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“I want to say something like- when I’m in the studio, I almost feel like a kind of released animal in a way. It’s place for freedom.”

-Zavier Ellis

Zavier Ellis is a curator, artist, gallerist, collector, lecturer, and publisher. He has curated exhibitions internationally including Frankfurt, Berlin, Los Angeles, Naples, and Rome. He’s an avid collector while still maintaining a studio practice and has exhibited with world class galleries and museums. []

In Conversation, a research series that seeks to understand the needs for artist studio space, what it means to be an artist with a studio in London, and how we can bridge the gap between artists and property developers through conversation. This post features Michael Wallner, a digital artist.

What is your definition of studio space?

I would say it’s part laboratory and part free space. I want to say something like- when I’m in the studio, I almost feel like a kind of released animal in a way. It’s place for freedom, maybe we should say that.

The laboratory part is because it’s all about testing, experimenting, and making, but it’s also about absolute complete freedom, which of course is interrelated. Physically, then of course, it depends on one’s practice. I work from small works on paper to monumental paintings up to two by three metres and potentially bigger. So for me, I certainly need my physical space to be big enough to operate. I work with a lot of different materials from industrial materials, to house paint in motion, glass, spray paints to traditional materials, acrylic, oil, pencil. There are even collage elements, and sometimes the work goes more towards assemblage… So I have a lot of materials. Therefore, I do need a lot of space. I think going back to what I said originally, about needing some sort of freedom, from my point of view, I also need solitude. And so of course, many artists share spaces don’t they? But I personally think it’s very important to be able to close oneself off and to have solitude. 

Collaborative, communal studios are on the rise. Do you believe this formula can work?

I think I’m probably further down the “solitudinal” line than other artists. I do know other artists that share the space, the room, whatever you want to call it, and I’m very happy to do that. I think for most artists, it’s important to have other artists nearby. I think my solution or my recommendation would be fairly close to how studio complexes are set up now, which is groups of artists working within the same building or could be interconnected buildings, but ideally with their own singular working space. 

When you were in London, do you believe that being in the city had an impact on your art?

Yes, definitely. My work has always responded to the urban environment and to the surfaces that we encounter within cities. So absolutely, you know, from graffiti to street signs, the texture of brickwork and the materiality of an urban surface. I make work that’s a combination of the use of text in various ways and action painting– very expressive techniques. Within London, there’ll be the old historical, hand painted adverts, you know, sort of almost ghosts on the sides of buildings that reinforce me. I have hundreds if not thousands of photographs of surfaces or elements of the urban environment.

As I said it could be just a bit of graffiti, could be a doorway, could be bad signage in particular, like sort of bad handwritten signage, almost assemblages. I remember photographing a kiosk in New York and it had these different signs battered up all over the place. And for me, that was almost a work of art right there in itself. I have photographs from all of my travels from Barcelona, from New York, etc. And because I was operating in London and working and living in London for 20 years, it’s very much a practice that fits into my work and still does as well.

What were your driving forces for moving outside of London?

Um, I guess it was numerous. I mean, fundamentally, I had a small child. So it was a family decision, really, in terms of where did we want to bring up children. I kind of already felt like I was ready to leave London.

I come from outside of London, from Windsor. And so I’m used to being able to use London whenever I need to, but I also am used to the countryside and open air. And I think for most people, when they get to certain points in their life, they kind of go back to needing that again. So I was already feeling the need for, well you could say the countryside, perhaps a more quiet environment. But of course, I’m still working in London, three days a week minimum. Also, thinking architecturally, there’s more physical space, and you get more for your money- whether you’re renting, whether you’re buying, whether it’s  residential, whether it’s studio, whether it’s industrial; you get more for your money outside of town as well. I actually rent out of a barn. I wouldn’t be able to do that in London.

What do you think the future of studio space will look like?

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens after this. This crisis we’re in at the moment, with the COVID-19 crisis forcing people to be at home, is going to encourage, or rather enforce, a reassessment of work in practice and how we live our lives generally. Relating to the environments that we live in, I can see as a result of this, people are becoming a lot more used to and open to working from home.

And I think obviously the biggest problem with artists studios is that artists tend to identify an area, and after the artists colonise an area, then small business colonises the area then the property increases in value. And of course, ultimately, most of the artists end up getting priced out of that particular area they’ve just found. So I think it’s very difficult to see how artists are always on the move, unfortunately. But then again, having said unfortunately, artists are very adaptable. So, I think that’s a problem without doubt.

In London I’ve seen Hackney get completely squeezed from both sides you know that was a big, centralised area for artists. I think it’s getting squeezed from the Olympic developments on one side and the inner city from the other side. I think really the future we’ve seen is decentralisation and sort of artists diaspora where they are moving to Margate or Hastings. And of course, there’ll be other areas as well. That doesn’t necessarily mean I’m one of them, even though that wasn’t necessarily the reason that I left town.

How do you believe we can ensure that artists stay in London?

 It’s got to be down to cost doesn’t it? Artists will need assurance that they can rent for within a given price band for a given amount of time. And it would be interesting to see if there could ever be a “right to buy” type scenario as well. They could be renting studio spaces, but it could be part rent/ part purchase. In that sense, then there could be bigger industrial spaces or you could buy a warehouse and then divide it up into a given amount of artists studios and sell to them as singular industrial units.

How do you think artists can collaborate and communicate with developers in London to try to maintain that cultural community?

I think that has to be developer-lead doesn’t it? Or you know, people such as yourselves. I would put together a think tank where you have your developers, a certain amounts of artists, a certain amounts gallerists, and curators and set up a think tank and go through it together. And of course, you know, you can reach a lot of artists via existing studios or art colleges, even though they might be a bit young at that point. But yeah, I think that would make sense wouldn’t it? A think tank with various people from various sectors.  


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