Arcade fires

Francesca Gavin looks at the burgeoning art scene in Peckham

Peckham used to be the last cultural frontier of London. A place better know for illegal squat parties and urban decay than art. Now, in certain circles, it stands for Bold Tendencies, Flat Time House, The Sunday Painter, Arcadia Missa, PAMI, N/V Projects, South London Art Map, Hannah Barry gallery, Art Licks tours. Somehow this enclave of southeast London has become the most vibrant area for emerging art. Why Peckham? 

In a city overrun by gentrification, Peckham still has spaces that are cheap, able to be borrowed and transformed. The area is also near to two very good London art schools – Camberwell and Goldsmiths – both known for producing students with a DIY approach to creativity. Peckham’s art scene grew out of students from these schools setting up shows for each other, pushing their own boundaries. It was also an area that people who were first moving to London could afford to live and create a network. 

PAMI is one of the most interesting cross-Peckham projects to have emerged in recent years. Now in its third incarnation, The Peckham Artist Moving Image festival grew out of organiser Harriet Blaise Mitchell’s “maddening experience… while trying to put on a moving image show in an empty shop on Rye Lane and getting ignored by everyone I contacted”. She decided to hook up with friends, persuade shop owners to lend their spaces to artists to show work, and create a project that showcases the best of contemporary moving image work. John Hill and Yuri Pattison from Lucky PDF pitched in to help with the online content and design of the project respectively. 

The festival juggles programming by the independent spaces and Mitchell’s own curation. “The first time PAMI happened it was a very short turnaround from idea to event, and this low-budget, high-energy approach has come to define the festival in some ways,” she explains. It was that hands-on vibe that made PAMI so exciting. Wandering through the back streets with a printed map looking for video and projection works in homes, shops, and odd spaces around the area. “Since we operate without funding, we definitely have a more lo-fi approach.” She notes, “There’s a bit of a scramble to borrow each other’s equipment but the shows comes out well and there is a genuine spirit of helping each other out.” This year’s highlights include installations by artist Nicole Morris and artist-writer Jonathan P Watts, an off-site project from Candice Jacobs and evenings organised by Flat Time House’s MFI Group using the power supply along Choumert Road Market. 

Rózsa Zita Farkas and Tom Clark’s Peckham space Arcadia Missa is specifically focused on new media and performance. Its tightly curated programme has included artists like Helga Wretman, Hannah Perry, LuckyPDF, Harry Sanderson, XYM and Megan Rooney. There is also a strong publication side to what they do – they have a journal ‘How to Sleep Faster’, an eJournal HTSF, a yearly anthology, and are beginning to publish limited edition artist or creative writers’ publications. The space, which is a studio complex slash office centre on Bellenden Road, has moved into representing a number of the artists they show. Farkas grew up in Peckham so staying in the area was an easy choice. “I think Peckham has been a location for a lot of really great critical discussions over the last few years, probably because it is so obviously in the middle of a lot of problems in London, increasingly around the politics of regeneration – which of course encompasses a whole set of questions in regard to art.” She notes.

The Sunday Painter, which overlooks the platform of Peckham Rye station, has established itself as one of the most pro galleries in the area. The trio behind the gallery Will Jarvis, Grace Schofield and Harry Beer called the space The Sunday Painter in response to an insult from a Camberwell tutor. It began as a project space but with a conventional white cube philosophy made its commercial side step natural. For Grace the reason why things are happening in the area is the reflection of a “high concentration of bright people who are more concerned with a wider context rather than just being trendy”. She points out, “Its becoming more relevant in its relation to a wider art world, the danger is that if things are lumped into bracket's then people see the gimmick before the art.” There is no gimmick behind their shows which has included stand out shows from Jesse Wine, Rob Chavasse and bubblebyte.org.

New spaces are constantly popping up in the area including a number in people’s homes such as Millington Marriot and 38b. The latter was set up by Eva Rowson and artists Luke Drozd in 2010. “Luke wanted to show some recent work and the most immediate, cheapest way to do this was to transform our living room in Peckham into an exhibition space.” Rowson recalls. “People came to the opening and it was fun so we carried on.” The put on 3 to 4 shows a year and live around them, transforming the spaces depending on the show. “Some [artists] have preferred to strip the room of any trace of our inhabitancy and use it as a white walled gallery and others have enjoyed playing with the domesticity of the setting and keeping it very much as a living space.” This year they are taking part in PAMI for the first time with a show by Yvonne Carmichael and Art Licks Weekend in October with Tom Railton. 

Bold Tendancies beyond anything has had a major influence on transforming the image of Peckham and bringing in punters. The project was started by gallerist Hannah Barry, who had the idea to make a sculpture park in an empty car park in 2007. Last year it attracted 60,000 visitors last year. The presence of Frank’s Campari bar, an insanely good view of the city and artworks by people like Stephen Claydon, Laura Buckley, Camille Henrot and Mircea Cantor made it one of the most exciting projects in the city. 

Head of Programme Joe Balfour has been working on the project since 2008, introducing moving image, dance and music alongside the exhibition. “I believe [Bold Tendancies] has had a role in advancing the media stereotype of the area beyond that place of gang crime and Del boy to something that is essentially more positive. 'Peckham', for the time being has a brand value and whilst the cynics say this is more power to the few, I say it's all still up for grabs so have a go at something yourself.” 

It is facile and unrealistic to lump artists or places together as having a single aesthetic. The thing that makes Peckham stand out the moment is the curators and artists in the area’s ability to stand up, do something and not wait for funding or approval. In many ways they are doing what much of the East End used to do or what the border of Hackney Wick are becoming. Peckham’s project spaces, commercial galleries, community projects, festivals, book fairs and performances in thrive because there is a creative community wanting to support them. There is something about Peckham that feels more possible than in many parts of the globe. Proof that the best things grow in the most unexpected places. 

PAMI runs Sept 19-22 pami.org.uk; arcadiamissa.com; thesundaypainter.co.uk; 38bprojects.com; boldtendencies.com

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