I was invited to lecture at Winchester School of Art on 3rd November 2017 as part of their Talking Heads series. This is a transcript of my lecture along with a link to my lecture slides (with notes) and a link to an edited recording of my discussion with Nick Stewart afterwards. The lecture covers a broad range of topics from my research including creative cities and the creative class, social capital, placemaking, artwashing, art and gentrification, anti-gentrification art, anti-art activism, the radical avant-garde, and examples of artists engaging with regeneration that do not result in artwashing or gentrification. It's quite long but perhaps gives an overall illustration of my work and a taste of my PhD thesis, Artwashing: The Art of Regeneration, Social Capital and Anti-Gentrification Activism.Read More
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.Read More
This blog post is about ASH - Architects for Social Housing. It uncovers a different side to ASH's founder that is rooted in the establishment and seeks to work with local councils to promote citizenship and art as a public good. It suggests that these values (and others) are at odds with the aggressive and passionately political persona often adopted by ASH. ASH's work has been outstanding but is it all it appears?Read More
Everyone has the right and freedom to a home, don’t they? And yet, so many people are homeless in the UK, in Europe, across the entire planet; displaced by war, oppression, climate change and the imperialistic march of global capitalism. The United Nations are concerned: deeply concerned.
heresa Easton's superb new book explores housing crises and homelessness. She kindly asked me to write the introduction. Here's the draft published with the author's permission.Read More
This is my full paper given as a lecture at Northumbria University in Newcastle on Wednesday 27th April 2016. It is the beginnings of an attempt to free radical social practice and activist art interventions from the ragwort-like sprouting of institutionalised and depoliciticised "socially engaged art".Read More
I've just shared my full paper from the Association of American Geographers Conference here but I thought some people might like to see the PowerPoint with notes or rather, I would recommend, the film with me presenting my paper. (I presented it virtually, so this is exactly as the audience saw and heard it at the conference.)Read More
I've just presented my paper "Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification" at the Association of American Geographers Conference 2016 in San Francisco. I wasn't there. Made use of PowerPoint Mix! The PowerPoint and a nicer quality MP4 version will be available here very shortly. For now, here's my fully referenced paper with bibliography.Read More
Creative placemaking is no longer a friendly foil in the soft power arsenal of private property developers. It has been successfully institutionalised at every possible level from national governments to NGOs. Loosely threaded utopian hopes of democratic community building have been quickly woven into pretty bunting for insidious gentrification; winners’ pennants for the agents of systemic social cleansing.Read More
Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus, large format digital print, part of Doing Nothing is Not an Option, Michael McMillan and Platform London, Peckham Platform, 2015
I was, like Anthony Schrag (and others I know), infuriated by the recent ArtWorks Conversation at BALTIC 39. Anthony has written a little about the pairing of Ilana Mitchell (Wunderbar and other things) and Darren O'Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex) today in a piece entitled The Value Rant, but his rant was not at them and not (directly) at ArtWorks or their 'critical conversations'. Anthony was, like me, incredibly annoyed by the idea that socially engaged or participatory art (it would seem you can call it what you will nowadays - but that's a topic for another post) could and/ or should be 'scaled-up' and professionalised. But that wasn't what really angered him. It was the incessant droning of an 'excited' hipster political student that set free a passel of possums from their cage. (To be clear the excited hipster didn't sound or appear particularly excited with anything other than his own drawn-out ideas and self-aggrandisement.)
The thing is that I had intended to blog about the event the very next day as I was so angry. But (oddly for me, perhaps) I decided against it and put the event down to another one of 'those ArtWorks things' - a now very familiar feeling. Having read Anthony's humorous-yet-deadly-incisive 'rant', I felt compelled to respond to several issues and personal opinions he raised. They're incredibly important and at the heart of much of the ongoing debate (bickering?) that has dogged our field of practice for years. There are, I believe, many areas upon which Anthony and I (broadly) agree but there are several places where our views diverge. For me this is a good thing. We both enjoy the oscillating thrills and pulsating challenges that only tension can invoke (although perhaps Anthony may not entirely agree...) I will not discuss the event other than to say that I struggled to get beyond Ilana's brilliantly idiosyncratic thinking and making, and the instrumentalism inherent within Darren's work.
So what do I think Anthony and agree on? We both are clearly very sceptical at the very least to institutionalisation, professionalism agendas, instrumentalism, 'scaling-up', best practice, toolkits - basically anything homogenous - because we believe our practice is and must always be relational, dynamic, and respect the autonomies of artists and people taking part alike. As Anthony says, 'the very things that are unreproducible, un-scale-up-able, un-repeatable.' But where he sees attempts to totally administer socially engaged art as the product of wayward best intentions, I see authoritarian technocratic control and oppression. Where he finds positivity in at least some aspects of the ArtWorks project, I am deeply suspicious of their intentionality.
I found the 'man-bunned politics student' to be very boring and rather naïve yet almost ludic at times. He made me grimace, smile, laugh. Where he unleashed Anthony's 'angry possums' from his mind, he filled mine with cartoon hind legs and badly drawn donkeys. He genuinely believed that the examples of practice he had witnessed were 'new'. He did not know about socially engaged or participatory practice and that's fine. Tedious for those of us who've spent a long time practicing and studying the 'expanded field'; interesting and exciting to him. But Anthony is entirely right that the practice is 'not new', doesn't (mustn't). 'be professionalised' and is certainly not 'a new saviour of art.' For me, the politico-hipster wasn't 'ill-informed' or ignorant, he was rather unaware of the history of our practice. There are many people like him within the Art World as well as outside it. That's fine. Marginal practices are often (wrongly) believed to be 'new' when first encountered whether through touristic exploration or strategic colonialism. I'd go as far as to say that what matters most to us - histories, theories and practical nuances - matters least to interested attendees of critical conversations, participants, people who don't like 'art', or other people from within the Art World.
Of course, Anthony wasn't really rattled by our moustachioed interloper. He was (is) angered by the opposing forces of instrumentalising institutionalism on the one hand; activism and political agendas on the other. But I take issue he seems to suggest that those with activist and/ or political agendas/ ideologies do not know enough about the field's history or theoretical underpinnings. This is simply not true in every case. In opposing these oppositions, Anthony places himself in the middle alongside some other 'lovely, passionate people' who are, like everyone, flawed and being crushed by institutionalism and those who do not understand (although I suspect the crushing comes mainly from one direction only).
I share Anthony's passion that socially engaged practice is primarily about 'what happens between and with other people' and, of course, people want to influence others but there are many forms this may take from authoritarian control to utopian imaginings and liberation. Anthony is also right about the need for practitioners within the field to 'come together' much more than we tend to do at present. However, I am very sceptical about developing a 'continuum of practice'. I believe that the field must be broad and must include tension: internal oppositions; never consensus. Indeed, Anthony is hesitant about formal definitions within the field. Interestingly, he also thinks that we must understand which direction 'we might be heading in' as well as who our potential allies are and those 'who might not know what they are talking about'. In response, I'd suggest: we can have multiple directions; and that our allies (theoretical and practical) might include many activists as well as others from other fields and other cultures - activists who do not seek to control others but who do, like all of us, have beliefs, ideologies, political affiliations, and most importantly biases that make it impossible for anyone (artist or otherwise) to divorce themselves from this 'baggage'. Sometimes, however, the baggage can be good. There is no such thing as values-free art. We cannot dismiss, as Anthony does in a comment to my reply to his blog post, any work that may be, or be suspected of being, political or activist or state instrumentalist for that matter of being 'not art' - of being a form of 'social work'. That's not to say that much of what's being peddled as participatory or (now) socially engaged art isn't deeply instrumental, controlling and stigmatising at worst and 'social work' at best.
I think that there's a fine line between Anthony's position on socially engaged practice and my own. For Anthony good socially engaged practice must enable 'shifts in thinking' by 'unravelling' the world without trying to change people's minds; I agree but would add that we can work with people to create open spaces where people can challenge their understanding of themselves and the world through creative practices (whether artist-led or otherwise) and that this process might help some people to better understand their place in the world as it is today as well as to begin to envisage other ways, new potentialities that they have within their power to struggle to make real. A long but perhaps necessary addendum. This is political and revolutionary. It does not foreclose on possibilities or individualities. It is not pluralistic democracy. It has no fixed agenda any more so than the many excellent examples of socially engaged art's heritage that Anthony carefully lists in his post - examples that are (at least where named or labelled) all deeply political and often activist in nature.
Perhaps Anthony and I can agree that socially engaged practice must be oppositional (and agonistic?) in ways both he describes in his blog and I attempt to do here. Perhaps opposition is one of the directions for our field of practice. Perhaps activism is another. Sophie Hope (chair) certainly seemed to indicate her absolute frustration that we (the field) don't say NO - don't oppose the status quo - when she admirably summed up the event's proceedings...
This blog post is explores elements of my doctoral research exploring the question of whether participatory art can support sustainable social change. It’s taken from some of the writing in the introduction to my second draft literature review…
Click the image above to see a database of more than 350 socially engaged arts projects.
Participatory art is said by many to be a growing field. As a practice, it adopts numerous forms and crosses many boundaries. Participatory art is often, but not always, implicated in narratives surrounding personal and social change, either directly through public policy, or indirectly through the statements of individual socially engaged artists. Socially engaged art interventions are often short-term and limited in scope and scale. This leads to questions about whether such approaches should or can be sustained. It also leads to an expanded field in which participatory art may be increasingly separate from social practice. (This is a BIG question which I will discuss in later posts.)
My starting point here is Creative Time’s Chief Curator and important influencer of US social practice, Nato Thompson’s declaration in Living as Form that socially engaged art ‘is growing and ubiquitous’ (Thompson, 2012, p. 19). But does this statement really reflect the history of this field of practice? If socially engaged art is, as Thompson claims, ‘growing’, in what ways, and to what and whose agendas? Is it really ‘ubiquitous’? Many practitioners in the field may well think otherwise. My literature review attempts to unpick chronologically, from the early 1980s onwards, whether socially engaged art is now virtually omnipresent within today’s art world as Thompson suggests.
The cross-disciplinary nature of socially engaged art and the individual experiences of participants and artists means that the field is hotly debated by policy-makers, critics, academics and large arts institutions. Artists, art workers and smaller collectives and organisations are often disenfranchised and, perhaps as a result, disinterested by attempts to investigate, document, define, regulate and even contest the field.
Researching the practice necessarily involves traversing a myriad of complementary and conflicting areas and perspectives. Questions revolve around aesthetics, instrumentalism, independence, community, place-making, economics, politics, policy, cultural value, evaluating and evidencing impact, outcomes for participants and society, individual experience, integration and sustainability. How does socially engaged art interface with and and reflect upon other disciplines such as sociology, pedagogy, education, health and wellbeing, psychology, regeneration, development, and ethnography? Can a further ‘expanded field’ that encompasses critical theory, participatory action research, notions of the carnivalesque, post-development theory, permaculture, and more, lead to fruitful routes to new insights about the nature of socially engaged art and its potential for alternative forms of meaningful individual and social change?
All of this is important for social practice. It can help to positively (re)define social practice – perhaps raise it’s profile in the arts. It can also provide a mechanism for those wishing to regulate and professionalise the practice. Research can also help maintain, even expand, independent practice, activism and radicalism – forming new ways for individual practitioners to work together to resist attempts to institutionalise the field (or certain elements within the ‘expanded field’). Nonetheless, research (mine very much included) can exclude the very artists, practitioners, workers and small/ embryonic organisations that form the heart of the field of social practice. It can also exclude participants and audiences. This is something I am keen to try to address. I do not really know how to avoid exclusion but I think I know exclusion when I see it…
This post is a first draft of part of my doctoral research methodology. I have been developing my thinking using a broad range of interdisciplinary approaches and theoretical perspectives that are both complementary and conflicting. This has led to the development of a research design founded on a working hypothesis that (hopefully) better expresses the nature of my research than the (deliberately ironic) research question might. Discussion of relevant theoretical approaches and methods will follow soon.
As always, comments and criticism are always encouraged…
Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?
The research question is obviously ambiguous; deeply problematic. This is intentional. It is undoubtedly a tricky question that alludes to the many critical issues facing the burgeoning field of ‘participation in the arts’. As described in greater detail below, this research is underpinned by critical theory that oscillates between the modernism of The Frankfurt School, its philosophical predecessors, and the critical aspects of postmodernism. In this sense, the research question can be read as an ironic representation of the complexities and abstruseness of our present socio-political milieu. A position perhaps mirrored by current manifestations of ‘the culture industry’ and by increasing state interventions into that field. The question mimics the ‘cultural newspeak’ that might emanate from today’s UK government departments and quasi-governmental organisations; developed vivaciously by arrayed policy-makers and advisory panels; repeated parrot-fashion by arts institutions and ‘arts leaders’. In this, perhaps flippant, sense, the answer to the research question is undoubtedly, ‘YES!’
However, this research does not aim to verify state claims for ‘participation in the arts’ as a panacea for all social (and, perhaps even, political) malady. It seeks to challenge these claims; to explore possible theoretical, ethical, political and practical alternatives that may shake the status-quo, maybe even fracture the present, ambiguous discourse around ‘participatory arts’. Clearly, then, it is essential that terms such as ‘participatory arts’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are coherently defined. These ambiguities are discussed at length in the literature review but it is important they are considered here so that the research has clear direction. To this end, there follows a series of statements about how this research defines what it is and what it is not interested in studying during the in-depth investigation of its chosen case studies. It is obvious, then, that the research question must be developed into a hypothesis that can be tested and refined during the research period. It is also worth noting that the research intention and hypothetical position have been discussed with the case study participants. It is, indeed, on the basis of the initial hypothesis and subsequent discussion around it that they agreed to contribute to this research.
Refining the research question
As mentioned above, the terms ‘participation’, ‘participatory art’, ‘sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are incredibly slippery and multifarious. This section aims to briefly discuss some interpretations of these terms to illustrate how they are used to convey a myriad of meanings for an array of political, philosophical, scientific and ethical reasons. It then sets out to explicate the particular perspectives the research seeks to investigate as well as what it does not. At this point, it is important to be clear that the researcher does not wish to imply that the other interpretations are less valid or somehow inferior aspects of ‘participation in the arts’. They are simply different perspectives.
Looking first at ‘participatory art’, the term has been described by various people within the field of ‘the arts’, and with various interests in the field, very differently. Paola Merli, an academic interested in cultural policy, stated in 2002 that participatory art was used as ‘a form of governance’ by the UK government: a tool for ‘promoting social cohesion’; a ‘cultivated cultural activity’ rather than a ‘primary need’ (Merli, 2004 , pp. 17-21). Her position is developed from a critical attack on Francois Matarasso’s Use or Ornament? (1997) in which he describes participatory arts as being able to ‘contribute to social cohesion’ (Matarasso, 1997, p. vii). Whilst Merli is clearly suggesting that participatory art is an apparatus of state instrumentalism – a critical position shared by this research – Matarasso’s report suggests this instrumentalism is distinctly beneficial for both participants and government. However, Merli’s proposition, derived from Bourdieu, that participation in the arts is a ‘nicety’ that fosters cultural satisfaction is, whilst an undoubtedly valid position in many cases, narrow in that it leaves little room for radical, counter-hegemonic arts activism. The situation today is that the UK government and ‘arm’s length’ organisations such as Arts Council England are actively promoting the instrumental and economic benefits of participation in the arts more widely than at the time of the Merli/ Matarasso debate. Arts Council England list seventeen ‘activities’ they currently use for ‘arts-based segmentation analysis’ to define and measure ‘arts participation’ as part of their Taking Part surveys which seek to identify and characterise ‘distinct arts consumer types’ in the ‘arts market’ (Arts Council England a, 2014). Interestingly, all the listed activities involve doing and taking part in art. Participatory arts projects are not measured separately. Radical arts activities are not mentioned. Similarly, their recently published report about the benefits of arts to society is also incredibly vague about how they define ‘participation in the arts’ yet it extolls such activities as having many (equally loosely defined) intrinsic, instrumental and economic benefits (Arts Council England b, 2014). So it is clear, perhaps, that, not only is participation in the arts a very broadly defined set of possible activities that does not particularly value participatory or socially engaged projects as meriting specific categorisation or measurement, but it is also deemed to be an important ‘nicety’.
‘Sustainable’ and ‘social change’ are two other ill-defined aspects of the research question that must be clarified so that a working hypothesis can be constructed. Sustainability is commonly used to describe the need to maintain or improve biological and/ or human productivity and/ or diversity. It is also a term used to describe ideas or other systems that can be defended or upheld. The term is used to relate ‘sustainability’ to ‘ecosystems’ in which economic, social and biological factors are brought together with the aim of ‘developing’ areas of the ecosystem so as to guarantee the continuing of the whole. These factors were developed by the United Nations in 1987 in their Bruntland Report (United Nations, 1987). Interestingly, culture was added as a fourth factor for sustainability and, more recently, the word ‘political’ has replaced ‘social’. The Bruntland Commission definition of ‘sustainable development’ is still widely quoted, describing sustainable development as:
[D]evelopment that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.
(United Nations, 1987)
Sustainability is also a ‘hot topic’ in UK arts policy, although it is, perhaps, most frequently used in relation to the drive towards ‘organisational change’ and ‘adaptive resilience’ in the face of state-imposed cuts to arts funding. Ex-Arts Council England director Mark Robinson is one of the main proponents of this type of arts management interpretation of sustainability. His 2010 report Making adaptive resilience real clearly demonstrates this linkage of the term sustainability to change within the field of the arts, stating, for example, that:
all parts of the sector should collaborate to improve understanding of systems-thinking broadly, and resilience and sustainability issues specifically, through research, publication and debate, training and development
(Robinson, 2010, p. 46)
Clearly, then, ‘sustainability’ is as common in socio-economic development and management as it is in concepts of environmentalism.
Cultural economics researcher Diane Ragsdale challenges the idea that all arts organisations, and large unwieldy institutions in particular, should be sustained at any cost, especially at the expense of smaller, newer organisations and individual artist-led projects (Ragsdale, 2013). Her position is discussed further in the literature review. It is Ragsdale’s ‘bottom up’ contention that this research takes as a point of departure when considering notions around ‘sustaining’ socially engaged arts practice and social justice. Her perspectives align with the desire of this research to test if and how socially engaged arts movements may be able to be self-sustaining, continually diversifying and self-renewing. As such, it is inherently linked to concepts around developing ‘social justice’ rather than a universal notion of ‘social change’. It is possible to consider many shifts in how we live as representing social change. Industrialisation, capitalism, communism, Nazism, welfare reform, privatisation, credit cards, the internet – a few examples of social change. The term is problematic because it is bereft of any moral or ethical philosophical so that anything can be considered to be social change. Social justice, on the other hand, may be considered to be about fairness and equality; an opposition to injustice. As such, the research takes as its starting point the ‘three critical domains of equality and equity’ proposed by the United Nations in 2006 as essential to the notion of social justice: ‘equality of rights’; ‘equality of opportunities’; and ‘equity in living conditions’ (United Nations, 1996, pp. 15-16). Whilst the report is discussed in more detail in the literature review, it is worth highlighting that this research is aligned to the historical roots of the social justice movement described by the United Nations as:
[A concept developed] in the wake of the industrial revolution and the parallel development of the socialist doctrine… an expression of protest against what was perceived as the capitalist exploitation of labour and as a focal point for the development of measures to improve the human condition. It was born as a revolutionary slogan embodying the ideals of progress and fraternity… a rallying cry for progressive thinkers and political activists… Of particular importance in the present context is the link between the growing legitimization of the concept of social justice, on the one hand, and the emergence of the social sciences as distinct areas of activity and the creation of economics and sociology as disciplines separate from philosophy (notably moral philosophy), on the other hand. Social justice became more clearly defined when a distinction was drawn between the social sphere and the economic sphere, and grew into a mainstream preoccupation when a number of economists became convinced that it was their duty not only to describe phenomena but also to propose criteria for the distribution of the fruits of human activity.
(United Nations, 1996, p. 12)
Nonetheless, because the responsibilities of ‘administering’ social justice in the UK primarily relies on its technocratic and centralising government, the concept remains a matter of policy and inevitable instrumentalism that is alluded to in the above quote. One aspect of this research will be to work with case study participants by referencing critical perspectives from the UN report to explore how social justice is interpreted and how it is applied ethically and morally by socially engaged arts organisations.
In summary, this research is not interested in further ‘evidencing’ the predominant type of instrumental ‘participatory arts’ described above (and in more detail in the literature review), nor does it consider that all participatory or socially engaged arts activities must always be classified as secondary to some notional typography of ‘primary human needs’. Rather, this research is interested in radically activist arts practice that engages in counter-hegemonic interventions, seeks to develop and/ or enhance awareness of issues surrounding social justice, and/ or produces new ways of thinking about and/ or producing new forms of practice that can be considered self-sustaining. It is from these perspectives that the following working hypothesis has been developed.
The concept of using a working hypothesis for research based upon critical theory is problematic, particularly for Critical Theorists from The Frankfurt School. This is because, for Critical Theorists such as Horkheimer, Adorno and Habermas, a hypothesis was considered empiricist – a ‘positivistically reductive mode of inference’ (Strydom, 2011, p. 148). In common with empirical modes of inference, critical theory utilises traditional concepts of deduction and induction but places a critical emphasis upon abduction, rather than deduction, creating space for dialectically imaginative thinking in so doing (ibid.). It has been argued by Habermas (himself referencing the pragmatist Charles Sanders Peirce) that only abduction can generate new knowledge through a ‘critical process of “determinate negation”’ – a process that must embody ‘ongoing learning’ (MacKendrick, 2008, p. 175). It is entirely in keeping with the development of this research that the research seeks to investigate the following working hypothesis, developed by and with a firm focus on, the processes of abduction:
Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and antagonistic forms of counter-hegemonic activism and/ or greater personal and social awareness, of supporting a paradigm-shift towards a world where neoliberalism is replaced by a different type of democracy that embraces social justice, encourages grassroots participation and inspires a spirit of self-directed mutual learning.
 For a list of all seventeen ‘activities’, see http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/what-we-do/research-and-data/arts-audiences/arts-based-segmentation-research/faqs/#5
 For more about these developments, see the original text of United Nations’ Agenda 21 (1992) - accessible via http://www.unep.org/Documents.Multilingual/Default.asp?documentid=52 - and subsequent UN reaffirmations of support at subsequent ‘Rio’ summits