Artists Against Artwashing: Anti-Gentrification & the Intangible Rise of the Social Capital Artist

This is a transcript of my paper I presented at the Edge | Situated Practice conference at Here East on Saturday 7th October 2017.  The conference was organised by the UCL Urban Laboratory and the Folkestone Triennial, with additional support from the Bartlett School of Architecture and Slade School of Fine Art.  There's a link to my PowerPoint presentation too.  It was a really interesting conference and I think my paper provoked some challenging debate.

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This paper is based on my PhD thesis.  This is a transcript of my paper presentation.

If you'd like to see the full PowerPoint presentation, with notes (turn on notes at the bottom right to see my text for each image), click here.

 

Artists Against Artwashing: Anti-Gentrification & the Intangible Rise of the Social Capital Artist

Artists and arts organisations have always skirted the edges of gentrification.  Like pretty moths, they have happily fluttered around the naked flame of accumulation by dispossession, quietly spinning intricate little cocoons in decrepit capitalist disinvestment.  Precision migrants, they move on the favourable wind of financial investment, astutely drawn by the tiny new bright lights of frontier navigation beacons.

Intention is everything in this cyclical and cynical gentrification dance and artists can no longer play the role of innocent victim.

Some artists nibble away the decaying fabric of working-class community; part of a complex, multi-scalar global infrastructural web spun by transnational agents – property developers, investors, banks, big brand retailers, managed wealth funds, NGOs and the creative industries – using the fine silk state investment.  But, whilst there are few strings attached for corporate regeneration ‘partners’, the creative industries willingly trade funding and cultural status in exchange for increased state instrumentalisation, partial privatisation and new civic responsibilities.  And, cajoled by the state into ever-deepening relationships with the private sector, many arts organisations, artists, architects, etc. discovered new value in the intangible worlds of ‘community development’ and ‘community engagement’.

From community arts to placemaking, some artists coalesced under socially engaged art’s catch-all banner.  Quickly and quietly depoliticised, they became, I argue, Social Capital Artists: specialists in artwashing.

Yet this web extends far beyond the sphere of socially engaged practices.  Nowhere is off-limits!  Art is ensnared by exploitative vested interests – by neoliberal governance and transnational capitalism.

And regeneration is a game.  A game played by the privileged; by those in positions of power.  The regeneration game, like everything in this neoliberal hegemony, is about capital and profit and massive human loss.

And so here we are at Queen Elizabeth Park: a massive private site - a pseudo-public space.
UCL were complicit in plans to demolish the Carpenters Estate, before dropping out following fierce campaigning.  Yet UCL’s Here East and future East campuses are integral to the gentrification and social cleansing of Stratford and Newham.  People were socially cleansed to make way for this.  Mothers and children were displaced. Scattered by Newham Council’s wilful social cleansing.

People resist.

But the wrecking ball just keeps on swinging.

And we talk about the ‘edge’- a deeply problematic abstraction, valuable only to the privileged … And that includes all of us.

This space is not about the ‘unknown or ignored’ nor ‘contrary or diverse phenomena’ nor ‘connectivity and interaction’.  This space is about us – the privileged few – and them – lower-class people who’ve been forcibly dispossessed of their homes and lives.  Evicted.

For Smith, the ‘gentrification frontier’ divided ‘areas of disinvestment from areas of reinvestment’ (1996, p. 187).  This, I believe, is not the subtly depoliticised notion of ‘edge’ at the heart of this conference.  Gentrification was a ‘dirty word’ for Smith, particularly for working-class people whose lives are negated and destroyed by the process and its ‘language of revitalization, recycling, upgrading and renaissance’ (1996, pp. 25-32).  Working-class areas become, in the eyes of gentrifiers, barren wildernesses devoid of anything of value or significance, barring a few ‘salvageable’ landmarks that add much needed ‘authenticity’.

So can situated practice’s exploration of ‘creative use’ for ‘interstitial spaces’ ever function as anything other than artwashing?  Is this conference really about artwashing?  Are there alternatives?  Yes.  Are these alternatives ‘situated practices’?  No.

I will briefly now describe the struggles of two activist groups on London’s ‘gentrification frontier’, specifically looking at examples of how they oppose ‘situated practices’.  First Balfron Social Club and then Southwark Notes Archive Group.

BSC is a collective.  Residents and artists who resist the social cleansing of iconic Balfron Tower and call out artwashing.  They demand 50% social housing in all regeneration projects.
For founding member, artist Rab Harling, who was a tenant during Bow Arts Trust (BAT) tenure of Balfron Tower, ‘art no longer equals freedom of expression, but forced oppression, a violent assault on working class communities by a class of educated and privileged people who choose, in the most part, to turn a blind eye to what is going on, at least until it directly affects them’ (2017).  Harling maintains that BAT not only used artists to act as live/ work tenants in place of decanted Balfron residents but that they colluded with housing association Poplar HARCA to artwash the social cleansing of the tower. When Harling called them out.  He was evicted.

In 2015, BSC wrote what was, I argue, a crucial article on the role of socially engaged artists and their involvement in artwashing: Brutalism [redacted] – Social Art Practice and You.  The article began as follows: ‘It has come to our attention that a new and “innovative” art practice is coming to the area.  It is an organisation that engages in … wait for it: “Social Art Practice”’ (Balfron Social Club, 2015).

Funded by the lottery and employed by councils and property developers, ‘The Social Art practitioner is placed in sites of contestation, and asked to do the footwork of those who really are creating concrete social change: the social cleansers’.  The idea of creatively engaging citizens, stimulating employability and building ‘positive social change’ parrots those of the state, housing developers, housing associations, councils and arts funders.

The collective identified a ‘new currency’: that of ‘social capital’ and ‘enterprise’ (Balfron Social Club, 2015).  In its sinister toolkit: social practice, engagement and placemaking.  This is top-down policy.  It is not grassroots.

Artists serving under this system become Social Capital Artists: the harvesters and monetisers of the intangible elements of people’s lives and the bonds and ties that once held vulnerable communities together.  Once their social capital has been sifted, it is used as corporate PR and case studies for arts funders and the state; used as evidence of community engagement and consultation by local councils and property developers alike, validating the displacement of the very people who, by taking part in these ‘creative engagement processes’, gave their social capital away for free.  This practice is what I term community artwashing.  Social Capital Artists – proficient in garnering trust - are its agents.

One of BSC’s key strategies is the use of social media.  For instance, when socially engaged artist Hannah Nicklin was commissioned to work with the community in the Teviot Estate, BSC intervened.  Nicklin had been commissioned by ACEfunded socially engaged art organisation the Social Housing Arts Network (SHAN) who in turn were commissioned by Poplar HARCA.  Nicklin became ‘storyteller in residence’ for Poplar HARCA, collecting ‘collected people’s stories about living in the area’ and turning some of them into illustrated ‘modern day folk tales’ (Social Housing Arts Network, 2016a, pp. 3435).  She gathered the social capital of local people – their life stories, thoughts and fears – then digitally re-presented them as a simulation; a game.
When challenged by BSC, Nicklin explained that a transaction of sorts had taken place between herself and the 60 participants she had worked with in which she had ‘shared my skills and craft in exchange for the stories people were willing to offer’ (Nicklin, 2016).  This notion of exchange is interesting, reflecting an exchange of social capital.  Yet can the value of Nicklin’s skills (which were delivered to participants as part of her paid function as a commissioned artist) be compared to the value of the stories gifted by participants?

Nonetheless, Nicklin understood that art and gentrification often complement each other.
Nicklin concluded that her project was artwashing because, whilst it attempted to address gentrification, it also promoted ‘the values of Poplar HARCA’.  BSC had opened a debate with an artist that led her to reflect upon her work and begin to understand how socially engaged artists can be embroiled in artwashing gentrification.  BSC revealed how artists were used to strategically glean intangible community assets – social capital; a complementary value-adding extra to accompany the tangible accumulation by dispossession associated with the material practice of land-grabbing.

And, like BSC, the work of Southwark Notes (SNAG) is of central importance to my research.  SNAG is a politically independent group of ‘local people who aren’t particularly happy about what is going on in the name of “regeneration”’ (Southwark Notes, 2017a).  It demands regeneration schemes enhance the quality of existing communities.  Like BSC, the collective uses the moniker Southwark Notes to maintain anonymity.

The group works to oppose gentrification across Southwark and further afield, both individually and with other local groups.  It also has links to other anti-gentrification groups in other countries, including international activist art collective Ultra-red.  SNAG was involved in the occupation of the Heygate estate’s gardens, organised regular walks around the area, helped community groups fighting the demolition of the nearby Aylesbury Estate, and played an important role in the successful scrapping of artist Mike Nelson’s planned pyramid sculpture which was to have been constructed from the rubble of a demolished building on the estate.

For Graham and Vass, SNAG ‘is exemplary of [a] kind of solidarity, in which artists work alongside residents in campaigns to develop interventions against the gentrification of the Elephant and Castle … with little distinction made between artists and other activists’ (2014, p. 16).

SNAG often campaign about art projects in the area.  For example, they became concerned about ACE-funded artists’ project, the People’s Bureau.  For SNAG, People’s Bureau failed to challenge ‘Delancey’s ground zero plans for the Shopping Centre’, or their plans to make ‘Elephant a luxury destination’.   And, whilst the People’s Bureau claimed to offer empowerment through art, for SNAG the artists ‘brushed aside’ the ‘everyday concerns’ of local people and local small businesses facing displacement with the ‘empowerment to surrender’ (Southwark Notes, 2016a).  Crucially, SNAG examined how People’s Bureau’s ‘skills exchange’ programme led to the ‘harvesting of personal experiences’ for conversion into ‘museum exhibits as traces of a disappearing life’ (2016a).  Such circumstances facilitate the conversion of personal narratives and community bonds and ties into first social capital and then into cultural capital via the construction of a particularly sentimental and yet divisive form of third person nostalgia narrative.

For SNAG, the community (like so many others) was disempowered by a ‘mummification process’ epitomised by the work of People’s Bureau:

There will always be a fundamental power imbalance here: the community is studied in its natural habitat by the artists sponsored by the council/ developers.  The unspoken agreement is that the artists never really look at how the community’s desires might be in conflict with regeneration plans.  Without tackling that power imbalance, all of this works to prove that regeneration is inevitable: it is the best of all possible worlds, there is no alternative.  The community is destroyed and its colourful life is placed in “the museum of fish and chips” (2016a).

People’s Bureau’s go-anywhere, do-anything colourful cart became a metaphor for Elephant and Castle’s soon-to-be-displaced ‘colourful local community’; the artists became ‘low value assets’ capable of smoothing the impact of regeneration; ‘part of the problem’, the artists worked ‘for Delancey’s interests’ as an ‘on-the-cheap service provider’ (Southwark Notes, 2016a).

Yet SNAG acknowledges that, inevitably, the area will be redeveloped.

I suggest both BSC and SNAG reflect, in different ways, three forms of action against neoliberal urban governance.  Firstly, they challenge the ‘forms, goals and effects of corporate urban development’ and oppose the commodification of public space, simultaneously highlighting the impact of these policies upon those people dispossessed by their outcomes.  Secondly, by fighting neoliberal policies and politics, including the dismantling of the welfare state, they seek social justice.  Thirdly, they challenge global financial institutions and defend public services locally and nationally, effectively opposing neoliberalism at the levels of global investment and within national and local systems of governance (Mayer, 2009, p. 366).

Both BSC and SNAG have a strong sense of, and commitment to, place and yet they seem to avoid what Chatterton and Pickerill called ‘defensive localism’ (2010, p. 485).  They shatter any notion of entrenched or ‘parochial place-boundedness’ that may be levied at activist art seeking to oppose gentrification.  I therefore argue their practices reflect how today’s activist art collectives attempt to work with and function within (or perhaps at the edges of) the everyday:

Being simultaneously against, within and after capitalism means that the everyday becomes the terrain where our politics are fought for and worked at … Just as capitalist social relations are reproduced at an everyday level, so too ordinary everyday practices can be generative of anti- and post-capitalisms (2010, p. 485).

It is therefore possible, I claim, to use art theory as part of a broader armoury; to think and act creatively in radical ways that collapse art into everyday life and grassroots protest.  Such a tactical outlook may not only assist local collective actions against gentrification but may also be an effective form of ‘calling out’ artists and arts institutions who are working in the services of gentrifiers; of contesting the complicity of art and the creative industries as a sometimes subtle, sometimes obvious foil for global capital.

Thank you.