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March 12 2012

Artists come together in a Crisis

The Crisis Commission at London's Somerset House will feature new works by artists including Gillian Wearing, Antony Gormley and Tracey Emin

A small and poignant bronze sculpture of a young man called Craig – who became homeless after serving in Afghanistan – will greet visitors to a new exhibition to raise awareness and money for the charity Crisis.

The work by Gillian Wearing goes on display at Somerset House in London on 14 March along with new pieces by artists including Antony Gormley, Tracey Emin, Sir Anthony Caro and Jonathan Yeo. All the works will be sold on 3 May, with the money going to the charity for single homeless people, Crisis.

Wearing said she was inspired by the real story of Craig O'Keefe who became homeless after returning from duty in Afghanistan. Eventually, with the help of Veteran's Aid, he managed to get work and a flat and is now a volunteer tutor for Crisis.

"Crisis were great because they really wanted artists to get involved directly with their charity," said Wearing. She was part of a workshop meeting people who work for and used its services. "It wasn't a passive involvement which I really thought was important."

Emin offered four works: two self-portraits and two neon signs saying Trust Me and Trust Yourself. She said they were words we often say to others and to ourselves. "Sometimes such statements need to be reaffirmed. The use of neon makes it all the more positive."

The two self-portraits, Deep Blue III and Deep Blue V, are part of a series Emin created for her forthcoming show at Turner Contemporary in Margate, in which she explores the idea "of the body becoming older, self-loathing and the notion of self-preservation".

Emin said she did not do anything different because the show was for Crisis. "I'm quite impressed at what a big show it is and how serious it is and not just a charity event."

Gormley has made a cast iron sculpture of a person we assume to be homeless. "The most challenging social sculpture of our times is made by the quiet performances of the homeless within the shelter provided by the doorways of the shops of our inner cities."

He said he was trying to evoke a fallen body which is, nevertheless, not at rest. "This exhibition allows one to think about those bodies that have no place. I believe that sculpture can powerfully evoke the nameless, the voiceless and the placeless."

The Crisis Commission show raises money and awareness at a crucial time, says the charity. After years of declining trends, 2010 represented a turning point when all forms of homelessness began to rise. In 2010/11, 3,975 people slept rough in London, an 8% rise on the previous year.

The show runs until 22 April and will also feature work by homeless and vulnerable people who have been helped by Crisis.

The charity's chief executive Leslie Morphy said: "We are thrilled that so many leading contemporary artists are participating in the Crisis Commission. This prestigious event will raise much needed funds for our work and bring a new focus to the worrying current rise in homelessness in society."

Other works in the show include Yinka Shonibare's Homeless Man, 2012, which shows a vibrantly dressed Victorian man weighed down by 11 suitcases. The artist said: "The idea of the work is to suggest that any privileged person can become vulnerable at any time due to circumstances outside of their own personal control, such as illness, death of a relative, war or unfortunate economic circumstances."

The artist Bob and Roberta Smith (also known as Patrick Brill) has made a piece called Kite because of its association with isolation and the elements. "My kite has 'help' written on it. It is a cry for help by the person flying it."

Brill said he was aware of homelessness rising and taught in an art school where some of his students are homeless. "Homelessness is about isolation. Homes are not just roofs and walls – they are networks – about nurture and care."

The show has been curated by Laurence Sillars, chief curator at the Baltic in Gateshead and the cost of creating the works has been met by GlaxoSmithKline. All of them will be auctioned at Christie's on 3 May.


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January 31 2012

Antony Gormley: don't criminalise squatting

British artist, who inhabited empty factory in 1970s, defends rights of squatters to put unused properties to good use

The artist Antony Gormley put forward a passionate defence of squatting at the launch of an exhibition in aid of the homeless on Tuesday morning.

Gormley, famous for his humanoid sculptures, notably the Angel of the North in Gateshead, said: "I'm very against the criminalisation of squatting – I think it's absolutely criminal that many inner city properties are empty.

"Squatting is a very good way of preserving properties while at the same time putting them to good use. It's a no-brainer that properties that are awaiting renovation or don't have commercial tenants can be of use for creative things, and indeed to provide shelter for the homeless."

The government aims to criminalise squatting in residential properties, with squatters to be fined £5,000 or face a year in jail. Gormley squatted for six years in a factory in King's Cross when he was an art student in the 70s. "I have to say that the landlord of the factory was very, very positive about us being there.

"We had everything we needed including 25,000sq ft of work space. A lot of the artists' space organisation of the 70s was to use unused council and commercial properties for studios and they continued to do incredibly good work. I think it's a principle that should be continued."

Gormley said he applauded the group of young artists called the Da! collective who made headlines in 2008 by squatting in a house worth £6.25m in Mayfair, which they used for art projects, exhibitions, talks and events.

"I think my daughter made the kitchen for that. I think there are a lot of young, energetic but refusing-to-be-entrepreneurial people who want to put these inner city spaces to very good use. The Occupy movement has its university but that's suffering a bit from the chill winds of winter. I think that Mayfair squat, which was also a talk shop and exchange ground for ideas about collective futures, was a great example of what young people are doing today."

Gormley is one of several artists, including Tracey Emin, Gillian Wearing, Jonathan Yeo and Yinka Shonibare, who have created new work that will be exhibited at Somerset House in London from 14 March then auctioned the following month, with the proceeds going to Crisis, the charity for single homeless people. Gormley's piece is called Contract and is "a recumbent body" made of iron and inspired by the homeless people he saw sleeping on the Lincoln memorial on his first trip to Washington.

Gormley said: "It's making reference to the bodies that we see who have fallen out of society or find themselves in the empty forecourts of everything from banks to chip shops. I think it is an indictment of any society that we cannot accommodate those without a place, and the single homeless are particularly vulnerable. They need shelter of every kind, particularly human shelter – a programme of therapeutic help which will enable them to recover their trust in human relationships."


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June 27 2011

Homeless centre opens its doors with display of art

An exhibition and sale of art by homeless people begins at the UK's busiest homelessness day centre



December 21 2009

'We're not squatters,' says Mayfair art group

The Oubliette is a new regular venue on the arts scene, with an exclusive address, a corporate strategy and 24-hour security. Just don't call it a squat

The first thing Dan Simon would like you to know is that he is not a squatter. The debonair 31-year-old is happy to admit that his current home, a gigantic nine-floor building in London's most exclusive district, does not belong to him or his half-dozen housemates. They pay no rent, and entered the property on Sunday 6 December without the permission or knowledge of the owners, an offshore investment company called Greencap IV Limited, rumoured to be owned by a Prince of Brunei.

But they are not squatting, they say. They are using the enormous empty space to run what they refer to as an "artshouse", an independent cultural organisation called the Oubliette ("the dungeon" in French), which aims to support the arts without the need for public or private sector funding.

Unlike many other squatters, who tend to be rather chaotic and anarchic, the Oubliette is run on near-corporate lines. They even have a sort of business plan, which they plan to tout around the capital's wealthy property magnates. The goal? To persuade the rich to lend their empty properties to the Oubliette to use for exhibitions, concerts and plays. "It's an alternative way of offering extraordinarily wealthy people a way to contribute to the arts without an enormous pecuniary investment," according to the erudite Simon.

The PR-savvy group held a pre-Christmas open house charity event at their capacious new residence at 61 Curzon Street in Mayfair. Empty for 12 years, it is the former headquarters of Reader's Digest, and looks out over Marco Pierre White's society restaurant, Mirabelle, as well as the old MI5 HQ.

The Land Registry has no record of the price paid for the building when it was last sold in 1997, but it is certainly worth several million pounds and is in relatively good condition despite years of neglect. It is the Oubliette's fifth flashy London residence this year – last month they were evicted from a site overlooking all the cinemas in Leicester Square, and in September they occupied two former embassies near Green Park.

In terms of floor space, their new gaff would be the envy of nearly every arts centre in the country. It is so big, in fact, that last Friday's event, a collaboration with homelessness charity The Connection at St Martin-in-the-Fields, only used parts of the ground and first floors. There was an art exhibition, featuring work by homeless people, as well as the Oubliette's artist-in-residence, Philip Firsov, and a number of different classical music groups staged mini-concerts in some of the building's many rooms.

The event was one of many unusual partnerships the Oubliette are trying to forge in an attempt to turn squatting into a legitimate way of showcasing the arts without the taxpayer's help, while disassociating themselves from wilder, less well organised squatters in other London mansions.

Their hope is that the building's owners – the mysterious Greencap, which bought the property in 1997 for an unknown price and left it empty – will let them act as caretakers of the building. Simon admits this is unlikely, but said he had yet to be served with court papers heralding an imminent eviction. Boodle Hatfield, the London law firm named on the Land Registry as Greencap's UK representatives, said it could not comment on anything to do with its clients.

The group is currently in the process of preparing PowerPoint presentations to give to the owners of empty buildings – both commercial and residential – to persuade them to allow the Oubliette to use their spaces as arts platforms. A draft pitch, seen by the Guardian, attempts to sell squatting as a way of providing free security, preventing property devaluation and adding value to the community.

Twenty-four-hour security costs £7,500 per guard per month, claims the pitch, adding that a derelict property can "result in a loss of up to 18% value on neighbouring property prices". What's more, the Oubliette pledge to improve empty buildings. "Our dedicated team includes certified workers in electrics, plumbing and construction," they say, promising to "return the property back to the owner clean and functional within 28 days' written notice of wanting the property back".

The Oubliette is based around a "live-in core" of eight people with distinct roles, including "IT guru", "PR operative", "graphic designer", "legal adviser" (a trainee barrister), "artist-in-residence" and "copywriter". They have grand plans, according to Simon, who until 2002 was an IT worker living in Chelsea. "Our long-term strategic ambition is to negotiate for consent with an owner of a suitable empty premise for leave to remain," he said. "Occupying properties in high-profile locations allows us to raise public awareness and garner support, whilst also furthering the organisational aspects of our project and pitch to proprietors."

He is confident of success, and claims to have successfully negotiated consent to squat in eight properties in London in the past seven years. He says the Oubliette has already contributed to the capital's arts scene, pointing to the theatre company Donkey Work, which in June put on a quite well-received play at the Oubliette's first base at a former language school in Waterloo. The success of that play led to an invitation to create a new work in conjunction with the South Bank.

Simon admits the Oubliette's highly organised approach hasn't gone down well with the traditional squatting community. "For some people, it's a kind of heresy," he said, before rolling a cigarette and going off to work on his pitch.

Movers and shakers: Other notorious squatters

The Belgravia Squatters

A loose collective of Poles, Spaniards and random homeless people who have hit the headlines by taking possession of high-profile properties in Belgravia, central London. Coups include a property off Chester Square, just doors down from Margaret Thatcher's house, and an occupation of David Blunkett's former grace-and-favour property on South Eaton Place.

The group is led from property-to-property by Mark Guard, a self-proclaimed multimillionaire property developer, who is making a film about their adventures.

Guard claims to have a hit-list of properties he is going to target in the coming months and years to highlight the scandal of London's empty properties – most of which are owned by offshore companies. After being evicted from Blunkett's house last week, the group claims to have temporarily decamped to nearby Knightsbridge.

The Da! Collective

A raggle-taggle of well-to-do young artists and students who earned the tag the "posh squatters" when they moved into an opulent mansion on Upper Grosvenor Street, Mayfair, last November. They organised art and music events from the house, just around the corner from the heavily fortified American embassy, until their eviction.

Then they moved to a £22.5m property around the corner in Clarges Mews, where they organised workshops under the banner The Temporary School of Thought. Now disbanded.

The VHS Video Basement

A group of creative filmmakers who ran a cinema and other events from their squat in a Soho basement. After their eviction, they moved to the abandoned Puss in Boots strip club in Mayfair, where they organised parties and film screenings. On Wednesday the VHS Video Basement lost a court hearing and resigned itself to imminent eviction.


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