From creative placemaking to “stewardship” for future wellbeing: the anti-academic turn. #AAG2016

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I admit to being rather surprised by the overwhelmingly positive response to my presentation “Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art – Direct Action Against Gentrification” at the Association of American Geographers conference 2016 on 29th March.  The feedback from the paper and the recorded presentation was also very supportive.

There have been a couple of reviews of the session in which my paper was one amongst many.  I am a little disturbed by the blog post “Beyond creative placemaking: the wellbeing of future generations” by Julian Dobson from Urban Pollinators: a profit-making company that specialises in “regeneration and placemaking”.  Whilst his blog post does not name any of the paper authors, it is clearly critical of the position taken up by a number of the session presenters, including my own.  I therefore feel a brief response is needed to clarify my position.

Julian Dobson’s long running blog makes for interesting reading, covering a host of topics related to making places “better” and finding “better ways to live”.  However, his response to the AAG 2016 conference session seems to mirror the views of discussant (and Creative Placemaking leading light) Ann Markusen.  (Although, it must be noted that Markusen feels it is necessary to move on from “placemaking” to “placekeeping” now.)  Dobson claims that critique can “descend into sterility”: into “academic demand for political or theoretical purism” which are “even more exclusive than the activity criticised”.  This seems like a rather simplistic and anti-academic perspective.  Behind “protests against eviction and ‘gentrification'” follows “a phalanx of critical theorists who frequently conflate the creative workers displaced by property development with the landlords and developers”, he continues.  Then, following Markusen, Dobson beseeches “the critics” to “look at displacement”: to look at “who is being priced or forced out, by whom and why” instead of “nebulous talk of gentrification”.  I feel I must respond to these three points to ensure that my paper (and research) is not misrepresented or misinterpreted.  I’ll then quickly respond to Dobson’s preference for “stewardship” over “placemaking” or “placekeeping”.

First, I think that papers at an academic conference should be academic in style (although, I hope to skirt its edges wherever possible).  As a critical theorist, I believe critique is essential and incredibly positive: rarely sterile.  The suggestion that critical theorists form ranks to follow the displacement of people by gentrification is, frankly absurd.  Gentrification is of incredible concern to people all over the planet and critical theorists have every right to attempt to critique the different grips of its many tentacles.  Relating the effects of gentrification and the role artists can play in this is important to the overall understanding of this, undeniably capitalist, and therefore political and economic, process.  I argue that it is those with vested interests that attempt to discredit the work of many academics, activists, writers and others within this critical area of research and action.

Secondly, to suggest that critical theorists “conflate” artists and other “creative workers” with landlords and property developers is simply unfair and, largely, untrue.  It is well known that artists can, by living and working in rundown areas, help (usually indirectly but not always) developers gentrify areas only for most of them (although not nessarily the successful ones) to eventually be displaced as property prices rise or buildings are demolished, “repurposed”, etc.  It is essential to realise that it is not just artists who are effectively colonised and displaced by gentrification but many other local people too.  So, thirdly, and relatedly, I see displacement as the most fundamental aspect of gentrification.  I refer, in as much detail a short paper allows, to the displacement, dispossession and colonisation of poor and working-class people, the disenfranchised, homeless people, non-white people, and, of course, artists, at the hands of the “gentrifiers” – again explicitly described as affluent, hipsters, entrepreneurs, property developers, investors, finance capitalists, and supported by governments and local councils.  I make it clear that displacement happens not (directly) because of art or creative placemaking but because gentrification (which I go to lengths to clearly define) is inherently capitalist.

My problem is that, unlike Dobson, I do not believe that capitalism with a friendly, softer face offers anything particularly “better” than hard-line neoliberal global venture capitalism.  It is still (perhaps to a lesser degree) exploitative.  I think that describing gentrification as “nebulous” is a red herring: an attempt to claim that a very clearly defined term is hazy, ill-defined, unclear, uncertain, muddled, ambiguous, unformed in order to offer another alternative that can be of financial benefit to those with vested interests; those who promote softer neoliberal approaches such as placemaking or placekeeping – policies not self-organisation.  I feel we should be wary of people who travel the country and the world selling their own versions of placemaking as a means of making things “better”.  Stewardship is a revealing term.  It means to care for and safeguard others and their resources: the planning and management of resources; hierarchical.  It has a very different meaning, to me, than demanding the “right to the city” for everyone…

To me, the role that processes such as gentrification and, to a lesser extent, creative placemaking, play in manipulating artists and communities to become often unwitting foils for big money venture capitalism is political: a class struggle about rights and social justice.  Radical art that supports broader movements for activism – direct action – are the only means available to liberate our cities, towns, villages, countryside, seas and skies of the all-pervading menace that is capitalism.

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Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art – Direct Action Against Gentrification #AAG2016 PowerPoint & Filmed Presentation

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I’ve just shared my full paper from the Association of American Geographers Conference here but I thought some people might like to see the PowerPoint with notes or rather, I would recommend, the film with me presenting my paper.  (I presented it virtually, so this is exactly as the audience saw and heard it at the conference.)

As always, please comment, critique, etc.  Discussion and dissent are always good!

Here’s the PowerPoint link (remember to show notes, bottom right):

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!170442&authkey=!AOglI4khY4q2diA&ithint=file%2cpptx

Here’s the MP4 filmed presentation:

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!170011&authkey=!AF02_-s97jiggrI&ithint=video%2cmp4

 

Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art – Direct Action Against Gentrification Full #AAG2016 Paper

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I’ve just presented my paper “Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art – Direct Action Against Gentrification” at the Association of American Geographers Conference 2016 in San Francisco.  I wasn’t there.  Made use of PowerPoint Mix!  The PowerPoint and a nicer quality MP4 version will be available here very shortly.  For now, here’s my fully referenced paper with bibliography.

I would love to hear your comments and discuss any of the issues I raise…

Here’s the PDF version:

PLACE GUARDING FULL AAG2016 PAPER – Stephen Pritchard

I’ve also included the text below for blog readers who don’t fancy the PDF…

 

Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art – Direct Action Against Gentrification

Stephen Pritchard, University of Northumbria, UK

29th March 2016

 

In Britain today, as elsewhere, culture is the wonder stuff that gives more away than it takes.  Like some fantastical oil in a Grimm fairytale, this magical substance gives and gives, generating and enhancing value, for state and private men alike.  Culture is posited as a mode of value production: for its economy-boosting and wealth-generating effects; its talent for regeneration, through raising house prices and introducing new business, which is largely service based; and its benefits as a type of moral rearmament or emotional trainer, a perspective that lies behind the “social inclusion” model, whereby culture must speak to – or down to – disenfranchised groups (Leslie, 2011, p. 183).

The art world is increasingly ‘entrenched within cycles of urban change’ (Mathews, 2010, p. 460). The innocuous sounding practice of creative placemaking is promoted by its growing legion of advocates as ‘a fulcrum for the creative transformation of American cities’ (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010 (b), p. 6).  For community artists and others with ‘commitments to historically marginalized communities, “placemaking” is nothing new’ (Wilbur, 2015, p. 96) – a means of cooperative artistic production, although usually without the clear outcome-driven motives attached to creative placemaking.  For many artists and arts organisations, creative placemaking can be an essential, even lucrative, form of income[1].  For others (including community members affected by creative placemaking), the arrival of artists signals impending regeneration-by-social-cleansing, or gentrification.  Rebecca Solnit describes gentrification as ‘the fin above water’ (Solnit, 2000, p. 13) revealing a shark eager to lay waste to ‘cultural diversity’ and ‘creative activity, artistic and political’ (Solnit, 2000, p. 18).  I would suggest, it is more common for gentrification (often dressed as creative placemaking) to present itself as a happy cupcake or subtle ‘pacification by cappuccino’, in the words of Sharon Zukin (Zukin, 1995, p. 28).

I would like to argue that creative placemaking cannot but lead to gentrification[2] because it is a practice steeped in neoliberalism, including a form of sometimes divisive, sometimes unconscious ‘urban neocolonialism’ (Hancox, 2016).  I wonder why artists should be encouraged to (re)make ‘places’ for ‘them’?  Don’t places already exist?  Aren’t people living there already?  Haven’t they already formed (often strong) communities?  The very inner-city sink estates and slums where the state side lined these (primarily working-class, homeless, and ‘non-white’) people are now ‘brown field sites’ brimming with ‘new investment potential’; run-down streets and markets are crying out for a little cultural (re)vitalisation – at least in the eyes of governments, local councils, investors and developers[3].  Hipsters, artists, others are queuing up to colonise these places (ibid.) – once they’ve been pacified a little, of course[4]: not too much – these places must remain ‘authentic’ and ‘edgy’ yet ‘playful’ and ‘fun’ (at least for a while), invoking a spirit of the (new) ‘urban pastoral’[5].

Can art, as Gittlitz asks, ‘resist gentrification’ rather than ‘mask the violence of displacement’ (Gittlitz, 2015)?  Is there are a way that communities and artists can avoid becoming complicit in the rush to accumulate capital and grab state power (Pinder, 2015 [2013], p. 41)?  Can interruptions such as Lefebvre’s ‘moments of presence within everyday life’ offer transformative visions: ‘spaces of desire, resistance, struggle and possibility’ – new potentialities (ibid., p. 36)?  If the art world is ‘part of “business as usual”’ and ‘the universal grease relied upon to make the cogs of business turn better and the joints of society mesh smoother’ (Leslie, 2011, p. 187), can, as David Holmes enquires, ‘cultural practices become political acts’ (Holmes, 2012, p. 81)?  Can artists, activists and creative placemaking participants find effective ways to avoid or ‘deal with their complicity in the production and marketing of the city’ (Hornung, 2014)?  Finally, can communities resist gentrification by embracing outsider-perceived poverty and the notions of self-sufficiency, real democracy and the commons (BAVO, 2006)?  I argue that it is perhaps time to think about ‘place guarding’ rather than ‘place making’ (creative or otherwise); to directly resist the machinations of gentrification instead of following a hopefully misguided urban (re)map – a simulacrum in which all roads lead to capitalist complicity[6].

It is important to first define my understandings of some of the key terms.  Vanessa Mathews’s description of gentrification clearly defines it as ‘a process of inner-city transition, where low property investment spurs a process of reinvestment and an accompanying shift in social demographics and built form’ (Mathews, 2010, pp. 460-461).  She also describes its recent ‘makeover of sorts’ and its erasure from ‘policy and planning discourses, alongside the class relations and displacement issues that typically accompany the process’; replaced by positive terms such as ‘“renaissance,” “regeneration,” and “revitalization”’ (ibid., pp. 461-462).  Cultural activism is nicely (if necessarily indeterminately)[7] summarised by Jennifer Verson as the point ‘where art, activism, performance and politics meet, mingle and interact’; a bridge between art and activism that links the ‘shared desire to create the reality that you see in your mind’s eye and believe in your capacity to build that world with your own hands’ (Verson, 2007, p. 172).  Importantly, she sees cultural activism as a form of:

campaigning and direct action that seeks to take back control of how our webs of meaning, value systems, beliefs, art and literature, everything, are created and disseminated.  It is an important way to question the dominant ways of seeing things and present alternative views of the world (ibid., p. 173).

This ‘myriad of forms’ exists ‘not only in physical space but also in cultural or idea space’ (ibid.).

So how is creative placemaking characterised and do these characteristics offer people and communities emancipation or routes to neoliberalism and even, sometimes, gentrification?  Ann Markusen and Anne Gadwa wrote the seminal Creative Placemaking report for the National Endowment for the Arts in 2010.  Rather than discussing the document in depth, I shall instead offer a very brief (undoubtedly selective) flavour of some of the key phrases that illustrate its neoliberal tone.

In creative placemaking, partners from public, private, non-profit, and community sectors strategically shape the physical and social character of a neighborhood, town, city, or region around arts and cultural activities.  Creative placemaking animates public and private spaces, rejuvenates structures and streetscapes, improves local business viability and public safety, and brings diverse people together to celebrate, inspire, and be inspired (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010 (b), pp. 3, emphasis added).

Whilst this statement suggests an air of positivity and celebration, it is apparent that strategy, economics, structural development and safety underwrite this feel-good factor.  The positive business-like phraseology continues throughout to, for example, link ‘the potential to radically change the future of American towns and cities’ to ‘creative locales’ that ‘foster entrepreneurs and cultural industries that generate jobs and income, spin off new products and services, and attract and retain unrelated businesses and skilled workers’ (ibid.).  It is unsurprising that the report also acknowledges how ‘[l]arge cultural institutions, often inspired by their smaller counterparts, are increasingly engaging in active placemaking’ (ibid.).  The language becomes increasingly dominated by economics as the report progresses.  The authors do, however, take a little time to advise readers of the need to avoid ‘displacement and gentrification’ (ibid., p. 5) because, sometimes, ‘they may be too successful’ (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010 (a), p. 17), putting ‘[l]ow income and minority residents […] at risk from creative revitalization’ (ibid.).  Nonetheless, the report clearly believes artists garner significant economic potential[8].  For example, it states:

Artists and designers are an entrepreneurial asset ripe for development, and in creative places, they find business skills and access to each other that improves their work and earnings.  Cultural industries cluster and thrive where creative workers reside. Arts anchored revitalization encourages nonarts [sic] firms and families to commit to place and to participate actively in remaking where they live and work.  Confirming the investment payoff, seniors, families with children, and young working people are moving back into central cities and arts rich small towns (ibid., p. 3).

Another key proponent of a perhaps more ethical strand of creative placemaking, Roberto Bedoya, acknowledges the process should include an ‘aesthetic of belonging’ because a ‘blind love of Creative Placemaking that is tied to the allure of speculation culture and its economic thinking of “build it and they will come” is suffocating and unethical, and supports a politics of dis-belonging employed to manufacture a “place”’ (Bedoya, 2013).  Nevertheless, following Steve Panton, I argue that economics and enterprise underpin all forms of creative placemaking to one extent or another by using art ‘to attract (wealthier) people and investment into a neighborhood’, even when the ‘social impact of Creative Placemaking is debatable’ (Panton, 2014).  This often leads, as Abigail Satinsky suggests, to ‘a startling shift in the field where socially engaged artist initiatives […] are walking the walk and talking the talk of community arts, without necessarily the community investment or social change mission’ (Satinsky, 2013).

Grant H. Kester argues that ‘culture and the arts have played a central role in framing urban renewal as a creative or ameliorative process’ but that ‘[i]n each case, the destructive component of urban redevelopment, the often-coerced displacement of poor and working-class populations, is elided’[9] (Kester, 2011, p. 197).  This echoes Martha Rosler’s concerns that whilst ‘artists look for the messianic or the merely helpful moment, aiming for [often impossible or impractical] “social change,” the institutional production is centered on various trendy formulas[10] for the “future city”’ (Rosler, 2011).  It is therefore unsurprising that David Harvey argues that a coherent oppositional movement must involve ‘a global struggle predominately with finance capital for that is the scale at which urbanization processes are now working’; a ‘class struggle […] between the accumulation by dispossession being visited upon the slums and the developmental drive that seeks to colonize more and more urban spaces for the affluent to take their urbane and cosmopolitan pleasures’ (Harvey, 2008).  Hence, it is not uncommon for artists in these situations to be portrayed as ‘the expeditionary force for the inner-city gentrifiers’[11]; their ‘colonising arm’ (Ley, 1996, p. 191).

It is little wonder that, in response, some artists are committed to reorganising ‘socially and theoretically’ to create ‘art and revolution simultaneously, never content with just one or the other’[12] (Gittlitz, 2015).  Following David Harvey, I argue that artists (and communities) must:

exercise […] a collective power over the processes of urbanization.  The freedom to make and remake ourselves and our cities is […] one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights (Harvey, 2008).

Reclaiming ‘the right to the city’ also repossesses some ‘power over the processes of urbanization, over the ways in which our cities are made and re-made […] in a fundamental and radical way’ (ibid.).  This act, as Michael Gardiner explains, is underpinned by Adorno’s and Lefebvre’s use of ‘“negative dialectics”’ to develop an ‘understanding of modernity by focussing on “the way the negative is at work in present reality”’ (Gardiner, 2004, p. 245).  Another critical aspect is the fusing of ‘Art into life[13] (Holmes, 2012, p. 73) because, as David Holmes contends:

What has to be grasped, if we want to renew our democratic culture, is the convergence of art, theory, media and politics into a mobile force that oversteps the limits of any professional sphere or disciplinary field, while still drawing on their knowledge and technical capacities (ibid., p. 74).

Holmes is calling for an exploration of ‘how we act, and what role art, theory, media and self-organization can have in effective forms of intervention’ (ibid.), because this form of activist practice ‘is the making-common of a desire and a resolve to change the forms of living, under certain conditions, without any guarantees’ (ibid., p. 79).  This challenging perspective derives from Henri Lefebvre’s assertion that:

everyday life, the social territory and place of controlled consumption, of terror-enforced passivity, is established and programmed; as a social territory it is easily identified, and under analysis it reveals its latent irrationality beneath an apparent rationality, incoherence beneath an ideology of coherence, and sub-systems or disconnected territories linked together only by speech (Lefebvre, 2000, pp. 196-197).

And yet, as Jennifer Verson explains activist art ‘isn’t just about making things pretty, fluffy or fun’, it’s also about ‘taking direct action’; a ‘full spectrum resistance’ (op. cit., p. 171).  For her, ‘an insurrectionary imagination is at the heart of cultural activism’ (ibid., p. 174) because:

[t]his living practice addresses complicated questions about how we build the world that we want to live in.  Insurrectionary imaginations evoke a type of activism that is rooted in the blueprints and patterns of political movements of the past but is driven by its hunger for new processes of art and protest[14] (ibid.).

This form of activist art ‘in pursuit of an engagement with the possibility of real social change’ always seeks ‘to work in ways that break with the dominant paradigms and established institutions of modern art’ (Bradley, 2007, p. 10).

So how do artists resist gentrification?  Is this a new phenomenon?  In short: no.  I will briefly sketch out some of the artists and collectives I feel reflect attempts to guard places and people[15].  Back in the 1980s, the activist art collective Political Art Documentation/Distribution staged a series of ephemeral poster projects and protests against the gentrification of Lower East Side, New York[16].  At the same time, community artists Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn worked with local people to oppose gentrification with the Docklands Community Poster Project[17].  However, as the pace of ‘urban renewal’ quickened, it became impossible for artists involved in supporting the work of developers to claim they were but ‘innocent pawns in these processes’ (Hornung, 2014).  So, by 1994, the group of artists, musicians and local people who became known as Park Fiction were prepared to use self-organised activism to go beyond earlier, more representational approaches to contesting gentrification in the then rundown dockland area of St. Pauli, Hamburg.  Using a wide range of techniques, the collective’s ‘strategy of tension’ deployed militancy and play and games and art ‘to multiply its fronts of engagement’, ‘neutralise’ the threat posed by the administrators of the area’s proposed redevelopment and expose the limitations of ‘consensus management and soft control’ (Vishmidt, 2007, pp. 457-458).  Their efforts led to the developers’ plans being rejected and the physical installation of Park Fiction in its place in 2005.  Although, it is worth noting that today the park is a popular location in Hamburg and may, as Viola Rühse argues, have increased property values and supported the area’s ongoing gentrification[18] (Rühse, 2014, p. 44).  However, one of Park Fiction’s founders, Christoph Schäfer, went on to instigate the anti-gentrification urban activist network It’s raining Caviar in 2008 which developed the ‘Degeneration Kit’ and seeks to defend neighbourhoods around Hamburg threated by demolition by a range of tactics including performative gentrification tours and a permanent protest picnic in Park Fiction (Richter, 2010, p. 467).  Also, in 2008, Schäfer was instrumental in setting up Hamburg’s Right to the City movement which later produced an important manifesto Not in Our Name!  that opposed the corporate branding of the city by gentrifiers[19] (Oehmke, 2010).  The manifesto[20] begins with the statement: ‘A spectre has been haunting Europe since US economist Richard Florida predicted that the future belongs to cities in which the “creative class” feels at home’ (NION, 2009).  Not in Our Name! ends as follows:

We say: A city is not a brand.  A city is not a corporation.  A city is a community.  We ask the social question which, in cities today, is also about a battle for territory.  This is about taking over and defending places that make life worth living in this city, which don’t belong to the target group of the “growing city”.  We claim our right to the city together with all the residents of Hamburg who refuse to be a location factor (ibid.).

I have only sketched out a few examples.  But I will quickly skip through some other notable projects such as BAVO’s Plea for an uncreative city, Rotterdam (BAVO, 2006); the collectively ‘indignant’, sometimes confrontational activist ‘performances’ of the PAH (Mortgage-Affected Citizens Platform) in Madrid, Barcelona and elsewhere[21] and their embodiment of Lefebvre’s ‘notions of “rights to the city” in their radical potential to resist urban neoliberalism’ (Micu, n.d.); Balfron Social Club’s demand for fifty percent social housing in Ernő Goldfinger’s Brutalist icon, the now gentrified Balfron Tower, London, and their sharp critique of the role of socially engaged artists as ‘place-makers’[22] (Balfron Social Club, 2015); London is Changing[23]: a billboard project that told ‘the story of those Londoners that have fled the city after being priced out’ (Perry, 2015); Bushwick, New York City: the Mi Casa No Es Su Casa: Illumination Against Gentrification project[24] produced in conjunction with NYC Light Brigade and local residents (Voon, 2015); the incredible Illuminator 99%[25]; the resolute acts of resistance by Focus E15[26] – a group of young London mothers whose motto is ‘Social Housing not Social Cleansing’ (Focus E15, 2016); and London’s recent Brockley ‘Fat Cat’ sand sculpture[27], created by a local artist ‘as a critique of gentrification’ (Mann, 2016).

Clearly, there are many examples of activist and radical social art practices that fuse performance and visual representation with direct action against the gentrifiers and place-makers in attempts to guard complex community structures and rights and to protect existing ways of living.  They, like Lefebvre, Harvey et al., believe it is time for ‘the dispossessed to take back control of the city from which they have for so long been excluded’ (Harvey, 2008).  To some, this may seem utopian, to others ‘[d]emanding the impossible may be […] as realistic as it is necessary’ (Pinder, 2015 [2013]).  I argue, as does David Madden, that ‘the narrative of “urban renaissance”’ is as insidious as it is ‘a condescending and often racist fantasy’ (Madden, 2013). We must acknowledge that the right to the city is, in Harvey’s words, ‘an empty signifier’ that can be claimed by ‘financers and developers’ but, equally, by ‘the homeless and the sans papiers’ (Harvey, 2012, p. xv).  Following Marina Vishmidt, I contest, then, that the instrumentalisation of art as a salve for social ills produced by ‘pro-business policies’ can only lead, via the ‘re-imaginings’ of the authorities, developers and ‘bold lifestyle visionaries’ and via ‘the production of difference’ to the reproduction of surplus: of profit (Vishmidt, 2007, p. 459).  I end by suggesting that now is not the time for creative placemaking.  Now is the time for direct action to guard our places against the forces of creeping capitalism, against gentrification.

 

 

 

References

 

Balfron Social Club, 2015. Brutalism [redacted] – Social Art Practice and You. [Online] Available at: http://50percentbalfron.tumblr.com/post/116281372004/brutalism-redacted-social-art-practice-and-you [Accessed 13th April 2015].

BAVO, 2006. Plea for an uncreative city. [Online] Available at: http://www.bavo.biz/texts/view/156 [Accessed 6th February 2016].

Bedoya, R., 2013. Placemaking and the Politics of Belonging and Dis-belonging. GIA Reader, 24(1).

Bradley, W., 2007. Introduction. In: W. Bradley & C. Esche, eds. Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader. London: Tate Publishing, pp. 9-24.

Cameron, S. & Coaffee, J., 2005. Art, Gentrification and Regeneration – From Artist as Pioneer to Public Arts. European Journal of Housing Policy, 5(1), pp. 39-58.

Focus E15, 2016. Focus E15: Social Housing not Social Cleansing. [Online] Available at: http://focuse15.org/ [Accessed 2016 March 2016].

Gardiner, M., 2004. Everyday utopianism: Lefebvre and his critics. Cultural Studies, 18(2-3), pp. 228-254.

Gittlitz, A. M., 2015. Evicted Utopias. [Online] Available at: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/evicted-utopias/ [Accessed 20th November 2015].

Hancox, D., 2016. Gentrification X: how an academic argument became the people’s protest. [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2016/jan/12/gentrification-argument-protest-backlash-urban-generation-displacement [Accessed 22nd January 2016].

Harvey, D., 2008. The Right to the City. New Left Review, September-October.Issue 53.

Harvey, D., 2012. Rebel Cities: From the Right to the City to the Urban Revolution. London: Verso.

Holmes, B., 2012. Eventwork: The Fourfold Matrix of Contemporary Social Movements. In: N. Thompson, ed. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, pp. 72-85.

Hornung, S., 2014. Artists and Gentrification: Don’t Let Action Dissolve into Discourse. [Online] Available at: http://www.artslant.com/9/articles/show/38542 [Accessed 18th November 2015 2015].

Kester, G. H., 2011. The One and the Many: Contemporary Collaborative Art in a Global Context. Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Lees, L., Just Space & SNAG, 2014. Staying Put: An Anti-Gentrification Handbook for Council Estates in London, London: Antipode Foundation.

Lefebvre, H., 2000. Everyday Life in the Modern World. London: Athlone.

Leslie, E., 2011. Add Value to Contents: The Valorization of Culture Today. In: G. Raunig, G. Ray & U. Wuggenig, eds. Critique of Creativity: Precarity, Subjectivity and Resistance in the ‘Creative Industries’. London: MayFlyBooks, pp. 183-190.

Ley, D., 1996. The New Middle Classes and the Remaking of the Central City. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Ley, D., 2003. Artists, aestheticisation and the field of gentrification. Urban Studies, 40(12), pp. 2527-2544.

Madden, D., 2013. Gentrification doesn’t trickle down to help everyone. [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/oct/10/gentrification-not-urban-renaissance [Accessed 20th December 2015].

Mann, S., 2016. Artist sculpts giant cat out of sand in protest against London gentrification. [Online] Available at: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/artist-sculpts-giant-cat-out-of-sand-in-protest-against-london-gentrification-a3203851.html [Accessed 17th March 2016].

Markusen, A. & Gadwa, A., 2010 (a). Creative Placemaking, Washington: National Endowment for the Arts.

Markusen, A. & Gadwa, A., 2010 (b). Creative Placemaking: Executive Summary, Washington: National Endowment for the Arts.

Mathews, V., 2010. Aestheticizing Space: Art, Gentrification and the City. Geography Compass, 6(4), pp. 660-675.

Micu, A. S., n.d. Making of the Indignant Citizen: Politics, Aesthetics, and Housing Rights in Madrid and Rome. [Online] Available at: http://www.part-urbs.com/anthology/making_of_the_indignant_citizen [Accessed 9th January 2016].

NION, 2009. Not in our name! Jamming the gentrification machine: a manifesto. [Online] Available at: http://www.signandsight.com/features/1961.html [Accessed 18th November 2015].

Oehmke, P., 2010. Squatters Take on the Creative Class: Who Has the Right to Shape the City?. [Online] Available at: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/squatters-take-on-the-creative-class-who-has-the-right-to-shape-the-city-a-670600-3.html [Accessed 15th November 2015].

Panton, S., 2014. Art that knows its place. mile: A Journal of Art and Culture(s) in Detroit, Issue 12.

Perry, F., 2015. ‘I feel I’m being forced out’: London billboards highlight stories of relocation. [Online] Available at: http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/feb/23/forced-out-london-billboards-share-stories-housing-crisis [Accessed 18th January 2016].

Pinder, D., 2015 [2013]. Reconstituting the Possible: Lefebvre, Utopia and the Urban Question. International Journal of Urban and Regional Research, 39(1), pp. 28-45.

Richter, A., 2010. Gentrification will eat itself. Taking theory to the playground: Lefebvre for kids. City, 14(4), pp. 464-469.

Rosler, M., 2011. Culture Class: Art, Creativity, Urbanism, Part III. e-flux Journal, Issue 25.

Rosler, M., 2014. The Artistic Mode of Revolution: From Gentrification to Occupation. In: M. Kozłowski, et al. eds. Joy Forever: The Political Economy of Social Creativity. London: MayFlyBooks, pp. 177-198.

Rühse, V., 2014. “Park Fiction” – A Participatory Artistic Park Project. North Street Review: Arts and Visual Culture, Issue 17, pp. 35-46.

Satinsky, A., 2013. Is Social Practice Gentrifying Community Arts?. [Online] Available at: http://badatsports.com/2013/is-social-practice-gentrifying-community-arts/ [Accessed 18th January 2016].

Schäfer, C., 2010. Die Stadt ist unsere Fabrik (The City is our Factory). Leipzig: Spector Books.

Solnit, R., 2000. Hollow city: the siege of San Francisco and the crisis of American urbanism. New York: Verso.

Stallabrass, J., 1999. High art lite. London: Verso.

Thompson, N., 2012. Living as Form. In: N. Thompson, ed. Living as Form: Socially Engaged Art From 1991-2011. Cambridge, Massachusetts and London: The MIT Press, pp. 16-33.

Verson, J., 2007. Why we need cultural activism. In: The Trapese Collective, ed. Do It Yourself: A handbook for changing our world. London: Pluto Press, pp. 171-186.

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Voon, C., 2015. Activists and Residents Light Up Bushwick with Anti-Gentrification Signs. [Online] Available at: http://hyperallergic.com/265264/activists-and-residents-light-up-bushwick-with-anti-gentrification-signs/ [Accessed 18th January 2016].

Wilbur, S., 2015. It’s about Time: Creative placemaking and performance analytics. Performance Research: A Journal of the Performing Arts, 20(4), pp. 96-103.

Zukin, S., 1995. The Cultures of Cities. Oxford: Blackwell.

 

[1] Although some argue that this form of work reinforces a role that ‘art and the artist has played a part in both of the main long-established theories of gentrification, looking respectively at “culture” and “capital” as the key driver of process’ (Cameron & Coaffee, 2005, p. 39).

[2] Hancox states that ‘[g]entrification is becoming one of the defining issues of our age’ (Hancox, 2016): a sentiment I would strongly agree with.

[3] Loretta Lees et al. point out that ‘[i]n the 1970s and 1980s […] the changes in [working class] areas were not led by individual “gentrifiers” but by property developers and local governments working together.  Today, by demolishing council estates, local councils are able to sell valuable public land to developers, who then build new and more expensive housing targeted at wealthier buyers and renters.  This is sometimes called state-led gentrification’ (Lees, et al., 2014, p. 6).

[4] ‘As the hugely telling “place-making” videos make abundantly clear, for the money-men, a proliferation of art galleries, hipsters and small independent businesses are a great sign.  Indeed, for the sharper investors, by the time Starbucks arrives, you’re already too late’ (Hancox, 2016).

[5] Julian Stallabrass, wrote of the urban pastoral: ‘A little edge, just the right amount is energising, and is necessary to spark off pastoral fantasy: simple rural folk enjoying rustic pleasures have become replaced by the characters of the inner city, similarly devoted in middle-class fantasy to the joys of politically incorrect humour, the circulation of obscenities, the joys of violence, crime and vandalism, carefree sexual encounters and drug-taking’ (Stallabrass, 1999, p. 246).  He went on to suggest that gentrification is ‘closely connected’ with this ‘cultural celebration of urban debasement’ (Stallabrass, 1999, p. 247).  Of course, this is not to suggest that all forms of creative placemaking practice celebrate this particular form of new idealisation of the urban frontier.

[6] David Harvey, for example, argues that urbanisation ‘has played a crucial role in the absorption of capital surpluses and has done so at every increasing geographical scales but at the price of burgeoning processes of creative destruction that entail the dispossession of the urban masses of any right to the city whatsoever’ (Harvey, 2008).

[7] ‘Cultural activism is difficult to define’ (Verson, 2007, p. 173).

[8] Martha Rosler argues that, ‘[f]or the business and urban planning communities, culture is not a social good but an instrumentalized “strategic cultural asset” (Rosler, 2011).

[9] A position that Nato Thompson suggests is directly linked with ‘pro-arts, pro-real estate development advocate, [Richard] Florida’s quick fix to economic woes explicitly draws a connection between the arts and the global urban concern of gentrification’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 31).

[10] Martha Rosler later argued that ‘[r]eal-estate concessions have long been extended to artists and small nonprofits in the hopes of improving the attractiveness of “up-and-coming” neighborhoods and bringing them back onto the high-end rent rolls.  The prominence of art and “artiness” allows museums and architecture groups, as well as artists’ groups, artists, and arts administrators of small nonprofits, to insert themselves into the conversation on civic trendiness’ (Rosler, 2014, p. 191).

[11] Ley argues that this positioning of artists as a sort of urbanising vanguard leads ‘the surfeit of meaning in places frequented by artists becomes a valued resource for the entrepreneur’ (Ley, 2003, p. 2535).

[12] Similarly, Rosler believes that ‘the cultural sphere, despite relentless co-optation by marketing, is a perpetual site of resistance and critique.  Bohemian/ romantic rejectionism, withdrawal into exile, utopianism, and ideals of reform are endemic to middle-class students, forming the basis of anti-bourgeois commitments – and not everyone grows out of it, despite the rise of fashion-driven (i.e. taste-driven) hipsterism’ (Rosler, 2011).

[13] To which Holmes asks: ‘Is there any more persistent utopia in the history of vanguard expressions’ (Holmes, 2012, p. 73)?

[14] Similarly, for Marina Vishmidt, clarifies these forms of ‘“[c]onstituent practices”’ as being capable of traversing ‘art and community activism without […] proposing that art can improve lives (“social engagement”) or that mediation of knowledge in a research-based practice implies political consequences (“field work”)’ (Vishmidt, 2007, p. 456).

[15] This is a very short and completely superficial discussion on what is a very large and very disparate field of practice that ranges from the ‘soft’ activism of ‘craftivism’ to the ‘hard’ activism of Class War and others.

[16] For more about PAD/D’s actions, see, for example, http://www.sholetteseminars.com/home/the-lower-east-side-is-not-for-sale-with-greg-sholette/

[17] For more about the Docklands Community Poster Project, see, for example, http://www.arte-ofchange.com/content/docklands-community-poster-project-1981-8

[18] Indeed, Christoph Schäfer later reflected that ‘it was our most radical gestures that could best be made use of – to increase the value of real estate, to construct new neighbourhood identities.  As soon as there was an illegal club somewhere, a cappuccino bar would open next door, followed by a new media agency […].  [W]e were management consultants’ (Schäfer, 2010, p. 132).

[19] For more information about Not in Our Name! see http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/squatters-take-on-the-creative-class-who-has-the-right-to-shape-the-city-a-670600-3.html

[20] Read Not in Our Name! Jamming the gentrification machine: a manifesto in full here: http://www.signandsight.com/features/1961.html

[21] Andreea Micu described the ‘indignant performances’ as follows: ‘[Their] radical political potential lies precisely in the possibility to transform affect into specific gesture and action.  These gatherings have the very concrete goal of stopping evictions and more broadly, specific housing rights agendas that depend on the local context.  However, insofar as performance is mobilized to do so, the energy released in these gatherings may unleash affective potentialities that then might transform participants and carry into the everyday.  These outcomes are notable in their pedagogical potential to signal possibilities of collective action; in the fact that they modify participants and observers; and in the fact that they leave traces of the utopian that remain long after the performance is over’ (Micu, n.d.).

[22] Read Balfron Social Club’s critique of social practice art as placemaking for gentrification here: http://50percentbalfron.tumblr.com/post/116281372004/brutalism-redacted-social-art-practice-and-you

[23] See the London is Changing website here: http://www.londonischanging.org/

[24] Read more about Mi Casa No Es Su Casa here: http://hyperallergic.com/265264/activists-and-residents-light-up-bushwick-with-anti-gentrification-signs/

[25] For more about Illuminator 99%, see: http://theilluminator.org/

[26] For more about Focus E15, see: http://focuse15.org/

[27] Read more about the Brockley ‘Fat Cat’ here: http://www.standard.co.uk/news/london/artist-sculpts-giant-cat-out-of-sand-in-protest-against-london-gentrification-a3203851.html

Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art – Direct Action Against Gentrification

 

This is the abstract for my paper presentation at the Association of American Geographers Conference 2016 in San Francisco. I’ll be presenting it at a session on 29th March at which Ann Markusen (seminal proponent of creative placemaking) will be the discussant!

I’ll upload full paper and presentation after the conference. 

 

ABSTRACT
Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art – Direct Action Against Gentrification

Creative placemaking is no longer a friendly foil in the soft power arsenal of private property developers. It has been successfully institutionalised at every possible level from national governments to NGOs. Loosely threaded utopian hopes of democratic community building have been quickly woven into pretty bunting for insidious gentrification; winners’ pennants for the agents of systemic social cleansing. Some artists working in the field of social practice – once as instinctually opposed to free market economics and state instrumentalism – swallowed meagre scraps as bait for complete annexation to neoliberal agendas. Social practice has, in some cases, become ‘regeneration’s muse’ or at Balfron Tower, London, recruited artists as ‘foot soldiers’ whose arrival signals impending regeneration-by-social-cleansing. Even ‘poster boy for socially engaged art’ Theaster Gates concedes that gentrification is the inevitable (and profitable) end game for social practice as creative placemaking.

But some (perhaps many) socially engaged artists do not wish to engage in creative placemaking’s global dystopian ‘dreamscapes’ nor in falsely democratic community ‘re-imaginings’ where state/developer always get their way. Artists in the US, UK and other countries are beginning to question why should ‘we’ want to ‘make’ a place for ‘them’. Don’t places already exist; already have communities? Who are ‘we’ to become embroiled in the sinister depths of urban planning, some artists wonder. Increasingly, socially engaged artists are, true to their roots, standing in support of those threatened with rehousing – against vested interests; taking direct action with people against place-makers; guarding complex community cultures and their existing ways of living.

Stephen Pritchard,
14th October 2015.

Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

This is a copy of my abstract submitted for the forthcoming Creative People and Places conference entitled (unbelievably) People, Place, Power.  It was rejected.  Perhaps it was not academic enough or badly written?  Or perhaps it might have been a little challenging for some panel members?  Anyway, I stand by my words…

Make a Wish, Bentley Street Art, Right Up Our Street

Make a Wish, Bentley Street Art, Right Up Our Street, Doncaster.  An example of Creative People and Places programming.

 

ABSTRACT

The proliferation of projects seeking to increase participation in the arts can appear bewildering. From Creative People and Places to Education, Learning and Outreach teams sprouting from almost every arts and cultural institution across England, the race is on to engage as many people as possible in the arts – not just as audiences but also as participants (although audiences can frequently be participants and participants are often audiences).  Attempts to engage new people in new places or new people in old places can be spectacular (good for attracting large numbers of people); sometimes dressed-up as ‘grassroots’.  The troubles are two-fold: initiatives seeking to ‘democratise culture’ – existing state-approved culture – to encourage more people in more places to take part in existing state-funded provision; and, they always turn participants (people) into numbers, state-sanctioned categories – data for evaluations and reports that ‘evidence’ success at every opportunity.  People become numbers, places little more than coloured pins on territorial maps.

Initiated by the state via (not very) arms-length bodies, initiatives like Creative People and Places and all of the other institutional outreach activities are funder-initiated.  The terms of engagement are determined many miles away from the places where people don’t take part in the state’s authorised arts and cultural offer; in ivory towers that always reinforce class ceilings, by people who see, for deeply ideological reasons, the under-participating masses as in dire need of a good dose of ‘civilisation’.  Power in the hands of the few.  Not institutions who must, according to funding criteria, tick boxes.  Not uncomfortable ‘new’ partnerships tasked with delivering art to new people in new places.  Not artists often paid less than recommended rates to carefully comply with increasingly prescriptive project briefs and outcomes that perpetuate division of labour and precarity.  Certainly not people: the participants.  They have no power other than to choose whether to participate in a ‘trickle-down’ offer of what amounts to little more than the scraps from the table of our long-standing oligarchy, the English cultural elite.

Is this an attempt to colonise people and places?  Another gilded Trojan Horse harbouring cultural agents armed with state-sanctioned wellbeing, inclusion, diversity and employability – creative ‘salvation’ disguising the sanitisation of the ‘masses’ with our nation’s soft power weapon of choice?  Are arts professionals, artists, a myriad of partners performing as little more than depoliticising missionaries, mercenaries and middlemen (and women)?

This paper seeks to reveal the limitations of state-initiated arts and cultural projects as well as spurious notions of ‘empowerment’ by examining them in terms of homogeneity, universality and technocracy. Whose values really underpin cultural value?  Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘we’ trying to ‘engage’?  Whose culture are ‘we’ trying to (re)make and why?  Do ‘we’ need new infrastructure; more managers?  Perhaps people in areas of low cultural engagement have their own forms of culture that some may just not consider ‘cultured’?  Has the ghost of Matthew Arnold stirred once more?  Cultural democracy offers a different view of people power, so why is it loathed by the state?

ARTLAND: Flagship arts & culture for some, catastrophic cuts for everyone else #Budget2016

Arts Council EnglandBeneath the old iron bridges, across the Victorian parks
And all the frightened people running home before dark
Past the Saturday morning cinema that lies crumbling to the ground
And the piss stinking shopping center in the new side of town
I’ve come to smell the seasons change and watch the city
As the sun goes down again

Here comes another winter of long shadows and high hopes
Here comes another winter waitin’ for utopia
Waitin’ for hell to freeze over

This is the land where nothing changes
The land of red buses and blue blooded babies
This is the place, where pensioners are raped
And the hearts are being cut from the welfare state
Let the poor drink the milk while the rich eat the honey
Let the bums count their blessings while they count the money

So many people can’t express what’s on their minds
Nobody knows them and nobody ever will
Until their backs are broken and their dreams are stolen
And they can’t get what they want then they’re gonna get angry

Well it ain’t written in the papers, but it’s written on the walls
The way this country is divided to fall
So the cranes are moving on the skyline
Trying to knock down this town

But the stains on the heartland, can never be removed
From this country that’s sick, sad, and confused

Here comes another winter of long shadows and high hopes
Here comes another winter waitin’ for utopia
Waitin’ for hell to freeze over

The ammunition’s being passed and the lords been praised
But the wars on the televisions will never be explained
All the bankers gettin’ sweaty beneath their white collars
As the pound in our pocket turns into a dollar

This is the 51st state of the U.S.A.
This is the 51st state of the U.S.A.
This is the 51st state of the U.S.A.

The The – Heartland, 1986

THEY really must be careful.  The government announces MASSIVE cuts to disability benefits and local government (again), keeps screwing the NHS and flagrantly mocking junior doctors for daring to protest (politely), drives through devastating education policies that effectively seek to privatise schools, more.  Meanwhile THEY get tax breaks – the wealthy, the fossil fuel producers, more.  Austerity is a calculated ideological move to remove people’s hard fought rights and introduce precarious living en-masse to huge swathes of the population.

Oh, look: “Good news” for the (implicitly neoliberal) “Creative Industries”!  MORE NEW BUILDINGS!

[Sounds of corks popping.]

Hang on a minute, isn’t there a big fiscal black hole that needs filling?  Not to worry, that’s not Art’s burden.  Not Art that’s part of UK’s world dominating Creative Industries (and I mean that in an Imperialistic colonising sense, of course).

So more new “flagship investments” to reinforce the walls of THEIR cultural citadel.

Tax back for cultural institutions.

THEY’RE PARADING NOW!  Not on the streets, you understand: that’s not where THEY like their culture.  PARADING around THEIR cultural buildings – old and new – and parading around each other’s cultural buildings too.

FLAG DAY!

(Well, they’ve grown a little nonchalant since THEY avoided big cuts.)

Not big flags.  Little one’s.  The sort you can easily secret away behind a carefully pressed lapel or a pin-hole rose…

What?  “WE are the 8%!  “Hand’s off OUR cultural capital!”  “BIG is better cultural value.”  “WE make YOU happy.”  “OUR art WILL make YOU happy.”

Flags for THEIR Creative Industries flagships!

Far more subtle than the ideological KEEP OUT signs omnipresent, yet almost imperceptivity invisible, on their front doors!

£20 million to the winning Northern city to host the Great Exhibition of the North.  Any takers?  Excellence.  It’s always about excellence.  Oh, and quality.  What?  Not this time?  Not often?  No.  This Northern city must comply with Conservative values.  It’s exhibition will be, like that at Crystal Palace, a showcase for colonial exploitation only this one will focus on internal colonisation.  Thatcher would have loved the irony of it.  Blair will, of course, be there.

NO MONEY UP NORTH FOR POOR PEOPLE.  Plenty for an exhibition of internal soft power!

Chin, chin!

THEY’RE throwing off their faux-democratic facades now.  (So late 1990s.)  DCMS and Arts Council England “consultations” will undoubtedly somehow rubber stamp silly Tory arts and cultural policy that will favour their friends and complicit flagships whilst quietly strangling the frightened majority and clamping down on any who dare dissent!

Money for arts citadels at the DIRECT EXPENSE of those in our society who most need it is nothing to cheer.  Nothing to be proud of.

I love arts and culture but I feel sickened when arts organisations cheer new “investment” using taxpayers’ money that (for Tory ideological reasons) has been ripped from those most in need!

The majority of people for whose “hearts are being cut from the welfare state”.

ARTLAND must not replace HEARTLAND!

But where are UK art’s dissenting voices?

Perhaps our state-led funding system creates an art world system that (like its other ideological systems) functions by breeding fear and compliance – the very opposite conditions needed for creativity and democracy…

Assemble Useful Art. Call it Socially Engaged. Everyone’s a (Turner Prize) Winner!

I’m an art historian.  A critical art historian.  Context is as important as text (artwork) to me.  Works of art, whether “art” made by “artists” or “not-art” made by “not-artists”, “fine art” or “craft” or “popular”, object- or process-based, aesthetic or anti-aesthetic, must be carefully considered for the functions they play within and their interactions with the art world (or art system) and, far more importantly, their broader social and cultural contexts.  This can often lead to troubling and controversial reactions: the art world/ system does not like too much “background”, nor, for that matter, do other “agents” involved in art works (particularly “public” art works).  I’m talking about commissioning art institutions, arts councils, local councils, housing trusts, financial backers of all kinds, even, perhaps (on occasions) local residents.  So, when I hear about how a “community-led” regeneration project used “art” (or, if you’re one of the art purists, “not-art” – architectural design) to “shock” the art world/ system by winning one of their most sought after (and criticised) prizes, I naturally feel suspicious – I want more background.

Yep.  Time to come clean.  I’m (obviously) talking about the collective Assemble and their “surprise” Turner Prize 2015 victory for their housing renovation project in the Granby Triangle in Toxteth, Liverpool.  Most reports seem to regurgitate the official (no doubt carefully constructed) narrative: locals struggle to stay in their homes (which they undoubtedly did) then eventually set up a Community Land Trust (which some of them, plus others from all walks of life, did), then asked friendly a collective of lovely DIY-minded London-based “artists” or “architects” or “designers” to “help” (which they did) – or a myriad of variations on this theme.  They were resisting the big names in regeneration; going against urban planning’s notoriously top-down traditions.  Then, to everyone’s surprise, somehow the renovated housing was nominated for the Turner Prize!  What are the odds of that?  They were nominated, at least in part, for their “collaboration” with local residents for helping to renovate the (deliberately made) “derelict” Granby Four Streets near Anfield Stadium, Liverpool.

Some of the Toxteth area has already been regenerated (read gentrified); the rest is earmarked (alongside other prime areas of Liverpool) for redevelopment (read gentrification).  Thank goodness that a community land trust had “collaborated” with a nice architecture community interest company – a social enterprise – to save some houses and give them nice DIY-design inspired interiors!  Thank goodness that they were going to offer them to local people at reasonable prices.  Wonderful to hear they were also going to upskill some local young people.  I must be clear here that the sardonic tone is intentional but I also believe that community intervention and self-organisation in all forms is generally a very good thing.  So what’s the problem with this text (art work)?  As I’ve said, I can accept Assemble’s work as art, even if they’re not so sure/ keen; I can accept it as (really interesting and inspiringly designed) architecture; I can even accept it as socially engaged art, particularly now that the term has been so cynically appropriated by the art world and by UK arts institutions and arts councils in particular; I can accept that it won and, in terms of the Turner Prize’s intentions, deserved to win the award; and I can certainly accept that Assemble’s work has helped to regenerate Granby Four Streets in an uncommon manner.

But I’m still suspicious.  This is all still a little “foregrounded” – a bit superficial.  I had uncomfortable feelings when I attended Liverpool Biennial’s Community Arts Conference last year and listened to the narratives of various people involved in Granby Four Streets and Homebaked.  I dislike claims that the project is an example of socially engaged art but, as mentioned, completely understand why this term is applied to work like this.  But my feelings were piqued when I read a recent article from another attendee of the conference, Gemma Medina, who understood that the only way to avoid gentrification in Liverpool (and elsewhere) was “common ‘organization’”, before innocently proclaiming:

Projects like Homebaked or Granby Four Streets are based on a similar concept of co-ownership and working together: neighbors, designers, architects and artists, on the same level.  But in fact, as many Arte Útil projects, they are directly reacting to the current state.  […]  [A]n act of resistance to the market and neoliberalism.

“Granby Four Streets like many other Arte Útil projects, demonstrates that another reality is possible and it shouldn’t be defined just by the dictates of the market and political agendas. They are opening up our imagination, providing us with effective strategies”, she continues.  This link with Arte Útil has obvious links with the long-term work of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera.  It loosely translates as “useful art” but is about much more than that – a manifesto.  But Arte Útil is a favourite topic for mima director Alistair Hudson and his notions of a “Useful Museum” – an undoubtedly well-meaning attempt to institutionalise art as a (slightly loosely defined) “tool for education and social change”.  And, oh, he was a Turner Prize 2015 jury member.  Nonetheless, Medina explains that, whilst instrumentalism is always a concern for this form of practice, Assemble finally:

decided to use the institution and the visibility of the prize to gain incomes for the community of Granby.  They transformed the Granby Workshop into a social enterprise, manufacturing handmade products used to refurbish the houses where every product can be bought online.  The risk of instrumentalization is always there, but there is a fascinating question around many Arte Util projects: who instrumentalizes who?

So who is instrumentalising who in the case of Assemble and, as a relevant aside, Homebaked?  To be once again clear, I do not wish to belittle or negate the incredibly committed work undertaken by everyone involved in either of these projects.  I just want to contextualise.  Give a little background information that, at least for me, is troubling.  This research is not particularly extensive; certainly not exhaustive.  It’s a start.  It might throw a little light on how the art world works and how it (inter)relates with development agendas.

Well, let’s start by exploring the art world/ system connections.  Granby Four Streets house at No. 48 – the place where Assemble, with Will Shannon, will produce their Homework project – was commissioned by the Craft Council and FACT Liverpool (an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and a member of Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium – again supported by Arts Council England).  Similarly, Homebaked was commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial and supported by Arts Council England, alongside other significant funders.  So, clearly lots of support from the art world/ system for these “community-led” initiatives…

But, and this brings us to our final piece of the background for now – the regeneration agenda, how community-led is Granby Four Streets?  It was well known that Assemble were actually commissioned by Steinbeck Studio – a company set up in 2013 to “restore neighbourhoods” who “formalized to apply to the City Council to apply for the land and invest in the Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust that had formed in 2011”.  So Steinbeck Studio invested in the Granby 4 Streets CLT and they, in their own words, “commissioned, initiated and funded” the project for which Assemble won the Turner Prize not the people of Granby Four Streets (well at least not directly).  Steinbeck Studio was founded by Jersey islander Xanthe Hamilton – the sole director of what is a private company limited by shares.  The company has another shareholder – John Davey – the until recently “silent” investor in the project.  Turns out, courtesy of Granby Four Streets’ top blogger Ronnie Hughes, that John Davey finally decided to reveal himself.  He also revealed that he invested £500,000 in the project!  What’s more, he has a long track record and very senior status within the mysterious (to an art historian like me, anyway) world of Managed Wealth Funds.  Steinbeck also have links to a respected legal firm that specialises in property and planning.  Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, just not, perhaps, an exactly comfortable fit with the “community-led” narrative or Medina’s faith in the project as an example of an art-inspired “act of resistance to the market and neoliberalism”.

So, perhaps, Assemble’s Turner Prize 2015 win should be considered within this context?  Perhaps we should recognise their extensive track record of working with the London Mayor, Poplar HARCA, Goldsmiths and Glasgow Commonwealth Games (along with many others) to inject “art” or architectural “not-art” into big regeneration (read, at least on several occasions, gentrification) projects.  They are regularly commissioned by arts institutions.  This is not new to them.  They do their work very well. But, then again, a bunch of Cambridge University graduates often do quite well for themselves. (So much for concerns about diversity and class in the arts and not-arts…)

The art world/ system is inherently complicit with neoliberalism.  Attempts to spin narratives to suggest that initiatives such as those discussed here as opposing free market economics, neoliberalism or instrumentalism are unfair, as are attempts to subsume activism and social practice within a “useful art” toolbox.  They may be obvious to some people inside the system (myself included) but most people believe the media narrative.  A little context always helps better situate art world texts, helping them take their truthful place within our complicated and multi-layered social structures.

Art really is big business!