Serf is the newest addition to the burgeoning workspace culture in Leeds, an artist-led, open-plan studio and project space that opened in late July. Its name positively appropriates the feudal bond between agricultural labourers and lord, whereby a plot of land is provided in exchange for protection.

Located two floors above member’s co-op and bar, Wharf Chambers, and around the corner from the Art Hostel, the initiative is part of a thriving grassroots movement in the rundown historic Kirkgate area. Serf continues the legacy of student retention and return through workspace provision, exemplified by East Street Arts and more recently Set the Controls for the Heart of the Sun, Assembly House and Lady Beck (formerly Enjoy).

Home to 21 artists in the early stages of their careers, Serf offers more than a physical workspace. According to members Adam Townend and Mark Martin, it provides the conditions for growing an artistic culture. Although technically an incorporated association, Serf adopts a cooperative, horizontal structure in which all studio holders are full members and can therefore attend committee meetings and get involved with the organisation and running of the space.

While not compulsory, Townend and Martin say members choose to participate because it gives them start-up experience and allows them to develop vital DIY and cooperative skills. In a sense, Serf is an incubator for the next generation of self-initiating artists.

The main difference between Serf and other artist-led workspaces in Leeds is its lack of doors and separating walls. Without defined studios, one space blends into the next, forming a perimeter around a central communal area, complete with ping pong table. Townend explains that this fluid layout is “crucial to creating a support structure for artists, where conversations about practice naturally emerge and networks are developed”. Artists, he says, “define their own space through their practice”, which takes on new dimensions when there are no borders.

This symbiosis is nicely demonstrated in Serf’s inaugural group show, ‘Taction’, in which exhibited works by all 21 members are physically or conceptually connected in some way. The show is collectively curated as a kind of mini-map of the studios, requiring each artist to hold their work up to their neighbour’s and devise a connecting thread.

In some cases, this ‘touching’ constitutes a shadow being cast (Ella Cronk and Claudia Dance-Wells), or a laser beam pointing toward a phone number burnt into the wall, which, when called, connects to a sound work describing other works (Isaac Clarke, Adam Townend and Will Clarke). Townend describes the exhibition as “scrappy”, but also finely tuned to follow a dogmatic rule, whereby everything is deemed necessary.

Serf’s event programme is another extension of its community focus. The project space will host regular exhibitions and alternately be used by members to evolve their work, with occasional ‘soft launches’.

In addition, a ‘Serf school’ will offer crits, reading groups, workshops and skill-share events to both members and the public. This will help to expand audiences and networks and prevent what Martin and Townend identify as a studio ‘bubble’ from developing. “Studios are less useful without the people and the networks that grow up around them,” believes Townend.

Workshops will derive from artists’ practice and will focus on practical, everyday skills such as plumbing or electrics, or more esoteric activities (artist Harry Meadley has been invited to do a session on skipping). Skill sharing is the bedrock of many grassroots projects, and something that Serf members are building into their studio infrastructure.

With bar proceeds from events used toward making improvements to the space and investing in shared tools, Serf has plans to “self-sustain comfortably”, a phrase that suggests a calm confidence has settled into Leeds’ artist-led scene. At £65 per month (or hot desking at £20, coming soon), Serf is a bargain for graduates and early career artists, especially considering the peer support and opportunities for collaboration that are included with a workspace.

The model isn’t for everyone; communal areas and ‘blended’ studio spaces would be a nuisance for artists seeking solitude. However, for those looking for a challenging, energetic space that looks after its own by fostering community spirit, Serf is an ideal fit.

‘Taction’ continues to 23 September 2016, at Serf, 23-25 Wharf Street, Leeds LS2 7EQ

1&5. Workspaces at Serf, Leeds
2. Opening of ‘Taction’ exhibition at Serf, Leeds
3&4. Installation view, ‘Taction’ exhibition, Serf, Leeds

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