Rethinking the role of artists in urban regeneration contexts

Rethinking the role of artists in urban regeneration contexts

I was invited to lecture at Winchester School of Art on 3rd November 2017 as part of their Talking Heads series.  This is a transcript of my lecture along with a link to my lecture slides (with notes) and a link to an edited recording of my discussion with Nick Stewart afterwards.  The lecture covers a broad range of topics from my research including creative cities and the creative class, social capital, placemaking, artwashing, art and gentrification, anti-gentrification art, anti-art activism, the radical avant-garde, and examples of artists engaging with regeneration that do not result in artwashing or gentrification.  It's quite long but perhaps gives an overall illustration of my work and a taste of my PhD thesis, Artwashing: The Art of Regeneration, Social Capital and Anti-Gentrification Activism.

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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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Do we need ‘another name’ for socially engaged art? Erm, No…

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Eavesdropping, Aidan Moesby, Vinyl wall text, 2014

I’m intensely interested in perceptions of socially engaged art: past, present and future practice and theory. My research and practice is about exploring the roots of this practice, its place in societies, its ability to open up potential spaces on a myriad of levels from social to personal, and its potential to help support a shift towards a communitarian society free from the evils of neoliberalism. I am interested in the praxis of social practice - critical reflection (theory) AND social and collective action towards social transformation (practice). So I think about notions of marginality, play, psychodynamics, critical theory, dialectics, social justice, the commons, transition, critical utopias more. Oh, and of course socially engaged practice, like all forms of art and, increasingly, life, is a breeding ground for terminologies. This leads to dissensus – we do not agree; do not need to agree. Tensions are essential in theory and practice. They drive creativity. But, perhaps unfortunately, we need to describe and define what we have done, what we do and what we hope we will do tomorrow. We cannot escape the strictures of our languages. Words always offer liberation whilst they simultaneously hold us hostage.

So when I read this week that, ‘Socially engaged practice could change the world. But first we need another name to describe something that is part of everyday life.’ I was both sceptical and hopeful. I believe that socially engaged art as a form of living and sharing, as a means not an ends, can or might be able to help reenchant our world and, by actively supporting movements for broader social and cultural change, replace a neoliberal hegemony with a truly democratic and communitarian society. My rallying cry remains: THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO! But I am sceptical of why some people feel the need to attempt to rename any arts practice, or anything else in life for that matter. Words are important BUT they are also just words. Theory is bound by words in a manner that practice transcends.

Leo Burtin’s blog for The Guardian was written in response to a recent Devoted and Disgruntled discussion on socially engaged practice in which a satellite group discussed the question: ‘What’s another name for this goddamn arts practice?!’ A brilliant question. But, again, I wonder why some feel the need to rename the practice? Let’s face it, the name is deeply contested anyway with some seeing no (or little) difference between participatory arts, social practice, dialogic practice, transitional practice, and relational art – this list continues. Even activist art can be seen as a form of socially engaged arts practice – or not. In the end, it doesn’t matter on the one (practice-based) hand, yet is deeply important on the other (theoretical) hand. Somewhere in between sits the ‘arms-length’, bureaucratic body – a terribly contrary, sometimes contradictory place. Let’s face it, we all hate naming what we do, don’t we? When working with people, I NEVER use the words ‘socially engaged’, ‘community’ or even ‘art’ at all… Well, at least until people ask if they are doing art, at which point I often ask them if they think they are doing art and whether that matters. But, unfortunately, funders need to get a grip on what they’re being asked to give money for and need boxing ticking, and academics (like me) need to be able to position the practice in terms of broader theoretical frames. So, sometimes we must label ourselves and our work; sometimes there’s no need. Language, like practice, is always contingent.

When it comes to suggesting that socially engaged art or any form of art or, indeed, any singular practice can succeed in ‘creating community’ because ‘community doesn’t happen on its own’, I feel immediately wary. We must be careful not to become messianic; to believe in socially engaged art with a missionary zeal; to believe art can ‘change the world’ or even make ‘the world a better place’. I agree that socially engaged art practice can help people create a potential space where they may envision ‘radical transformation(s)’ and even support people who wish to make these transformations happen. It is not, for me, a vehicle for change, however. Nor, as I have explained above, do we need to worry about needing to ‘free ourselves from the kind of language which alienates other people’. All language can potentially alienate people whilst communicating shared understandings to others. It’s about choosing a language that responds to each situation, each context – a process that must always be different; always specific. A suggestion via Twitter that we should ‘ditch the definitions’ is, unfortunately, a little too simplistic. I am, however, concerned about claims that ‘it is possible to use art to create the kind of society that works for each and every one of us’. The spectre of soft instrumentalism reappears. I’m not sure we should ‘use art’ for any purpose and it would seem that a society that’s for everyone is a rather fanciful, perhaps, liberal ideal. But then language is always difficult…

To end, I would like to perhaps also query Leo’s suggestion that ‘there is a difference between community arts and socially engaged practice’. In suggesting that ‘community arts demonstrates clear benefits for the participants in a specific community’ whilst ‘socially engaged practice creates its own communities and generates the sort of value that cannot be immediately measured’, I think that Leo has confused the term ‘community art’ (singular; precursor to socially engaged art) with ‘participatory arts’. My research seeks to differentiate ‘participatory arts’ and ‘socially engaged art’ in terms of specificity of intent: the first aims to ‘do’, to ‘take part in’ something (anything); the second ‘to engage in/ with social issues’. Another example of how important language can sometimes be and why we (sometimes) need definitions. Otherwise we might, as Leo perhaps does in his blog, confuse Fun Palaces with socially engaged art practice. We might then begin to ask what would happen to a Fun Palace that ‘grew… into a village, a town, or a city?’ My flippant mind thinks: #FunVillage; #FunTown; #FunCity. Why stop there? #FunWorld?  Ok.  Stop there.

So, I’m sticking with ‘socially engaged art’ (or even ‘social practice’) sometimes; not mentioning any of this other times; and not confusing this practice with ‘participatory arts’ or Fun Palaces. I’m sticking with definitions when needed; ditching the definitions when they’re not needed. Because, for me, we shouldn’t waste time scratching around for a better name for an accepted field of arts practice. We should develop our practice our own way in response to and together with people. Call it whatever you like. Others will always find a label.

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…