Room to move

This essay reflects my personal experience of working as a studio-based artist in London since 1994. During this time much has changed in studio culture and the way in which artists work. Twenty-four years ago I didn’t have a computer and lived in a small bedsit that was impossible to work in – for me, an external studio was a necessity, particularly as I worked with various materials and hazardous processes that could not be used in a domestic environment.  I sometimes wonder if I still need a studio, partly by thinking about the amount of time that I don’t spend in the studio.  But even when I am not there, it is still there: it facilitates my practice in a way that could not be replaced if I was without it.

In Jen’s Hoffmann’s introduction to ‘The Studio’, part of Whitechapel Gallery’s ‘Documents of Contemporary Art’ series, he writes that ‘the artist’s studio has thus far received little attention as a topic for critical examination’ and is ‘due for a more profound critique’. For my part, we need a way to understand how artists use their studios and the impact that studio space has on what they do.  Such commentary would be useful to support planning, management and building decisions that are taking place in studio space, both for professional artists and in higher education.

In working on this essay I found no research concerning the impact of available space on arts practice – how and if restrictions on spaces encourage artists to make particular kinds of work. Aesthetic descriptions are particularly common in accounts of artists’ studios – something of the aesthetic of a space, as the site of reflection, must be acknowledged in the work produced. What was missing from these descriptions is what interests me – there was no comment on the relationship between the scale, accessibility and fabric of artworks and where the artist works. How do physical and therefore economic constraints impact on an artist’s work? What if you want to make large-scale work, but your finances mean you can only have a small studio?

Many commentators suggest we are in a ‘post-studio’[ii] culture – that artists no longer need a dedicated studio space, and that studios are a luxury in a city like London where property is so expensive.  Nowadays it is suggested that you are more likely to develop work at the kitchen table, on a laptop – delivering it electronically to a fabricator to be made; or you will work outside, in a gallery or in some other non-studio context. However, artists who work with and through materials and their manipulation will always need a studio of some kind.  In relation to this, I am interested in how the evolving nature of studio space is affecting the type of work that artists make – whether or not large sculpture or furniture is still being made in inner-city studios. As is now well understood, for example in the GLA Artists Workspace Study (2014/2018), studios, particularly in cities, are becoming both harder to find and much more expensive. In London, studio spaces have been included in new developments for many years, often in association with large studio providers. These are frequently located on the ground floor of blocks of luxury flats, alongside shop units; the inclusion of cultural spaces helps to gain planning consent. Whether they also offer the variety of sizes of studio, where noise and dust can be made, near a domestic setting, is perhaps more of an open question.

I am a maker of objects: physical things exist and populate my space.  I don’t make huge work, but I do need to be able to walk around it, to step back from it and to have enough storage. I share my studio with David, my partner, who is a furniture designer and maker. We make work both together and alone, currently in an 800 ft2 space in South East London, having moved here in 2012 from a 1350 ft2 space.  Given the smaller space we had little choice but to downsize, but since our previous rent had suddenly skyrocketed we had no choice but to move.  Looking for a new studio felt like a long process – we needed something affordable that could fit our equipment and the work that we were making and that was within an hour from home.  At one point we even considered finding a space outside of London, camping out at it during the week and coming home to London at the weekend.

In order to make the move we needed to physically adjust to the new smaller studio and to clear out some of the stuff we had in our bigger place. We put wheels on most of our machinery and studio furniture so that we could move things around and make the space more flexible.  Our work has changed through this adjustment, we have to make work that is feasible in the size of space that we have, and have had to evolve some new processes that can be accommodated there. If we need to look at a piece of work at a distance it can be difficult – we often bump into things. We might need to turn a large piece of wood around or acquire new equipment, we have a winch door through which we move heavier materials and equipment and the storage space is never large enough. As I have said our work is usually of a domestic, human scale, but it is, however, often exhibited alongside much bigger work, and we feel a pressure to sometimes make bigger things too.  We show and sell in an art and design market where monumentality can be a requirement; we need to make work that is suitable for this market so we can sell it, but market forces may restrict us in finding a suitable studio to do this.

The artist Rachel Ara recently commented on Instagram: ‘Two shows just finished and another one coming back this week, having to fit all this into a small store and having to throw away artworks (that hurts).’ We also sometimes throw things away or destroy work and some is made up of parts to be dismantled for storing in our loft at home or with our gallerist. But the requirement to throw away or dismantle work raises the question of whether only small work can be made and seen more widely in future as well as whether larger unsold works are relegated to the bin, if made at all.

I often work away from the studio: in residencies, in walking projects, making work in installations and performances. In 2012 I worked with the choreographer and dancer Laila Diallo, commissioned by Siobhan Davies Dance to share a six-week residency. We were asked to develop a working relationship from scratch, sharing our processes of making with the public, both working live and through a blog. Our residency began with us each bringing a suitcase of things to share and work from. The residency was mainly based in large dance studios – empty spaces that only come alive when populated by bodies and things. I found that working with Laila with room for considerable movement enabled a type of thinking that I rarely encounter – and it was exhilarating to be able to physically move and discover ideas through movement.  Laila and I have both been interested in the differences between making alone, in front of others or with an audience, and it was that interest that fuelled our later work ‘Edge and Shore: Acts of Doing’ which we made as installations and performances at the Dovecot, Edinburgh (2015), Arnolfini, Bristol (2015) and Whitechapel Gallery, London (2016). We wanted to show both something of the studio process through these works, and to understand how the act of developing work changes while you are being watched by an audience – where there is a tendency to be more aware of your own actions and very little time feeling completely detached from watching eyes.

As many artists now rely on residencies to afford them space to work in, it is useful to consider whether temporary spaces can replace a permanent studio. Often when I was working in a temporary environment my mind would be transported to my permanent space, from which I could siphon information on processes and materials that I wanted to use at that specific time. When we worked with an audience present there was always an element of performance, and an adjustment was required – this could be simple such as finding enough distance from audience members to work, making louder or softer noises to cater for others, trying to talk naturally to Laila when we were discussing what to do next or sometimes a mental shift was needed where I would need to move into a mode of forgetting inhibitions and working normally without flourish or exaggeration. I definitely felt that in a live space some more natural working processes were inhibited. On the other hand working with someone else in a massive space helped to develop the work, and getting out of my usual studio was crucial to developing new ways of thinking – this was in large part due to the lack of visual noise – there was no clutter and we were able to experience a sense of working from a clean page.

Having worked in university art departments for many years I have been party to many arguments and debates about space, mostly invoking the well-worn case of the expense of space and materials as a reason to cut them both. In educational environments you are very aware that space is at a premium – facilities managers and Deans often wander around with clipboards auditing studio occupancy rates.  I have been in meetings with senior managers where teaching staff are told that bookable classrooms and hot-desking will replace studios, but no-one considers whether students with many different processes can make their work at a desk and take it away with them at the end of a session (no storage provided). Gone are the days of students being able to work all day into the night, leaving work in situ to return and see it anew: where working big or small, messy or neat, is all an option. Activities and outcomes become defined more by real-estate economics rather than artistic curiosity and humanity.

Some students may be savvy enough to seek out places where they can work in different ways, but there will be inevitable changes in this ‘post-studio’ environment.  Artists in the future may only be able to make work as big as a cardboard box, making small scale the new norm, and apparently there is even a phrase in fashion circles called the ‘handbag crit’ – students turning up with work that will only fit into their handbags. More worrying is that a more sedentary practice at a computer will limit experience of physical space and dimension. With evidence suggesting that moving around also helps with cognitive function, having the space to do this seems vital. Literature and education that celebrates ‘post-studio’ culture can be used to make art practice taking place outside of studios seem normal, even desirable, despite the requirements of more experimental practices. Unless artists have the means to rent a bigger studio this will limit opportunities to those with money – given current entrenched patterns of inequality in the arts, is this the future we really want?

Out of sight, Out of mind

In the race for space, many say working digitally will solve many of the problems that I have highlighted. Anna Reading, Professor of Culture and Creative Industries at Kings College, London, and Dr Tanya Notley, lecturer in Convergent Media Studies at the University of Western Sydney coined the term globital, a portmanteau of ‘global’ and ‘digital’. Reading argues that while globital practices are thought of as being clean, light and taking up no space in the cloud, in reality this is a myth.  We don’t see the physical space that the cloud takes up at data centres and server farms, hidden outside cities, for security and taking advantage of cheaper land. Companies that supply data storage define it as being value-free, cheap and ubiquitous. We are encouraged to ignore the devastating environmental and social impacts that the gold and rare earths that drive laptops and technology have on people who are far away, simply to store the increasing amounts of data that we produce.

Where does this lead us? I would like to imagine ways to prevent the uniform studio spaces we are beginning to see in London but market forces are probably too strong. Flexibility may be the best way to work in future – having a studio, but being sure to work outside of it, too.  Artists can pool resources with each other to share their spaces for different use – making a mess or storing work, thinking and reading and talking in other places. The studio site where I work exemplifies some of this practice: there are several spaces for processes like screen-printing, fabrication, and photography.  These facilities are run by other artists and have various access and membership rates, putting money back into the artist economy. University developments are more difficult to counter: in the future perhaps art school will not be the place to study if you want to explore an experimental art practice. I have already seen shrinking artwork, both amongst colleagues and in exhibitions We need to understand how uniform studio space will impact artists and the work they make.  The impact on future arts practice will soon become clear, whether we are ready for it or not.


About the author

Helen Carnac

Helen Carnac is a maker, curator and academic who lives and works in London. Drawing, mark-making, the explicit connections between material, process and maker and an emphasis on deliberation and reflection are all central to her practice as a maker and thinker. An internationally acclaimed enameller, she works with vitreous enamel on steel - the type of enamel used for domestic ‘white wear’ including baths, sinks, pots and pans.

By Helen Carnac
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