No Boundaries – no fringe

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No Boundaries 2014 was heralded as an ‘open symposium on the role of culture in 21st century society accessible for established cultural leaders and for those who are discovering their leadership role’. Artists were also able to attend. The symposium also took place over two cities: Bristol and York. We were promised a wide variety of speakers, free to propose open space events, an early morning Arts Council England briefing, a disco and loads of geeky hi-tech internet streaming between venues, so I went to York.

What happened? Well, I went feeling a little cynical about these sort of gatherings but hopeful of being able to infiltrate debates here and there. This one was different though. #NB2014 was a bit more constructed than most conferences. Perhaps this was a constraint imposed upon organisers by their own wish to push technological boundaries? This made me feel that, as the two days progressed, there was little space to talk or even think rather than no boundaries. For much of the conference I felt talked at rather than involved. Peter Bazalgette, Chair of Arts Council England, broke the mould by inviting an open debate at York about ACE’s new draft document snappily entitled The Wider Benefits of Art and Culture to Society: A review of research and literature. It was a good discussion and the document looks promising. The trouble was that that much of #NB2014’s content did not really challenge the status quo. There was much talk of economics, many platitudes, some self-congratulation, shrieking google goats, big new buildings, lovely food, ‘provocations’ that often were not provocative, perfume sniffing, tech glitches, dad dancing disco… You get the gist.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking the speakers or the conference. It was what I expected. More constrained than I had imagined given the choice of moniker but, more or less, to be expected at events aimed at established and emerging ‘cultural leaders’. It was interesting and infuriating. That is good. I expected it. What I didn’t expect was elements that made me feel like UK arts and culture ‘leadership’ might be becoming more authoritarian. The need for a ‘common language’ with which to convince the masses they need to take art and culture more seriously made me think Orwellian Newspeak. The heady blend of technology and scent wafted words from A Brave New World around my head. These books informed my childhood and remain firmly resident. Literary influences such as these (and my hard-line non-conformist Christian upbringing) inform my cynicism. They make me watchful, anti-authoritarian, rebellious and playful. I seek potential space, sometimes sense Bad Faith. I play the game. We all do. That’s why we were there.

I didn’t expect a posh bloke from New Zealand explain in a smugly sentimental manner how a theatre was quickly re-established from the ruinous Christchurch cityscape (even though many local houses in poor neighbourhoods still haven’t even been assessed yet.) I certainly wasn’t ready to hear him ask the audience to stand, one hand on heart, the other in the air, and pledge something about how it’s all about the audience! Hallelujah! What did I do? I remained seated. I did not pledge. People looked at me. Some asked why? Wasn’t it obvious? I laughed. Now things were getting interesting. What next (2013/4/5/6/7/etc.)? I wondered if we should all synchronise our clapping (physically and digitally) for the rest of proceedings. Maybe an orchestrated dance with #NB2014 flags et al. would follow? It didn’t of course. Instead, I felt angry. I went to open space events and met nice people and talked more openly. I made contacts. I thought new thoughts stimulated by people who were there to be open, to talk openly. And, by the end of the conference, likeminded people eventually gravitated towards each other, mumbled, argued, agreed, smiled, and went home with old-new ideas.

There were some really inspiring moments at #NB2014 too. Joy Mboya from Godown Arts Centre, Nairobi (a good old school ‘arts centre’) illustrated how artist-led initiatives can lead to democratic(ish) creative placemaking that engages different classes and people across a post-colonial conurbation; Benjamin Barber talked some sense about people, politics and place; Alex Fleetwood said ‘fuck off’ and wanted to flip funding on its head; Jake Orr passionately pleaded for critical writing’s role and for paid work in the arts; and Jo Verrent’s three minute blast about the important need for disability to be taken much more seriously. But my two highlights were performance pieces by two talented young poets: Henry Raby and Luke Wright. Raby managed, in an interactive poem about best friends and dinosaurs, to get the entire York audience to repeatedly chant ‘Rex’ over and over again. Wright, as is alter ego Fat Dandy, took things a whole lot further and produced the only truly antagonistic moment of the two days when he said he had expected to be welcomed at the conference as an artist but felt like he’d wandered into the wrong office then went on to attack NPOs and arts elites in a brilliantly fast-paced poem about how young artists and arts workers are expected to work for free as interns (although these positions are usually filled by endemic old-school nepotism.) Some people shifted positions uneasily. I (and a few others) cheered and laughed. More! More! But there wasn’t any more.

And that is my final overarching feeling. There needed to be more antagonism, more discussion of the flaws in the present system, more talk of fairness and rights for artists and employees and paid apprenticeships not internships, more talk of people who visit and don’t visit arts venues, more talk of participation, socially engaged practice, broader communities outside of the arts, amateurs, class, politics, disability, the need for much more diversity. In short, more radicalism. Now I know this conference wasn’t officially for that and I respect that it there needs to be a space for ‘arts leaders’ to meet in their own ways and that some of them might not be comfortable with free, open critical discussion and debate. But I think No Boundaries (or whatever clever new name they come up with next year – because there will be a ‘next year’ – there always is) should in future feature a fringe event as well as being itself more open to debate. Often the fringe is where new thinking really springs forth. It is more fun, more honest, more shocking, and more radical. For me, and I think many others who felt they shouldn’t go to #NB2014 or were uncomfortable with the formality of proceedings and lack of space to talk freely very often, future ‘state of the arts’ fringe festivals would complement the main event and really be A Tale of Two Cities – the haves and the have-nots. That would be a start…

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Five Interventions for No Boundaries

Sound conference advice for all artsy shindigs in the mould of #nb2014 (No Boundaries)…

Ephemerous

Today is the beginning of the No Boundaries conference, which I was supposed to attend. Unfortunately I am really sick so will not be able to make it. Instead I encourage you to find ways in which to perform these small acts of intervention on my behalf.

1. At a moment to be decided entirely by you, step outside of the conference and repeat the last question you heard to a passing stranger.

2. Find a quiet quiet corner  and carefully but determinedly begin to push against one of the building’s outer walls. Continue to do so until someone asks you what you are doing.

3. Whenever someone onstage mentions participation, shout loudly “Participation! Of course, how could I have been so stupid?!” and run out of the room.

4. Whenever someone onstage mentions funding, think for no reason at all about seaside piers and arcades that smell of old…

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Call out for craftivists…visible mending exhibition…in a shed!

Crafts call out for visible mending show in Spalding shed? Answers on local postcard to dot to dot member Carol Parker…

The Shed on the Allotment - Carol Parker an artist residency

It seems Spring is waiting to pounce so I’ll soon be moving to my warm weather studio on Allotment 17b.   I’m planning to also use the shed as a gallery space and I’d like to put a call out to all craftivists to send in a piece of work….knitting, crochet, cross stitch, embroidery, lacework…whatever is currently occupying your idle hands!

My shed has recently been broken into; I had to patch it up a bit and replaced the broken windows with old chicken wire that I had in my stock of  ‘materials I will need at some point’.   So it’s repaired, but the scars are visible.   It’s been darned!

So an obvious theme for the exhibition is visible mending.   Please create your work on a local postcard, so we know where you’re from and be sure to leave space for the address to be clearly read…

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It’s the end of the world as we know it

Very poignant post by François Matarasso as No Boundaries conference approaches…

Parliament of dreams

There’s been a lot of talk in recent years about the arts (and culture) being in crisis. There will be much more, next week, when delegates gather for a big double conference in York and Bristol, generously funded by the British Council, Arts Council England and others. I imagine hand-wringing, soul searching, frustration and anger, some defiant optimism, but not much change.

Arguments in defence of culture have always seemed self-defeating to me. Culture is not in anyone’s control, happily. It has survived religious fundamentalism in the Reformation and the political totalitarianism of Fascists and Communists. I expect it can cope with liberal democracy. Having an unshakeable confidence in the human value of art, I don’t – for one second – believe that it needs me, you or the Arts Council to protect it.

In different conditions, it will change. There has been a notable dearth of religious painting since…

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The Morris Justice Project, South Bronx

An amazing example of participatory action research done well. Engaged people voicing real concerns about their neighbourhood using data they collected. This video is also a great example of using visual arts to produce powerful public interventions via the outdoor projection vehicle called The Illuminator. Lots UK could learn here.

The project is part of the really innovative Public Science Project.

Find out more at http://morrisjustice.org & http://publicscienceproject.org

Here we go round the mulberry bush

A repetitive, cyclical dance around a plant upon which mulberries don’t really grow whilst mimicking of everyday actions and chanting ‘This is the way…’  and a response to a blog post on the #culturalvalue initiative website by Daniel Allington entitled Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective.

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Walter Crane, Here we go round the mulberry bush, colour printed wood engraving, 1878

 

The art business, a trade in things that have no price, belongs to the class of practices in which the logic of the pre-capitalist economy lives on… These practices, functioning as practical negations, can only work by pretending not to be doing what they are doing. Defying ordinary logic, they lend themselves to two opposed readings, both equally false, which each undo their essential duality and duplicity by reducing them either to the disavowal or to what is disavowed – to disinterestedness or self-interest.[1]

Who said Bourdieu’s cultural capital and network theory don’t mix? Daniel Allington explains in this post that he finds this unlikely coupling ‘a useful way of studying cultural value from a perspective informed by Bourdieu’.[2] This is not all, he begins by stating that ‘Art for art’s sake… means understanding the value of culture as intrinsically cultural.’[3] Bourdieu, art for art’s sake, and many other words and assumptions in Allington’s essay all sit uneasily with my perspectives of arts and culture (based as they are upon critical theory and my own practise as part of the arts ‘field’), as indeed does the rather insidious term ‘cultural value’.

For me, the antiquated and elitist concept of ‘art for art’s sake’ is circular – self-referential – intrinsic. So too, surely, is the conceptualisation of ‘the value of culture’ as ‘intrinsically cultural’. What is the value of culture? Essentially cultural. What are intrinsically cultural beliefs? Cultural value. Here we go round… For Allington, the answer to this conundrum may lie in Bourdieu’s suggestion that ‘cultural value is a form of belief’; a belief in ‘magical’ and fetishised objects of art and literature that believers consider magical.[4] Citing The Emperor’s New Clothes, ‘It isn’t’, according to Allington, ‘that there are people who have laughingly duped the rest of society into believing in something they know very well not to be real.’[5] Rather, it is about ‘symbolic capital’ in which ‘[t]he making of art for art’s sake is… not about satisfying an audience of consumers, but about earning the esteem of fellow producers, who are also competitors for one another’s esteem.’[6] Allington attempts to legitimise this statement by referencing Bourdieu’s The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods, selecting the following quote: ‘“the conviction that good and bad painting exist” is both “the stakes and the motor without which [the field of painting] could not function’”.[7]

So what’s the problem here? Well, it would seem to me and my somewhat limited knowledge of Bourdieu – limited because I do not find it particularly useful or important from an art historical perspective – that Allington has misread Bourdieu’s intentions. The quote at the beginning of this piece is from the first paragraph of The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods. It clearly illustrates Bourdieu’s disdain for the ‘arts business’. Bourdieu’s entire essay is about the complicit nature of all participants in the field of cultural production who, by refusing commercialism and even claiming to be ‘anti-economic’, actually profit via a ‘disinterested’ game of smoke and mirrors that ultimately creates ‘symbolic capital.’[8] But symbolic capital, as Bourdieu explains:

[I]s to be understood as economic or political capital that is disavowed, mis-recognized and thereby recognized, hence legitimate, a ’credit’ which, under certain conditions, and always in the long run, guarantees ’economic’ profits.[9]

Indeed, Bourdieu goes on to explain that this ‘circle of belief’ ensures that ‘only those who can come to terms with the “economic” constraints inscribed in this bad-faith economy can reap the full “economic” profits of their symbolic capital.’[10] So, this is like The Emperor’s New Clothes. The believers know the ‘magic’ isn’t real because they all dance the bad-faith dance, round and round. Producers, curators, critics, sellers, buyers, even (sometimes) the viewing public, all play the art game – they all know their place, their role in a field where naivety has no place; an arts economy where:

In and through the games of distinction, these winks and nudges, silent, hidden references to other artists, past or present, confirm a complicity which excludes the layman, who is always bound to miss what is essential, namely the inter-relations and interactions of which the work is only the silent trace.[11]

So, rather than ‘conceptualising’ intrinsic cultural value as a form of circulated belief as Allington does in his essay,[12] one could view the production of visual art (taking Allington’s example) as the making of an object of personal choice which is then selected by an institution/ commercial gallery and marketed to audiences by a variety of means (including critics). Only then are values (cultural, economic, social) assigned to it which are then reassigned to the work over and over as it ages and is perceived anew by different audiences.

So my argument with Allington is that he has misread Bourdieu in his attempt to investigate intrinsic cultural value. He has not accounted for the bad faith inherent in Bourdieu’s critical analysis of the art world game – a position I do not hold to personally. Bourdieu made his position very clear in 1972 when he explained:

The denial of economic interest finds its favourite refuge in the domain of art and culture, the site of [a] pure [form of] consumption, of money, of course, but also of time convertible into money. The world of art, a sacred island systematically and ostentatiously opposed to the profane world of production, a sanctuary for gratuitous, disinterested activity in a universe given over to money and self-interest, offers, like theology in a past epoch, an imaginary anthropology obtained by the denial of all the negations really brought about by the economy.[13]

I would recommend interested readers take a look at Brigit Fowler’s essay Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture (Variant, 1999) for more on this subject.[14]

I could expand but I’ve still exceeded 800 words (975) – the limit imposed by the #culturalvalue initiative debating rules.  But I like to break rules.


[1] Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980, p.261.

[2] Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Pierre Bourdieu, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980, p.266.

[8] Ibid., pp.261-262.

[9] Ibid., p.262.

[10] Ibid., p.263-264.

[11] Ibid., p.291.

[12] Daniel Allington, Op. Cit., describes this process as: ‘the value of (say) a visual artist’s work (essentially produced through interactions among cultural producers) flows out into the wider social world through the disseminating agency of (say) a retrospective exhibition in a major public gallery, which plays a direct role in reproducing belief in that value among members of the public who attend the exhibition, as well as an indirect role in reproducing belief among those who hear about it from acquaintances and/or read about it in (say) a newspaper critic’s review (and which in turn impacts back upon the field by cementing the artist’s reputation , though this closure of the feedback loop is left out of the diagram for simplicity’s sake).’

[13] Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 [1972], p.197.

[14] Brigit Fowler, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture’, in Variant, Volume 2, Number 8, Summer 1999, pp.1-4.


Bibliography

Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

Bourdieu, Pierre, Outline of a theory of practice, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1977 [1972]

Bourdieu, Pierre, trans. Richard Nice, ‘The production of belief: contribution to an economy of symbolic goods’, in Media, Culture & Society, 2, Academic Press Inc. Limited, London, 1980

Fowler, Brigit, ‘Pierre Bourdieu’s sociological theory of culture’, in Variant, Volume 2, Number 8, Summer 1999