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

stencils

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.

Advertisements

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

untitled.png

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The The – Heartland, 1986

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

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

[Sounds of corks popping.]

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

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

Tax back for cultural institutions.

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

FLAG DAY!

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

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

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

Flags for THEIR Creative Industries flagships!

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

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

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

Chin, chin!

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

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

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

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

ARTLAND must not replace HEARTLAND!

But where are UK art’s dissenting voices?

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

What Next for North East arts & culture? Democracy NOT technocracy

WP_20151211_14_12_09_Pro

I went along to What Next? Newcastle Gateshead’s The future of culture in the North East: What, Who, When? event at Dance City in Newcastle last Friday (11th December 2015).  I have been attending some of their weekly meetings and have felt that, like the North East Cultural Partnership, the agendas are always set and dominated by large arts institutions.  The afternoon’s events led me from optimism (at Chi Onwurah’s honest and engaging opening speech) to sarcasm to disappointment to angry dejection.  This blog is a brief attempt at a catharsis of sorts.

Let’s quickly frame proceedings.

The event was described as follows:

How culture is thought about and delivered regionally and nationally is undergoing profound changes.  It is a crucial time to understand what these changes are, who is responsible for them and what they will mean.

What Next? Newcastle Gateshead has invited key regional and national policy makers to share their perspectives on the future of cultural policy, programmes, structures and resources in the North East.

What Next? Newcastle Gateshead’s The future of culture in the North East: What, Who, When? offers everyone working in or interested in culture in the region the opportunity to learn more and consider the future together.

Quite clearly a policy-heavy meeting then.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  Depends how such an event is curated and how capable the speakers are at addressing a mixed audience that included many non-policy wonks or arts management geeks.  Oh, and there were artists there too; quite a lot of artists.

The event also had a strong focus on the impacts of impending regional devolution on arts and culture.

At the start of the event we were told that the eight speakers would each talk for 10 minutes with breaks at appropriate moments.  I think that must have meant breaks because the event proceeded non-stop into what quickly became a barrage of tedious presentations interspersed with pre-selected “questions” mainly delivered by people from “senior” positions within the local arts and culture sector.

The exception was Chi Onwurah, the first speaker, local Labour MP and Shadow Minister for Culture.  Chi was down-to-earth and honest about the role of policy and (perhaps more pertinently) politics within both local and national situations.  She was critical of Tory cuts to local government and emphasised the need for a rebalancing of funding.  She also seemed to recognise that there must be a balance between big name cultural attractions and grassroots cultural activities for everyone.  ‘I’ve never been a culture professional,’ she said at the start of her talk.  Hurray – thank goodness!  (I thought.)

The rest of the presentations were from the DCMS, CCS, ACE, Heritage Lottery, NECP, NECA, NELEP.  Look them up.  I won’t describe each presentation as that’s not the point of this post.  Let’s just say that it was pretty much (although in the cases of Pauline Tambling and Jane Tarr not entirely) text book stuff.

So what was wrong?  Well, for me, the future of culture in the North East can be summed up as NOT THIS – something far less bureaucratic and at times dictatorial!

Now my own feelings (perhaps a rant of sorts)…

The event was, for me (and many other artists, freelancers and Artists Union England members present), a very difficult experience; akin to ACE RFO/ local council meetings of 10 years ago.  What Next? Newcastle Gateshead for some unknown reason constructed one of the worst conference formats I’ve ever known and the speakers (excepting Chi) were dismal to the point of embarrassing.  They lacked contexts outside of their own fields of “expertise”, completely failed to provide any provocations or critical thinking or theoretical backgrounds or arguments.  The summing up at the end was simply belittling, biased and incorrect.  Some responses to questions were deeply arrogant and dismissive to the point of offensiveness.  We (the audience) had little chance to interact other than with the panel at the end.

This could have been so different.  A chance to open up discussions about potentialities where new ideas could be proposed and disagreements aired.  Policy can be interesting but this bombardment reinforced the gulf between many of those who “make” policy “for” others and the rest who are all too often forced to comply.

Instead, this event revealed the divide decisively.  THEY pat backs and smirk at their dominance. “ONE VOICE,” they chant – message betraying their authoritarianism. THEIR technocratic language kills creative thoughts; stifles our sector.  Artists are barely ever mentioned other than under the apparent new descriptors: Micro Enterprises or Micro Businesses.  WHAT?  This is ludicrous.  Another perhaps inevitable consequence of the creeping neoliberalism ushered in with New Labour before becoming cast concrete in the recent “shift” to an all-encompassing “The Creative Industries”.  There is something deeply worrying when WE are told by THEM that there MUST be consensus; there MUST be one voice.  A threateningly authoritarian tone.  Who’s voice will this “one voice” represent?  What’s wrong with many voices rather than the falseness of univocal communication?  For me, disagreement is good – sometimes.  Consensus always favours the strongest, most powerful voices.

So, if the future of North East culture is consensus, I fear that the voices of artists, collectives, small organisations and people interested (or not) in arts and culture will be squashed under the thumb of those who wish to protect their positions of power within our deeply unequal cultural sector.  I’m not sure What Next? (Nationally or Newcastle Gateshead) offers any future potentialities outside of the narrow and nepotistic status quo falsely constructed by New Labour.  THINGS CAN ONLY GET BETTER become THINGS ARE FAR, FAR WORSE!  We know THEIR game: “Partnerships” construct jobs for friends and old acquaintances/ colleagues; monopolistic practices; platitudes for the rest!  Nonsense.  Thinly veiled arrogance. NO!

Let’s fight this sh*t.  Now!  We risk a devolved future even less democratic than the totally administered centralist system we unfortunately navigate today…

 

ARTS & CULTURAL WORKERS–STRUGGLE NOW AGAINST CREEPING NEOLIBERALISM

https://i0.wp.com/s3.amazonaws.com/rapgenius/farm460.jpg

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.

IF WE TRULY BELIEVE IN EQUALITY IN ARTS AND CULTURE, WE MUST STRUGGLE TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

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.

A little reflection on the Culture Action Europe #BeyondTheObvious conference

This week has been hectic.  Research visits in London with Platform London and Ovalhouse Theatre; a participatory art workshop commission for Berwick Visual Arts; working on a lab session about collective working, the commons and ending status-quos for arts organisations that I’m co-delivering in London in November; talking about The New Rules for Public Art with a Scottish artist’s collective; working to continue to develop our work with dot to dot active arts in Blyth; developing new NHS commissions in Cumbria and Northumberland; and attending the Culture Action Europe Beyond the Obvious conference which took place in NewcastleGateshead over the past few days.

This is a very short blog post about my experience at the conference and my hopes for the Beyond the Familiar ‘fringe’ event tomorrow.

WP_20141011_10_04_18_Pro

The conference was clearly split between the policy-following institutions and the smaller, more radical factions and artists.  I met a great many radical thinkers, some socially engaged activists, and even some policymakers who seemed to see the need for big changes to the way arts and culture is funded and who it is for.  This was great!

I heard many ‘old-school’ perspectives – a bit of ‘knowledge sharing’ here; a little ‘partnership working’ there’; even the ubiquitous ‘we’re doing this already’ and ‘we’ve always worked like this’.  I rolled my eyes like one of Sendak’s Wild Things.  Over my years of practicing in this field, I developed a proficiency for this.

All was not lost, however, because, even though ‘the great and the good’ reeled off their ‘holistic cases for public investments’ and chanted ‘cultural regeneration’ mantras, the voice of dissent was clear amongst a significant number of the people there.  This was very encouraging.

The session that nailed the distinction between the forces of elitism, instrumentalism, policymaking and institution-building and the guerrilla tactics of those into ‘small’, local, grassroots collective strategic engagement happened earlier today.  In short, the UK What Next? movement was pitted against grassroots political and socially engaged activist movements from Europe (Spain and Croatia).  This was a battle of tea and biscuits versus take-to-the-streets (and Net) protests; polite discussion versus political activism.  The UK’s navel-gazing about ‘how do we get people to understand the arts?’ was exposed for all it’s frailties and limpness.  The activists have the answer: ENGAGE outside of institutions; be grassroots; take art to the people; make art as a people.

These are critical debates that are just not often had in the UK.  Art as social practice is immensely capable of bringing arts to the people – a force for real paradigm shift.  It is anti-elitist, grassroots and political.  People not into art get it because they are a part of it.  The ‘arts leaders’ and policymakers with their top-down approaches do not seem to understand that grassroots, self-organised, collective action offers other, more truly democratic ways to place art and culture back where it belongs – by and of the people.

I look forward to tomorrow…

Time arts & culture put class back on their agendas?

image_thumb1

 

I’ve been tweeting a bit today about art, privilege, elitism, ‘leaders’, social practice, and more.  The great article about the dominance of privilege in the arts by Nick Cohen in The Guardian yesterday certainly spurred me on.  So did tweets by Emma Bearman and Mar Dixon.  I felt the train of discussion throughout the day developed around common threads.  Ideas about emancipation, democracy, paradigm shifts.  This post attempts to cobble together my responses into a semi-coherent stream of thoughts and sound bites that currently drive me.  Here goes:

 

I think of my practice as ‘space-making’ but never call it that.  Potential, play, not knowing.  People ‘do art’ by taking part.

 

We are grassroots and critical… not radical.  We see social practice as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

 

Potentially emancipatory, our work is not Jesus on shipping containers or gimmicky digging for fools gold.

 

We see social practice as dialogic.  We try to create potential spaces where something creative might happen.

 

We’re forced to align our outcomes and measures to those of funders when applying, then make sure we achieve them.

 

People (the public) don’t define outcomes or measures.  Policymakers do.  Elitist and hierarchical.  Outcomes and measures don’t matter to people.

 

Policymakers pop stoppers in their bell jars.  Tie little state-made labels on.  File them away.  Museum objects.  Boxes ticked.

 

Funders like their ‘leaders’ to conform to passed-down policy.  Orchestral, they conduct.  ‘New’: their instrumental composition.

 

Leaders.  Thought Leaders.  Cultural Leaders.  Command and control.  Undemocratic?

 

Missionary, mercenary, mobiliser.  Always suspect.  Power is pervasive.

 

Can leadership every be truly ‘democratic’?  Always elitist.  Never emancipatory.

 

Neoliberal leadership is always evangelical.  They need us to be born again.

 

Leadership of this sort is always for technocratic elites; never publics.

 

Always difficult to challenge. DIY or with others.  Self-organise?

 

Elitism is as endemic in the arts as it is elsewhere.  Time to put class back on the agenda?

 

These are my thoughts.  I’m not a leader.  Not an evangelist.  I see critical theory as offering old-new ways to think about culture, class, power, policy.  New utopias.  Social justice.  A much needed socio-political paradigm shift…

Comments always welcome!