If you build it they will come. And if you convert a disused Bethnal Green warehouse into an art and performance venue, and fund it yourself (so you can stick it to “the man”) they’ll bang down your door. The Londonist talks to Marlon Brown, “the man” behind The Empire, about bank loans, broken wrists and the Buy It generation.
First things first, how did you come about acquiring the Empire?
I knew some people living there in freezing squat conditions about 4 years ago. They were moving out as they couldn’t take another winter. I asked for the landlord’s number, bought a suit from Oxfam and went to see him before the building came on the market. I told him I wanted to renovate the building using my own money and turn it into an arts venue and studio. At this point I had no money but I managed to secure a long lease.
It looks like a warehouse from the street, but inside it feels more like a church with the pointed beam roof. What’s the history of the building?
I believe it was originally a Jewish chapel and school in the early Victorian period, turning into a shoe factory at some point after the Second World War. The shoe factory finished in the mid nineties and was then empty on and off until I took it on in 2002.
How did you transform it then, from a disused warehouse into a space for art and performance?
I did the work little by little taking out loan after loan. I started on stripping the beams with a hand sander and quit after falling from the scaffold and breaking my wrist in the fall. Then getting the 20 windows replaced before the first winter. I put on the first show then, without any real lighting. The following year I put on a few shows between bouts of work, often working right up to the point of the opening on the latest part of the building to be improved. The stage was always important, although it is in my bedroom; private views have occasionally been accompanied with live music from a full orchestra to international Rock bands. I have put on over 30 shows to date.
Is the Empire the future of independent art, or a throwback to better times?
I would hope a little of both but perhaps a little too personal to be either. The recent show by Kim O’Neil sold everything before the opening night, Is it art innit? had an enormous indoor swimming pool in the middle of the gallery where visitors were invited to take a swim (it was during a very hot August).
Who exhibits at the Empire? Are the artists locally based?
Myself and many local artists although there is no local anymore. Artists originally from over 30 countries have shown as well as a few galleries from Europe showcasing their work in London.
With the gentrification of East London continuing at an impressive rate, how has the neighbourhood changed since you first opened four years ago?
The middle class have indeed arrived in East London, hot on the heels of developers, keen to live anywhere that they have read is ‘cool’ in a magazine.
Four years ago it was quiet here, like waking up in the country. Now every morning one wakes to pneumatic drills and this will continue every day for the next 5 or so years. The poor have been priced out, the art scene is booming and I think it is wonderful.
You also live in the building. As an artist, how easy is it to separate work/art/life? Do you put your feet up with a TV dinner and watch friends like the rest of us?
As an artist it is impossible to separate work/art/life. To live a true life is art. I tend to have supper in the evening, I do not own a television and I am genuinely happy to be able to say that I have never watched friends. Gosh I feel unburdened.
In one of your first shows you exhibited a to-do list with 100 tasks to complete. How close are you to finishing them?
They are not all physical things to be completed; some are things to do with spiritual growth that I believe will manifest if one lives a truthful existence. Others are intended to be completed later in life. If one has something important to do in 20 years time it tends to take away the superficiality and loneliness of ‘living in the now’. It also allows hope for a future within an oppressive society where one is told continuously that the end of the world is around the corner so Buy! Buy! Buy!
Go to The Empire website for more information on current exhibitions.