To this day, Martello Street Studios remains a campus for some of the most exciting voices in contemporary art. Emma Bartholomew looks back to its radical roots in the ’70s, when some of its tenants were dubbed ‘wreckers of civilisation’

In 1998, Tracey Emin set tongues wagging with her Turner Prize shortlisted artwork My Bed – complete with bodily-fluid stained sheets and dirty blood-stained knickers.

She wasn’t the first to evoke ire through her artwork – or to use menstrual fluid in it, for that matter.

Two decades before the openly confrontational performance art group COUM Transmissions used the “decorated used tampons” of one of its core members Cosey Fanni Tutti in their show Prostitution in 1976.

Further shocking performances were staged at the Institute of Contemporary Arts alongside pornographic images of Cosey, who had entered the commercial pornographic world as a form of performance art.

It is still regarded as one of the most controversial exhibitions in both the history of the ICA and that of British contemporary art – Prostitution caused walkouts, made headlines and inspired a debate in the House of Commons.

The group dubbed the “wreckers of civilization” had been working in the basement of an artists’ studio in Martello Street around the corner from London Fields. Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge moved there from Hull in 1974.

The area became known as the stomping ground for their industrial band Throbbing Gristle, and a few years later P-Orridge co-founded an informal occult order, Thee Temple of Psychick Youth, there.

A former trouser factory, Martello Street Studios was opened by Space Studios in 1971 around the corner from London Fields.

Bridget Riley and Peter Sedgeley founded the collective in St Katharine’s Docks in 1968 to provide artists with affordable studio space in redundant buildings left empty by London’s industrial decline.

Continuing to this day with sites north and south of the river and all the way over in Colchester, Space Studios’ most infamous location perhaps remains Martello Street. Leased on a peppercorn rent by the GLC, the open-plan factory floors were converted into studios by the artists themselves who worked for months installing lights and plumbing, and repairing windows.

“This was a time of heady excitement, weekend talk-ins, peace and love, psychedelic drugs, and anti-war demonstrations, in which artists, writers and musicians played a big part,” Anna Harding, Space’s current chief executive, writes in a chapter she contributed last year to the Hackney Society’s 50th anniversary book Portrait of a Community.

Space Studios also celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2018, too, and to mark the occasion Anna also edited a book – Artists in the City: Space in ’68 and Beyond.

“Locations resonate and Space Martello Street certainly occupies an important place in the history of British art,” writes William Fowler in his chapter.

The artist, performer and eccentric Bruce Lacey, who collaborated with absurdist comedy troupe the Goons in the ’60s, became Martello Street’s caretaker and lived in a cottage in its courtyard with his wife Jill and three children.

Cosey recalled his “amazing workshop full of sculptures and robots – an Aladdin’s cave of disparate parts awaiting assembly alongside experimental electronic machines, synthesisers, effects units and circuit boards”.

Apparently their three children wandered the studios, “turning the building into a playground of sorts”.

Their son Kevin, who lived there between the ages of 10 and 17, would often knock on studio doors and hang out with artists for half a day.

Jules Baker would make “blow-up things like inflatables” and Doctor Who monsters, and Peter Dockley made wax castings and life-sized figures of himself.

Apparently he once embedded seeds and nuts in the wax, seated the models in chairs in a cage the size of a room, and set loose loads of rats.

“So the rats slowly ate away at the wax to get at the seeds,” remembers Kevin.

“There was another piece he did where he had maybe 10 or 15 wax figures of himself standing and sitting in various positions in a big room and he did a time lapse film where he very slowly with a blow torch melted them.”

Space now houses 464 artist tenants in its nine Hackney studio buildings. “Martello Street is now in the centre of a hotspot of property development, and London Fields has become one of the coolest places on earth,” said Anna.