African collectives, CUSS and NTU.
Through the project early on we became increasingly fascinated by collaborative work and the exhibition mutated into all-consuming projects. The space of the gallery was always so performative to us, and we were was really interested in how this fed into online communities and how our friends were performing online. From very early on projects with artists such as Katie Guggenheim, Olivier Castel, Justin Jaeckle, we were re-thinking what an exhibition format could do and reaching out to other groups of artists we saw collaborating such as Eddie Peake, Claire Hooper and Paul Simon Richards.
Looking ahead we are happy to have a new space and looking forward to an upcoming presentation and collaboration with Metahaven in the Autumn. We are excited to present them within the current landscape; showing what is possible and how approaches to artistic practice and research can be shaped.
Autonomous exhibition spaces are really needed today — especially in London's increasingly scarcely funded cultural landscape. How have you felt London change in the past years, and how has that informed your work?
In many ways, the project was a renegotiation of our relationship to space; as artists and young people living in London through a certain moment. Working out not having a fixed job, constantly moving flats, squatting, generally feeling precarious and a certain amount of antagonism towards this. Since Auto Italia started we have seen squatting become more impossible, we have seen higher education dismantled, and the political landscape has changed beyond recognition. The art community has seen a contraction in project spaces as the value of property in the capital has skyrocketed along with accelerated gentrification.
After the general election last year, Mark Fisher wrote a piece on his Kpunk blog about things that we can actively do. He wrote about creating social spaces and highlighted art spaces' role in this as places of exchange and dialogue. One thing we have talked a lot about is who gets access to these social spaces how are the opened up. As it becomes harder and harder for artists to survive in this city, we are seeing less opportunities for claiming space and accessing these integral support systems and communities within the city.
We are always asking what are the conditions to make art now and are they sufficient for what we want. Through some of the practicalities of running a space and organisation you are producing and negotiating a politics every day; one that we are interested in confronting face on. From finding funding for a project or trying desperately to make sure all the artists we work with are paid a fee - everything becomes an act that is negotiated along with our ethics but also as a wider policy position for Auto Italia as a project. The project has always been a real commitment to making an autonomous space in a city and seeking ways to be independent and still function; sharing ideas through events and exhibitions and creating space for meeting up face to face.
Are there some recurring themes that you continue to return to?
Our work is often concerned with labour models, alternative modes of production, grass-roots and collective working and organising as offering new spaces and gender politics. As the ways in which we explore these ideas through projects shift, it still feels important to return to these themes and approach them from different positions, using different tools, methodologies and collaborating with different artists.
The project has grown with us and the shifting groups of artists who have been involved over the years. The performance of gender and its construction has been something that we engaged with in projects early on including Bodies Assembling with Cinenova and former Auto Italia director Richard John Jones' Proh-soh'pa-peer. We have explored alternative communities radical moments, and interrogations of labour; looking at movements like Italian Autonomia and the shifting priorities of the creative producer now working and living online in projects including We Have Our Own Concept Of Time And Motion, and Immaterial Labour Isn't Working, which we produced in close collaboration with Huw Lemmey.
We often find that projects develop out of each other over long periods of time. Proh-soh'pa-peer, for example, really fed into Auto Italia Live, which was a live streamed internet TV project. With episodes filmed live in front of a studio audience and artists collaborating on each episode. Over the past few years, projects such as Meet Z, My Skin Is At War With A World Of Data and On Coping have seen us working really collaboratively as an expanded group; trying to makes sense of the way we work and produce online.
What was the starting point of this current exhibition?
In many ways, Hailweed sets the tone for our 2016 programme - exploring alternative infrastructures for production, distribution and collaboration. We spent a lot of time thinking what it meant to be opening a new space in London at this moment in time, and for that space to be artist-led. We wanted to think through how we can be generous with the space, an asset that is so scarce, and to give a platform to new voices. Hailweed also gave us opportunity to think through notions of parasite and host; thinking how Auto Italia might occupy both those positions in different ways and what that means in terms of creating space for new work and ideas.
The artists and groups involved in this project - Aimar Ariola, Research Center for Proxy Politics, Syria Mobile Film Festival and Suzanne Treister - are all approaching ideas of alternative circulation and provocations for new systems to challenge inherited notions around production and labour. The range of works and ideas that have been brought together within Hailweed feel really important in this moment; with Ariola's Keratin Manifesto a call to arms to throw aside inherited divisions between human, plant and animal; RCPP exposing hidden structures of sovereignty at work within the City of London Corporation; SMFF presenting a new alternative for image production and distribution for Syrian voices; and Treister looking to sprawling networks and fictional narratives to uncover the hallucinogenic potential of trading markets. Bringing these voices together felt exciting and important at this moment in time, and using Hailweed as a way of creating a provocation or conversation around these ideas was something we were particularly interested in.
To ensure its continued existence, Auto Italia is currently organising a fundraising auction in partnership with Paddle8. The auction includes work from 29 artists including Eddie Peake, Ed Fornieles, Artie Vierkant, Hito Steyerl, Cecile B. Evans, and Jeremy Deller. The auction can be found at paddle8.com/auction/auto-italia and runs until August 3rd.
Text Jeppe Ugelvig
Photography Theo Cook