Tell me again, why do arts organisations (really) want to work in communities?

Tell me again, why do arts organisations (really) want to work in communities?

Tell me again, why do you want to work in Stockton? asks ARC Stockton chief executive Annabel Turpin.  Of course, this question could apply anywhere and, I argue here, it could also be applied more deeply, perhaps.

Annabel Turpin’s blog about the invasion of London arts organisations in ‘the regions’ reflects a growing sense of frustration within regional arts organisations who feel they are not treated as equals in many such ‘partnerships’.  I argue here that the same thing is in fact happening within the regions – that large Arts Council England funded ‘local’ arts organisations are going into their communities with the same lack of understanding and for the same reasons.

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People, Place, Power (or othering and disempowering culturally different people)

People, Place, Power (or othering and disempowering culturally different people)

This is a little part of a draft section of my PhD thesis.  It examines Creative People and Places, particularly, their People, Place, Power: Increasing Arts Engagement conference, suggesting empowerment may not be all it's cracked up to be, especially when 'delivered' by state-sanctioned, instrumentalising arts organisations and artists - the foot soldiers of state social art provision...

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Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification #AAG2016 PowerPoint & Filmed Presentation

Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification #AAG2016 PowerPoint & Filmed Presentation

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.)

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Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification Full #AAG2016 Paper

Place Guarding: Activist & Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification Full #AAG2016 Paper

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.

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Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

Participating without power: The limits of instrumentalised engagement with people & place

This is a copy of my abstract submitted for the forthcoming Creative People and Places conference entitled (unbelievably) People, Place, Power.  It was rejected.  Perhaps it was not academic enough or badly written?  Or perhaps it might have been a little challenging for some panel members?  Anyway, I stand by my words...

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northernGAME: Social practice in rural South West Northumberland

I gave this presentation on 16th November 2015 at Durham University's Participatory Research Hub.  The event aimed to explore what happens "when participatory research meets the creative sector".  My presentation introduces dot to dot active arts, features my recent paper A View Is Always Worth It: Social Practice in Rural North East England, then reflects upon a project I collaborated on with Stevie Ronnie in 2014 - northerngame. I think it reveals a more idealistic aspect of my research and practice.  The intention was to explore the subtleties of self-initiated grassroots socially engaged art.  The beginnings of something.  Curiosities.

Comments always welcome as usual.

Please click the picture or link below to go to the online presentation and please remember to click the "notes" option on the bottom right of the PowerPoint screen for my text.

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https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!87822&authkey=!ANFFyNu1iNPoVcA&ithint=file%2cpptx

#ParkingSpace @thestovies - some images from a great weekend in Dumfries with The Stove & @openjartweets

I was invited to talk about The New Rules Of Public Art at The Stove's Parking Space event on Friday.  Stayed around for some of Saturday too... Amazing people. Great atmosphere and spirit. Nice art, films and participation. All in a disused but still open NCP multistorey car park in the heart of the Scottish town of Dumfries...

Thank you for inviting me!

AGL: above ground level

As founder of dot to dot active arts CIC – a member organisation for socially engaged artists and arts workers that’s fiercely independent and always grassroots – I’m committed to working with communities and our artists to develop new ideas to mix art and life openly and honestly.  We worked in Blyth, Northumberland last year, met loads of really interesting and desperately passionate people, did some great participatory art, revived empty shops.  Many people wanted more.  So we’re back with a new project.  This post attempts to explain why and a bit more about what we’ll be doing.

dot to dot active arts was only formed in January 2013.  Old-New Curiosity Shop was our first major arts project.  We chose to work in the Northumbrian post-industrial coastal port of Blyth.  Some of us had produced arts interventions there before; some of us lived there (or nearby).  We managed to convince Arts Council England, Northumberland County Council, other local funders and sponsors to support us.  Even the local MP and some local councillors backed our work.  We took on two empty shops and did lots of free art workshops in them.  Anyone could drop in.  The response from the people of Blyth and the surrounding areas was astounding.  We were sad when our project finished.  Happy that we’d worked well as a team and created a down-to-earth place for people to create things, but sad that we left a void – people wanted us to stay and keep doing what we were doing.  Not everyone though.  Some local arts organisations and artists were (given their clear messages given to us during our project) no doubt very pleased to see the back of us.  Success can sometimes be threatening to some.  That’s completely understandable in one sense.

AGL two crop

We listened to local people and our members.  We worked with Arts Council England and other local funders.  We found an amazing new space – an empty 2,000 square feet open plan office with shop frontage, accessible and in lovely condition.  We made another project happen in Blyth.  That project is AGL (above ground level)It starts in a few days and will run until the end of October 2014.  But this is a pilot, a test.  We want to work with local people and local staff and our artists to make AGL something more permanent.  Not a place for state agenda supporting participatory art.  Our first project in Blyth was, for me, more grassroots participatory than grassroots socially engaging.  Not a bad thing.  Part of our engagement strategy.  We did not suggest that Old-New Curiosity Shop was going to be complicit in furthering participatory art as a creative cure-all solution.  It wasn’t.  No arts project ever will be.

But AGL is different in three key ways.  First, this project is about introducing issue-based and theme-based socially engaged arts sessions to local people.  A more focused approach; more challenging; still grassroots.  Second, AGL wants to develop our own artists (their practice and by their hands-on training of trainees), our own local members (by working as staff who will develop their own roles and deepen our links with the community), a local apprentice (who will learn by first-hand, in-at-the-deep end experience how to run projects and an arts organisation our way), and, critically, local people of all ages to challenge themselves and others through learning new forms of artistic practice and new ways of expressing their feelings about their communities.  Third, we hope the project will develop itself into a longer-term project that will enable the space to continue to be used as a place for local people to develop their own new arts projects and events as well as to experience meetings with other artists from around the country.  A free-range incubator for do-it-yourself and do-it-with-others ideas, not a cultural R&D centre.

We want our socially engaged project to be different from other ‘participatory’ arts projects in the area.  Not more of the same.  Our workshops will mix contemporary arts practice with social justice to ask questions without answers; to challenge people to express themselves openly in their own ways.  There will be sessions about personal stories, about gender and sexuality, about climate change, about wars, about the body, about back alleys, about culture, about digital, about street sounds…  above ground level is an attempt at grassroots socially engaged arts in the local community that, like last year’s project, doesn’t know what will happen yet is certain lots of interesting things will happen.  It is not about looking back at bygone days of industrial greatness.  It is not about art for art’s sake.  It is not about ticking boxes or making claims about wellbeing and happiness or economic benefits of arts and culture.  It is about having a safe potential space where creative things might happen.  A place inspired by notions of the carnivalesque and of playing and reality.  Somewhere where nonconformity is encouraged.

So that’s us; that’s AGL.  Oh, and why the title?  It is about altimeters measuring the ever-changing height of a moving object over the changing height of the changing terrain below.  AGL is essential to safe navigation, to accurate atmospheric measurements.  AGL is also a statement of intent: to avoid revisiting the area’s historic coal mining past.  Finally, AGL is a place from which you can ‘parachute into’ another place.  A criticism often (wrongly) levelled at us.  To me, it doesn’t really matter whether you parachute in or embed yourself for x number of months/ years.  It matters what you do with local people whilst your there.  It matters that good things come to an end.  It matters that there is an end.  Not THE END as a finality.  An end as potential for new beginnings, new independence.

Radical arts activism, sustainability by renewal & social justice: refining doctoral research via critical theory towards a working hypothesis

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…

illuminator-grievances

Research question

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.

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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 [2002], 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’[1] 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’[2]. 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.

Deveron - All Hail the Returning Hunter(slash)Gatherers, 2011

Working hypothesis

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.


[1] 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

[2] 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

This is not a love song – lessons the arts might learn from football

I'm going over to the other side
I'm happy to have and not to have not
Big business is very wise
I'm inside free enterprise

This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
This is not a love song
Not a love song

I'm adaptable, I'm adaptable
I'm adaptable and I like my new role
I'm getting better and better
And I have a new goal
I'm changing my ways where money applies

(This is not a love song, Public Image Limited, 1983)

What can the arts learn from football? A lot about developing a connected culture in which children, amateurs and professionals see clear links and participate/ spectate on every level, Nina Simon wrote recently. The world of football is similar to the arts in many ways: taking part, audiences, celebrity and anonymity, economic and intrinsic benefits/ values, large costly buildings and jumpers for goal posts, health and wellbeing, and more. Oh, and let's not forget finance: public subsidy and big business sponsorship. There's also, at the 'top level', The World Cup and Venice Biennial. Lots of similarities, then. Not all good.

What football does well is undoubtedly present a cultural phenomenon that is accessible at every level. A sport where even the premiership elite are, well, not really that elitist. A game where kids playing in a back lane or park and blokes with hangovers kicking each other as much as the ball are respected. Professionals regularly going into schools for training sessions and awards presentations as well as helping smaller clubs and amateurs fundraise. Football can also be 'viewed' live in world class stadiums or patchy local pitches and watched on TV at home or down the pub. Yes, costs of attending a premiership game are prohibitively high for many people; as is a subscription to Sky Sports. But anyone can take part and you don't hear accusations of amateurism or that's 'not football'. Some may say, 'football is different from art'. Of course, on one level, this is true; yet, on another level, the two activities are similar, essential aspects of our lives.

Like football, the arts is engrained into our daily existence - whether 'high' or 'low' arts. They both have tiered, hierarchical structures too. The problem is that elitism in the arts means that people taking part in the arts at different levels are perceived of very differently - from billionaire art buyers to attendees of exclusive theatre to student art shows to people sitting watching Corrie. Artistic excellence is paramount at almost every level for many in the arts. It is the winning, not the taking part, that matters. There is little space for amateurism, volunteering (except as ways to keep wage bills down), or even socially engaged arts practice. These are the realms of 'not arts' to many within the arts elites (for they are plural, legion). Yet, 'amateur' art, art in schools, community art, voluntary art, social practice, etc. offer great experiences and pleasure to many people. The problem is that there is little option for progression (for many) and derision lurks everywhere.

It is therefore essential that we remember that the arts too were once much more connected to life; less elitist than is the case in our present cultural milieu. Artisans were performers and producers, an integral part of everyday life. Festivals were commonplace and many people who may now feel disenfranchised by much of ‘the arts’ today took part. They were key events in the yearly calendar for everyone in communities – they had special meanings and marked special times. Streets and markets were often venues for free theatre and, even when theatre buildings opened, the ‘groundlings’ still formed a substantial sector of the audience of many Elizabethan plays. Sports, like rugby and football, were also integral to the lives of many people. Our neoliberal consumer society today often forgets its past. So too does much of our contemporary arts world. But sports, like football, tend to hold closer ties to their histories as integral to their on-going narratives.

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The darker side of the arts and football (and many other areas of our contemporary lives) is undoubtedly philanthropy and sponsorship. This is not to say that all giving is bad. It is just a warning of the dangers of ‘tagging-on’ brands to activities for purely commercial gain or, worse still, to deliver marketing messages that directly conflict with the activity being ‘supported’. This will be a topic for another post so, for now, let’s just consider BP’s financial support for Tate and The British Museum or tobacco sponsorship of artist residencies in the Caribbean or investment bank and 2008 financial crash ‘Titan’ Merrill Lynch’s project with Tate aimed at regenerating local areas and making places safer. This type of activity is all about ‘realising corporate responsibility outcomes’ – something Arts and Business are promoting heavily as a means to increase philanthropic giving to the arts at the moment – but it mires the arts in corporate complicity. This is different from professional football’s out-and-out clear marketing-for-money deals, not to mention the often essential small-scale sponsorship of local amateur teams by local small businesses who are happy to support their team in return for a little extra local exposure. However, football sponsorship can be dangerously unethical too. Think about the World Cup 2014 with big corporate sponsors including Budweiser, Coca Cola and MacDonalds. The message: play or watch football - drink alcohol and fizzy drinks and eat unhealthy food. Or Wonga and their shirt sponsorship of Newcastle United – buy your season ticket and pay for it with a thousands of percent loan you might end up never repaying! The danger for the arts is that, not only will the ethical and moral concerns about current big arts sponsors affect the independence and critical essence of the arts, but the drive for philanthropic giving may lead to Wonga sponsoring participatory art projects in ‘disadvantaged’ communities, etc.

Nonetheless, forgetting the similar drives for both the arts and football to become increasingly commercialised (at least at their ‘top’ levels), there are, perhaps, lessons the arts might glean from football. It has retained its grassroots up appeal and ethos. Think of (local Toon legends) Gazza, Peter Beardsley, etc. They, like many other people who managed to become professional footballers, had difficult upbringings but became famous (not always just for footballing achievements). They started out playing at school; they were encouraged by sports teachers and (sometimes) parents. They were developed in volunteer-ran ‘boys clubs’ with little funding but loads of commitment to the young lads having a chance in (footballing) life. Professional clubs went there to find ‘new talent’. The professionals paid their dues, coming back to help raise money for the clubs and to help train new generations of possible future pros. Even those who ‘didn’t make it’ still found new friendships and enjoyment in taking part and trying; some stayed to volunteer to help keep the clubs running. If only the same thing could be said about much (not all) of the fractured ‘arts world’ in the UK right now. As Nina Simon pointed out, until fifty years ago soccer was derided in the US – now it is a sport that is increasingly becoming an important national game. It built itself up through grassroots engagement and commitment to accessibility for all. Perhaps we in the UK now need to think seriously about rebuilding the arts from the roots up?

Grassroots arts social engagement

northerngame

Working with traditional communities and contemporary exhibitions

This post is an initial attempt to describe an extraordinary socially engaged art commission I was lucky enough to co-create with artist Stevie Ronnie.  The work was participatory; the exhibition likewise.  The opening was Friday 6th June.  The work is on show until the end of July, so this is my reflection of our work up to the exhibition and what happened at the opening…

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Ring, Ringer, Wring, Case hardened steel Northumbrian quoit, wrought iron hob, shark wire, blue clay, found items, Stevie Ronnie 2014 (photograph, Stephen Pritchard)

 

Artist: Stevie Ronnie

Curator/ producer: Stephen Pritchard

Produced by: dot to dot active arts CIC

Commissioned by: The Whistle Art Stop

Location: pubs across South West Northumberland

Exhibition venue: Haltwhistle, Northumberland

Funded by: Arts Council England and Northumberland Arts Development

Project dates: April to June 2014

Exhibition dates: 6th June to end July 2014

 

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Appropriated image of spectators watching game at Cart’s Bog, Allen Valley Quoits League website

 

northerngame is a project that has really just begun.  It’s about going to pubs in rural locations, watching a traditional sport, chatting to the people taking part and spectators, drinking, trying things out for yourself, listening, observing, meeting people, and, most of all, learningnortherngame is also about socially engaged arts practice as grassroots community engagement and contemporary art spaces in (this case) rural places.  It’s about developing trust, being irreverent, going to odd locations, talking, thinking, making art that can be remade, and playing games as old as their even older hosts – the hills and dales of the North Pennines and South West Northumberland.

The project is about quoits – an ancient and traditional game with its own language, a strong sense of community, yet mysterious and little known outside the circles of those who play the sport.  There are strict rules, teams, league divisions, cups, local small business sponsors, individual competitions, festival ‘open’ games, and competition and camaraderie in equal measures.  The league games mostly take place in pubs and working men’s and conservative clubs; outside, in beer gardens and adjoining fields.  Some pitches are well kept, others a little ramshackle.  The overriding feeling is of ‘make use of what’s at hand – that’ll fettle it.’  The measurements are in yards: the pits one yard square; distance from hob to hob must be eleven yards.  Well, that’s the case for the ‘northern game’ as played in the Allen Valley Quoits League.  There are others, including the Scottish ‘long game’ with a larger throwing distance of eighteen yards and quoits that are twice as heavy!  There are also grass versions of the game (often played at local festivals and shows).  There is a strong sense of DIY.  This appeals to our creative ethos – independence, community, do-it-yourself (or with the help of others who fancy getting involved/ having a go).

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Ring, Ringer, Wring, Case hardened steel Northumbrian quoit, wrought iron hob, shark wire, blue clay, found items, Stevie Ronnie 2014 (photograph, Stephen Pritchard)

 

So what is northerngame really about?  It’s a socially engaged art project, plain and simple.  It’s about grassroots engagement with local people who don’t (on the whole) go to art galleries or understand contemporary art or socially engaged art or (for that matter) what we’re doing.  Or didn’t…  It’s also about helping a contemporary art gallery in the post-industrial town of Haltwhistle engage with new local audiences and participants in a way that’s simultaneously understandable and unusual.  We tried to be slow and sensitive; honest; organic.  The final works in the exhibition were unknown until days before the opening.  Artist Stevie Ronnie researched the sport and visited various locations and watched games; we took part in some too.  But, although Stevie had cameras and other equipment with him, we didn’t ever even suggest using them to document players or their stories.  It just wasn’t right at the time.  Conversation and participation were paramount.  We wanted to avoid exploiting people or constructing situations.  We felt playful.  We were welcomed.  We were privileged.

Stevie and I thought and talked long and hard about the exhibition – how it might look, what it could contain and what it couldn’t, and how it might be received.  The intention was that the space should be playful, interactive, inviting participation yet also free from instruction.  The hope was that visitors would make their own choices about what they felt comfortable touching, moving, banging, clanging, throwing – even cleaning!  The installation is in a white cube space.  It plays to the minimalist aesthetic of contemporary visual art and, at the same time, also jars against it.  It defies convention and reimagines traditions. Not art traditions.  Rural outdoor traditions.

The exhibition consists of one large white-framed letterpress piece, The Vocabulary of Chance Meetings on Blue Clay, containing words often used by quoits players but, perhaps, alien to outsiders, and three smaller white-framed Lambda prints produced by Stevie during a visit to a disused quoits pitch at Allenheads Inn entitled Blue Clay and Hob, The Covering of the Blue Clay Pit, and Here, Where a Team Stood on the Blue Clay.  These works are elusive and beautiful – perfectly aligned with contemporary visual arts convention.  Stevie’s other work Ring, Ringer, Wring mixes materials in a series of three linked installations comprising: a steel hob (stake) installed in a gallery wall with a brand new quoit suspended on shark wire swinging gently next to it; a centrally placed yard square reclaimed wooden box containing blue clay with another hob sitting proud of the surface and another brand new quoit; and a rough handmade stone bench with rusting bucket, scrubbing brush and beer towel – the bucket contains muddy water.

Ring, Ringer, Wring blurs boundaries between what is art.  That is the intention of the entire project.  We question the nature of art, white cubes, audience as viewer/ participant.  We do this because it is playful.  Because people who go to galleries will hopefully feel unsettled, uncertain of whether to touch or just look.  Because people who don’t go to galleries might feel the space is fun and interactive – maybe not recognising all of the works as works of art.  In this sense, northerngame is an experiment – risky.  Not an exploitative one, rather a participatory one.  The opening was it’s test.  People from the ‘art world’ came along with local people and their children, and most importantly, quoits players came.  The quoits players travelled from as far as forty miles away to have a look.  They brought unusual quoits.  They chatted, drank beer, threw some quoits in the gallery, talked a bit about art.  Children swung and banged and clattered the suspended quoit against the wall-mounted hob over and over and over again until the white cube wall surrounding the hob began developing indentations and muddy impressions – marks made by people having a go.  The gallery rang loud as one person after another swung the quoit against the hob then watched as it danced, drawn back towards the hob in an almost perpetual motion.  The lambda prints were no longer spirit level straight but that was all good – they found their own place again and again.  People threw the other quoit into the blue clay box, aiming for the hob, sticking it in the clay, holding it, even brushing and washing it – the muddy water spattering across the newly painted gallery floor and up the fresh white walls.  The project seemed to find something for everyone.  That is what we hoped to achieve.

Most importantly of all, the quoits players were a bit bemused by the exhibition but enjoyed something different.  They talked to traditional arts audiences and to local people and children animatedly about their passion for their sport.  They brought more objects that are now part of the installation.  They were surprised there were no photographs of them or other players in the exhibition.  This surprised Stevie and I.  We knew we hadn’t taken any images of them; hadn’t even really asked.  But now they seemed to be giving us an invitation…  Looks like there’ll be a return match!  Such is the nature of northerngame.

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northerngame exhibition title, Chalk on one yard square blackboard, 2014

Hurrah, the Culture is Finished!

This mini-essay was first published on the #culturalvalue initiative website on 5th January 2014.  I’m reblogging it here with their introduction.

Stephen’s witty and well researched mini-essay contribution to The #culturalvalue Initiative originated in a lively twitter conversation that followed the publication of Daniel Allington’s guest post, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective in early December 2013. The conversation started off as a debate on the merits of Bourdieu’s work in pushing forward the cultural value debate and soon broadened to the relative merits of different disciplinary approaches. I was fascinated by the exchange between Stephen and Daniel, but it soon became apparent that it was more complex than a twitter debate could cope with. So, I invited Stephen to write a short guest post response to Daniel’s piece so that interesting conversation could continue on this site. This would allow to keep a permanent record of it and to facilitate a wider participation in the discussion. As it is often the case when reflecting on complex matters, Stephen’s rejoinder to Daniel’s post has developed into a free-standing and rich longer piece of writing in its own right, and the result is the latest offering in our mini-essays series! In the dialogical spirit in which this piece was conceived, I hope readers will enage in the debate via the comments facility, but, if you need more room for your thoughts, just get in touch!

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John Heartfield, Hurrah, the Butter is Finished!, cover for AIZ, Photomontage, December 19th 1935.

Reproduction, appropriation, new narratives, and opposition to hegemonies: techniques art has used to challenge the mass-produced cultural propaganda of fascism, late imperialistic capitalism and outmoded intrinsically conservative, individualistic and modernist beliefs about autonomy. This type of avant-garde approach had real cultural importance and it was dangerous. Mass-produced counterpropaganda threatens governments by challenging policy; by using the very tools of mass-marketing, it challenges the markets, exposing the shallow reproduction of consumerist messages.

This type of art is one example that may offer a different way to think about artistic practice and aesthetics, production and distribution, etc.; that may lead to alternative notions of “cultural value” – however that slippery term might be defined[1]. This essay is not about reviving modernist debates about “art-for-art’s sake”[2], misreading and decontextualising Bourdieu’s structuralism[3], heroic artists apparently driven to create work to earn ‘the esteem of fellow producers’ by ‘deeply believing’ in “cultural value”, network analyses and diagrams, or circular arguments about the “intrinsically cultural” value of “culture”.[4] Rather, this essay attempts to re-situate contemporary arts practices, particularly those that acknowledge art’s role as ‘a social product’ that ‘always encodes values and ideology’,[5] at the heart of current debate about “cultural value”.[6]

The arts are about audiences but also about participation through social engaging activities; about artists who, on the whole, struggle to make a living and often care greatly about the communities they are part of; about arts organisations (big and small) and their eternal struggle to convince politicians and economists of their multifarious values that extend well beyond financial return on investment, evidencing impact, missions, models, evaluation, etc.; but they are also about the production of radical anti-hegemonic thinking and challenging, rather than conforming to, state sponsored social agendas. Twenty-first century art is, like every aspect of our societies, in turmoil. Postmodernism makes it difficult for art to avoid negating itself and find meaning in many of its practices; political and economic interventions (including “instrumentalism” – defensive or otherwise)[7] encourage the arts to conform to policies that are predominantly not about art or participants or artists or social change or communities; in-vogue (yet, from many business perspectives, out-dated) “governance” models that aim to minimise risk and support “resilience” are effectively imposed upon arts organisations and even artists by funders and policy makers; we are all encouraged to become “self-sustaining” and market-oriented; not to mention philanthropy, austerity, consumerism, popularism, etc. etc. And whilst fairness is desperately needed across every area of arts and culture, now is definitely not the time to argue reductively that we should conceive solely of ‘culture as an economic activity’.[8]

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Michel Ell, Des Kaisers neue Kleider, Woodcut, 1923.

The current dominant economic-driven narrative for the arts is a lot like ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’ and we must avoid a situation where “cultural value” (indeed all elements of arts and culture) becomes ‘the most exquisite cloth imaginable’ and those who cannot see it are either ‘unfit for post’ or ‘inadmissibly stupid’.[9] We all know that arts experiences cut from an unravelling economic cloth will be divisive and limp and that value-based investment policy may even lead to our measuring ourselves out of existence. But we can’t pretend to embrace this state imposed fallacy. We must play the innocent child and shout, ‘He doesn’t have anything on!’[10] The Emperor (state) will still, no doubt, continue his procession, prouder than ever, but will probably wear a different suit next time. If everyone stands quiet, it is quite possible that arts and culture will finally be subsumed by aesthetic and commodity production in a “return of the aesthetic” that, when ‘the aesthetic (and even culture as such) is necessarily blurred or lost altogether’, will also signal its end.[11]

All is not lost for the arts and culture. The arts market is flourishing like Ragwort on overgrazed pasture, fertilised by shallow aesthetic surplus value, it has ‘attained complete autonomy, completely cut off from the real economy of value’.[12] The arts market is the epitome of cynical postmodern consumerism and the cult of celebrity; it reviles “popularism” because populist art is unpretentious, encourages participation, is not a commodity and does not deify “experts”.[13] And herein lies three challenges to “cultural value” debates, future policy decisions and the ways many existing arts organisations work:

· Pay full attention to socially engaged art practice, artists and the importance of participation. At present, these are barely mentioned. Perhaps because this practice may be ‘too useful and therefore too much of a departure from the art-for-art’s-sake norm’, it is not considered as “art” by some.[14] But the ‘lens of validation’ is opening to participatory practices that previously ‘were tolerated on the margins or held outside the narratives of power in the art process.’[15]

· Understand the important role for “critical postmodernism” from the perspectives of both practice and theory. Bürger’s notion of the antiaesthetic is inherently participatory and challenges ‘the autonomous “institution of art”… to reverse the bourgeois hierarchy of aesthetic exchange-value and use-value… [by replacing] originality with technical reproduction’. This approach does not purport to transmit exceptional knowledge. It is utilitarian, contextualising art as ‘social’.[16] We need a postmodernism of resistance that heightens ‘the productive tension between the political and the aesthetic, between history and the text, between engagement and the mission of art’.[17]

· Reimagine “sustainability” of arts and cultural practice and institutions. There are many who see sustainability as maintaining the status quo and preserving the big organisations at the expense of the small; big exhibitions, shows, events instead of small, grassroots initiatives that develop creative self-expression of people in communities most in need. As Diane Ragsdale recently said, ‘The arts are here to say, “We see you. We see this community. We see that for every one person that’s doing OK one person in this community is suffering. We do not exist exclusively for those that are doing OK. We exist for everyone. We exist for you.”’[18] All parts of the arts “ecosystem” must be sustained but sometimes this involves an ‘unnatural perpetuation of what might otherwise die’.[19] We must decide whether public funding should be redirected towards those who need it most, perhaps at the expense of the elitist institutions.

Hopefully, this essay offers something to the “cultural value” debate. It is a polemic. It is meant that way. It seeks to try and explain why artists and some arts organisations feel a bit detached from discussions about policy. It aims to show that there are areas and, more importantly, people and communities that we must not neglect when “valuing” the arts and culture and deciding how and what we “invest” in.

We must support and value art that is truly useful and engaging; encouraging “non-artists” to participate in and lead future arts projects that add new value to the lives of people and communities; and artists who are also able to fulfil the roles of mentors, activists and educators.[20] We must ‘reconnect art and lived experience as social process’,[21] ensuring that ‘[s]ocial concerns are addressed through the creative process, rather than art being an instrument of social policy and a solution to deep-rooted social problems.’[22] This way of perceiving participation in socially engaged arts ‘involves a significant shift from objects to relationships’;[23] it creates a radical space separate from consumerism and the arts market ‘in which the paradigm of social consciousness replaces that of individual genius.’[24] This is socially engaged practice inspired by critical postmodernist resistance that, as Dick Hebdige explains, ‘can help us rediscover the power that resides in little things, in disregarded details, in aphorism (miniaturised truths), in metaphor, allusion, in images and image-streams’.[25] We must sustain the “arts ecosystem” by allowing some old wood to burn in small fires; a process of renewal. We must be wary of economic arguments about growth and instead proudly sing songs about our role as socially engaged artists and keeping helping people write new stories – their stories – because as Diane Ragsdale honestly said: ‘We are here to foster empathy, understanding of self, and understanding of other. We are here to gently, or not-so-gently, open people’s eyes to truths they cannot see or choose not to see: suffering and ugliness and their opposites love and beauty.’[26]

This essay was supposed to be 800 words long. It isn’t. But, sometimes, you must expand boundaries to enable participation in open debate.

Bibliography

Allington, Daniel, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

Andersen, Hans Christian, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 [1837]

Baudrillard, Jean, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005

Beasley-Murray, Jon, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000

Belfiore, Eleonora, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf

Benjamin, Walter, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 [1936]

Buchloh, Benjamin H.D., ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011

Gablik, Suzi, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984

Gablik, Suzi, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992

Hebdige, Dick, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992

Huyssen, Andreas, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998

Jameson, Fredric, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998

Matarasso, Francois, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/

McGonagle, Declan, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007

O’Brien, Dave, Is 'creativity' arts policy's big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake

Ragsdale, Diane, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013 http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf

Reiss, Vivienne, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007

Stallabrass, Julian, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf

Wolff, Janet, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993


[1] For more on the difficulty of defining “cultural value”, see Francois Matarasso, On ‘The very idea of measuring cultural value’, 20th January 2012, http://parliamentofdreams.com/2012/01/20/on-the-very-idea-of-measuring-cultural-value/

[2] “Art-for-art’s-sake” claims “true” (or “high”) art should only be valued for its intrinsic qualities and be completely separate from any moral, utilitarian and educational functions: a modernist and elitist perspective that typifies the discourse of white, middle-class men, notions of beauty, class, superiority, etc. and culminates, as Walter Benjamin suggested, in the ‘aestheticisation of politics’ of fascism - see Walter Benjamin, The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, trans. J.A. Underwood, Penguin Books, London, 2008 [1936], p.38.

[3] For more on Bourdieu’s problematic term “cultural capital” and its inadequate account of the accumulation of surplus and therefore themes relating to wealth, profit and exploitation, see Jon Beasley-Murray, ‘Value and Capital in Bourdieu and Marx’, in Nicholas Brown and Imre Szeman, eds., Pierre Bourdieu: Fieldwork in Culture, Rowman & Littlefield, Oxford, 2000, pp.100-116

[4] Daniel Allington, Intrinsically cultural value: a sociological perspective, The #culturalvalue Initiative, 5th December 2013, http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2013/12/05/intrinsically-cultural-value-sociological-perspective-daniel-allington/

[5] Janet Wolff, The Social Production of Art – Second Edition, Macmillan, London, 1993, p.1.

[6] There are three prominent platforms for discussion and research about “cultural value” in the UK at the moment. They all have different definitions of the term and claim to have (slightly?) different agendas. The AHRC Cultural Value Project (http://www.ahrc.ac.uk/Funded-Research/Funded-themes-and-programmes/Cultural-Value-Project/Pages/default.aspx) aims to investigate and evaluate cultural experience and engagement; The #culturalvalue Initiative (http://culturalvalueinitiative.org/2012/08/30/cultural-value-a-central-issue-for-the-cultural-policy-community/) seeks, through open debate, to reinstate the voices and values of the humanities and social sciences in the face of overwhelming drives towards discourses of economic value; and the recently instigated Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/research/warwickcommission/futureculture/) will investigate culture’s “DNA”, using “ecosystem” as a metaphor, so they suggest how best to “invest” in all forms of culture. Artists to not tend to often play significant roles in these discussions. “Policy”, with all its many heads, usually dominates.

[7] For more on instrumentalism in the arts see, for example, Eleonora Belfiore, “Defensive instrumentalism” and the legacy of New Labour’s cultural policies, 2012, http://wrap.warwick.ac.uk/51182/1/WRAP_Belfiore%20Final%20CT%20accepted%20-%20Defensive%20instrumentalism.pdf

[8] Dave O’Brien, Is 'creativity' arts policy's big mistake?, The Guardian Culture Professionals Network blog, 30th October 2013, http://www.theguardian.com/culture-professionals-network/culture-professionals-blog/2013/oct/30/creativity-cultural-policy-big-mistake

[9] Hans Christian Andersen, ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’, in Hans Christian Andersen, Fairy Tales, Penguin Popular Classics, 1994 [1837], p.65.

[10] Ibid., p.71.

[11] Fredric Jameson, ‘Transformations of the Image in Postmodernity,’ in The Cultural Turn: Selected Writings on the Postmodern: 1983-1998, Verso, London, 1998, p.111.

[12] Jean Baudrillard, ‘Art between Utopia and Anticipation’, 1996, in Sylvère Lotringer, ed., The Conspiracy of Art, Semiotext(e), New York, 2005, p.57.

[13] Julian Stallabrass, ‘Elite Art in an Age of Populism’, in Alexander Dumbadze/ Suzanne Hudson, eds., Contemporary Art: 1989 to the Present, John Wiley & Sons, Oxford, 2013, p.9. http://www.courtauld.ac.uk/people/stallabrass_julian/documents/populism.pdf

[14] Suzi Gablik, Has Modernism Failed?, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1984, p.29.

[15] Declan McGonagle, ‘Foreward’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, p.6.

[16] Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, ‘The social history of art: models and concepts’, in Hal Foster, Rosalind Krauss, Yve-Alain Bois, Benjamin H.D. Buchloh, David Joselit, Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism – Second Edition, Thames and Hudson, London, 2011, p.25.

[17] Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mapping the Postmodern’, 1984, in Donald Preziosi, ed., The Art of Art History: A Critical Anthology, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1998, pp.336-337.

[18] Diane Ragsdale, Holding Up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? Version 2.0, Keynote speech at ‘State of the (Arts) Nation’, Belfast, 12th March 2013, p.14. http://www.artsjournal.com/jumper/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Holding-Up-the-Arts-DE-Ragsdale-2013.pdf

[19] Ibid., p.7.

[20] Vivienne Reiss, ‘Introduction’, in David Butler and Vivienne Reiss, eds., Art of Negotiation, Cornerhouse, Manchester, 2007, pp.10-13.

[21] Declan McGonagle, Op. Cit., p.6.

[22] Vivienne Reiss, Op. Cit., p.17.

[23] Suzi Gablik, The Reenchantment of Art, Thames and Hudson, New York, 1992, p.7.

[24] Ibid., p.114.

[25] Dick Hebdige, ‘A report on the Western Front: Postmodernism and the “Politics” of Style’, 1986-7, in Francis Frascina and Jonathan Harris, eds., Art in Modern Culture: An Anthology of Critical Ideas, Phaidon, London, 1992, p.340.

[26] Diane Ragsdale, Op. Cit., p.14.

When I was a lad, libraries were where you went to lend books for free…

Libraries of the future

Image from ‘The Future of Libraries’: Interview with Thomas Frey

This post is a direct response to a recent contribution to the Cultural Value Initiative blog entitled ‘A view from one of them econocrats: Efficiency and public libraries in England’ and written by economist Doctor Javier Stanziola.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair…

Dickens, Charles, ‘A Tale of Two Cities’, Chapter 1, 1859

There was a time when life seemed simpler, when public services were dull grey and reliably quiet. Our libraries epitomised this sense of safe social security. They were ubiquitous; full of books that were falling apart, impossible to find because they were often misfiled, not a computer in sight, and the silence was deafening. It was a case of ‘seek and ye shall find’ (or not) and that made going to the library, whether local or city central, like an expedition – one where you’d always leave with a sports bag full of brilliant books and a dog eared card stamped to within an inch of its literature-lending life. Intrepid days like this brought me into contact with Blake, Wilde, Huxley, Dostoyevsky, Marx, Jung and many, many more. I often kept the books too long. I got fined but even the penalties were manageable.

Library life has changed. There are now two types of library: run-down local ones, staffed by well-meaning volunteers and open a couple of hours a day; and big, high-tech central ones, where computer space and coffee shop seems more important than books on shelves, where exhibitions and events and workshops attempt to lure ‘new customers’ who presumably aren’t just tempted by the prospect of ‘borrowing’ books for free. Twenty-first library life is remarkably similar to the beginning of Dickens’ seminal ‘A Tale of Two Cities’. Austerity is the name of the game. A game of two halves: the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’. Little libraries are closing in poor areas, being taken over by the ‘great and the good’ volunteers in well-off places, and being ‘enhanced’ in central mega-libraries where local councils seek to nestle all their literary eggs in one big, fancy glass-fronted basket – ‘learning zones’. In this time of austerity, economics has been crowned a new cultural king - a vestige perhaps more akin to ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’. Libraries have a new mission: to maximise profit and efficiency and diversify sources of income. They are apparently privileged because, as Stanziola claims, ‘statutory funding allows local authority libraries to work outside the market’. But what if public libraries and indeed public services in general were not and should not be perceived as being part of ‘the market’? What if this drive for libraries to declare their value and, in so doing become part of ‘the market’, is a drive towards a homogeneous service that attempts to define itself in terms of ‘maximising provision’ and ‘distribution’? Perhaps then libraries are not really about lending books anymore?

These are challenging times for libraries, arts, culture, and indeed every aspect of our lives. We are still struggling to escape the gloom of a deep economic recession. To do so we are told we must make drastic financial savings wherever necessary. Only then might we usher in a shiny new economic future. Doctor Eleonora Belfiore is right to point out that we face ‘awkward questions’. The DCMS and Arts Council England are apparently looking for ‘sensible answers’. Where? In reports by economists. But don’t worry, says Stanziola, we’d be wrong to think 'cultural policy making has been hijacked by economists'. Really? ‘Cultural policy’ in the UK was created by Keynes – an economist – and Arts Council England was created to deliver this policy. Indeed, it may be fair to suggest that every aspect of our lives has been ‘hijacked by economists’. So it is that we pray before the same alter of economics that created our current ‘season of Darkness’ in the hope that economics will breathe forth a new ‘season of Light’.

So, back to libraries. They’re not apparently places where you lend books or read books, they’re places of ‘co-production’. This is where their value lies: in the ‘provision of public services as a participatory process where users play the role of co-producers’. Indeed Stanziola assumes that the ‘social and educational outcomes libraries can produce are unlikely to happen without the active co-production of the intended users’, especially volunteers. Let me be clear, I do not doubt that involving people from all areas of our communities in developing and delivering publicly funded library services is key to ensuring we meet the needs of ‘service users’. I also know that the value of volunteering is immense and can always show positively in terms of economic efficiency – not least because volunteers don’t get paid and therefore offer real savings over staffing costs. I am just a little concerned that the coarse language of economics and its fetishisation of ‘measurement processes… courageous assumptions and disappointing datasets’ IS invading our cultural landscape, ‘remapping’ cultural activity to create a hyperreality so convincing that we all believe that economic data is our culture. Stanziola (living in ‘the epoch of belief’) suggests that ‘this should not stop us from engaging with different measurement techniques to explore the complex dynamics behind cultural provision and use.' I live in ‘the epoch of incredulity’. I understand economics but I don’t believe such over simplistic and reductionist approaches will ever ‘play a key role in ensuring awkward questions about cultural provision could be finally tackled.’

Perhaps we should look for the answers in books, in libraries? Ask people, listen to protests about cuts, and provide adequate funding. Maybe public libraries are last bastions of ‘the best of times’? Places where we found ‘the age of Wisdom’. Let’s not lose them under the economic snow of another cultural ‘winter of despair’.

Is sustainability about adding new fuel to old fires?

Firenze-Denaro-BotticelliIn attempting to look at whether participatory art can support sustainable social change, it is probably worth exploring different perspectives relating to this question.  So I'll start by looking at different approaches to sustainability of arts practice.  Future posts will then attempt to define participatory arts and concepts of social change.  But for now it's all about sustainability... There are three distinct perspectives about how to sustain systems: make existing structures stronger through a myriad of methods of organisational change; support the development of a limited number of new organisations who will either gently become part of the existing structures or quietly fail; or, like obsolete power stations, demolish the old monolithic structures to make way for a new wave.

The first option is safest.  It's also a consultant's dream where endless new changes can be steadily implemented in the hope of encouraging adaptability, mining new philanthropic pockets, securing firm investments, selling like a commercial business and becoming resilient to fickle futures.  It's about sustaining the system as it currently exists by making the organisations restructure, remodel and rethink their missions. Done well, this can be really positive and new partnerships can arise (although often between other similar organisations.) But it can lead to protectionism, maintaining the status quo and staleness. This approach is a bit like building higher walls, digging a deeper moat and drawing up the gates. It is a siege mentality. Those outside will not survive or will go elsewhere.

Encouraging some new start ups can also be positive. It adds a new little wall around the old wall whilst it is repaired and improved. Trouble is that there can be a tendency to be a bit different from the long-standing organisations but still follow the same models and modes of working as them.  This is partly because there is still a 'toolkit' mentality where best is... well... 'best practice'.  Blueprints, road maps, mentoring, knowledge-sharing, time banking, etc. etc. are all useful for many new (and existing) organisations to collaborate and improve their chances of conserving their positions whilst 'helping' new start ups following in their ways - become like them.  The trouble is the old order will support this process safe in the knowledge that they will not (often) be threatened by these little newcomers and will (often) speak on their behalf, maintaining some form of hierarchy.  This is sustainability with a degree of 'selected openness' - a managed form of conservation which recognises the need for 'expanding the stock' - like planting new forests using tried and tested species.

And these first two perspectives form today's dominant mode of thought about sustaining the arts in the UK today.  Often supported by central and local government initiatives, Higher Education institutions and especially by new consortia agreements and partnership working between organisations.  It is certainly true that organisational sustainability can be improved by restructuring, sharing resources, joint fundraising, cost-cutting, partnering up, collaboration, increasing philanthropic support, attempting to better measure values, supporting new start ups using old models, etc. etc. but this is sustaining systems that grew up in a different era and have developed into complex organisations that cannot change quickly.  I understand that it is important to have a range of arts providers from individuals to large organisations and to have a mix of new and established organisations and individuals involved in the arts but I see many of today's attempts to make the arts (and social change) sustainable as inherently unsustainable.  This is because many of those driving 'change' want slow, coherent, thoughtful, careful change.  Leaders of many organisations want to maintain hierarchies where artists, audiences, participants, communities - in other words individual people - are at the bottom of a pecking order.  This is natural.  This is how they were created and it worked and still works and should continue to work.  But leaders perhaps need to remember they have a social mission in which they are working for everyone to enjoy art rather than to safeguard institutional wellbeing.

But there needs to be space for new ways of working and this is brings me onto a third way of thinking about sustainability.  This approach is about accepting life cycles.  Old fires will eventually die out.  Adding new fuel to them can keep them going but not indefinitely.  New fires in new places can be worrying - they may spread - they may get out of control!  But I am not suggesting anarchic arson here.  No bonfire of the vanities.  But starting different fires can bring renewal to every part of a system (dare I say 'ecosystem').  Indeed, this is how many of today's established organisations began - as one time radicals who introduced new ways of working.  Obviously, there are many different ways in which new approaches to arts and society can develop and some may be highly threatening and completely unsustainable - further unbridled neoliberalism being a prime example.  This is not what I mean.  I am talking about new ways of working that involve everyone and are for everyone; that do what people want; that might help support and build communities from within.  This is not audience development, this is true participation.  It is a way of being and doing that shares ownership, that listens, that does what people want, that stops doing some things and starts doing other things when people want.  It is a society where art, sport, work, place, play, etc. are all part of social activity.

So perhaps art is most sustainable when it acknowledges life cycles and lets some parts die but supports (and, yes, I mean financially as well as more broadly) new ideas and forms of DIY working, networked non-hierarchies, individual artist initiatives and true participation that can reinvigorate the entire art world.  Perhaps they could share these new structures with old organisations?  Undoubtedly, the new models will (just like their predecessors) the old models, the blueprints, toolkits, et al. of tomorrow.  They will no doubt die at some stage too or reinvent themselves in the wake of other new ways of working we may not even have thought about yet.

And perhaps if art was better integrated into community activities, it would be less threatened and more sustainable too?  We must remember that the constant segregation of 'things we do' and 'creative things we do' is to some extent a modern construct.  Necessary so our systems of government can measure things, fund things, cut funds to things, etc. - yes - but this can lead to unsustainable approaches to making art driven by economics, social outcomes, aesthetics, etc.  This systematisation of art can separate it from society (or certain sections of society) which, whilst good for some, is not good for most people (artists included).

So perhaps sustainability is about realising things become unsustainable eventually and that only perpetual rebirth and renewal can ensure long-term sustainability?  Lots of new little fires to complement the older bigger fires.  Constant regeneration not catastrophic destruction.  This can be exciting.  It is difficult to measure and predict.  But then so is life (really...)

In terms of my bigger question: 'Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?'  I guess I am suggesting at this point that social change must be sustainable in the sense that it must always seek to keep changing - responding and developing to new challenges life will throw at us - keep renewing itself.  I am also proposing that participatory art, when led by participants and supported by artists and new organic creative structures, can be sustainable as an artistic mode of working because it is specific to the needs and life span of each action.  Perhaps then this way of working can support future social change in positive, time-limited ways so art and creativity again become part of the lives of everyone?  This is the subject of future blogs however and I've gone on far too long already...

Can participatory arts support sustainable social change?

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Participatory arts or, more precisely, socially engaged arts practice is resurgent. Participation in the arts is, like many times in the past since the Victorian era, being promoted as a panacea for many of the issues facing our communities.  New initiatives such as ArtWorks, Cultural Value Project and Participation & Engagement in the Arts seek a sea change in UK cultural and educational settings.  Research around if and how socially engaged art can ever be truly sustainable at grassroots levels within the communities it seeks to serve is, however, a bit more thin on the ground.

A key value of arts participation is its ability to stimulate creativity within communities developing social capital in so doing.  There are many examples of socially engaging arts projects that, having achieved short-term success, were not sustained.  Clearly, attempts to create social change in communities must focus on both people and places.  As Roberto Bedoya explains so well, participatory art needs to find ways to embed creativity within communities and engage the many disparate elements that define them but UK research in this area is limited and, where existent (like in the recent RSA project in Peterborough), localised.

I believe we need to explore new ways in which participation in art, creativity and place can link to become part of people’s everyday lives, integral to our communities, encouraging long-term social change.  To do this, it may be necessary to completely rethink our current structures for arts provision, to engage people in new ways, to relinquish control, to trust communities more, and a whole lot of other things too.  Sustainability has different meanings and there are many ways to attempt to stimulate sustainable ways of doing things.

This is what I will write about in a series of posts in the coming weeks.  I will ask a number of questions and propose some ways forward.  My immediate thoughts are that participation in the arts may be able to support broader social change in constructive and sustainable ways and that creativity of action and thought may somehow become integral to the futures of people, places and communities.  How this can be developed is uncertain and probably controversial.  We shall see…