Interview with Gavin: Artist
“Artists offer a place credibility – community credibility. You can’t just have regular 9-5 workers and shops. That is not a community. You’ve got to have the creative base, alongside the technical. A place does need these skills.”
Gavin has made the decision to become a full-time, self-supporting artist. His lifestyle had previously been supported by his work as a highly skilled film, sound and lighting technician for a range of industry sectors. In addition to composing music, he has worked also as a technical collaborator for other artists.
Tell me about your practice
I’m making the transition to artist, from film-maker. I have always made things and designed things. I don’t know what sort of category I could fall into. I make these LED tables and kinetic pieces… this is a boxed piece with molecule models. The one on the left is testosterone and the one on the right is oestrogen and there’s an interaction between them when they turn to one another – it creates electricity and sparks. I built a 120,000V power supply to run it and it’s all fully programmable. It is beautifully made.
I’m building up a lot of pieces for a show at the moment. There’ll be a launch of my art in late February, in central London, followed by a subsequent show for two weeks at another exciting venue. Originally, the theme was all about the transition from analogue to digital. That’s been my sort of subject. But I found that by saying that’s what it’s going to be I’ve then gone ‘hang on – I want to make this… or this instead’.
I’m a musician as well, and I collect a lot of vintage equipment …like this a 1960s moog synthesizer. I’ve been writing music since I was 9 and I wrote a BBC theme tune when I was 12. Music has always been a really big thing for me. I used to do radio and TV commercials. I’ve done a few dance tracks. I love every style of music. I’ve set the studio up so I can put soundtracks to films – it all locks up to picture so that I can compose. I’ve been a film-maker for 25 years.
I very occasionally do specialist lighting for Sothebys – for some of their old masters or contemporary pieces. I design lighting fixtures and all sorts, but as I’ve been trying to launch myself as an artist, I haven’t been involved in the lighting line of work much, over the past two years.
Tell me about your personal workspace.
There’s so much stuff I’ve got to finish off, as well as start. Currently, everything’s made here, where I live. It’s not a huge space, but it works. Though there’s not enough work surface area and what I tend to do is work on a project, get bored and move onto another and so on. I usually have four or five projects on the go at once, so it gets difficult, juggling all that in here and using this as living space also. It goes from being really tidy to really untidy and then clean again.
I’ve been looking for studio space since 2004. I need somewhere large as some pieces I’m making are 4 meters wide. So, there are some pieces I simply can’t make and I will have to wait to create them, for when I perhaps have the space available, which is frustrating. Also, with prices the way they are in Brixton, I couldn’t afford anywhere in Brixton. I used to have a warehouse on Somerleyton Road and I had an event management company so I used to do mainly corporate events. My biggest client was Christian Dior. I did everything except the fashion shows. I did stuff for the Design Council and various different labour government and conservative party, or other political party shenanagans. When I lost my warehouse, the council, unbeknownst to me, wanted the space back so they put my rent up by 50% and then obviously the rates also went up 50% and I just couldn’t afford to run the business. That priced me out. I then moved everything to my home, and the year after, I had to close the business down because I couldn’t do it from here.
How are artists valued and supported?
The term artist covers a multitude of different skill-sets and it could mean anything. I think that unless you’re a name, then you are not valued at all. It is not regarded as a profession, but a hobby. You have to earn a name for yourself to suddenly be taken seriously by people.
Performance artists will get noticed more because of the nature of their practice. As for musicians, that’s another can of worms. Musicians are traditionally, not even regarded as high as artists. There are so many levels of musicianship and so many musicians. Same with visual artists. If you say you’re a musician then it can be considered a kind of a throw-away term, and you’re seen as not taking life seriously.
I still do a lot of technical work for other artists. Many people had questioned why I didn’t’ start doing my own art and that inspired me to start. I’ve been working with artists for donkey’s years. The ideal situation as an artist would be to have a supportive patron, grant or salary. When I first commenced with kick-starting my art career, I was living on £20 per week for food – you can’t do a lot with that – one major visit to Iceland. That’s how I lived because I didn’t want to distract myself with lighting jobs, and walking away from making my art. Unfortunately, you can’t transfer the hourly rate of your regular job to your art profession, especially in terms of a major art piece.
Artists offer a place credibility – community credibility. You can’t just have regular 9-5 workers and shops. That is not a community. You’ve got to have the creative base, alongside the technical. A place does need these skills.
Part of the reason I got employed by a company called Orbis, years ago, was because I was creative, along with having the technical background. I helped redesign an old DC8 plane, turning it into a flying-eye-hospital which would fly around the world and they would teach eye surgery on board the plane. As their film maker/technician, I worked on and off with them for four decades.
Have you an opinion of how artists are received abroad?
I’ve worked in Germany, the US and Italy, and artists are regarded with less of a stigma in these places, compared to how it is in the UK. There’s definitely a lot more acceptance of it in some other parts of Europe – it’s more understandable for people. If you pull in big money and/ or you’re a name you’re taken seriously. But it’s very hard for an artist to break in – to get onto the wheel.
As a long-time resident and now artist of Brixton, what do you think of the area?
I was originally trying to do my exhibition in Brixton. I wanted to do it on Electric Avenue because almost all of my artwork is electric – lots of lighting elements and mechanically driven elements. I thought Electric Avenue would be the perfect place show this work. Through someone I knew, I was able to get in touch with the council and the council responded that if I found the right space, they would help me promote it, which was lovely. So the council is approachable. The support is usually there – you’ve just got to work at it. But unfortunately the space I was after is one of the shops above one of the big fruit ‘n’ veg places. It’s permanently locked up and there’s a security company looking after the empty space. I’ve tried three times to get in touch with the company who owns it, through the security company, and they’re either not passing the messages on or the company that’s got the space is just holding onto it as an investment for the future, and they don’t want to let it out even for the short term. I can see that it might be a hassle for them but I am sure that if I got a meeting with them I’d be able to convince them that this is worth doing and no hassle.
I hate what’s been happening to Brixton’s high street. It’s a sign of the times. The most expensive shops seem to be taken up by mobile phone providers and pawn shops. But, shops aside, Brixton is still a buzzing place – it’s not a dull high street.Atlantic Road has also changed so much. I remember Betty who used to run an art gallery down there and she did a lot of work in the community. Before Granville Arcade went crazy, we did events there. We would put in a PA system down one end – it was an available space. Most of the highly likeable, super-dodgy drinking holes have gone – lots of real Brixton characters would go to these places. There’s still the Queens Head – I really like the place.A few hundred quid a night as a pub or a huge wad for apartments. It’s a series of circles.
There were three reasons I moved to Brixton: 1. multiculturalism 2. affordability, 3. transport. Streatham may not take off the way Brixton has because it hasn’t as many varied and direct transport links. Having the tube in your neighbourhood makes a huge difference. Artists are priced out of London, or most places in London.
What are the solutions for securing space?
In terms of incentives for landlords, to want to let space to artists, it’s got to be about trust. There’s got to be some way that they can go ‘right – you’ve got the space for x-amount of months. You will leave it tidier than when you moved in.’ I think landlords also assume this stigma about artists and think they’re going to paint the place or it’s just going to be tagged, if they don’t know what sort of artist you are. I’m sure if you were Tracy Emin, you’d get your space – someone would make it happen.
I think that there should be someone on the council; someone who is involved in the Brixton area who is art-friendly, approachable and knows about art, has a good eye for seeing potential artists. That type of person could help open this up, because they could talk to landlords and pitch ideas for for short-term exhibition space. They also have the credibility of being backed by the council. That’s the only way.
As for ongoing studio space, I think that space is at such a premium and artists are traditionally struggling, I don’t know how you could provide art-making spaces in London at present. Space is so expensive. Again, you need to convince the landlord of good use of it.If there was a philanthropist who could do for Brixton what has been done in places like Bruton…that would be something.