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Q&A with Somerset House’s Nocturnal City Curator Estela Oliva

Photo: Estela Oliva.

Since 2008 London has lost many of the clubs that raised us. Those first coming-of-age forays into the night time, bulldozed out of existence before we could even get a night tube organised. Institutions whose door policies and relevant bus routes were easier to remember than relatives’ birthdays. If there’s one subject there has been enough column inches spent on in the past few years, it’s the supposed demise of London’s underbelly: everything that made this sprawling metropolis exciting, enticing and bearable.

But there’s a change afoot. 2016 ushered in Sadiq Khan, Amy Lamé, the re-opening of Fabric and the renewal of Village Underground’s lease. As the frontier of 24 hour serviced office high rises and ‘affordable’ luxury apartments spreads out to Zone 2, it’s time to focus on what the city can do. How London can hold on to the artists and scenes it provided such fertile ground for in the first place, and the kind of environment needed to ensure its creative industries remain at the heart of this unwieldy capital.

Next month Somerset House Studios launches its Nocturnal City series, exploring the state of London’s nightlife and its influence in pushing the boundaries of culture. Creative director Estela Oliva is curating the sessions, alongside Somerset House, and the first edition looks to interrogate the fascinating interplay between London and Berlin nightlife.

On Saturday 11th March Nocturnal City: The State of London Club Life: London-Berlin, will take over Somerset House’s River Rooms and Lancaster room, with Amy Lamé, Laurel Halo, Beatrice Dillon, Lawrence Lek and LaTurbo Avedon joining the conversation.

This week Run Riot caught up with Estela to find out more about the first session and what London can learn from its counterparts.

Run Riot: When did you join Somerset House Studios?

Estela Oliva: I started collaborating with Somerset House Studios in June 2016 when I curated an exhibition for Makerversity, a community of makers who are the first Studios residents. During that time, the Studios director Marie McPartlin kindly asked me to help organise their launch event. This was a great opportunity to meet all the residents, learn about their motivations and their work. I was very chuffed! I produced and curated the opening event as well as the first exhibition Studio 01 which featured 12 works from the first resident artists including Gareth Pugh, Erica Scourti, Superflux, Memo Akten and others. My residency started officially in November 2016 and it will last for one year. During this time I am creating and developing new projects, amongst them Nocturnal City.

Video of the Somerset House Studios opening 

RR: How long have you lived and worked in London?

EO: I was born and raised in southern Spain, in Granada. The first time I came to London I was 14 years old. I was only for over a week with a school exchange, it was autumn and it was a real crush. I instantly fell in love with the city, the vibe, the fog, the parks, the architecture, the river, the mix of people, the feeling of freedom. I moved here permanently in 2001, so that’s about 16 years ago. Throughout this time I have been doing in several jobs and since 2009 I work freelance and run my own business. I guess I am one of those so-called “EU citizens living in UK” who are currently living in Brexit limbo (LOL).

RR: How did you land on London and Berlin nightlife as the first point of discussion for Nocturnal City?

EO: Nocturnal City was born after several conversations with Studios director Marie McPartlin and Studios resident artist Paul Purgas. Marie was interested in staging an event from Somerset House to highlight the importance of club culture in London from a positive angle. Paul had just moved back from Berlin, he has extensive experience organising and playing in clubs and parties. Once the event was born, one of the points of discussion was how Berlin’s Berghain (which the international mecca for club culture) had regained a tax level equal to cultural venues, while in London Fabric and other clubs had closed. In the middle of these conversations, Fabric was re-opened and another giant club opened: Printworks. I thought that speaking about Berlin and how the city is fostering alternative nightlife was a very good starting point to infuse some inspiration back into London. We are seeing so many artists and creatives moving to cheaper cities, especially to Berlin, so I wanted to explore how both cities can play together.

Berlin Community Radio

RR: It’s certainly clear London and Berlin club cultures are treated very differently by their respective governments, but where do they overlap?

EO: There is a crossover. Both London and Berlin have played a key role in driving underground culture since the 1980s. In the last couple of decades they have taken separate but complementary routes, while London has focused on becoming a financial capital, Berlin has become an artistic capital. I think they both have a lot to learn and to exchange from each other.

RR: Which areas in particular do you hope Clubcommission Berlin can lend their expertise to? Where is London falling behind?

EO: The Clubcommission is a grassroots association which has been running for almost 20 years. They have been a role model for other European bodies, including our NightTime Industries Association. As an independent association, the Clubcommission works with all its members and with the selected government to preserve and foster club culture especially in relation to alternative forms of music. They are interested in lobbying for the underground and experimental scenes rather than for the mainstream.

Berlin Mirror by Lawrence Lek

An interesting aspect of their work is how they are influencing the way the city is being designed, not only in terms of policy but also from a socio-cultural perspective. Lutz Leichsenring, the representative who will kindly join us for Nocturnal City, told me how they consult some of the city property developers to ensure there is enough representation of alternative music and art spaces in regenerated areas. I think this is a key learning for London, as we are undergoing a process of redevelopment we need to be more creative about building communities where commercial, public and alternative spaces can coexist. Lutz is also currently creating a database of all those alternative music venues in the city, in an effort to understand what is the meaning of “cultural value” in the context of nightlife, which might not just be linked to financial profit. This a hot topic for discussion and in which London could learn a lot from Berlin.

RR: Do you think it can be a two-way conversation? Do you think Berlin can learn anything from London’s relationship with its nightlife and night time economy?

EO: Of course, it has to be two-ways. London could speak about how to foster entrepreneurial spirits and find sustainable models outside traditional funding schemes - which can create a culture of low-income dependency. London can also be proud of its history pushing alternative music cultures where so much talent has emerged. In Berlin, this history is more recent and mostly driven by techno music. I think London can also throw really good parties, right? :)

RR: The London night clubs that are still open have been fighting a long battle for survival against rising rents, increasingly strict licensing laws and rampant property development. Sadiq Khan’s appointment of Amy Lamé as London’s Night Czar came as welcome news for many in the nighttime economy- how do you think Amy’s expertise will help shape a new London nightlife?

Beatrice Dillon

EO: Amy has a very interesting background acting as a cultural ambassador for the nightlife and being a recognised figure in the London scene. I believe she understands the need to support independent and alternative cultures from a bottom-up approach, influencing governmental decisions in favour of those who work and enjoy the nightlife. That said, after my conversation with Lutz he argued that there could be some real challenges for such as “job role” (a Tsar) as people might put too many expectations on them, while what needs to happen is the creation of a continuous stream of representation, awareness and dialogue between the scene, the people and the governments.

RR: Who else are you most excited to hear from on the night?

EO: I am excited to see the Berlin Community Radio, their platform is a reference for finding new music along with London’s NTS. Both founders are coming over to speak at a panel and will also play some music. Also very excited to listen to special DJ sets by Laurel Halo and Beatrice Dillon, artists who are pushing boundaries. As part of the event, the Studios virtual resident artist-avatar LaTurbo Avedon will also present a new scene of her ongoing virtual nightclub Club Rothko.

RR: What would you love to see in a London of the future? London 2020 or 2025, for instance?

EO: London is currently going through a period of deep change, which could be motivating. Change brings change. In my personal utopia, I would love to see the city evolving into a more open city which promotes human values, a free capital which welcomes ALL artists and creatives and offers affordable and sustainable living. I would love to see cheaper rents, more public spaces, more art, less shopping centres, more parks, fewer cars, more friendly robots, more happy people, more - if we have any left by then.

Laurel Halo

RR: Can you give Run Riot any clues as to what the next editions of Nocturnal City will explore?

EO: We are interested in exploring new forms of clubbing either by physical or virtual means such as all female techno collectives, fashion oriented nightclubs, algorithmically driven parties or eco-friendly clubs. We would also like to continue exchanging ideas with other cities around the world.. Keep an eye!

Estela Oliva is a creative director, curator and producer working across art, design, music and new technologies. Her work is inspired by the impact of technology and the internet in human behaviour, society and our surroundings. She creates hybrid environments in which the physical and the virtual blend, unfolding narratives and cerebral experiences. These projects come to life in experimental formats as exhibitions, programmes, experiential events, installations, web experiments, apps or films.

She has produced festivals, curated exhibitions and events around the world including Into the Wild, exhibition for Makerversity at Somerset House, and New Realities by Alpha-ville, a touring exhibition which has travelled to Mobile World Centre Barcelona and Espacio Fundacion Telefonica Lima. She is currently a resident at Somerset House Studios. Follow her on Twitter  here and Somerset House Studios here.

Nocturnal City: The State of London Club Life opens with its first sessions on 11th March at 17:00 at Somerset House. Tickets are £10 for the full event or £8 for music performances only. Click here for more information.

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