18 November 2014 – The Guardian
A ‘legal squat’ in east London demonstrates how communities benefit when creatives turn empty properties into social space
Red Gallery is a formerly derelict 30,000 sq ft space in central Shoreditch, east London, complete with the obligatory super-size Banksy, urban bees and occasional phone-bans – a parliament for the children of acid house. Cultural revolution is the goal. Welcome to Russell Brand-land. Robert De Niro’s also here, adding a Nobu hotel to the neighbourhood.
Goods Yard plans offer unaffordable “affordable” housing. A former vagrant, with 20 years on these pavements, sells increasing numbers of pictures in a swank gallery. The Shoreditch myth is that anyone can make something out of nothing – that it is a playground of dreams for weekend hipsters, disenfranchised by a political system that seems to defy democracy.
Contemporary roots go back to pop-ups meaning many thousands of people dancing in broken warehouses.
East London was the first zone to co-opt creative people into its “regeneration” programme. The current phase witnesses remaining native communities and cultural migrants rebelling against economic apartheid, creating an urban laboratory of flexible arts spaces for symposiums, screenings, street-food festivals – anything really … IF YOU’VE GOT NOTHING, THERE’S NOTHING TO LOSE is painted high by artist-in-residence, Chris Bianchi of Le Gun.
Since it opened in 2010, the Red Gallery has been on the brink of closure. “The landlords [the Forbes-listed Reuben Brothers] said: ‘You want it? For three months?’” explains Red founder, Chilean exile Ernesto Leal (who previously ran Arthrob records and events). “Most people ran a mile. Conventional businesses are built on five-year models. We didn’t have anything, so it was easy.
“They said: ‘Make sure you reach the community’. We turned a car park into a well-needed public space, the locals bring over their kids to play in the sand. I could have put on a party for the whole time and closed it down, but people’s jaws drop when they see this place. It’s the real deal. We’re not saying no to anyone with ideas. We don’t tell anyone what to do. They’re shocked by that. Our policy is to share this freedom with anyone who wants to use it. It’s all collaboration. We’re getting the space cheap in an area where space is at a premium.”
The three-month contract was extended and extended, but the owners could sell at any time. Leal partnered with Yarda Krampol a towering Czech economist. They met managing art galleries on Brick Lane. In 2012, and Giuseppe Percuoco was appointed secretary. These “cultural guardians” cover rates demanded by the Rating (Empty Properties) Act 2007 through ingenuity and a conscious CSR-first model, partnering with schools, universities and charities.
Red demonstrates how successful businesses connect with their local audience. SoundCloud, a tech startup housed within Red’s RedQuarters, understands the cheap rent is in return for having to potentially close their laptops at anytime. Website addresses, mobile communities, networked societies are all physically rootless and as digital opinion-formers, full of regenerative value.As the city encroaches with increasing rates and rents, creatives are being forced to move on to sex up Peckham, Croydon or Margate. The creative industries bring £21bn to London and employ one in six people and educates 35,000 arts graduates a year.
Red is winning the cultural regeneration buck with a “legal squat” because it has landlords keen to bridge gaps in fluctuating communities. Not everyone gets such a break, but Red is consulting with Dimitri Hegemann of Tresor, the first nightclub in Berlin to make young people shareholders of council-owned buildings, with an attached educational programme suited to entrepreneurship. Similar initiatives have formed internationally where underground movements of caring artistic individuals have created a hub of social centres in occupied, disused venues: Cinema America and Forte Prenestino, Rome; Bios, Athens; Write-A-House, Detroit; Maus Hábitos, Porto; Trafačka, Prague; and closer to home, Bristol’s Cube.