Place Guarding: Activist Art Against Gentrification - my book chapter originally published earlier this year in "Creative Placemaking"

This is a copy of my book chapter which was published earlier this year in Creative Placemaking: Research, Theory and Practice (2018). The book is edited by Cara Courage and Anita McKeown and is published by Routledge. It is available to buy here. Thanks to the editors for permitting its reproduction here.

Image from Futurecity website. The company provides “cultural placemaking” strategies and projects globally.

Image from Futurecity website. The company provides “cultural placemaking” strategies and projects globally.

 

Abstract

The US policy platform of creative placemaking (Nicodemus, 2013, p. 214) is becoming a dominant global vehicle for the implementation of neoliberal ideologies (Wilbur, 2015, pp. 96-7) like the Creative City (Landry & Bianchini, 1995) and Creative Class (Florida, 2002). This chapter explores how activist art within the context of housing protests can offer potentially generative approaches to place guarding capable of resisting appropriation by policy platforms like creative placemaking.

This chapter argues that creative placemaking is a state- and local-authority inspired policy wedded, via corporate partnerships, to neoliberalism: an approach that merges art with community and economic development at every level of society – from the global to the hyper-local. It suggests that creative placemaking thereby utilises Creative City and Creative Class models alongside New Urbanist principles and social capital theory to become an effective means of gentrification. Yet the chapter also argues that art and artists can use their creativity as part of broader social movements to resist and oppose gentrification. This process can be described as a form of ‘place guarding’ – collective acts of protecting existing people and places from the ravages of neoliberalism and policies and practices such as creative placemaking and artwashing – the use of art as a veneer or mask for corporate or state agendas (O'Sullivan, 2014).

 

Introduction

Art has been used as a symbol of property, wealth and power since the beginnings of civilisation (Groys, 2008). However, it became wedded to capitalism and thereby to ‘regeneration’ agendas during the late twentieth century (Vickery, 2007), culminating in the dominant ideologies of the Creative City (Landry & Bianchini, 1995) and Creative Class (Florida, 2002). Creative placemaking is founded on these notions (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010b, pp. 5, 31). Yet the Creative City and Creative Class models are widely accused of driving gentrification globally (Malanga, 2004, p. 36; Peck, 2005, pp. 740-1). These models have been widely adopted by national and local governments who have corralled the arts into a wildly divergent economic classification commonly known as the creative industries. Indeed, even the originator of the Creative Class recently acknowledged that it led to gentrification (Florida, 2017, pp. xvi-xvii). The co-option of art as one element of the creative industries leaves it vulnerable to economic exploitation, including its use as a placemaking tool for state-led gentrification.

This chapter asserts that gentrification remakes places for the middle-classes; that art is its stalking horse. Art when fused with the overlapping agendas of urban renewal, localism and neoliberalism and the normative ideals of the civic, community development, social capital and, ultimately, financial capital, becomes a powerful weapon for displacement. Housing is the key battleground. But some artists, working indistinguishably with other community members, employ acts of resistance to deny compliance, to refuse complicity. Invoking and embodying a spirit of disobedience, indignation and insurrection, they stand in support of those threatened by neoliberalism’s insatiable desire for accumulation by dispossession. Such acts can be considered as attempts to defend and guard people and places threatened by gentrification; actions aimed at exposing the complex interrelationships that occur when art and urban regeneration meet in contested spaces.

The roots of creative placemaking

It is possible to argue that creative placemaking is a product of Creative City participation and investment, New Urbanism’s ‘community building’ of diverse neighbourhoods and ‘human-scaled urban design’ (Congress for New Urbanism, 2017), and Creative Class economics. Moss, for example, argued Florida and his associates had, in The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), not only sold the idea of Creative Class as a means of improving economic prosperity but also ‘made the current creative placemaking movement possible’ (2012). The creative placemaking ‘movement’ is particularly strong in the US and expanding globally. The US independent federal arts funding agency, the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), describes creative placemaking as a strategic partnership that uses art and culture to animate and rejuvenate people and places, as well as improve ‘local business viability and public safety’ (Nicodemus, 2012). This is a definite and important shift in tone: ‘regeneration’ renamed as ‘placemaking’; ‘cultural regeneration’ becomes ‘creative placemaking’; and art is reimagined as ‘one of the leading place-making devices’ in this new urban economy (Mathews, 2010, p. 667).

For Courage, placemaking as a form of social practice – as a form of socially engaged art practice – is distinct from creative placemaking because it reflects a recognition of the value of how some artists have worked with people and place for many years (Schumerth, 2015). But, just as there is nothing new about artists exploring place, there is also little new about other sectors using artistic practices for their own benefits - community organisers and property developers alike. Yet whilst Courage (2017) acknowledges the value of rigorous, long-standing, socially embedded artistic practice in which artists and community members become (relatively) equal contributors in social practice placemaking processes, the practice has been reduced and rebranded; conflated within creative placemaking. It is possible to argue that the rebranding and appropriation of socially engaged art practice began in when Landesman (2009) coined the term creative placemaking to describe a strategic policy platform that incorporated arts-led processes into cultural regeneration initiatives (McKeown, 2016). In this way, creative placemaking becomes a component of neoliberal post-welfare governance; particularly part of localism agendas. It is therefore possible to argue that creative placemaking, like localism more broadly, seeks to consolidate ‘the social’ within localised free market economics (Hess, 2009; Davoudi & Madanipour, 2013; Williams, et al., 2014).

 

Creative placemaking, social capital and gentrification

Creative placemaking, like the arts in general, promotes itself in dual economic terms: as capable of generating financial capital and social capital. For example, Stern (2014, p. 86) claims that within the practice ‘there is room for both investment- and social capital-driven policy making’, although warning that creative placemakers must fully understand the practice better to avoid unanticipated or unwanted outcomes. Bennett (2014, pp. 77-8) adopts a more positivist position, arguing that creative placemaking can ‘strengthen economic development, encourage civic engagement, build resiliency, and/or contribute to quality of life’. Social capital theory is an economic and cultural approach that seeks to build networks and civic norms by developing ‘the links, shared values and understandings in society that enable individuals and groups to trust each other and so work together’ (Keeley, 2007, p. 102). And it is social capital that is increasingly emphasised as a way of deflecting attention from creative placemaking’s primarily economic function, whilst simultaneously building its claim to be a tool for community development and civic improvement.

Social capital is considered by the World Bank to be a crucial element of community driven development, alongside participation and the decentralisation of many state functions to regional and local authorities, including civic society and private sector organisations:

Social capital refers to the institutions, relationships, and norms that shape the quality and quantity of a society's social interactions.  Increasing evidence shows that social cohesion is critical for societies to prosper economically and for development to be sustainable.  Social capital is not just the sum of the institutions, which underpin a society – it is the glue that holds them together (The World Bank, 2004).

Artists engaged in community contexts are perfectly suited to harnessing social capital because, unlike corporate consultants, they are frequently able to earn the trust of local people and community groups, and trust is perhaps the single most important element of social capital (Pritchard, 2017). Because social capital theory underpins neoliberal state policies around urban regeneration, community development, civic engagement and localism (Mayer, 2003, pp. 119-22) and is also a global economic theory that ultimately seeks to monetise intangible assets and exploit them, the marriage of art and social capital can be considered ideological.

Nevertheless, it is important to understand that social capital is used by the state as a way of measuring public ‘good’ and public ‘bad’ (Pantoja, 2002, p. 138). It thereby functions positively and negatively. Social housing has suffered from intensive under- and dis-investment for many years and many of these places, now deemed to possess low levels of social capital, are earmarked for improvements, which include arts engagement and wellbeing programmes (Vella-Burrows, et al., 2014; Robinson, 2016; Ecorys, 2017). If programmes such as these are, as is almost always the case, unsuccessful, communities may be classified as ‘failing’ or ‘deprived’ or ‘sink estates’ or ‘slums’ and therefore in need of further social and physical regeneration. Many of so-called ‘sink estates’ have witnessed a raft of arts projects. In London, for example, the Aylesbury estate has witnessed numerous participatory art projects supported by the Creation Trust. Furthermore, the Lansbury Estate has similarly been the site of arts interventions, including a long-term V&A ‘micro-museum’, whilst the V&A residency at Robin Hood Gardens culminated with the removal of a section of ex-council housing to be preserved and rehoused in its new museum in Stratford, East London.

Within a neoliberal agenda, the standard approach to improve a neighbourhood’s social capital is to renew it by bringing in new, middle-class people with high social capital (Josten, 2013, p. 21). This is fertile ground for artists and creative placemakers. But the presence of artists and placemaking initiatives often drives gentrification and the area’s original residents are often ultimately displaced (Bedoya, 2013). In these cases, artists and creative placemakers can perform a dual role in what can be considered as artwashing: first, they ‘embed’ within local communities and carefully and creatively harvest their social capital; second, their presence acts as an indicator of the area’s creativity and a flag to other property developers and small enterprises (often established by those classed as ‘hipsters’) that the area is ‘up-and-coming’ (Pritchard, 2017). It is this twin-pronged manipulation of artistic practices that are increasingly opposed and called-out by activists.

Cultural activists and activist artists understand that artistic practices like socially engaged art and creative placemaking encourage artists and arts organisations to work in partnership with private, public and third sector institutions (Balfron Social Club, 2015). This leads commissioned artists to become complicit in capitalist exploitation, reproducing the state and corporate agendas and promoting forms of neoliberal governance that are at once more central and more local. The now ubiquitous Creative City has become an emancipatory ideal for the new Creative Class and a revanchist reality for the city’s ‘others’ (Lees, 2014, p. 52), with artists often touted as exemplars of a new class of creative entrepreneurs. This class polarisation, driven by a global free market economy, restricts community organisations (including arts organisations) tasked with tackling exclusion and poverty to the limited objectives set by the state and corporations (Mayer, 2007, p. 100). Peck describes this as ‘the creativity script’ – individualistic and market-driven – in which creativity becomes a cheap and cheerful means of reinforcing fierce competition, valorising a ‘superior’ Creative Class, and validating it via the market and ‘post-progressive urban policy’ (Peck 2009, pp. 5-7). This incorporation of art within the discourse of neoliberal urban development (and therefore gentrification) makes it increasingly complicit with state and corporate interests. The narrative is one of ‘heroic elites’ saving inner cities from the ‘dangerous classes’ (Madden, 2013): the binary opposite of Lefebvre’s (1968) assertion of the right to the city.

There are deeply problematic links between creative placemaking and third wave gentrification. For Smith, the third wave - or ‘generalised gentrification’ – expands global capital’s reach into local neighbourhoods using complex amalgamations of ‘corporate and state powers and practices’ to create ‘landscape complexes’ that integrate ‘housing with shopping, restaurants, cultural facilities …, open space, employment opportunities’ and more. Generalised gentrification enables ‘global interurban competition’ couched in the language of ‘urban regeneration’ (Smith, 2002, pp. 441-3). Gentrification foreshadows the ‘class conquest of the city’ with ‘new urban pioneers’ intent on the ‘systematic eviction’ of the working-class from cities.  Social histories are rewritten ‘as a preemptive [sic] justification for a new urban future’; slums transform into ‘historic brownstones’ with facades ‘sandblasted to reveal a future past’ as the middle-classes ‘recolonize the city’ (ibid., 1996, p. 25-7).

 

Creative placemaking as neoliberal function

The neoliberal language of urban regeneration

Creative placemaking merges the discourse of urban regeneration with the language of urban architects, business and economics as well as that of not-for-profit community development, softening neoliberalism with culture and community on the one hand, and neoliberalising culture and community on the other. Typically, creative placemaking advocates a ‘more decentralized portfolio of spaces acting as creative crucibles’ (rather than the traditional big arts centre or cultural quarter models) in which arts and culture exists ‘cheek-by jowl with private sector export and retail businesses and mixed-income housing, often occupying buildings and lots that had been vacant and under-used’ (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010b, p. 3).  But these sort of ‘pop-up’ art activities and forms of mixed-use housing and community development are often associated with gentrification (Hancox, 2014; Schulkind, 2017). Creative placemaking in this vein, thereby reproduces a falsely utopian vision in which artists live next door to corporations, rich next to poor.

Referring to fourteen specific case studies, in the creative placemaking White Paper, Markusen and Gadwa stated: ‘Private sector developers, lenders, sponsors, philanthropists, and local arts businesses have in most cases been important facilitators of arts and culture-led revitalization’ (2010a, p. 20). The voices of community members, individual artist practitioners and cultural activists are obviously missing from this description, revealing the top-down nature of placemaking (and cultural regeneration in general). The link to property developers is telling. Property developers and local authorities often utilise the ‘artistic mode of production’ as symbolic capital with which to construct ‘new place-identities’ that increase their economic value by rebranding them as ‘creative’ (Zukin & Braslow, 2011, p. 131). Typically, gentrification and displacement follow as can be seen, for example, in the rebranding of Manhattan’s SoHo district, London’s Kings Cross as the city’s ‘Knowledge Quarter’, Chicago’s Wicker Park, and Queen Elizabeth Park, London.

 

Community engagement and social capital

Creative placemaking often markets itself as employing a ‘community arts’ approach that can, for example, ‘impact participants individually by fostering transferable life skills’ and ‘cultivate social capital’ (Artscape, 2017). This is somewhat of a departure from traditional notions of community arts practice, perhaps reflecting what Kelly considered to be the demise of community arts as activism, replaced by a professionalised and respectable simulacrum (1984, p. 38). However, Artscape’s normative outlook, which is mirrored by some other creative placemaking agencies, not only appropriates the contested term ‘community arts’, it does so to mask its (frequently downplayed) economic objectives. Some placemakers are, however, rightly sceptical about privileging artists by placing them at the centre of placemaking (Nikitin, 2013; Project for Public Spaces, 2015). Nonetheless, both movements tend to emphasise the importance of social capital, repeating arguments about how social capital is a ‘social good’ capable of combating social exclusion by increasing participation and citizenship. Project for Public Spaces (PPS), for example, argues that ‘one of the most important factors in any effort to change the way that we shape the places where we live and work … [is] social capital’ (2012). Placemaking becomes a way to develop ‘loose social networks’ and thereby ‘urban resilience’ and to reinforce existing social ties whilst simultaneously stimulating new ones (ibid.). The importance of social capital developed through community participation to placemaking cannot be underestimated.

Mayer describes the rush by policymakers to broadly apply the rhetoric of grassroots participation and community activism as part of a ‘new mode of governance’ dominated by economics:

By prioritizing specific forms of civic engagement (while neglecting others), [social capital] filters the contemporary reconfigurations in the relationship of civil society, state and market in a peculiar way, which is conducive to supporting the spread of market forces in areas so far beyond the reach of capital (2003, pp. 110-1).

Insisting that marginalised people and communities suffer from a lack of social capital rather than disempowerment, domination and exploitation enables neoliberal governments to employ the burgeoning third sector to encourage wealthier people to volunteer. This undermines direct state welfare systems, expanding the reach of the market way beyond its traditional confines. Social capital policy achieves this by labelling voluntary and civic activities as a form of capital, which reconfigures them as economic assets, thereby facilitating ‘good governance’ based upon public-private-civic partnerships (Mayer, 2003.). Social capital therefore offers low-cost solutions for social issues, placing social capitalists at the head of efforts to both reduce the size of the state and to refine traditional neoliberalism. Social capital interventionism, spearheaded by state-led arts institutions and creative placemakers forms a vanguard of (relatively) cheap, often cheerful options that not only ‘engage’ (some) marginalised people but also produce aesthetically pleasing outcomes which in turn are used as ‘evidence’ of ‘inclusion’.

This increasing valorisation of civic engagement embeds the principle of social capital within arts and community organisations as a universally positive output. Social capital serves to distract from the economic and political processes that drive the civic engagement agenda. Refocusing attention onto marginalised and excluded individuals rather than the causes of their marginalisation and exclusion, it recruits disadvantaged people as the ‘agents’ of their own salvation – social capitalists ‘whose “belonging” is conditional on their mobilizing the only resources they have as a form of capital’. This is because accumulating social capital is not intended to benefit the poor or working-classes. The goal of social capital is about ‘“empowerment” and “inclusion”’ rather than ‘economic security for the poor or the reduction of inequality’ (Mayer, 2003, p. 123). The democratic façade of social capital policy offers the perfect means of implementing other neoliberal agendas such as austerity, devolution and localism. It is therefore important to understand that any attempt to incorporate social capital policy within creative placemaking can only function to reinforce the neoliberal project and enforce neoliberalism upon the poorest and most vulnerable in society.

In this way, austerity offers many ‘opportunities’ for arts organisations and artists to exploit communities using a façade of ‘community benefit’ and ‘social impact’. In this sense, creative placemaking can be thought of as exploiting the intangible assets in a neighbourhood faced with or in the early stages of gentrification; creative placemakers become its agents, bringing about a form of social change that is antithetical to the principles of social justice. Using processes dressed as ‘community-led development’, creative placemaking encourages public/ private initiatives to integrate art, creative consultation, urban design, participatory democracy, civic governance and economic revitalisation. Creativity becomes part of the neoliberal ‘market-building project’ that rolls-back some social and institutional functions and rolls-out creative- and community-led alternatives as part of its ‘destructively creative social order’ (Peck & Tickell, 2007, pp. 33-4). There is, however, a vast chasm between, for example, social capital, community governance and creative consultation and the radical demands for social justice, to take back the city and for the right to the city.

 

Artists against gentrification

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 such as Artscape develop projects that typically seek to ‘empower’ marginalised people and places through a mixture of socially engaged art, education and outreach (Artscape, 2017). They are often implemented in areas classified as in need of, or already undergoing, regeneration initiatives, and art has long been perceived as a primary tool for urban regeneration. From another perspective, this could equally be seen as targeting low- or under-engaged people and communities deemed to be lacking in culture (and therefore social capital). Thus, artists and arts organisations are funnelled by funders and agencies into working in places identified by government, with people categorised as in need by government, addressing problems defined by government, using approaches and outcomes prescribed by government. Art and artists become instrumentalised by these processes.

To combat this, community activists - often artists who deny their status as artists who work collectively using pseudonyms - employ creative techniques of resistance such as tactical media and anti-art strategies to resist the traditional agents of gentrification. Their creative resistance extends beyond the traditional drivers of gentrification (the state, local authorities and corporations). They oppose those who often operate as socially engaged artists or creative placemakers in the service of gentrifiers – whether local ‘micro-enterprises’ or large-scale state and corporate ‘regeneration’ initiatives. This is because cultural activists recognise that art is increasingly used to smooth and gloss over social cleansing and gentrification, functioning as ‘social licence’ (Evans, 2015, pp. 70-84), public relations tool, and a means of pacifying local communities: a practice known by activists as ‘artwashing’ (Pritchard, 2017).

Rather than becoming complicit in neoliberalism, artists and communities must, as Harvey proposed, ‘exercise … collective power over the processes of urbanization’ and assert our right ‘to make and remake ourselves and our cities’ (Harvey, 2008, p. 23). This is because our freedom to be able to determine how we live in our cities, our places, our spaces is ‘one of the most precious yet most neglected of our human rights’ Reclaiming ‘the right to the city’ is a radical political act (Lefebvre, 1968, p. 158). It requires self-organisation, self-realisation, self-determination. It requires social practice as activism – ‘the practice of everyday life’ (De Certeau, 1984). This practice must, as Holmes proposes, produce a common desire to change the way we live ‘without any guarantees’ (2012, p. 79). We must reclaim our freedom to make and remake our spaces from those who wish to define and limit our everyday lives through a totalising system of ‘controlled consumption’ and ‘terror-enforced passivity’ (Lefebvre, 2000, pp. 196-7). For many, contemporary social spaces enforce what Lefebvre describes as the ‘latent irrationality beneath an apparent rationality, incoherence beneath an ideology of coherence, and sub-systems or disconnected territories linked together only by speech’ (ibid., p. 197). We must therefore understand the complex dialectics of neoliberal space.

Creative placemaking 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. It is about ‘economic development, livability, and cultural industry competitiveness’ (Markusen & Gadwa, 2010b, p. 6). Creative placemaking uses art to window-dress neoliberal regeneration and renewal agendas. Activist art, on the other hand, is about direct action: ‘full spectrum resistance’ (Verson, 2007, p. 171). For Verson, cultural activism is a ‘living practice’ that ‘addresses complicated questions about how we build the world that we want to live in’ (ibid., p. 174). It requires what Jordan and Frémeaux describe as an ‘insurrectionary imagination' that recontextualises our understanding of past political movements through a constant striving for the reconnection of art and protest, rather than their artificial separation (in Hopkins, 2015).  This form of activist art pursues social justice and radical political change. It leads activist artists to ask: ‘Why should we (re)make your places for you?’ People, communities, cultures already exist in places. They produce and reproduce their own social spaces. So why do we need creative placemakers? And if creative placemaking is irrevocably linked to gentrification and social cleansing – to artwashing – shouldn’t it be opposed as another trojan horse for dispossession?

It is, however, difficult for artists to create anti-gentrification interventions that can avoid recuperation by both an insatiably voracious art world and an exploitative capitalist machine. Nevertheless, there are many examples of practices, which have avoided recuperation and, on some occasions, successfully resisted gentrification. For example, activist art collective BAVO’s project Plea for an unCreative City (2006) attacked Rotterdam’s decision to follow, like Hamburg, a Creative City model which valorised Florida’s concept of a Creative Class. US-based activist art collective Illuminator 99 often targets gentrification and other issues of social justice using a high-powered, van-mounted digital projector. Its actions are often performed with local people. Temporal employment of symbols, statements and political slogans makes it difficult for these interventions to be recuperated and, indeed, classed as art. Meanwhile, calls for social justice are more accessible to people outside the art world; to local people threatened by displacement and inequity. The next section outlines three examples of collective interventions involving artists, which could be considered as place-guarding.

 

Balfron Social Club

Balfron Social Club (BSC) is a collective of artists and local people who campaign against the social cleansing of Poplar in Tower Hamlets, London. Its demand for fifty percent social housing in Ernő Goldfinger’s Brutalist ex-council housing icon, the now gentrified Balfron Tower, challenged developers and raised awareness but ultimately failed to prevent the building from becoming luxury housing. Nevertheless, its sharp critique of the role of socially engaged artists as ‘placemakers’ led to what is a crucial article on the role of socially engaged artists and placemakers and their involvement in artwashing: Brutalism [redacted] – Social Art Practice and You (Balfron Social Club, 2015). For BSC, artists today are faced with a choice: ‘join the club to make ends meet’ or become ‘completely marginalized and unable to work’. The collective is here referring to the immense pressure many artists feel to conform to policies such as creative placemaking and arts-led regeneration agendas to make a living.

The ‘perfect storm’ of austerity, increased corporate interest and the professionalisation of the arts as the ‘creative industries’ led, according to BSC, to ‘the birth of the community based Social Art Practitioner’ (2015). Funded by the state and employed by local authorities and property developers, these artists are placed into communities facing gentrification to operate as the foot soldiers of social cleansing (ibid.). The collective’s position offers a completely alternative view of a practice – socially engaged art – that is lauded internationally as an almost universally positive act of change- or placemaking. For BSC, the process of creatively engaging citizens, stimulating employability and building ‘positive social change’ parrots those of housing developers, housing associations, councils and arts funders.  Interestingly, BSC links social capital to enterprise and placemaking policy: top-down strategy presented, through the filter of creative engagement, as ‘grassroots’ (ibid.). BSC have raised and continue to raise the issue of the sell-off of social housing to private luxury housing developers and the politics that underwrite this situation. Their work at Balfron Tower, across Tower Hamlets and beyond reveals how artists with other community members attempt to guard their homes and communities against the onslaught of state-led gentrification.

 

Southwark Notes

Southwark Notes Archive Group (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, 2017). It demands regeneration schemes enhance the quality of existing communities and opposes gentrification. Like BSC, the collective uses a moniker to maintain anonymity. SNAG is careful to avoid ‘political and intellectual language’ in its campaigning thereby ensuring it is as accessible to as many people as possible. The group works to oppose gentrification across Southwark and further afield, both individually and with other groups. It also has links to anti-gentrification movements in other countries, including international activist art collective Ultra-red. SNAG’s opposition to the ‘redevelopment’ of the Heygate Estate – a large ex-council housing estate in Walworth, South London - was extensive. It occupied the 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 detritus of a demolished building on the Heygate Estate. Whilst not all the collective are artists, SNAG collaborates with residents in campaigns, sharing cultural awareness and labour, facilities and ways of resisting. This mode of working means artists become virtually indistinct from other activists (Graham & Vass, 2014, p. 16). This is a form of resistance that seeks to collapse art into everyday life.

 

Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement

The most prominent example of anti-gentrification and anti-artwashing campaigning is Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement (BHAAAD). BHAAAD vigorously campaign for all art galleries in Boyle Heights, LA to leave, accusing them of artwashing social cleansing (Aron, 2016; Barragan, 2016; Stromberg, 2016). The alliance comprises several organisations: Union de Vecinos; Defend Boyle Heights; The Eastside Local of the Los Angeles Tenants Union; School of Echoes Los Angeles; and what BHAAAD describes as ‘Multiple Affinity Groups of Artists’. These artists acknowledge the role art plays in gentrification and refuse to be used to artwash ‘the realities of racial and economic violence’ (Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing & Displacement, 2017). BHAAAD has raised the issue of the struggle of residents to guard their neighbourhoods against an initial influx of arts organisations and artists that brings further gentrification in its wake. Some long-standing arts organisations are employing creative placemaking in attempts to preserve the local, predominantly Latino culture in Boyle Heights (Jackson, 2015), but they too are finding themselves targets for BHAAAD.  The constantly shifting spaces and relationships in which anti-gentrification activism and place guarding take place are complex and deeply contested. The function of artwashing and the instrumentalisation of art in the service of regeneration in all its forms, serves to fragment artists and communities.

 

Demanding the impossible

There are many other examples of radical art/ cultural activism, which utilise similar modes of direct action against gentrifiers and placemakers in attempts to guard complex community structures and rights and protect existing ways of living. They share a common belief that it is time for ‘the dispossessed to take back control of the city from which they have for so long been excluded’ (Harvey, 2010, p. 32). To some, this may seem utopian, to others ‘Demanding the impossible may be … as realistic as it is necessary’ (Pinder, 2015 [2013], p. 43). The ‘urban renaissance’ narrative is not only insidious but, as Madden argues, ‘a condescending and often racist fantasy’ (2013).

 

Conclusion

This chapter has argued that creative placemaking is a neoliberal vehicle for accumulation by dispossession and gentrification. It has traced a path from art as status symbol – an object of property and power – to art as a process that transfers tangible assets such as property and places and intangible assets such as the social capital of communities into the hands of the powerful and wealthy. It has argued that creative placemaking does not demand the right to the city but rather encourages us to gift our cities to the Creative Class so that they can (re)make places for middle-class gentrifiers. Creative placemaking thereby becomes a policy and practice increasingly adopted and co-opted by state, local authorities and even property developers that uses art, design, marketing and community engagement as a way of disempowering people by imposing subtle forms of compliance and implicating communities by securing their participation in the creative destruction of their own neighbourhoods and the dispossession of their own homes.

In this sense, creative placemaking is urban policy in the guise of a gilded neoliberal Trojan Horse. It ushers in the strategic reshaping of the social, spatial and economic characters of neighbourhoods with the sweet cupcakes and pretty bunting of art, the mixed economy and mixed-use, walkable, bikeable spaces. Socially engaged artists are its foot soldiers and amateur artists and participants its conscripts. This chapter has argued that creative placemaking is creative compliance. And compliance kills creativity because, as Winnicott explained, compliance is the opposite of living creatively – ‘a sick basis for life’ (1991 [1971], p. 65). It is the very real threat of dispossession and displacement, which drives activist artists and cultural activists, like those briefly discussed here, to use anti-art tactics to combat the co-option of creativity by neoliberalism. The radical yet everyday approaches of groups such as BSC and SNAG to working collectively with community members represent attempts to build relationships and guard places from the forces of capital. It is possible to conceive of such actions as ‘place guarding’.

Conversely this chapter makes the case for artistic acts of resistance that deny compliance, invoking and embodying a spirit of disobedience, indignation and insurrection. Such creative acts of refusal can create what might be understood as ‘potential spaces’ in which radically alternative ways of being and living can develop democratically. Yet activist artists/ cultural activists are aware that they cannot effectively challenge an authoritarian neoliberal state or global corporate interest unless they can become part of a much broader social movement. Nevertheless, their tactics of constantly harrying and undermining the power of the state and gentrifiers can win small victories, garnering significant press and political attention and helping to secure concessions for local people embroiled in gentrification and threatened by displacement. These artists are, however, also becoming increasingly aware that their activism can be appropriated or recuperated by the state and corporate interests; disavowing the art in their work to subvert this process.

We must therefore acknowledge that the right to the city is ‘an empty signifier’ that can be claimed by ‘financers and developers’ but, equally, by ‘the homeless and the sans papiers’ (Harvey, 2012, p. xv). And, true to their roots, some artists stand in support of those threatened with rehousing; demanding that the dispossessed take back the city. They stand against vested interests, taking direct action with people against place-makers, guarding complex community cultures and their existing ways of living. It is time to demand and to action ‘place guarding’ rather than ‘placemaking’ or ‘place keeping’ (creative or otherwise); to directly resist the neoliberal machinations of gentrification instead of following a hopefully misguided urban (re)map – a simulacrum in which, I have argued, all roads lead to capitalist complicity.

 

References

Aron, H., 2016. Boyle Heights Activists Demand That All Art Galleries Get the Hell Out of Their Neighborhood. [Online]
Available at: http://www.laweekly.com/news/boyle-heights-activists-demand-that-all-art-galleries-get-the-hell-out-of-their-neighborhood-7134859
[Accessed 11th March 2017].

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