Assemble Useful Art. Call it Socially Engaged. Everyone’s a (Turner Prize) Winner!

Assemble celebrate turner prize 2015

Assemble celebrate turner prize 2015

I’m an art historian.  A critical art historian.  Context is as important as text (artwork) to me.  Works of art, whether “art” made by “artists” or “not-art” made by “not-artists”, “fine art” or “craft” or “popular”, object- or process-based, aesthetic or anti-aesthetic, must be carefully considered for the functions they play within and their interactions with the art world (or art system) and, far more importantly, their broader social and cultural contexts.  This can often lead to troubling and controversial reactions: the art world/ system does not like too much “background”, nor, for that matter, do other “agents” involved in art works (particularly “public” art works).  I’m talking about commissioning art institutions, arts councils, local councils, housing trusts, financial backers of all kinds, even, perhaps (on occasions) local residents.  So, when I hear about how a “community-led” regeneration project used “art” (or, if you’re one of the art purists, “not-art” – architectural design) to “shock” the art world/ system by winning one of their most sought after (and criticised) prizes, I naturally feel suspicious – I want more background. Yep.  Time to come clean.  I’m (obviously) talking about the collective Assemble and their “surprise” Turner Prize 2015 victory for their housing renovation project in the Granby Triangle in Toxteth, Liverpool.  Most reports seem to regurgitate the official (no doubt carefully constructed) narrative: locals struggle to stay in their homes (which they undoubtedly did) then eventually set up a Community Land Trust (which some of them, plus others from all walks of life, did), then asked friendly a collective of lovely DIY-minded London-based “artists” or “architects” or “designers” to “help” (which they did) – or a myriad of variations on this theme.  They were resisting the big names in regeneration; going against urban planning’s notoriously top-down traditions.  Then, to everyone’s surprise, somehow the renovated housing was nominated for the Turner Prize!  What are the odds of that?  They were nominated, at least in part, for their “collaboration” with local residents for helping to renovate the (deliberately made) “derelict” Granby Four Streets near Anfield Stadium, Liverpool.

Some of the Toxteth area has already been regenerated (read gentrified); the rest is earmarked (alongside other prime areas of Liverpool) for redevelopment (read gentrification).  Thank goodness that a community land trust had “collaborated” with a nice architecture community interest company – a social enterprise – to save some houses and give them nice DIY-design inspired interiors!  Thank goodness that they were going to offer them to local people at reasonable prices.  Wonderful to hear they were also going to upskill some local young people.  I must be clear here that the sardonic tone is intentional but I also believe that community intervention and self-organisation in all forms is generally a very good thing.  So what’s the problem with this text (art work)?  As I’ve said, I can accept Assemble’s work as art, even if they’re not so sure/ keen; I can accept it as (really interesting and inspiringly designed) architecture; I can even accept it as socially engaged art, particularly now that the term has been so cynically appropriated by the art world and by UK arts institutions and arts councils in particular; I can accept that it won and, in terms of the Turner Prize’s intentions, deserved to win the award; and I can certainly accept that Assemble’s work has helped to regenerate Granby Four Streets in an uncommon manner.

But I’m still suspicious.  This is all still a little “foregrounded” – a bit superficial.  I had uncomfortable feelings when I attended Liverpool Biennial’s Community Arts Conference last year and listened to the narratives of various people involved in Granby Four Streets and Homebaked.  I dislike claims that the project is an example of socially engaged art but, as mentioned, completely understand why this term is applied to work like this.  But my feelings were piqued when I read a recent article from another attendee of the conference, Gemma Medina, who understood that the only way to avoid gentrification in Liverpool (and elsewhere) was “common ‘organization’”, before innocently proclaiming:

Projects like Homebaked or Granby Four Streets are based on a similar concept of co-ownership and working together: neighbors, designers, architects and artists, on the same level.  But in fact, as many Arte Útil projects, they are directly reacting to the current state.  […]  [A]n act of resistance to the market and neoliberalism.

“Granby Four Streets like many other Arte Útil projects, demonstrates that another reality is possible and it shouldn’t be defined just by the dictates of the market and political agendas. They are opening up our imagination, providing us with effective strategies”, she continues.  This link with Arte Útil has obvious links with the long-term work of Cuban artist Tania Bruguera.  It loosely translates as “useful art” but is about much more than that – a manifesto.  But Arte Útil is a favourite topic for mima director Alistair Hudson and his notions of a “Useful Museum” – an undoubtedly well-meaning attempt to institutionalise art as a (slightly loosely defined) “tool for education and social change”.  And, oh, he was a Turner Prize 2015 jury member.  Nonetheless, Medina explains that, whilst instrumentalism is always a concern for this form of practice, Assemble finally:

decided to use the institution and the visibility of the prize to gain incomes for the community of Granby.  They transformed the Granby Workshop into a social enterprise, manufacturing handmade products used to refurbish the houses where every product can be bought online.  The risk of instrumentalization is always there, but there is a fascinating question around many Arte Util projects: who instrumentalizes who?

So who is instrumentalising who in the case of Assemble and, as a relevant aside, Homebaked?  To be once again clear, I do not wish to belittle or negate the incredibly committed work undertaken by everyone involved in either of these projects.  I just want to contextualise.  Give a little background information that, at least for me, is troubling.  This research is not particularly extensive; certainly not exhaustive.  It’s a start.  It might throw a little light on how the art world works and how it (inter)relates with development agendas.

Well, let’s start by exploring the art world/ system connections.  Granby Four Streets house at No. 48 – the place where Assemble, with Will Shannon, will produce their Homework project – was commissioned by the Craft Council and FACT Liverpool (an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation and a member of Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium – again supported by Arts Council England).  Similarly, Homebaked was commissioned by the Liverpool Biennial and supported by Arts Council England, alongside other significant funders.  So, clearly lots of support from the art world/ system for these “community-led” initiatives...

But, and this brings us to our final piece of the background for now – the regeneration agenda, how community-led is Granby Four Streets?  It was well known that Assemble were actually commissioned by Steinbeck Studio – a company set up in 2013 to “restore neighbourhoods” who “formalized to apply to the City Council to apply for the land and invest in the Granby 4 Streets Community Land Trust that had formed in 2011”.  So Steinbeck Studio invested in the Granby 4 Streets CLT and they, in their own words, “commissioned, initiated and funded” the project for which Assemble won the Turner Prize not the people of Granby Four Streets (well at least not directly).  Steinbeck Studio was founded by Jersey islander Xanthe Hamilton – the sole director of what is a private company limited by shares.  The company has another shareholder – John Davey – the until recently “silent” investor in the project.  Turns out, courtesy of Granby Four Streets’ top blogger Ronnie Hughes, that John Davey finally decided to reveal himself.  He also revealed that he invested £500,000 in the project!  What’s more, he has a long track record and very senior status within the mysterious (to an art historian like me, anyway) world of Managed Wealth Funds.  Steinbeck also have links to a respected legal firm that specialises in property and planning.  Nothing wrong with any of this, of course, just not, perhaps, an exactly comfortable fit with the “community-led” narrative or Medina’s faith in the project as an example of an art-inspired “act of resistance to the market and neoliberalism”.

So, perhaps, Assemble’s Turner Prize 2015 win should be considered within this context?  Perhaps we should recognise their extensive track record of working with the London Mayor, Poplar HARCA, Goldsmiths and Glasgow Commonwealth Games (along with many others) to inject “art” or architectural “not-art” into big regeneration (read, at least on several occasions, gentrification) projects.  They are regularly commissioned by arts institutions.  This is not new to them.  They do their work very well. But, then again, a bunch of Cambridge University graduates often do quite well for themselves. (So much for concerns about diversity and class in the arts and not-arts...)

The art world/ system is inherently complicit with neoliberalism.  Attempts to spin narratives to suggest that initiatives such as those discussed here as opposing free market economics, neoliberalism or instrumentalism are unfair, as are attempts to subsume activism and social practice within a “useful art” toolbox.  They may be obvious to some people inside the system (myself included) but most people believe the media narrative.  A little context always helps better situate art world texts, helping them take their truthful place within our complicated and multi-layered social structures.

Art really is big business!