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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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My life as research: tracing the edges of socially engaged & participatory arts practice

I was asked to present a brief précis of my current research at Northumbria University last week.  I thought it might be of interested to some people.  So here it is.  It’s an edited version of the presentation.  The images are a mix of my own, from my case studies and old film stills.

It is first perhaps worth explaining that this is my second year of research-based doctoral study.

As well as being a PhD candidate, I’m also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator with as strong a literary background as art historical.  I like to create, write, think, antagonise, agonise – although not necessarily in that order.  For me, my research is practice; my practice is research.  There are clear boundaries, blurring only occasionally, perhaps shifting a little with and against my research.  This is good.  For me potentiality often lies around the margins, where tension is an always welcome guest.

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I began my research in October 2013 with a question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Why?  Because I was immersed within the field of participatory (or socially engaged) arts (I still am) and I was agonising over the encroachment of policy-led, New Public Management Newspeak into my practice and, indeed, the broader arts world… ‘Evidence’, ‘resilience’, ‘cultural value’, ‘economic value’, ‘inclusion’, ‘exclusion’, ‘diversity’, ‘sustainability’, ‘well-being’, ‘outputs’, ‘outcomes’ – on and on… Creeping instrumentalism.  Even seemingly positive words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘social change’ suddenly became murky through ubiquity.  My question can be simply modified to become a statement – a mantra – for many interested in this field: PARTICIPATORY ART SUPPORTS SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL CHANGE.  Really?

The research question seems as it is: superficial.  What are ‘participatory arts’? A homogenous entity?  Or does the term represent a broad range of artists working with a myriad of artistic practices spanning everything from face painting to radical political activism?  What is ‘participation’ anyway?  And does the term ‘socially engaged art’ or, even, ‘social practice’ better describe certain forms of issue-based, independently determined making art together with people?  Similarly, ‘sustainability’ can take many forms from ecological concerns to maintaining narrow art world status quos ushered in by an allegedly well-meaning Maynard Keynes.  The paramount question about ‘sustainability’ is: Whose sustainability?  Who or what is being sustained, by whom, for what purpose?  And, of course: What is the role of the state?  Does ‘social change’ relate to state agendas and issues of power?  Could notions of ‘social justice’ provide an ethical alternative?

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‘Participatory arts’ were spurned from the ashes of the Community Arts movement.  A lack of self-organisation and theoretical grounding for their multi-faceted approaches to working with people left them open to incorporation by the state on the one (inclusive) hand and marginalisation by the state on the (radically political) other.  Arts policy played an ever-increasing part in this – it still does.  Nonetheless, socially engaged art developed on the margins of the 1990s art world to represent, perhaps, a return to more radical forms of working with people.  Some call it ‘the latest thing’ – it is not!  The field’s historical and political contexts are deeply rich; profoundly influencing many of today’s socially engaged artists.  If this history is interesting to you, I recommend you read Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels by Owen Kelly (1984)…

SO WHAT’S MY ANGLE?

I am trying to align past and present theory with current socially engaged practice.  By exploring and interrelating theoretical and practical perspectives, I hope to illuminate the field of socially engaged practice AND influence current policymakers.  The notion of Critical Utopias forms a locus for my research.  Taking Herbert Marcuse’s The End of Utopias as a starting point, I’m exploring the notion that utopia was a derogatory term used as a tool for suppression and control.  Yet, when reawakened and set free, utopian thinking might, perhaps, offer real potential for emancipation from the dominant neoliberalism paradigm.  For Tom Moylan, tracing a vein similar to the utopianism of Paulo Freire:

The critical utopias give voice to an emerging radical perception and experience that emphasize process over system, autonomous and marginal activity over the imposed order of a centre, human liberation over white/ phallocentric control, and the interrelationships of nature of human chauvinism… The critical utopias refuse to be restricted by their own traditions, their own systematizing content…

(Moylan, 1986, p. 211)

These perspectives align very closely to critically engaged forms of participatory and social arts practice.

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WHAT’S MY APPROACH?

My approach is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School.  Interdisciplinary in nature, my research attempts to fuse a range of theoretical perspectives, taking the following key tenets of critical theory as points of departure: the belief that our current socio-political life is dominated by a neoliberal democracy that is both a ‘total administration’ (Adorno) and ‘one-dimensional’ (Marcuse); the conflation of diverse forms of arts and culture into a ‘culture industry’ is ‘enlightenment by mass deception’ (Horkheimer and Adorno); a deep mistrust of ‘instrumental rationality’ (Marcuse); and an eagerness to embrace and develop interdisciplinary research and practice in relation to critical theory (Horkheimer and Marcuse).  Dialectics are central to my thinking.  For me, they, along with many other elements in traditional and contemporary critical theory, offer new ways of understanding our current milieu; of (re)imagining alternatives to the suffocating cloak of neoliberalism.

There are too many other theoretical approaches to cite here.  Suffice to say that they span the Marxist politics of, for example, Frederic Jameson and Chantal Mouffe to the psychoanalytic approaches of Jacques Lacan and Donald Winnicott.  There are many paths to ‘playing’ and ‘reality’ (or realities).  Compliance is not one.

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So, from my original research question, and, like a good empirical researcher, I produced the following working hypothesis which I am testing and refining during my fieldwork:

Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic 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.

It is lengthy and wordy but useful to my research.

Critical theory can also be considered, in its weaker sense, a distinctive methodology based upon dialectics.  Following this approach, my methodology rejects ‘the qualitative-quantitative distinction as a way of differentiating methodologies’ and is aware of and opposed to the problematic dominance of ‘societal demands for knowledge that can produce technical control’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994).  It instead seeks ‘a theory of social and cultural reproduction’ that is ‘part of a process of social production’ whilst acknowledging the impossibility of ignoring ‘the history and systematic aspects of research’ (ibid.).

My methods are empirical – ethnographic.  My investigation revolves around intensive field research that is autoethnographic – an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience to understand cultural experience.  It challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others, instead treating research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act.  It uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography.  As a method, autoethnography becomes both process and product.

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(I then gave excerpts from my five longitudinal case studies.  A mix of organisations and artists.  They were presented as autoethnographic narrative.  Reflections from my field notes.  I have self-censored them for now…)

As well as the longitudinal case studies, I also have conducted and will undertake more informal discussions with people from across all areas of my research.  Each session has a focus relevant to the person’s relationship to my research.  Although short, these focused discussions form critical aspects of my overall thesis.

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But there are also many fragments. Pieces of conversations with other artists, academics, arts organisations, policymakers, etc. that I collect along the way. They are usually the products of chance occurrence; fleeting words. They are incredibly stimulating and often serve to refocus or challenge my research in incredibly unpredictable ways.

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I love collecting as many artefacts along my journey. Some are useful pieces of evidence; others mementos that may or may not stimulate some memory of past encounters. Unspoken meaning often lies dormant in these objects, waiting to find the right moment… Or perhaps not…

Of course, everything must be validated – verified. My field notes are ‘signed off’ by participants after they have read and made necessary corrections and amendments. This process is incredibly useful in developing relationships and maintaining or reinstating some degree of professional distance.

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I hope my research will be of interest and value to academics, policymakers, socially engaged artists and arts organisations. My thesis will need to navigate a careful path so as to appeal to this diverse range of people. Perhaps my autoethnographic approach will help make the research accessible?

And so, the next year or so of my life will be taken up intensively researching my longitudinal case studies, continuing to develop my focused discussions with other individuals and reading as much about the field, other relevant disciplinary approaches and theory as possible. Talking, experiencing, thinking, writing, reading, doing… Then writing up the final thesis.

My life as research…

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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.

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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…

‘Pilots to Practice’–reflections about an ArtWorks PHF participatory arts conference

Yesterday, 9th September 2014, I attended Pilots to Practice at BALTIC – a ArtWorks North East conference about participatory arts.  I presented a PechaKucha entitled above ground level: old as new, new as old – social practice in a post-industrial port (see my previous post below for the presentation).  I also wrote a review of an ArtWorks publication about research into participatory artists’ practice for the #culturalvalue initiative.  I was a bit critical in the review.  I was (apparently) ‘provocative’ in my presentation.  This is my reflection about the day.  (Reflection is, it would appear, very big in participatory arts right now…)

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I’m just going to be brief.  My aim here is to attempt to scratch a niggling itch that developed at this conference.  I’ve felt it before.  It does not go away.  I think it is, in fact, growing…

The itch results from the appropriation of ‘participatory art’ and ‘participation’ by everyone for everything in which people are in some way involved in art.  There is nothing wrong with this.  People can call what they do whatever they want.  Most of the discussions here were about ‘loosely’ participatory, often artist or organisation-led, forms of participatory practice.  There were some nice examples of ‘community art’ used for obliquely political purposes and of anger at the system.  There was a good breakout session that briefly but effectively introduced ‘dialogic practice’.  I tried to be honest and differentiate forms of social practice.  People seemed to like it.  It stimulated a brief discussion about the de-politicisation of socially engaged or community arts practice, which was interesting.  But, nonetheless, the itch crept and crawled around me…

I think the scratchy itch is a product of artists who think social practice is about leading people, pied piper-like, into doing art their way, to their, sometimes seemingly narcissistic agendas; audience members having sudden epiphanies (echoed by the chair’s closing sermon, complete with mock-amens and ironic hallelujahs!); neutral research about the importance for space for artist reflection; a proposed participatory artist network called PALS; over-invested long-term project members hoping for further funding.  I won’t go on.  Scratch.  Scratch.

Don’t get me wrong.  Events like this (and there are many like this) are fascinating.  Stirring me to do my practice differently.  Fascinating for my research.  Initiatives like ArtWorks are, of course, useful.  They won’t change the (arts) world.  They can’t.  There are too many vested interests; too many believers.  My family were (are) evangelists.  I can spot preachers a mile away.  I know ‘preaching to the converted’ when I see it.

My problem is that the preaching is (unlike that of my Grandmother) weak and bland.  Not radical.  Not potentially emancipatory.  Blurry.  Fuzzy.  Safe.  Not a paradigm-shift.  Perhaps subtle elitism?  Rebuilding the ramparts of an old status-quo.  Be honest.  This will not change the world.

When’s the next one?

social practice & social change – my thoughts – an unpublished interview transcript

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This blog post is a transcript of an interview that was never published.  The interviewer asked five questions.  I answered.

 

Can art be an effective way of bringing about social change? If so, any examples? In what ways can it improve people’s lives?

There are many in the arts world who believe art can deliver social change. Arts Council England recently published The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: an evidence review (April 2014), an attempt to make the case for art and culture in terms of benefits to the economy, health and wellbeing, society and education. They’re following a trend in arts and culture towards ‘cultural value’ – attempting to measure and evidence the instrumental values; this is similar to their discussion of intrinsic values described in their Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences: a literature review (July 2014). There are many actors involved in the broader cultural value debate including AHRC, The RSA, The University of Warwick Commission, etc. Meanwhile, Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative and AHRC’s Connected Communities are two examples of the many academic collaborations with arts organisations and artists to also investigate the social value of the arts. In short, the debate about art as a vehicle for social change is as vast as it is fluid.

However, it’s not a new debate. Francois Matarasso is perhaps best known for fathering the idea of ‘art as panacea for all society’s ills’ in his influential text Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (1997). His report led to a dearth of New Labour initiatives attempting to use arts and cultural projects as cures for everything from run-down urban streets to the unemployed; from rehabilitating offenders to improving the grades of low-performing inner city school children. New Labour’s promotion of arts and culture as integral to their ‘things can only get better’ utopian dream collided with their embracing of technocratic forms of governance underpinned by a positivist scientific measuring and evidencing of every aspect of society. The resulting target-driven, cost-benefit culture meant that Matarasso was criticised for not producing enough (or any) evidence to underpin the many claims he made for the role of arts and culture as a mechanism for positive social change…

So, here we are in 2014. There’s renewed interest and belief in the power of the arts and culture to be recognised as an effective engine for social change. Not just in the UK, but worldwide. Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a key aspect of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation. The problem with this perspective, for me, is three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby fraught with political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental; beautifully crafted, state-funded tools, imposing the type of soft power that typically underpins neoliberal agendas. Secondly, there is the question of ‘what is social change?’ Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shift. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism. Thirdly, artists, participants, audiences and people who do not engage with the arts are usually not consulted or placed at the heart of policy-making of any kind, including cultural policy. This means that they are often left disenfranchised by cultural policies ‘done to them’, not ‘with and for them’. For me, notions of social justice offers more interesting perspectives about fairness and equality. It leaves space for self-organising, radicalism and reimagining.

In some senses, my answer may seem negative or evasive. It is not. I’m merely voicing my concerns. I am wary of grand narratives, of positivism, of state control… The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state. I also know that people who engage in arts and cultural activities (whether ‘high’ or ‘popular’ culture) on every level gain insight and experience that is essential to living. Everyone is an example.

Do artists have a responsibility to respond to the social issues that people are concerned about?

An interesting question that immediately prompts memories of the old debate about ‘art for arts’ sake’ versus ‘art as social’. Artists respond to whatever intrigues them in whatever way they see fit. This is an essential element of their quasi-autonomous position in our world. In some cases, artists respond directly to political issues as radical activists, whilst other artists respond to social issues in ways that support political positions and policy. Others are happy painting watercolour seaside themes ad infinitum. Nothing wrong with any of this. All are matters of individual choice and circumstance. No artist has a duty to respond to social issues, although because artists are situated within society, their art is always to one degree or another socially constructed.

Anyway, ‘social issues that people are concerned about’ sounds like another grand narrative. What are these issues and who are concerned about them?

What are the most challenging aspects of working in the area of socially engaged art?

Socially engaged art is, for me, a very freeing mode of working with people and art. Social practice often takes place outside of galleries and in public places; its emphasis is on process and experience rather than aesthetics and autonomy. But this way of working creates positives and tensions. It’s a challenge to self-organise with little money; a challenge to not know who will turn up or what might happen; a challenge to not impose (or, more realistically, to minimise) positions of power within the dynamics of a socially engaged intervention so that the participants can develop a process their way. Social practice is about risk and uncertainty. It’s fun to be able to work independently but also a constant struggle. These challenges (and, probably, many more) are what makes the field so liberating for practitioners and (hopefully) participants.

Is there a way that artists can ensure they create meaningful relationships with local communities?

Tough question. Many practitioners, policy-makers and academics tend to believe that meaningful relationships with communities need to be developed slowly and carefully. I believe that short-term grassroots interventions can create ‘meaningful relationships’ (difficult to define) within communities. I also firmly assert that long-term embedding of artists in communities can be dangerous and not necessarily conducive to fostering creative independence within communities. I’ve been accused of ‘parachuting in’ many times – whether the intervention lasted a day or three months. Interestingly, these accusations always come from other local artists and arts organisations, never from local people who take part. This leads me to conceive of the role of the socially engaged artist as always that of ‘outsider’ (unless the person actually lives in the area, in which case, there are a whole load of other problems likely to arise). As outsiders, we must always be aware that we are privileged and that we can only help others find and make new potential spaces in which they may discover something about themselves that they can hopefully feed into their communities. We do this by being open to the new and by being ‘grassroots’ in our approach – never elitist or aloof. We develop close affinities, often in very short periods of time, and hopefully retain memories that remain with us, but we will always leave. We must…

How is socially engaged art perceived in the art world as a whole?

Many see the practice as ‘not art’ or as amateurish or political or radical or as an instrument for soft state control. All these condemnations are, sometimes, undoubtedly true. The field of socially engaged practice as ‘participation’ is broad, spanning everything from face-painting to Occupy. This is both a strength and a weakness. Also, the interdisciplinary nature of some practices means that boundaries are often blurred between art, science, politics, environmentalism, etc., etc. I think this inability to neatly box socially engaged art is exciting for practitioners but threatening for many traditional arts organisations and artists; it is also confusing for many policy-makers and academics. People taking part do not care what we call what we do. We don’t label our work. For participants, we’re us – people who listen and help them do creative stuff, or challenge people to think differently, to think more…

In my view, any attempt to accredit or institutionalise socially engaged art means it’s no longer ‘socially engaged’ but ‘participatory’. It’s socially engaged art’s ability to challenge status quos, even work with others to radically challenge the state, from positions independent from the state that makes the practice interesting and attractive to more and more artists as a viable way of making art with people rather than for organisations.

‘Cultural Value’ and the Economic and Social Impact of the Arts

I attended a workshop at the University of Warwick on 9th July about Co-producing cultural policy.  The day was very, very interesting and frustrating at times.  I was guest blogger.  I wrote this.  It was originally published here: http://coculturalpolicy.blogspot.co.uk/2014/07/cultural-value-and-economic-and-social.html

 

A morning of valuing artists, museums as co-producers of ‘social justice’ and cultural value as power, followed with an afternoon workshop about value and impact. The long trip to The University of Warwick was certainly action packed. A day of two halves. A room full of interested and actively probing researchers (and a Director of a National Portfolio Organisation). The day was all about policy: cultural value in the morning; humanities research after lunch. So what happened?

First up was Susan Jones, Director of a-n The Artists Information Company. Susan was, as usual, forthright and focused, delivering the hard facts about the #payingartists campaign; about ‘positive’ mission ‘delivery’; campaigning for fair pay for artists. She pointed out that ‘sometimes artists aren’t even mentioned in cultural policy’ anymore; pay had been reduced significantly in real terms since 1997; and nowadays ‘exhibition budgets exclude the notion of paying artists’. Why? Susan was clear to place responsibility on an increasing ‘shift in focus towards infrastructure’ – in cultural buildings and top-heavy management and administration teams. All great stuff! I firmly believe in this perspective too. But Susan’s emphasis was on exhibitions and galleries ‘because that’s where public funding is going in visual arts’. a-n’s new #payingartists video advertisement reinforced what, for me, seemed a rather narrow way of conceiving artistic practice today. Susan explained, however, that a-n are beginning to ‘look outside galleries – beyond exhibitions’, so, perhaps, there’s some hope of an expanded future scope for this undoubtedly ‘must address’ issue. I have a nagging concern about institutionalising artists’ rights and pay, but that’s for another day…

Director of National Museums Liverpool, David Fleming was incredibly passionate in advocating a more radical approach to museum programming than is often, perhaps, the case. He’s a firm supporter of national infrastructure buildings, ‘so long as the public get something out of it’. His approach is all about people, emotions, inter-generational activities, variety, and, ‘fighting for social justice’ – all with an authentic Liverpool voice (although he was quick to explain he’s from Leeds)! His show reel of ‘social justice’ programming left virtually no stone unturned: gender reconfiguration; queer; children’s cancer; dementia; well-being; Hillsborough; gun crime; slavery – all examples of successful ‘collusion with other bodies’ (NGOs, charities, etc.) because, apparently, ‘activists like working with the establishment’. David was blunt in his dislike of policy directed at numbers in the building, citing London museums as a prime example of government policy and funding decisions based upon ‘how many high spending tourists you can attract’. Nevertheless, his advocacy of the Museum Association’s Museums Change Lives agenda and tick-all-boxes social justice narrative left me feeling a little unsettled. Was this really radicalism or soft reinforcing of a form of, undoubtedly left-of-centre, neoliberal state instrumentalism?

Arts Council England’s Senior Policy and Research Manager, Andrew Mowlah, always had an unenviable task. The mood was set. He rehearsed many of the Arts Council’s new ‘tablets of stone’: the need to ‘reflect instrumental and intrinsic values’; fitting ‘the aesthetic… into cultural policy’; ‘making the best possible case for investment in arts and culture’; ‘metrics’; the ‘economic benefits of the UK culture industry’; ‘the wider benefits of the arts’ (beyond economics and tourism, perhaps?); etc., etc. He was steadfast in his defence of the need to ‘evidence’ culture to persuade government to continue to fund arts and culture, concluding that we shouldn’t ‘discount the value of data and evidence’. Many in the audience wondered whether anyone in government really valued the evidence anyway, no matter what its form. For me, any mention of ‘culture industry’ makes me go all Adorno…

Eleonora Belfiore was last in the morning session. Critical antithesis of Arts Council England’s cultural policy, she breezed through a cutting overview of current cultural value policy. Her assertion that the many who see cultural value as a way of determining ‘real value’ are being ‘over simplistic’ was an antidote to the positivist reductionism abounding in much of social sciences and cultural policy right now. Cultural value, like all things, is socially constructed, political, transient, and never neutral – power is always orchestrating. Ele’s example of Big Fat Gypsy Wedding… clearly demonstrated how economics and ‘fun’ programming has very dark undertones: it humiliates an already oppressed ethnic group, redoubling stereotypes whilst making a great deal of money for the media. It is, as Ele explained, the role of academia and research (and, perhaps, the arts and others) to ‘probe the underbelly of cultural value policy’.

I’m over my word count already, so let’s just summarise an excellent afternoon’s research workshop as follows: ‘Impact is not evil’ but ‘how do you engage someone like James Dyson?’ Solid ‘REF Gold’!

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…

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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