Not just a home and more than a venue: performance space forced to relocate

Jebonair performing at Unit 31. Pic: Karolina Wielocha

For some performers a music venue closing down may just mean the end of a regular gig. For the residents of Unit 31 in Cable Street Studios in Limehouse, the end of their venue means a whole lot more.

Those living at Unit 31 are being forced to leave their studio and home, due to the landlord wanting to turn the studio space into residential properties.

Unit 31 hosts art by the four residents artists during the day, and transforms into a performance space after dark, paying tribute to jazz, neo-soul, poetry and rap. The space and nights they put on highlight the important role of such ‘D.I.Y venues’, grassroots music and diversity within the London musical scene.

However, five years since its inception the decision from the landlord looks set to finally transform a what started as a casual set up into something more formal and they have secured Arts Council funding until May next year if they can find a new, permanent space.

Starting from a few jam sessions among friends, Unit 31 was born out of a necessity for a performance space to allow other artists to ‘have fun.’ . Karolina Wielocha, 29, a photographer and one of the four artists who live at Unit 31, told Eastlondonlines: “We became a space because it was needed. No one was like “let’s start a venue”, it just happened organically. People come here not because they want to show off, they come here because they want to have fun.” 

Karolina Wielocha. Pic: Karolina Wielocha

Along with Wielocha, three other artists live there: Karol Jurga; a filmmaker, Raffy Bushman; a pianist, and Sam Michnik; a drummer. Together they developed Unit 31 into a venue for diverse acts, with artists such as Slowthai and IamDDB using the space.

Karol Jurga. Pic: Lukasz Dry

Wielocha said: “We got to this point a while ago where this is not a hobby anymore. We want to find a place where we can sign a long term lease and get some stability. We have invested a lot of time and effort and money into this project, even some of us have given up our past jobs.”

Jurga said it was the closure of bars and clubs that stimulated the idea of their own venue: “Clubs that were good were closing, so all of a sudden we realised we didn’t have a space to play, so we started to meet up and that was the first jam session.” 

The collective started out as a group of friends meeting up, but slowly gained momentum. Jurga, 30, said: “We couldn’t even name it at the start,  but slowly we began to realise there was a desire from a lot of vocalists, a lot of rappers and singers, who also wanted to share their gems.”

The four artists live in the open plan studio space, with rooms leading off from the main performance space. They are not the only residents of Cable Street Studios; a lot of the artists in neighbouring studios have developed their space into homes too; creating kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms all in a D.I.Y manner.

Unit 31 with Sam Michnik on drums and Raffy Bushman on keys. Pic: Karolina Wielocha

To mark the end of an era, Unit 31 hosted an art exhibition, Unit 31: Unfolded to commemorate the collaborations and artists the space had brought together. The exhibition featured a live music performance every night, and was open in the day to display personal testimonies of those who had used the space.

Wielocha said: “Unfolded is a celebration of our community. We wanted to show our diversity and how many different people gather in the space with the same interests but from totally different backgrounds.”

“What the stories of this exhibition show is how important spaces like this are. Yes, you can exchange creativity online but collaborations and the art that comes out of them all happen because of meeting in this environment.” 

An audience member. Pic: Karolina Wielocha

Wielocha captures the communal spirit of the venue in her photography. She said: “We know that this place has changed some people’s lives and they have found their families here.”

Jurga explained that it is hard to keep up with London life and stay afloat in the creative scene. He said: “Art in London goes between very poor and barely surviving mode, to a super commercial financial thing in the city. We would love to encourage other D.I.Y venues.”

“London is such a big city and there is so much rush, so much dizziness, that you can’t really pinpoint places to go to meet in creative spaces. Unit 31 offers a place to get away from all that and meet new people.”

Wielocha added: “When you live in London, it’s so fast paced, it’s such fast living and it makes you feel like you constantly need to prove something. Not here though.”

You can find details of updates or final shows on their website.

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