Daniel Speight, artist and art installer at Ace London, lives on a boat in the canals of the city, where it’s legal to tether in one spot for up to two weeks and then, like an urban nomad, move onwards. He gathers supplies along the way, living in the fluid, shifting intersection between the natural and industrial worlds and watching as they change through the seasons. This life has allowed him a unique point of view on a vibrant and vital urban hub, watched from a distance — a perspective best seen in his elaborate illustrations of London’s buildings and homes, screen printed onto the fore-edges of old books. He’s a nimble storyteller, unbound to one medium or method. London Foxes, printed in full below, is his personal account of London canal life.
I am moored right next to the main arena for the Olympic games 2012 so you can imagine with the ongoing construction of its legacy that there is a lot of noise. This is interrupted from time to time by swans and coots that seem to think they can eat parts of my boat’s hull or that they have discovered a way to alert me when they want my food scraps.
This is what London is like to me – a strange concoction of urban bustle with rural charms. Both interacting with its environment and shaping the landscape and people. For some reason the London fox spring to mind. These once lesser spotted and maligned rural creatures are now abundantly present on the city streets, confidently striding pavements like curious cats of the night. It takes a moment to remember them by their origins- shy, stealthily and usually unseen. It is now not uncommon to walk alongside a fox down nighttime streets as it scavengers for fried chicken stubs whilst you walk from the pub back home. Which in my case happens to be a floating one with no fixed address.
The urban fox has some relationship with the canal boat lifestyle. It’s a strangely quaint and archetypal English sight to see people living aboard a canal boat and making use of the once redundant industrial waterways of London. And yet we moor in the most unsightly places, tethered to bent railings and ripped steel girders to secure a spot we can call home for a two week period (it is the waterways by law to stay for two weeks in one spot). We rely on the local area for amenities and public services in order to survive in the capital although straining its capabilities to do so. Public dustbins overflow with boat residents’ refuse like summer festival sites. Our foxes go through them and scatter its contents further along the tow path decorating the path like tinsel with the debris of our domestic life. Yes it’s a nuisance, and an unsightly spectacle. We are here living on the outskirts of London life with cherished acclaim and hateful scorn. Quaint Englishness or scrounging trouble makers — the view of boaters in London is as divided as opinions are on fox hunting.
Canal boat living was once the preserve of the affluent classes, compatible with idyllic scenes of Oxford with its River Thames coincidently flowing bigger, badder and dirtier towards the big smoke of London. Where once it would be a celebration of a bygone era of industrial might partnered with our keenness to sail waters — it is now a remarkably practical response to the housing shortage in London. It is to this end that I have been able to establish myself first and foremost as an artist based in London.
I work with unwanted things. Always have done. A skip full of old wood and scrap metal has always symbolized a material bank for creative potential more than an art supply store ever has. In my current project I use old books and use their fore edges as a screenprinting surface to make them look like buildings. Turning bookshelves into streets is a nice way of looking at it. I like the way interior spaces can absorb something of the outside, making tiny cities in personal spaces. It’s nice knowing that these objects that are fast becoming obsolete are able to have a new life with my work and in doing so find a new audience happy to house them. I want to make cities from these books — turn rooms into metropolis spaces and draw people into the confined spaces that books demand when you’re engrossed by the story they possess. I do this by scavenging through the unwanted remains of peoples bookshelves, hunting down the right size book to complete an artwork, ensuring the shape reflect s the design of the building I am making.
There’s something funny about my subject being buildings when I live on a boat. I live on a boat in order to make buildings from books. To be a full-time, practicing artist. I still fantasize of living in a Georgian town house overlooking a tree lined square in a central location of London — probably Angel. But this Mary Poppins style homes are far from an obtainable reality in the modern London as house prices rocket to fantastical amounts. Even being able to afford one means the luck of finding somewhere suitable and batting away the threat of guzumpting competition. Any crisis calls upon practical measures and an ability to evolve - which is why when you step down from the street to the tow paths you will discover more and more boats along its waterways. Some brand new and blingy and some in extreme disrepair, it has become a separate city with its own economy and set values.
If all this sounds nice — then I guess you’re right. It is an exceptional way to live in one of the most exciting and dynamic cities in the world. But it’s not a simple way of life — exposed to the elements and in need of basic civic services you are pretty much have to devote half time to the logistics of creating daily domestic norms. And in this way I feel like we are like London foxes, here because of necessity and drawing upon what is available in order to live.
Dan Speight is an artist from London. He sometimes goes under the moniker The Soft City.
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