James Attlee, An-introduction.
London has changed immeasurably as a city in which to make art over the past half century. Home to huge art fairs, monumental public galleries, a central node in an international network of dealers, collectors and investors, its art schools now teach business skills, stoking the expectation among their graduates that creativity is the key to the untold wealth they see other artists bestowed with.
There is a down side to all this art-world super-connectivity: the city has become an impossibly expensive and tightly monitored place in which to live and work. Artists, colonisers of the margins in search of cheap studio space and accommodation, acting as a vanguard army with the ground-troops of gentrification following in their wake, have played their part in the process of the city’s hollowing out: its inevitable progress towards becoming impossible to live and work in for any except the super-rich.
This exhibition, through its focus on the artist Gordon Matta-Clark, evokes a time when the urban landscape – in his case, that of downtown New York – offered different opportunities. When vast abandoned warehouse spaces could be broken into and sliced up, reconfigured, without anyone noticing. When performances could be staged on rooftops, exhibitions in dumpsters on the street and inaccessible slivers of land in the city grid bought for a few dollars each to become purposefully purposeless artworks. A time, above all, when a community of artists lived and worked in close proximity; a community apparently not motivated primarily by a desire for success in commercial terms, as no such success was yet on offer for the kind of work they made. As open to experiments in living as they were in art, they formed the main audience for each other’s sketchily documented shows.
This era – the 1970s – lies beyond the reach of the internet and is thus firmly located in the realm of myth, regained only through increasingly inconsistent and contradictory human memories. We have one record, though: a record that makes no attempt to be historically accurate, complete, logical or even grammatical – the writings of Gordon Matta-Clark, a motley collection assembled after his death in 1978 at the age of 35, a mere nine years into his career as an artist. It includes note cards, recording irreverent thoughts and passing observations in his trademark unpunctuated capitals; letters to friends and other artists; humorous provocations; and proposals to arts bodies and businesses, recording the relentless attempts at hustling funds and opportunities, vital activities to an artist existing largely outside the gallery system.
Matta-Clark studied architecture and his writing often reflects on what he saw as its problems and limitations. A possible alternative approach is hinted at and alluded to, usually referred to by the term ‘Anarchitecture’. This first emerged as the name for a loose grouping of artists who would meet to drink, kick around ideas and socialise together, with the vague ambition of working towards an exhibition. A single group show resulted, in an artist-run space in SoHo, the exact content of which is still debated. For Matta-Clark, the idea outlived the exhibition. In his writings it crops up as an evolving concept of a different kind of architectural programme that he defined as ‘A SEARCH FOR QUALITIES BEYOND THE RULE A CLOSER AWARENESS OF ALL THE SENSES WITH LITTLE FAITH IN THE EFFICIENCY ARMY OF PROBLEM SOLVING’. It might include portable or wearable architecture, architecture created from refuse left on the street, edible buildings or floating platforms kept aloft by hot air discharged from the city.
His early death meant few of these ideas made it beyond the page; it is impossible to know how serious he was about many of them – yet the term Anarchitecture lives on, recycled and reinterpreted again and again. Such appropriations, re-imaginings and even misunderstandings have guaranteed its longevity as a creative stimulus, an energy from the past readapted and rechanneled for the present day.
Andrew T Cross, the artist responsible for the large structure that permeates the space of this exhibition, also studied architecture. Like Matta-Clark, he found its limitations impossibly constricting. The guerrilla nature of the American artist’s practice, and the two forces held in check in the word Anarchitecure – order and disorder, discipline and chaos, the Apollonian and the Dionysian — offered a way forward. ‘I never put planning applications in’, Cross told me when we met to talk about his work. ‘I never work within the constructs with which the built environment is regulated. I understand if I want to build a crazy extension to the back of someone’s house then I will have to go through those hoops, but one of the mantras that I enjoy and try to live by, which was also one of Matta-Clark’s, is that you need to learn the rules to begin to fuck with the system. Once you have learnt the rules you can then start to play with them. That goes from very basic building skills to planning applications and planning law’. Like Matta-Clark, Cross works in liminal territories, his interventions in existing buildings self-authorised, the structures he creates often temporary, erected for festivals, art or community events.
With the piece he has created in Warren Street, that rises through the floor from the basement to the exhibition space, his aim has been to ‘create a platform that can be inhabited – taking the shell of the building and creating within it another separate structure, which as artists come and go they can do with as they please. I wanted to try and challenge the way people think about how they interact with the space. You can design or build something with a very precise thought in mind, but people are such incredible creatures they’ll do what they want anyway. So it’s building something that in some ways has no real function’.
The question posed by Anarch Gallery and Andrew Cross in this collaboration is whether it is possible to work in something of the same spirit that animated the downtown New York scene in the 1970s, in 21st century London. To operate in the contemporary city requires different strategies. Like Cross, curator Jude Bennet has gained a training in methodologies that she can put to use for her own purposes – in her case, through her employment curating empty shops for a local authority, in a bid to soften the appearance of economic decline on the high street. As a curator she makes temporary interventions into the urban fabric by taking over spaces and then assembling instant communities of artists – in this case the Colony Network – to inhabit them. Fitzrovia was, of course, once a bohemian quarter, named after The Fitzroy Tavern, which, along with other local hostelries such as the Black Horse, The Marquess of Granby and The Wheatsheaf, played host to a clientele that included Dylan Thomas, Francis Bacon, Jacob Epstein, George Orwell, Julian Maclaren-Ross and Colin MacInness.
For the period Colony has come to roost in Warren Street it is hoped some of that spirit can be released once more among its quiet streets and exclusive Georgian squares. The space Anarch Gallery and Andrew Cross have created will be the launch pad for all kinds of residencies, artworks and events over the course of the coming weeks. Combining the opposing energies contained within the word Anarchitecture is like splitting the atom, lighting a fuse.
We can only wait to see the result.