PRINT December 2007

Ryan Gander

The thing about contemporary art is that nothing can exist in isolation. —Liam Gillick

IN LONDON, we have never had the equivalent of an arte povera or a New York School or even a Leipzig School. All we have ever really had is that phenomenon of fifteen years ago. Don’t get me wrong: However stupid the name, there were a lot of good things to come out of Britart. But because of its sheer scale and its maddening symbiosis with the media, it has become a phantom limb of my generation of British artists. It’s a bit like being a teenager embarrassed to be seen with your parents in public: Your objectives are to distance yourself from them as much as physically possible and to convince yourself and those around you that you are in fact independent, traveling alone. A common coping mechanism is amnesia: Brit what? Damien who? This forgetfulness seems especially prevalent among recent graduates of colleges like Goldsmiths, where what should now probably be called the Old British Art phenomenon took shape. (Luckily for me, I wasn’t accepted to Goldsmiths.) Maybe in the future there will be a reappraisal of those years, but for now, such an undertaking would be difficult indeed. Artists fear repeating history: Too much social cohesion and we might find ourselves playing the piano in the Groucho with the ghosts of the 1990s. I think this may be one reason the London art world is so atomized now.

But whatever you attribute it to, this atomization is undeniable. There are small circles or sets of artists associated through happenstance (they’re represented by the same gallery or they attended the same art school), and many people do refer to these circles as “scenes,” but “cliques” would be more accurate. The members of these groups rarely share a common goal or understanding of aesthetics even among themselves. And accompanying this lack of broad community is a lack of shared discourse. I am not suggesting that artists in a scene should have homogeneous practices, but that, at the very least, there should be a group understanding of a trajectory. One thing that follows from the lack of shared discourse is the lack of competition—and this is a problem. One artist I know who used to practice in Glasgow and now lives in London said to me that the main benefit of belonging to a scene is that it prompts one to compete—not for public acclaim or success, but to make a work that will put the fear into the artist sitting next to you in the pub. He’s right.

Wherever I go I continually find myself conversing with strangers about an imagined perfect place to practice, where artists would converse with one another after a day’s honest labor, united by a common set of ideological beliefs and a love of real ale. Of course, there is a lot of romanticism in such a vision; and after a while you find that all artists complain about the absence of this romantic ideal of a community, no matter where they live, with the possible exceptions of Glasgow and Berlin. These two cities are outposts of a sort—the last places with very coherent art scenes. It is worth noting that both are cities with really good art schools but without hordes of collectors (although in Berlin, the hordes may be massing at the gates). There are galleries in Glasgow and Berlin, of course, but the majority do most of their business at art fairs in other cities, leaving a space at home that is filled not with commercial activity but with an ongoing discourse among practitioners.

The contrast to the city in which I am practicing is stark. London’s art world is a voluptuous, shiny, well-oiled machine that appears to flourish endlessly, and it is one that other cities rightly envy, because it is a phenomenal place to exhibit and to see art. In this respect, at least, it’s growing more “phenomenal” by the day. The litany is familiar in these boom years. New commercial galleries are opening every week, and existing galleries are expanding, some extravagantly. Collectors are underwriting their own venues: Project 176, for instance, housed in a converted church in Chalk Farm, will show three exhibitions a year from the collection of Poju and Anita Zabludowicz, whose Zabludowicz Art Trust funds the operation.

But London is no longer a great place to make art. The growth of the city as an art machine has been followed by a dispersal of the notion of community and a decline in a shared understanding of common trajectories. London has simply become too expansive to foster the intimacy that exists in Glasgow and Berlin. Small, quirky commercial spaces are increasingly rare. I can think of only two that have opened in the last year or so: The Reliance in Shoreditch, directed by Emma Robertson, a sister space to Jake Miller’s gallery The Approach; and Ancient and Modern in Clerkenwell, launched and directed by curators Bruce Haines and Rob Tufnell. There has been a promising curatorial weightiness to both their programs. And they also seem to be as concerned about the artist as about the work: Their interest is in an entire practice or methodology, as opposed to a finite aspect of a given artist’s production.

But these are anomalies. And more troubling than the increasing homogeneity of the commercial-gallery scene is the fact that artist-run spaces in London seem to be on the wane. With the exception of Between Bridges, a humble venue Wolfgang Tillmans opened in the entrance hall to his studio, we haven’t been seeing these types of initiatives springing up—at least, not at the rate they once did. This is especially true in East London, which is the place where most of this city’s significant developments in art have occurred in the last decade. (West London is the place where these developments are shown after the fact. It may sound harsh, but experience bears it out.) A lot of the East End’s vitality stems from the fact that the area used to be a perfect habitat for artist-run ventures. In the ’90s it seemed that artist-run spaces outnumbered commercial galleries there—take, as just one example, the legendary City Racing, which, for the decade it was in operation, was a hub where professional artists could assemble. Now, as rents rise, the proportions have reversed. The majority of Hackney Wick, one of the last ungentrified industrial zones in East London, will soon be flattened to accommodate a massive redevelopment in anticipation of the 2012 Olympics. And space in warehouses, the traditional incubators of artists’ initiatives, is more lucratively rented to apartment-hunters driven east by London’s residential sprawl.

So, what to do? Well, answering that question does seem to call for a little romantic kamikaze optimism. I have recently been toying with the idea that some sort of artists’ union could work quite well here in London. I imagine something not so different from a conventional workers’ union, but without the donkey-jacket-and-hardhat dress code. The best analogy, actually, would probably be to an old-fashioned artists’ guild. I haven’t gotten this going yet, but maybe someone else will. A year ago, though, I did open a gallery in a similar spirit. Associates, as it was called, was a one-year nonprofit experiment housed in a small storefront on Hoxton Street. The intention was to put on twelve solo shows in twelve months for twelve artists who had not previously exhibited their work in London. The gallery was financed partly by myself and partly by a group of patrons who were sympathetic to the basic principles behind the undertaking. It was a simple idea and a small gesture that I thought London needed, but at the same time it was somehow nicely lost in the expanse of the city. It was less about curating art than about creating a space where things could happen regardless of institutions and about collating artists whose work was not necessarily of the same ilk but who as practitioners had similar overall concerns and motivations. Namely, what these artists shared was that they asked more effort and investment from the spectator—rather than serving up a complete concept vacuum-wrapped. One of the goals was to find out whether a common discourse would naturally arise from those conditions, and in many ways it did—delightfully, in an unanticipated direction. The significant thing about initiating a true conversation is that it’s impossible to predict where it will pilot you. The gallery demonstrated and satisfied my desire to meet artists who are interested in working on a legacy of ideals—that is, in attempting to create a memory of being part of something greater, by which I mean, greater than our individual practices, greater than the galleries we work with, greater than the art schools we attended, greater than the massive institution whose shadow we are all constantly evading. I don’t know what the name of this greater thing, this ideal art scene, would be, but I know many of its characteristics. In addition, I know that it would be controlled from the ground up—not by the institutions but by the artists.

Ryan Gander is an artist based in London.