Place Guarding: An End to the Slow Violence of Creative Placemaking and Gentrification?

This is my keynote paper I presented at (Im)Possible Complicities conference in Berlin on 23rd May 2019… It overlaps intentionally with the paper I presented the following day in Milton Keynes which was entitled Demand the Impossible and will be posted here next.

PLACE GUARDING: AN END TO THE SLOW VIOLENCE OF CREATIVE PLACEMAKING AND GENTRIFICATION?

The world faces many crises. Europe is gripped by crises. 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 march. 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…

We have been exploited and oppressed for centuries and centuries. And now, just like every time in the past, 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 and socially engaged art do not demand the impossible. They reproduce and reinforce the already possible 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.

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 – failing representative democracies that have always favoured the few, not the many. Empire, colonialism, slavery, exploitation and war are, to some, proud legacies; but actually our darkest traits.

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 democracies - 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 much like 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.

Socially engaged art and creative placemaking are part of the art world. And the art world has become increasingly ‘entrenched within cycles of urban change’.  Urban change is commonly dressed-up with terms such as ‘renaissance’, ‘regeneration’, ‘revitalization’ and ‘renewal’ which, in turn, serve to disguise gentrification and the processes of dispossession and displacement that accompany it.

In the UK, council estates and social housing are, particularly in the post-2008 crash era of austerity, soft targets for dispossession and displacement, with many being demolished or earmarked for demolition and a select few (for example, Balfron Tower in Poplar, London and the Park Hill estate in Sheffield) are ‘preserved’ by displacing social housing tenants then ‘refurbishing’ the properties for middle-class buyers.

This process of demolishing or refurbishing council homes so that new private accommodation can be built for new wealthy incomers has been labelled ‘state-led gentrification’.  Sociologist David Madden sums up this process succinctly:

Here's how gentrification talk typically goes: poor neighborhoods are said to need ‘regeneration’ or ‘revitalization’, as if lifelessness and torpor – as opposed to impoverishment and disempowerment – were the problem.  Exclusion is rebranded as creative ‘renewal’.  The liberal mission to ‘increase diversity’ is perversely used as an excuse to turn residents out of their homes in places like Harlem or Brixton – areas famous for their long histories of independent political and cultural scenes.

Once gentrified, neighbourhoods are celebrated for having ‘bounced back’, whilst the fact that poverty has simply been dispersed or relocated is ignored – sometimes even celebrated.  This ‘urban renaissance’ narrative, is based on an often racist, always condescending belief that ‘heroic elites’ (including artists) will somehow save inner cities from the ‘dangerous classes’.

Artists are drawn to the constantly shifting urban frontiers which immediately prefigure gentrification.  They are increasingly vilified for their role in the displacement of lower-class people and ethnic minorities – for example, in Boyle Heights, Los Angeles - and, simultaneously, celebrated for their ability to magically turn run down urban areas – for example, Hotel Elephant in Southwark which once occupied a disused doctor’s surgery on the condemned Heygate Estate – into cool “meanwhile” spaces.

In this sense, artists become both ‘victims and aggressors’.  For Rebecca Solnit, gentrification is ‘the fin above water’, betraying ‘the rest of the shark’ below it that devours ‘cultural diversity’.

Certain forms of art – for example public art and socially engaged art - have secured a place within the global urban economy as powerful placemaking tools; strategic policy devices capable of ‘improving’ places, people and, ultimately, economies.  I argue these artistic practices, with their claims of community empowerment and social engagement, when deployed in areas undergoing or under threat of displacement of working-class and ethnic minority residents, become the artistic fin above the water; the creative industries, the state and the corporate investors form the rest of the shark lurking below.  In such circumstances, art becomes artwashing.

The artwashing of dispossession and displacement is a global practice increasingly used by property developers, local and national authorities, and other corporate and financial institutions.  It’s often supported and (at least partly) financed by state agencies responsible for arts and culture.

In Vancouver, property developer Westbank has used art to sell luxury apartments. It uses public art installations and exhibitions such as Fight for Beauty.  The developer labels itself as a ‘cultural practice’ that uses ‘beauty’ to ‘build cities and culture’.  Westbank also installed the 2016 Serpentine Pavilion on the site of a new development.  Fight for Beauty has been widely criticised with ex-Vancouver arts and cultural policy panel member Melody Ma accusing Westbank of artwashing:

What we're seeing here is a real estate company ... co-opting the arts and culture to market luxury condos in neighbourhoods like Chinatown, which in fact at the end of the day economically and physically displace people and culture that's already there.

Similarly, developers have used artwashing in Hamburg, Melbourne, Paris, Mumbai, Beijing, Bilbao, and in many other cities around the world.  Artwashing serves to mask the exploitation of people and property, underwriting the accumulation of capital by dispossession.

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’.  Typically, gentrification and displacement follow.  This approach manifests itself as ‘artwashing’ and its New Urbanist alter-ego, ‘creative placemaking’.

 

Artists are tasked with ameliorating lower class ‘“poverty of aspiration” and “low expectations”’ whilst simultaneously providing, what Benedict Seymour describes as, ‘stimulus to and communitarian credibility for the process of privatisation and gentrification’.

Socially engaged art and creative placemaking have become commonly used means of collecting ‘memories of displacement’ and mapping urban decline.  In these circumstances, artists can be considered as ‘surrogate and simulacral service providers’ delivering ‘cheap but cosmetic substitutes for welfare provision’; models of ‘regenerate citizenship’ who often work for free (or comparatively cheaply) and create a ‘marketable “buzz”’.

Art and other creative practices serve as the perfect foils for what has become known as ‘austerity urbanism’.  Artists involved in artwashing do not only collect, or ‘harvest’ people’s stories, they also collect objects from communities awaiting or undergoing displacement.

Artwashing gentrification occurs when developers (whether corporate, or local authority, or state) use art (such as commissioned street art, artists’ studios in meanwhile spaces, pop-up art galleries, socially engaged art projects, etc.) as a means of attracting a creative class as a magnet for the middle-class.

Artwashing epitomises the Schumpeterian neoliberalism of ‘creative destruction’ with artists cast as the future bringers of prosperity for some and the harbingers of poverty and displacement for many others.

 

Place guarding is different. It puts people first, not place or property or profit. 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”, after planners and government officials have drawn up “draft” plans.

It might appear that place guarding is about demanding the impossible. But 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 – about thinking and doing. Living and being creatively. I follow Henri Lefebvre’s prescient texts such as Critique of Everyday Life (1958), The Production of Space (1974) and his seminal Right to the City (1968).

Creative placemaking and artwashing are products 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.” Whereas, 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 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.

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!

Artists must not listen to the neoliberal voice that keeps on calling, calling us. Otherwise we will, like the Littlest Hobo, just keep seeking tomorrows that will never, ever come.

Thank you.