As part of my ongoing series of interviews I sat down with Louisa Bailey and Joyce Cronin, the collaborative duo who founded The Bower. A former derelict toilet block in Brunswick Park, The Bower is a unique contemporary art space, curating intimate exhibitions and events and home to Publication Studio, a print-on-demand publisher working with artists and writers around the world. They also run a café in the park, the proceeds from which go towards the exhibition and publishing programme.
The Bower is a non-profit organisation, with the artistic programme responding to the context of this unique property and its locality. Joyce and Louisa are driven by their interest in sociopolitical and feminist practices ever since their first collaborative project, Finishing Touch in 2015.
I wanted to ask a very straightforward question first of all; how did The Bower come into existence and what was your inspiration for opening an arts space?
Joyce: We met in 2013 at Central Saint Martins when I was working at Afterall and Louisa had just returned to London from working with Publication Studio in Vancouver. I was organising an exhibition of Rodney Graham’s Phonokinetoscope (2001) to accompany the book of the same name in the One Work series. There was an empty, public-facing space at the front of the Lethaby Gallery and Louise O’Hare, who was also working at Afterall, introduced me to Louisa with the idea of bringing her itinerant bookshop Luminous Books to the space. Louisa curated a collection of books specifically around the themes of the work and collaborated with Rodney Graham on a reading list. That’s how we met, realised we worked well together and had a similar drive towards self-organising and collaboration outside of a male dominated art world. The following year Louisa returned to CSM with her bookshop and we worked together on the One Work exhibition Martha Rosler’s The Bowery. After that a colleague took on a building that contained an empty shop front. I remember him saying, what am I going to do with this shop? I said, I know what you’re going to do with the shop, you’re going to give it to us! He let us have it for a few months, which is when we started Finishing Touch.
Louisa: Finishing Touch was an old barbershop in Kennington since the 70’s, we kept the original name and cheesy signage! We did a basic paint job, pulled up the lino on the floor, removed the sinks and mirrors and moved some bookshelves in. For the 4 or 5 months we had the space we ran it as a bookshop and occasional art space, hosting events, film screenings and performances like Vanished!, Grey Gardens and Knotted Mass II, a work by Holly Slingsby which we later developed into a publication through The Bower. We also invited Open Barbers, who are hairdressers for all genders and sexualities, to have a pop up there, as they were between spaces at the time. They moved a couple of chairs in and brought their clients down, so there were hair cuts happening in the space too. This encouraged lots of really interesting cross-overs and conversations between visitors and made a relaxed space to engage with the art and books. It became the precursor to what we wanted to create with The Bower in terms of a multi-use, communal, art, publishing and, crucially, a social space. But instead of hair cuts we brought coffee this time!
Joyce: I think it taught us a lot as well about being a trans-inclusive space. We learnt a lot from Open Barbers. They were the ones who told us to look at council-owned properties because they’re much cheaper than commercial landlords. We decided early on that we wanted to be in South London, so we looked at Southwark and Lambeth. Lambeth’s properties are all estate-agent managed so we focused more on Southwark as they have all their properties available online. Then, we saw this picture of this little gingerbread–style house. It was advertised as being much larger because the previous tenant had applied for planning permission. The square footage was advertised as if they’d built an extension. When we arrived, everyone was like, it’s too tiny! People said it wouldn’t work, that we wouldn’t be able to do everything we wanted to do in the space: host events and exhibitions, make books and coffee but we saw a lot of potential and fell in love with the idea of being based in the middle of a park. I guess that’s the start of how we came to be here.
It’s interesting to hear how you both came across the space here in Brunswick Park, how long was that journey from finding the space to opening? Did you find much support for this kind of initiative from the local council?
Joyce: It was a long journey with the council because it’s part of a property portfolio and they treated this building like it was a shop on the high street they were just renting out. We had to do a lot of work around talking about the particular context of it. When you get a council building you have to do a business plan and cash flow and budgets for three years. They want to know how you’re going to pay your rent. We went through a long process of bidding for the space. When they eventually offered the space to us they were like, here’s the lease just sign it straight away. First of all, we needed to get planning permission as it’s permitted use was still registered as a toilet, so we asked them to wait. If for any reason the planning application had failed, we would have been left with a toilet!
Then the second thing was there were no utilities. There was no water or electricity in the building. We still don’t have wifi! We had a lot of support within the council from our local Councillors and the parks department, and still do, but it was difficult to convey to the property department what we were trying to do. I remember when the person who was handling our case finally came down to see the building before the refurb. It was a real eye -opener for him! The lease was similar to a lease for a shop. There were things in the lease like, you can’t black out the windows, things about placement of signage, there was also a line about returning everything to its original condition. This was a derelict toilet block with no windows or doors so we had to create a document and record of the space when we moved in so we know what it looked like before. I think it was February 2016 when we found the building and December 2017 by the time the signed lease came through the door. I remember it came through on the last Christmas post of that year. We started the work in January and opened in June 2018.
Then from there you launched the crowd funder? How did you find this process?
Louisa: We did that at the same time as negotiating the lease with the council. We launched the crowdfunder with Space Hive in the summer of 2017 and raised around £10k in 2 months from lots of individual donations and a contribution from Esmée Fairbairn Foundation all of which went towards the cost of doing up the derelict building, fitting windows, doors and electricity etc.
Joyce: I think anyone who’s done a crowd funder knows what a 24/7 job that is, and how hard it is to be constantly asking people for money. It was also great in lots of ways because it opened up support within the community. We had to be quite sensitive, as essentially there had been two previously failed attempts to take on the building. We found it was really great to have a dialogue with local people about our intentions and reassure them that we would retain all the trees and green space around the building. It was through the crowd funder and establishing a relationship with the Friends of Brunswick Park that we found out about another empty building, the former park keeper’s hut, that we transformed into the Café.
Louisa: We managed to get the second building worked into the lease for a little bit more money. It didn’t have running water or electricity either but we received funding from the council to renovate it and add an outdoor seating area. This came under their Cleaner Greener Safer fund which is support specifically for improving public spaces and facilities within the community. We spoke a lot to some friends of mine in Japan who are architects, they helped us with ideas for making the most of small spaces and drew up the initial plans for the conversions which we adapted as we went. We opened
in June with drinks in the park to celebrate the first exhibition; Frances Scott’s Diviner. Then the cafe opened later that summer. It was a big learning curve in a lot of ways but the café and this element of hospitality is an important part of the project in terms of creating a social space.
I want to refer back to something you mentioned earlier about size, and how this is quite unique to The Bower. I feel the size and shape of the space is part of your ethos and curatorial mindset.
Joyce: The Bower is a very intimate space in a very public place. As we said, we were very aware of being in a community green space. There are lots of people who use this space as their garden, lots of people feel a lot of ownership over this park. What happens inside The Bower is very intimate. You’re likely to be one person or two with the art. I think the artists really feel that when they develop and show work here. You tend to get people who come to play tennis or walk their dog, take the kids to the playground and then they wander into the space. We talked a lot about the importance of this sense of encounter before we opened, of making a space that encourages that, and we’ve seen a lot of those things happen, which is really nice.
Louisa: People tend to be quite curious about the space and spend time with the work, browse the books in the reading area or ask about the publishing equipment. I think the scale of the building encourages conversations and its almost always either me or Joyce in the gallery with the other one down at the café so I think people find the set up quite approachable.
Can I ask you about the location here in Brunswick Park and your engagement with audiences? How do you feel visitors respond to the space?
Joyce: It’s been good. Obviously there are different audiences when you have an event or an exhibition, for example each artist brings their own audience. There are people that I know and those people that Louisa knows, but more and more, we’re starting to see The Bower audience, a separate group of people who we don’t know but we see them every time we launch a new publication or open an exhibition. So, that’s really nice, and obviously the cafe then also plays an important part for building audiences.
Louisa: We have a very local crowd at the café; families using the park, people who live in the surrounding houses and some students from Camberwell College. It’s really nice when conversations at the café lead to talking about the activity at The Bower and customers make their way up to the other building. Often we notice local people making repeat visits to an exhibition and it becomes a part of how they use the park, dropping by while walking their dog or taking their kids to the playground.
I am interested in the curatorial model here at The Bower, evident from the artists that you work with and the books that you publish. Could I ask you about the overall curatorial approach and the draw to working with women artists, how did that come about? There’s a very strong social-political and feminist approach that’s evident within the programme.
Joyce: It developed really when we first met. When getting to know each other and talking about those shared interests through the books that both Louisa and I owned, which would prompt those conversations. I think that’s why Finishing Touch happened, because we wanted to make something out of those conversations. We wanted to make something happen.
Louisa: We talked a lot about feminism as a way of working, the principles of exchange, collaboration and support that underpin the politics of The Bower. So it’s about a way of organising which informs how we work with artists and writers and the relationships and community that grows as the work develops. The artwork we show or publish isn’t necessarily explicitly feminist but often engages those principles or outlines a feminist practice between us .
How do you go about working with artists? I understand the projects are largely led by the artists and contributors involved both within the gallery and publishing – how does that process of collaboration work?
Joyce: In our first year of programming conversations with some of the artists were already in existence and some from the days of Finishing Touch. The first year was definitely about cementing those conversations that had been happening for a long time prior to The Bower opening. Frances Scott and I have worked together for years, and it was really great to be able to do something together. Lucy Gunning and I had been talking about many of the elements that materialised in the exhibition for a long time, though much of the work was very directed by being in the park. Lucy’s exhibition was certainly a materialisation of ideas and conversations over the years. Since then, it has been a continuation of this, meeting with our extended network of friends and colleagues, seeing as many exhibitions as we can and doing studio visits – meeting new artists whose work speaks to what we’re trying to do at The Bower. The forthcoming programme includes work by artists Olivia Plender, Jaki Irvine, Rosa-Johan Uddoh and Georgia Lucas-Going who we have no history with, but conversations and studio visits have developed these relationships over the past couple of years.
Lousia: With someone like Jessica Higgins, it’s been really nice to have an ongoing relationship. We published her book ‘Guilding’ in 2017 and once The Bower opened we hosted a launch for it under a specially made canopy that Jess installed in the park alongside a series of text and sculptural works in the gallery space to extend the themes of the publication. Returning to The Bower in 2019 as writer in residence with two collaborators, Judith Hagan and Rebecca Wilcox, Jess also made a risograph print which is part of our fundraising print portfolio launched in December 2019. It’s great to have the flexibility with the programming to welcome artists back to the space in different contexts, respond to opportunities and work together to realise the potential of the space and the kind of support we can offer to artists and writers. The writers residency, which we hope to develop into an annual slot, was definitely informed by the way in which Lucy Gunning used and occupied the space building up to her exhibition across a period of a year. It made us think about how much we get out of working in this green space and its great to see how people use this particular context we are surrounded by.
The programme that you have developed is quite multifaceted, allowing people to engage with The Bower in many different ways. It has a very ‘project space’ approach, if you don’t mind me saying.
Joyce: We actually just changed the website to use the word ‘programme ’. We used to have exhibitions and events as separate tabs but realised we were putting as much work into our events as we were our exhibitions. It can take the same amount of time and development of conversations to produce an event as it can for an exhibition. If you take the project carried out by Eva Rowson called ‘Spring Break! Counter-planning from the park’ that again, I think may have even started as a conversation whilst we were at Finishing Touch. It’s incredibly important to us to place equal emphasis on the process -whether it’s a one-day project or an exhibition across five weeks. The model, here at The Bower places equal value on those things. An event is not supplementary to an exhibition, it is part of our main programme.
I would like to ask about the format of Publication Studio London? I’m very interested in the international network that has been created with the other studios. There’s a publication studio in Sao Paulo, Glasgow and Minneapolis. Can I ask about your model of ‘Print on demand’ and how this works across the network of other Publication Studios?
Louisa: At the moment there are 11 Publication Studios in existence. It all started in Portland, Oregon in 2009 and grew from there with studios opening across North America, Canada and then in Europe, South America and China. Each studio is autonomous, and self-funded, mostly run by just one or two people who work locally with artists and writers to publish new work which is printed and bound one at a time, by hand and on-demand. The books from all the studios are uploaded to a shared server and a shared website, which means that people all over the world can order books through the website, and the order goes to the nearest studio for production. That studio will download the file from the server, print and bind the book and send it out to the customer. We all have more or less the same basic printing and binding equipment. The idea is to use accessible and affordable materials, so it helps with the ease of reproducing and distributing the books via the network of studios.
I think what got me really interested in it was, well it’s two things, the idea of a sustainable model of print on demand. Then the distribution was of interest to me, you’re not just sending a batch of books to a distributor and hoping that they get out there, you’re sending a file to a person who has a studio like mine and has a shared investment in taking care of the books and building an audience around them. This international network helps to create a wider reach for publications that might otherwise have limited distribution and sometimes originate around quite local events or politics.
I love this line within your ‘about section’ on your website that states ‘we attend to the social life of the book’ – whenever you read about the future of publishing, there’s normally a fear around the advancement of digital technologies and how this would affect the way we publish books.
Louisa: All Publication Studios work around this idea of publication as not just the production of books, but the production of a public, which is more than a market, created through physical production, digital circulation and social gathering. Attending to the social life of the book is about building lasting communities around these publications by making and sharing them, having conversations about them at events, book fairs, online, at the pub or over dinner! In terms of the digital to print argument, I don’t think they’re mutually exclusive things. On the Publication Studio website people can order the book as an eBook or you can order a freshly made paperback. You can also read them for free on the online library too. We’re using those different technologies, but it doesn’t reduce the number of people that just want the beautiful hand-made paperback.
This first year at The Bower has been a process of working out what’s possible in the space and and what we need from it. The way we envisaged working here is not necessarily how we’ve ended up using the space and so you adapt and change according to needs, finances and time constraints. Part of this is a step away from the PS network and day to day production and distribution of books for the network, and after 5 years, to start a new chapter of publishing at The Bower which will allow me to focus time and resources on working with artists, writers and our local network of publishers, designers and collaborators which has grown out of the amazing community at London Centre for Book Arts since they first hosted PS London as publisher in residence in 2015. The idea of the social life of the book will remain central to this approach. All the Publication Studio London titles remain part of the catalogue available to order via the shared website and directly through The Bower. Our next publication will be with Olivia Plender to accompany her exhibition at The Bower in March 2020.
I saw you attended Strange Perfume the Queer Culture Book Fair at South London Gallery and Offprint at Tate? What do these platforms offer you and other publishers?
It’s a great way to meet readers and reach out to new audiences. I have mixed feelings about the general fair format, I’m not sure they are always the best spaces for visitors to engage with the content but for publishers it’s good fun catching up with people around the world. The art publishing community is quite small really so it can be pretty sociable. In my job with Book Works I participate in a lot of fairs and there’s a vibrancy that has grown over the past 5-10 years which is exciting for makers, publishers and readers. On a very practical level, fairs are particularly good for direct sales. Sales through bookshops are at a 35-40% trade discount which eats into profit margins. With the Publication Studio print on demand model the retail price is set to cover the cost of materials then any profit is split 50/50 between studio and author so direct sales at fairs mean the profit margin is greater and we’re able to recoup some of our costs. This all needs to be balanced against the cost of the table, staffing and any travel costs of course so fairs aren’t always huge earners but can be a really good way of spreading the word about publications, meeting new people and seeing what else is happening.
I was talking to someone the other day about pop-up spaces and artist run models and how they feel they don’t exist as they used to 10 years ago, mainly because it’s so hard to access space in the city. Do you feel London is still a city that can support young non-profit galleries and grass roots publishing? Are these sustainable models?
Joyce: I used to live in Oval Mansions, where City Racing was, and Gasworks still is. Spaces like City Racing, Cubitt and Matt’s Gallery were such an inspiration when I first moved to London in the late nineties. I think the landscape has totally shifted since then. When we did screenings at Finishing Touch, people really loved it because it felt like a squat or somebody’s living room, which I feel doesn’t tend to happen as much anymore.
It is a very difficult time to be an independent space and sustainable. It’s really hard work. We both have other jobs and commitments. We have some great volunteers, but we also do everything. We do the cleaning, mop the floor, serve the coffee, sell the books, do studio visits, update the website, write the funding applications, all the admin, do all the finances and go to the community council meetings. They’re the challenges. We do it out of belief in the project and passion for artwork and artists we work with, but that doesn’t pay the bills, so we have to find other ways. You can’t be transient when you’re putting that level of work and commitment into something.
Can I ask what sustainability looks like at The Bower?
Joyce: It is volunteer run, by circumstance rather than choice but that has to be seen as an investment. Certainly, we don’t want that to be the way it always is. We’re trying to build something that is sustainable. We’re trying to build something up so we can find funding to be able to cover those core costs. It’s a lot of work to find out who those funders are outside of the Arts Council to build up that support and that sustainability.
The Arts Council money we received in 2018 was for a programme. We’re about to reapply for the next programme. We basically did the best part of a year without any core funding, with a little bit of local funding from the council’s Neighbourhood Fund, the generosity of artists and a supportive network of people around us. We use the cafe money and basically just self-fund the project.
Louisa: I suppose, in some ways, that’s why this year’s been a little bit more process and event-based, in response to that, but that’s actually been really interesting as it’s turned out.
Joyce: Sometimes we have to look closed and people in the community might not realise we’re working away, pedalling underwater, fundraising or working in our other jobs. I think in the art world that’s easier to convey and understand between shows. These are just some of the real challenges of running the space, I think without financial backing or private money.
What does the future look like for The Bower?
Louisa: I feel like we could do with having that conversation ourselves! Its tricky finding time to think beyond the immediate tasks when we’re juggling other employment and commitments, it can be pretty exhausting just keeping things going so its important for us to keep reminding ourselves of why we wanted to build this space. This is the dream!
Joyce: We need to get The Bower functioning in a funded way, so that we can be here, and get back what we’ve put in, in a sense. We would like to work more with other organisations locally and outside of London and extend the ethos of what we’re trying to do here.
I attended a talk recently and a woman said that she’d never felt on the back foot as a woman. It was a conversation with feminists who were active in the ’70s and this younger woman said that she’d never felt marginalised as a woman. I think there are probably a lot of young women who would agree, however I feel strongly that the system continues to put women on the back foot, whether that’s in academia or in the arts or gallery structures, whether they’re commercial or non-profit. We want to keep addressing those conversations and prioritising marginalised voices and histories.
– Laura Hensser, 2020