“Creativity doesn’t cost anything but the space and culture it produces is invaluable.”
In many ways, the proliferation of COVID-19 marks an epoch-defining moment in human history. We are confronted with an urgency to change the way we do things both socially and productively but, most of all, how we occupy space.
In his book, The Production of Space (1991), Henri Lefebvre attempted to bridge the gap between mental space and physical space and, in doing so, proposed that space is a social construct based on values and the social production of meanings. The idea that there is “not enough space” could then be understood stemming from the social construct that certain spaces be it cities (to live in) or shopping malls (on a rainy Saturday afternoon) have more value than others, such as the countryside or agricultural space for instance, even though these may be more integral for our survival.
The city is a space that produces itself both socially and physically. In times of economic crisis, cities become emptier, while production slows down, buildings become vacant. During the ’80s and ’90s, we saw a shift in how space was used and therefore valued. In London, for instance, old factories and warehouses were vacated while new highrises, the likes of which were never seen before in the city, were filling up with an emerging generation of professional.
The change in the use of space or disuse of space, warehouses, left opportunities for another type of professional, the generation of London’s artists that later became to be known as the YBA’s. The combined result of the economic downturn, the availability of student grants, and a new use of space. That generation of artists identified the opportunities latent in those turbulent times and occupied the newly available yet rundown spaces for both artistic production and presentation in exhibitions such as Freeze. Meanwhile, other artists such as fashion designer, Alexander McQueen, bands such as Blur and Pulp, architects, product designers, graphic designers and even graffiti artists started taking advantage of these unwanted spaces as sites for their expression.
The conditions we see today are even more extreme. Space is being reproduced at such a rapid pace that we have no idea what the implications may be. On one hand, the compulsory rise of smart working is leaving traditional office space defunct, and on the other, our government are pumping as many resources as they can into the construction industry. This time, COVID-19 has changed the way we use space, literally overnight, and in turn, has ignited economic instability already causing many businesses to close down.
This means that once again we may see an abundance of disused space all around everywhere. I see this as a huge opportunity for artists. We thrive off space and space thrives off us. Without delving into the mechanics and associated pitfalls of gentrification, we can safely assume that artistic activity in an area can have both cultural and economic benefits. There are serious questions around future uses of space in the city, what will become of unused office space with the lean towards smart working.
Even more critical are the questions about the value artists have in our society and the production of cultural space, which is hugely under threat both from this reproduction of space and the added absurdity of the suggestion to retrain. But if we don’t support artists back to their feet, we could see a fall in the production of culture and in turn the space that culture produces. In his recent piece in the Guardian, Tim Burgess points out that artists have always done other jobs. Like Burgess, for many years, me being an artist meant I was always working several jobs. At one point a normal week would be doing shifts in restaurants for 20 hours a week, DJing on a Saturday night while working on freelance graphic design contracts. The rest of the week I slept, ate and made sculptures!
The pandemic has highlighted that in some areas of society and policy making there is very little understanding of what artists actually do – what it really means to be an artist. Creativity doesn’t cost anything but the space and culture it produces is invaluable.