The unknown and known potential of Topos

The project Topos (@TOPOSExeter) is an initiative by the artist Volkhardt Mueller which aims to reoccupy a redundant storeroom in a shopping arcade in Exeter with input by ruralrecreation and many others. Following the success of the project This City Centre, which Mueller worked on as part of the collective Blind Ditch, a new relationship was forged with Land Securities who had donated space in one of their shopping malls for temporary occupation. Land Securities subsequently offered this new derelict space to Mueller for a peppercorn rent for one year and his proposal is to use this top floor city centre location as both a studio, gallery and residency location for himself and other artists with a commitment to explore and engage with the site’s communities.

The model proposed for Topos is not new – there is a long and venerable history of artists occupying unused industrial space and the trope has entered into the regeneration canon of the past 20 years, asserting a direct connection between artist occupation of derelict space and its renaissance as economic area – the so called Hoxton effect where artists are at the vanguard of urban gentrification and renaissance (or alternatively “urban pacification” depending on your point of view [i]). Following the global economic recession there has been more commercial space available as empty shops appeared on high streets and worried Town Centre Managers have allowed their temporary occupation by artists as pop up exhibition spaces to make the place look busy. Even now, although the current economic situation is improving and average vacancy rates are below 14% for the first time in four years, there are still more than 50,000 empty shops in town centres across the UK. What is interesting is that some of the artists involved have used these spaces to rethink how town centres could be developed in different ways. The Empty Shops Network created by Revolutionary Arts makes some really interesting points about their potential[ii]:

  • “Empty shops are a perfect place to let people test and prototype”
  • “For the government’s localism agenda to work, we need places people can identify with as ‘local’. Town centres should be redefined and cropped to create compact, locally distinct areas by changing the use of some empty shops.”
  • “Rather than using planning agreements with superstores to build new community centres or playgrounds or public art, use planning law and that same money to create small, community shops and spaces inside large stores, which benefit from supermarket-sized footfall.”
  • “Support temporary use which makes places interesting and again lets people test new ideas by letting people use empty spaces, with three months freedom before planning requires a change-of-use application.”
  • “Encourage staff from larger shops and supermarkets to volunteer to support these projects by establishing national volunteering programmes and through existing corporate responsibility programmes.”

This may also be the way that some established arts spaces need to think – Topos has become particularly topical as Exeter’s Spacex gallery has come under threat because its Arts Council England National Portfolio status has been revoked, requiring a major rethink about their current financial commitments like premises. Perhaps some of the new models of off-site working and collective engagement like Serpentine Gallery’s Edgware Road Project in an empty shop may be an answer or Plymouth Arts Centre’s off site strategy which addresses their limitations in developing their building though Project 11 in retail spaces in the West End of the city.

From an aesthetic point of view critical interest continues to develop in artistic practices which are located in in-between sites. In the case of Topos the space envisaged oscillates between open public realm and private commercial occupancy, between being private studio and public gallery and this spatial quality seems resonant in this case as Mueller’s methods of production favour print which still retains the DNA of 19th century mass media to be disseminated into the public sphere, but now comes closer to the autonomous object which is consumed via the retail system.

The in-betweeness of infrastructural industrial and commercial spaces is also an aesthetic space: we can all think of any number of fairy tales, horror films or “duct films” like Die Hard or Alien where there are ghosts, terrorists or other things in the attic, basement, walls or service infrastructure. These are places which we sense, with our hearing as we listen to the sounds of uninvited animals like rats, spiders, cockroaches and bats, or from which a strange smell comes, or of which we only catch a glimpse of as the curtains twitch. These are unknown sites within the known boundaries of familiar habitation, like home or work, which are therefore uncanny, understood but strange at the same time. This known unknown is a differentiated aesthetic space and is therefore becomes an “ideal place for utopian dreaming [iii]” for the artist, who after all is used to the garrets of old.

Encountering known unknowns in this way inevitably leads us to Donald Rumsfeld’s now famous identification of “known knowns” (what we all accept as known), “known unknowns” (what we know we don’t know) and “unknown unknowns” (infinite possibility). Topos could be described as layered in these three ways: it has known knowns – the everyday of malls and coffee shops; the known unknowns – the infrastructure required for the malls but hidden; the unknown unknowns – its occupation by the art of the future. Topos though, in its mission to engage the public in its processes and outcomes, also contains the potential to deliver against the couplet missing from the series of three – the “unknown knowns”. Unknown knowns are named by philosopher Slajov Zizek [iv] as our blindspots, the things we know consciously or unconsciously but choose to deliberately block, forget or ignore, especially if they are uncomfortable or an inconvenience, like difficult moral or social responsibilities. With Topos the “unknown known” is the social responsibility of art which is to make apparent the unquestioned background of our everyday life (shopping and coffee) and present us with the alternative of infinite possibility.

[i] SLATER, J. B. & ILES, A. 2010. No room to move: Radical art and the regenerate city, London, Mute Books.

[ii] THOMPSON, D. 2012. Pop up People: online http://emptyshops.files.wordpress.com/2012/06/popuppeoplereport.pdf

[iii] ŽIŽEK, S. 2011 Living in the end times, London; Booklyn, NY, Verso.

[iv] ZIZEK, S. 2004. What Rumsfeld Doesnt Know That He Knows About Abu Ghraib, In These Times: online http://inthesetimes.com/article/747

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