Renovation & Education: Margot Heller

The director of the South London Gallery discusses transformative renovation, social responsibility and unlocking creativity

Peckham Road Fire Station, 1905. London Metropolitan Archives, City of London

Three years ago, Margot Heller was invited to visit London’s oldest surviving purpose-built fire-station. By the end of the surprise tour, it had been gifted to her gallery. Donated by an anonymous benefactor, Peckham Road Fire Station has since been transformed by 6a architects (who Port met for issue 22) into a new exhibition space for the world-renowned South London Gallery, effectively doubling its capacity.

For over a century, nestled squarely between Peckham and Camberwell, the gallery has been showcasing the very best of British and international contemporary art. Established on its current site by philanthropist William Rossiter to “bring art to the people of South London”, entry remains completely free, providing an opportunity to experience the controversial work of Young British Artists Tracey Emin, Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas – as well as contemporary artists from further afield, such as Alfredo Jarr, Oscar Murillo and Rivane Neuenschwander – for those whom central London galleries might appear inaccessible.

Here, Tom Bolger talks to Heller about the opportunities the Fire Station will bring, the social benefits of an expanded arts program, and the first exhibition to span the two new spaces, KNOCK KNOCK, which explores humour in art.

Margot Heller

How can the South London Gallery encourage everyone, from all backgrounds, to walk through the door?

Being a welcoming place is absolutely fundamental to our ethos, and it has been from the first day I started. Part of that is to openly communicate what you’re doing and we’re very proactive in providing opportunities for people to get involved. We’ve been running children’s art programs on the Sceaux Gardens Housing Estate behind us for more than ten years, developing long-term relationships with residents who will often then go on to our Young People’s Programme. Because I’ve worked here for seventeen years, I’ve seen a generation come of age. We’ve just hired a play worker to help run our Art Block sessions who came as a child, we have people working at the gallery who grew up on the local estate. Making sure a child’s initial encounter with art is natural changes their dynamic with galleries and artists for life.

Sunday Spot with Philippa Johnson. Photo Zoe Tynan Campbell

What does the Peckham Road Fire Station expansion mean for the gallery?

The Fire Station will be completely transformative for the South London Gallery, doubling us in size and allowing us to be much more ambitious in our exhibition programming – we can have group shows that span both buildings. It will enable us to more experimental in a curatorial sense, further establishing our artists residency program now that there’s a dedicated studio. We’ll also be able to work with different communities in new ways through our education and digital archive spaces.

The South London Gallery and Fire Station are effectively time twins – the origins of the former lie in the South London Working Man’s College which opened in 1868, while the Fire Station opened in 1867. So this new relationship between the two closes a 127 year loop, bringing the social, architectural and cultural history of the local area to life in a completely fascinating way.

South London Gallery Fire Station, Photo Johan Dehlin, Courtesy 6a architects

I’m always surprised with how versatile the main gallery space is. How much freedom do you give artists to change it?

I work very closely with artists and encourage them to be as ambitious as possible. Those that do completely transform it tend to have the greatest resonance. In the grand scheme of things, it’s a relatively small space at 200 square metres, but that’s one of the things I love about it. It slows down the time between the viewer and the artwork, concentrating their experience. It doesn’t always have to be about scale.

Tell me about your upcoming exhibition, KNOCK KNOCK.

There are laugh out loud works in the show but there are also pieces that examine humour as a subject, something fundamental to human existence. They explore how humour is a cover sometimes, the dark underbelly of reality – it’s the melancholy of the clown figure. It’s a huge cross section of different types of practices, creating a surprising encounter with a broad range of artists who use humour as a device. We’re pitting works by quite established names like Maurizio Cattelan alongside newly commissioned work by young artists to reflect the gallery’s curatorial approach, which often creates a dialogue between the two.

Roy Lichtenstein, Knock-Knock, 1975

The UK has endured substantial arts education funding cuts in the past decade and yet it still produces world class talent, why do you think that is?

The UK has such outstanding museums and galleries, in London and around the country. We also have some of the best art schools in the world, so those two factors are absolutely vital. However, cuts do have an impact and that cannot be sustained. If they continue, they will have a very real impact on young people’s choices. Art GCSE entries have already been reduced by 28% since 2010. The impact of this has yet to filter through, but it will.

Can you teach creativity?

You can definitely reveal it to someone. You can unlock it, nurture it, develop it, redefine what it means to people who might not have conventional skills associated with creativity. If an arts education is too conservative, as it was for me, it’s easy to turn your back on it. Because I couldn’t draw properly by the age of 7 I thought I was ‘uncreative’ and gave up. I think that’s a common story. Education should provide skills that channel innate creativity. 

South London Gallery Fire Station, Photo Johan Dehlin, Courtesy 6a architects

Peckham and Camberwell are changing rapidly. How can they continue to grow but resist commodifying their culture?

The word ‘gentrification’ is used negatively, whereas ‘regeneration’ is positive. Often those two things go together, which can be challenging. There’s a lot of social housing in this part of London, and it’s so important to keep that in the public sector. Secondly, it’s crucial we have free, public spaces, open to all. That’s why the development of the fire station is so positive. I’ve always felt very keenly our responsibility to run a space that is a public social space, as well as an art space. 

The South London Gallery’s new annexe in the former Fire Station opened to the public on the 22nd September. The first exhibition there, KNOCK KNOCK, runs until 18th November and explores humour in contemporary art.

6a

Will Wiles discusses Juergen Teller, Milton Keynes and the White Cube with the most exciting architecture practice in London today

“It was funny doing Al Jazeera,” says Stephanie Macdonald, one half of 6a architects. After a couple of decades in practice, latterly designing small but exquisite arts spaces, last year the studio abruptly found itself going global. Tom Emerson, Macdonald’s husband and the other half of 6a, picks up the story.

“One of our very first clients, who we haven’t heard from in years, suddenly got in touch saying ‘Steph just floated above my head [on TV] in Bali!’, or Bangkok, or something: That was thanks to Al Jazeera.”

In architecture – much like literature – the long lead times of projects mean that work often gets attention long after it was designed. And when a practice is working on multiple buildings sometimes their completion coincides, creating what appears to be an explosion of activity from a studio, even when it’s the culmination of half a decade of patient labour. In 12 months, 6a’s new courtyard at Churchill College, Cambridge, opened, as did its back garden for the South London Gallery, a collaboration with the artist Gabriel Orozco. The practice also won planning permission for its most significant project to date, an art gallery in Milton Keynes.

Left: The interior of Jurgen Teller’s studio in west London. Right: The roof of the former Peckham Fire Station, currently being refurbished as part of 6a’s redesign for the South London Gallery extension.

But what really got the foreign press interested was their studio for the photographer Juergen Teller in Holland Park, west London. This austere but serene concrete and blockwork building, on a narrow residential site, is characterised by rhythmic beams, cool light and a pocket-sized courtyard garden. Of course, it helps with press attention if your client is a renowned and mischievous photographer who’s willing to pose naked on a donkey in your new building. But the studio also received critical acclaim, and was shortlisted for the Stirling Prize.

As it turns out, Teller was, in fact, a model contractee. “He doesn’t take art direction in his work,” says Emerson. “If you commission Juergen Teller, you get Juergen Teller. You don’t tell him what to do.” And this was what he expected from his architects. “He’d say, ‘I picked you as my architect, you do it,’” Emerson says. “You would present things to him and ask his opinion, and he’d ask ‘Is it good?’, and you’d say ‘Yeah, it is quite good,’ and he’d say ‘Do it.’”

“He really is an extraordinary artist. He’s very candid. He’s almost childlike in his directness and honesty about things,” Macdonald adds. “He would get really attached to things.” Fundamental to 6a’s concept for the site was to break down the boundaries of the ‘studio’. The brief called for a series of demarcated spaces with various functions: archive, office, kitchen, library, studio.

“We knew that by temperament he would never confine himself to working in the studio; essentially everything was a studio,” Emerson says. This led to what he calls a “richer project”, treating every space as a potential subject for Teller’s camera. “Afterwards, he told us, ‘It’s fantastic. I’ve photographed everything in here.’”

“It was an idea that he totally took in, and almost made happen immediately,” Macdonald says. “He was photographing on site before the foundations went in.” “Before it was a building.”

The face and interior of Raven Row in Spitalfields, east London: a Grade II-listed building, the shop fronts are thought to be some of the oldest in the city.

This happens often when talking with 6a, who met as postgraduate architecture students at the Royal College of Art. As they discuss the ideas behind a project, the enthusiasm in the room builds and they begin to talk over one another, completing each other’s thoughts. Looking back over the record of the conversation, it was striking how even-handed it was, with neither dominating, the couple instinctively sharing the space. Nor does there appear to be a division of responsibilities with – for instance – one providing the ideas and the other the practicalities, as the division of labour often goes in partnerships. Which is not to say they don’t have specialisms: Emerson leans towards the academic side, and Macdonald – whose undergraduate degree was in fine art – brings a visual sensibility and cross-disciplinary approach, with connections made across many fields. The exploration of materials that forms a vital part of the practice’s reputation also hinges on their different strengths, Emerson’s in the construction and Macdonald’s in their narrative connection, although again neither exclusively.

The way the studio space in the Teller project bleeds out beyond its boundaries points to something fundamental in 6a’s whole approach. Their career is dominated by art spaces, beginning with the two projects that made their name: Raven Row in the East End (2009) and the South London Gallery in Camberwell (2010). How does one make room for art – either its making or its display? Many would assume that this was a matter of purging a space of distractions and influences, as a laboratory might be purged of contaminants, creating the pristine ‘white cube’.

“I think it’s one of the big myths of this subject,” says Emerson. “And it’s peddled both in the art world and in the architecture world: that there’s such a thing as a neutral space; that if you put enough white paint on it, it somehow neutralises it. When, of course, the white cube is actually extremely ideologically loaded; it’s a very rhetorical space. The moment you walk into a room with no features, all white, with flat light, it’s almost Kubrickian in its intensity.”

Artists don’t particularly want that, Macdonald says, and it’s certainly not what 6a provides. “Artists want their work to connect, and they also like having a real or authentic ground,” she says. “So it is about reducing a space so that the art can be the centre of attention – that is important. But at the same time, I think generally we look for specificity in a space and to make connections through material narratives. Sometimes they’re just anecdotal and social narratives, things that come back into the building in a quiet way.” 

Portraits Tereza Cervenova 

Revisiting Peckham’s Radical Health Experiment 

Thomas Bolger speaks to multimedia artist Ilona Sagar about her latest exhibition Correspondence O, which focuses on the revolutionary Pioneer Health Centre in south London

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

Established in Peckham in 1926, the Pioneer Health Centre was a bold experiment in social connection, preventative medicine and local governance. For over 24 years, working-class citizens of the south London borough paid a shilling a week to be a part of a body greater than the sum of its parts, signing up to a research program that sought to track the relationship between social and physical health.

The centre’s transition from a Socialist reverie to gated community, as it is now, has uncomfortable parallels to an increasingly fraught and privatised NHS. Returning to the site and the principals with which it was founded, multimedia artist Ilona Sagar’s moving installation, Correspondence O, explores this historical microcosm while asking urgent questions about our current public healthcare system.

Here, I spoke to Sagar about the legacy of the Peckham Experiment, the status of community and social welfare today, and the future of the NHS. 

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

Why was the Pioneer Health Centre such a revolutionary model and how did the project come about? 

A while ago I came across the building through a friend and was drawn to its iconic architecture, but I was unware of its loaded history. I started to look at the architect Owen William’s designs in the RIBA collection and realised that I had only scratched the surface of a complex archive.

‘The Peckham Experiment’ was at the forefront of a dramatic shift in the public perception of health, yet its significance has been historically overlooked. Biologists George Scott Williamson and Innes Hope Pearse established it privately in 1926, long before the foundation of the NHS in 1948. The Pioneer Centre came out of a time of social experimentation and optimistic change, citing similar projects such as the fresh air movement. It promised wide, airy, huge-windowed spaces where people could play, exercise, and be observed and recorded. Built around principles of self-organisation, local empowerment and a holistic focus on social connection as fundamental to health, the learning from the Peckham Experiment is as relevant today as it was then.

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

How important was collaboration for this project?

There is an overwhelmingly comprehensive body of archival material and primary resources surrounding the work of the Peckham Experiment. They appear in a fragmented way across several archives, community groups, charitable foundations and within the building itself. 

The first material I came across was at the Wellcome Trust archives, where I found a series of very unusual black and white silent films. The lack of an experienced camera operator and the method used to transpose the material to archive results in films which are a disjointed mesh of body parts, glass, water, rope, architecture, small moments of interactions and activities. Through accident they almost appear as a structuralist film rather than a medical document. I was struck by how much these films resonated with contemporary editing methods. So this footage became a key overarching structure for Correspondence O, reflected in a rhythmically edited sequence of rapidly changing events and bound by the layered use of sound design and voice-over.

Correspondence O is not simply a historical account, it is a darkly speculative installation that examines our uneasy and increasingly precarious relationship to public health, labour and wellbeing. During a site visit at the Pioneer Centre, by chance I met Tom Bell, an architectural surveyor, and James Hardy, a personal trainer, who are both residents of the centre today. Their professions became emblematic material components of the film, echoing the legacy of the Peckham Experiment. 

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

Could we see this sort of self-organised, locally empowered social-health centre in the future as an antidote to the status quo? What is the tension between public and private in the work?  

The inspiring yet unsustainable ideologies established by biological and social reform groups like the Peckham Experiment has in many ways shaped our expectations of public resources. The failed big society agenda and neoliberal localism have redefined notions of the common good. Correspondence O is not a didactic illustration of the current political climate. I didn’t want the work to become a worthy polemic, but through the film and exhibition, open up a dialogue with my audience and offer a space for discussion. 

Political populism, identity politics and fundamentalism have distracted us from the privatisation of public life. Silently the definition of public interest and welfare have been rewritten, leaving us with an increasingly private and economically driven health sector, redefining health as a consumer asset rather than as an innate human right.

Still from Correspondence O, Ilona Sagar 2017

AI can now diagnose scans for cancer with incredible accuracy and at a fraction of the cost compared to human doctors – could emerging technologies like AI be the thing that saves the NHS?

There are amazing innovations in health and care using advance forms of human-computer interactions and assistive technologies, and I have no doubt that they will have a positive and lasting impact on our health in the future. Yet I have concerns about how private health companies shape our access to these technologies. Algorithms, neural networks and data forests are increasingly trusted and relied on to manage all aspects of our everyday activities. In recent years we have seen a surge of innovation in the commercial sector for products that allow users to self-manage their health and wellbeing without outside human intervention. Internationally we are seeing governments trialling new E-health initiatives in a desperate bid to solve growing structural and fiscal challenges within public health provision. 

I am deeply troubled by the contraction of companies such as Babylon Health Care, who are currently piloting the ‘GP in Hand’ digital app for the NHS. The app promises ‘efficiency’ to take pressure off an over-stretched NHS. Yet it features ‘queue-jumps’ and faster testing pay bands, piggy backing us into a ACA style system. Although there is a substantial commentary surrounding the gamification and quantifying of our health, labour and wellbeing, there has been sparse empirical analysis. 

Courtesy of the Wellcome Collection and Pioneer Health Foundation

Do you think the British public will eventually reject privatisation in their healthcare system?

I would like to think we have a power to resist, but whether we have a choice to reject the privatisation that is already legislated for is difficult to assess. Evidence of the silent shift to a US style system of insurance is embedded in the announcement by Jeremy Hunt of the launch of “accountable care organisations”. It is a system of health management directly transplanted from the US that bring private, corporate health interests deep into the structure of public welfare. Aspects of privatisation are very much in the public interest, yet corporate partnerships remain opaque and little known to the general public. 75 years after the Beveridge report, we are further than ever before from the founding notions of social insurance. We should take every opportunity to question and challenge policy and increasing health inequalities. Once it’s gone, its gone. 

Correspondence O runs at the South London Gallery until the 25th February. A panel discussion with Owen Hatherley, Nina Wakeford, Lisa Curtice and Ilona Sagar takes place at 6pm on 25th February. For more information click here.