In my beginning is my end - a film about the impact of neoliberalism on our cultures, the instrumentalisation of art, & cultural democracy

In my beginning is my end - a film about the impact of neoliberalism on our cultures, the instrumentalisation of art, & cultural democracy

This is a film with narrative from a performance I gave in Belfast earlier this year about neoliberalism, instrumentalism and cultural democracy.

“We must trust in our individual and collective selves.  We must remember our struggles.  We must remember that official arts and culture and, for that matter, the creative industries, reflects only one rather small part of our arts and culture.  We do not live in a cultural democracy.  The cuts to state-sanctioned arts and cultural production makes this assertion starker as each day passes… And cultural policy, like fortune, has always favoured the rich and powerful.”

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In my beginning is my end - transcript of my prose poem and film performed at Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast

In my beginning is my end - transcript of my prose poem and film performed at Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast

I was really privileged to be invited to take part in What Next for the Arts? - an afternoon symposium which was part of the Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival - on 12th May 2018. As I like to do whenever I get the chance nowadays, I performed the piece with accompanying film and audio. This is the transcript... A test recording of the film will be uploaded soon...

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The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song. A transcript of my talk @panda_arts & link to my presentation with notes.

The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song. A transcript of my talk @panda_arts & link to my presentation with notes.

This is the transcript and presentation with notes from my talk at Panda (The Performing Arts Network) in Manchester on 28th March 2018. The event was a celebration of the network's 15 years working with artists and communities but it was also tinged with sadness as they announced that they were unable to continue to operate due to the toxic arts funding environment and local council cuts. I spoke of two songs with two very different fields and two very different chains.

The first is the song of neoliberal state-sanctioned power and control; of compliance and conformity; of commerce and economics. This is the siren song of austerity and the systematic destruction of our communities, of our lives. This is the song that has sunk so many hopes and dreams.

The second song is that of childhood, of freedom, of creativity, of disobedience, of hope.

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Extracting New Cultural Value From Urban Regeneration: The Intangible Rise of the Social Capital Artist

Extracting New Cultural Value From Urban Regeneration: The Intangible Rise of the Social Capital Artist

This article was first published in print in Sluice Magazine and then on their website in 2017. I've decided to publish it on my website because I hope its content still resonates in 2018. It addresses issues of instrumentalism in the arts, artwashing, living creatively and cultural democracy. As I wrote in 2017, I believe "it is still possible to conceive of art as part of living creatively, as part of everyday life, as local cultural democracy, as artistic autonomy." It's time to talk about how...

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The Status Quo Will No Longer Do! (The Corporate Takeover of Art & Artwashing, or Social Justice in a Cultural Democracy?)

The Status Quo Will No Longer Do! (The Corporate Takeover of Art & Artwashing, or Social Justice in a Cultural Democracy?)

I was kindly asked to talk alongside Labour MP Laura Pidcock, Jessie Jo Jacobs (Policy and Campaigns Officer, Northern TUC) and Ramona McCartney (National Officer for the People's Assembly) at the People's Assembly event, "In Place of Austerity", in Newcastle on 20th January 2018. It was an incredibly inspiring day! This is the transcript for my talk...

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Neoliberalism, language and engagement - A workshop

Neoliberalism, language and engagement - A workshop

This is the transcript of my 3 very short provocations presented to stimulate discussion during my workshop at the Sound Connections Social Justice Conference at Cecil Sharp House on 30th November 2017.

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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

I believe that there is not enough emphasis placed upon understanding the theoretical and historical perspectives and contexts of 'participation' that are, for me, crucially important to both practice and research that engages with people, place, power and politics.  Similarly, I also believe that, whilst this field is situated within 'the social', there is not enough emphasis on how practice and research may fit with broader understandings of art and society, nor, for that matter, with wider theoretical from other interrelated disciplines.  Too often I attend conferences or read articles about socially engaged art, participatory art and Creative People and Places only to find an often insular, narrow discussion of practice which often is positioned within existing frameworks of practice and research which themselves are often ultimately defined by the state.

This article therefore attempts to open up new ways of thinking about community development and social engagement in art programmes like Creative People and Places.

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Carry on regardless: A response to "Rethinking Relationships" - a new report about the #civicrolearts

Carry on regardless: A response to "Rethinking Relationships" - a new report about the #civicrolearts

Two new reports were recently released about how the arts and creativity might engage with society and communities in more meaningful ways.  The first was Rethinking Relationships – an enquiry into the civic role of arts organisations commissioned by the Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation; the second was Towards cultural democracy, commissioned by Kings College London.  Both reveal, for me, different and yet loosely interrelated attempts to find new ways to advocate for the arts or “everyday creativity”.  This is the first of two blog posts in which I begin to critically examine the reports.  The focus here is on Rethinking Relationships.

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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 article seeks to reveal the limitations of state-initiated arts and cultural projects as well as spurious notions of ‘empowerment’ by examining them in terms of homogeneity, universality and technocracy.  It focuses on issues of instrumentalism with the arts and explores how state-initiated ‘community engagement’ programmes like Creative People and Places may effectively reproduce state agendas linked to social capital theory and thereby to neoliberalism.  It asks a series of questions: Whose values really underpin cultural value?  Who are ‘we’ and who are ‘we’ trying to ‘engage’?  Whose culture are ‘we’ trying to (re)make and why?  Do ‘we’ need new infrastructure; more managers?  Do people in areas of low cultural engagement have their own forms of culture that some may just not consider ‘cultured’?  If cultural democracy offers a different view of people power, so why is it loathed by the state?

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Unlock the all-inclusive fun of a “new culture” with added “genius in everyone” NOW! (A reply to Stella Duffy's New Year provocation & arts "campaigns" like Fun Palaces)

Unlock the all-inclusive fun of a “new culture” with added “genius in everyone” NOW! (A reply to Stella Duffy's New Year provocation & arts "campaigns" like Fun Palaces)

A new year.  A cultural event.  Not all cultures.  Our culture’s.

Traditionally, at least in our culture, a time of misadvised, soon misplaced resolutions.  Most are very personal.  The one I want to talk about here is “for everyone”.  Yes, that’s right, everyone!  It’s an all-inclusive provocation.  A call for change, for cultural change.

The call comes from Stella Duffy on behalf of her Fun Palaces campaign.  The campaign manifesto claims:

We believe in the genius in everyone, in everyone an artist and everyone a scientist, and that creativity in community can change the world for the better.

We believe we can do this together, locally, with radical fun – and that anyone, anywhere, can make a Fun Palace.

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

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

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

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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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PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL: STATE-SANCTIONED ART - A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE

PARTICIPATION ON TRIAL: STATE-SANCTIONED ART - A DEMOCRATIC SWINDLE

This was my prosecution witness statement from the excellent Participation on Trial event organised by the lovely Chrissie Tiller and Goldsmiths from May 2015.

I think it remains as relevant to me as it did more than a year ago but I would say that I was a little over-generous in my support for socially engaged art - a term now so completely appropriated by the Institution of Art that it effectively is THE SAME AS participatory art.  Perhaps my views have hardened?  Anyway, I now have claimed socially engaged art is DEAD - twice!  Undoubtedly, I will do so again...

The (eventual) verdict was “GUILTY – BUT WHO CARES?”  Do you care?

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The Values Of Opposition in Socially Engaged Practice (a response to Anthony Schrag)

WP_20151110_14_33_25_Pro Ken Saro-Wiwa Memorial Bus, large format digital print, part of Doing Nothing is Not an Option, Michael McMillan and Platform London, Peckham Platform, 2015

 

I was, like Anthony Schrag (and others I know), infuriated by the recent ArtWorks Conversation at BALTIC 39.  Anthony has written a little about the pairing of Ilana Mitchell (Wunderbar and other things) and Darren O'Donnell (Mammalian Diving Reflex) today in a piece entitled The Value Rant, but his rant was not at them and not (directly) at ArtWorks or their 'critical conversations'.  Anthony was, like me, incredibly annoyed by the idea that socially engaged or participatory art (it would seem you can call it what you will nowadays - but that's a topic for another post) could and/ or should be 'scaled-up' and professionalised.  But that wasn't what really angered him.  It was the incessant droning of an 'excited' hipster political student that set free a passel of possums from their cage.  (To be clear the excited hipster didn't sound or appear particularly excited with anything other than his own drawn-out ideas and self-aggrandisement.)

The thing is that I had intended to blog about the event the very next day as I was so angry.  But (oddly for me, perhaps) I decided against it and put the event down to another one of 'those ArtWorks things' - a now very familiar feeling.  Having read Anthony's humorous-yet-deadly-incisive 'rant', I felt compelled to respond to several issues and personal opinions he raised.  They're incredibly important and at the heart of much of the ongoing debate (bickering?) that has dogged our field of practice for years.  There are, I believe, many areas upon which Anthony and I (broadly) agree but there are several places where our views diverge.  For me this is a good thing.  We both enjoy the oscillating thrills and pulsating challenges that only tension can invoke (although perhaps Anthony may not entirely agree...)  I will not discuss the event other than to say that I struggled to get beyond Ilana's brilliantly idiosyncratic thinking and making, and the instrumentalism inherent within Darren's work.

So what do I think Anthony and agree on?  We both are clearly very sceptical at the very least to institutionalisation, professionalism agendas, instrumentalism, 'scaling-up', best practice, toolkits - basically anything homogenous - because we believe our practice is and must always be relational, dynamic, and respect the autonomies of artists and people taking part alike.  As Anthony says, 'the very things that are unreproducible, un-scale-up-able, un-repeatable.'  But where he sees attempts to totally administer socially engaged art as the product of wayward best intentions, I see authoritarian technocratic control and oppression.  Where he finds positivity in at least some aspects of the ArtWorks project, I am deeply suspicious of their intentionality.

I found the 'man-bunned politics student' to be very boring and rather naïve yet almost ludic at times.  He made me grimace, smile, laugh.  Where he unleashed Anthony's 'angry possums' from his mind, he filled mine with cartoon hind legs and badly drawn donkeys.  He genuinely believed that the examples of practice he had witnessed were 'new'.  He did not know about socially engaged or participatory practice and that's fine.  Tedious for those of us who've spent a long time practicing and studying the 'expanded field'; interesting and exciting to him.  But Anthony is entirely right that the practice is 'not new', doesn't (mustn't). 'be professionalised' and is certainly not 'a new saviour of art.'  For me, the politico-hipster wasn't 'ill-informed' or ignorant, he was rather unaware of the history of our practice.  There are many people like him within the Art World as well as outside it.  That's fine.  Marginal practices are often (wrongly) believed to be 'new' when first encountered whether through touristic exploration or strategic colonialism.  I'd go as far as to say that what matters most to us - histories, theories and practical nuances - matters least to interested attendees of critical conversations, participants, people who don't like 'art', or other people from within the Art World.

Of course, Anthony wasn't really rattled by our moustachioed interloper.  He was (is) angered by the opposing forces of instrumentalising institutionalism on the one hand; activism and political agendas on the other.  But I take issue he seems to suggest that those with activist and/ or political agendas/ ideologies do not know enough about the field's history or theoretical underpinnings.  This is simply not true in every case.  In opposing these oppositions, Anthony places himself in the middle alongside some other 'lovely, passionate people' who are, like everyone, flawed and being crushed by institutionalism and those who do not understand (although I suspect the crushing comes mainly from one direction only).

I share Anthony's passion that socially engaged practice is primarily about 'what happens between and with other people' and, of course, people want to influence others but there are many forms this may take from authoritarian control to utopian imaginings and liberation.  Anthony is also right about the need for practitioners within the field to 'come together' much more than we tend to do at present.  However, I am very sceptical about developing a 'continuum of practice'.  I believe that the field must be broad and must include tension: internal oppositions; never consensus.  Indeed, Anthony is hesitant about formal definitions within the field.  Interestingly, he also thinks that we must understand which direction 'we might be heading in' as well as who our potential allies are and those 'who might not know what they are talking about'.  In response, I'd suggest: we can have multiple directions; and that our allies (theoretical and practical) might include many activists as well as others from other fields and other cultures - activists who do not seek to control others but who do, like all of us, have beliefs, ideologies, political affiliations, and most importantly biases that make it impossible  for anyone (artist or otherwise) to divorce themselves from this 'baggage'.  Sometimes, however, the baggage can be good.  There is no such thing as values-free art.  We cannot dismiss, as Anthony does in a comment to my reply to his blog post, any work that may be, or be suspected of being, political or activist or state instrumentalist for that matter of being 'not art' - of being a form of 'social work'.  That's not to say that much of what's being peddled as participatory or (now) socially engaged art isn't deeply instrumental, controlling and stigmatising at worst and 'social work' at best.

I think that there's a fine line between Anthony's position on socially engaged practice and my own.  For Anthony good socially engaged practice must enable 'shifts in thinking' by 'unravelling' the world without trying to change people's minds; I agree but would add that we can work with people to create open spaces where people can challenge their understanding of themselves and the world through creative practices (whether artist-led or otherwise) and that this process might help some people to better understand their place in the world as it is today as well as to begin to envisage other ways, new potentialities that they have within their power to struggle to make real.  A long but perhaps necessary addendum.  This is political and revolutionary.  It does not foreclose on possibilities or individualities.  It is not pluralistic democracy.  It has no fixed agenda any more so than the many excellent examples of socially engaged art's heritage that Anthony carefully lists in his post - examples that are (at least where named or labelled) all deeply political and often activist in nature.

Perhaps Anthony and I can agree that socially engaged practice must be oppositional (and agonistic?) in ways both he describes in his blog and I attempt to do here.  Perhaps opposition is one of the directions for our field of practice.  Perhaps activism is another.  Sophie Hope (chair) certainly seemed to indicate her absolute frustration that we (the field) don't say NO - don't oppose the status quo - when she admirably summed up the event's proceedings...

IN/OUT – socially engaged art, UK cultural institutions & The Hunting of the Snark

snark1

There’s a debate within socially engaged arts about whether this unique form of practice should resist incorporation into institutions, galleries, museums, etc. or are these ‘managed’ spaces best placed to support, to provide a home for our work. The debate is taking place in some countries. The US are leading the way. It’s a debate that really cuts to the core of what socially engaged art practice is about. In the US, the arts are less well regulated; instrumentalism rules in the UK.

So how can debates emanating from the US help UK socially engaged artists situate themselves within an arts system that prioritises ‘investment’ in concrete monoliths? No grassroots seeding of diverse cultural ecosystems. UK arts and culture policy believes plonking in new cultural behemoths will stimulate growth. This is top-down approach is outdated and incredibly hierarchic. It is driven by an economics-dominated cultural policy that thinks big, spends on big, and makes big claims for Big Data. This approach is elitist and disproportionate. The expense of building, staffing and maintaining big cultural venues is massive. The thinking is predicated on a ‘build it and they will come’ mentality. The thing is most people who don’t currently go to cultural venues won’t come. The same people will come. They will love it. That’s fine.

Soon the new big institutions, like the UK’s longer-in-the-tooth cultural institutions, will start scratching their heads, holding ‘What next?’ meetings over tea and croissants, researching, talking, blogging, tweeting, whatever, wondering ‘How can we engage new audiences? How do make them come?’ The answer is that, perhaps, they never will come. That doesn’t mean they don’t like art or culture or artists or even buildings. They just don’t like going to massive institutions in new powerhouses for some – not them. And, let’s face it, the type of investment in institutions new and old could be used in other ways; ways that could engage more people in the arts in less institutionalised settings or non-arts settings; ways that are perhaps open, community-focused?

Socially engaged art can provide an alternative way of thinking about and doing art. It is non-elitist and traditionally wary of cultural institutions, policy and measurement. Yet, in this field, many socially engaged artists and collectives are enticed into working within institutions; encouraged to sign up to codes and standards of professional practice written without adequate consultation. New academic courses anyone? Social practice? Yes, sir, it’s the latest thing. Work with ‘real’ people. Gritty? Yes. But we’ll teach you how to keep your hands clean. Not cheap, no. Quality counts. Think of the employment opportunities… New state funded ‘participatory arts’ projects in the most disadvantaged areas may not be (necessarily) about ‘bricks and mortar’ investment but they are about creating managerial systems and participatory institutions.

These are examples of why many socially engaged artists see themselves as opposed to cultural institutionalism. It is not the only choice. We can make our own choices. We can work with communities, within communities. We must avoid the temptation to comply. We must question the establishment in all its forms. And, to those institutions who feel they can offer funding and support in exchange for our ability to work differently with different people and be accepted within communities, we must say NO. We must retain our independence.

I believe in a mixed arts ecosystem that recognises new artists, new collectives and fledgling organisations, socially engaged arts practice, communities, people, as well as established and new organisations. We need a debate. Conflict is good. If institutional bureaucracy snuffs out flickering dissent, all that will remain is an incredibly elitist monoculture. It is natural for many policymakers, ‘arts leaders’ and ‘arts professionals’ to cheer and clap whenever something new is unveiled. It is also natural for others to question, criticise and ask for other ways of thinking. Beware of the folly of Hunting of the Snark. It always ends in Boojum.