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Gareth himselfGareth Pugh

Children of !WOWOW!

Members of the radical art squat look back alongside exclusive Gareth Pugh polaroids

!WOWOW! began life ten years ago in the back room of the Joiners Arms pub in South London. Matthew Stone and Hanna Hanra, both Camberwell students, envisioned their creation as a small, performance art night. Less than a year later, they had squatted four floors in an abandoned department store known as the Co-operative and !WOWOW! had evolved into a catch-all creative network, art collective, with the Co-op functioning as a physical nexus for studios, residencies, exhibitions, and warehouse parties. 

With a major clampdown on squatting now in operation, it’s hard to imagine a future where graduates could live, work and refine their art – all without the looming spectre of rent – as easily. While members of !WOWOW! openly resist defining what the group is or was (although a de facto philosophy, “the Universe will provide”, frequently pops up), there’s no question that the self-organised collective proved there were vital, exciting alternatives to the typical post-graduate career path.    

This week, LuckyPDF presents an exhibition that looks back on the !WOWOW! years, alongside a more recent take on the South London art scene and its environs. Collected ephemera, historical materials and archival footage all feature in the show, alongside Gareth Pugh's Polaroids of the time (previewed here) and an open Wiki to crowdsource public memories. Here, the children of !WOWOW! look back on their time at the Co-op. 

MATTHEW STONE, artist and photographer

At art school, people constantly talked about the fact that everything had been done and that we’d missed out experiencing authentic youth culture movements. But actually, you can invent your own narratives: we did something that was authentic, exciting and vital, that anyone could get involved with. It felt like we were our own audience. We essentially had our own institutions; it was like, “we are doing things because they will be meaningful as they happen” rather than securing our careers.

The last big party that we did was huge: 13 bands, over 2000 people in a freezing warehouse in November. But there was never a conversation afterwards whether we’d do another. I think we just knew that logically the next step would be doing a festival and we were just like, “Wait. This isn’t what this is about.” We didn’t want to use it as a way to make a commercial venture. But I don’t think that it was dissolved in a formal way - you know, some people say it never ended – we’re not doing events with that name, but a lot of those creative partnerships that were formed in that period continue. 

HANNA HANRA, editor and writer

We both wanted somewhere we could exercise sharing music we wanted to hear and dance to and be silly to – the only other local night clubs were too uptight. I think Matthew said we should call it Wow and I said, “Wowow!” 

I don't think I ever thought it was anything more than a group of kids working out who they are and their place in the world. Rather than travel or get a traditional job, we all felt like we could all forge our own path, together at the same time. 2003 was a very different time to now: the war (!) had just started, there was still money – it felt like anything was possible (although obviously it still is). But it was also a lot more naive – we didn't do stuff to get Facebook likes. We did it because we felt it.

ISA GT, producer, DJ and record label owner

As soon as I met Tamzin [Brown], Matthew and James [Balmforth] and started hanging out more and more at the squat, I decided to quite my regular job as an assistant editor in Soho and to pursue my artistic career. Just the fact that people from !WOWOW! were living and working in unused spaces, constantly putting on shows and bringing this forgotten spaces to life was the biggest example of our philosophy. To be open, creative, to give use to stuff that otherwise would be chucked away and wasted (like food). To look for housing solutions for artists in London a city where every day life is incredibly expensive. It would be amazing to bring a new version of !WOWOW! again – I think the city needs it.

TARA GRANT, designer

It was a perfect collaboration of amazingly passionate people with skills that complemented each other's talents. Fashion designers had a stylist; artists had an exibition to show in; photographers had subjects; musicians had audiences... We created everything we needed in our world ourselves and took it forward with us. Until !WOWOW!, I couldnt envisage a career out of something I enjoyed doing so much. !WOWOW! was my further education, the MA I never felt I needed because of it. I grew up so much in these years, it was how I bridged the gap between studying product design and working in fashion industry. It installed a confidence in me that everything was possible.

MILLIE BROWN, performance artist

I knew from the second I walked in to the co-op house that something very powerful was happening, there was a feeling that whatever you wanted to do and be, it was possible. There was a sense of wholeness, inspiration and support amongst each other. We created our own world around us. 

The fact that I was broke didn’t concern me. Whether it was collecting the leftover fruit and veg from the markets to make huge banquets or using shopping trollies as a means to transport art, we always found a way. I was 17 years old, living out my dreams in an incredible space surrounded by inspirational people. I had no real concerns as I knew the universe would always provide.

PIPA GREENBANK, designer and co-founder of 3939 

Looking back, !WOWOW! was like a blank canvas. We could do what we wanted how we wanteded and we coloured it as many colours possible, all without a penny to our name. It was a time where making a scene was more important than making money. I don't think !WOWOW! ended; I could compare it to the Spice Girls. They never announced a split up. They went off in their own ways but they are still and always will be Spice Girls. And once in a while, we are still blessed with a reunion. The spirit lives on. Viva Forever!

LuckyPDF present: From !WOWOW! to NOW NOW!, Part 1 is open now as part of The Moving Museum's Open Heart Surgery.