Towards sustainable artistic production?

The idea of the artist’s commune or collective is not a new one. It may, however, be a model that artists have to look at adopting increasingly as the world continues to go through its current massive shifts.

With fiscal deficits at an all time high, both public and private spending on the arts is likely to decrease rapidly. In addition, as fees increase, art school education is likely to become an expensive luxury for a small elite. So, what course can someone who wishes to dedicate his or her life to art take to survive and still create?

New artists’ communes might be the way forward. Most recent examples of these have been based on the ‘squatting’ principle, such as in Berlin after the wall came down, and in the decaying urban centres of the UK in the 1970s and 80s. Based on the ‘occupation’ of unused urban spaces, and having the then fashion of ‘dropping out’ at their heat as much as community and collectivism, many of these projects proved dually unsustainable.

For one, many of the participants soon tired of the hard work that maintaining such a community involved, and once they’d had their fun, soon left for nice jobs and homes in the suburbs.

Secondly, as urban living became fashionable, and cities became ‘regenerated’, abandoned warehouses, factories and big houses were converted into flats and the many squats, studios and clubs that had previously occupied them were forced to move on.

Despite this, there is still much redundant land in Britain’s cities that is crying out for a new use. Town centres may have been regenerated, but the ‘poverty doughnut’ between the suburbs and the inner core remains almost everywhere. With the urban, working-class communities that once lived there having a limited future once the industries that they relied on disappeared.

These areas are a massive headache for the powers that be. And once again, it might be the artists that lead the charge to renew what has been abandoned. The dock warehouses and old mills that artists once brought back into use might have now been taken back from them. But instead of moaning, artists should do what they do best and move forward, into the fringes, which is now the ‘poverty doughnut’.

These areas may lack the large, open-plan spaces of old factories and warehouses, but they do have spaces and properties that might be suitable for the creation of proper, sustainable artists communities, different from the unsustainable ‘drop out’ and ‘claim’ culture that marked much squatting.

Whole streets of houses and barren land are lying empty. Of course, if City Council’s can get people to buy these areas they will, but, with Britain’s post-industrial cities all still gently shrinking, they may have a job on their hands. Not to mention the fact that they have enough of a task already to get rid of all the empty ‘apartments’ thrown up before the property boom turned sour.

If artists’ groups could convince Council’s to hand over land, they could mark the basis of new sustainable communities that could help lead such areas from the blight they currently experience. Artists could work to grow food on currently barren land, restore houses for dwellings, abandoned pubs and shops for studio, exhibition and event space. Community members could make clothes, cook, clean and generate energy communally.

An area could be set aside for exhibitions and events, artists could work collaboratively to programme and produce work for spaces, and make money by selling tickets to events or artworks to visitors. Not to mention selling the craft and design products that could be produced by different community members such clothing, paper products and furniture.

Facilities for metal fabrication, multimedia work, printing etc could be shared, thus reducing costs. With laborious and monotonous work divided up equally, that would free time up for ‘creativity’ in whatever form that may take and, with artists not tied either to an employer or the welfare system, more time to express themselves and seek out new horizons.

It would be hard work of course, and a previous generation of artists used to easy social security money, free education and grants, cushy art jobs and state funding might find it a hard transition to get up off their arse and dig up the spuds in the morning.

But the current generation are different, adaptable and hard working, having been aware from the beginning that an arts life was not likely to be easy. Craft skills dismissed by previous generations interested more in ideas have come back into fashion. Knitting and making your clothes is now the in thing, while many artists who have gained work as fabricators and technicians in the many new public contemporary arts institutions that have opened over the last few years have also picked up practical construction, joinery, fabrication and electrical skills.

Artists moving to areas such as these could be at the cutting edge of culture, now that the city centre has been reclaimed by corporate interests and become sanitised and controlled.

Such communities might also help solve the problem of the skyrocketing cost of art education. Communes could take on apprentices, like in days of yore. Instead of taking a foundation course, 16 year olds could move the commune and be fed and tutored in artistic and other skills by more senior members in exchange for labour. Inevitably some would fall out with their tutor’s way of doing things, but they could go off and form new communes elsewhere, driving art forward as ever. Such communes might even be eligible for state aid for doing such things.

Let’s not be naïve. Many City Councils would rather let land go to seed that give it away for free. Not to mention the hostility that many blighted communities might feel to ‘artistic’ outsiders moving into ‘their’ areas. But artists at their best can be some of the most dynamic, driven and open people in society. If both communities and those in authority can be engaged these ideas might be possible.

Along what lines such communities could be run would also be a big experiment in human nature. Many such groups start out with lovely anarchistic ideas only to descend into bitter hierarchies and in fighting.

But if anyone can do it, it’s probably artists. And if they can’t co-operate, there might not be much hope for the rest of society. Let’s get things started.

“The only thing that will redeem mankind is cooperation.”

Bertrand Russell

By Kenn Taylor