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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the MP4 filmed presentation:

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

 

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

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

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

Here’s the PDF version:

PLACE GUARDING FULL AAG2016 PAPER – Stephen Pritchard

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

 

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

Stephen Pritchard, University of Northumbria, UK

29th March 2016

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

References

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

ABSTRACT

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

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

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

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

northernGAME: Social practice in rural South West Northumberland

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

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

Comments always welcome as usual.

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

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Shop window, Allendale, Northumberland

 

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

#ParkingSpace @thestovies – some images from a great weekend in Dumfries with The Stove & @openjartweets

I was invited to talk about The New Rules Of Public Art at The Stove’s Parking Space event on Friday.  Stayed around for some of Saturday too…

Amazing people. Great atmosphere and spirit. Nice art, films and participation. All in a disused but still open NCP multistorey car park in the heart of the Scottish town of Dumfries…

Thank you for inviting me!

AGL: above ground level

As founder of dot to dot active arts CIC – a member organisation for socially engaged artists and arts workers that’s fiercely independent and always grassroots – I’m committed to working with communities and our artists to develop new ideas to mix art and life openly and honestly.  We worked in Blyth, Northumberland last year, met loads of really interesting and desperately passionate people, did some great participatory art, revived empty shops.  Many people wanted more.  So we’re back with a new project.  This post attempts to explain why and a bit more about what we’ll be doing.

dot to dot active arts was only formed in January 2013.  Old-New Curiosity Shop was our first major arts project.  We chose to work in the Northumbrian post-industrial coastal port of Blyth.  Some of us had produced arts interventions there before; some of us lived there (or nearby).  We managed to convince Arts Council England, Northumberland County Council, other local funders and sponsors to support us.  Even the local MP and some local councillors backed our work.  We took on two empty shops and did lots of free art workshops in them.  Anyone could drop in.  The response from the people of Blyth and the surrounding areas was astounding.  We were sad when our project finished.  Happy that we’d worked well as a team and created a down-to-earth place for people to create things, but sad that we left a void – people wanted us to stay and keep doing what we were doing.  Not everyone though.  Some local arts organisations and artists were (given their clear messages given to us during our project) no doubt very pleased to see the back of us.  Success can sometimes be threatening to some.  That’s completely understandable in one sense.

AGL two crop

We listened to local people and our members.  We worked with Arts Council England and other local funders.  We found an amazing new space – an empty 2,000 square feet open plan office with shop frontage, accessible and in lovely condition.  We made another project happen in Blyth.  That project is AGL (above ground level)It starts in a few days and will run until the end of October 2014.  But this is a pilot, a test.  We want to work with local people and local staff and our artists to make AGL something more permanent.  Not a place for state agenda supporting participatory art.  Our first project in Blyth was, for me, more grassroots participatory than grassroots socially engaging.  Not a bad thing.  Part of our engagement strategy.  We did not suggest that Old-New Curiosity Shop was going to be complicit in furthering participatory art as a creative cure-all solution.  It wasn’t.  No arts project ever will be.

But AGL is different in three key ways.  First, this project is about introducing issue-based and theme-based socially engaged arts sessions to local people.  A more focused approach; more challenging; still grassroots.  Second, AGL wants to develop our own artists (their practice and by their hands-on training of trainees), our own local members (by working as staff who will develop their own roles and deepen our links with the community), a local apprentice (who will learn by first-hand, in-at-the-deep end experience how to run projects and an arts organisation our way), and, critically, local people of all ages to challenge themselves and others through learning new forms of artistic practice and new ways of expressing their feelings about their communities.  Third, we hope the project will develop itself into a longer-term project that will enable the space to continue to be used as a place for local people to develop their own new arts projects and events as well as to experience meetings with other artists from around the country.  A free-range incubator for do-it-yourself and do-it-with-others ideas, not a cultural R&D centre.

We want our socially engaged project to be different from other ‘participatory’ arts projects in the area.  Not more of the same.  Our workshops will mix contemporary arts practice with social justice to ask questions without answers; to challenge people to express themselves openly in their own ways.  There will be sessions about personal stories, about gender and sexuality, about climate change, about wars, about the body, about back alleys, about culture, about digital, about street sounds…  above ground level is an attempt at grassroots socially engaged arts in the local community that, like last year’s project, doesn’t know what will happen yet is certain lots of interesting things will happen.  It is not about looking back at bygone days of industrial greatness.  It is not about art for art’s sake.  It is not about ticking boxes or making claims about wellbeing and happiness or economic benefits of arts and culture.  It is about having a safe potential space where creative things might happen.  A place inspired by notions of the carnivalesque and of playing and reality.  Somewhere where nonconformity is encouraged.

So that’s us; that’s AGL.  Oh, and why the title?  It is about altimeters measuring the ever-changing height of a moving object over the changing height of the changing terrain below.  AGL is essential to safe navigation, to accurate atmospheric measurements.  AGL is also a statement of intent: to avoid revisiting the area’s historic coal mining past.  Finally, AGL is a place from which you can ‘parachute into’ another place.  A criticism often (wrongly) levelled at us.  To me, it doesn’t really matter whether you parachute in or embed yourself for x number of months/ years.  It matters what you do with local people whilst your there.  It matters that good things come to an end.  It matters that there is an end.  Not THE END as a finality.  An end as potential for new beginnings, new independence.

Radical arts activism, sustainability by renewal & social justice: refining doctoral research via critical theory towards a working hypothesis

This post is a first draft of part of my doctoral research methodology.  I have been developing my thinking using a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches and theoretical perspectives that are both complementary and conflicting.  This has led to the development of a research design founded on a working hypothesis that (hopefully) better expresses the nature of my research than the (deliberately ironic) research question might.  Discussion of relevant theoretical approaches and methods will follow soon.

As always, comments and criticism are always encouraged…

illuminator-grievances

Research question

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

The research question is obviously ambiguous; deeply problematic. This is intentional. It is undoubtedly a tricky question that alludes to the many critical issues facing the burgeoning field of ‘participation in the arts’. As described in greater detail below, this research is underpinned by critical theory that oscillates between the modernism of The Frankfurt School, its philosophical predecessors, and the critical aspects of postmodernism. In this sense, the research question can be read as an ironic representation of the complexities and abstruseness of our present socio-political milieu. A position perhaps mirrored by current manifestations of ‘the culture industry’ and by increasing state interventions into that field. The question mimics the ‘cultural newspeak’ that might emanate from today’s UK government departments and quasi-governmental organisations; developed vivaciously by arrayed policy-makers and advisory panels; repeated parrot-fashion by arts institutions and ‘arts leaders’. In this, perhaps flippant, sense, the answer to the research question is undoubtedly, ‘YES!

However, this research does not aim to verify state claims for ‘participation in the arts’ as a panacea for all social (and, perhaps even, political) malady. It seeks to challenge these claims; to explore possible theoretical, ethical, political and practical alternatives that may shake the status-quo, maybe even fracture the present, ambiguous discourse around ‘participatory arts’. Clearly, then, it is essential that terms such as ‘participatory arts’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are coherently defined. These ambiguities are discussed at length in the literature review but it is important they are considered here so that the research has clear direction. To this end, there follows a series of statements about how this research defines what it is and what it is not interested in studying during the in-depth investigation of its chosen case studies. It is obvious, then, that the research question must be developed into a hypothesis that can be tested and refined during the research period. It is also worth noting that the research intention and hypothetical position have been discussed with the case study participants. It is, indeed, on the basis of the initial hypothesis and subsequent discussion around it that they agreed to contribute to this research.

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Refining the research question

As mentioned above, the terms ‘participation’, ‘participatory art’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are incredibly slippery and multifarious. This section aims to briefly discuss some interpretations of these terms to illustrate how they are used to convey a myriad of meanings for an array of political, philosophical, scientific and ethical reasons. It then sets out to explicate the particular perspectives the research seeks to investigate as well as what it does not. At this point, it is important to be clear that the researcher does not wish to imply that the other interpretations are less valid or somehow inferior aspects of ‘participation in the arts’. They are simply different perspectives.

Looking first at ‘participatory art’, the term has been described by various people within the field of ‘the arts’, and with various interests in the field, very differently. Paola Merli, an academic interested in cultural policy, stated in 2002 that participatory art was used as ‘a form of governance’ by the UK government: a tool for ‘promoting social cohesion’; a ‘cultivated cultural activity’ rather than a ‘primary need’ (Merli, 2004 [2002], pp. 17-21). Her position is developed from a critical attack on Francois Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? (1997) in which he describes participatory arts as being able to ‘contribute to social cohesion’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). Whilst Merli is clearly suggesting that participatory art is an apparatus of state instrumentalism – a critical position shared by this research – Matarasso’s report suggests this instrumentalism is distinctly beneficial for both participants and government. However, Merli’s proposition, derived from Bourdieu, that participation in the arts is a ‘nicety’ that fosters cultural satisfaction is, whilst an undoubtedly valid position in many cases, narrow in that it leaves little room for radical, counter-hegemonic arts activism. The situation today is that the UK government and ‘arm’s length’ organisations such as Arts Council England are actively promoting the instrumental and economic benefits of participation in the arts more widely than at the time of the Merli/ Matarasso debate. Arts Council England list seventeen ‘activities’ they currently use for ‘arts-based segmentation analysis’[1] to define and measure ‘arts participation’ as part of their Taking Part surveys which seek to identify and characterise ‘distinct arts consumer types’ in the ‘arts market’ (Arts Council England a, 2014). Interestingly, all the listed activities involve doing and taking part in art. Participatory arts projects are not measured separately. Radical arts activities are not mentioned. Similarly, their recently published report about the benefits of arts to society is also incredibly vague about how they define ‘participation in the arts’ yet it extolls such activities as having many (equally loosely defined) intrinsic, instrumental and economic benefits (Arts Council England b, 2014). So it is clear, perhaps, that, not only is participation in the arts a very broadly defined set of possible activities that does not particularly value participatory or socially engaged projects as meriting specific categorisation or measurement, but it is also deemed to be an important ‘nicety’.

‘Sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are two other ill-defined aspects of the research question that must be clarified so that a working hypothesis can be constructed. Sustainability is commonly used to describe the need to maintain or improve biological and/ or human productivity and/ or diversity. It is also a term used to describe ideas or other systems that can be defended or upheld. The term is used to relate ‘sustainability’ to ‘ecosystems’ in which economic, social and biological factors are brought together with the aim of ‘developing’ areas of the ecosystem so as to guarantee the continuing of the whole. These factors were developed by the United Nations in 1987 in their Bruntland Report (United Nations, 1987). Interestingly, culture was added as a fourth factor for sustainability and, more recently, the word ‘political’ has replaced ‘social’[2]. The Bruntland Commission definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely quoted, describing sustainable development as:

[D]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.

(United Nations, 1987)

Sustainability is also a ‘hot topic’ in UK arts policy, although it is, perhaps, most frequently used in relation to the drive towards ‘organisational change’ and ‘adaptive resilience’ in the face of state-imposed cuts to arts funding. Ex-Arts Council England director Mark Robinson is one of the main proponents of this type of arts management interpretation of sustainability. His 2010 report Making adaptive resilience real clearly demonstrates this linkage of the term sustainability to change within the field of the arts, stating, for example, that:

all parts of the sector should collaborate to improve understanding of systems-thinking broadly, and resilience and sustainability issues specifically, through research, publication and debate, training and development

(Robinson, 2010, p. 46)

Clearly, then, ‘sustainability’ is as common in socio-economic development and management as it is in concepts of environmentalism.

Cultural economics researcher Diane Ragsdale challenges the idea that all arts organisations, and large unwieldy institutions in particular, should be sustained at any cost, especially at the expense of smaller, newer organisations and individual artist-led projects (Ragsdale, 2013). Her position is discussed further in the literature review. It is Ragsdale’s ‘bottom up’ contention that this research takes as a point of departure when considering notions around ‘sustaining’ socially engaged arts practice and social justice. Her perspectives align with the desire of this research to test if and how socially engaged arts movements may be able to be self-sustaining, continually diversifying and self-renewing. As such, it is inherently linked to concepts around developing ‘social justice’ rather than a universal notion of ‘social change’. It is possible to consider many shifts in how we live as representing social change. Industrialisation, capitalism, communism, Nazism, welfare reform, privatisation, credit cards, the internet – a few examples of social change. The term is problematic because it is bereft of any moral or ethical philosophical so that anything can be considered to be social change. Social justice, on the other hand, may be considered to be about fairness and equality; an opposition to injustice. As such, the research takes as its starting point the ‘three critical domains of equality and equity’ proposed by the United Nations in 2006 as essential to the notion of social justice: ‘equality of rights’; ‘equality of opportunities’; and ‘equity in living conditions’ (United Nations, 1996, pp. 15-16). Whilst the report is discussed in more detail in the literature review, it is worth highlighting that this research is aligned to the historical roots of the social justice movement described by the United Nations as:

[A concept developed] in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine… an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity… a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists… Of particular importance in the present context is the link between the growing legitimization of the concept of social justice, on the one hand, and the emergence of the social sciences as distinct areas of activity and the creation of economics and sociology as disciplines separate from philosophy (notably moral philosophy), on the other hand. Social justice became more clearly defined when a distinction was drawn between the social sphere and the economic sphere, and grew into a mainstream preoccupation when a number of economists became convinced that it was their duty not only to describe phenomena but also to propose criteria for the distribution of the fruits of human activity.

(United Nations, 1996, p. 12)

Nonetheless, because the responsibilities of ‘administering’ social justice in the UK primarily relies on its technocratic and centralising government, the concept remains a matter of policy and inevitable instrumentalism that is alluded to in the above quote. One aspect of this research will be to work with case study participants by referencing critical perspectives from the UN report to explore how social justice is interpreted and how it is applied ethically and morally by socially engaged arts organisations.

In summary, this research is not interested in further ‘evidencing’ the predominant type of instrumental ‘participatory arts’ described above (and in more detail in the literature review), nor does it consider that all participatory or socially engaged arts activities must always be classified as secondary to some notional typography of ‘primary human needs’. Rather, this research is interested in radically activist arts practice that engages in counter-hegemonic interventions, seeks to develop and/ or enhance awareness of issues surrounding social justice, and/ or produces new ways of thinking about and/ or producing new forms of practice that can be considered self-sustaining. It is from these perspectives that the following working hypothesis has been developed.

Deveron - All Hail the Returning Hunter(slash)Gatherers, 2011

Working hypothesis

The concept of using a working hypothesis for research based upon critical theory is problematic, particularly for Critical Theorists from The Frankfurt School. This is because, for Critical Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, a hypothesis was considered empiricist – a ‘positivistically reductive mode of inference’ (Strydom, 2011, p. 148). In common with empirical modes of inference, critical theory utilises traditional concepts of deduction and induction but places a critical emphasis upon abduction, rather than deduction, creating space for dialectically imaginative thinking in so doing (ibid.). It has been argued by Habermas (himself referencing the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce) that only abduction can generate new knowledge through a ‘critical process of “determinate negation”’ – a process that must embody ‘ongoing learning’ (MacKendrick, 2008, p. 175). It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:

Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and antagonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.


[1] For a list of all seventeen ‘activities’, see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/research-and-data/arts-audiences/arts-based-segmentation-research/faqs/#5

[2] For more about these developments, see the original text of United Nations’ Agenda 21 (1992) – accessible via http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=52 – and subsequent UN reaffirmations of support at subsequent ‘Rio’ summits