Nick Hackworth

From a Canonical Art Gallery to a Metaverse Platform: Paradise Row Projects, a conversation with Nick Hackworth and Pippa Hornby

Press Flash Art

Eleonora Milani

The art gallery Paradise Row was born in the living room of the home of the artist Shezad Dawood, in London, thanks to the intuition of founder Nick Hackworth. It was the end of 2006, and the gallery, after a change of venue, settled in the city center, in Fitzrovia, where it continued its activities until 2014. This short but intense history began with a program that included emerging or mid-career British or London artists – Douglas White, Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Shezad Dawood, Margarita Gluzberg, Justin Coombes, Barry Reigate and Diann Bauer, among others – and then expanded to a more established and international panorama that included Jake & Dinos Chapman, Jane & Louise Wilson, Guillaume Paris, and Mounir Fatmi. After seven years, Hackworth, together with collector and patron Pippa Hornby (former director of Paradise Row), has reenvisioned their programming with the launch of Paradise Row Projects in Mayfair last September. This yearlong nonprofit curatorial project, with a social and environmental focus, will raise funds for the latter through exhibitions and events.

As part of Flash Art's ongoing investigation of contemporary practices, we discussed the new project with Hackworth and Hornby.

Eleonora Milani: Paradise Row was born from the need to support a certain emerging scene at the end of 2006 in London. Those were particular years, just one year after the Great Recession began, a series of economic crises that brought the world economy to its knees. Despite the fact that the art market has rules and dynamics that work differently than the real estate market, for example, the slice that involved living art, especially emerging art, suffered the crisis in its own way; the value that changes according to the quality and importance of an object rarely falls on 20th century masterpieces, but on living art that has to make its own path of “fortune” and quotation is always an unknown. Your gallery was entering the art world in that context, your first show was in February 2007. How did a nascent gallery with a focus on emerging artists deal with collecting at that time?

Nick Hackworth: We were immediately very fortunate in connecting with great collectors. I’d opened the gallery having been an art critic at The Evening Standard, London, with zero art market or gallery experience. Instead, I had a lot of artist friends whose work I loved and rather naively thought the job consisted entirely of putting on great exhibitions. Without much of a sales strategy, we managed to get outstanding collectors along to our early shows, who not only bought work but bought really difficult work – in retrospect the hallmark of the programme. David Roberts, Charles Saatchi and Philly Adams (then Director of the Saatchi Gallery), Frank Cohen, Hussam Otaibi (who I now work with at Modern Forms), Terky Al-Khalifa, Yana Peel and Andrei Tretyakov, founder of A Political, were all early and much valued supporters.

Quite differently to the market for emerging art now, our major sales in those early years were driven by collectors physically coming to see and falling in love with our strange and spectacular shows. They had little idea of what they were going to experience, no preconditioning through Instagram. Those encounters were discoveries for our visitors and that was magical.

I vividly remember Charles Saatchi walking around the darkened space of If I Should Fall from Grace with God (2007), Shezad’s first solo show, and watching him, illuminated by the neon tumbleweeds, becoming utterly mesmerised by the installation.

There were the gently astonished reactions of visitors to Eloise Fornieles’ beautiful, durational performances like Senescence (2008) in which, with pharmaceutical assistance, she slept solidly for 48 hours over a weekend, during which time the gallery remained continually open. Eloise had covered the floor with hay and its sweet, slightly cloying and calming smell filled the space. You could make the short walk from bars and clubs on Bethnal Green Road, climb up a flight of stairs into Paradise Row and find yourself, at 3 am, in this dreamscape.

And there was Frank Cohen gamely buying one of my favourite works of all time, Douglas White’s Owl, which comprises the found imprint of an owl that had flown into a patio door, triple glazed and presented as is. The impossibly ethereal image is made of dust and grease from the owl’s feathers and could have vanished in months but didn’t!

I think a lot of what we did back then at Paradise Row was about finding and sharing these moments of wonder. Does that count as a sales strategy?

EM: In 2007 Apple put the first I-phone on the market, an unprecedented “technological revolution” that determined new ways of viewing social life, the consumer object, and art itself. How did you both experience this paradigm shift and how do you think it affected the generations of artists you launched with Paradise Row?

NH: That’s a very apposite, historical anchor point.

In terms of our programme, studied responses to the image saturation of smartphone and screen-driven, contemporary culture came in the form of the first two Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin shows and our Bidhead exhibition from Shanghai.

In The Day Nobody Died (2008), Broomberg & Chanarin (the now defunct conceptual photography duo) displayed a series of epic, six-meter long abstract photographs made while embedded with the British Army in Helmand, Afghanistan. That radical act of refusing to produce familiar images of suffering and conflict, frustrating the well-programmed cathartic response anticipated by viewers, was a brilliant interrogation of the conventions of documentary photography in the 21st century. It’s a historically significant body of work. In People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground (2011), they created new works from material from the Belfast Exposed archive.

In their 2012 show at the gallery curated by Pippa, Birdhead, (another duo of Ji Weiyu and Song Tao), strangely anticipated the ubiquity of social media by presenting a visual stream of consciousness from their lives in the form of thousands of black and white photographs of their daily lives in Shanghai as it hyper-accelerated into modernity.

Simon Baker, then Curator of Photography at the Tate, acquired significant bodies of both Broomberg & Chanarin and Birdhead’s work for the museum’s collection.

More broadly, in assessing the impact of the paradigm shift to screen culture, I think I’d just be repeating the now familiar critiques of social media, mediated culture, one that we now all participate in of course. Within the art world, the intensifying and corrosive imperative to be fashionable is especially toxic both for the nature of art that is being produced and the professional scaffolding around it.

EM: After eight years, you decided to close the gallery. In 2014 the world was about to recover from the crisis, and in the last seven years society has faced other paradigm shifts in terms of our experience of the world around us, not to mention the visual arts and blockchain technologies that are colonizing large tables of debate. Why did you decide to close the gallery? What are your thoughts on all of this?

NH: I found the transition from being an emerging to a mid-career gallery difficult. I started a gallery not a business, really. Staring into a future filled with an endless merry-go-round of art-fairs, that felt obligatory in those days, was daunting and, along with the rent on our new Central London venue, really expensive! And we still had a very experimental roster. We only had one painter!

There was also the issue of where one could go as a young gallery. If you look at gallery scenes in London and NY from the start of the 2000’s onwards, the galleries at the top all had a historical first-mover advantage and caught and grew off the back the successive waves of art market growth. Their positions looked pretty solid. From those heights they could just keep cherry-picking the best new talents that emerged, nurtured by enthusiastic and less-seasoned younger galleries. It was hard to see how new galleries could break that dynamic. Alongside that critique of the market, it's really important to say that being able to make a living in the contemporary art world and so spend your days engaging with art and thought is a rare privilege.

EM: Last September you launched Paradise Row Projects, one-year long not-for-profit curatorial project. The first group show “Hawala”, curated by Shezad Dawood, functions as an IRL and digital marketplace. An idea that further hybridizes the canonical exhibition format as well as the collecting and viewer’s art experience. Would you care to elaborate on this new format?

There are two things here. Firstly, the idea behind Paradise Row Projects was to experiment with the model of the commercial gallery as a social enterprise. In our age of compounding crises we are trying to find a way to carry on doing what we love doing – making, showing and promoting art – while materially contributing, albeit modestly, to solving these issues in some way. Baked into the gallery’s economic model is a degree distribution of income to NGOs and initiatives directly addressing critical social and environmental issues (20% of sales + subsequent profits made by the gallery). Underlying that commercial structure is our ambition to help activate the various networks of the curators, artists and collectors that we work with, to, at least partly, participate in positive change.

Hawala has been the perfect opening show, because activating networks and taking collective action are at the conceptual heart of the show. The IRL exhibition and the metaverse show, The Mangrove Institute of Contemporary Art (MICA), hosted on Somnium Space, showcase the idea that you can stage exceptional cultural experiences and deliver a degree of social impact.

We are honored to be presenting our next show Ka’a Body: Cosmovision of the Rainforest, which will be the first international showcase of Indigenous art and culture from Brazil staged by an Indigenous curator - the brilliant anthropologist Sandra Benites (Guarani Nhandeva), curator of Brazilian Art at MASP - The Museu de Arte de São Paulo Assis Chateaubriand, with the assistance of Brazilian visual artist Anita Ekman. The show platforms voices from cultures that are under extreme existential threat. We will be raising money for Instituto Maracá, who supports indigenous culture and AmazoaniAlerta, an app that enables the reporting of environmental crimes within the Amazon.

EM: Returning to blockchain technology, you’ve also presented MICA – The Mangrove Institute of Contemporary Art, a bespoke exhibition space built in a mangrove swamp referencing the history of Modernist architecture in South Asia. MICA will be exhibited in a metaverse platform: Somnium Space, a new virtual reality world. The future of the mobile internet will be the metaverse, and blockchain technology – with the cryptocurrency system and NFTs – plays a key role in its development. How this massive use of technology can encounter a sustainable vision for artistic productions, exhibition making and life more in general?

NH: Firstly we created MICA, with Shezad, to explore the creative possibilities of these emerging metaverse platforms in delivering a new kind of fantastical and immersive exhibition experience - it’s a paradigm shift in the history of curation and exhibition design. Secondly, as a counterpoint to the hype around NFTs and financial speculation, we wanted to create a high-profile showcase of the socially-progressive possibilities of new technologies and platforms such as blockchain, NFTs, the metaverse, etc. MICA will be sold as a single NFT. After costs, 50% of the proceeds go to beneficiary NGOs, the other 50% will be shared equally between the artists, regardless of seniority. It was also important that Studio Gumgum, comprising Enayet Kabir and Nic Symbios, the exceptional digital artists who realised the virtual space were given due credit for their work - an equal and standing as artists within MICA. So MICA becomes a site of collective action, both cultural and philanthropic.

The utopian hopes that were prevalent in the early days of the internet have long since evaporated, but it's vital to continually contest these spaces and ensure they are not entirely surrendered entirely to corporate interests... At the time of writing Facebook just announced their rebranding as Meta.

EM: Pippa, as a collector and patron, what do you think of this evolution in collecting? Is it a speculative bubble or the future of the market?

Pippa Hornby: It’s a bit of both, but long term NFTs will fuel a vast, digital collectibles market. Right now, there’s a speculative bubble because in NFT’s there’s a bubble in cryptocurrency and huge liquidity amongst early crypto investors. They have virtual money to burn. Those bubbles will iron out over time. The most significant long term impact of the emergence of NFTs will be that it will accelerate dissolving of the barrier between elite and mass taste. It’s highly debatable whether that’s a good thing or not.

Next show:

Ka’a Body: Cosmovision of the Rainforest runs 26 November - 29 January 2022.

Nick Hackworth is a writer, curator and art advisor. In 2006, he founded emerging art gallery Paradise Row, which existed until 2014. In 2021, he revived the gallery as a one-year non-profit curatorial project, called Paradise Row Projects. He’s the founding director of Modern Forms, a private collection and curatorial platform founded by collector Hussam Otaibi, and co-founded Credit, a new initiative supporting the UK’s emerging art scene, in collaboration with staff and students at Central Saint Martins and Kingston School of Art.

Pippa Hornby is an art collector and patron. She was a former Director of Paradise Row, where she curated the exhibition Welcome to Birdhead World Again. Hornby recently completed her graduate studies in Contemporary Chinese Art at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London.

Eleonora Milani is an art historian and Flash Art editor. Her current research investigates the relationship between dance, performance art, and all practices that refer to time-based media.