Saying Goodbye to Dalston's Doomed Gallery
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Saying Goodbye to Dalston's Doomed Gallery

Curators Ken Flaherty and Matt Martin talk us through running one of London's legendary underground art spaces as they prepare to pass the torch.
August 21, 2018, 11:13am

Since opening on Dalston's Ridley Road in 2011, Doomed Gallery has been a hub for underground art and self-publishing. The space has exhibited over 300 photographers and visual artists, working closely with young artists and community collectives, as well as professional photographers, under their modus operandi: "Support the scene or you won't have one."

Started by Ken Flaherty, who decided to turn his living/studio space into a gallery while trying to find places to exhibit his own work, Doomed began as it continued: a self-made space fostering artists who would otherwise struggle to get their work printed or displayed – either for financial reasons or because the work in question is, for example, 20 photographs of someone's dick.

A few years in, photographer and zine maker Matt Martin joined as a business partner. With a 31-year age gap bridged by a mutual punk ethos, Ken and Matt combined their skills and visions to leverage Doomed as a space to platform artists on the fringes, whether it was through open call projects, zine launches, ceramics, skate decks or free courses in cultural studies.

Like most independently-run spaces, Doomed was done for the love of it. Rather than being pushed out by rent hikes, Ken and Matt are closing the space for personal reasons, viewing it as less of a loss and more a passing of the torch – to whoever and wherever that might be.

Ahead of their final exhibition on Thursday, we spoke to Ken and Matt about their decision to let the gallery go, their memories of it over the years and their plans for the future.

VICE: First of all, can you guys tell me why Doomed has chosen to close its doors?
Ken Flaherty: It's time. There are no reasons… people usually stop things because they have to; it's nothing to do with being pushed out because of gentrification or rising rents. We're just stopping because we want to work on other projects.

Ken Flaherty and Matt Martin

What are you both planning to do post-Doomed?
Matt Martin: Once Doomed closes its doors I'm heading off to the States to work on a short film and make some personal work, which I'm pretty excited about. Before Doomed I'd been running a space in Brighton and my own project, "The Photocopy Club". Working here allowed me to develop this and my skills as a curator. I'll be continuing to build Photocopy Club projects, focusing on more exhibitions around the UK.
Ken: I'm going to have a normal life for a while – developing my own practice, teaching others and learning and having fun. Matt and myself are planning on taking Zines of the World – our open call project – around Europe on a road trip. I'm particularly interested in free education; the current system of industrialised systems enslaves and stunts creativity. I'd like to establish a free school along the lines of School of the Damned and Anti University… there are lots of opportunities for people to have more control over their destiny.
Matt: And, who knows, maybe one day there'll be a Doomed 2.

How much of an impact do you think the closing of Doomed will have on London’s grassroots art scene?
Ken: There's a massive divide between what you would call grassroots, or emerging artists, and the people that are in control. The brands and the corporates, they just dip down into the talent pool for what they want in order to draw in people to their brand. There's a cost for this type of recognition. For me, it's difficult to pin down where the actual grassroots scene is, if there is one at all. I would like to see less online activity and more community, more DIY spaces.
Matt: We're still going to work together as curators and expand our Doomed projects, as Ken mentioned before, taking Doomed style exhibitions on the road. Hopefully, with Doomed, we managed to bring together and support local artists that will keep the scene growing. Exhibition space will come and go. There's always going to be artists making use of what space they have to put on exhibitions. On the surface it may seem like a lot of places are getting closed down, but I feel that just keeps the underground going. They take something away and we start something else – it keeps the scene fresh.

One of Doomed’s slogans is "support your scene, or you won’t have one". What tips have you got for people to keep their scene alive?
Matt: Exhibit your work in whatever space you can find. Put on zine fairs, talks and workshops. Keep making things and building collectives and communities. If more people team up to work together, the scene will keep growing and getting stronger. There are amazing photographers and publishers doing great things all over London, and if everyone can work together a bit more I think it will be great for the London art scene. I find it funny when people say, "Oh no! Doomed is closing! That's such a shame," and they've only been to the gallery once. If you don't want the scene to die, you have to go to exhibitions, buy work and also put on your own things.
Ken: Complacency is the enemy of creativity, unity is power. Don’t wait, do your thing. You have the means of production.

You have both lived in the space at some point, right?
Matt: I think most of the best galleries have grown from the curator living within the space. Places like Alleged Gallery (NYC), Book and Job (SF), Needles and Pens (SF), Maureen Paley (LDN) all had their curators inhabiting the space. These all influenced us in how Doomed should be. It can get intense at times, as you feel like you're never leaving work, but it helps you to really focus on growing and developing a space.
Ken: It can be likened to living in a nightclub. The downside is that 200 people use your toilet every other night. Me and Matt both hold down regular, albeit freelance, jobs as well as running the gallery – financially it makes sense to live there.

What have been some of your favourite shows you’ve put on at Doomed?
Matt: The first two Photocopy Clubs I put on at Doomed were real highlights for me. But the exhibition New Japanese Photography that we curated with one of our assistants, Matt Glassman (Meanwhile Press), was a really great show, and the first time we ever had a line down the street. Anything involving photo books at Doomed has been really fun, and also the series of "Rip it, Lick it, Stick it" exhibitions by Louie Jenkins have been really good. One of the last shows we did, with Julia Gorton and Ollie Murphy, where we had them taking portraits over three days, was a great exhibition as it felt like it really brought everyone together. We all just hung out for three days in the space and made photos.
Ken: One of my favourite shows was "RIOT", which was also when I first met Matt. The show was about protest photography and had images of conflict from all over the world – some of it even coming in on the day the show was going up. Shortly after, Matt joined Doomed and essentially headed it up from there as he was able to reach out to the next generation who perhaps didn't think it possible to have their own show.

What are some of the most stand-out memories from the years you’ve been running the gallery?
Ken: We always try to be open-minded about work at Doomed. Rarely have we turned people away – we may just say that you're not ready yet. But occasionally you make a mistake. I had this one guy come to the gallery with essentially just a lot of pictures of his cock. Instead of telling him it wasn't suitable for the gallery, I suggested he read up on Sophie Calle and maybe do something in a similar vein to her work, perhaps putting a brief up on Craigslist and giving amateur photographers an opportunity to produce an image. Well, he went and did exactly that and we exhibited 20 images of Kevin with his cock out. Who are we to say it's not art?
Matt: Some of the most interesting times for me at Doomed have been at the gallery lock-ins. It became a sort of speakeasy vibe. Also, because of the 30-year age gap between me and Ken, there has been a huge mix in ages coming to Doomed and hanging out. It's all been a bit of a blur, really.

How do you think Doomed will be remembered?
Ken: I hope Doomed will be remembered fondly as a place where people could come to make new friends and essentially have fun, something which is sadly missing from most gallery experiences. We always aimed to have our exhibitions feeling more like club nights. I'm happy with what we've done, and I think it's been a great model for others. It's easy to do and started off as an experiment. I hope that all the photographers we have shown are proud that they exhibited at Doomed. My girlfriend remind me sometimes that all I did was put a sign above a door.
Matt: It will also be remembered for having the best/worst toilet in London.

Doomed Gallery will close on August 31. Their final exhibitions are tonight's Bare With Me, Xerox and Destroy 3 – a skate photography project that first launched at the gallery in 2013 – on Thursday, and a final show from Ken on August 31.

All photos by Chris Bethell.

@CBethell_photo / @emmaggarland