Artwashing Social Space

I presented this paper at Art and the Urban symposium at Senate House last week. It reflects some of my PhD research.

 Screenshot from 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' (Official video) by They Might Be Giants.

Screenshot from 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' (Official video) by They Might Be Giants.

ARTWASHING SOCIAL SPACE

Fifty years ago, Henri Lefebvre wrote that ‘Everyday life, the social territory and place of controlled consumption, of terror enforced passivity, is established and programmed … [so that] as a social territory it is easily identified, and under analysis it reveals its latent irrationality beneath an apparent rationality, incoherence beneath an ideology of coherence, and sub-systems, or disconnected territories linked together only by speech’ (1968).

I’m interested in dialectics; in recontextualising the research and practice of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory.  For me, both art and space are socially produced.  As praxis, my work synthesises art theory with urban theory: critical theory becoming a lens to locate the research within cultural policy, politics, economics, and social psychology.

I aim to propose new ways of thinking about the interrelated roles art plays within an increasingly uneven, transnational and globalised world, and the complex roles art plays in regeneration, gentrification and artwashing.  Those complexities are often both hidden behind simple narrative devices (such as communities taking control of their own housing, as in the case of Granby 4 Streets, for example) and used as a way of masking the layers of vested interests that coalesce around art projects involved in ‘urban renewal’.  Attempts by artists and collectives to oppose gentrification were/are often appropriated by gentrifiers and, sometimes, even commissioned as permitted and limited ‘anti-gentrification’ actions.  Conversely, some arts organisations have managed to drive or participate in smaller-scale community-led regeneration projects without becoming subsumed or completely instrumentalised by the state, local authorities, corporations and institutions.

However, the focus of this brief paper is to look at the role art plays in artwashing urban regeneration and renewal – which is often code for planned gentrification and intentional social cleansing, how artwashing feeds on people and communities and their so-called ‘social capital, and how activists oppose artwashing.  Artwashing lacks an academic definition but is perhaps best defined as ‘a process that uses artistic practices unwittingly (or not) in the service of private capital’ in which art is intentionally employed as a tool designed to ‘to make a place more “amenable” for private capital and the aesthetics that it currently desires’ (Mould, 2017).

Whilst it has long been acknowledged that artists and arts organisations are prized for their ability to pioneer new gentrification processes and to support culture-led Creative City ‘regeneration’ initiatives, they are being increasingly co-opted and commissioned to perform more obliquely community-based functions with regeneration and gentrification agendas.  Yet, whilst artwashing is commonly believed to operate as a gloss that can increase an area’s desirability and its property values as well as reinforcing property developers’ social licences to operate and offering positive PR and enhanced ‘consumer trust’ for developers and local councils, it also functions at a smaller-scale within communities.  What I term ‘community artwashing’ does not seek to increase the value of physical assets such as property and land, nor does it feed from cultural capital.  Instead, socially engaged art and creative placemaking become vehicles for the often-vacuous process of community-consultation-by-art.

Community artwashing claims to ‘build’ or ‘grow’ social capital within ‘deficient’ communities using participation in arts activities as a façade for the simultaneous ‘harvesting’ of local people’s existing social capital.  Social capital gleaned from local people undergoing or under threat of gentrification often takes the form of memories, stories, histories and even old photographs.  So, rather than ‘building community assets’, it is harnessed to create ‘memorials’ to disadvantaged communities displaced by gentrification, and as a way of showing how local people were consulted and perhaps even consented to their displacement by property developers and local councillors who invested in soon-to-be-displaced communities by bringing in an artist or arts organisation as creative consultants.

I argue that social capital theory underpins the quiet rise of community artwashing and that socially engaged artists employed as its agents should be thought of as ‘social capital artists’.  Social capital artists gather then sanitise the one thing that capitalism could not commodify – until now – the intangible bonds and ties that keep struggling and long-abandoned local people together.  Social capital artists gain people’s trust only to exploit it in neatly packaged, PR-friendly bundles; magically turning the valueless into monetary value via its recycling as an intangible asset.

  Screenshot from 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' (Official video) by They Might Be Giants.

Screenshot from 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' (Official video) by They Might Be Giants.

Let’s quickly look at some examples.

Park Fiction (PF) in Hamburg was promoted as artists and community members using direct action and art to ‘take back’ a disused space in the rapidly gentrifying district of St. Pauli that was turned into a public park that remains there to this day.  Some critics and even co-founder Christoph Schäfer felt that the project eventually acted as a cultural signifier of the area’s gentrification.  However, it appears that PF was not an example of grassroots artistic activism that was recuperated by developers and local authorities.  Rather, Schäfer and his colleagues were commissioned by the Hamburg authorities to produce a public art intervention; an intervention that seemed to act to reinforce the city’s gritty, self-organised, subcultural image which was itself an important element in the city’s overall gentrification.  It is possible to conclude that PF (and perhaps some of Schäfer’s later projects such as PlanBude) was a form of local authority-led artwashing insofar as the project was commissioned and funded by Hamburg authorities (themselves mesmerised by Richard Florida) and used as a vehicle to sell the city’s ‘coolness’ globally.

Assemble’s relationship to Granby 4 Streets is similarly complex.  Originally promoted as grassroots ‘collaboration’ between the architects-cum-socially-engaged-art collective and disenfranchised local people, it became apparent that Assemble were commissioned and paid by private investors to undertake the work.  Assemble’s 2015 Turner Prize win gave the project in Liverpool and the collective itself global media attention.  The private investors used their own money to lever significant funds from ACE and a range of other funders.  Whilst G4S has improved the local area and guaranteed a very small number of homes under the terms of the Community Land Trust, the involvement of Assemble seemed to function as a form of corporate and state/ local government artwashing.  Indeed, the private investors later wrote that their involvement with Assemble and Granby 4 Streets was a sort of trial – an attempt to create a blueprint for similar scalable investments on a potentially global scale.

Like Granby 4 Streets, Homebaked was initially commissioned and funded by the Liverpool Biennial using ACE funds, amongst others, and it also used a ‘big name’ artist to attract art world and media attention to the project.  Jeanne van Heeswijk is a globally recognised socially engaged artist with many years’ experience working for regeneration projects.  The work in Anfield with Homebaked can also be considered as a relatively low-key yet important cultural intervention in a previously condemned area of Liverpool now undergoing significant regeneration that may, like Toxteth where G4S are based, lead to future gentrification.  Art can here be considered as a form of state and local government artwashing with van Heeswijk cast in the role of, in the words of activist collective BAVO, an ‘NGO artist’.

Of course, artwashing has numerous functions today.  Just think of Bow Arts’ Balfron Season, their use of artists as temporal pioneers in many major areas of gentrification in London – a process honed at Balfron Tower.  Just look at the state artwashing of ‘The North’ (whatever that is) with their corporate sponsorship of the Great Exhibition of the North with weapons-maker BAE Systems.  And, just look at V&A’s artwashing (again on behalf of the state) of the gentrification of Robin Hood Gardens.  The institution has ‘salvaged’ a ‘fragment’ of this ex-council housing estate so it can sail it to Venice and back for the architectural biennale before putting it on show in its new museum at Queen Elizabeth Park, Stratford – itself a site of hyper-gentrification; a pseudo-public space.  On and on and on.

  Screenshot from 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' (Official video) by They Might Be Giants.

Screenshot from 'Birdhouse in Your Soul' (Official video) by They Might Be Giants.

But let’s now briefly consider how activist art can support movements opposing gentrification and social cleansing.

Anti-gentrification activism cannot simply rely on art to prevent or resist gentrification.  Just look at artists’ collective Public Art Documentation and Distribution in New York’s Lower East Side.  Today, groups such as Balfron Social Club, Southwark Notes and Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement fight guerrilla wars in which art is largely hidden or perhaps collapsed within everyday life.  These collectives understand it is unlikely gentrification processes can be prevented, at least not without a mass movement.  It is important to note that the anti-gentrification activist artists are influenced, to varying extents, by the radical avant-garde.  As such, it is possible to argue that the radical avant-garde is alive in the form of anti-art, tactical interventionism such as that employed by BSC and SNAG.

By disavowing art and using art theory against its institutionalised incarnations, these collectives avoid being subsumed by the art world and thereby conduct ‘knowing’ campaigns that expose the spectacles of art in the service of gentrification and the complex complicities of the gentrification process at local, national and international levels.  Their archives are widely accessed and contain important information that could be used to educate future generations about gentrification and corporate exploitation.  However, it is perhaps their creative acts of disobedience and refusal to conform or comply that remain their greatest assets.  Their actions seek freedom, liberation and social justice.  Their work extends beyond anti-gentrification.  Both SNAG and BSC do not oppose regeneration if it is beneficial to everyone already living in the areas.  They oppose the devastation of dispossession and displacement enforced by urbanism’s unstoppable juggernaut – gentrification – and the pernicious effects of artwashing.

The arts and space (our social spaces) are socially produced and reproduced.  Yet, art can be so much more than a veneer, an artwash.  We live in turbulent times, so why doesn’t our art reflect that turbulence rather than simply work with our oppressors to smooth over our oppression?  Perhaps it is time to reintroduce notions of playing, living creatively, the aesthetic experience as cultural experience, potential space, noncompliance, disobedience, self-realisation, and freedom into our ways of considering how art and creativity are part of everyday life and what that might mean about how we live creatively together.  We need to decolonise our minds, our lives.  The arts are essentially humanistic and social.  This is the moment to think of the arts as such rather than instrumentalise them in the name of conformity or financial gain, or reduce them to numbers and evidence-based functions in the positivist conceits of measurability and accountability.

For the Situationist International, urban environments offered alternatives practices capable of radically transforming and interrupting everyday life.  This is Lefebvre’s ‘everyday utopianism’.  We need to rediscover our everyday utopias, our critical utopias, and our spirits of everyday utopianism.  Because then art can become, in the words of Situationist International, a truly ‘revolutionary praxis’ (1961).

Thank you.

 'La Contestation' (Protest).

'La Contestation' (Protest).