Peckham art squats

Peckham used to mean urban dereliction, gun battles and street crime but, where the law breaks down, art can flourish. Time Out visits the Lyndhurst Way squat, to discover a vibrant, alternative art scene - and some outrageous parties

  • Peckham art squats

    Bobby Dowler and Shaun McDowell outside their squat-turned-artists studio and exhibition space

  • The estate agent blurb would likely read: ‘Four-storey, six-bedroom Georgian townhouse with pleasant aspect and proximity to rail network in sought-after south London neighbourhood’, but might not mention that it was until recently a notorious squat, housing anything up to two dozen occupants at a time. This imposing building in Peckham is now strangely clean and empty, apart from a few telltale fist- or even head-sized holes in one or two rooms upstairs. However, I am not here as a potential buyer, but to view an exhibition of contemporary art hung on its patched-up walls.

    Now painted a gleaming gallery-white, the house shows few signs of previous tenants and their dirty mattresses. Instead there are some slick abstract paintings entitled ‘Separate studies for derelict presence’, and some witty, homemade photos of local sheds and featureless car parks. There are a number of perilous assemblages made from squat detritus including an old red TV aerial, a fire grate and a red lamp stand, still adorned with the dirty cobwebs of age. Of the original squatters, only the creator of these tumbledown sculptures, Bobby Dowler, 24, who has lived at 78 Lyndhurst Way for three years, remains: ‘The first time I came to the house, the door fell off in my hands, there was food rubbish spilling out of the wheelybins and graffiti everywhere. The carpets hadn’t been changed for 30 years. At one stage it was me, 18 Poles and two Ukrainians living here. With just one running tap in the basement, the house didn’t really function.’

    Life is hard for squatters like Dowler, not least because neighbours resent the presence of ‘transients’ in their area and local councils have now devised numerous ‘counter-squatting’ tactics to stop empty properties being re-appropriated. But boarding up windows or installing metal grills is no deterrent and can be expensive (up to £200 a week), as is any attempt to navigate the legal and tenure issues necessary to force an eviction.

    Dowler and a handful of artist friends who had left art school and university hoping to make it in art or music found themselves unable either to take on time-consuming jobs or find conventional, paid outlets for their creativity. Instead they asked the landlord of 78 Lyndhurst Way if they could stay on, legally, as live-in caretakers, for the princely sum of £5 per month. A few licks of paint and a mammoth clearout led to their first exhibition opening: ‘Nine people quickly became 60, with more breaking in at 4am thinking it was a squat party.’ A thorough trashing of the pristine show and some of its works enforced tougher security for the second exhibition: ‘We had to have doormen who we paid £50 and a bottle of vodka each,’ says Dowler. ‘But now that it’s not a rat-infested dump anymore, the reputation is changing. There is an element of respect – we don’t have to bundle drunk people to the floor and kick them out any more.’

    Apart from changing the usage and the connotations of the squat, Dowler and fellow artist Shaun McDowell, 26, are now charged for the ‘leccy’, water and council tax (which is negligible as they are all ‘jobseekers’). ‘I had run up some debts with the landlord, but I sold a painting at the last show and squared up with him,’ says McDowell, the only artist of the core group that doesn’t live, as well as work, at number 78. ‘It’s a bit like a college’, he continues. Indeed it seems to be the preferred hangout for a stream of students from nearby Camberwell College of Arts. ‘Except people here are dedicated,’ he says, in a barely disguised swipe at the art education system. ‘There is sometimes a positive to being naïve, but what I am learning here is far more valuable than any MA, however prestigious.’

    Peckham, or ‘Freedom Town’ as he calls it, is full of squats, including the prosaically named ‘Midnight Blue’, which gives you some idea of the activities going on there, but Lyndhurst Way is full of bustling artistic activity and only the slightest whiff of encroaching business-like savvy. ‘Cheap materials are a false economy,’ says McDowell of the bargain-bin oil paints he was using until he forked out for the good stuff. ‘I don’t create work in order to sell it, but why shouldn’t it last?’

    The majority of the work is not much different from what you will find in many degree shows around London this summer, but these artists have spent three weeks, not three years, building up to their show. This gives Lyndhurst Way an air of immediacy and experimentalism, as well as an unevenness, which nevertheless is difficult to encounter in today’s polished gallery presentations or curated shows. With the possibility of co-opting another building around the corner in Vestry Road, it seems that history might be repeating itself in Peckham and that the London art world is shifting southwards, just as it migrated east in the 1980s and ’90s.

    While it is too early to be coining this as a movement to rival the YBAs emergence, or to be electing figureheads, 23-year-old Matthew Stone’s epic, photographs of his friends from Peckham squats come closest to documenting and consummating the scene’s varied phenomena. A fittingly urban gallery setting under the arches in London Bridge provides the backdrop for Stone’s first solo show, entitled ‘Futurehindsight’. Seven theatrically staged photographic billboard posters tell the story of a secret society seeking eternal youth and divine truths that neatly sums up the utopian, idealistic aims of the artist’s !Wowow! collective, until recently resident in a huge disused Peckham warehouse.

    Although he says that ‘Often we were our own audience’, Stone’s six months in the !Wowow! squat were punctuated by enormous after-parties that became 2,000-strong club nights. On one surreal evening, the US President’s daughter, Lauren Bush, turned up with two CIA bodyguards. ‘It was an opportunity to invest in what we believed in, rather than chipping off bits of our soul working as unpaid interns. The practicalities of not having to work meant that we could be playful with what we did, but some serious ideas came out of that ridiculous house.’ If nothing else, the !Wowow! squat gave birth to its own distinctly odd harlequin-esque fashion style, thanks to its most famous graduate, the much-vaunted designer Gareth Pugh.

    Stone’s photography shares his friend Pugh’s gothic fairytale aesthetic, but is also about ‘sanctifying these grubby little kids’. The narrative of his show culminates in a portrait of a group in blissed-out, post-party slump, coming down from their night’s exertions only to float up to heaven in the last euphoric panel and once again crash back down to earth – completing the suite’s cyclical ‘weekender’ structure. The images are also backdrops to opening night performances that include a 17-year-old diva, The-O, strutting around the audience, which is spoiled only when the gallery owner responsible for taking on Stone warns me to keep an eye on my wallet as he lost his the preceding evening.

    ‘Without these people the images wouldn’t exist,’ says Stone. ‘In a sense the work is about creating the moment, not documenting history,’ although looking at his grainy black-and-white photos of baby-faced ravers and grungey hedonists, the caption could easily read New York 1968. The legendary role of the hangers-on during Warhol’s Factory era are similarly important for this new south London squat set, many of whom look like colourful extras from Blackadder, complete with skin-tight jodhpurs or baggy-arsed tights.

    The autonomous zone that a collectively squatted building provides is not a new model for artistic creation, but very few precedents (such as Brixton’s CoolTan Arts project, originally based in a former suntan lotion factory), still exist or maintain the same community-minded spirit. These hedonistic party people and freewheeling artists might find they soon become unwitting entrepreneurs, but none of them are such staunch anti-capitalists that they don’t want to eventually profit from their art. ‘There will come a time when I lose my optimism and become cynical,’ says Stone, who has already attracted an invitation to show Stateside from white-hot American artist and Saatchi-favourite Terence Koh. Until then it seems like freedom reigns.

    Experiments with Figuration’ is at 78 Lyndhurst Way, SE15 from May 19-26. Matthew Stone’s ‘Futurehindsight’ is at Union until July 30.

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