Challenging the artwashing of social cleansing means calling out & critiquing artists involved

This is a response to Anna Francis’s article entitled ‘Artwashing’ gentrification is a problem – but vilifying the artists involved is not the answer.  It includes comments from myself, Emily Jost, Rab Harling and Ewan Allinson.

Your Life But Artwashed, Stephen Pritchard, 2017.

Your Life But Artwashed, Stephen Pritchard, 2017.

Stephen Pritchard

Artwashing is a serious business and it is not something that’s planned or financed by artists.  It is part of the planned social cleansing of urban areas.  Artwashing is used by property developers, local authorities, state governments and others to provide a shiny, often community-engaging veneer that masks the accumulation of capital by dispossession.

For Anna Francis to attempt to suggest that artists are somehow blameless is, however, untrue.  It is impossible for artists, socially-engaged or otherwise, not to be aware of the contexts in which they work or who it is that’s employing them.  It is also perfectly obvious who is paying for their employment – which companies, state agencies and local councils are supporting the projects.  In short, artists employed to artwash gentrification, social cleansing, displacement and, more generally, other corporate and state agendas are complicit in what I argue is a complex deceit and an abuse of public trust.  They are complicit whether they know about what’s going on or whether they are somehow blissfully unaware.

There are many people critiquing artists and arts organisations involved in artwashing.  It is a very real and, unfortunately, rapidly expanding ruse used by capitalists to mislead people and present themselves as ‘caring’ and ‘community-focused’.  Activists, myself included, use online platforms to call out artwashing and challenge artists involved in this process.  We do not vilify artists or arts organisations and often go to great lengths to expose the complex webs which frequently underpin artwashing.  Emily Jost and myself co-founded Artists Against Social Cleansing to encourage artists to think hard about whether their next employer might be using them to artwash social cleansing and other unpalatable corporate and government agendas.  We believe in firm opposition and challenging critique.  We encourage open and frank debate.  We do not shut it down.

The age-old myth which Anna peddles in her article is, unfortunately, just that – a myth.  To suggest that ‘The value of culture in regenerating cities has long been recognised’ is true.  But its value is, as Anna alludes, usually part of Creative Class agendas and is itself deeply problematic.   Yet the proposal that ‘in many cities, culture led [sic] redevelopment occurs organically’ is simply ludicrous – a contradiction in terms, surely.  But, for Anna, this organic culture-led redevelopment happens when:

‘Artists, generally on relatively low incomes, move to areas of the city where rents are affordable.  The presence of the artists make [sic] the area interesting, leading to more interest in property in the area, and ultimately, seeing the area develop.’

Even this fable isn’t organic.  It’s about artists exploiting cycles of disinvestment and, to a certain point, reinvestment.  Anna cannot see how this statement implicates artists in the gentrification of areas and she makes no reference to the many residents and small businesses who are displaced by this process without the opportunity to make art or even be properly consulted.

For me, the work of BHAAAD in San Francisco’s Boyle Heights isn’t ‘extreme’, as Anna suggests, but rather an example of the local people’s anger and frustration as their communities, homes, families and neighbours are artwashed away by affluent art galleries and artists from outside the area.  I will not rehearse old arguments about how and why projects such as Anna’s Estate Agency project represent a form of artwashing.  Indeed, it is dealt with by my co-authors below.

Nevertheless, Anna’s final sentence is rather remarkable.  It reads: ‘Far from being an artwash, this can be a celebratory and cathartic activity – even if the outcome, eventually, is the same.’  So, it is ok, apparently for artists to parachute into neighbourhoods to give people facing dispossession and displacement a voice and to ‘advocate for their rights’, even though their presence will, after injecting some fun and a sense of relief, ultimately result in their dispossession and displacement.  This statement reveals a complete lack of understanding of the role artwashing plays because it actually describes artwashing!

Emily Jost

Artists definitely have a role in "questioning the processes of regeneration" and I welcome any artist making work which highlights the devastation of communities caused by it, bringing it to a wider public, shining a light, making people think.  This is exactly what art is for! However, there are very obvious serious conflicts of interest when artists who are not part of the communities concerned are being paid by the companies and councils who will profit from displacing the poor and averagely-paid and replacing their homes with luxury apartments. 

One of the reasons we founded Artists Against Social Cleansing was to help make artists aware that if they are offered a fee by a developer to create some "socially engaged" artwork with a community facing displacement that they are being exploited and used, and that the outputs of any such project will oil the wheels of the violence of social cleansing. This activity can never be "celebratory and cathartic" for the people who have had to uproot their families, lose their homes and support networks and be "decanted" to places where the land is less valuable.  A poem about a memory on a hoarding that hides the demolition taking place behind in no way "advocates" for people's "rights".

Artists can take a stand against this, they can make other choices, use their creativity to actively fight against these processes. They can support community activists who use their own art to resist and fight and defend their rights to exist.

Artists Against Social Cleansing is about empowering artists to make better informed choices that help them and others and stop them being part of the problem. 

Imagine if all artists said no when asked to perform some socially-engaged artwashing - the corporate councils and developers would have to find other tactics to hide and make palatable what they are doing!

Rab Harling

Somehow these days it all just seems to have become a little bit too much. ‘Its happening everywhere’ is the most common reply to my frequent complaints about gentrification and social cleansing. Yes, it is happening everywhere but if all you do is shrug and turn a blind eye to it, then are you accepting your role as complicit? At what point do you start to protest? Grenfell Tower, perhaps?

It is unfortunate that Arts Council England, artists orgs like Bow Arts and social housing providers turned ruthless developers, like Poplar Harca, have all fallen headlong first into neoliberal behaviour; praising fraud, praising corruption and revenge evictions and generally working in direct opposition against their stated socially-engaged objectives: helping to displace social housing tenants in order profit from the ‘regeneration’ of their homes.

The residents of Teviot Estate did not need Hannah Nicklin to be their artist in residence. In fact, the friends I spoke to on the estate were not even aware of her existence. Nicklin was given (poorly) paid work on that estate because the Poplar Harca social cleansing machine had deemed it necessary to distract from the seizure of dozens of residents’ garages to create a ‘fashion hub’, in conjunction with the Mayor of London and the London College of Fashion. So, nothing for residents at all then. Except Nicklin.

I am grateful Nicklin acknowledged her role was one of artwash for Poplar Harca. Artists have been drafted in to our communities to serve an agenda. In Poplar that agenda is to sanitise the community, to displace working classes and regenerate their homes, all whilst generating public relations material to satisfy their funding requirements. So why should we not identify and challenge artists that take commissions that have such a significant and detrimental impact upon our communities?

If an artist deems it acceptable to take these kind of commission without moral consideration, then those of us who object to the way we artists are being used owe it to our profession and our community to protect our friends and neighbours from this institutional abuse. Recent examples in Poplar include Poplar Pavilion in collaboration with Wellcome Trust and The Lansbury Micro Museum in collaboration with the V&A.  If these mighty organisations actually cared about our community, they would listen to the residents and cease collaborating with property developers with no interest in the community they are rapidly dismantling.

Ewan Allinson

The Judas Goat doesn't run the knackers yard but he increases its efficiency, and gives the rest of us goats a really bad name.