Re-imagining the white box

What do a skip, a crypt, a train platform and a drag king’s head have in common?

In a wonderfully subversive expression of creativity beyond the confines of traditional spaces, they are all examples of alternative art galleries.

The term ‘Alternative Space’ originated in the early 70s, referring to places in which artists were showing their work outside of commercial galleries and formally constituted museums.

In cities around the world, alternative spaces not only offered a way for artists to reclaim their own narrative context and shun the commercialism of the art world, they also became a way to express political and social messages as well as elements of humour and satire.

The prevalence of these artist-run initiatives is much more than the butt of a joke. They give artists the freedom to display their work independently and encourage audiences to join artists in thinking outside the ‘white box’.

I spoke to artists and curators to find out how alternative spaces are making art more accessible and democratising the art world.

Defying expectations

“I’ve experienced  an opera in a fish and chip shop, a puppet show in a yurt, an orchestra in an underground waggonway and an installation in a butchers shop,” Lady Kitt tells me.

“I think alternative art spaces are essential for keeping culture and creativity accessible, useful, interesting and adaptable,” they add.

Kitt is a UK-based artist, researcher and drag king whose project Plenty Up Top playfully defies convention to make for a unique artistic platform – on their head.

After being diagnosed with Alopecia Areata, Kitt started the gallery as a way to explore the changing appearance that Alopecia brings and “decorate” the bald patches.

The gallery has developed into a live art project and social practice space that Kitt now offers to other people to create temporary works of art.

“In my experience, typical gallery spaces aren’t the best for these kind of questions, because those spaces often feel very clinical, they make a lot of people feel very unconnected. So, a gallery on my head was about being the absolute opposite of that – the most connected space I could think of,” they say.

“Pretty much all the artist-run spaces I’ve had anything to do with are run by people who are fascinated in and massively supportive of other people’s creativity and really invested in the huge variety of ways that can manifest.

“There’s a great focus on people – giving people permission to do stuff they think is important, and supporting people to try something out and fail, and for that to be fine.”

The gallery remains “open” as Kitt goes about daily life, taking the works of art along with them to be viewed by everyone they encounter.

A sense of humour, a sense of freedom

Besides artistic freedom, alternative spaces offer artists the financial freedom to create their own platforms. This means that makers who may otherwise not be able to afford gallery representation can still get their works seen and interact directly with their audience.

Artists and curators Catherine Borowski and Lee Baker teamed up in 2017 to create SKIP gallery to offer one such platform to emerging artists.

Catherine and Lee at Look At This exhibition: SKIP gallery x Arts Building, Finsbury Park, 2019

The pair were frustrated at the lack of representation for fresh creatives at international art fairs such as Frieze London. They decided to take matters into their own hands by installing a skip outside the fair and turning it into their own gallery space.

The idea took off, and soon Catherine and Lee began welcoming renowned and emerging artists alike to take part in skip residencies.

An unassuming building container that houses works of art and defies the expectations of what a gallery ‘should’ look like, SKIP brings eruptions of playful art into unexpected environments.

“It’s something that people can relate to, but it’s also its got to hold its own as an art work as well. Something that touches people and is easy to digest, and also hold its own as an art piece,” Catherine tells me.

She believes the artist-led movement into alternative art spaces in the capital has been borne out of financial pressures and is rooted in the sense of humour inherent in London art.

“I think it’s something that has always existed, but the economic urgency that we’ve got at the moment is just making is essential,” she says.

“Artists have had no choice. It’s a movement that has come out of necessity.”

But while London can prove a challenging place to live and work in more ways than one, Catherine does believe the city really offers a breadth of artistic opportunity in terms of alternative spaces.

“You want to get a skip and say it’s an art work and a gallery? You can do it and people will get behind you and support you,” she said.

Alternative space in the digital realm

Painter and performing artist Adelaide Damoah says traditional structures continue to fuel elitism.

We meet at an event hosted by Mall Galleries where Adelaide takes part in a panel discussion about thinking outside the white box as part of their FBA Futures 2020 programme.

I asked her how space plays in with dynamics of inequality within the art world and whether elitism still exists today.

“Massively, it’s still there. Even today there are certain spaces that I would walk into and question if I’m meant to be here,” she tells me.

But she is hopeful that tides are changing, something she attributes to the work of artist-led collectives as well as accessibility offered by modern technology.

“The balance of power is shifting,” says Adelaide.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but I think these days because of structural changes artists are feeling more empowered to do things by themselves rather than wait for someone to discover them.

“A part of the democratisation of the art world is the Internet. All of us have access to social media platforms, websites; so if you’ve got an alternative space and you want to encourage people to come in, you’ve got the tools to do that.”

Allowing artists to connect directly with their audience and share their work for free, social media has become one of the most democratising spaces in the arts. Beyond fridges, yurts and butchers shops, perhaps the most alternative space utilised by artists today is actually a digital one.

Sharing a lifelong passion

For some, alternative spaces can be a little closer to home.

Veysel Yildirim has worked as an artist all his life. After leaving a gallery space in Angel due to financial and health difficulties, Veysel decided to set up his own gallery in his Shoreditch flat.

ART LOVER: Veysel created his own art space in his Shoreditch flat

Almost every surface of the Sistine Chapel London is now covered in cut-out prints of famous artworks from Michelangelo to Botero alongside his own original works.

By exhibiting art in his own home, which he opens to the public once a week, Veysel hopes to share his passion for art with the world in a way that affords him comfort and security.

“Real art is for society and becomes beautiful when it is shared,” he says.

WATCH: Visiting the Sistine Chapel London

Thinking outside the white box

Alternative spaces offer artists the freedom to control their own creative narrative, and offer audiences the chance to re-consider what makes art truly special – connection.

Celebrating alternative art spaces is celebrating art itself. Art is not appreciated by the act of containing it within white walls, but by throwing caution into the skip and embracing the passion that saturates every canvas.

Have you been to any of these alternative spaces? Or have you found any hidden gems that you recommend? Leave a comment!

Featured image: The World As We Know It by Sarah Maple @ Arts Building, Finsbury Park © SKIP gallery, Catherine Borowski & Lee Baker