This is a follow-up conversation to ‘A Brief Argument for Uncool Places,’ published in Glasstire last month.
Christina Rees: Happy New Year, Matt!
In the wake of a piece we published in December, I’ve invited you to discuss with me the idea of a working artist choosing to move from an art center (in your case, London) to a decidedly uncool or unlikely place. Only this time from the point of view of an artist who has actually done it. You and Emma Biggs moved to… where are you in England, exactly?
Matthew Collings: I can’t say exactly because of crazies seeking us out, but we’re a hundred miles from London in a village in the county of Norfolk, about equidistant from two big towns, Thetford and Swaffham. Both those places used to be prosperous but are now run down, Thetford very extremely. On the other hand Thetford is absolutely fascinating socially. It’s typical of a lot of Norfolk in having a very big population of migrant workers from different parts of Europe, from Portugal to Russia. The voting in most of Norfolk is strictly right wing, either Conservative or UKIP. Resentment against foreigners is very common. Even the middle class work hard to keep themselves uninformed. They believe the Daily Mail is a window onto reality.
There’s one high street where we are and some decent social housing. The high street has a range of architecture, some of it great. I think wealthy farmers from King’s Lynn — a city about twenty miles away — built second homes here, in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, trying out different styles. (Kings Lynn is amazingly decrepit and run down. There’s a bit about a mile square that’s absolutely beautiful architecturally, with a broad river running by it, but it’s surrounded by utterly bleak, blasted-out streets.) The village is mostly silent. You rarely see anyone. The surrounding landscape is beautiful.
Norfolk is all flat but not all the same otherwise — there’s a lot of variety and you see a lot of wild life: birds of prey, deer and owls, huge swirling flocks of starlings, rooks, and so on. Parts of the county are quite middle-class, but not near us. Round here is very socially deprived and has been for a long time. The village used to have lots of shops, but they dwindled down to nothing. There’s an honesty box for eggs. There used to be one for vegetables but they were stolen too often so the owner closed it.
Our house use to be a shop — it’s quite a rambling space, with a lot of crooked floors and ceilings. We made every aspect of it into studios, for painting and mosaics. It’s a factory; we’re working all the time. Mosaic assistants come up from London and stay here, helping Emma. Or she takes work down to them.
We’re in London maybe once a week, me more because I review exhibitions every week for the Evening Standard. We’re amazed when we hit the outskirts of London, and feel high — everything’s incredibly buzzing, like Rome in the time of Christ. On the tube in London even the poor seem ambitious, full of plans, they’re really tackling the situation, whatever it is. In some of the towns rounder, you can feel all you ever see is mobility scooters and people very depressed, moving slowly, maybe a plastic bag in their hand. In London in Piccadilly, you can’t believe it: the wealth, the personal display, the feel of billions of dollars. We don’t seek out an uncool place, only somewhere we could work. We’re fine about where we ended up: I’m the least cool person on earth anyway.
CR: So how did you pick where you landed? A tip from a friend? Are there any other creative people where you are? And: would you have picked that spot in Norfolk if it didn’t allow you easy weekly access to London, which is still, along with New York, the biggest international art city in the world?
MC: We tried one county and it was too expensive, so we went from county to county until we got to a cheap one and it happened to be Norfolk, and we went to the cheapest part of it. There’s no property market where we are whatsoever. If you buy you can never sell. There was some consideration of the journey time to London, yes. Otherwise we might have gone to live in France. We have a home there in a place that is very mountainous but otherwise quite like where we are in Norfolk: rugged landscape and ordinary people living their lives: no cultural scene but plenty of culture in the broader sense.
Both these places cost very little, less than the tiniest flat on the outskirts of London would cost, say. We really like them both. We make them seem to us like they are visually very much like ourselves — they each look like the environment we feel OK in, which is probably a bit horrifyingly scruffy to many people we know in London. They visit us but it’s clear they’re amazed that anyone could live like this. Chickens, chicken feed in the kitchen, wonky rooms, TVs that don’t work because we forgot how the remote controls work and never paid the rent for the channels.
Neither of us is hostile to London or neurotic about it, or cultish about living in the wild. We really appreciate where we are, but, no, there’s no artistic life here like the kind there is in London. We don’t care about that in any case because we’re making art ourselves; we don’t need to see a lot of other people who are making it. We met some people who live up the other end of the village a few months after we arrived, and it turned out they could play Bridge, so we got them to teach us, and ever since we’ve been playing Bridge with them weekly.
There was a manor house next to us with an absent owner who allowed it to rot. After fifty years of severe neglect it was this depressing rotting hulk with corrugated metal on it and filthy junk all around it, and drunks ending up in the rotten overgrown garden puking and pissing. Then a church archeologist bought it and spent a long time reconstructing it. It’s ongoing. He’ll probably never get to the end of it. And now we go out every day and marvel at this work of art next to us: facades completely reconstructed out of hundreds of years old bricks from a collapsed Tudor house some miles away; all these interesting shapes, little pebble patterns in the walls. It’s got all the visual interest of a sculpture. So between the Bridge every week and this building next door, and the skies and silence, we’re not looking for happiness but we get little bits of it anyway, while we’re mainly concentrating on working in the studio and making shapes balance out.
CR: Some of what you’re hitting on though, the way you write about it, speaks to your inherent patience with slow, quotidian “normalcy,” — and disposition toward finding something interesting and worthwhile, where others would feel stifled or misunderstood and flee back to the big city. Not everyone is cut out for the life you’re describing.
You didn’t move out of London until you and Emma were older, and firmly established in your careers. What would you advise a 25 year-old in England who is determined to live a creative life? If they had just graduated from one of the art schools in London, didn’t have money, and needed to figure out the next move? I suppose I’m asking you if living the way you do and making that work is only possible when you already have experience, wisdom, and a market for what you do?
MC: My daughter is 28 and often visits here, but never in a million years would she live here. I doubt if any of our children would want to keep this place after we die. She’s a student at the Frankfurt Städelschule, and it’s perfectly clear that it would be suicide for her to live like we do. So from that I would say to 25 year-olds: stay away! Live in whatever city you can find a place to live, because you need to be connected to culture. We’re not, because — as you say — we’re old, and we’ve got our culture in our heads.
CR: Okay, so ‘no’ to the uncool place for the young person. You write “Live in whatever city you can find a place to live, because you need to be connected to culture.” In the discussion I had with Neil last month, we were also considering the pros and cons of (more) affordable small towns that, in some ways, become hot little ‘art’ towns, sometimes within a generation, because at least a handful of artists move there and open a residency or form a collective, etc. If London isn’t an option for young artists due to cost, what places in the UK or the continent would you be referring to? I’m looking for corollaries in the US, obviously, but you know what I mean.
Also, how would you feel if another artist or three moved to your village? Would you feel crowded out by it, or thrilled? Given that artists can be either great or awful (or both), I guess the only answer to that would be: Depends on whether I like them. Have you ever tried to talk any of your London friends into moving into your area?
MC: Art is a cultural form, which means you can’t pursue it without access to culture. There’s only so much you can do in a vacuum. So it’s not really that living out here in Norfolk we have our culture in our heads — it’s more that we have a system of existing as working artists already set up. So we could live anywhere.
If we had only just decided to be artists it wouldn’t matter what we had in our heads, if we didn’t have access to culture in a material sense as well, the ability to be part of cultural practical systems. We’d be like any student or graduate. Maybe less able to do anything because a student is at least attached to an institution.
So these issues of where to live given the conditions nowadays and how much contact or what kind of contact with others is required — others involved in art — are really a matter of how you make the most of what stage of development you’re at. It might be nice to hang out with sympathetic artist friends now and then but that’s not the same as the absolute necessity to have either gallery support or be part of a system that in some way does the job of a gallery — the interfacing function a gallery has. We don’t mind if friends in London who are artists live out here near us or not. We see them anyway. What would really make a difference is if our gallerist lived here or a sympathetic curator, or an intellectual whizz that constantly fed us ideas.
If artists came to live here who had the same artistic interests as us, that would be a certain thing. It would be very significant. But just general artists — that’s pretty meaningless. The thing with communities where the community really means something, and the context is art, is that shared ideas are important. We happen to work very visually and with a great priority on making; we’re extremely unconceptual. And we’re very strict and narrow, very fierce about the visual heights. We only want to be up there in that thin air. If there were a community of artists in our village who were similar tyrants it could be quite good. Or a disaster.
CR: Are there places in England outside of London where younger or mid-career artists are settling en masse? I keep getting back to the thought that for so many, London and New York are really just too expensive for an artist who wants to both survive and really make work.
Even in Texas, the cost of living in our bigger cities has sharply increased in the last ten years. The whole conundrum of needing to be near culture while being able to actually afford it is real. Wealth disparity is visibly getting worse by the year. The old cycles of gentrification are speeding up and getting nastier, and also, politically more visible, which I understand. I’m not just talking about Los Angeles or parts of Brooklyn. I’m talking about Dallas, Houston, everywhere where young creative people who don’t have a downpayment to buy something are pushed out of the neighborhoods they’ve settled in before they even really get a chance to do something.
When I lived in London I got addicted to a TV show called Property Ladder. This was in 2000, 2001. It was such a strong influence on me (maybe I should say it scared me so much) that by 2005 I’d bought a house (with my English artist husband) on a big treed lot in… old East Dallas. You saw that house! We called a bunch of friends to come over while you were in town. But I had a job back in Dallas by that time.
I had never before fetishized the idea of property ownership. I don’t think property ownership is at all my default mode; it’s not in my blood. I liked moving around too much and I get really restless. Suddenly having a mortgage was very traumatizing, because I felt stuck. (We’re on our second house, and I’m fine now.)
But older artists would definitely say that the only way to combat the gentrification cycle is to buy buy buy. Every time the subject of gentrification comes up on Glasstire, older artists weigh in with advice to find an old building somewhere inside the city limit, where no other artists have quite ventured yet, and buy it.
I know some younger people living in London, and those who didn’t buy before, say, 2008 are kind of fucked. Their lives look pretty exhausting to me, if anything just due to their commutes. And there’s no space for them to make work. And the few people I know who’ve been in the market for a place in London are having to go so far out, that they really may as well just live in Hastings. Live in Slough? Yikes. Or not?
MC: Hastings is great. Actually anywhere can be great. But it’s just a fact that the big centres in any country are where the wealth is, and that’s where culture is, high culture, the whole package — in art terms: galleries, artists, museums, gathering places, private views. In the UK it tends to be London. Of course there are scenes elsewhere; Glasgow since the 1990s has always been mentioned. In other countries where there’s less absolute centralisation then it’s different: Germany for example. It’s got lots of Londons, as it were. But the striking thing about London is that it went from a bit weak in international terms — actually no one remembers that now — to extremely mighty. And now it’s just atrophying because the wealth is too dominating as sheer wealth. There’s no balance of creativity with wealth.
This is all a bit old hat to talk about, because the political scene has altered so tremendously, and politics now seems much more urgent than art. Art in London is now identified with sterile international mega-galleries doing business, and the Frieze Art Fair, and the groaning old Tate Modern, and this weird glossy mega art school in Kings Cross called Saint Martins that seems nothing like an art school, at least not as they were for a very long time — liberal hangouts — but is certainly now the biggest art school anyone’s ever known here.
There are many thousands of art students and recent graduates running around London, living wherever they live — in Walthamstow, in South London — and it’s clear when you encounter a group of them there’s a lot going on for them, but I don’t know how that world of theirs connects to the other world of art and the super rich. I would hope it doesn’t really connect, and I hope the super-rich art world will die and something more genuinely meaningful will replace it.
So as generalities: art, young artists, art scenes, and so on — it’s difficult to wholeheartedly say: Yes, let’’s have more of this! Let it all thrive! In fact a lot of it really ought to die.
CR: It is old hat to talk about, internationally, but it’s not old hat in Texas. Our big metropolitan areas have just in the last 20 years, really 10 years, hit that combo of population/critical mass, expectation of constant culture, and wealth influx that sees artists wanting to stay but struggling to afford a life in them. We’re still kids trying to figure it out here, UK dad.
One of the reasons I drafted you for this second conversation is I’m happy to remind myself and others that the flattening effect of wealth on creativity is just now really being felt here, but artists elsewhere have been dealing with or at least feeling this problem for decades. And art isn’t dying. Not by any stretch.
I’ll admit that when I’m in New York, I can’t have another conversation with an artist there about the cycle of gentrification and how hard it is on artists and where they’re expected to go next. LA is where this conversation is throwing up a bit more national press.
But in Dallas and Houston, and Austin, it’s a pretty new problem. The community agitation is mostly grassroots, and the powers-that-be are so conservative and so unused to dealing with artists that the conversations are borderline absurd. We don’t have a government system tuned into art or funding art, to patch things together, either. The most visible art in Texas is still primarily philanthropy driven. So a handful of very rich people are calling the shots, and yet some of them wouldn’t know art even if it climbed into the bathtub with them.
My takeaway from having this chat with you is actually pretty straightforward and not at all unexpected. (Good, because who wants a shocking and really unpleasant surprise?) Get your career going, and you’ll have to do it where there is plenty of culture (unless you’re insanely exceptional, or your work is about isolation, or you’re a ‘folk’ artist). Get your career going, get established; then, if you need to move to improve your focus, quality of life, to increase the time you can spend making your art, then go for it. But only if you want to. And you don’t have to go to where other artists are. But you should stay within spitting distance of a major city with a lot of culture. Am I missing anything crucial?
MC: I think it’s nice to be living at the centre of culture, where it actually is, even if you have a lot of gripes about the state of it. But because of the peculiarity of my particular obsessions I find myself not doing that. I’m interested in it from a distance.
My perception from what my daughter says — in fact she says it outright — is that London, with all its aspects of bloated deadness because of the wealth, is still more trendy than anywhere else. More than than Berlin, for example. In other words, more cool.
You have to think of whatever’s cool about the London art scene not just alongside what is deadening and bourgeois, but also alongside the reality of young artists’ lives if they don’t have flats given to them by their parents. (Some of them do, of course.) Cooking on a hot plate, and not being able to have a shower, because they can only afford to rent one place, not two, and the one they choose is a studio space, not a room in a house. So they have to live in their studio. It’s not like Picasso’s studio. It’s likely to be small with no window.
The common thing is temporary live-work spaces. Property developers who own half-ruined open-plan spaces rent them out for a while, and offer nothing in the way of maintenance, charging extortionate prices, and then they find a good buyer that will convert these shitty spaces into expensive flats for people working in the City — and the artists are chucked out. They’re precarious situations: the artists put money and labour in, but after a year they’re chucked out.
If you’re in a room in a house in the area of London known as “Zone 2,” which means about a 45-minute cycle ride from the centre of town where the galleries are, you’ll be paying six hundred pounds a month for it. That’s a room, a little room. A studio about the same size costs half that amount. So they live in the studio and accept the precarity and squalour.
UK would-be artists are slipping out of London to, say, Berlin, because art schools are much more expensive in London. When I went it was totally free. In fact you got a grant from the government. That’s all over of course. In those German cities students are less pressured to be trendy, but still, that London trendiness is considered attractive — things like artist-run project spaces, which goes on a lot in London, are considered attractive. Very young — super trendy. These are impressions; there’s no overall pattern I can offer. It’s the coolness of the London art scene, for the last twenty years or so, which exists even though a lot of the scene is dead and sterile because of the wealth. (That side of the art world thrives financially and as social climbing, but it’s not really creative.) Brexit will change everything, because the money will go down. But a Labour government will change everything, too, because student fees will end.
It’s interesting how politically centrist or outright conservative the people that run the London art world really are: the art magazine people, big public gallery people, curators, not just of course the mega-gallery directors and staff who you wouldn’t expect to be anything other than politically reactionary. It’s shocking to hear them all despising Jeremy Corbyn and mouthing sentiments they’ve absorbed from the Daily Mail and BBC. It will interesting to see what ‘cool’ really means with these dramatic new conditions on the way.
Where I am it’s different anyway — there’s no cool or uncool. It’s so uncool it’s a different dimension.