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SET Theory

Alex Thomas

Trying to find an affordable art studio in London is hard nowadays, unless you’re willing to paint nice protraits of people’s dogs and children on commission. The housing crisis in the capital has squeezed the stock of studios, whilst pushing up the prices that landlords can charge for them, now way beyond the reach of most aspiring young art school graduates. Out of desperation to find adequate affordable space, many take their talent and knowledge elsewhere, to other parts of the UK or abroad. For those that stay behind, however, squatting unoccupied buildings has become an ever more attractive prospect, extreme action born of necessity and a completely reasonable sense of injustice. Whilst squatting non-residential buildings is not illegal, the conditions that these buildings are in often make them unsuitable for habitation. Landlords frequently break the supply-lines of utilities to make the sites as unappealing as possible to occupiers, and, in recent years, spend vast amounts of money hiring security firms to “guard” the buildings from unauthorised occupancy. The result of this has been the rise of the highly opportunistic and exploitative industry of so-called “property guardianship”, whereby private companies rip off students, artists, and those most vulnerable to the capital’s distorted rental market by providing sometimes shockingly poor living space with no-rights contracts that allow immediate eviction at any time. This is where the story of SET begins.

SET was founded by artist Josh Field and writer Roland Fischer-Vousden, two friends who saw in the property guardianship model the opportunity not for profit-making buccaneerism but for redressing the chronic shortage of affordable artists’ studios in the capital. They negotiate with landlords to take on shorthold tenancies for commercial sites across the city that would otherwise be standing vacant. Within these sites, the SET management create all varieties of studios for rent, ranging from 2m2 desk spaces to large self-contained units for independent collectives. One of the core aims of SET is the provision of studios to artists at the lowest possible rates, in collaborative community environments that facilitate artistic practice. However, it is the programme of public events that SET puts on across its sites which makes it such a positive example of a creative reaction to the increasingly challenging conditions for emerging artists in the city. In their desire to provide affordable studios for artists, whilst simultaneously curating a programme of events that gives the public free access to emerging contemporary art, Field and Fischer-Vousden have taken up the rules of the property game and turned them to their own (and everyone else’s) advantage.

SET curates a programme of installed and performed art. On my two visits last month to the space in Bermondsey, I saw an installation by artist collective ‘East Anglia Records’, who are studio tenants in another SET space in East London, and watched one in a series of performance events called ‘Oral Rinse’, which is curated by artists Amelia and Martha Barratt. The standout work from the East Anglia Records show was that of Lithuanian-born London-based artist, Ulijona Odišarija, who engaged in a playful dialogue with mundane objects, presenting them in unusual contexts, which forced upon the viewer a defamiliarization and re-evaluation of the objects in question. The work entitled ‘Such a sincere and uplifting pastry’ turned out to be a croissant stuck high up on a wall between two small canvases, whilst ‘Prototype for a promise’ was a peanut placed on the heel of a wooden shoe balancing on a window ledge. The simple serenity of ‘Mobile’ – a combination of cotton buds and fishing line – was perhaps the most effective reminder of art’s power to challenge and renew our perception of the everyday world of things that surrounds us.

‘Oral Rinse’ was by contrast a visceral interaction between the audience and the performers, whose delivery styles spanned the spectrum from deadpan and guarded, to extrovert outbursts of energy on stage. The event was comprised of song, poetry, prose reading, and performance art. Those perfomances grounded in text were the most nuanced, conveying an ambiguous emotion through words that pulled back enough of the proverbial wool to reveal something about the artist, but leaving the audience with the strong sense that the words themselves were only one part of the story. It was in the poetry of Cardiff-born artist Nan Moore that this was most palpable. Moore asked the audience to listen for what was left unsaid, as her words painfully traced the inability of language to communicate completely. Succeeding Moore’s performance was Chooc Ly Tan, who used her charismatic personality and strong French accent to clever comic effect whilst conducting what was essentially a science experiment on stage (an exothermic reaction, as she made clear on more than one occasion). She combined this with a series of hilariously bemusing and unexpected audio-visual effects, such as a spinning tortoise on a spaceship accompanied by retro computer noises. 

Located within SET Bermondsey is Chats, an artist-run community cafe conceived by Berry Patten, whose artistic practice draws on the performative dimensions of hosting and cooking. As well as serving high-quality food at artist-affordable rates, Chats creates a space for the studio holders to come together alongside members of the public, which in turn facilitates entry into the often hostile gallery space through the safe environment of a familiar social setting. As an extension of artistic practice, Chats presents interesting challenges to the perception of art as commodity, where instead of buying abstracted satisfaction from a material object, the art consumer pays for nourishment of the literal kind in a carefully curated experience and space.

Besides the artistic programme, SET also reaches out to the public through running regular talks, reading groups and workshops, as well as providing space for community activities and classes, all of which are free. Through its open-door policy, and in actively seeking to involve the local community in the life of the organisation, SET stands apart from others of its kind. Its localised action is making much needed threads of repair to the fabric of parts of the city worn thin by decades of cuts and unscrupulous developers, areas that have been systematically stripped of their community centres, pubs, libraries, and youth clubs. There is no shortage of artists in London to fill the spaces – SET studios are snapped up as fast as they appear. However, SET needs more than just artists to flourish – it needs the recognition of the broader philanthropic community to support its work and enable it to maintain a healthy stock of spaces. For the underlying tragedy of SET is that every space is temporary, and the artists they bring in, who cause an outburst of life and creativity in overlooked corners of the city, exist as mere interim caretakers for an industry that condemns them to an unending cycle of insecurity and uncertainty. It would seem that the ephemerality of the art that emerges from spaces like SET is a symptom of the temporary nature of those sites that its makers are forced to occupy. The tension between transience and permanence is always a concern for emerging artists. Spaces such as SET crucially permit art to be transient without being ignored.

Alex Thomas is reading for an M.St in Russian literature at Kellogg College, Oxford. All images in this article belong to the author. The website for SET is here.