The first stop on the Art Licks Weekend Peckham tour is somebody’s flat. We file along the first-floor edge of a council block, trailed by a neighbour’s cat, and are ushered up a narrow staircase into what I imagine was once the living room. The whole apartment is darkly painted and lit with a few coloured bulbs. In the centre of the main room is a makeshift structure covered with black fabric; a stone fountain burbles away inside, fringed with ferns and dimly illuminated with UV light. The grotto seems much larger when you look in, though that illusion is no doubt helped by the clutter of people, bags and wet umbrellas outside it.
Elena Colman set up Ladette Space as a venue for early-career artists to try out large-scale installations – the statement works that students are encouraged to make for their graduate shows, then (generally) discouraged from at least until they’ve found long-term gallery representation. She’s worked with different artists, but the present piece is her own (‘I’ve been working on it for about a month: I benefit from a longer installation period because I live here.’) I can’t imagine what it’s like to live for weeks in a home-made cave, or where on earth she’s put all her stuff.
In their own less deliberate ways, most of the subsequent stops feel grotto-like too; hidden away in London’s tangled surburban sprawl. There’s the stylishly dilapidated Safehouse 1 at the back of the Bussey Building – a working ruin, hired out as a film location to pay the rent, and used by Jo Dennis and Dido Hallett of Maverick Projects as an atmospheric showroom for their own and their friend’s art. There’s Gowlett Peaks – a white-walled gallery perched over the Gowlett Arms pub – and DKUK, a tiny booth in one of Peckham’s narrow arcades, where Daniel Kelly is offering haircuts in front of a piece of video art (remarkably, not the first such initiative I’ve heard of). Luke Drozd and Eva Rowson’s flat, 38b, looks more lived-in than Elena Colman’s, but like hers, it is regularly given over to new work. Paintings by Ben Newman are currently on show, the exhibition title drawn directly onto the wall beside an artfully colour-coded bookshelf.
Art Licks was set up by Holly Willats in 2010 to champion ‘the lesser-known and under-represented activities that form the grassroots of visual culture in London’. The magazine and website have quickly become vital resources for anyone attempting to navigate this vibrant but itinerant world, and last year Art Licks Weekend launched with an ambitious programme of exhibitions, events, public performances, digital commissions and local tours designed to bring the network to life. Crucially, it also makes it publicly visible in the run-up to Frieze: the timing is a considered ploy, a way of harnessing the hype while sidestepping the main event.
There’s a reason these places are ‘lesser-known’ – they’re practically hidden. If you’re not already in the know, you’re unlikely to simply stumble upon them. For the most part this is inevitable: these are snatched, borrowed and repurposed spaces, used because they are available and only for as long as they are affordable. The artists are in them precisely because they’re not (yet) prime locations. José da Silva, one of the festival coordinators, explains that many of the venues involved in last year’s Weekend have since closed or relocated, nudged ever outwards, east and south, by the swell of redevelopments in central London. A video work from DKUK was recently shown in the nearby Balfron Tower, part of the short-lived cultural interlude between the council tenants’ obligatory relocation and the building’s reopening as luxury flats. Inevitably these fringe projects are caught up in the very processes that ultimately move them along.
But many happily tread the line between public and private, exploring new ways of showing and sharing work without relying on sales, shop-fronts or even fixed abodes. Like many public art festivals, Art Licks Weekend functions as a sort of professional support network for those directly involved, and shows of hospitality were the order of the day: we got coffee in Bosse & Baum and cocktails in 38b, despite spending only a little time in either. Drozd quipped that the main reason he invites artists to exhibit in 38b is ‘to force them to be my friends’. As art fair marquees pop up around London, accessible only to those with a ticket or (better) an invitation, Art Licks tries to open up an alternative – a niche one, certainly, but one that is despite appearances open to all.
Over 70 venues participated in this year’s Weekend, showcasing the work of more than 200 relatively unknown artists. Although the temporary programmes drew to a close yesterday, many of the exhibitions and spaces will remain open for a while, and Art Licks will continue to chart the spread and drift of the grassroots throughout the year online. No doubt 2015’s event will be another snapshot entirely. If they continue – and I hope they will – the weekends will add up over the years to a time-lapse tour of London’s changing cultural scenery.