Artist in Transit Crosses the Pond!
In December 2018, Louisa Bailey gave me a tour of The Bower (a gallery and publication studio in a former public toilet block) and The Bower Hut Café (which doubles as a book shop and is housed in a former park keeper's hut), in Brunswick Park in southeast London, close to the artists’ studios and galleries of Peckham and within walking distance of the South London Gallery and the new Centre for Contemporary Art at Goldsmiths. I caught up with Louisa and co-founder, Joyce Cronin, in 2019.
JC&LB-Thanks for coming down, it was great to meet you! It seems like such a long time ago now! The Bower—Box of Delights had a range of artists’ editions, books, gifts and vintage and handmade items for sale. All proceeds went towards supporting our 2019 programme of exhibitions and publications. We are planning to do this as an annual December event.
HS-The two of you have been collaborating for over five years. At this point, can you practically finish each other's sentences?
JC&LB-It’s more like we prop each other up than finish each other’s sentences. We each bring different things to the project, we come at things from different angles but with a shared sensibility and understanding of what we’re working towards.
HS-Your previous collaboration, Finishing Touch, was a pop-up operation in a former barber's shop, which strikes me as a masculine counterpoint to your current venue of a repurposed ladies' loo. I recall Louisa sharing that you found the Brunswick Park location by chance. It wasn't that you set out looking for a derelict water closet, but you found it on a list of options for lease and decided it was a good fit. How much have the gendered associations of these spaces impacted your programming choices?
JC&LB-Our work at Finishing Touch became the precursor to The Bower and many of the relationships and much of the research that began there continues to manifest in the exhibitions, events, and publications that take place at The Bower. When we moved into the former hairdresser's it still had the mirrors, sinks, signage, and remnants of its previous life. Among those were hairstyle suggestions and postcards to the family who ran it and lived in the house above. Several women passersby told us they had their hair cut there so it never really held a masculine presence of a barber that you might immediately conjure. From the beginning we invited Open Barbers to be in residence throughout the pop-up. Open Barbers is a not-for-profit hairdressing service welcoming people of all/no genders and sexualities, with any hair length and type. We did a basic but transformative refurb so it never felt like a gendered space in that way or carried the gender associations of a traditional barber’s shop. Equally the former toilet block is both the male and female toilets and although we really like that the Ladies sign is the only thing that remains from that history, it’s also not lost on us that it would have been used for cottaging/gay cruising and it’s not necessarily only a female history.
HS-I can appreciate that. There is a palpable atmosphere—I found the experience of being there was different than viewing the website, in particular through seeing the space activated by people of all ages. Tell me more.
JC&LB-What we’re trying to do at The Bower is not to do with it being a toilet, there are elements of intimacy there and you can’t get away from it being a toilet but it doesn’t influence our programming. We’re really interested in the sense of encounter here - that someone might come to the park to walk their dog or play tennis and by chance encounter a contemporary art exhibition or learn about Publication Studio. We see this a lot when we do events especially, and passersby join in. As an exhibition space and publishing studio we have retained the small, intimate scale of the toilets and now seek to create an intimacy with the artwork that we present, inviting artists to respond to the unique size and privacy of the space and its location in a public park. At the core of our mission and work is a commitment to feminist principles of collaboration and exchange, and a belief that art and publishing can be an agent for change, engaging diverse audiences in complex and challenging issues.
Did working on a pop-up prime you for making an ultra-efficient use of space in your current location? And how much size do you have to work with precisely?
JC&LB-The pop-up was actually bigger! We always saw the building as central to the project - but we think about the wider context of the park all the time - how we can use it, how the artists we work with use it and how the public use it. We programmed a pop-up cinema last year in the park and always think about how we can expand our work into the park, for example for performances or perhaps one day we might have some artwork outside. Within the building itself, artists have to respond to the smallness of it and the intimacy the work will have with its audience—we like the challenge this presents to artists and how the people we have worked with have risen to this challenge. The Publication Studio equipment manages to look like it was custom-made, it fits so perfectly. When planning the renovation of the building, measuring just 15 square metres, we spoke in depth to Nakamoto Architects, based in Japan, about designing a small space, making it a flexible space and a multi-functional one.
JC&LB-We were both already feminists.
In part, the motivation to work together on an independent project stemmed from the context of being in the university, which contrary to what one might think, is a very corporate and highly competitive, masculine environment. We got to know each other and realised we had shared interests, but also a shared work ethic, a passion for the work we were doing and a commitment to getting things done, regardless of the money (or lack thereof) behind it. When we talk about this as a feminist project, we mean it not in terms of only working with women writers and artists, or showing feminist work—but as an approach to a working methodology. We also include everyone in our feminism—women, trans and non-binary people, men, children. Rather than a network of collectors, commercial galleries and dealers, our network is a continuously expanding group of peers who are friends, colleagues, collaborators, advisors, teachers, and activists. As such, our network is not just local art organisations and practitioners, it is also the local bread maker or the chair of the tenants and residents association. In alignment with our way of working together, A Feminist Organization’s Handbook by The Women’s Centre for Creative Work in LA describes themselves as a “home of cultural production. As practitioners, we endeavor to bring these day-to-day aspects of cultural production into the place of preference. Distributing the event info, sweeping the floors, buying the beer for the reception: these are the tasks that propel creative and social actions. These duties are just as important as installing the sculpture or organizing the march. Indeed the sculpture and march could not exist without these services.” (1) We put care into our work and into making The Bower a social space as opposed to a cold commercial white cube. We also put care into ensuring that the artists’ work is presented to the highest standard possible within our small budget, and Publication Studio London’s books are designed, hand-made and printed on demand by a dedicated team of two. Our way of working also relates to the exhibition and publication X-Operative which took place at Wysing Arts Centre, Cambridge in 2013, in which X Marks the Bökship referenced an essay by Ksenia Cheinman where the term 'X-Operative' is used to describe “common places where the cultural space becomes creative, productive, commercial, domestic, and educational all at once.”
HS-You offer a range of programming. Some is more obviously feminist, like a screening of Desperately Seeking Susan, but there are also events like book readings for kids and wreath-making workshops. Is the thread running through all of your programming community engagement? If so, how does that dovetail with feminism in your view?
JC&LB-Desperately Seeking Susan was important because it was a female director and female lead roles; it’s a film about ‘shaking off the social conventions that come with being a woman, and the city as a place for reinvention and female freedom’ (Susan Seidelman, Director). We wanted to find something accessible to reach as broad an audience locally as possible—it was also Madonna’s 60th birthday that weekend! All of the artists and writers we’ve worked with at The Bower are women, but actually the artwork is not explicitly feminist as you might expect. Our work is not community-run but we are a part of the community—we respect the fact that the park has many different users and uses. As well as the community projects you mention, we are also planning a series of events for children aged 9-11 years who will become our Bower Builders. We want to encourage and empower young people to shape a future that is creative, tolerant, and socially aware. Our young Bower Builders will work with artists, activists, and creative professionals on projects exploring identity, feminism, and social change. This is inspired by the work of the Radical Monarchs in the US—an alternative Brownie troupe where the badge units are centred on social justice and empowerment, and the first in the series, Leaves Remain, was run by Rose Nordin of OOMK last spring.
HS-Hearing that makes me (a former Brownie) wish I were a kid today…
JC&LB-That’s probably Two Augusts in A Row in A Row by Shelley Marlow, published in the Fellow Travelers series, which is dedicated to supporting new risk-taking literature. It’s a love letter between generations of queer people, set in NYC in 2001. Although it was originally published by the studio in Portland Oregon, Shelley has collaborated with us on a number of events in London, including a 14-person reading at the London Centre for Book Arts in 2015 and issuing a special art edition of the novel in 2018. These initiatives have connected with readers locally, which has in turn created a community around the book. This community continues to grow as people recommend Two Augusts to friends and they recommend it to others and so on. It’s a really good example of how the PS network and print-on-demand model can support writers and artists who engage with its potential to foster the sharing of material on a one-to-one basis. This approach can be really powerful because it’s based on making genuine connections over a shared love of a book that has lasting effects. Shelley is really brilliant at engaging readers and, as part of a visit to the UK again a few months ago, read at Strange Perfume, which is a queer culture book fair hosted by South London Gallery, and at Category Is Books in Glasgow.
HS-Louisa, you started PS London in 2015 after working in Vancouver at one of the other satellite locations. As a Canadian, can I ask how you enjoyed your time in Canada?
LB-I spent just over a year in Vancouver and loved it! I was very glad of the change of pace and the beautiful surroundings (I think Tofino on Vancouver Island might be my favourite place ever)! I made friends and connections that continue to be part of my life and work back in London and I’m really happy to be part of the PS network of 11 sibling studios around the world from Rotterdam to Sao Paolo! I worked with Kay Higgins and Kathy Slade, who run Publication Studio Vancouver and learnt the process for making books using affordable and accessible materials and binding methods. I was inspired by the way PS Vancouver supported the development of artists’ publications and engaged with the community and politics locally. On my way back to the UK I visited the founding studio in Portland Oregon to talk about opening a London studio. Their open studio storefront created a really unusual social working space that was also an inspiration for the set up at The Bower.
Shortly after returning to the UK I met a graphic designer from Vancouver, Sharon Mah, who had recently moved to London. When I set up the London studio, with the support of friends and collaborators London Centre for Book Arts, Sharon came on board to design the publications.
In September 2018 I returned to Canada for a week to work with PS Vancouver and PS Hudson, NY on a collaborative project as part of their residency at Emily Carr University of Art + Design alongside an exhibition on publishing as an artistic practice called It’s difficult to put a painting in the mailbox: Toward new models of artists’ publishing.
HS-I love Emily Carr University’s artist book collection. I’m going to Google that exhibition momentarily—sounds brilliant, as you would say.
All in all, would you describe the Bower as a labor of love?
JC&LB-We do love what we do, The Bower and the park and the projects, but it is hard work. There is a misconception around the term ‘labour of love’ that because you love something you will do it regardless of any payment or appreciation, like wages for housework or parenting. Yes we love what we do, but we also give a lot in terms of our time and commitment to artists, writers, and the community and it’s hard to remunerate that. We don’t have any core funding—we rely on small cafe sales, grants and donations, and that precarity is difficult to survive on, especially in a city like London.
Our friend Louise O' Hare wrote about this for Plastic
Words, a public event programme at Raven Row and publication by
Publication Studio in 2015:
“It makes you vulnerable to say you love something, to give a gift without expectation of return…what if love isn’t the motivation…but the strategy?
What if love isn’t reciprocal?
What if love isn’t enough?
How do you sustain love?” (Louise O’Hare, Plastic Words, Publication Studio London, 2015)
It goes back to the issues of care we talked about earlier—because of the care and love we put into it, we create something we’re really proud of that receives warmth and positive feedback in return, but just because we love it, doesn’t mean we can sustain it on that alone. Public funding in the UK is under threat, competitive and difficult to secure, and the cost of living is high. We are looking at other models in order to try and survive and make what we love doing sustainable for the benefit of the people we work with and our audiences.
We received a civic award—the Honorary Liberty of the Old Metropolitan Borough of Camberwell—for our contribution to art, culture, and the community. At first we were really shy about it and didn’t tell anyone, but then we felt proud and happy that the community valued our work.
The plan is for the café takings to support the art projects, but it is still getting established. We don’t pay ourselves a salary yet, but we do incorporate artists and other fees into our fundraising. We don’t have a board at the moment, but we are thinking about how an advisory structure might be put in place in future. We have to see this as a long-term strategy, that the investment of time and energy we put in now will help to build a more sustainable future, where we can pay ourselves a salary and cover our overheads, and continue to pay technicians, writers, and artists’ fees.
HS- Congratulations! I look forward to following your trajectory.
What is your submission and selection process for exhibitors?
JC&LB-It is a curated programme. We work with artists and writers over time and we do not generally accept unsolicited applications for exhibitions or publications; there is always a relationship built up that leads to the end result—be it an exhibition or publication or event.
HS-Are there future plans for The Bower and the Bower Hut Café that you would like to share?
JC&LB-The best way to keep in touch with our plans is to follow us on social media and sign up to our mailing list via the website www.thebower.org.uk
HS-I see that people can follow you on Twitter (@_the_bower) and Instagram (@_the_bower_ and @thebowerhut). You can also join their email list via thebower.org.uk.
Thank-you for your time!
(1) https://womenscenterforcreativework.com/wp-content/uploads/2017/12/FeministHandbook-For-Web-Download.pdf, pp. 8-9.
Images, top to bottom:
Top - Louisa Bailey (l.) and Joyce Cronin (r.). Photo: Arts PR London, courtesy of The Bower.
The Bower (exterior). Photo: Heather Saunders.
The Bower (interior) with Louisa Bailey in PS London. Photo: Arts PR London, courtesy of The Bower.
The Bower (interior) with Louisa Bailey providing a tour of Box of Delights (2018). Photo: Heather Saunders.
After 10+ years, I am wrapping up Artist in Transit in pursuit of other projects. My apologia of the blog is slated to appear in the Library Juice Press publication, Art at the Intersection of Librarianship and Social Justice. Thank-you so much to everyone who has helped make this experience rewarding!
The views on this blog are mine alone and not those of the Cleveland Museum of Art.