The visual arts have long been a major factor in gentrification, from the artists who moved in to the Lower East Side and East Village of Manhattan in the 1980s to the continuing colonisation of former East Berlin districts Kreuzberg and Prinzlauerberg by marauding hordes of Northern European sculptors. (This has provided ample fodder for artists as well; collectives like Group Material, who were a part of the gentrification of Lower Manhattan, made work about the local / non-local divide and other such socio-economic issues their own gallery brought about.)
The role of the visual arts in East London’s gentrification is also a hackneyed (ha! see what we did there?) story. White Cube moved to Hoxton Square, Tracey Emin et al. set up shop in Whitechapel, and the rest is history. While that’s all true, it’s A) curious that such a marginal segment of society and of the economy can have such an impact in dictating economic-geographical trends (yes, we just made that appellation up); B) reductionary, positioning the arts as some sort of housing-value vanguard; and C) assumes a levelling factor whereby all artists’ spaces are interested in is, ultimately, cheap rent.
It also lends itself to a moralising narrative whereby East London was once colonised by ‘good’ artists’ spaces, which have now sadly been ‘lost’ as ‘bad’ commercial spaces — shops and restaurants that can afford the higher rent — have been set up. This implicit positive valuation of the visual arts is peculiar considering most people outside of the sector think contemporary art is just taking the piss. And, if ‘interaction with a local audience’ is the benchmark for goodness, as it is in many funding applications, neither artists’ spaces nor chichi restaurants do very well on that criterion.
This was all thrown under the shining beacon of the DLR when we saw that Portikus, a respected art institution in Frankfurt, was doing an exhibition of Flaca, a former exhibition space on Broadway Market that is now 69b, an organic clothing shop. (Yes. We don’t make this up. Organic clothing.) Flaca was run by the artist Tom Humphreys in what was the ground floor and basement of his house from 2003 to 2007. It fits nicely into the narrative above: once an exhibition space, back in the wild old days of mad Hackney, it is now a mildly worthy shop that no one really can afford to shop in.
Portikus, to a certain extent, underlines Flaca’s historical significance; that is, it positions the space itself, and not just the works in it, as something with historical value. (To be fair, Portikus does not mention gentrification in their material for the show, and focuses more on the idea that an artist’s space can be an artist’s artwork in itself. We’re leaning on it more heavily here for sure, but we’re a blog, and anonymous, so no one can sue us.) Now, Flaca did have historical value, but it wasn’t the kind of artist’s space such as City Racing which a group of artists coalesced around. It was apart from the dominant London scene of that period, and showed as many German artists as British (treacherous!). Still, many of these — like many of the UK artists it showed — are now more or less ‘established’ artists. In this way, it played an important role in providing many artists with a first solo show — historical value in the arts, but how that translates into Broadway Market’s crazy transformation into Islington we have no idea. (Though we are sure it did.)
So we are loath to see the rise and fall of Flaca, and its subsequent memorialisation in Germany, simply as a story of East London’s gentrification — though seeing the works installed in the institutional space of Portikus does seem like a monument to a particular moment in Hackney’s history. (Another such moment is probably occurring right now south of the river, but we’re too afraid to go.) Since you can’t go back in time, and you’re probably not going to Frankfurt, we present to you in this spirit of the Hackney That Was (a Few Years Ago), Flaca then and now: