The collective turning London’s empty buildings into art spaces

The collective turning London’s empty buildings into art spaces

SET are fighting back against gentrification and soaring real estate values to give 1,000 artists space to create, transforming disused office blocks, warehouses and shops into non-profit community studios.

In a soulless 1960s office block that could only have been home to Her Majesty’s Revenue & Customs, artists have been ripping up blue carpet squares, hanging sculptures between suspended strip lighting and sound-proofing cupboards. They’ve turned a vault once used to store petty cash fines into a late-night club for experimental music, and proposed a performance art piece to crack the code to its safe. Soon, Riverside House will be turned into luxury flats. But for now, an art collective called SET have taken over the vacant building to provide 250 creatives with affordable studios and 600 with work and exhibition space.

With rapid gentrification, sky-high rents, soaring university fees and a cost-of-living crisis forcing artists out of London, SET creates creative communities that reflect the interests of the neighbourhoods they’re located in. Conscious of art-washing, they insist that 50% of the studio holders, who decide the programme of events on each site, are residents of the local borough. “What we’re fighting is the hollowing out of London, where we become a capital where there aren't any artists living here and you just have large institutions like the Tate,” says Roland Fischer-Vousden, who co-founded SET with his childhood friends, musicians Ollie Tobin and Josh Field, in 2016.

Their first space took over a paint factory on Alscot Road in Bermondsey and housed a hundred artists working across sculpture, music, video, and performance. They were forced to move on in 2020, but have since opened 14 centres across London and currently support 1,000 artists across their eight sites.

SET takes advantage of ‘meanwhile use’: buildings that private landlords and councils leave vacant while development plans are stunted for financial, logistical or political reasons – sometimes for years. London has plenty of these. A report conducted by Green London assembly member Sian Berry last June found that the city had more than 400 publicly owned buildings sitting empty. Disused office space hit its highest levels in more than 15 years in August with over 31 million sq. ft left uninhabited – a 50% increase since before the pandemic.

But council buildings are competitive to secure, with a backlog of applications from the many charities vying for space. Additionally, private landlords can be nervous about offering buildings to community initiatives that could be seen as integral to the area in years to come. SET’s director of studios, Jemima Thomas, says landlords save money having a non-profit occupy their spaces in the interim, as they take responsibility for expenses like heat and electricity and keep the building compliant and secure, which the landlord would have to front if the property was empty. “We get charitable occupation of the building and an 80% reduction on rates,” she adds. This makes it viable for SET to occupy ramshackle spaces that businesses wouldn’t want to pay the full amount for.

Government bureaucracy is slow, so most of SET’s spaces are privately owned. In Ealing, they’ve housed 150 artists on two floors of a former pawnbrokers, mattress showroom and betting shop, and exhibit in an old University of Richmond building in Kensington. Their newest initiative, a members club that costs just £8 to join, supports emerging musicians in a former gym and community centre. It opened in Peckham last year after their music venue in Dalston became a hotel.

Emily Mahon, who grew up in Woolwich, points to the redevelopment in the neighbourhood since the 2012 Olympics from her vantage point on the 13th floor of Riverside House, and decries the lack of youth culture. Today, there’s Woolwich Works and performances by immersive theatre company Punchdrunk in the historic buildings of the Royal Arsenal, but little going on when it comes to late night music venues or grassroots initiatives. “There’s never been a nightlife scene,” she says. “Woolwich is quite residential but because we have our nights in an old vault, even though it’s on the street level, it’s completely soundproof, so we never have to worry about sound complaints.”

SET Woolwich hosts experimental music and techno nights that Mahon says she would have previously had to have gone to north east London for. “We’re doing this kind of squatter territory night scene but it’s also really careful and measured,” she explains. “It’s not exclusive, it’s completely open to the public, and it’s an initiative that’s pulled together by a young curator and a young director. Their webs of interest are in music and dance scenes, so it has a grassroots feel.”

Mahon joined SET as an assistant studio manager last year but has been a fan of the organisation since her first year at Goldsmith’s when it was in its initial iteration as DIG, a ten-person art collective started in 2013. “It carried the kudos of the youth, punk, DIY art world,” she says. While squatting in a warehouse in Lewisham (where they eventually came to an agreement with the landlord to become meantime residents), they hosted jazz nights, art exhibitions, life drawing classes and DJ sets.

Almost a decade on and SET remains dedicated to supporting multidisciplinary artists whose work is difficult to monetise. “There’s a lot of DJs in cupboards,” Mahon laughs, explaining that they’re actually much easier to soundproof than the temporary studios made from MDF. In a former cleaning storage room, Alesh Compton can be found using cyanotypes – a slow-reacting photographic printing formulation sensitive to an ultraviolet and blue light spectrum – to pattern clothes and fabrics.

At just £1.10 per square foot per month, studios are occupied by dancers like Nahum McLean, the founder of the African Diaspora Dance Association, and Lucy Ridley, who has a theatre production company called the People Pile. Els Jennings makes large-scale tufted tapestries out of colourful wool in a space she’s shared with her partner, who is a filmmaker, since March 2021. She relies on the affordable studio space for her full-time business, which she started during lockdown, and thrives on being part of something collaborative. “London is in quite a scary and depressing time,” she says. “But these kinds of things keep us here.”

Other studio members agree. In data collected from a survey in 2017, 90% of studio members said they could not afford space elsewhere, and 70% answered “no” when asked whether they could sustain their practice if forced to move elsewhere. LAASN, which represents a third of all artists in London, says it’s important to secure affordable workspaces for the future of art in the capital. Today, out of 13,500 artists that hold work space in London, 1,000 have studios at SET.

Since the late 1960s, London has had a colourful history of artists squatting in abandoned mansions, warehouses and shops, as art became synonymous with an anarchist lifestyle and the breaking of bourgeois constraints. In 1968, the abstract painter Brigette Riley formed a community of artists in a warehouse at St Katharine Docks, where, for a small rent and providing they agreed to leave when the developers moved in, artists were invited to create art on a much larger scale. She named it SPACE, which now operates 17 studios in London and Essex, and has inspired similar organisations like Acme, Bow Arts, Second Floor Studios, and The Koppel Project.

“What tends to happen, for good reason, is that those organisations eventually try and get permanent buildings and stop doing the meanwhile-use side of things because it's difficult to move around,” says Fischer-Vousden. “Ideally we would like a permanent centre too,” but the flip-side is that these places can not offer as many sites to fill the need for all the new artists coming through who need access to those facilities.

Ultimately, the varied fabric of the temporary structures can be a source of inspiration for the artists too. Eleni Papazoglou hosted an exhibition called HOW IT FEELS at SET Social on March 18, which explored paraphernalia found in the former church, gymnasium and community centre, while Catriona Robertson, a Saatchi Gallery’s UK New Artist of the Year, created worms made from carpet slabs and insulation she found in Riverside House. “A lot of the artists have wanted to respond to the former use of the buildings, which is quite noticeable across our sites,” says SET curator Ellie Dobbs. “Our Lewisham one is a former Mother Care and for Mother's Day last year, we had an exhibition called Parental Guidance, which is about your relationship with your parents.”

SET can also offer a solution for governments wanting to revitalise a city that leaves artists feeling stressed and hopeless as the cost of living makes it increasingly impossible to create. Jenkin van Zyl, who has been with SET since the beginning, says artist-run spaces like this one help to “counteract the hellishness that can plague London,” offering a collaborative environment that has “artists rather than landlords or developers in mind.” Instead of letting vacant properties sit empty, landlords could be forced to either sell, use or donate their premises to councils. Not only would this preserve the capital’s creativity but it could serve as a blueprint for our housing crisis too.

Read more of Emma's work.