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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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…

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.



The art world’s such a fickle place.  Buzzword after buzzword follows business metaphor upon business metaphor.  Right now, the UK arts and cultural world is apparently ‘waking up’ to inequality.  The art world’s unequal THEY say.  We need diversity THEY say.

Academics wonder if this inequity is a class, race, gender thing.  Politicians and policy makers enthusiastically call for fairer opportunities.  Some say: Art for everyone.  DCMS trumpets the need for diversity then appoints an all male, white and middle aged committee.

I’m bemused.  We all knew state and market-driven arts and culture was highly hierarchical, didn’t we?  We know it still is, don’t we?  Even voluntary or the deeply derogatory ‘amateur’ arts often have hierarchies of one sort or another.  So is inequality in arts and culture really as simple as an issue of social class, gender, race, etc?  On many levels, it’s true that social status opens doors or slams them in our faces.  Arts organisations up and down the land are staffed by graduates, led by middle class arts administrators and filled with well-meaning middle (perhaps even upper) class trustees and board members.  Not all.  The bigger the organisation, the more likely that opportunities narrow.  Smaller organisations tend to be more open.  These are, of course, generalisations.

But big London and national organisations are different.  Their boards are full of wealthy and uber-wealthy people – some are government appointed.  They are sponsored by wealthy banks, hedge funds, etc.  They receive large amounts of state funding.  And now these same organisations and the same people leading them are branching out.  They are setting up all sorts of Creative Industries groups, partnerships and federations.  Others in the field suggest we join them.  Why?  I’m not sure.

THEY ARE ALL THE SAME FEW PEOPLE.  UPPER CLASS BANKERS AND SUPER RICH.  THEY give to the arts of their choice.  They are capitalists.  They are often part of the 1%.  Their calls for greater equality in the arts are hypocritical.

THEY cannot lead the revolution needed to make arts and culture more equal.  THEY do not want to.  Not really.  They are neoliberals.  They band together to create an even more inequitable arts and cultural field.  THEY influence decisions.

People like me are not from their world.  Never will be.  WE see through their nicely presented thin veneers.  WE can only nip at their heels.  Sometimes they like what we do.  Sometimes they tolerate us.  Sometimes they silently squeeze us into line.  Sometimes they quietly attempt to cut us off.  That’s fine.  That’s THEIR game.

But we are many.  Dark matter, as Gregory Sholette often describes those outside of the system.  Only a truly culturally democratic world of arts and culture can begin to offer fairness and equality (or equity) for all.  This means ending deeply entrenched status quos, not tinkering around the edges.

The art world is frightening for people like us.  But we cannot stay quiet.  We must say NO.  We must organise however we see fit.


We must unearth the roots of inequality in arts and culture, starting with those in the know and their (in)vested interests.  Just as we must do the same in all areas of our deeply unequal neoliberal societies.

IN/OUT – socially engaged art, UK cultural institutions & The Hunting of the Snark


There’s a debate within socially engaged arts about whether this unique form of practice should resist incorporation into institutions, galleries, museums, etc. or are these ‘managed’ spaces best placed to support, to provide a home for our work. The debate is taking place in some countries. The US are leading the way. It’s a debate that really cuts to the core of what socially engaged art practice is about. In the US, the arts are less well regulated; instrumentalism rules in the UK.

So how can debates emanating from the US help UK socially engaged artists situate themselves within an arts system that prioritises ‘investment’ in concrete monoliths? No grassroots seeding of diverse cultural ecosystems. UK arts and culture policy believes plonking in new cultural behemoths will stimulate growth. This is top-down approach is outdated and incredibly hierarchic. It is driven by an economics-dominated cultural policy that thinks big, spends on big, and makes big claims for Big Data. This approach is elitist and disproportionate. The expense of building, staffing and maintaining big cultural venues is massive. The thinking is predicated on a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. The thing is most people who don’t currently go to cultural venues won’t come. The same people will come. They will love it. That’s fine.

Soon the new big institutions, like the UK’s longer-in-the-tooth cultural institutions, will start scratching their heads, holding ‘What next?’ meetings over tea and croissants, researching, talking, blogging, tweeting, whatever, wondering ‘How can we engage new audiences? How do make them come?’ The answer is that, perhaps, they never will come. That doesn’t mean they don’t like art or culture or artists or even buildings. They just don’t like going to massive institutions in new powerhouses for some – not them. And, let’s face it, the type of investment in institutions new and old could be used in other ways; ways that could engage more people in the arts in less institutionalised settings or non-arts settings; ways that are perhaps open, community-focused?

Socially engaged art can provide an alternative way of thinking about and doing art. It is non-elitist and traditionally wary of cultural institutions, policy and measurement. Yet, in this field, many socially engaged artists and collectives are enticed into working within institutions; encouraged to sign up to codes and standards of professional practice written without adequate consultation. New academic courses anyone? Social practice? Yes, sir, it’s the latest thing. Work with ‘real’ people. Gritty? Yes. But we’ll teach you how to keep your hands clean. Not cheap, no. Quality counts. Think of the employment opportunities… New state funded ‘participatory arts’ projects in the most disadvantaged areas may not be (necessarily) about ‘bricks and mortar’ investment but they are about creating managerial systems and participatory institutions.

These are examples of why many socially engaged artists see themselves as opposed to cultural institutionalism. It is not the only choice. We can make our own choices. We can work with communities, within communities. We must avoid the temptation to comply. We must question the establishment in all its forms. And, to those institutions who feel they can offer funding and support in exchange for our ability to work differently with different people and be accepted within communities, we must say NO. We must retain our independence.

I believe in a mixed arts ecosystem that recognises new artists, new collectives and fledgling organisations, socially engaged arts practice, communities, people, as well as established and new organisations. We need a debate. Conflict is good. If institutional bureaucracy snuffs out flickering dissent, all that will remain is an incredibly elitist monoculture. It is natural for many policymakers, ‘arts leaders’ and ‘arts professionals’ to cheer and clap whenever something new is unveiled. It is also natural for others to question, criticise and ask for other ways of thinking. Beware of the folly of Hunting of the Snark. It always ends in Boojum.

social practice as ‘expanded field’ or ‘excluded field’

This blog post is explores elements of my doctoral research exploring the question of whether participatory art can support sustainable social change.  It’s taken from some of the writing in the introduction to my second draft literature review…

Click the image above to see a database of more than 350 socially engaged arts projects.


Participatory art is said by many to be a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained.  It also leads to an expanded field in which participatory art may be increasingly separate from social practice.  (This is a BIG question which I will discuss in later posts.)

My starting point here is Creative Time’s Chief Curator and important influencer of US social practice, Nato Thompson’s declaration in Living as Form that socially engaged art ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19). But does this statement really reflect the history of this field of practice? If socially engaged art is, as Thompson claims, ‘growing’, in what ways, and to what and whose agendas? Is it really ‘ubiquitous’? Many practitioners in the field may well think otherwise. My literature review attempts to unpick chronologically, from the early 1980s onwards, whether socially engaged art is now virtually omnipresent within today’s art world as Thompson suggests.

The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by policy-makers, critics, academics and large arts institutions. Artists, art workers and smaller collectives and organisations are often disenfranchised and, perhaps as a result, disinterested by attempts to investigate, document, define, regulate and even contest the field.

Researching the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. How does socially engaged art interface with and and reflect upon other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography? Can a further ‘expanded field’ that encompasses critical theory, participatory action research, notions of the carnivalesque, post-development theory, permaculture, and more, lead to fruitful routes to new insights about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change?

All of this is important for social practice.  It can help to positively (re)define social practice – perhaps raise it’s profile in the arts.  It can also provide a mechanism for those wishing to regulate and professionalise the practice.  Research can also help maintain, even expand, independent practice, activism and radicalism – forming new ways for individual practitioners to work together to resist attempts to institutionalise the field (or certain elements within the ‘expanded field’).  Nonetheless, research (mine very much included) can exclude the very artists, practitioners, workers and small/ embryonic organisations that form the heart of the field of social practice.  It can also exclude participants and audiences.  This is something I am keen to try to address.  I do not really know how to avoid exclusion but I think I know exclusion when I see it…

Here we go round the mulberry bush

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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[2] Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013,

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

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

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

[9] Ibid., p.262.

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

[11] Ibid., p.291.

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

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

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


Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013,

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

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

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