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Richard Priestley on Cell Project Space and surfing at Sennen

Richard Priestley is co-founder and co-director of 'Cell Project Space' in the East End of London



'Cell Project Space' is on Cambridge Heath Road, midway between the Whitechapel and the Chisenhale in the East End, isnt it? How long has it been going and what is your role within it? 
To give you an idea of the history and purpose of Cell:

I formed Cell Project Space with co-founder Milika Muritu in 2000. We were both artists trying to find a way to finance our own studios and create an experimental platform for showing the work of artists we were interested in. We achieved this by taking on a run down floor of an industrial building in Tyssen Street, Dalston, which provided studios for 20 artists, and whose rent funded the programme at the Project Space.
We soon moved to Arcola Street in Dalston ( usual story, developers pushing artists out...) and as we began to take longer leases on more buildings to generate longer term security for the exhibition programme and the organisation, we moved to our long term site at Cambridge Heath Road after putting on a satellite  one off show at this site when we first signed the lease, before we began building the studios. The visitor numbers were dramatically higher than Dalston, so we decided to make a permanent move to that part of east London. There were a small number of galleries in the area at that point (Wilkinson, The Showroom, Interim and The Approach ) but the numbers of spaces have grown dramatically since, along with the number of artists studios in the area.

Cell has always been self funding and relies on neither commercial sales of work from the project space, nor any kind of external or core funding, to run. The founders built the studios themselves initially to get the organisation off the ground. Both founders/directors continue to work as artists and curate exhibitions at Cell and other spaces. We are constantly striving to expand our studio provision in order to meet the high demand for artists studios in London, and continue to charge lower than market value rents. We currently provide studio space for over 200 artists in five buildings in east london.

That's impressive. So how does Cell fit into the London art scene in general?
We're very much part of the furniture of the East End circuit and scene, though as a self-funding and non- commercial project space we are unique. Our programme is very much international and will often showcase artists never seen before in the UK, as well as recent graduates and well established practitioners. We are dedicated to protecting and providing networks for artists through our project space programme and studio environments.

Zombie Surfers was a show at Cell in late Spring 2008. How did it came about exactly? (see exhibitions for more pictures)

Muritu and myself have been boardriders for many years, but got hooked up on surfing (as opposed to snowboarding) just a couple of years ago. Cornwall and Devon have long been favourite camping destinations for us, so hitting surf spots at the same time fitted together perfectly.

There is a continuous dialogue between us about artists and shows, which never slows down or shuts up. This is partly down to us always searching for an angle for a show, finding the dialogue through artists we think can expand the theme. For me the themes are usually something I am personally very interested in and driven by. 

Zombie Surfers became a clear concept for a show after a weird surf session at Sennen Cove, Cornwall. This heavy fog drifted in and we really had no sense of which direction dry land was as the swell dropped off. There were just a few other grey figures bobbing in the murk. It was very Stephen King. Back on land later on, we spotted a hearse parked by the storm wall with a couple of longboards on its roof and shortboards in the back where the dead normally travel, and the title for the show was nailed. The editor of Stranger magazine actually knew and put me in touch with the owner of the hearse.

The zombies represent the relentlessly driven. This applies as easily to myself and other artists, or to surfers - both driven and obsessive about their passion, stumbling towards their goal...

I am fascinated with sub cultural groups, and wanted to make a show which examined the hierarchies within subcultures. The surf community offered the chance for me to indulge my relatively new found passion but at the same time draw parallels with hierarchies within the art world. Both have mainstream and accessible parts, but equally they have inner and almost inaccessible and esoteric sanctums and circles. These inner circles are what draw me in, moth to a flame style.

Its interesting how these things come about. Roughly a year ago we had a Brian Wilson-themed show at Tate St Ives, which Alex Farquharson curated (picture right). Some surf themes were there in a subtle way, but they are obviously more explicit in your show. I guess you could do this because there's something witty and surreal about having a surf shack in the middle of London. Do you want to expand on the idea of the surf shack and how it functioned?

I saw this show. The seed for Zombie Surfers was already planted, so I was a little nervous about it, but needn't have been. I mostly really liked Farquharson's 'If Everybody Had An Ocean' at Tate St Ives. We've shown some of the artists included at Cell, but the dialogue and direction were pretty far apart, really.

My own practice involves creating a physical framework in the form of an installation in which to display the artists invited to participate in the show. The framework is dictated to by the theme and concept, so in this case a surf shack, as symbol of the club house and network of the surf community, was appropriate. The aim was to make a shack, rather than shop, where the artworks were the collection of the shack keepers alter ego, shown alongside my collection of boards and other surf products, memorabilia, films, etc.


Is the title a bit of an homage to BANK who put on 'Zombie Golf' in the eighties? They used to create environments in which other artists would be exhibited.

We know and have exhibited the individual work of most of the BANK artists at Cell over the years, but I do not feel their influence in what I did with Zombie Surfers. I do think they helped to create a culture in which an organisation like Cell could exist and survive though.

Some of the work included is, on one level, reminiscent of the psychedelic art that came out of San Francisco and California at pretty much the same time as surfing started going global. I'm not too familiar with this area, but eg the name Rick Griffin comes to mind. Or are there other aspects of surf culture that you are particularly interested in?

Griffin's work really isn't where I'm at, nor anyone I know. The Filmore movement, however, is a constant source of inspiration on a poster layout and typographic level, as all of Cells exhibition invites have always been 2 colour A3 poster size. My interest in surfing history is much more beat, and orientated towards the 1950's to early '60's. Films and film posters from film makers such as Don Brown,  Jim Freeman and John Severson capture the spirit of the US west coast scene really well and form the foundation of US surf nostalgia. Zombie Surfers includes artists from Australia, Canada and all over the US as well as Europe - some are surfers, some just happen to have adopted a visual language which I felt worked with the dialogue of the show.

The iconography used by mainstream surf culture, which is, of course, mostly hugely commercialised now, is really very conservative and repetitive; throw in a few skulls and the odd rainbow and you've got your new T-shirt design or ad campaign...again.

My own passion for surfing is driven by actually doing it. It keeps me really fit and as an all winter surfer, has made me a bit more hardy. It demands complete focus, which heals me of the stresses of the rat race sufficiently to keep me 'trudging towards the light', and has affected where I spend part of my life.

interviewer Rupert White