ASSET ARREST is a podcast series set around the viewing of different luxury properties led by artist Laura Yuile, who poses as a potential buyer. Yuile is a multidisciplinary, performative artist living and working in London. In her work, she explores notions of the domestic and the urban through the intimate (or public) matters of living together, and the effects of globalization and technological development upon living space itself.
For each episode, a conversation before and after the viewing is recorded, with guests talking about their own work and interests; as well as covering more general topics such as urban regeneration, housing crises, globalization, authenticity, exclusion, and community.
The podcast represents a fascinating exploration of what it means to live and dwell in the neoliberal city, where life as the public space get more and more fragmented and enclosed in favor of private speculation and social segregation. Through her research, Yuile establishes connections between a number of urban areas, highlighting the dissemination of repetitive formulas and templates that define new ways of managing life in the metropolis – or as written by Keller Easterling «an infrastructural technology with elaborate routines and schedules for organizing consumption.»
By means of a useless estate agency — as the artist herself defines Asset Arrest — she manages to infiltrate and create an opening within an extremely exclusive system, that of financialised housing, dismantling and revealing the discrepancies of its persuasive narrative of development, progress and well-being.
Fabiola Fiocco: Hello Laura, thank you for this interview. Let’s start from the basis, when and how did you start ASSET ARREST?
Laura Yuile: It started five years ago in 2015, not as a podcast, but for this festival in London called the Anti-University festival and it was conceived as a series of events in which individuals or small groups — any members of the public — could sign up and come with me to view a property. It was a way for me to make it less stressful and intimidating the process of accessing these spaces when you are not really considering buying them. It was a way to make some of these spaces accessible to the public.
Since I don’t obviously publish any video or filming from the viewing, because you are not really allowed to and I don’t feel comfortable putting the estate agent in that position without them knowing, the podcast seemed an appropriate way to make something of these spaces public. I have occasionally recorded the audio of the actual viewing but I prefer to just remember what has been said, write it down and reflect on it or refer to it in conversation. It tends not to be particularly interesting as they are following a fairly standard script. Like myself in this situation, the estate agents just have a role to perform and the more viewings I do, the more I can guess what they will say.
Fabiola Fiocco: While you’re there on the viewing, what is your role? Do you approach it critically, asking unusual or uncomfortable questions, or do you try to blend in?
Laura Yuile: I started doing this almost as a hobby and at first I was really nervous, like — Oh my god, what am I supposed to say? What are the questions I’m meant to ask? How am I meant to look? Will they know I’m lying? Now that I’m quite comfortable in these situations, it becomes very much about me playing a pre-determined role, and in the same way the agent is playing a role. For them it is a job, for me is it an art project. It’s very performative. So I usually have a character in mind, and I try to embody that character. I try to fit in whilst also asking quite jarring or uncomfortable questions. A lot of it is a reaction to how the estate agent is performing, as well as the guest I have with me. It’s not so much that I’m lying, as usually they don’t ask anything about my life.
The main lie is simply me saying I’m looking to buy an apartment or a house. And as the person I’m with is not always someone I know or have met before, we’re also performing by pretending to be a couple, to be friends, or related to each other. So again that is another aspect of the performance, the interaction, the body language. Some people are very quiet and maybe kind of awkward in that situation, because they’re not used to performing roles in this way, but some people do it quite naturally. If I go with another artist, they’re usually quite good because it may be part of their own work doing performances, interventions, or similarly stranger things. In a way, I think artists are usually quite good at lying [laughs].
Fabiola Fiocco: You just said artists are better at performing a part but in the various episodes, you always have many different people, with very interesting and diverse backgrounds. How important is it for you to bring different expertises and to include people that are not into the arts? What is the selection process structured?
Laura Yuile: It’s a mix. In London it works quite differently because here I know many people and someone might express interest in coming with me on a viewing. I always like to try and do that because —even if it’s not made into a podcast — I want to stay committed to the idea of this being a way of me helping people access these spaces, for whatever reason interests them. I almost become a kind of estate agent agent. When I was doing it in Berlin on a residency, i didn’t know as many people and didn’t have such a large network there. Therefore, it becomes about identifying people who would be interesting to talk to and getting in touch to ask them to join me.
So far, my guests have mostly been people that work on similar issues of urban space, architecture or art and they bring a perspective and a knowledge that is slightly different to my own. But I’m also keen to broaden this scope and perhaps do a viewing with someone who is actually looking to buy one of these apartments as well as people who have different roles and experiences within the communities where the properties are being sold or developed. I’m open to suggestions and offers!
Fabiola Fiocco: What about the property selection, what is the process behind the creation of a episode?
Laura Yuile: Usually, I invite a guest first and ask them if there is a particular property or area of the city they’re interested in. I’d say a lot of people do have a specific interest, which is helpful. For example, in Berlin Rosario Talevi really wanted to go to this building called Living Levels that has been really controversial. Fortunately there happened to be an apartment for sale there so we could access it. Or sometimes I chose a property and invite someone I think would be interesting to bring to this location. For example, when viewing student housing in Newcastle, I invited people who were long term residents of Shieldfield, an area of the city that has become almost entirely populated by private student housing.
So, it’s a mix. I would say there is not any specific preparation template for each episode, it really depends on the city, the property and the guest. The 27-million-pound house I went to the other day, it was the first one in ages where I felt I needed to have a solid story prepared to justify my being there. I don’t know what someone who has that much money would look or act like. I have no idea. I mean, in our head we think people with that much money must behave in a certain way but I’m sure they’re all completely different from one another! But it can be nerve-wracking. You never really understand what you’re preparing for. And that viewing was also the first one where I used a fake name.
I usually use my own name and email address and I’m quite happy with the idea of an estate agent finding me out if they googled me; and then the reality of the viewing as an artistic project entering their own reality. Which has happened on two occasions that I know of. But when you’re looking to buy somewhere as expensive as 27 million pounds they are definitely going to google your name and try to find out who you are I think.
Fabiola Fiocco: I would like to go back for a moment to episode nine, the one in which you went to the private student housing complex in Newcastle. A fairly new phenomenon that is expanding very quickly in several countries and with a sever impact on the social fabric. First I would like to ask why did you decide to shift the focus from high-end residential luxury properties to private student housing?
Laura Yuile: Basically, I wanted to expand to look at different forms of financialised housing though the eyes of the different characters that inhabit or invest in them. The luxury properties I’ve been looking at are mostly in London and Berlin and are largely marketed towards this “foreign investor” character. With private student housing, it’s a completely different thing because they’re not buying something as an investment, they’re renting accommodation because it offers something easy and convenient, and because they’re buying education in a as an investment.
It’s not just about the education itself, it’s about the investment of having studied in an English speaking university, in another country, in universities that have a certain reputation. It’s a similar kind of global community in that they are privileged and mobile and seek convenience in moving from one geographical location to another.
The student housing in Newcastle, a small and cheap city compared to somewhere like London, is so disconnected from the market value in the city. People pay crazy amounts to stay in a relatively cheap city because it has been made to look kind of luxury, with shared spaces, pool table, or games, and because they want something secure for themselves or their child and do not know the rental market or want to take a risk with it. It really seems to embody this kind of “architecture of convenience” that allows someone to suddenly appear in a different country, in a different context, and not have to worry about how to integrate or administrate their lives there. Everything is set up. You step in and everything is ready, all your bills are included, there is an app to control everything.
Much like a foreigner investor buying an off-plan property in London at a property fair elsewhere, they don’t have a connection to any local or geographical community there. The students have their own student community and don’t engage much with the longer-term community in that area. I guess when you know you’re gonna be in a place for only three years, it’s hard to feel part of it and this kind of housing seems to really enhance that feeling of being separate from everything in the city that is more permanent. So, it’s a bubble albeit a different bubble, but it’s also completely unsustainable.
Fabiola Fiocco: I think it’s very relevant and on point what you say in the episode, talking about how the student housing complex proposes an individualization of the student experience. I believe there is also a very specific kind of communication and terminology used in these kind of spaces. Everything always seems very much based on social activities, lifestyle, mostly infantilizing the people they host.
They sell you an experience that is not really about what it means to live on your own and learn how to live together. And it sets within a very important moment of your life, when you move out of your parents house to enter the adult life. Do you you feel there are any similarities in the way they are marketed and talked about, in the way they organise their guests life?
Laura Yuile: Suddenly a lot of the new developments in London are being made in this similar style, they have a lounge where the residents can hang out together, carefully lay-out books, and things that look like no one actually uses them or touches them, various communal spaces such as a cinema and gym, and then the concierge. Alongside that, there is of course a high level of CCTV surveillance, so they are basically gated communities whether they have gates or not. It’s about individualization and looking out for oneself but at the same time using this language of community, which obviously becomes fairly meaningless when used in this context.
The same language is used to sell the idea of community and the idea of a luxury lifestyle. But of course we already lived in communities and it didn’t come with such a high price tag, it was just living in normal apartments next to each other as people do! Another grotesque materialization of this commercialization of communal living and community is the trend for corporate “co-living” spaces. Last week, I went to view a co-living complex in London called The Collective.
It’s basically student housing but for adults, with jobs, and much more expensive. As a “long term” resident (upwards of 3 months) you pay at least around 1600 pounds a month for a tiny studio-like unit, basically like a dorm room in a student building. Then there are communal, social spaces, co-working spaces, and events that residents can join such as yoga classes and open mic nights. It did have a nice swimming pool and gym but it ultimately seemed like a luxury youth hostel, marketed towards young professionals and digital nomads.
Three hundred people live there and some of them stay for six months or a year but you can also stay there for one night if you want. The idea that this creates any kind of meaningful community or sense of collectivity is bizarre. It felt entirely set up to individualize, with the added ‘illusion’ of communal living. I think that the common thread throughout all these forms of housing is the promotion of this idea of living in a hotel as somehow desirable. The idea of staying in a hotel goes hand in hand with the idea of not committing, not investing anything in the location you’re in because it’s just temporary and you don’t know how long you’re being there. It’s a glamorization of precarity and instability.
Fabiola Fiocco: But it doesn’t make much sense to use keywords relating to community and engagement while marketing something that aims at glamorizing precarity. If you want people to just keep moving and never rooting anywhere, why put so much effort in marketing these big ideas — community, collectivity, communal engagement, etc.?
Laura Yuile: When a large development in London is made, there are certain things they have to do. They’re supposed to provide so much affordable housing or social housing — which is meant to be like 30% or something, but usually they negotiate with the council or government and end up building 5 % affordable — whatever that means anyway. So, a part of it makes me think it’s giving the council what they want, it’s making it look like is not a bad thing for the community, or some idea of community. Perhaps it plays into this and allows a developer to keep buying land and building “homes”.
I went to see a co-living place in China as it’s taking off there as well. The people running it told me — and I think they genuinely believe this — that young people are so lonely and disconnected now because of social media and the way everything is that they buy into this idea of co-living as genuinely being a more sociable and communal way to live. Maybe this is just how people want to live now. The main problem is it’s obviously being conceived of and sold by commercial corporations with purely profit-driven motives, and the nod towards ideas of collectivity and communality are mere advertising fodder or decoration, whilst most people who buy into these “lifestyles” don’t know anything about alternative grassroots models of communal or collective housing.
It’s dreadful we don’t get paid for what we contribute to online social media platforms such as Facebook but at least we don’t pay to be there, connected to each other. As with many things, it feels like capitalism steals the good thing, makes us feel bad, and sells us the solution in a commercialized form of the original “good thing”.
Fabiola Fiocco: Going back to the podcast, you manage to keep together a number of linguistic registers and tones. A very descriptive and alluring tone intertwines with a more discursive and genuine approach. Is it an aesthetic and formal choice or a consequence of the experience itself?
Laura Yuile: I like the idea of ASSET ARREST being this useless agency that helps people not buying property. A redundant, useless one that wastes the time of estate agents and developers; occupying their private spaces for a moment in time and sharing something of the experience with whoever wants to listen. Having a logo and a somewhat coherent aesthetic to the communications helps gives the appearance of an organisation when really it’s just me sheepishly looking at multi-million pound houses and pretending someone is my husband.
I really like that clash of two things awkwardly and abruptly coming together. I like to set up certain expectations then have these kind ridiculous moments with me and a relative stranger are in this apartment pretending to be a couple and making lots of mistakes and worrying about whether they will find us out. I don’t even know if this comes across as I’m not recording the actual viewing, but one can imagine.
And similarly, there’s the clash between the conversation between my guest and I, and the part where someone else reads the information from the brochure of the property. By introducing this I just wanted to really highlight the insanity of the language they use to sell these places. It sounds like a joke; it may as well be. Hearing it read out loud really enhances how ridiculous the claims are.
Fabiola Fiocco: How do you think ASSET ARREST fit into your broader artistic research? Has it change over time the way you work and create?
Laura Yuile: About eight years ago, I used to run these events that would happen in the showrooms of IKEA, without their permission. I called them symposia and I would invite a group of people and we would occupy the showroom spaces to have discussions and performances. So I there’s always been this strand of my practice where I’m taking things out of the studio and gallery space and using the private and commercial spaces that my work engages with to do things that are more open and discursive.
It’s not that I don’t see ASSET ARREST as an artwork itself but for me it’s very hard to put a finger on it or categorise what it is. It’s also a way of conducting research and developing conversations and ideas that might go on to materialize as other things I’ve got this amazing archive I’m building of all the catalogues I get from these properties. The high-end ones in London have incredible hard-back catalogues and I think this material is very interesting, no one really sees it unless you go and view the property.
People are always asking what I’m going to do with this, if I’m doing it towards to making an exhibition or a film. This tends to annoy me as I feel that it’s a project that just has to move slowly, and a process that doesn’t have to have a fix outcome. But I think this is a problem in art generally, people thinking that there must be a reason, a monetised reason you’re doing something. A final product that motivates it all. For me it’s also break from other kinds of work I do, a more solitary studio practice. And it feels like the longer it goes on, the more weird, valuable and interesting it might become. It feels like my job or something, even if no one is paying me to do it.
Fabiola Fiocco: What are the next steps and are there specific phenomena you want to address?
Laura Yuile: I want to further explore different types of housing such as student housing, co-living, gated communities for expats, etc. I’d like to do some longer-term explorations of these by actually living in them, for maybe just a month or two. There is this place that soon to open, just outside of London. I won’t name it as they might black-list me but it’s basically a hotel that’s calling themselves a “retreat”. It’s a big country house that’s a members club: you pay for a membership and get access as a day-guest or to book overnight stays, and you go there with presumably your friends or employees, and spend a few days there doing pottery classes, yoga, etc.
There are restaurants, a cinema room, and other hotel-style amenities, but there’s also a co-working space so you can of course keep working on your so-called “retreat”. It’s quite directly promoting this idea of a retreat as something you do that involves working. The idea of a holiday as work; or work as a holiday. They have a location in Lisbon, I think, and they’re directly selling the idea of a “working holiday” there. So I’m keen to further explore this crazy blurring of work and holiday, home and hotel, in all its architectural forms.
Fabiola Fiocco: Is it getting harder to move forward with the project? As it gets more and more known, do people actually found out who you are and cancel?
Laura Yuile: So far it’s been OK. I usually like to use my own name and email address to make an appointment and at the bottom of my e-mail there is a link for my website. I like the idea they might find out that this is an art project because then it feels like art is really infiltrating into these out-of-reach spacesI like the potential of the estate agent becoming aware that I’ve been playing a role in the same way that they’re playing a role.
Two estate agent in Berlin did google me after the viewing and send fairly angry emails about how they had found my podcast. I think their main concerns were probably that the podcast involved publishing the conversation had with them, which it doesn’t. Here in London I don’t feel bothered about it at all because there are so many of these agencies and property developers and they’re all competing against each other so if one finds out, it’s unlikely anyone else will be informed the companies also tend to be large enough that and generating enough interest that i suspect they don’t have so much time or investment in googling every potential buyer.
I suppose a £1 million property in London is not such a big deal to them. But, if it does become a problem, I’ll just use a different name and address as I did with the £27 million one, and the game becomes slightly different. I also had the idea the other day of doing a mail-out about the podcast to all the developers and agencies I’ve been in contact with so far, to deliberately direct their attention to it. After all, if I use a different name when requesting a viewing there’s nothing they can really do to prevent the ‘infiltration’.
 Keller Easterling, Extrastatecraft: The Power of Infrastructure Space (London, Verso, 2016), 20