“I think sometimes there’s a focus on amenities like kombucha on tap and stuff, instead of actually creating a culture, and creating an environment that’s conducive to just focus on deep work. I would really love to see an immediate shift towards that, because I think at the moment there’s not a lot of depth to some of these spaces. “
Christabel Balfour is an artist and tapestry weaver living and working in south east London. She has been weaving for the last eight years; beginning with sculptural amorphous pieces designed to cluster on the floor or hang from the ceiling. She progress slowly into classical tapestry now specialising in rugs and woven wall-hangings. [christabelbalfour.com]
What is your definition of studio space?
My definition of studio space, um, it would be a place that is designated for creative work, so all of the things that go into it like it’s all about thinking how to make the space work best so that I can create, including like light and how much space I have, things like that.
Collaborative communal studio spaces are on the rise in London. Do you believe this formula can work?
I know it’s mostly to do with cost, most people want to share a space to save money. Personally, I found when I was in a more communal space before it was quite difficult. People were moving in and out all the time. I was there like quite a while, but people would cycle through, people who were in quite short term contracts and they wouldn’t take very good care of the building.
I think communal space can work quite well when it is intentionally and purposefully used for that. I think the difficulty comes when people have different needs and different requirements,and I think my generation of makers values flexibility. So I think one of the difficulties with communal space is that you actually have less wiggle room. You can’t really change the shape of the space out to suit your needs because you have to think about everybody else. I think one good model that worked really well and that I really enjoyed following has been more kind of like creative co-working spaces. I’ve done a lot of work with Benk and Bo. They have a creative co-working space, cafe and they run workshops and I sort of have a rotating agreement with them, where I have my display in their space. And the co-working thing is just one aspect. I think that works really well because their focus is more about a community.
I think in terms of the work that I do, for example, it’s very time consuming, because weaving is really slow. So I found with that kind of work, you have to be quite particular about your space and quite particular about your time. I think the communal model works really well for people who’ve got more collaborative kinds of practices, like photographers or musicians. I think they really thrive in that sort of environment. But I found for myself, I’ve needed that sort of space to focus, which is difficult to get if you have people coming in and out all the time.
Do you believe that London has an impact on your art?
I think so. It’s been interesting working right now with being self-isolated. Because the appeal of London was always being in a really big city having access to all of this cultural stuff all the time and not having that right now has actually not been as hard as I thought it would be. I would find it really difficult to focus in the studio if I didn’t have enough other things booked into my schedule, but I actually found that with the isolating and not really being able to do anything has meant that I’ve slowed down a lot and I’ve had a much more natural rhythm. Having said that, I do think when I mean, especially when you’re building a practice, London’s a really good place to be. I found that it did make it really easy to make contacts. It’s been really positive on that level. Just the kind of volume of people that can have together and it’s easy to get inspired because there’s so many people doing unexpected things.
But yeah, I think in the long run, I definitely don’t see myself staying in London. Mostly because in terms of space. And because the work that I do, the looms that I have are very large, they take up quite a lot of room. On a financial level, wanting to have more space, but not necessarily needing specifically to be in London for it. I think in the long run I’d probably move, but I’m enjoying being in London right now.
Do you think it would impact your work if you were to move out?
I think kind of like what I said already, like with the slowing down and not doing as much stuff, has been really valuable. I would hope that by the time I move, my practice would be established enough and I wouldn’t be at a stage where I needed to you know, kind of reinvent the wheel every two years which at the moment I feel like I’ve been trying a lot of different things out and being in London has been really positive for that. You can experiment and try things because there’s a big audience and you can see what the audience is responding to. I think being outside of London,will give me a lot more space to just concentrate and think. There’s less pressure like on a social level. If you’re outside of London, people aren’t expecting you to meet up with them for a drink every evening kind of thing. I mean, there’s so much happening outside of London, really, but the pace is less frenetic. And I think and hope that doing and innovating at like a slower pace would be a positive.
What do you think the future of studio space will look like?
Really depends, like, what people are looking for out of it. I mean, obviously right now, the future feels very uncertain. I hope one thing that will come out of this whole thing is that people will start to value remote working a lot more and people won’t feel they need to be concentrated so much in like hotspot areas. I’m hoping that we’ll see people just be a little bit more imaginative about the spaces that we could be using and repurposing. And maybe thinking we don’t all have to be in the same postcode.
At the moment co-working is very trendy, but I personally don’t know how helpful they always are to like productivity or to people’s actual creative process because everyone’s process is so different. Some people really thrive in that environment where there’s a bouncing of ideas all the time. But some people really need that space to kind of focus. And I’m just wondering if maybe there’s room for people to start rediscovering how we can give people space that really allows them to create their best work. I think sometimes there’s a focus on amenities like kombucha on tap and stuff, instead of actually creating a culture, and creating an environment that’s conducive to just focus on deep work. I would really love to see an immediate shift towards that, because I think at the moment there’s not a lot of depth to some of these spaces.
I think Benk and Bo,that I mentioned, are different because they intentionally pursued creating a community like everyone hangs out there when they’ve finished work, that kind of thing. Marielle has done a terrific job of creating an atmosphere where you know, it’s very soothing and it’s very easy to concentrate as opposed to some of the other co-working spaces, which always seem crowded. I would hope to see a move towards thinking about how the space can facilitate the quality of work that you create, rather than the space trying to signify “coolness.”
How do you think artists can collaborate or communicate with developers in London to try to maintain that cultural community?
I think artists’ wants tend to be kind of fairly consistent across the board. I mean, they just want simple spaces with lots of natural light. I think simplicity is always a goal with these kinds of things.Ideally, you’d want spaces that can be modified if needed, that artists can kind of make into their own if they’re turning it into a studio. In terms of a cultural community, I know developers are thinking more and more about the specific locations where they’re building. It is a difficult one, because I think most of the time artists tend to just be quite improvised. It tends to be the space that you adapt to in a very organic kind of process, like your work takes a certain direction, so you get these tools and these materials to go in that direction.