by Meredith Sellers
Philadelphia’s newest gallery space is a squat. Run by artist Austin Martin White, Squat Soirée currently takes place in an empty live/work warehouse space where Martin White “squats” for an evening to host an art-opening-cum-dinner-party. Visitors come to eat, drink, look at art, and create community. Though mild-mannered, these one-night gatherings are technically illegal and thus require a password for entry, which can be obtained, along with the address, by DM’ing the space’s Instagram page, @squat_soiree. Martin White sees the gathering as a gesture of resistance against Philadelphia’s increasing gentrification and displacement of artists and working-class people.
Squat Soirée’s first exhibition opened on February 19th, with works by Erika Ceruzzi and Christopher Capriotti.
Meredith Sellers: Can you explain the conceit behind Squat Soirée?
Austin Martin White: Squat Soiree is a monthly dinner party/two-person art gathering (schedule permitting) in defiance of new real estate development. I invite one artist and ask them to invite another artist to each present one piece of their work in a squatted space and I make a dinner for the gathering. I am trying to choose artists that either come from or relate to Philadelphia, or whose work grapples with “displacement,” which is the vague theme of the project. At the moment I am running Squat Soiree in the same building as my studio, but eventually the project will become nebulous and be in varying locations.
I recently moved to Philadelphia full time after splitting my time between Philadelphia and New York for the last 4 years. Previously, I primarily used the space I have in Philly as a studio space, and being here full time just working in the studio I found myself desiring a community—specifically an art community. When I first moved into my studio here back in 2015, I remember the art scene in Philly as fun, vibrant, and interesting, with artist-run spaces like High Tide, Little Berlin, and Fjord operating out of the very unique spatial circumstances. In a way, it’s what kept me wanting to maintain a connection to this city. I’ve lived in many cities: Detroit, New Orleans, Berlin, Amsterdam, New York, and I have been fortunate enough to wiggle my way into many interesting art communities and their inventive art parties—Squat Soirée is inspired by them and an ode ( “a last dance,” if I may say) to the artist-run spaces here that I initially fell in love with.
Squat Soirée is centered around the causes and implications of real estate as it relates to artists and creative communities. There is rapid development and gentrification going on in Philadelphia currently, which displaces people and art communities due to increases in rent and “normiefication.” A goal of mine with the squats is to acknowledge, transgress, and commemorate what is being lost (almost like a wake); the memory of “the artist-run space.”
MS: The exhibitions are limited to only two artists, each showing one artwork. Why was that format chosen?
AMW: The initial idea was that of a “food pairing,” like kind of a bougie upper middle-class date, I imagine it is the sort of thing that the people who are taking over Kensington really enjoy, but maybe with IPA’s and headcheese. So instead of that, it is a pairing of artists, and of art and food. I wanted the logic of a food pairing to extend into the curation because I wanted to be a chef in a past life and I think this is the perfect in-between to live out that fantasy. Typically I choose one artist and ask them to choose another artist whose work they feel would pair well with theirs. Then I work with both artists to create a menu for each squat soiree.
MS: What are some of the challenges with the format you’ve chosen and how are you dealing with them?
AMW: There are no challenges so far (fingers crossed), but I would say that there are adaptions that need to happen to operate in a squatted space, the first being electricity, which is required to light the space, and running any appliances. I have resolved this is by running a series of extension cords from the part of the building that has electricity. If the project is to become more nebulous I might end up using a gas generator or power cell. The second adaption, at least in the winter months, is heat, and for that, I use a propane space heater, and during the soirée people can stand around it and warm up. The third is keeping the food warm—for that, I make the food in a separate location and use banquet trays or crockery to keep the food warm for the duration of the soiree.
MS: How have you seen displacement affect artists and others?
AMW: I have seen displacement affect artists here and in other cities, and it always follows the same pattern, it goes like this: There is an undesirable neighborhood but it has some buildings that have cheap rent and are good for art studios and fringe music venues; the artists move in and because they are creative they make the best of their situation by fixing up the spaces, making interesting architectural layouts (and vibes). But they also throw parties, which other artists, creatives, and clout sharks come to. Over time, the artists make a neighborhood a popular place to party, this is where things go wrong because this essentially invites the investment class, who are ripe to appropriate the buzz that the artists have created with their sweat and elbow grease. These investors start buying, and it’s over.
I feel like a cornball saying this, but I saw it happening in Williamsburg when I first moved to New York for school in the mid-aughts. Although I just witnessed the tail end of the process in Williamsburg it had been a least a decade in the making. But what I witnessed there seemed to become a formula that was replicated in every other city I lived following—in Berlin it was Kreuzburg, in New Orleans it was the Bywater/St. Roch, back in home in Detroit it was Corktown, and now here, in Philadelphia, it is Fishtown/Kensington. I have felt like I have been navigating this development trend nearly my entire adult life, being poor can be tiring.
MS: There’s been an increasing trend of artists showing in non-traditional, non-white cube spaces, like basements, outdoors, in bodies of water, in disused buildings, etc. What do you think this speaks to in our culture right now?
AMW: One can definitely see a correlation between the appeal of non-traditional/non-white cube spaces and artists having to resort to making work in domestic spaces due to rent increases in studios and warehouse spaces. But also the taste of art changes and as vapid as it sounds, white cube spaces are just off-trend right now and NFTs are in—just kidding!—But maybe not, the NFT, like much of how we consume art, is digital, especially during the advent of covid, and maybe people are craving a more environmental IRL emphasis on experiencing art. A lot of major galleries are starting project galleries emphasizing the experimental, and working with more domestic style spaces or unconventional commercial spaces like Michael Werner’s Tramps project space or 15 Orient. I don’t necessarily know how I feel about big commercial galleries appropriating the artist-run space vibe, it certainly seems parasitic. But maybe not in the case of 15 Orient, which to me has cultivated that type of unconventional since their conception.
MS: Does your practice or experience as an artist influence the way you are operating this space?
AMW: My experience as an artist has definitely has influenced operating this project. I think it stems from my participation in different artist-run alt events throughout my life, as well as my interest in the clandestine processes of Rave culture. And probably also through committing myself to a live-work lifestyle—being able to cook a nice dinner for myself and take it up to my studio and eat while staring at my paintings. That experience is a good source of inspiration for this project for sure.
MS: What do you hope Squat Soirée accomplishes?
AMW: What I hope to accomplish with Squat Soiree is to get people in the Philly art community together for some good food, look at some good art, and converse. I mean, I am not so arrogant to believe that we can actually affect the rate of development that is occurring in our communities, but we can talk about how we can adapt to this changing real estate environment. Or we could just hang out and enjoy each other’s food, work, and company.
MS: What’s next up?
AMW: Well, the next Squat Soirée is going to be on Saturday, April 2nd, and will feature new sculptural work by Jonathan Santoro and Anoushé Shojae-Chaghorvand. They both have fun new sculptures that they are going to present, inserting some humor into the bleak context of our eroding cultural landscape. At the moment, we are still in the process of negotiating a menu, but it is looking like some vegan dan-dan noodles with a fresh kale salad featuring a lemon sesame oil vignette. I am very excited about the next Squat, it should be really action-packed.
Austin Martin White (b. 1984), Cooper Union BFA, Bard College MFA. Living in Philadelphia since 2015. https://www.derekeller.com/artists/austin-martin-white
Meredith Sellers (b. 1988, Baltimore, MD) is an artist and writer living and working in Philadelphia. She received her BFA from the Maryland Institute College of Art and her MFA from the University of Pennsylvania. She has exhibited work at Young Space, Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery at UArts, ICA Philadelphia, Take It Easy, Lord Ludd, Vox Populi, Icebox Project Space, Pressure Club, and Fleisher Art Memorial. Her curatorial projects include Chewing the Scenery at Crane Arts, The Midnight Sun at Pilot Projects (both co-curated with Jonathan Santoro), and Edith at Esther Klein Gallery. She is an editor for Philadelphia-based online art publication Title Magazine; her writing has appeared in publications including Hyperallergic, ArtsJournal, Pelican Bomb, and American Craft Magazine. https://meredithsellers.com/