Demand the Impossible: New Communities and Concrete Human Existence

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This is my paper I presented alongside Cara Courage and Sir Nick Serota at The Coming Community conference at MK Gallery on 24th May 2019. It followed by, overlaps with, and is linked to the keynote I did the previous day in Berlin (see previous post).

DEMAND THE IMPOSSIBLE: NEW COMMUNITIES AND CONCRETE HUMAN EXISTENCE

The UK is facing many crises. Our NHS is in crisis. Our schools are in crisis. Our government is in crisis. We face a staggering homelessness crisis. Many of our families and children are suffering from abject poverty. Racism and fascism are on the rise. Our culture (or rather our cultures) are in crisis. And, of course, we are facing a housing crisis of a magnitude not faced since the end of the Second World War. People are being dispossessed of and displaced from their homes and there’s nowhere, for many, to go.

And we talk about creative placemaking…

Don’t get me wrong, we need to build entirely new cities, towns and villages and we need to build them all over the UK, not just centred around the South East of England. We need to build much more than just new villages, towns and cities, however. We need to build new economies that deal with the London-centric population and wealth accumulation that has for far too long sucked the life and the people from other UK countries and the English regions into its all-consuming core. This needs new infrastructure and restructured investment of a kind never before imagined.

We need to make new towns and cities and villages that are well-connected - in every sense of the word; that are able to mitigate the climate catastrophe this country and our planet now faces; that provide real jobs that give people real security – not precarious post-Fordist living which fetishises artists as its ragged heroes. We need to return to local living – whether in villages, towns or cities.

We need these new places to have all the facilities that future generations will need. We need community centres and sports facilities and green spaces. Far too many have been sold-off for profit or destroyed by thoughtless developments. And, of course, the communities who have lost the most are those who had the least to begin with: working-class communities. We need communities. We need community spirit. Capitalism and neoliberalism have devastated our communities and our ways of being and living together creatively.

We must Demand The Impossible.

Unfortunately, creative placemaking does not demand the impossible. It reproduces and reinforces the already possible. And it does this over and over and over again. Pretty bunting, patches of grass, rainbow pedestrian crossings, bikeable, walkable, commissioned street art, quirky sunflower street signs, saccharin-sweet salves to the onward march of a neoliberalism that is well-versed in disguising its heartlessly selfish greed behind colourful and fun symbols of capital.

I have written my critique of creative placemaking at length elsewhere and will not rehearse my arguments in detail here today. Suffice to say that we need to think much bigger and demand the impossible right now!

We need to take back our existing cities, towns and villages from the grabbing hands of capital and profit. We need to take back our new towns, cities and villages before they are even built; whilst they are being built. We have a right to the city (and other places where we live) and we must exercise our right to the city by demanding the impossible.

We need to organise ourselves and we need to demand we are, at national, regional, and, crucially, local levels fully able to participate in the planning of our social, economic and political systems at every level.

We live in – and this is becoming increasingly apparent as each day passes – a failing representative democracy that has always favoured the few, not the many. We need to rethink this political system and put people at the heart of everything that we do, every decision that we make. We need participatory democracy and that should be, wherever possible, devolved to as local a level as is possible.

I’m talking about a radical shift in how we govern ourselves and those who have ruled over us for centuries and centuries will not let their grip on power slip. Our rights have never been gifted to us and they will not now. We have always had to struggle. And it is struggle that is behind my notion of place guarding – something very different yet in some ways similar to placemaking.

The trouble with placemaking and, perhaps even more so with creative placemaking, is that it does not and cannot offer people the freedom to take back the city because it is often rolled out as an integral part of neoliberalism’s totalising system. Creative placemaking uses art to window-dress neoliberal regeneration and renewal agendas.

The crucial question here is: ‘Why should we (re)make your places for you?’

People, communities, cultures already exist in places. They produce and reproduce their own social spaces.

Creative placemaking is ultimately a state- and local authority-led policy, filtered down to arts institutions and then on to artists and down to participants and audiences via agencies, funders and a raft of philanthropic foundations and charities. Agencies typically seek to ‘empower’ marginalised people and places through a mixture of socially engaged art, education and outreach.

Whilst creative placemaking could avoid criticism that it is simply remaking places to fit white, middle-class norms, thereby effectively acting to help gentrify neighbourhoods, by being deployed in new cities and towns, it will still, I argue, serve as a toolkit for state- and local authority-led governance, planning and design principles that are tied to false forms of “participation” and “inclusion”.

Place guarding is different. It puts people first, not place. It puts the people who either already live in an area threatened by redevelopment first, or, in the case of new towns and cities (which of course also have existing populations and environments, etc.), place guarding puts the existing and new inhabitants at the heart of deciding what the new urban space needs.

People need to decide on what development and redevelopment is needed, not be “consulted” when planners and government officials have drawn up “draft” plans.

Place guarding is about demanding the impossible. This impossible is, of course, possible: a realisable utopia.

 

 

Utopia stands in opposition to the present culture and against the dominant ideology that controls our social, political and economic thinking with mantras like There Is No Alternative. Critical utopias seek to imagine new visions of that which has not yet been realised but which is immanently realisable.

This type of thinking is about hope for a better world and a radically different world from the one we live in today. It is about thinking about both what has and has not yet been achieved. It is about visualising futures that go beyond a commodity society and global economy based upon the exploitation of humans and nature and natural resources.

Critical utopias imagine futures that cannot be fully articulated because they do not yet exist.

My approach to place guarding is grounded in praxis – in practice as research and research as practice – in thinking and doing. Living and being creatively.

Henri Lefebvre in Critique of Everyday Life wrote:

Our towns may be read like a book … [They] show us the history of power and of human possibilities which, while becoming increasingly broad, have at the same time been increasingly taken over and controlled …

He points out that it is not academics or populists or middle-class people, or even artists alone, who are best placed to decide upon the everyday lives of working-class people. Working-class people and communities should be trusted to build the places and spaces they need and desire together.

Rethinking our cultures is clearly part of that. We must break free of a limited and narrow definition of culture and instead accept that, in the words of Raymond Williams, culture is ordinary. It exists in the everyday. It is everyday life. And it is only by being trusted to fully participate in the unfulfilled possibilities of everyday life and our cultures and cultural activities that everyone can begin to experience the possibilities of concrete human existence.

This is because space is socially produced. It is a concrete abstraction. And to socially produce space based on the principles of neoliberal capitalism transforms such spaces into commodities to be produced, distributed and consumed. This is the language (no matter how it is dressed up) of creative placemaking.

Utopia – and particularly critical utopias – are tomorrow’s possibilities.

Creative placemaking is the product of neoliberalism – make no mistake. And neoliberalism is a false utopia, offering only further oppression for the majority of people. As Lefebvre pointed out in 1968, “To put art at the service of the urban does not mean to prettify urban space with works of art.”

 

 

 

 

 

Rather, it is only by placing the working-class at the forefront of the political agenda (of which planning is a part) that we can “profoundly modify social life and open another era”. This is radical change, not the superficial change offered by the Trojan Horse of creative placemaking.

We must demand the impossible and we must demand it now! The impossible is possible, if only we decide to make it so. The possibilities of living and being creatively in new towns, cities and villages can be imagined together now, if we are serious about participation and participatory democracy and dealing with class oppression and about cultural democracies at local levels.

Imagine what our new cities and towns could be. Let’s not make the same mistakes again. We must look to our futures together and that means radical system change. We can plan our futures together. We can take back the cities, and we can trust the people who will live in our new towns and cities to plan them the way they want.

There are many people working to put people ahead of place. I’m working and have worked in Middlesbrough to put local services first; in Cardiff with Creative Commons Cardiff on a policy initiative to safeguard and expand grassroots culture in a new city-wide alliance; in County Durham pit villages on a people-powered plan to take back land demolished by Category D legislation; with Super Slow Way as a critical friend asking how far can you go?; and as a co-organiser for the Movement for Cultural Democracy that is developing a radically different grassroots approach to rethinking our cultures with participatory democracy and redistributed funding at its heart.

As Mark Purcell says, the “possible world is a long way off” but it is simultaneously “right in front of us”.

Let’s begin by imagining our new places and reimaging our existing places together. We can and must be radical. We can do things differently. Imagine the places where we live and will live in the future as John Berger imagines fields:

Remember what it was like to be sung to sleep. If you are fortunate, the memory will be more recent than childhood. The repeated lines of words and music are like paths. These paths are circular and the rings they make are linked together like those of a chain. You walk along these paths and are led by them in circles which lead from one to the other, further and further away. The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song.

Let’s reimagine art as everyday life and let’s be creative and critical in the ways we demand the seemingly impossible and make radically new possibilities possible today!

To reconnect to ourselves and reconnect with nature, we need a revolution of everyday life.

We do not need art or artists or communities popped into convenient little boxes.

Thank you.