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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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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A little reflection on the Culture Action Europe #BeyondTheObvious conference

This week has been hectic.  Research visits in London with Platform London and Ovalhouse Theatre; a participatory art workshop commission for Berwick Visual Arts; working on a lab session about collective working, the commons and ending status-quos for arts organisations that I’m co-delivering in London in November; talking about The New Rules for Public Art with a Scottish artist’s collective; working to continue to develop our work with dot to dot active arts in Blyth; developing new NHS commissions in Cumbria and Northumberland; and attending the Culture Action Europe Beyond the Obvious conference which took place in NewcastleGateshead over the past few days.

This is a very short blog post about my experience at the conference and my hopes for the Beyond the Familiar ‘fringe’ event tomorrow.

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The conference was clearly split between the policy-following institutions and the smaller, more radical factions and artists.  I met a great many radical thinkers, some socially engaged activists, and even some policymakers who seemed to see the need for big changes to the way arts and culture is funded and who it is for.  This was great!

I heard many ‘old-school’ perspectives – a bit of ‘knowledge sharing’ here; a little ‘partnership working’ there’; even the ubiquitous ‘we’re doing this already’ and ‘we’ve always worked like this’.  I rolled my eyes like one of Sendak’s Wild Things.  Over my years of practicing in this field, I developed a proficiency for this.

All was not lost, however, because, even though ‘the great and the good’ reeled off their ‘holistic cases for public investments’ and chanted ‘cultural regeneration’ mantras, the voice of dissent was clear amongst a significant number of the people there.  This was very encouraging.

The session that nailed the distinction between the forces of elitism, instrumentalism, policymaking and institution-building and the guerrilla tactics of those into ‘small’, local, grassroots collective strategic engagement happened earlier today.  In short, the UK What Next? movement was pitted against grassroots political and socially engaged activist movements from Europe (Spain and Croatia).  This was a battle of tea and biscuits versus take-to-the-streets (and Net) protests; polite discussion versus political activism.  The UK’s navel-gazing about ‘how do we get people to understand the arts?’ was exposed for all it’s frailties and limpness.  The activists have the answer: ENGAGE outside of institutions; be grassroots; take art to the people; make art as a people.

These are critical debates that are just not often had in the UK.  Art as social practice is immensely capable of bringing arts to the people – a force for real paradigm shift.  It is anti-elitist, grassroots and political.  People not into art get it because they are a part of it.  The ‘arts leaders’ and policymakers with their top-down approaches do not seem to understand that grassroots, self-organised, collective action offers other, more truly democratic ways to place art and culture back where it belongs – by and of the people.

I look forward to tomorrow…

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