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.

Vishmidt, M., 2007. Line Describing a Curb Asymptotes About VALIE EXPORT, the New Urbanism and Contemporary Art. In: W. Bradley & C. Esche, eds. Art and Social Change: A Critical Reader. London: Tate Publishing, pp. 447-460.

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

Art, oil, politics & empire: #Deadline Festival shatters democratic facade of arts institution

There have been many brilliant interventions at major UK arts institutions recently primarily focusing on fossil fuel funding.  Collectives like Art not Oil, Liberate Tate, Reclaim the Bard and many more have created (and will no doubt continue to create) a host of spectacularly Platform London powerful, often sublimely beautiful acts of resistance  against the involvement of fossil fuel corporations such as BP and Shell in and around some of the country’s biggest cultural institutions.  Tate, Royal Opera House, British Museum, The V&A, National Gallery, Edinburgh Festival, British Film Institute, National Portrait Gallery, Southbank Centre, Royal Shakespeare Company, and many others are prime targets for their carefully coordinated interventions.  Members of Platform London are often directly or indirectly involved in these actions too.

Deadline Festival was different from these often shorter forms of intervention.  The idea was to host an unauthorised three-day arts festival in the public spaces inside Tate Modern, occupying and reclaiming the space for a packed programme of installation, exhibition, poetry, theatre, performance, workshops, films, debates and participatory intervention.  The festival was produced and curated by Platform London.  It’s programme was announced in advance.  (I will not discuss the programme in detail here.  Click to see it in full.)  I helped gather and organise a team of super-committed and deeply passionate volunteers from afar in the weeks and days before the festival and helped out at Tate Modern on the last day as an act of practice and research: praxis.

There are no false notions of neutrality or ‘disinterest’ in my approach.  I firmly believe arts and cultural (indeed all) organisations must divest themselves of any sponsorship by fossil fuel magnates.  I am also deeply suspicious of any attempt to corral arts and culture together under the neoliberal semiotic The Creative Industries.  Furthermore, I also find the broader sponsorship, patronage and board-level embedding of Big Businesses within publicly funded arts and cultural institutions to be incredibly problematic and divisive.  Take Tate: company founded on the profits of the slave trade; sponsored and supported by the state and a list of major capitalists that just goes on and on and on.  Nasty ‘investments’ and ‘commercial activities’?  Massive contributors to climate change, war and terrorism?  Neocolonialists?  Dismissive of workers’ rights?  GREAT!  You’re in!  And it would seem, at least in the case of BP’s sponsorship of Tate, that the price of neoliberal endorsement in return for green washing or art washing and incredibly important institutional cultural capital to be used globally as a valuable source of soft power is a pittance.  Who said arts and culture were always expensive?

Deadline Festival was intended to coincide with the COP21 climate negotiations in Paris and, like the ongoing events in Paris, the festival reflected a much broader recognition of the co-dependent nature of fossil fuels, finance, climate change, terrorism, war, imperialism, colonialism, politics, and neoliberalism’s myriad of other insidious suckers that creep across our planet, strangling ever aspect of human existence everywhere into one totally administered, totally exploited mass.  Western art and culture are the new crown jewels bought with looted artefacts from every corner of the world and the untold lives of colonised people.  Neoliberalism is neo-colonialism.  It’s gilded banners of ‘global trade’, ‘democracy’, ‘growth’ and (most distastefully) ‘peace’ belie a one-dimensionality underpinned by exploitation, deceit, control and destruction.  The dominant few people in the few countries that dominate our world have constructed their fossil fuelled palaces on top of the oppressed; on top of nature.  But these foundations are restless and their palaces built upon nothing more than the shifting sands of false consciousness.  Subjugation of people, of languages, of ‘resources’, of cultures, of nature is always doomed to fail.

We would do well to learn from our pasts.  We would do well to learn from all our pasts; to realise that the Western system is a totally exploitative system that openly capitalises from and colonises people everywhere and every element of nature.  Neoliberalism is ‘sensitive’ when capitalising on people, land and natural life close to home; aggressive and crude whilst exploiting those further afield.  And, for me, some of Deadline Festival’s events brought this home beautifully.  Ivo Theatre performing the act of translation via a battery-powered live feed from the climate talks in Paris as the rights of indigenous peoples and other colonised areas of our planet were being ripped from a climate accord already ‘cleansed’ of any democratic freedoms by the fiddling fingers and squashing thumbs of dominant Western corporate and state interests.  And the Who gets to change the climate? workshop delivered in Arabic and English by Basel Zaraa and Ewa Jasiewicz.  There were many, many moving discussions, performance, images, and more.  But, for me, language lies at the heart of neo-colonialism.  Us and them.  Always, us and them.  Naming The Other is the prelude to colonisation.  Recognising that The Other takes many forms and that difference is good may lead to a movement built upon decolonisation and de-linking.  An opportunity for the voices of the many oppressed people in the world to be recognised as equals and different.

Imperialism and climate change are inherently linked.  The struggle against one-dimensional exploitation and destruction is complex and dangerous.  Western people (like me) do not often realise how deeply engrained our culture is within us.  If writing or TV or film or theory is not translated into English, we often don’t see it or understand it.  To assume that Western thought is the only thought is elitist and wrong.  We would do well to learn that culture is not homogenous but rich and different.  We blind ourselves by our Western-ness.  Deadline Festival helped open my eyes, my ears, my mind.  Our cultural institutions are public spaces where discussion, debate and disagreement should be happening all of the time.  Instead, they are too often little more than spaces of safe consumption, falsely policed by security guards and curators alike.  Places of fake-neutrality masking truths, hopes, alternatives and histories.  Tate ‘tolerated’ Platform London but their constantly disapproving gaze raised issues in my mind about whether the management and directors there think the space is private rather than truly public. Subtle occupations such as Deadline Festival question ownership of space and notions of whose voice is permitted to speak in our arts and cultural institutions.  Neoliberalism adores complicity…

There were so many really positive experiences at this festival to mention in this post but it was ultimately (as always) the people taking part in the festival, Tate visitors asking questions about what was happening and showing genuine interest and support, volunteers supporting and self-organising, and Platform London’s team who organised the entire event on a shoestring budget that is certifiably Fossil Funds Free.

northernGAME: Social practice in rural South West Northumberland

I gave this presentation on 16th November 2015 at Durham University’s Participatory Research Hub.  The event aimed to explore what happens “when participatory research meets the creative sector”.  My presentation introduces dot to dot active arts, features my recent paper A View Is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, then reflects upon a project I collaborated on with Stevie Ronnie in 2014 – northerngame.

I think it reveals a more idealistic aspect of my research and practice.  The intention was to explore the subtleties of self-initiated grassroots socially engaged art.  The beginnings of something.  Curiosities.

Comments always welcome as usual.

Please click the picture or link below to go to the online presentation and please remember to click the “notes” option on the bottom right of the PowerPoint screen for my text.

SophieLens_2015_04_23_09_44(1)

Shop window, Allendale, Northumberland

 

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!87822&authkey=!ANFFyNu1iNPoVcA&ithint=file%2cpptx

There is no alternative: THE FUTURE IS SELF-ORGANISED–2 texts for artists opposing neoliberalism PT1

There are two texts that have been at the centre of my thinking for many years; inspirational works that demand structural change and true cultural democracy.  I’m sharing them here to hopefully start a broader discussion within arts and culture that looks outside the crumbling bureaucracies of the totally administered Creative Industries.

TINA 1 and 2 as they are fondly known are both the work of three artists:

Stephan Dillemuth (Munich), Anthony Davies (London) and Jakob Jakobsen (Copenhagen).

Part one was published on 12th June 2005.

Both texts can be freely distributed without the permission of the authors.

There is no alternative: THE FUTURE IS SELF-ORGANISED
Part 1

As workers in the cultural field we offer the following contribution to the debate on the impact of neoliberalism on institutional relations:

• Cultural and educational institutions as they appear today are nothing more than legal and
administrative organs of the dominant system. As with all institutions, they live in and
through us; we participate in their structures and programmes, internalise their values,
transmit their ideologies and act as their audience/public/social body.
• Our view: these institutions may present themselves to us as socially accepted bodies, as somehow representative of the society we live in, but they are nothing more than
dysfunctional relics of the bourgeois project. Once upon a time, they were charged with the role of promoting democracy, breathing life into the myth that institutions are built on an
exchange between free, equal and committed citizens. Not only have they failed in this task, but within the context of neoliberalism, have become even more obscure, more unreliable and more exclusive.
• The state and its institutional bodies now share aims and objectives so closely intertwined with corporate and neoliberal agendas that they have been rendered indivisible. This intensification and expansion of free market ideology into all aspects of our lives has been accompanied by a systematic dismantling of all forms of social organisation and imagination antithetical to the demands of capitalism.
• As part of this process it’s clear that many institutions and their newly installed managerial elites are now looking for escape routes out of their inevitable demise and that, at this juncture, this moment of crisis, they’re looking at ‘alternative’ structures and what’s left of the Left to model their horizons, sanction their role in society and reanimate their tired relations. Which of course we despise!

In their scramble for survival, cultural and educational institutions have shown how easily they can betray one set of values in favour of another and that’s why our task now is to demand and adhere to the foundational and social principles they have jettisoned, by which we mean: transparency, accountability, equality and open participation.


• By transparency we mean an opening up of the administrative and financial
functions/decision making processes to public scrutiny. By accountability we mean that these functions and processes are clearly presented, monitored and that they can in turn, be measured and contested by ‘participants’ at any time. Equality and open participation is exactly what it says – that men and women of all nationalities, race, colour and social status
can participate in any of these processes at any time.
• Institutions as they appear today, locked in a confused space between public and private, baying to the demands of neoliberal hype with their new management structures, are not in a position to negotiate the principles of transparency, accountability and equality, let alone implement them. We realise that responding to these demands might extend and/or guarantee institutions’ survival but, thankfully, their deeply ingrained practices prevent them from even entertaining the idea on a serious level.
• In our capacity as workers with a political commitment to self-organisation we feel that any further critical contribution to institutional programmes will further reinforce the relations that keep these obsolete structures in place. We are fully aware that ‘our’ critiques, alternatives and forms of organisation are not just factored into institutional structures but increasingly utilised to legitimise their existence.
• The relationship between corporations, the state and its institutions is now so unbearable that we see no space for negotiation – we offer no contribution, no critique, no pathway to reform, no way in or out. We choose to define ourselves in relation to the social forms that we participate in and not the leaden institutional programmes laid out before us – our deregulation is determined by social, not market relations. There is no need for us to storm the Winter Palace, because most institutions are melting away in the heat of global capital anyway. We will provide no alternative. So let go!

The only question that remains is how to get rid of the carcass and deal with the stench:

• We are not interested in their so-called assets; their personnel, buildings, archives, programmes, shops, clubs, bars, facilities and spaces will all end up at the pawnbroker anyway…
• All we need is their cash in order to pay our way out of capitalism and take this opportunity to make clear our intention to supervise and mediate our own social capital, knowledge and networks.
• As a first step we suggest an immediate redistribution of their funds to already existing, self-organised bodies with a clear commitment to workers’ and immigrants’ rights, social (antiracist, anti-sexist, anti-homophobic) struggle and representation.

There is no alternative! The future is self-organised.

• In the early 1970’s corporate analysts developed a strategy aimed at reducing uncertainty called ‘there is no alternative’ (TINA). Somewhat ironically we now find ourselves in agreement, but this time round we’re the scenario planners and executors of our own future though we are, if nothing else, the very embodiment of uncertainty.
• In the absence of clearly stated opposition to the neoliberal system, most forms of collective and collaborative practice can be read as ‘self-enterprise’. By which we mean, groupings or clusters of individuals set up to feed into the corporate controlled markets, take their seats at the table, cater to and promote the dominant ideology.
• Self-organisation should not be confused with self-enterprise or self-help, it is not an alternative or conduit into the market. It isn’t a label, logo, brand or flag under which to sail in the waters of neoliberalism (even as a pirate ship as suggested by MTV)! It has no relationship to entrepreneurship or bogus ‘career collectives’.
• In our view self-organisation is a byword for the productive energy of those who have nothing left to lose. It offers up a space for a radical re-politicisation of social relations – the first tentative steps towards realisable freedoms.

Self-organisation is:

• Something which predates representational institutions. To be more precise: institutions are built on (and often paralyse) the predicates and social forms generated by self-organisation.
• Mutually reinforcing, self-valorising, self-empowering, self-historicising and, as a result, not compatible with fixed institutional structures.
• A social and productive force, a process of becoming which, like capitalism, can be both flexible and opaque – therefore more than agile enough to tackle (or circumvent) it.
• A social process of communication and commonality based on exchange; sharing of similar problems, knowledge and available resources.
• A fluid, temporal set of negotiations and social relations which can be emancipatory – a process of empowerment.
• Something which situates itself in opposition to existing, repressive forms of organisation and concentrations of power.
• Always challenging power both inside the organisation and outside the organisation; this produces a society of resonance and conflict, but not based on fake dualities as at present.
• An organisation of deregulated selves. It is at its core a non-identity.
• A tool that doesn’t require a cohesive identity or voice to enter into negotiation with others.  It may reside within social forms but doesn’t need take on an identifiable social form itself.
• Contagious and inclusive, it disseminates and multiplies.
• The only way to relate to self-organisation is to take part, self-organise, connect with other self-organising initiatives and challenge the legitimacy of institutional representation.

We put a lid on the bourgeois project, the national museums will be be stored in their very own archive, the Institutes of Contemporay Art will be handed over to the artists unions, the Universities and Academies will be handed over to the students, Siemens and all the other global players will be handed over to their workers. The state now acts as an administrative unit – just as neoliberalism has suggested it – but with mechanisms of control, transparency accountability and equal rights for all.

END

There is no alternative: THE FUTURE IS SELF-ORGANISED–2 texts for artists opposing neoliberalism PT2

There are two texts that have been at the centre of my thinking for many years; inspirational works that demand structural change and true cultural democracy.  I’m sharing them here to hopefully start a broader discussion within arts and culture that looks outside the crumbling bureaucracies of the totally administered Creative Industries.

TINA 1 and 2 as they are fondly known are both the work of three artists:

Stephan Dillemuth (Munich), Anthony Davies (London) and Jakob Jakobsen (Copenhagen).

Part two was published in February 2012.

Both texts can be freely distributed without the permission of the authors.

 

There is no alternative: THE FUTURE IS SELF-ORGANISED
Part 2

Reclaiming Self-Organisation

Part one of our text, ‘There is No Alternative: THE FUTURE IS SELF-ORGANISED’ (TINA1), was first published in 2005, a period when the ‘animal spirits’ of unlimited accumulation were still drunk on their own sense of infallibility. At the time, we couldn’t fail to notice a similar over-confidence and arrogance in the attitude of the political, managerial and professional classes that were moving deeper into cultural and educational institutions.

We therefore felt unsure about accepting an invitation to speculate on self-organisation by an institutional commissioning body that had only recently staked a claim in this tendency and its discourse. The organisation in question, the Nordic Institute For Contemporary Arts (NIFCA) had itself become vulnerable when the progressive programming for which it had become internationally renowned fell out of sync with the increasingly localised and insular interests of its political backers. Without broader consultation it was closed in 2006 – its funds redirected to a more ‘manageable’ organisation without significant public opposition or protest.

In TINA1 we sought to rethink self-organisation, a term that had gained currency as a means to disguise organisational restructuring, manage critique and enhance professional careers. The text sought to place self-organisation back within its oppositional and revolutionary vocabulary, also setting it off against ‘self-help’ and ‘self-enterprise’, terms with which self-organisation had become confused and whose tendency was to stabilise and extend rather than challenge institutional hegemony.

That was 2005 – a world away – before the systemic contradictions started to become more pronounced and exploded with such frequency, and with such blinding force and violence, that the animal spirits faded, the image of eternal growth was shattered and, for most, the ruins beckoned.

The Coming Resurrection

In the midst of a period of intense struggle, violence and social upheaval, who needs economists and pundits to remind us that this is the worst financial crisis since the last? As bad as the 1990s, 1980s, 1970s, the late 1920s? Isn’t the evidence all around us all the time? In the intensities of labour struggle and workers’ suicides in China and South East Asia, the further dispossession of the poor in the US, or the punishing effects of austerity measures imposed everywhere, particularly in those neoliberal European economies once regarded as exemplary, like Greece, Italy and Spain.

For decades, the catastrophic consequences we now find ourselves living through were
deferred by fostering rapid market expansion and contraction, boom and bust. Here, crisis played an integral part in the seductive, syncopated rhythm of ‘creative destruction’. Bust was deferred by selling it as boom – which no doubt displayed a certain creativity. A formula of almost redemptive proportions was devised to cover up the wreckage while the supposed necessity of uninhibited free market expansion could be relied upon to sanction even the most blatant acts of global plunder. In tandem, novel ways of shifting, shunting, bundling and repackaging otherwise problematic phenomena, allowed everything – even debt and poverty – to continue to serve capitalist accumulation.

An early response to the financial collapse of 2008 was the slogan ‘We won’t pay for their
crisis’, which later gave way to the more trenchant statement ‘Capitalism is Crisis’. This underlined the realisation that the most vulnerable are not only paying a high price for the crisis, but that crisis is implicit in a system where such violence, such destruction is part and parcel of its reproduction. A distinction must here be made between economic and ideological crisis. The former is integral to the logic of capitalist accumulation, which in its neoliberal mode has contended that ‘free’ markets have a tendency towards self-regulation and can therefore construe crises as a temporary manifestation of that principle. The latter is a consequence of the former; a rupture in the belief in capitalism compounded by deep social crisis. The more established middle classes, for example, have been thrown into
self-doubt, having lost their sense of global hegemony and the material securities they took for granted for decades. The world’s poor, meanwhile, are, as ever, pushed further down into the mud.

It is this congruence of the economic and ideological crisis, which has exacerbated misery
everywhere – and, with it, conjured potentially revolutionary forces now appearing on the surface. As the ranks of the newly immiserated and proletarianised continue to swell, the former middle classes now sit cheek by jowl with those whose hopes of escape they may have once embodied.

But could it be said that this re-composition is part of a more generalised revolutionary
process? What we see instead is that the coming resurrections of zombie tendencies are already fully compliant with capitalist logic: nationalism, populism, xenophobia and an obsession with security – to be flanked by propaganda, surveillance, dictatorial, and/or mafia type structures.

Disciplinary austerity is presented as a necessary corrective, an emergency response to the economic crisis and global market crash. Should that fail to convince, there’s always the tale of ‘public sector over-spending’ and ‘living it large’ – a popular profligacy to justify the collective sacrifice. After all, ‘we’re all in this together’. These narratives are typical of capitalism’s meager offering of legitimating excuses.

Under the Wheels

In recent decades we have seen a very close integration of market dynamics and culture. We have witnessed the rise and rise of the Creative Industries. These promised the liberation of Marx’s alienated workers in a process of creative self-realisation and autonomy. Through creativity of the hands and the hearts, they would grant capitalism a human face. Artists, with their idealism, flexibility and enthusiasm to work even under precarious circumstances, became the role model for a new concept of capitalism, leading its ‘triumphant procession around the globe’. The hopes for this spectacle were
twofold: it would strengthen belief in capitalism’s new formula, and it would disguise the fact that, like so much else wealth generated under the sign of creativity, it was the product of a proliferation of speculation, and increasing indebtedness. Meanwhile, under the procession’s grinding wheels, the sweatshops, child labour, privatisation of commons and all other disasters that accompany the economic warfare of rich versus poor, continued unabated.

As workers in the cultural and educational sector we have to acknowledge that what passes for critique and politicisation, particularly within the contemporary art community, has proven to be even more toothless than feared. Mimicking the strategies of corporate management, art institutions adopted the rhetoric of social responsibility and ethical governance as a means to appear progressive. Under the guise of art trends like relational aesthetics and the new institutionalism, and state agendas like social inclusion, the privileged continued their merry dance. Political agendas were de-politicised,
struggle was taken out of politics as glamorous institutions dressed up as community centres, and corporations as charities. While this may not have entirely convinced the progressives and radical reformists, they still singularly failed to expose a deeper process of de-structuring, organisational hollowing out and the consolidation of existing power relations
.

With the recent economic collapse, and the ideological crisis of capitalism, the more progressive branches of the cultural institutional landscape entered a void, displaying both panic and paralysis. In some cases institutional surfaces became more porous and open, while in others they congealed and contracted further, becoming ever more rigid and conservative. At the height of the Occupy Wall Street movement, New York’s Artist’s Space, for example, demonstrated how both processes can occur simultaneously. Here, management initially supported its own ‘occupation’ by artist-activists. But the progressive dream scenario of participation ‘from below’ suddenly turned undesirable, when ‘lack of
clear demands’ was cited as cause to call security and remove the occupiers from the building.

In 2008, similar institutional confusion and violence marked the 28th São Paolo Biennale,
where the ground floor of the massive exhibition complex was left open ‘for the community’. When urban graffiti crew, pixadores, entered the space with their spray cans, as might be expected, they were forcibly evicted by security and police. This was not the right kind of ‘participation’. Students of Berkeley University occupying Wheeler Hall in 2010 fared no better: faced with nothing more than a sit-down protest, Administration called the UC Berkeley police, which used pepper spray to drive the students from their institutional home violently.

Where antagonisms are not successfully negotiated or suppressed, institutions tend to lay low – either reproducing the state narrative that the crisis is an anomaly that can be overcome, or quietly scrambling for ways not to be cut or shut.

If we can be sure of anything at this moment, it is this: there will be no bailout for us. In fact, it is much worse – communities, homes, workplaces and organisations have again been called upon to facilitate the next phase of capitalist development. The question is: what are we going to do about it? Which is only interesting insofar as it could equally be, what can we do about it? That is, while we remain subject to a system geared towards squeezing cash even out of the rubble it generates, the task, as we see it, is to remind ourselves that this rubble might offer a relative but significant opening: namely an awakening sense that there is no neoliberal future to build, and that we’re no longer compelled to compete as individuals for a piece of the free market world. Against this backdrop, we can measure
those in the art system as it stands and by what it is they have to offer in the preparation of a post-capitalist society.

Race to the Bottom

It remains urgent to examine how institutions learnt to simultaneously demand their subjects (workers, students, consumers) accept less (wages, resources, support) while having to pay more (fees, free and voluntary labour). This would include the intensification of ‘hollowing out’, where institutions outsourced large swathes of their activity bar the baseline cultural programming, which continued to legitimise their existence. And, more recently, the rhetoric of ‘de-institutionalisation’, which, removed from its original context of mental health and community care, gained some currency among art professionals as part of a pragmatic institutional response to austerity agendas.

The bogus consultative mode associated with this discourse is now widespread, demonstrating that an increased ‘openness’ to exterior (and critical) forces can alleviate the immediate impact of dwindling funds and gaps in programming by effectively securing free input into everything, from content to strategic organisational development. By way of illustration, London’s ICA, on the verge of collapse in late 2009, gathered representatives from the ‘critical art community’ for an invitation-only discussion forum, The Reading Group. Its framing questions, albeit generalised, clearly also possess a strategic function: ‘What work can we do?’, ‘How do we find alternative ways of thinking about production and labour?’ and ‘How can we act collectively?’

How, then, do we begin to relate the material impact of the ‘race to the bottom’, which can be seen everywhere – all competing against all, all the time – with what appears to be a personal and simultaneously institutional need for, and indeed desire to, cooperate, work together, self-organise? To counter this apparently unassailable dynamic, we must continue to define the system’s key characteristics and patterns, especially as these develop and change. Do we have any choice but to ally ourselves with the explosive rage this has triggered on the streets, directed so decisively at symbolic sites of knowledge, wealth and power?

What role do cultural and educational institutions play during this period of rapid change?
Given the current scale of cuts and devastation, these places, where some of us happen to work, study, breathe, pose an unenviable choice: do we self-organise, break the relationship, fight it out among the ruins and accelerate the process of collapse, destruction? Or do we take on more traditional forms of opposition, slow down the process in the search for a temporary haven in the violent storm? These questions follow us into the ruins, a crumbling landscape where the terms may have changed, but the
struggle, which remains a class struggle, continues.

As we move into the ruins, can art production, the art system and its institutions, for example, play a part in unlearning capital? Can it feature in a more generalised process of de-education and unlearning? Can it contribute to the exit, the movement out of capitalism? Can those in the cultural and educational sector situate notions of collectivity and communism beyond the specialisation that capitalist production continues to impose? Can these struggles be connected, widened? Can they contribute to post-capitalist, de-specialised spaces, which enable cultural production and engagement in the wildest sense?

Those of us with a need to continue to self-organise will do so in relation to the specific contours and tempos of our respective struggles. Some of us self-organise because we still can, and because we have no choice, while some self-organise to survive, to resist. Self-organisation relies on a dominant form of organisation only to depart from it. Whether it’s workers on the factory floor or artist-revolutionaries elsewhere, the desire to self-organise is first and foremost caught in the contradiction that it both affirms and breaks with the dominant order. If we, then, accept that self-organisation serves a specific
purpose at a specific point in any given struggle, we might also ask: at what point is it possible to move beyond self-organisation? And what would this ‘beyond’ look like?

Into the Ruins

There is no reason to be afraid of the ruins, among which some of us now find ourselves, because they could represent the end of capitalist relations and the dissolution of its opaque administrative bodies. It’s difficult to feel concerned about the ways in which the term self-organisation has been re-purposed by those who rely on its aura of radicality to prop up their ailing power. The desired outcome of self-organisation is not the affirmation of the self, the individual, the institution – it’s in the negation of these relationships.

Take over the factory (again!), occupy the schools, colleges, universities, hospitals, rip up
management dictats, diss reforms, take over all public transportation, dismiss self-help, head-lock entrepreneurs, outflank the bosses, cancel all dodgy contracts, drop ownership,
turn over directors, managers, curators, administrators, break into their offices, liberate their ‘resources’.

In all its forms, self-organisation is a basic and necessary social process that relies on an initial binding condition or problem, which is then addressed collectively. It is a collaborative tool, a means to mobilise skills, experience, support, resources and knowledge. Looking back (and forward!), we see its role in the formation of council democracies (soviets, Räte, councils), where politics developed at the level of the factory, kindergarten, neighbourhood – and people came together to organise, practically, artistically, intellectually.

But it should be noted that decision-making and debates about executive and legislative
processes can produce larger, more complex structures – a union of councils. In order to gain broader impact for different experiments in self-organisation, it will eventually become imperative to join forces, organise and unite beyond various specific and singular interests.

Issue impossible demands, make no demands, say nothing, deny everything, wreck
classrooms, put social knowledge to work, re-deploy those wasted years of education,
construct new tools, question and undermine normalisation, tear apart populism and
nationalism, take space, refuse reform, refuse negotiations, refuse explanations, no demands in their language, anti-normative, anti-hegemonic, pain in the ass, fragile, refuse their language, scream, shout, dance, riot, smash, fuck, make noise, remain silent.

As we’ve seen in recent struggles, it is necessary to work against the tendency to cut off self-organised processes from a potentially revolutionary mainstream in order to gain momentum. The framework and infrastructures for such connections are everywhere, at all times. But how can they be brought together in such a way as to maintain ‘difference’, and allow for tensions, antagonism and disputes to be productive? In the process of its own negation, then, self-organisation should continue to question terms like consensus, alliance, solidarity and democracy.

Try out, flow, keep on, moving with others, enjoy failure, camps, communication, interaction is production, rewrite history, redefine identity, unlearn property, make demands in another language, redistribute the sensible, de-specialise, re-specialise, re-imagine the present, socialise depression, make new dictionaries, vocabularies, lexicons, indexes, catalogues, new maps.

Continuing to produce culture, despite the dominance of capital and its institutions, is not a call for a placebo utopianism, or to prepare for a separate form of life outside of production and the creation of surplus. Instead, it means testing new forms of collaboration and developing a different measure and grasp of value. Here, production embodies mutuality, togetherness, new and dynamic social relations, all of which continue to occur among the ruins, helping to accelerate the expansion of the commons and a total transformation of social relationships.

Block, parry, side-step, strike, counter, dig out, confront, tear up, get your shit together, your guts together, boycott, complete dissent, proletarian shopping, hit and run, critique, purge, find unexpected comrades, abolish, destroy money, watch the bullshit fall apart, dance among the ruins.

A key task now is to derail capitalist restructuring, continue to widen the cracks, block all attempts at reform wherever possible. We need to build, protect and defend the communes and commons that will make up post-capitalist life. As we’ve seen, most states and their institutions can switch into emergency mode at a moment’s notice, unleashing levels of extreme violence that are commensurate only with their own fear – not with any actually existing threat. New warfare is underway everywhere – on the Internet, in the street, private and public sphere; all are either in a state of emergency, or
threatened by impending incursions. We have to maintain the alliances and continue to develop the destructive language that shapes the exit.

Merge, get organised, disorganise, flow together, join forces, exchange experiments,
experiment with yourself, get rid of yourself, slowly, start synthesising, synchronising,
syncopating, shaping structures, play with weapons, stray research labs, converging forms of communication and collaboration, anti-property, no-property, property-less,
non-proprietorial, non-patriarchal education, self-educate, co-educate, experiment, dump
your expertise, experiment, no programme, force open the archives, inhabit histories, dig the bones out of the rubble, re-animate the long, long memory of political struggles, victories and defeats, activate conflicting utopias, realise oneiric knowledge.

END