Artwashing: From Mining Capital to Harvesting Social Capital - Cardiff presentation

Artwashing: From Mining Capital to Harvesting Social Capital - Cardiff presentation

I did a talk at Diffusion 'Revolution' Festival Symposium at Cardiff University today.  I've uploaded my presentation with notes here.  Click the link below to read it and remember to turn notes on in bottom right hand corner of presentation when it loads...  The talk is called Artwashing: From Mining Capital to Harvesting Social Capital.

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Artwashing & gentrification (or the deeply interwoven web of arts & corporate interests)

Artwashing & gentrification (or the deeply interwoven web of arts & corporate interests)

I recently wrote a blog post about Artwashing London.  It looked at V22 and its connections to corporate interests and offshore company headquarters.  I will write another shortly and more about different cases I think could be classed as artwashing after that.

It is important that I explain my rationale.  This is not a conspiracy.  This is global capitalism underpinned by neoliberal ideology.  Nothing illegal but perhaps unethical?

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Opportunty areas Pt 3: The Artists and The Puppet Masters - A Cautionary Tale

Opportunty areas Pt 3: The Artists and The Puppet Masters - A Cautionary Tale

This is the final part of a three-part series about "opportunity areas".  The first two blog posts in the series, Unearthing socially engaged art’s complicity in the gentrification of Elephant & Castle nd 'There for the taking', focused on three artists who I suggested were complicit in gentrification by working for state-funded initiatives like Creative People and Places and with property developers Delancey in the soon-to-be-demolished shopping centre at Elephant and Castle.  I know quite a few people felt I had been unfair, aggressive, vitriolic, indignant and cynical.  I was at pains to explain that the tale I told was not unique nor unusual.  Socially engaged art is commonly used as a form of placemaking.  The examples I described in the work of Eva Sajovic, Rebecca Davies and Sarah Butler were mundane.  A perhaps crass attempt to illustrate much bigger problems in our lives that are mirrored in art practices.

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Hipsters and artists are the gentrifying foot soldiers of capitalism

Hipsters and artists are the gentrifying foot soldiers of capitalism

This is my first article for The Guardian Comment is Free section.  I've added my own pic here...

It's a response to Matt Hancock's recent maiden speech about UK arts and culture in which he said, "The hipster is a capitalist."

I'd love your feedback...

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Fools Gold – is #FolkestoneGold ‘participatory art’?

#FolkestoneGold.  Popular and extremely newsworthy.  People digging for little chunks of gold on the beach in Folkestone is certainly an arts marketing dream; a boon for this year’s Folkestone Triennial.  Folkestone Digs was commissioned by new Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation Situations and produced by Berlin-based artist Michael Sailstorfer.  But what does this public art work say about ‘participatory art’?  Is it a ‘gold rush’ or cold exploitation?  When the veil of secrecy was first lifted on Folkestone Digs, I felt cold and uncomfortable…

Then lyrics from my youth by The Stone Roses shuffled about somewhere inside:

I'm standing alone
I'm watching you all
I'm seeing you sinking
I'm standing alone
You're weighing the gold
I'm watching you sinking

Fool's gold

Earlier now.  The early 1980s.  Unemployment.  Riots.  Thatcher.  Grey…  No.  Not everything was grey, was it?

Not summer holidays away from my Jarrow home stripped bare once and forever by industry-killing, North loathing Tories!

Memories of Blackpool, Scarborough, Filby (near Great Yarmouth); Butlins, Pontins, other less uniform caravan parks.  I remember now…

Crap pirate boat trips to cheap play sand islands floating on worn out re-treads in sludgy pools no deeper than knee-high to an eight-year old.  Cardboard palms, polyester sateen ‘slops’, wiry nylon ringlet wigs and drawn-on market-stall mascara beards.  Searching for Hong Kong doubloons on ‘organised’ summer holiday activities for the kids.

I loved it!  Wanted more.  I was a swashbuckling buccaneer.  The plastic cutlass my dad bought me soon became a cherished souvenir.  (Until next year.)

Back again.

Summer holidays 2014 are almost over.  A new ‘participatory artwork’ was grabbing media attention.  Not just the arts media either.  Wow!  An artist had hidden 30 pieces of gold worth £10,000 under the beach at Folkestone.  Hmm…  Apparently, it’s a game of ‘finders, keepers’!  People who don’t do art are, well, doing art.  They’re digging for gold.  Plastic buckets and spades for the kids, garden-standard hardware for the adults, and dusted down metal detectors for the, erm, metal detectors.

Headlines screamed:

Folkestone gold rush as town digs deep for public art


And other obvious (like this blog’s title), glimmeringly superficial phrases.

Straplines and copy heralded this new public artwork as ‘participatory art’.  The curator, Lewis Biggs, said: "It is a participatory artwork. It is about people coming to the beach and digging and possibly finding hidden treasure. Some people will get lucky, some people will not get lucky – and that's life."  This, for me, seemed worrying.  Searching for dog-tag sized bars of 24-carat gold.  (Ooh!  ‘They may be more valuable as art works than if traded-in at ‘We Buy Any Gold’, etc. etc.)  A curator who thinks participation is about some people winning whilst others lose is a metaphor for life?  I could go on.  You get the gist.

Folkestone Digs is undeniably art.  We say it is, so it is!  It is also participatory.  But then so is gambling in local bookies, sitting in traffic jams on the M6, rioting – most things…

For me, it’s the cynically exploitative undertones of this art work that concerns me; the monetisation of participatory experience; the lack of any depth to the work other than the position of each piece of metal in relation to the surface of the sand.  These types of ‘participatory art’ are becoming commonplace.  They are not about social justice or dialogic approaches or co-producing.  This is artist-led.  Aesthetic.  Art as treasure map.  This is a different form of participation in the arts from the type of social and ecological practices I am interested in.  The only ideology this type of ‘participatory-lite’ art espouses is capitalism.

Wandering thought:

A bloke turns up with a JCB.  Somehow, by stealth or corruption, he digs up the whole beach and carts it away, taking all but one, it is later revealed, of the golden art works with him.  They are never found.  Neither is the one that got away…


Where’s my old family Polaroid folder?

Critical theory

Other disciplines that might further develop socially engaged art practice

This section considers other disciplines that are relevant to my research question (Can participatory art support sustainable social change?) and are interesting, perhaps, inspiring alternative perspectives that may help provide new ways of investigating and developing concepts surround socially engaged practice, social change and sustainability. The areas covered are: critical theory; critical postmodernism; post-structuralism; postdevelopment theory; participatory action research; the psychodynamics of playing and reality; and the carnivalesque. There is insufficient space to develop historical backgrounds to these perspectives nor to fully explore arguments around these disciplines. The aim here is to summarise key elements from the different disciplines as deemed relevant for the purposes of this research.

This is the sixth post taken from my draft literature review which is part of my on going PhD research centred around the question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Previous posts are below.  This is a rough and ready document I just wanted to put out there.  It will be refined.  Some of this literature review material will form a new series of less formal and, quite probably, more critical, blog posts that will be following soon.  Please feel free to comment and criticise…

The first post briefly discusses critical theory.  My research is based around this approach and its methodologies.  I use the term un-capitalised because my work is informed by a critical theory beyond that attributed solely to the Frankfurt School.

critical theory cartoon

Critical theory is at the heart of this research. It is, in its broader and narrower senses, an approach that provides ‘the descriptive and normative bases for social inquiry aimed at decreasing domination and increasing freedom in all their forms’ (Bohman, 2013). For Horkeimer, Critical Theory is emancipatory, seeking ‘to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them’ (Horkheimer, 1982, p. 244). It is a critically interdisciplinary approach which, as, Bohman explains:

‘Critical Theorists have long sought to distinguish their aims, methods, theories, and forms of explanation from standard understandings in both the natural and the social sciences. Instead, they have claimed that social inquiry ought to combine rather than separate the poles of philosophy and the social sciences: explanation and understanding, structure and agency, regularity and normativity. Such an approach… permits their enterprise to be practical in a distinctively moral (rather than instrumental) sense. They do not merely seek to provide the means to achieve some independent goal, but rather… seek “human emancipation” in circumstances of domination and oppression. This normative task cannot be accomplished apart from the interplay between philosophy and social science through interdisciplinary empirical social research’ (Bohman, 2013).

Critical theory must meet three criteria continuously: ‘it must be explanatory, practical, and normative’; it must ‘explain what is wrong with current social reality, identify the actors to change it, and provide both clear norms for criticism and achievable practical goals for social transformation’ – a task only achievable ‘only through interdisciplinary research that includes psychological, cultural, and social dimensions, as well as institutional forms of domination’ (Bohman, 2013). As Horkheimer explained, capitalism must become more democratic so that ‘all conditions of social life that are controllable by human beings depend on real consensus’ (Horkheimer, 1982, pp. 249-250); Jürgen Habermas continues to critically explore such forms of cooperative, practical and transformative action today. There is a reawakening of critical theory at present. In responding to:

‘a period in which philosophy cooperates with empirical sciences and disciplines, Critical Theory offers an approach to distinctly normative issues that cooperates with the social sciences in a nonreductive way. Its domain is inquiry into the normative dimension of social activity, in particular how actors employ their practical knowledge and normative attitudes from complex perspectives in various sorts of contexts. It also must consider social facts as problematic situations from the point of view of variously situated agents… This kind of normative practical knowledge is thus reflexive and finds its foothold in those ongoing, self-transforming normative enterprises such as democracy that are similarly reflexive in practice’ (Bohman, 2013).

Bohman roots this resurgence of interest in critical theory as a response to the ‘pernicious ideology’ presently at work in suggesting there is no alternative to our present way of living; a time when ‘the social scientifically informed, and normatively oriented democratic critic’ can suggest ‘novel alternatives and creative possibilities in place of the defeatist claim that we are at the end of history’ (Bohman, 2013). Critical theory can, perhaps, be seen as a solution to the call for a critical postmodernism that responds to and suggests alternatives to ‘scepticism concerning the transformative and critical powers of art, aesthetics, knowledge’ by seeking individualised alternatives that ‘end of any simple faith in what have sometimes been called the “grand metanarratives”’ (Hebdige, 1992 [1986-7], p. 337); creating ‘a postmodernism of resistance, including resistance to that easy postmodernism of the “anything goes” variety’ in so doing (Huyssen, 1998 [1984], p. 336). As such, critical theory can be considered as aligned to post-structuralism’s ‘refusal to grant structuralism its premise that each system is autonomous, with rules and operations that begin and end within the boundaries of that system’ (Krauss, 2011, p. 40), yet, perhaps, it is also different from post-structuralism in terms of its goals.