Waste of Space at the 491

A coffee pot, in a squat

Image from Portrait of a Squat

Many empty and wasted buildings have been turned into vibrant, open and useful spaces over the years – but the clamour for criminalisation of squatting in commercial properties has already begun.

The 491 Gallery in Leytonstone, London, is one of these spaces. A community-led art organisation, it serves as a constant exhibition space for a diverse range of artists of different origins working in varied media. It contains a range of art and music studios, which are used to host workshops, classes and musical rehearsals.

And its occupants are facing eviction: the 491 is set to make way for another block of flats. Waste of Space is an apt wedge behind the door – a photography exhibition focusing on the use and misuse of space. It may be one of the last opportunities for the public to experience arts at 491, one last chance to visit this vibrant place

We borrowed this interview with Adrian and Lisa from lecool.com:

What happens to buildings when their owners stop using them? Two photographers explore the use and misuse of space in an exhibition at the 491 — a gallery facing eviction. 

Waste of Space is an exhibition by Adrian Nettleship and Lisa Furness. We asked them about the project, the themes it explores and the significance of Leytonstone.

Is the exhibition a reaction to the recent criminalisation of squatting? Adrian: I put the Occupy and Explore project together when the change in the law was still in the balance. It seemed that there was a huge amount of misinformation about the subject. When you looked into it, it was clear that the situations that motivated people to support a change in the law were already clear cut. It was always illegal to invade someone else’s home, but this was being omitted from the discussion. So now, in a time of huge public sector cuts and a lack of affordable housing, our taxes are being spent on criminalising people to protect the owners of empty properties. I don’t believe the change in the law will benefit the majority, and the way in which it was changed was thoroughly disingenuous with regards to democracy. I feel that these are matters that must be discussed.

Lisa: I spent several years living in Bristol photographing abandoned and derelict buildings and looking at the effect of time and neglect upon man-made structures. The tragic story of waste told by these buildings led me towards the squatting scene, which provides an alternative future for them and a more hopeful narrative. This exhibition is the natural result of my first forays into squatting culture and the recent change in the law just made it more important to show this work publicly.

So what, are you raving Marxists or what? Where do you stand on the property is theft debate? We’re not really Marxists or Anarchists though it’s safe to say we are both quite left wing in our thinking. We are maybe both too cynical to sign up to a political ideology though we are angry at the injustices and inequalities within our society. We are interested in finding the problems within the system and looking for solutions, slowly improving things, rather than wanting to tear everything down and start again, so if we are to transition to property-less society, let’s try not to do it overnight.

Why ‘Waste’? For both of us waste is one of the fundamental problems with the current system. As a society we waste resources, energy, food and space in a way that is completely unsustainable. By making use of neglected properties, skipping for their food, creating furniture from objects found in the street and other activities, squatters live off the fatty waste of society. It’s a mindset that we could all benefit from adopting. Much like how even SUV drivers talk about fuel efficiency these days, the hope is that in time, waste will start to become unacceptable.

Why have you chosen the 491 gallery? Adrian: Leytonstone was one of the main focal points of the M11 link road protests back in the 1990s, where squatting was used as a very effective tool of resistance. Naomi Klein goes as far as attributing the protests on Claremont Road as being an influence for the Reclaim the Streets movement and Critical Mass. My school lollipop lady lost her job trying to save a 200-year-old chestnut tree from the road builders, and I have friends who live in a housing co-op nearby, which was founded by a group of former protesters.

Bordering on the link road, the 491 gallery fits nicely into this tradition. It is an active squat gallery that has been running for 11 years. Leytonstone has a vibrant arts scene, and while The 491 gallery is an important part of that, we believe it’s not appreciated. It deserves to be celebrated, used and seen. The people of the 491 gallery are facing eviction, set to be replaced by a block of flats. It’s become a bit tired to throw the government’s ‘big society’ rhetoric back in its face, but this is a community centre run by volunteers, with open access and regular classes for local people, which receives no government funding. This is one of the last opportunities for the public to experience arts at 491 and to get a sense of the value of this vibrant place.

Waste of Space is at the 491 Gallery, 491 Grove Green Road, Leytonstone, E11 4AA from 15-22 December. Open weekdays, 3-7pm; weekends, 12-7pm. Free entry.

Read the original interview here.