The rise and fall and rise of the art squat

As the squatting clampdown hits, we look back at the 00s artist-occupations that changed Peckham forever

Arts+Culture Feature
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In the early 2000s, something unique happened in Peckham. With nearby Goldsmiths University and Camberwell College of Arts producing a greater number of arts and humanities graduates than at any time in British history, and with many alumni faltering on the job market, something had to give. There were too many highly educated people with too many ideas and not enough places to use them. 

“After I left college I lost my job and decided I didn't want to pay rent anymore,” says former Camberwell graduate and artist, Matthew Stone. “So I researched it and start squatting in Peckam with my friend James Balmforth. That’s how !Wowow! began.” 

!WowoW! was the name given to the art group formed out of this squat in 2003. Members included Stone, fellow artist Balmforth and fashion designer, Gareth Pugh, and video artist, Adam Faramawy, who all found fame during its heyday. Its first movements were a performance night at The Joiners Arms in Camberwell, followed by large scale exhibitions and club nights at a squatted four-storey Victorian building in Peckham. 

“It was anarchic,” says Stone. "We had private views and parties, and we'd get 400 for the exhibition and 1200 for the party. It was crazy. There was definitely an opportunistic aspect of wanting to have a studio where we could show things and not have to have a stupid job, but we weren't doing it to get gallery representation. We did it because it felt amazing. There was this idea that everybody involved was an artist.” 

Compared to older squats in Peckham, !WowoW!’s ambitions seem somewhat naïve, at least on the surface. As a reaction to the political upheaval of the 80s, the squatting scene that emerged in the 90s was attuned to anarchist and environmentalist principles. One such example was The Dole House Crew, a group of activists and anarcho-punks who set up a community arts and social centre in an ex-Department of Health & Social Services building in Collyer Place off Peckham High Street between 1989 and 1990. 

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“The Dole House was really organised through a Peckham band called Ruff Ruff n Ready,” says Jon Sevink of The Levellers, who played gigs at The Dole House. “We ended up doing a benefit gig there on the same day as the Poll Tax march, actually,” he continues. “It was a good movement. There were a lot of early 80s post-punk bands that drifted into the anarcho scene. But you had to be political, that was the point. For a lot of those bands, the post-punk influence was the root of it all.” 

Through a combination of post-punk’s high modernist principles and social deprivation caused by Thatcher’s economic reforms, squatting in south London was less about artists finding free space than it was an attempt at stimulating social change. CoolTan Arts, a registered mental health charity in Brixton, began as a squat around the same time as The Dole House closed its doors. Founder and CEO, Michelle Baharier, remembers it well. 

“Peckham Dole House Crew was pretty similar to CoolTan,” she says. “All squats are essentially a social centre for people who don't fit in, really. CoolTan began when we squatted a disused sun tan lotion factory in Brixton Water Lane in 1990. We used to run meetings, a vegetarian/vegan cafe, and big parties, including one that raised £7,000 for the Lawrence family's legal fees - today's equivalent of £60-£70,000. I personally never liked the raves, but it paid our bills. Thousands of people would turn up, but most of them didn't know what we were doing.”

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CoolTan’s outreach work included HIV awareness workshops and was staffed by volunteers, many of who were homeless. From 1999 to 2009, the Spike in Peckham ran under similar means and ambitions in a previously derelict building used for fly-tipping on Consort Road, until its owners, Southwark Council, evicted its inhabitants. 

Stone defends !Wowow! from charges of apoliticism: “It’s important to look at the time frame !WowoW! occurred in,” he says. “We weren’t politically reactionary because we weren't in the situation that we are in now. What we were doing was a consciously non-hierarchical exploration of utopian living, but of course, we were living in a pre-crash world. Politics was there, but we were still at a point when society was playing with irony and total disaffection. I’m not trying to argue that we were more political than we were, but while we didn’t follow the tradition of angry politics, what we did could be seen as a political example of how things can be done.” 

Artist Bobby Dowler who lived at 78 Lyndhurst Way, a neighbouring so-called  “art squat” that existed between 2005-2008 and also held exhibitions and parties, feels the same. 

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“I wouldn't say that any of us were particularly political,” he says. “We were more artists than socialists. But I think what we did was a political decision. We went against the normal way of living, i.e. paying rent and the pursuit of the accumulation of material objects, etc. We rejected all that.”

Fellow Lyndhurst Way artist, Shaun McDowell, has stronger views about the legacy of the squat. 

“Showing art at Lyndhurst Way had a massive effect on Peckham and the way work was shown there,” he says. “Right from the off we didn't want to do what everyone else did by throwing huge parties where the art was irrelevant.  So, unlike those squat parties in Kensington that were full of rich kids, we improved the building. This set a serious precedent. Artists in the area started showing their work in alternative spaces. All of a sudden people were showing in squats that had white walls. ”

Shaun also notes that that the amendment to clause 26 of the legal aid, sentencing and punishment of offenders bill passed in 2011 that effectively bans trespass on residential property – and therefore squatting in domestic buildings – will have a “detrimental effect of the creativity and political mindset of this country.” He is undoubtedly correct. Not only is this change in law likely to endanger the lives of vulnerable homeless people for who squatting is very often a last resort, it is also effectively a way of dispersing centres of potentially radical activity where people live non-conventional lifestyles with regard to the ownership of property, “art-squats” included. 

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He is also right in suggesting that Lyndhurst Way was the launching pad for other movements. “It's interesting that Bold Tendencies and Hannah Barry Gallery both sprang out of what we were doing,” remarks Bobby. A friend of the squat, Hannah Barry helped curate and promote some of their work, including their final show, a rooftop sculpture exhibition called Bold Tendencies. Today, her gallery represents Shaun, Bobby as well as many other associated artists, and Bold Tendencies has grown legs of its own, becoming an annual summer event in Peckham.  

Elsewhere, other notable contemporary establishment that began as squats in Peckham (but have since become “legitimate” organisations) include the art space Area 10 (b. 2002) and Auto Italia South East (b. 2007), another art space that has since moved to rented premises in King Cross after gaining an Arts Council funding. Indeed, AutoItalia, is exceptional, since it bridged the gap between the “art-squats” and radical politics, hosting projects questioning how capitalism shapes our understanding of the world and art such as ‘Immaterial Labour Isn’t Working’ (2013) and ‘We Have Our Own Concept of Time and Motion’ (2011). 

Indeed, this exploration of traditional ideas of art and the gallery has become commonplace in Peckham. This has been partially stimulated by the growth of the digital arts – a practice that questions notions of what constitutes an art object as well as its process of commodification. Local cross-platform art group, Lucky PDF are good examples of this, creating internet based shows showcasing other artists, and other net-based works, such as the sale of their Facebook contacts in 2011, in a move that satirised digital surveillance and Big Data laws. Other Peckham-based galleries that explore these concepts include Inland Studios, interested in, “thinking about the fundamentals of how art exists in display and how this might be redefined,” Flat Time House, the studio of the late John Latham, which he declared a “living sculpture” in 2003 and is now also a gallery with an interest is time-based media, and Arcadia Missa gallery. 

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“My best friend and I opened Arcadia Missa in 2011,” says its co-founder, Rózsa Fakras. “We’d been collaborating at uni and wanted a space to continue our work. I grew up in Peckham. As a young child I was often between council housing or squats. The people who used squat from my mum's generation weren't doing it to put on projects, but more doing it just to live. My experience of squatting and how precarious it can be is why AM is straight down the line. We pay rent, business rates, the lot. But I’ve also seen the cost of living here rise massively, which is why, as soon as we graduated, we looked into getting somewhere affordable.” 

Dedicated to supporting performative digital practices, Arcadia Missa is just one of a number of arts projects in Peckham that exist legitimately. Considering the rising cost of rent in London combined with a diminished ability to occupy empty properties, does this mean the end for young aspiring artists hoping to eek out an existence in the capital? Matthew Stone doesn’t believe so. 

“My belief is that in every generation there will people who are able to breakthrough these bourgeois constraints,” he says. Fundamentally, that's what art and creativity is - the triumph over suffering. And I'm not in any way supporting the changes to squatting laws - I think they're criminal. I just believe that future generations will be able to change this. This isn’t the end for art.”

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