Empty Shops and YBAs

I seem to have got myself involved in a rather exciting project this week. On Wednesday I’ll be going to do some work on a project called “Seven Days in Seven Dials” for the Empty Shops Network. Although I’ve already blogged about the basics of Empty Shops elsewhere, I thought there was another connection worth exploring.

Waaay back in the early 90s, about the time that I was leaving college, Damien Hirst and a few other were organising art shows in derelict spaces. Fresh out of Goldsmiths College, they were doing what the Empty Shops Network are doing now – taking a derelict space, and turning it into an art space with the support of the landlord, for little or no money as a means of showing off the space. Bringing life and excitement to an otherwise run-down area. Creating space for artists to show. The most well-known and well documented of these was a show known as Freeze.

Of course, as a young, newly graduated artist, this was music to my ears. Find an empty space, do it up yourself and bypass the need to find a gallery to represent you – galleries being a notoriously closed system that’s hard to break into.

BUT. What I kind of glossed over at the time, was that it was gallerists who were invited to Freeze. A lot of the talk was of democratizing the possibilities of arts exhibition spaces, and a part of me was excited that I could bypass my anxieties about meeting gallerists, by just doing it myself. However, I didn’t realise that if I was truly going to follow the plan, I would still have to talk to gallerists at some point. They weren’t just going to walk into my tarted-up space without any kind of connection just because the lights were now on and the space looked pretty. Of course, with a wide circle of friends, I could always guarantee a rent-a-crowd of mates, but most of them were as poor as me, and weren’t likely to buy anything.

But there was a further problem. Putting a derelict space to good use is all very noble, but what are the long term benefits? Did I really care about the area I was exhibiting in, and the people who lived there? Let me put it this way – was it fair of me to go in, put on a show, take the money and run? Wasn’t this a hit-and-run? A cultural form of rape, pillage and plunder?

Clearly I wanted and needed to be paid for what I was doing. That’s not an issue. But could it be possible to genuinely do some good as well?

It’s now some 20 years since the Freeze show, and most of the artists that were involved it are now mega-rich former YBAs, (What do you call a Middle-Aged former YBA? An MBA?)

But what of the idea of exhibiting in derelict spaces? I’m very proud to be involved with “Seven Days in Seven Dials” this week. I’ll be working with them all day Wednesday. Here’s a brilliant example of artists giving something rather than taking away. Working with unemployed people on work experience at some of the major institutions around London (Create KX, Design Council, English National Opera, Exhibition Road, The Hospital Club, National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House, Somerset House and the V&A Museum), it gives them a chance to build their own picture of the area, and a voice to be heard. They’ll be creating psychogeography-style podcast audio tours around the area, as well as taking photos and creating art for an empty unused shop space.

Today has been the first day of activity, and I’m already excited by hearing that the first team of seven people have been sent out to do their stuff around and about. Lloyd Davis has also shot a few photos and uploaded them to Flickr.

The thing will develop and grow over the next 7 days culminating in a show which will run from Saturday 10 July until Friday 23 July 2010. You can go in right now though, and look at it all before then.

If you want to keep up with things online and can’t get there in person, then best way is to follow the #7days7dials hashtag. If you search that hashtag out on Twitter, you’ll find all the people involved (including me) doing their thing and there are plenty of interesting people to follow.

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