Caught Doing Social Work? - Socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

Caught Doing Social Work? - Socially engaged art and the dangers of becoming social workers

This is the text from my workshop “Caught doing social work?” which was part of Manifesta 12’s M12 Education Club conference in Palermo on 19th October 2018. The workshop was held in the community centre in the ZEN social housing project. The text was used as mini provocations which led to a really interesting discussion about instrumentalism of the arts and artists, gentrification and artwashing.

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'Of the “Devil’s Party”: Creative Commons – A Marriage of Heaven and Hell?' Transcript of recent talk at Birkbeck...

'Of the “Devil’s Party”: Creative Commons – A Marriage of Heaven and Hell?' Transcript of recent talk at Birkbeck...

I took part in Communalities, urbanities and artistic commonalities - a symposium at Birkbeck School of Arts on 5th June 2018. This is a transcript of my talk. I billed it as the meeting of William Blake and Half Man Half Biscuit via a trip to Trumpton. There's a video to accompany the talk which I'll upload soon...

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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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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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Gentrification is a dirty word, so artwash it! My paper from AHRC CDT Conference at BALTIC

Gentrification is a dirty word, so artwash it! My paper from AHRC CDT Conference at BALTIC

This is my paper which I presented at the Northumbria-Sunderland AHRC Centre for Doctoral Training Art and Design Research Annual Conference at the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art, Gateshead on 25th July 2017.  Powerpoint and PDF versions can be downloaded here too...

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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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Complexity, uncertainty & scalability: How Assemble's Granby 4 Streets won 2015 Turner Prize

Complexity, uncertainty & scalability: How Assemble's Granby 4 Streets won 2015 Turner Prize

Did Assemble really play such a big part in Granby 4 Streets?  How 'community-led' was the project?  What was the role of the Community Land Trust?  How did Assemble come to win the Turner Prize 2015?  Who were the private social investors and what did they do to help make the project happen?

he intention here is to blow open the façade behind Granby 4 Streets, Assemble and the Turner Prize 2015 win.

his is a long read and part of my research into art-led regeneration projects that are often far more complex than is often portrayed.

argue that the media and art world picture of Assemble is overly simplistic and masks a far more complex and uncertain set of events that, ultimately, relied on 'mystery' private social investors to force local government to act in support of the project and to lever money from national grant funders.

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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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Opportunity areas Part 2: 'There for the taking' - (Re)writing gentrification & placemaking

Opportunity areas Part 2: 'There for the taking' - (Re)writing gentrification & placemaking

This is part two of a three-part series of posts about Opportunity Areas.  Part one is here.

Part two explores Sarah Butler’s work in a little more detail.  Creative consultations, writing stories for Creative People and Places, advocacy of socially engaged writing as part of regeneration agendas, poetry hoardings ‘covering’ demolished social housing sites whilst new builds spring up and working for the New Deal for Communities.  It reveals, perhaps, how artists can be increasingly drawn into complicit relationships with local councils, the state, funders, charities, schools and property developers.

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Opportunity areas - Part 1: Unearthing socially engaged art’s complicity in the gentrification of Elephant & Castle

Opportunity areas - Part 1: Unearthing socially engaged art’s complicity in the gentrification of Elephant & Castle

Everyone loves an opportunity don’t they?  What about a whole area of opportunities: an Opportunity Area?  Investors love them.  Property developers love them.  Local councils love them.  The State loves them.  Even (some) artists love them.  Opportunities for all!  (Well, not people living in social housing … Oh, and not homeless people … Erm, and not market stall holders … Low income families who bought their own council home? No!)

This blog post explores the art world equivalent of MI5 – the socially engaged artists – the creative secret service for third wave gentrification, who, unlike the pioneering, colonial foot soldiers of first and second wave gentrification, do not necessarily live in gentrifying areas and are paid to infiltrate soon-to-be-decanted communities of social housing tenants, low income home owners, market stall holders and small shopkeepers, even, on occasion, homeless people.

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

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

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

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

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

I've just presented my paper "Place Guarding: Activist and Social Practice Art - Direct Action Against Gentrification" at the Association of American Geographers Conference 2016 in San Francisco.  I wasn't there.  Made use of PowerPoint Mix!  The PowerPoint and a nicer quality MP4 version will be available here very shortly.  For now, here's my fully referenced paper with bibliography.

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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...