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‘Hackney Wick has become a symbol of creative London’: leading artist Gavin Turk on the future of London’s artistic neighbourhood

James Manning

Hackney Wick was once a place to find artists. Now it’s in the news as the place where artists have to move from, as the old warehouses and buildings they occupy are rapidly ‘developed’. It’s an appropriately hackneyed tale: an undesirable (ie cheap) area of town attracts an artistic community; they make it more attractive, adding a certain buzz; the land value increases and the artists have to move on. This post-industrial strip has become a powerful symbol of creative London.

I moved my studio to the area in 2001. I lived close by on Victoria Park and spotted a number of empty buildings in the Wick up for rental and for sale. Moving east from the increasingly pricey London Fields was a promising new chapter.

But now it’s 2016, and groovy pop-ups and ‘meanwhile programmes’ fill in the gaps instead, before places originally designated for manual work roll over to the housing market, which offers higher financial returns for developers. How did this happen?

It’s obvious to me that this is part of the ‘Olympic legacy’. When I arrived into Hackney Wick at the start of the millennium alongside other artists, we had no inkling of the Olympic upheaval. But after London won the games in 2005, developments sprung up at a phenomenal rate. The summer of sports brought east London to life, but left an uncertain future for the Olympic park and the buildings and communities that surround it.

The London Legacy Development Corporation (responsible for granting planning permission) is, I know, desperate to keep the creative spirit of the area going. The best solution would probably be for artists to try to work with the organisations that serve to profit the most from the development process – but moneymaking businesses don’t often know how to put real value on cultural capital, and artists tend to shun the idea of being sanctioned or tidied and dovetailed into a gentrified neighbourhood. The relationship between art and profit is always an awkward one.

There might be other forms of resistance. Local organisations such as Creative Wick have been set up to broker relationships between artists and developers, though the dialogue is all too often self-serving and buck-passing. Meanwhile Justine Simons, London’s new deputy mayor for culture and creative industries, has spotlighted Hackney Wick as a case where City Hall could help artists secure tenancy on studios and workshops. But I worry this might be a little late: buildings all over Fish Island and around the train station have already been pulled down. 

Last year I worked on a scheme for a new-build studio in Hackney Wick with a firm of architects called Scabal. Its founder introduced me to a fascinating idea: using a database and certain algorithms, developers can compile and respond to everyone’s specific housing needs. Things might change. Whether that will happen before all the artists leave is another question.

Gavin Turk’s latest exhibition ‘Transit’ runs at Béton Brut Gallery in Hackney Wick until December 10. Read our guide to art in London.


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