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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The Right and Freedom to a Home: My introduction to Theresa Easton's new artist book

The Right and Freedom to a Home: My introduction to Theresa Easton's new artist book

Everyone has the right and freedom to a home, don’t they?  And yet, so many people are homeless in the UK, in Europe, across the entire planet; displaced by war, oppression, climate change and the imperialistic march of global capitalism.  The United Nations are concerned: deeply concerned.

heresa Easton's superb new book explores housing crises and homelessness.  She kindly asked me to write the introduction.  Here's the draft published with the author's permission.

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The existential crisis of Owen Jones (or Do as the MSM say!)

The existential crisis of Owen Jones (or Do as the MSM say!)

Owen Jones's blog, Questions all Jeremy Corbyn supporters need to answer, is rather odd. It's as if he's having (or had) an existential crisis. Labour's low poll ratings have worried him. I find his blog a little bit patronising.  Here's why...

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Murder, xenophobia, hatred and the irrelevance of Art

Murder, xenophobia, hatred and the irrelevance of Art

It is time to stand up to the hard Right and the soft Right in this country.  The divisive racism and spite shown by nationalist groups, UKIP, many Leave campaigners and much of the UK press is disgraceful: they all have incited violence.  They all have blood on their hands.

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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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Artists offered NO PAY for 5 months of 'Art workshops for people with learning disabilities'!

We all know times are tough for everyone and this includes artists.  We all know the ideology of austerity is a lie (I hope!)  It's becoming increasingly difficult for artists to be paid the very reasonable £260 per day for an artist with more than 5 years experience recommended by Artists' Union England.  Why?  Not because commissioning institutions can't afford to pay artists adequately for their work; rather they choose not to pay artists properly.  Arts organisations make budgetary decisions that do not value the essential role artists play in creating arts and culture.  For some organisations (dot to dot active arts included), paying artists properly is always the first line on our budget for projects and commissions; for others paying artists comes very low down on the list of 'costs'.  As Bev Adams wrote earlier this year, '... artists always seem to end up at the bottom of the food chain with consortia and governmental organisations snaffling up the cash, leaving artists to scrabble over poorly conceived and poorly paid commissions.'  So when I was alerted to an 'opportunity' that offered a very low 'fee' indeed for what appeared to be a challenging commission backed by some very big arts institutions by the ever vigilant Aidan Moesby a couple of weeks ago, I was appalled at what I read.  I decided to stay quiet but, after speaking to a number of fellow artists, I decided I needed to say something.  This blog post attempts to explain why, as artists in precarious positions, we must remember that we have a right to ask questions of institutions, a right to critique their practices, a right to say NO!

Before I begin I must make clear this post is in no way related to my PhD research at Northumbria University but reflects my views as an artist, activist for social justice, and member of Artists' Union England.

Ok.  Now back on track.

The 'Artists Callout' comes from Venture Arts who have received funding from Arts Council England to lead on a partnership with BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Arts, Castlefield Gallery and the Contemporary Visual Arts Network which they describe in their callout as 'an exciting, experimental, collaborative visual arts project that will bring together learning disabled and non-learning disabled artists to develop shared ideas and new contemporary work.'  The trouble is that the callout originally suggested the artist's fee would be £1,000 (plus a 'free studio space') for 5 months working for between one and two days per week with a learning disabled person.  We quickly pointed out that at best this equated to a day rate of £50 for one day per week or £25 for two days.  The free studio offer is not a real on-cost to the organisations and many artists may already have a studio space anyway.  Clearly, this fee is terribly low.  Or should I say, was terribly low because, after artist and fellow founding director of dot to dot active arts Yvette Hawkins enquired about the commission, Venture Arts changed the wording of their callout to say (as it does now):

All successful artists will receive £1000 artist bursary and given a free studio space for five months (February – July 2016) coming together for 1-2 day(s) per week to share their studio with a learning disabled artist involved in the project. The bursary is intended for artists to use in the production of their own work.

So, the 'fee' became a 'bursary' to be used towards the costs of producing the project.  Yvette and many other artists became even more angry.  They wanted artists to express interest in a five month commitment for NO PAY!  Nothing.  ZERO!

This would be understandable perhaps if advertised by a struggling local community organisation looking for artists to volunteer to help support them (which often happens), but this is a partnership of big arts organisations funded by Arts Council England!  I would like to be clear at this point that I respect the rights of artists and arts institutions and recognise the various roles institutions play in creating certain forms of cultural value.  But I do wonder whether they sometimes forget to consider the rights of artists to be paid for their work.

To me, the OutsiderXchangeS project could have been a great opportunity to develop artists whether classified as 'learning disabled' or not and to pay all the artists no matter of categorisation a fair and recognised minimum day rate for the project as well as offering reasonable expenses for materials required during the collaborative making process.  A really good example of institutional practice that Emma Thomas (BALTIC Head of Learning and Engagement) describes in the project press release as being at 'the heart of our approach to the Creative Case.'  As it stands, it would appear that this high-profile partnership project does not the labour value of any of the artists who will take part in and c0-produce this project.  It is unclear whether the lead project artist will be paid or not but I would imagine she (rightly) will be paid adequately.  I also wonder about the other project overhead costs and how these are apportioned between the various partner organisations.

Nonetheless, I am concerned that 'opportunities' can be conceived of, funded and advertised without any consideration of the rights of artists to receive adequate payment for their labour.  I hope that common sense prevails in the near future and arts institutions begin respecting artists in the same way as we respect your position within our common field of work.

I am not alone in venting my frustration, there has been a healthy discussion on Twitter and Yvette Hawkins wrote a brilliant response on her Facebook page that was widely shared and commented upon.

Finally, I am pleased to say that Artists' Union England are taking up the matter early in the New Year...

My life as research: tracing the edges of socially engaged & participatory arts practice

I was asked to present a brief précis of my current research at Northumbria University last week.  I thought it might be of interested to some people.  So here it is.  It’s an edited version of the presentation.  The images are a mix of my own, from my case studies and old film stills.

It is first perhaps worth explaining that this is my second year of research-based doctoral study.

As well as being a PhD candidate, I’m also a socially engaged arts practitioner and a curator with as strong a literary background as art historical.  I like to create, write, think, antagonise, agonise – although not necessarily in that order.  For me, my research is practice; my practice is research.  There are clear boundaries, blurring only occasionally, perhaps shifting a little with and against my research.  This is good.  For me potentiality often lies around the margins, where tension is an always welcome guest.

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I began my research in October 2013 with a question: Can participatory art support sustainable social change?  Why?  Because I was immersed within the field of participatory (or socially engaged) arts (I still am) and I was agonising over the encroachment of policy-led, New Public Management Newspeak into my practice and, indeed, the broader arts world… ‘Evidence’, ‘resilience’, ‘cultural value’, ‘economic value’, ‘inclusion’, ‘exclusion’, ‘diversity’, ‘sustainability’, ‘well-being’, ‘outputs’, ‘outcomes’ – on and on… Creeping instrumentalism.  Even seemingly positive words like ‘sustainability’ and ‘social change’ suddenly became murky through ubiquity.  My question can be simply modified to become a statement – a mantra – for many interested in this field: PARTICIPATORY ART SUPPORTS SUSTAINABLE SOCIAL CHANGE.  Really?

The research question seems as it is: superficial.  What are ‘participatory arts’? A homogenous entity?  Or does the term represent a broad range of artists working with a myriad of artistic practices spanning everything from face painting to radical political activism?  What is ‘participation’ anyway?  And does the term ‘socially engaged art’ or, even, ‘social practice’ better describe certain forms of issue-based, independently determined making art together with people?  Similarly, ‘sustainability’ can take many forms from ecological concerns to maintaining narrow art world status quos ushered in by an allegedly well-meaning Maynard Keynes.  The paramount question about ‘sustainability’ is: Whose sustainability?  Who or what is being sustained, by whom, for what purpose?  And, of course: What is the role of the state?  Does ‘social change’ relate to state agendas and issues of power?  Could notions of ‘social justice’ provide an ethical alternative?

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‘Participatory arts’ were spurned from the ashes of the Community Arts movement.  A lack of self-organisation and theoretical grounding for their multi-faceted approaches to working with people left them open to incorporation by the state on the one (inclusive) hand and marginalisation by the state on the (radically political) other.  Arts policy played an ever-increasing part in this – it still does.  Nonetheless, socially engaged art developed on the margins of the 1990s art world to represent, perhaps, a return to more radical forms of working with people.  Some call it ‘the latest thing’ – it is not!  The field’s historical and political contexts are deeply rich; profoundly influencing many of today’s socially engaged artists.  If this history is interesting to you, I recommend you read Community, Art and The State: Storming the Citadels by Owen Kelly (1984)…

SO WHAT’S MY ANGLE?

I am trying to align past and present theory with current socially engaged practice.  By exploring and interrelating theoretical and practical perspectives, I hope to illuminate the field of socially engaged practice AND influence current policymakers.  The notion of Critical Utopias forms a locus for my research.  Taking Herbert Marcuse’s The End of Utopias as a starting point, I’m exploring the notion that utopia was a derogatory term used as a tool for suppression and control.  Yet, when reawakened and set free, utopian thinking might, perhaps, offer real potential for emancipation from the dominant neoliberalism paradigm.  For Tom Moylan, tracing a vein similar to the utopianism of Paulo Freire:

The critical utopias give voice to an emerging radical perception and experience that emphasize process over system, autonomous and marginal activity over the imposed order of a centre, human liberation over white/ phallocentric control, and the interrelationships of nature of human chauvinism… The critical utopias refuse to be restricted by their own traditions, their own systematizing content…

(Moylan, 1986, p. 211)

These perspectives align very closely to critically engaged forms of participatory and social arts practice.

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WHAT’S MY APPROACH?

My approach is rooted within forms of critical theory that emanate from, but do not fully subscribe to, the Critical Theory of The Frankfurt School.  Interdisciplinary in nature, my research attempts to fuse a range of theoretical perspectives, taking the following key tenets of critical theory as points of departure: the belief that our current socio-political life is dominated by a neoliberal democracy that is both a ‘total administration’ (Adorno) and ‘one-dimensional’ (Marcuse); the conflation of diverse forms of arts and culture into a ‘culture industry’ is ‘enlightenment by mass deception’ (Horkheimer and Adorno); a deep mistrust of ‘instrumental rationality’ (Marcuse); and an eagerness to embrace and develop interdisciplinary research and practice in relation to critical theory (Horkheimer and Marcuse).  Dialectics are central to my thinking.  For me, they, along with many other elements in traditional and contemporary critical theory, offer new ways of understanding our current milieu; of (re)imagining alternatives to the suffocating cloak of neoliberalism.

There are too many other theoretical approaches to cite here.  Suffice to say that they span the Marxist politics of, for example, Frederic Jameson and Chantal Mouffe to the psychoanalytic approaches of Jacques Lacan and Donald Winnicott.  There are many paths to ‘playing’ and ‘reality’ (or realities).  Compliance is not one.

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So, from my original research question, and, like a good empirical researcher, I produced the following working hypothesis which I am testing and refining during my fieldwork:

Socially engaged arts practice may be capable, when realised through radical, performative and agonistic 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.

It is lengthy and wordy but useful to my research.

Critical theory can also be considered, in its weaker sense, a distinctive methodology based upon dialectics.  Following this approach, my methodology rejects ‘the qualitative-quantitative distinction as a way of differentiating methodologies’ and is aware of and opposed to the problematic dominance of ‘societal demands for knowledge that can produce technical control’ (Morrow & Brown, 1994).  It instead seeks ‘a theory of social and cultural reproduction’ that is ‘part of a process of social production’ whilst acknowledging the impossibility of ignoring ‘the history and systematic aspects of research’ (ibid.).

My methods are empirical - ethnographic.  My investigation revolves around intensive field research that is autoethnographic - an approach to research and writing that seeks to describe and systematically analyse personal experience to understand cultural experience.  It challenges canonical ways of doing research and representing others, instead treating research as a political, socially-just and socially-conscious act.  It uses tenets of autobiography and ethnography.  As a method, autoethnography becomes both process and product.

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(I then gave excerpts from my five longitudinal case studies.  A mix of organisations and artists.  They were presented as autoethnographic narrative.  Reflections from my field notes.  I have self-censored them for now…)

As well as the longitudinal case studies, I also have conducted and will undertake more informal discussions with people from across all areas of my research.  Each session has a focus relevant to the person’s relationship to my research.  Although short, these focused discussions form critical aspects of my overall thesis.

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But there are also many fragments. Pieces of conversations with other artists, academics, arts organisations, policymakers, etc. that I collect along the way. They are usually the products of chance occurrence; fleeting words. They are incredibly stimulating and often serve to refocus or challenge my research in incredibly unpredictable ways.

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I love collecting as many artefacts along my journey. Some are useful pieces of evidence; others mementos that may or may not stimulate some memory of past encounters. Unspoken meaning often lies dormant in these objects, waiting to find the right moment… Or perhaps not…

Of course, everything must be validated – verified. My field notes are ‘signed off’ by participants after they have read and made necessary corrections and amendments. This process is incredibly useful in developing relationships and maintaining or reinstating some degree of professional distance.

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I hope my research will be of interest and value to academics, policymakers, socially engaged artists and arts organisations. My thesis will need to navigate a careful path so as to appeal to this diverse range of people. Perhaps my autoethnographic approach will help make the research accessible?

And so, the next year or so of my life will be taken up intensively researching my longitudinal case studies, continuing to develop my focused discussions with other individuals and reading as much about the field, other relevant disciplinary approaches and theory as possible. Talking, experiencing, thinking, writing, reading, doing… Then writing up the final thesis.

My life as research…

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THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO – three provocations at Arts Council England national office

What a week.  A great week.  A deeply challenging week.  A week which saw me invited to Arts Council England’s HQ in Bloomsbury Street, London, thanks to CidaCo and Anamaria Wills in particular, to present a resilience lab to almost thirty people from arts organisations from Birmingham and South East London.  I co-presented the afternoon with the lovely Sue Ball.  We were encouraged to be challenging, provocative.  I presented three provocations.  They were:

  • THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO
  • COOPERATION AND COOPETITION: OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES
  • SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS: SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES?

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First, I briefly like to say what a lovely, super hi-tech place ACE national office is.  Superb facilities.  Coffee was a bit weak though…

Anamaria introduced me as a ‘loud, pick-a-fight-with-anyone Geordie’…  She ended the afternoon claiming I was a Marxist (I’m not)…

Anyway, the three presentations are available online (by clicking the pics or links below) for comment, criticism, sharing, whatever…  The first presentation features An Introduction to the Arts – a poem by the brilliant Luke Wright who kindly gave his permission and good wishes for my endeavours.  Thanks Luke.

Please view them with notes (bottom left corner) enabled so you can read my provocations (most of my slides are just pictures).

THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO

THE STATUS QUO WILL NO LONGER DO

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28485&authkey=!APZLpyaJ8f9w1mQ&ithint=file%2cpptx

COOPERATION AND COOPETITION: OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES

COOPERATION AND COOPETITION - OPENNESS AND TENSION AS OSCILLATING PRODUCTIVE FORCES

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28486&authkey=!ABKQuwAXk7O5EyA&ithint=file%2cpptx

SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS: SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES?

SELF-ORGANISING AND THE COMMONS - SUSTAINABLE CREATIVE SPACES

https://onedrive.live.com/redir?resid=506D631092AC8D21!28484&authkey=!AN5U5rmFv5DX754&ithint=file%2cpptx

Is socially engaged art ‘innovative’? (A word game with scrapheap prizes.)

a blade of grass is a great online resource for socially engaged artists - frequently a site for interesting discussion and debate in and around the field. The Growing Dialogue section of their website is, in their words, a place for ‘moderated online debates among thought leaders in social practice’. The latest strand of debate is entitled The Latest Thing. It’s about the relationship ‘innovation’ may have to socially engaged art. For me, it’s infuriating. There’ve been a string of posts and comments about ‘innovation’. I interjected via twitter early on, after the first provocation was published. This blog post is my response to the on-going discussion. I don’t want to rehearse the arguments made in the series of posts on the website by various ‘leaders’ (I dislike the term) in the field. I prefer to explore the discourse of ‘innovation’ in relation to the arts, socially engaged practice and social justice as another way of thinking about the (apparent) ‘latest thing’.

 

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Break Down, Michael Landy, 2001

 

When curator and critic, Elizabeth Grady, opened the discussion with her blog post Interrogating Innovation in Socially Engaged Art, I responded, via twitter, as follows:

For me, ‘innovation’ is, today, too closely linked to neoliberalism. Radical action and justice shape socially engaged art?

Jethro Brice said in reply that we should ‘drop the ideology of innovation’ and ‘keep pursuing creative, discursive, engagement’. I said that ‘innovation was not a term that sits comfortably with social practice’. Mark Leach summed things up with the brilliantly simple, ‘I’m down with dropping ideologies’.

A flurry of further posts followed. I’m not going to discuss any of these posts in detail. Their titles give a flavour:

The problem I have in this debate is the word ‘innovation’ and how wholly or partly it is happily or doubtfully accepted as a driver of modern art, the avant-garde, socially engaged art, social change, social justice, etc., etc. Innovation is, according to Elizabeth Grady, ‘often found under its more common moniker, “change”’. This blurring is extremely problematic. Innovation is not the same as change. It is also worth clarifying that notions of ‘the ideology of innovation’ are problematic. Innovation is not an ideology but its use is ideological. Grady, in the same sentence in which she conflates innovation and change, also states that, ‘the assignment of value—good or bad—to the term “innovation”… is ideological’. Innovation is used as a foil for several ideologies, as we shall see. But, for me, innovation is not a term that relates (or at least should be related to) socially engaged art.

Socially engaged art is about working with people to explore and create experiences; about activism; about spaces and places; about dissensus, tension, oscillations; even aesthetics (in the broadest sense of the word. Social practice can be about technology. None of these things involve innovation. We do not innovate. Instrumentalised participatory art isn’t innovative either. It’s just another way of appropriating art done to, for or with people to support soft state power; a means of selling meagre forms of top-down ‘social change’. Social justice is never about innovation either. Modernism wasn’t about innovation. The avant-garde movements were not innovators.

Innovation is creeping, insidiously into every aspect of life. Clearly, as is apparent in this debate about ‘the latest thing’ in socially engaged art, innovation is also infiltrating this field (at least in the minds of some people). It’s now popping up like bindweed, twisting around the discourse of Arts Council England and other arts institutions. The expansion of digital technology and Big Data into ‘the cultural industries’ is undoubtedly one driver; the need to measure and better advocate for the arts another. The commonality: capitalism. That’s why it’s important to carefully explore what ‘innovation’ actually means, its origins and how the word is commonly used.

Are ‘innovation’, ‘innovate’, ‘innovative’ words loaded with meaning? Certainly. Are they commonplace nowadays? Definitely. Has this always been the case? No. So what’s changed?

Innovation is almost a de facto requirement in every aspect of our lives: from marketing to policymaking; manufacturing to business management; economics to education; and, of course, arts and culture. The word tends to be associated with ‘newness’ – new ideas, new technology, new systems, new things, etc. It is very closely related to technology. Unsurprising, then, that the usage of ‘innovation’ has increased (and continues to increase) exponentially since the 1960s. So what does the word mean? A glance at the Oxford English Dictionary entry for ‘innovation’ reveals it has (or had) several meanings. It is commonly defined as:

The action of innovating; the introduction of novelties; the alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms. †Formerly const. of (the thing altered or introduced).

The modernist movement in art might, in some (aesthetic) cases, be considered to fit with this description. The avant-garde artists would be horrified. Innovation in modern art is a concept tied to the formalist and historically linear theories of Clement Greenberg – to his 1939 essay Avant-Garde and Kitsch. The trouble is that innovation is a term frequently applied to modernist art, to society, history, etc. retrospectively, of in place of words like ‘invention’ or ‘creativity’.

Linked to the notion of innovation is ‘disruptive innovation’ or ‘obsolescence’. Progress of ‘the new’ quickly relegates the old to the scrapheap. This brings me to my root problem with innovation: today it is irrevocably linked to technology and thereby to consumerism. We are led by neoliberalism to believe innovation will eventually lead to salvation. It will not. Innovation will not lead to emancipation, nor equality, nor social justice, nor new forms of truly democratic living. Innovation will lead to the new that soon becomes the old; not necessarily better (whatever that might mean). It might seem that the cycle of innovation will never be broken. It will. It is just a word. A word which has engrained within it its own demise. Innovation will become obsolete, replaced by something else, something similar, something newer.

So to ascribe a word like ‘innovation’ to socially engaged art is a misnomer. An attempt to subsume an area of contemporary art practice that resists and challenges notions of the art market, of art as economic, of audiences as consumers, etc. into the mainstream, increasingly capitalist system of ‘the culture industry’. Many forms of the field (which I tend to label participatory art) are happy to be instrumentalised and justified for their supposed economic benefits. That’s fine. But, for me, there’s no place for ‘innovation’ in my socially engaged practice or my research. Socially engaged art is not ‘The Latest Thing’. Be suspicious of those who suggest otherwise.

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…

Time arts & culture put class back on their agendas?

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I’ve been tweeting a bit today about art, privilege, elitism, ‘leaders’, social practice, and more.  The great article about the dominance of privilege in the arts by Nick Cohen in The Guardian yesterday certainly spurred me on.  So did tweets by Emma Bearman and Mar Dixon.  I felt the train of discussion throughout the day developed around common threads.  Ideas about emancipation, democracy, paradigm shifts.  This post attempts to cobble together my responses into a semi-coherent stream of thoughts and sound bites that currently drive me.  Here goes:

 

I think of my practice as ‘space-making’ but never call it that.  Potential, play, not knowing.  People ‘do art’ by taking part.

 

We are grassroots and critical… not radical.  We see social practice as a process of deconstruction and reconstruction.

 

Potentially emancipatory, our work is not Jesus on shipping containers or gimmicky digging for fools gold.

 

We see social practice as dialogic.  We try to create potential spaces where something creative might happen.

 

We’re forced to align our outcomes and measures to those of funders when applying, then make sure we achieve them.

 

People (the public) don’t define outcomes or measures.  Policymakers do.  Elitist and hierarchical.  Outcomes and measures don’t matter to people.

 

Policymakers pop stoppers in their bell jars.  Tie little state-made labels on.  File them away.  Museum objects.  Boxes ticked.

 

Funders like their ‘leaders’ to conform to passed-down policy.  Orchestral, they conduct.  ‘New’: their instrumental composition.

 

Leaders.  Thought Leaders.  Cultural Leaders.  Command and control.  Undemocratic?

 

Missionary, mercenary, mobiliser.  Always suspect.  Power is pervasive.

 

Can leadership every be truly ‘democratic’?  Always elitist.  Never emancipatory.

 

Neoliberal leadership is always evangelical.  They need us to be born again.

 

Leadership of this sort is always for technocratic elites; never publics.

 

Always difficult to challenge. DIY or with others.  Self-organise?

 

Elitism is as endemic in the arts as it is elsewhere.  Time to put class back on the agenda?

 

These are my thoughts.  I’m not a leader.  Not an evangelist.  I see critical theory as offering old-new ways to think about culture, class, power, policy.  New utopias.  Social justice.  A much needed socio-political paradigm shift…

Comments always welcome!

social practice & social change – my thoughts - an unpublished interview transcript

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This blog post is a transcript of an interview that was never published.  The interviewer asked five questions.  I answered.

 

Can art be an effective way of bringing about social change? If so, any examples? In what ways can it improve people's lives?

There are many in the arts world who believe art can deliver social change. Arts Council England recently published The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: an evidence review (April 2014), an attempt to make the case for art and culture in terms of benefits to the economy, health and wellbeing, society and education. They’re following a trend in arts and culture towards ‘cultural value’ – attempting to measure and evidence the instrumental values; this is similar to their discussion of intrinsic values described in their Understanding the value and impacts of cultural experiences: a literature review (July 2014). There are many actors involved in the broader cultural value debate including AHRC, The RSA, The University of Warwick Commission, etc. Meanwhile, Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s ArtWorks initiative and AHRC’s Connected Communities are two examples of the many academic collaborations with arts organisations and artists to also investigate the social value of the arts. In short, the debate about art as a vehicle for social change is as vast as it is fluid.

However, it’s not a new debate. Francois Matarasso is perhaps best known for fathering the idea of ‘art as panacea for all society’s ills’ in his influential text Use or Ornament? The social impact of participation in the arts (1997). His report led to a dearth of New Labour initiatives attempting to use arts and cultural projects as cures for everything from run-down urban streets to the unemployed; from rehabilitating offenders to improving the grades of low-performing inner city school children. New Labour’s promotion of arts and culture as integral to their ‘things can only get better’ utopian dream collided with their embracing of technocratic forms of governance underpinned by a positivist scientific measuring and evidencing of every aspect of society. The resulting target-driven, cost-benefit culture meant that Matarasso was criticised for not producing enough (or any) evidence to underpin the many claims he made for the role of arts and culture as a mechanism for positive social change…

So, here we are in 2014. There’s renewed interest and belief in the power of the arts and culture to be recognised as an effective engine for social change. Not just in the UK, but worldwide. Cultural policies around the globe are being honed to embed art and culture as a key aspect of supporting and delivering the agendas of almost every government department and non-government organisation. The problem with this perspective, for me, is three-fold. Firstly, and most importantly, the type of social change being sought here is always state-led and thereby fraught with political and economic agendas, meaning the arts will always be instrumental; beautifully crafted, state-funded tools, imposing the type of soft power that typically underpins neoliberal agendas. Secondly, there is the question of ‘what is social change?’ Arguably anything: Good or bad; emancipatory or totalitarian; always ideological; never likely to result in paradigm-shift. Recycling household waste is social change; but then so is Nazism. Thirdly, artists, participants, audiences and people who do not engage with the arts are usually not consulted or placed at the heart of policy-making of any kind, including cultural policy. This means that they are often left disenfranchised by cultural policies ‘done to them’, not ‘with and for them’. For me, notions of social justice offers more interesting perspectives about fairness and equality. It leaves space for self-organising, radicalism and reimagining.

In some senses, my answer may seem negative or evasive. It is not. I’m merely voicing my concerns. I am wary of grand narratives, of positivism, of state control… The arts have been used very effectively to implement all sorts of state agendas for time immemorial, but they have also been equally effective in opposing the state. I also know that people who engage in arts and cultural activities (whether ‘high’ or ‘popular’ culture) on every level gain insight and experience that is essential to living. Everyone is an example.

Do artists have a responsibility to respond to the social issues that people are concerned about?

An interesting question that immediately prompts memories of the old debate about ‘art for arts’ sake’ versus ‘art as social’. Artists respond to whatever intrigues them in whatever way they see fit. This is an essential element of their quasi-autonomous position in our world. In some cases, artists respond directly to political issues as radical activists, whilst other artists respond to social issues in ways that support political positions and policy. Others are happy painting watercolour seaside themes ad infinitum. Nothing wrong with any of this. All are matters of individual choice and circumstance. No artist has a duty to respond to social issues, although because artists are situated within society, their art is always to one degree or another socially constructed.

Anyway, ‘social issues that people are concerned about’ sounds like another grand narrative. What are these issues and who are concerned about them?

What are the most challenging aspects of working in the area of socially engaged art?

Socially engaged art is, for me, a very freeing mode of working with people and art. Social practice often takes place outside of galleries and in public places; its emphasis is on process and experience rather than aesthetics and autonomy. But this way of working creates positives and tensions. It’s a challenge to self-organise with little money; a challenge to not know who will turn up or what might happen; a challenge to not impose (or, more realistically, to minimise) positions of power within the dynamics of a socially engaged intervention so that the participants can develop a process their way. Social practice is about risk and uncertainty. It’s fun to be able to work independently but also a constant struggle. These challenges (and, probably, many more) are what makes the field so liberating for practitioners and (hopefully) participants.

Is there a way that artists can ensure they create meaningful relationships with local communities?

Tough question. Many practitioners, policy-makers and academics tend to believe that meaningful relationships with communities need to be developed slowly and carefully. I believe that short-term grassroots interventions can create ‘meaningful relationships’ (difficult to define) within communities. I also firmly assert that long-term embedding of artists in communities can be dangerous and not necessarily conducive to fostering creative independence within communities. I’ve been accused of ‘parachuting in’ many times – whether the intervention lasted a day or three months. Interestingly, these accusations always come from other local artists and arts organisations, never from local people who take part. This leads me to conceive of the role of the socially engaged artist as always that of ‘outsider’ (unless the person actually lives in the area, in which case, there are a whole load of other problems likely to arise). As outsiders, we must always be aware that we are privileged and that we can only help others find and make new potential spaces in which they may discover something about themselves that they can hopefully feed into their communities. We do this by being open to the new and by being ‘grassroots’ in our approach – never elitist or aloof. We develop close affinities, often in very short periods of time, and hopefully retain memories that remain with us, but we will always leave. We must…

How is socially engaged art perceived in the art world as a whole?

Many see the practice as ‘not art’ or as amateurish or political or radical or as an instrument for soft state control. All these condemnations are, sometimes, undoubtedly true. The field of socially engaged practice as ‘participation’ is broad, spanning everything from face-painting to Occupy. This is both a strength and a weakness. Also, the interdisciplinary nature of some practices means that boundaries are often blurred between art, science, politics, environmentalism, etc., etc. I think this inability to neatly box socially engaged art is exciting for practitioners but threatening for many traditional arts organisations and artists; it is also confusing for many policy-makers and academics. People taking part do not care what we call what we do. We don’t label our work. For participants, we’re us – people who listen and help them do creative stuff, or challenge people to think differently, to think more…

In my view, any attempt to accredit or institutionalise socially engaged art means it’s no longer ‘socially engaged’ but ‘participatory’. It’s socially engaged art’s ability to challenge status quos, even work with others to radically challenge the state, from positions independent from the state that makes the practice interesting and attractive to more and more artists as a viable way of making art with people rather than for organisations.