This story of disobedience had almost recessed into oblivion, it took an artist and archeologist to bring it back to light and my own scrutiny: who was I then? What would I do now? Could this still happen now and how different would it all be if it did?
I had left college the previous summer with a First Class hons Degree. In the eyes of many this should have served me as a passport to further study and success. However, I had found my last year at college rather destablising and felt a strong need to re-ground myself through part time work. In my free time I was on the look out for a space to work in. The opportunity came through a friend who worked for a charity, in a building in the city centre of Bristol that was shared with other charities such as Shelter and the Bristol Drugs Project.
There was a disused room on the ground floor at the back of the building. I was taken with this space and my friend put in a word for me with the result that I would be able to do as I pleased with it.. I remember it was winter and that somehow seemed relevant: there was no daylight in the room. There was an empty light fitting dangling from the ceiling. White washed stone walls, a wooden partition wall revealing all of its internal structure, fat cast iron pipes. I got to work in response to
the fabric of the room which fascinated me. I cannot remember anymore how many weeks I spent working in there: cutting glass, taking stones from walls, lining cavities, melting wax, cutting out small squares from the wood… Of course I was going to open it to the public and I made my own posters to advertise the show. It would be around Easter time, open for six days. Exhibition title:
Out of the blue came the news that the lease of the building would not be renewed and that therefore all the tenants were given notice to quit. They had just a few weeks to relocate their offices. The various charities were under intense pressure: they had their clients needs to consider.
What was I going to do? It was quite simply inconceivable for me to not go ahead with my show. The work could not be moved out and it was already advertised. The only option I could see was to stay put in the building after everyone else moved out. There was no plan but I had a few helpers: bringing me food, researching and contacting the owners of the property, carrying SOS messages to college tutors and art providers. Overnight I had become a squatter without considering even once the legality or morality of my action.
All this happened before the time of mobile phones, internet, computers: I was indeed cut off and reliant on old fashioned research and the support and goodwill in form of footwork and of just two people. Fax was the new technology at the time and we made use of that.
The staff left me with a key to the building. I was on my own in this large house I had never before ventured into. It was like a rabbit warren and it was exciting to suddenly have it all to myself. There was a kettle, coffee, tobacco, later toothbrush and paste and food that was brought to me, although I cannot remember what that was.
A college tutor came to see me. He put me on the spot: suggesting that I was simply willful and stubborn, in other words childish. He did the right thing to question me but I was impervious to his way of looking at the situation.I even turned the table on him suggesting that, as a multiple property owner himself he was likely to take sides with the rights of ownership whereas I was quite simply on the side of living and breathing art..! Testing moments, moments of truth? Where do we stand in a matter like this ? I couldn’t see what great harm I was causing by causing an inconvenience. It seemed nothing compared with all the heart and dedication I poured into the making of the work!
The inconvenience turned out to be nothing more than an inconvenience and bad publicity in the local papers was not worth a heavy handed approach from the side of the company involved. I did imply going to the papers with the story, which of course involved inconveniencing reputable local
Still, the surprise was total and unexpected and came in the form of a young man in a suit at the door to my squat, briefcase in hand. Cheerfully and casually asking to be let in.He was from a law firm. His manner suggested good news rather than bad so I let him in and we settled in the old Bristol Drugs Project drop in lounge on the ground floor. His visit was brief and to the point:: he presented me with a two week free of charge contract covering the period of and up to the exhibition. Cost of electricity included. Would these terms be acceptable to me?
I think the occupation lasted three nights and three days. I have a memory of venturing out into bright daylight, the sun catching and blinding me through lashes as I walked across St.Augustine’s parade. Victory was light and sweet and very quiet.
‘A tonic to us all’ my dear college tutor later wrote in the exhibitions comments book.
Titles of work
Standing on the outside looking in (2)
Questions Questions (3)
I am a visual artist working occasionally with remnants of language/text. I am interested in the connections between text and textiles and the fabrication of meaning.