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


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):!170442&authkey=!AOglI4khY4q2diA&ithint=file%2cpptx

Here’s the MP4 filmed presentation:!170011&authkey=!AF02_-s97jiggrI&ithint=video%2cmp4


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


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:


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.






Balfron Social Club, 2015. Brutalism [redacted] – Social Art Practice and You. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 13th April 2015].

BAVO, 2006. Plea for an uncreative city. [Online] Available at: [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: [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: [Accessed 20th November 2015].

Hancox, D., 2016. Gentrification X: how an academic argument became the people’s protest. [Online] Available at: [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: [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: [Accessed 20th December 2015].

Mann, S., 2016. Artist sculpts giant cat out of sand in protest against London gentrification. [Online] Available at: [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: [Accessed 9th January 2016].

NION, 2009. Not in our name! Jamming the gentrification machine: a manifesto. [Online] Available at: [Accessed 18th November 2015].

Oehmke, P., 2010. Squatters Take on the Creative Class: Who Has the Right to Shape the City?. [Online] Available at: [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: [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: [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: [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.

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[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,

[17] For more about the Docklands Community Poster Project, see, for example,

[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

[20] Read Not in Our Name! Jamming the gentrification machine: a manifesto in full here:

[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:

[23] See the London is Changing website here:

[24] Read more about Mi Casa No Es Su Casa here:

[25] For more about Illuminator 99%, see:

[26] For more about Focus E15, see:

[27] Read more about the Brockley ‘Fat Cat’ here:

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!

The Values Of Opposition in Socially Engaged Practice (a response to Anthony Schrag)


Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus, large format digital print, part of Doing Nothing is Not an Option, Michael McMillan and Platform London, Peckham Platform, 2015


I was, like Anthony Schrag (and others I know), infuriated by the recent ArtWorks Conversation at BALTIC 39.  Anthony has written a little about the pairing of Ilana Mitchell (Wunderbar and other things) and Darren O’Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex) today in a piece entitled The Value Rant, but his rant was not at them and not (directly) at ArtWorks or their ‘critical conversations’.  Anthony was, like me, incredibly annoyed by the idea that socially engaged or participatory art (it would seem you can call it what you will nowadays – but that’s a topic for another post) could and/ or should be ‘scaled-up’ and professionalised.  But that wasn’t what really angered him.  It was the incessant droning of an ‘excited’ hipster political student that set free a passel of possums from their cage.  (To be clear the excited hipster didn’t sound or appear particularly excited with anything other than his own drawn-out ideas and self-aggrandisement.)

The thing is that I had intended to blog about the event the very next day as I was so angry.  But (oddly for me, perhaps) I decided against it and put the event down to another one of ‘those ArtWorks things’ – a now very familiar feeling.  Having read Anthony’s humorous-yet-deadly-incisive ‘rant’, I felt compelled to respond to several issues and personal opinions he raised.  They’re incredibly important and at the heart of much of the ongoing debate (bickering?) that has dogged our field of practice for years.  There are, I believe, many areas upon which Anthony and I (broadly) agree but there are several places where our views diverge.  For me this is a good thing.  We both enjoy the oscillating thrills and pulsating challenges that only tension can invoke (although perhaps Anthony may not entirely agree…)  I will not discuss the event other than to say that I struggled to get beyond Ilana’s brilliantly idiosyncratic thinking and making, and the instrumentalism inherent within Darren’s work.

So what do I think Anthony and agree on?  We both are clearly very sceptical at the very least to institutionalisation, professionalism agendas, instrumentalism, ‘scaling-up’, best practice, toolkits – basically anything homogenous – because we believe our practice is and must always be relational, dynamic, and respect the autonomies of artists and people taking part alike.  As Anthony says, ‘the very things that are unreproducible, un-scale-up-able, un-repeatable.’  But where he sees attempts to totally administer socially engaged art as the product of wayward best intentions, I see authoritarian technocratic control and oppression.  Where he finds positivity in at least some aspects of the ArtWorks project, I am deeply suspicious of their intentionality.

I found the ‘man-bunned politics student’ to be very boring and rather naïve yet almost ludic at times.  He made me grimace, smile, laugh.  Where he unleashed Anthony’s ‘angry possums’ from his mind, he filled mine with cartoon hind legs and badly drawn donkeys.  He genuinely believed that the examples of practice he had witnessed were ‘new’.  He did not know about socially engaged or participatory practice and that’s fine.  Tedious for those of us who’ve spent a long time practicing and studying the ‘expanded field’; interesting and exciting to him.  But Anthony is entirely right that the practice is ‘not new’, doesn’t (mustn’t). ‘be professionalised’ and is certainly not ‘a new saviour of art.’  For me, the politico-hipster wasn’t ‘ill-informed’ or ignorant, he was rather unaware of the history of our practice.  There are many people like him within the Art World as well as outside it.  That’s fine.  Marginal practices are often (wrongly) believed to be ‘new’ when first encountered whether through touristic exploration or strategic colonialism.  I’d go as far as to say that what matters most to us – histories, theories and practical nuances – matters least to interested attendees of critical conversations, participants, people who don’t like ‘art’, or other people from within the Art World.

Of course, Anthony wasn’t really rattled by our moustachioed interloper.  He was (is) angered by the opposing forces of instrumentalising institutionalism on the one hand; activism and political agendas on the other.  But I take issue he seems to suggest that those with activist and/ or political agendas/ ideologies do not know enough about the field’s history or theoretical underpinnings.  This is simply not true in every case.  In opposing these oppositions, Anthony places himself in the middle alongside some other ‘lovely, passionate people’ who are, like everyone, flawed and being crushed by institutionalism and those who do not understand (although I suspect the crushing comes mainly from one direction only).

I share Anthony’s passion that socially engaged practice is primarily about ‘what happens between and with other people‘ and, of course, people want to influence others but there are many forms this may take from authoritarian control to utopian imaginings and liberation.  Anthony is also right about the need for practitioners within the field to ‘come together’ much more than we tend to do at present.  However, I am very sceptical about developing a ‘continuum of practice’.  I believe that the field must be broad and must include tension: internal oppositions; never consensus.  Indeed, Anthony is hesitant about formal definitions within the field.  Interestingly, he also thinks that we must understand which direction ‘we might be heading in’ as well as who our potential allies are and those ‘who might not know what they are talking about’.  In response, I’d suggest: we can have multiple directions; and that our allies (theoretical and practical) might include many activists as well as others from other fields and other cultures – activists who do not seek to control others but who do, like all of us, have beliefs, ideologies, political affiliations, and most importantly biases that make it impossible  for anyone (artist or otherwise) to divorce themselves from this ‘baggage’.  Sometimes, however, the baggage can be good.  There is no such thing as values-free art.  We cannot dismiss, as Anthony does in a comment to my reply to his blog post, any work that may be, or be suspected of being, political or activist or state instrumentalist for that matter of being ‘not art’ – of being a form of ‘social work’.  That’s not to say that much of what’s being peddled as participatory or (now) socially engaged art isn’t deeply instrumental, controlling and stigmatising at worst and ‘social work’ at best.

I think that there’s a fine line between Anthony’s position on socially engaged practice and my own.  For Anthony good socially engaged practice must enable ‘shifts in thinking’ by ‘unravelling’ the world without trying to change people’s minds; I agree but would add that we can work with people to create open spaces where people can challenge their understanding of themselves and the world through creative practices (whether artist-led or otherwise) and that this process might help some people to better understand their place in the world as it is today as well as to begin to envisage other ways, new potentialities that they have within their power to struggle to make real.  A long but perhaps necessary addendum.  This is political and revolutionary.  It does not foreclose on possibilities or individualities.  It is not pluralistic democracy.  It has no fixed agenda any more so than the many excellent examples of socially engaged art’s heritage that Anthony carefully lists in his post – examples that are (at least where named or labelled) all deeply political and often activist in nature.

Perhaps Anthony and I can agree that socially engaged practice must be oppositional (and agonistic?) in ways both he describes in his blog and I attempt to do here.  Perhaps opposition is one of the directions for our field of practice.  Perhaps activism is another.  Sophie Hope (chair) certainly seemed to indicate her absolute frustration that we (the field) don’t say NO – don’t oppose the status quo – when she admirably summed up the event’s proceedings…