I ❤️ London
People in the arts are quick to say things like, ‘London isn’t the centre of the world!!’ It’s something I understand, but cannot relate to. London is the centre of my world. There are things going on outside of London, around the UK, other cities exist too, I’m sure. But I cant help it! I am London born, London bred, one day I’ll be London dead. If you ask me, London is the best city in the world. I love London.
Love can be difficult though. The things we love aren’t always perfect. Sometimes we love things through their faults, or despite them, sometimes their faults complicate the love we feel. I’m well aware that London has many many faults.
Space is a precious commodity. Housing Crisis! can often feel like a neat explanation for many loose ends, but this fans out into so many other different problems. Space is expensive, scarce, precarious. London can feel incredibly and aimlessly difficult when you don’t have an endless supply of money (via a magic money tree, the bank of mum & dad, mysterious independent wealth) to bankroll it. So the precarity stays, becomes mundane. DIY arts activity becomes rare and small, esoteric. People can’t really afford to take risks, because risk might mean financial risk. Cool projects pop up all the time, when people dare to try. They just never feel permanent, and things close as quickly as they open. So if you want to stick about, there’s an urge to make it profitable (or useful), which comes with its own surprises. But you’ve got to make money if you want to be sustainable in this expensive city. And if you can’t make money, if that’s not appropriate for the work you’re trying to do, then you may be fucked in a new and exciting way. It can literally be a LITERAL full time job trying to navigate funding, public or private, national or local, trying to scrape together enough to make a full budget for what you want to do. Most arts activity, outside the big institutions, is funded on a project by project basis. In London, that means a special new level of fear, when you don’t know where the money’s going to come from next month (or the month after that). All of that leads to a soupy mess of a scene full of tired, burnt out people who don’t have the energy to be friendly or make meaningful connections.
It’s all easy come and easy go. You can make it work for a couple of months if you beg borrow and steal space, resources, people’s time and effort. Try doing it unpaid as a passion project for a bit, to see if there’s a gap in the arts landscape for it. You can’t say no, you have no choice. The Arts Council won’t fund you if you don’t have experience, there’s an unspoken expectation of unpaid labour. I don’t know how you’re going to pay your rent during those unpaid months. Get a part time day job, maybe 2, pray that zero hours just means fun and flexible, and not a Victorian nightmare. Maybe move back in with your parents, do what I did and live with your Mum until you’re 27. It’s either that or live in a Zone 5 flatshare with 6 strangers (not including the rats) and black mould. Wave goodbye to your evenings, weekends, no time to laugh in the sun with your friends, no money for dinner out, or new shoes. But it’s ok, because your 20s are meant to be like this, and you’ll never make enough money to start paying off your student loan so I guess there’s an upside.
The government say they’re levelling up the rest of the country, so fuck London and its metropolitan liberal elite. I’ve heard there are bankers and hedge fund bros swilling champagne for breakfast lunch and dinner; maybe certain boroughs have fat wallets and still don’t vote Tory. But it’s hard to believe that we’re all living it large in the big city when London has the highest poverty rates in the UK. It’s hard to believe that London is anything but two separate cities living on top of each other.
Housing! Crisis! That’s too neat, too clean and compartmentalised. This is a problem that has 7 different heads and they’re all ugly. Every time you chop one off, another head grows and bites you in the arse. I still don’t know what financialisation means, and every time I google it, the search results make my eyeballs ache. I love London! I do, I promise I do. But I love it in the same way anyone loves their hometown: I don’t have a choice. London can be a dickhead sometimes. It takes my love for granted. When I am feeling diplomatic, I will say ‘it’s a city that’s great for art, but bad for artists!’ because that is a succinct way of describing the ways that a city can degrade you.
I could sit here and write forever about my complicated feelings towards this city, but I know it’ll leave me with more questions than answers. I just want to understand why London is the way it is. I want to speak to a manager, or someone who can explain it to me. Sometimes describing a problem can draw a circle around it, keep it pinned down long enough for you to get a proper look. Where do the issues all come from? Why is living in this city so fucking hard? What’s the problem with London, and WHY does it have a problem in the first place? To stop myself from running in circles, I spoke to people cleverer than me. Haja Fanta, who works at HOME by Ronan Mckenzie; George Henry Longly and Prem Sahib, who run Ridley Road Project Space; Arman Nouri and Kwame Lowe, who work together as Kin Structures. I asked them a couple of questions, did some digging and I think our conversations have led me to an interesting place. It’s a tangled knot, I know. But bear with me so I can tell you about it.
HOME by Ronan Mckenzie is ‘a multi-functional creative space for BIPOC creatives to be, show their work and exist.’ They’re over in Hornsey, on the top floor of a white studio building, nestled in amongst all the neat townhouses and wide blocks of flats. The first time I popped in to visit was a few months back, during Bernice Mulenga’s solo show. Although I went for the art, I remember being surprised by the space and how strange and new it felt as a container for the work. Burnece’s photos were spaced out across sleek concrete walls, looming large over plush armchairs and cosy nooks with magazines and coffee table books stacked high. It was a Pinterest dream living room, but also a container for viewing art in a calmer, less high octane way. I just didn’t realise the way everyone else went about it had actually been so frantic. This time, they were in the middle of installing a new show, but amongst the bustle and activity, there were two chairs set aside for me to speak to Haja.
‘It’s about making people feel welcome,’ Haja tells me. ‘Compared to white cube model, where you’re left thinking, ’do they even want me here?’ We want the space to be warm, comfortable, and cosy’. It has a palpable effect on the way you feel in the space, and the way you feel you can behave in the space too. Certain things like lounging while you look at an artwork, or just having a little sit down before you head off, lingering; these things become possible in a way they just wouldn’t be in any other gallery.
When founding the space back in November 2020, Ronan Mckenzie (the space’s founder) noted that there was a gap in the London arts ecology. ‘There are very few Black-owned and led art spaces, even fewer of those are artist-led too’ Haja tells me. ‘Loads of spaces are hierarchical, difficult to gain access to and navigate, and fundamentally inhospitable.’
Haja speaks about community as a central part of how and why HOME exists in the first place. They’re there to support, provide a platform and space to commune for Black and Indigenous people of colour (BIPOC). ‘It’s an open space for people to use how they want,’ Haja says. They reach out to artists and creatives, but often have people getting in touch with proposals for them too. ‘It’s about letting things in, things that you might not know of already.’ She notes that there are varying needs that they’re sensitive to providing for: ‘everyone has different needs, so they don’t get catered to in the same way, but there’s the same intention behind each interaction.’ Haja continues, ‘it’s important to provide space, safe space, for queer artists where they can articulate their work in a way that works for them. To not force them to use our language, or translate into a language that’s unfamiliar to them.’
Haja talks me through the practicalities of running the space: they’re renting it on a commercial lease, and they’re registered as a private limited company. Everyone that works there or is brought in to do work is paid. Most of the running costs are covered by income from Ronan’s photography work, but where possible they collaborate with brands to cover production costs (for example, Haja mentions WePresent, who are under the umbrella of WeTransfer). ‘For the most part, we’re winging it. It’s just what happens in London, I think,’ Haja says. She pauses, then adds that their focus for 2022 is to become more financially sustainable. At the moment, they’re trying out different ways of doing that. They have a membership option, offer a route in for patrons and supporters. ‘It’s helpful, but you don’t have any control over it. People can just dip in and out.’. They handle artwork sales (at the artist’s request), and have a little shop [link these]. They’re just not in a stable position with it yet, so they’re still searching for a robust financial model they can rely on. When I spoke to Haja, they had just recently had their first meeting with an Arts Council Relationship Manager, they hadn’t put together a bid yet and were only just beginning to think about public funding as a possible route towards that financial stability.
Next, I spoke to Prem Sahib and George Henry Longly, from Ridley Road Project Space. George tells me about how Ridley Road Project Space began; ‘it came about through this story of gentrification, like everything else’. George had a studio in the building since 2008, just on Ridley Road in Dalston. It had been used in a variety of different ways over the years (as a literal studio space and all the potential that contains, but also as a social space, for afters etc). When the landlord gave them notice that the studio complex was being sold to developers, it felt like a catalyst or an inciting incident. London isn’t a great city for object permanence, no one really thinks of their studio space as their forever home. But the space was beautiful, ‘Ridley Road runs East to West, it was a South facing studio so it would get this celestial light’. Knowing it was coming to an end, they felt like they had to do something to make the most of the space before it was gone.
George cleared out his studio and they turned it into a blank canvas project space. Leaning into the temporariness, they went for a pop-up model, hosting it out to people on a quick turnover. ‘The idea was something accessible and bookable. You could test anything out, take risks, it was responding to those needs with a kind of urgency,’ George says. The Project Space didn’t have a program in the formal sense, ‘it was a quick run of short, self-produced shows by lots of different people in our circle of immediate friends who reached out’. The sociability of it wasn’t about being cliquey, they were just responding to the needs of the people around them and finding a way to facilitate them. ‘It evolved and demonstrated the demand for something like this. We were just trying to find a way for as many people to engage and benefit from it as possible’. I nod as they say this, because it sounds like they were responding to the idea of locality too, the needs local to them. Leaning into those needs felt natural and responsive. It’s worth mentioning that both George and Prem are pretty successful artists with established careers. Their identity as artists was helpful, it gave them an insight into what artists in East London actually needed, where the gaps in the arts ecology were, and how they should be filled. ‘We’re aware of the challenges, so it galvanised our position’.
It all fed into a diverse run of shows; working with students from Goldsmiths, Central St Martins, and the Slade, jewellery makers, online practices and people who had never had access to a physical space before. Their last show featured work by 70 different artists. To figure out how to pay the rent, they had to get creative and experiment with format too. George and Prem run me through a list that includes a Christmas market and a poster show. They passed enquiries about sales straight onto the artists because ‘we weren’t trying to sell work or seduce collectors’. As a result, they found that openings were more fun and comfortable, actually enjoyable social events to be at. There was a good vibes atmosphere around the space, a kind of freedom in the precarity. As the Project Space went into full swing, they found that it activated the rest of the building too, with other studio holders putting on shows and events alongside them. ‘It was like the fatalism and celebration of a sinking ship (not really, but) it opened up room for us to just do something. It made us all less risk averse’.
I ask them about the practicalities of running Ridley Road Project Space. George tells me, ‘it was unpaid. It’s not ideal and we need to figure out what to do about that in the future, but it was just this unspoken thing’. I nod again, because that makes sense. In a horrible way, I am not surprised and I get it. There are so many good ideas that just never get off the ground because people can’t find a way to fund them. It was a collective effort; as well as Prem and George, they had other people supporting them, Joe Bobowicz and Laurie Barron, as well as the wider community of artists that they had built up around them. And having the end in sight made it all feel manageable. But Prem & George raise a point that I really want to emphasise here, that I’ll pick up later too: unpaid labour at the beginning of a project is almost expected. ‘Who even gets Arts Council funding upfront?’
Even if you get something going, doing it all unpaid, around other paid work, can be an exhausting way to live. People burn out and have to tap out of exciting things all the time, projects with potential getting cut short is almost banal. By the time I spoke to them, Ridley Road Project Space had closed. I had stumbled across it via an article in the Art Newspaper, and I was too late to visit in person - it was all over, at least in its first form.
My third (and last) set of interviewees are Arman Nouri and Kwame Lowe. They recently came together to set up Kin Structures, a collective means to ‘explore new approaches to building and sustaining community infrastructure’. This year they’re based at Orchard Gardens Community Centre in Lewisham. This is where they call me from, huddled together in the same little zoom window. They’ve been working on this idea since March 2020, the start of the pandemic acted as a catalyst. Now they’re on-site in Lewisham, they’re trialling a model for bringing activity back into these spaces and hopefully ‘developing permanent spaces for grassroots arts and culture’ in the process too.
They’re in the community centre, in Lewisham, for 9 months (January until September). I ask what their work looks like day to day, and they laugh, telling me it’s just a lot of emails. But majority of the work they do on the regular is engagement related. They’ve both had jobs as engagement leads in the past. They’ve also both worked in the public sector, in the cultural sector’s public facing wing. It gave them a better understanding of how it all works, where the gaps and issues actually are. ‘There are loads of community centres around London that are empty, unloved, and then they’re being sold off’. Arman notes that this is strategic, and I nod. This is something that’s been mentioned to me before, in my 2020 text the community, the state, and a specific kind of headache,] Zain Dada described the process and pipeline of public assets being strategically sold off to developers for rock bottom prices. Arman continues, ‘you have an acute lack of space across this city. Particularly space that’s suitable for community centre activities: stuff that’s inclusive, accessible and local. Weighing that up on each hand felt incongruous.’
Empty community centres, no space for community activity; it’s a neat solution. Kwame calls these community centres ‘dormant infrastructure’. He notes that, ‘community centres are purpose built spaces in proximity to council housing across the city in deprived areas, ignored areas (ignored in terms of public & private funding, not just for cultural activity)’. It might seem simple when they explain it in terms of motivation and context, but they are working against the tide of over a decade’s worth of Tory spending cuts: to public services, arts and culture, community infrastructure, anything that could feasibly be called The State. ‘We’re not going into these spaces thinking that they’re culturally empty,’ Kwame says. ‘We’re not here to bring art to places where it doesn’t already exist. The best and most inspiring art comes out of these areas despite the lack of infrastructure for it. It’s just a more structured response to a lack of in-roads for cultural consumption and production for local people, by local people. So it’s not that it’s not there already. It’s just more structured, formalised, or facilitated.’
I ask about social practice, and the sticky critique of it as a way for arts organisations to take up the burden of state withdrawal from public life. Kwame has a really good answer to my dickhead question; ‘it isn’t about artwashing, or art as silver bullet or holy grail. Culture can be a tool for community organisation, a way to talk about governance and use of public spaces. We’re not here to just have interesting conversations, and then walk away. It’s about leaving something in place after you, growing community structures apart from you and giving that to communities long-term.’ What they’re describing sounds like structural gardening, a model of support and care. They’re interested in leaving a legacy or an outcome beyond the arts activity itself: building relationships between residents and housing associations, or the council. Getting people into the same room can be like herding cats, and even if you do, there’s no guarantee they’re going to be able to relate to each other or speak to each other on a level and in the same language. Art can be convivial, a way to open up a synapse and allow people to relate to each other over something else in the middle of the room. ‘There’s art as a way in, as an opening of the door. And then there’s art as the end, the destination. For us, we’re interested in the former. We believe in art and culture as a tool.’
If art is a way in, an opening of the door, then the thing they’re looking to enter into is a readjustment towards community ownership of public infrastructure, and governance models that would make that possible. ‘This is an opportunity for people to grab the means of production, for people who haven’t engaged with culture in this way to see themselves at the helm of this thing.’ They are unsure if this is even possible, but they want to work towards the residents taking over the lead on programming, and what happens in the space. Kwame says, ‘governance over public infrastructure is the key, people need to be making these decisions that affect their communities’. Often, in London and especially in areas that have been identified as having potential for regeneration, they aren’t the ones making those decisions. It’s councils, local authorities, developers and big business. As Arman and Kwame explain the nature of the work they’re trying to do, it’s clear to me that it’s operating beyond the realm of just art alone. Kwame mentions a Theaster Gates lecture about social practice; ‘he said something like, art is the precursor to the disruption.’
Haja tells me that she used to live in Germany; the experience of being outside the London bubble gave her perspective about what the UK specifically lacks. ‘There are German cities that are big, decent cities to live in. The UK doesn’t really have that choice, there’s no real second city’. Cities like Manchester, Glasgow and Birmingham aren’t even close to the same scale as London. There have been efforts to scale them up, Northern Powerhouse and HS2, but they’re still not offering the kind of second city alternative that other countries have. Haja continues, ‘the quality of life dips as you leave London. Yeah, it’s cheaper and you know it’s never going to be exactly the same as London, but other cities in the UK are just not on the same scale’. Regional inequality creates this feeling around London as the only option if you want to make it. ‘You have a critical mass here that is unique,’ George tells me. ‘It’s either your hometown, or you came here for the art vibes. There are so many art schools here too. It’s hard to imagine a similar kind of life or career in other cities. Just because of population alone, other UK cities aren’t the same.’ London’s scale was something they really noticed as a result of running Ridley Road Project Space: ‘It’s been nice to remember how big the art world is here. It can often feel like there’s one homogenous art world, when you’re within your own little pocket of it, or the way some people write about it. But week by week, with each show and with each opening, we’d see new and unrecognisable groups of people we’d never seen before. That’s comforting, to know that the art world here is bigger than we see and think of it as.’
While the scale can hold positive potential, it can also present you with problems. ‘Community is so important in this city,’ Haja tells me. ‘Establishing that community around you is so key to being able to survive and establish yourself. You can’t do London without community.’ George and Prem agree that community is a key part of making the city’s cultural landscape more habitable. ‘We have to have all these different skills & roles as artists to survive. You have to learn on the job and teach yourself, because you’re not really taught how to do it.’ George mentions this in relation to a point about facilitating connections through Ridley Road Project Space, the importance of intergenerational conversations, ‘it’d be great to correct some of that requirement for self-dependence. Intergenerational conversations are so key for that, in the queer community but also for the wider art community. It’s something we’re all looking for. To be able to recognise problems we had on our own pathways, and remember how scary some things are for others. A lot of the time you’re also figuring it out in real time.’
I mention that I often slip up on the phrase intergenerational; that it can feel like a curatorial buzzword, and I can’t get to grips with the actual value of it. But Prem reminds me that buzzword or not, it’s just about learning from each other, telling people what the deal is with something if you’ve been through it already. ‘The art world can leave people feeling powerless, disconnected and lonely. The Project space ended up dealing with some of those problems, that confusion and curiosity. When you’re at art school, you get visiting lectures and that conversation is part of your education. It’s a valid question that everyone just wants to know the answer to: how do you survive, what are the structures you can use to survive.’
The importance of community reaches beyond good vibes and connectedness. It can be a key component to forging bonds of solidarity, comparing notes on material conditions, and organising. ‘Artists are mythologised as these privileged creatures, or not like the rest of us,’ George says. ‘The art world is quite unique and unusual as an industry. Artists don’t start out as small businesses, but are often forced to operate as one. How do you create channels for exchange within that? How do we deal with enterprise and coming together? Surely that’s culturally important too?’ It’s a really good question that often doesn’t get a satisfactory answer.
London’s commercial art world is not quite set up to cover the cracks. If you’re not represented by a commercial gallery, if you don’t do the rounds at the art fairs, there’s very little available in the way of commercial cultural infrastructure outside of straight up artwork sales. It’s all too siloed and esoteric for it to provide a stable point of entry. The work George and Prem did at Ridley Road directly responded to the needs of artists; as artists themselves, they were well placed to understand the nature of those needs, and the material conditions that drove them. Community could help build organisations that bridge these gaps, as Ridley Road Project Space demonstrated by experimenting with alternative commercial models: in poster shows, Christmas markets, art merch and passing enquiries on directly to artists to handle themselves.
That experimentation with commercial format is necessary because London is an expensive city. It’s trite, I know, but I want to really hammer home the way this financial pressure permeates all aspects of life in London’s cultural industry. ‘There’s a huge problem when it comes to building things sustainably and finding financial stability,’ Haja says. ‘Lots of people have good ideas, but the hardest thing is keeping them alive because it’s just so expensive.’ It can be hard to cobble together enough to live on anywhere in the UK, especially at the moment - cost of living crisis and all that. But in London, you can’t talk about running costs without dealing with a big ugly elephant in the room: rent.
‘Market rate isn’t for me,’ George says. ‘It can’t be, it’s unreasonable to expect it to be. There’s a huge difference between what’s affordable for an artist who doesn’t earn money every month, and what’s affordable for someone like a graphic designer who can get little jobs in regularly.’ The market rate is the going rate charged for a property, usually based on square footage. For Ridley Road Project Space, the market rate for the studio was £11 per square foot. ‘There are some ’affordable’ studio spaces, but in London that just means that they’re subsidised by something else.’ In my experience, that something else is usually private funding. This isn’t particularly new, established institutions have always engaged with private funding. The interesting bit is: London is now so expensive, and public funding is so thin on the ground, smaller and smaller institutions, collectives and artistic entities are turning to private funding sources as their first port of call. Generally speaking, approaching them can be a bit more transparent, and they’re less risk averse than public funding bodies. ‘Private funding isn’t icky any more,’ Haja says. ‘You’ve got to engage with that if you want to stick around.’ The gaps in public funding are being filled by private funding: from individuals, from brands and corporate partners, from charitable foundations.
‘I’m not being funny but where’s the Arts Council?’ Haja says. ‘They’re not where they need to be. Like, what’s the Arts Council’s relationship with the community? They don’t go around to non-white institutions and tell you: this bit of funding has come out, and you’d be a good fit for it. So it’s information that only circulates in certain circles. There must be a bit of that, but you need to be in the right circles and rubbing shoulders with the right people. It’s gatekept.’ Direct outreach is not an unreasonable ask. Institutions have been struggling with their own internal idea of diversity for decades, there are a stupidly small number of NPOs with POC directors, most boards are stuffed full of rich white trustees - it almost feels trite to point all this out. On the whole, the industry is unrepresentative as a reflection of the wider nation, let alone London as a city with a minority majority. Knowing this, the Arts Council could be doing fact finding, mapping organisations to get a sense of the scale of what’s needed, offering specific and tailored support to nurture institutions that are BIPOC-led or centred. But they’re not doing any of that, and if you look at their track record, it’s unlikely they ever will. Haja tells me about a job she had invigilating a show at Kilburn Studios. ‘It was Rasheed Araeen, super text heavy but I’d be there in the space all day so I had time to take it all in. He’s been saying all of this for years.’
This gap in cultural infrastructure is also wider than public funding or the Arts Council alone. We know that public funding stops short of what’s actually needed to cover the real costs of running an art world the size of London’s - whether that’s via the Arts Council directly, or through institutions as distributor middlemen for that money. ‘In New York you have this established system for dealing with a lack of public funding,’ George tells me. ‘There are programmes like at the Whitney, they’ll do a huge survey show and bring out loads of new young artists. You can be an artist in New York and you’ll be supported by a huge institution in your hometown and they’ll buy your work. It’s not the same in London.’ Anecdotally, I’ve found there isn’t meaningful support in the form of purchases from public institutions. If they purchase artworks, they’re most likely to be buying up bankable names, rather than investing in new faces.
The cuts to public funding aren’t new, but institutions aren’t responsive enough to adapt meaningfully to the situation. ‘Institutions in London are slow moving beasts,’ George tells me. ‘They can respond quickly in certain political moments,’ he gives me a pointed look, and I smirk, ‘but if they’re not interested in you, they’re not interested.’ As a result, there aren’t reliable financial touch points for people to hit up when they’re starting out. ‘Sometimes you get onto treadmills and you have to make decisions quickly,’ George says. ‘You want to find a sensible and practical way to sustain what you’re doing, of course. But it can be dismissed pretty easily by this way we’re used to conceptualising things in the art world. It’s artist-led or artist-run, so of course it’s a labour of love. When you’re in the midst of it, it’s so quick moving, you’ve just got to be responsive to keep it going.’ What George and Prem are articulating is a structural problem; ‘it’s the path of least resistance.’
A lack of reliable funding isn’t a problem specific to London alone - remember that regional inequality? This is obviously something that effects the entire country. London is where all this money accumulates and is concentrated; the Arts Council spends a disproportionate amount of money in London, most commercial galleries are either based in London, or they commute in to sell to collectors here. But the money that is here isn’t evenly distributed. ‘London is expensive, unpredictable, you’re always having to bend and flex and adapt to what it throws at you just to make the space you’re in inhabitable,’ George says. ‘The city is so professionalised, and making space for yourself is bound up with commercial gallery attention. You need total commitment to your practice. But you can’t do that and think ‘this is going to sustain me’, because it won’t, at least not right away. Your practice can get in the way of survival, it’s like a poverty trap. You need a studio but they’re so expensive. Just trying to make it work can put you in debt.’ There’s a specific financial dynamic in the city; the funding seems to collect at the top and there are layers of London’s arts ecology that are effectively running on empty.
Speaking of the top, here’s a fun fact: Ridley Road Project Space’s landlord is based in the Cayman Islands. ‘It’s impossible to talk about the problems with London without talking about the City of London, Canary Wharf, and the banks,’ Arman tells me. I nod, because before I booted up this zoom call, I was reading an article by George Monbiot about how the City of London is run by the City of London Corporation. Not a corporation in the big business-y company sense, but municipal corporation. It is a separate, semi-autonomous entity with its own jurisdiction, its own governance structure, it is partially funded by its own property and investment portfolio. I get stuck on one line in that article: ‘The City has […] establish[ed] itself as a kind of offshore state, a secrecy jurisdiction which controls the network of tax havens housed in the UK’s crown dependencies and overseas territories.’ I don’t understand it, but I get the gist. The City of London is an entity that can act as a lobbyist on behalf of big businesses and the banks, because its aim is to bring in profit in for the City of London Corporation.
‘London, as part of a globalised economy, it’s a real investment spot,’ Kwame says. ‘There’s this tension between that global outlook and local interests. In London, over the last 30 or 40 years, we’ve seen an erosion of local power: local authority power and local power held by residents, unions, community organisations in affecting change that they need to see happen. That’s the Thatcher-era’s legacy. Generally speaking, it’s a subordination of everything else to the supremacy of financial capital. There’s also a lack of regulatory framework to keep that in check, and a wholesale dismissal of other notions of value beyond the financial.’ I still don’t really understand what financialisation actually is; what’s a financialised economy? Can a city have a financialised economy? I think if it’s anything, financialisation is that exact core value system that Kwame describes: the subordination of everything else to financial capital.
‘How we define value is so important. The kinds of value that are prioritised, the way it’s prioritised, the spaces that are prioritised’ Arman says. ‘The planning system is a key part of how the city is shaped. That planning system doesn’t have a robust understanding of cultural value. You’d be hard pressed to find planning that puts culture on the same level pegging as financial value.’ This is something Haja mentions, ‘there’s this guy doing his phd about how communities are established and how it effects how a city develops. If artists and creatives are considered, or put at the centre of cities, that changes how a city feels and how it works.’ We know that gentrification is an extractive force, but focusing in on what that regeneration framework actually holds as valuable can go a long way to explaining how it works and why. ‘In London, there’s an intentional neglect of specific spaces,’ Haja says. ‘So things become devalued, run down. When developers or the council come round to do everything up again, it’s for specific people. It’s not for us. Whoever’s in charge, it’s not people focused or care focused.’
For Arman and Kwame, gentrification trajectories are tied up in with art and culture too. Their work in Lewisham is valuable and necessary because of this displacing extractive force; ‘it’s deeper than just a project on an estate. It’s about the place art and culture has between people, trying to locate this stuff in places where Black and Brown people actually are.’ Funding, public or private, only seems to hit these neighbourhoods as a signal that people are about to be displaced, forced out by development, sky rocketing rent and urban regeneration. Public funding for people, without those strings attached, is actually emotional and meaningful when you deep it. ‘So many parts of London that are now trendy, cultural and gentrified, were once full of Black and Brown people,’ Kwame says. ‘It’s going to keep happening until we have ownership.’
Everyone I spoke to mentioned something about ownership, the lack of it, the absence of anything resembling control over the spaces they inhabited. It felt out of reach in every way, they were all aware that that’s just not how it works for the vast majority of institutions and cultural organisations. ‘I’m tired of going into a space for a 3 or 4 day exhibition, I’m tired of the quick turnaround,’ Haja says. HOME by Ronan Mckenzie exists because they wanted to give people a place to be and stay. ‘A lot gets taken from our communities, gentrification is just this process of extraction… The city is changing so fast. We need a safe space to feel comfortable in, to cultivate joy, where people can just chill. There’s not enough of that. Not everyday fighting, you know?’ Ownership over spaces means more than just stability; it means you can respond to needs with a kind of focus and urgency. Though it’s possible to still do that without ownership, as Ridley Road Project Space proved, making these things permanent, long term, and sustainable is also incredibly important.
‘There’s this strange thing where local authorities have this last chance opportunity to recast their position and fight for their spaces,’ Kwame says. ‘The national government is pushing them to do something different, but ownership of space is power. We need to give local people and their local authorities the route to resist that push to sell off community assets to developers because once that’s gone, you can’t get it back. The prices hike up almost immediately.’ They mention Robert Jenrick, the previous Housing Secretary, and his white paper] for a ‘once in a generation’ set of planning reforms. ‘It’s the only reform we’re going to get in our lifetime and it would speed up the process of development, the exact process we’re trying to resist. Until we start to identify the problem, it’s going to get worse.’
The work Arman and Kwame do, as Kin Structures, sees the cultural realm as a testing ground for a wider model of community ownership. Kwame uses this phrase, ‘cultural resilience’, when talking about a framework for community governance. ‘It’s about people being given the tools to create their own spaces, and determine the programme, activities and decision-making in those spaces,’ Arman says. ‘That’s where things will start to shift. Encouraging cultural production and consumption should be about ownership and governance. We should be handing spaces and control over for them to have, rather than them having to go to the Tate to do a workshop or whatever.’ This question of ownership and control is something Kwame mentioned earlier in our conversation, about giving people access to the means of cultural production.
The way things are at the moment is completely at odds with this vision of community ownership of the means of cultural production. ‘The way we’ve come to experience and produce culture within institutions is in keeping with this country’s history as a colonial power, and that power still emanates through institutions,’ Arman says. ‘There’s a lot to be said when you look at leadership: boards, trustees and funders. There’s the way they’re all geographically positioned, there’s programming and curation, how they go about doing community outreach and engagement. It’s a particular way of institutionalising culture. It’s just not compatible with the realities of London today. It’s not compatible with most cities to be honest, and how people exist and live within them. Maybe 200 years ago, but not now.’ Kwame nods and picks up on this point, ‘there’s so much talk about decolonisation, so many spheres questioning the very fundamentals about the way things are done. The way art and culture is being conceptualised by the powers that be is an artefact of colonialism. But it’s everything: from the way we think about land, the earth, climate, the way we relate to the natural world, technology, the built environment.’
This is going to take a jump, but I haven’t really got a clever way to link it in. I want to return to Kwame’s earlier point about the subordination of everything else to the service of financial capital. ‘It’s really important to understand the centrality of the state in all of this,’ Arman says. ‘With any analysis of capitalism, it’s easy (and pretty common) to say ‘it’s gone, it’s done, there’s no such thing as the state [Thatcher] anymore [Austerity]’. But there have been things, like the pandemic, that prove the state has a huge hand in people’s daily lives. We need to recast the role of the state and recenter it, really see it for what it is and what it does. The state hasn’t been decimated from all aspects of public life, and it can’t be.’
On the subject of recasting the role of the state, Kwame replies. ‘The postwar Atlee government, they had this whole conversation about nationalising things like infrastructure and public services.’ It was this way of readjusting in the face of widespread inequality and deprivation through the 30s, as well as dealing with the devastation after the war. ‘A huge part of this all is the structural governance of land. Not buildings, but land itself. Other countries have this system where the land itself has been nationalised. The Atlee government nationalised so many things, but they didn’t nationalise land. Instead, they put in place a system where conditions had to be met for use of land. So now, if you want to build housing, you have to work with private developers and landowners. It’s still the same aristocratic owners, the feudal system still exists. And private landowners aren’t going to give up their land without the prioritisation of financial capital.’
This is the end of the text. I don’t know how to end this, other than to say landowners won’t give up this precious commodity freely. So part of me wants to collapse into the fatalism of London being consumed by its own problems; the rents will shoot up and up and up. Some days, when I am feeling especially hateful, I’ll look up at the sky and wish for the bubble to burst. Because at least if there’s a formally declared crisis, we’re all screaming. I love London, I do I do. But I hate the stock market, Canary Wharf, all men who have ever or will ever wear a suit unironically. Big finance, the banks, the City of London Corporation; all those entities feel so nebulous, silly and abstract things. Banker bros make their trades on screens and the numbers go up and down; there’s no way I’m ever going to get a grip on the effect a system like that can have on a city. But public ownership of land is concrete, grounded. I can understand that, I can see that. I can see a line from sky high rents and precarious housing, landlords in the Cayman Islands, market rates and the desperate search for community - direct to land »»»> not yet nationalised, but the unlimited potential of The Good Life if it ever was.