The Idea: Profitable Business "As If" Performance Art (or The Complexities of Artwashing)

The Idea, Screenshot from John McKiernan's Prezi (from 2013 I think) - now removed by author

This is a reblog (with additions) of a post that was originally posted anonymously on LSE Sociology blog.  I must explain a few things.  I wasn't comfortable being anonymous because, as a fellow activist said, anonymity is the greatest dispossession.  So here it is on my own site.  I stand by my work but must explain that my issue is not with the ESRC research nor with anyone involved in the forthcoming research project.  I am only interested in exploring The Idea - Platform-7 and what I consider to be an example of artwashing.  It is also important to note that this work is personal and not connected to anything else I am involved with professionally.  I consider this part of my ongoing activist work: an intervention; a performance; research as practice (praxis); art (or perhaps anti-art).  It is an act of resistance and a critique.  If this is problematic, I'm happy to explain more.

I must also point out that I have great respect for Loretta Lees.  I cite her frequently in my academic work.

The performance doesn't suggest anything illegal is happening and is based entirely upon publicly available information (apart from the first image which was removed by its author).  It poses a few questions which I believe I have a right to ask and hope to receive an answer.  It invites debate and rebuttal, just as it is also open to updates, corrections and additional information.

Finally, I would like to say that I did not post the blog on the LSE page and totally understand why they decided to take it down.  Also, I did not write the other blog published the next day.  I would add, however, that some of the people involved have received what I consider to be rather heavy-handed treatment.  I hope this was only due to the issue of publishing an anonymous op-ed and nothing more.  I write in openness and honesty from a questioning perspective.  I believe this is fundamental to academia just as much as it is to my approach as a radical art historian and activist artist.

Comment very much welcome.

Negative Asset Recombination Tool, Screenshot from Kinerji (Creative Publics) website

This is the original blog post.  It's roughly written but so be it...

Academia, like almost every other area of our lives, is today thoroughly commodified, its work instrumentalised for state and corporate agendas.  This constitutes a threat to what little democratic freedoms we really have.  It can prevent everyday people from being heard, drowned out by ‘evidence’ and ‘outcomes’ and ‘impact’ and, most threateningly, by ‘partnerships’ that use everyday people as collateral – little totems to the false gods of ‘engagement’ and ‘acquiescence’.  This is as sinister as it is common.  Sometimes things can get quite complex, like in this little tale about the inclusion of one ‘tiny’ art partner that’s actually a front for a bigger, well-connected non-arts partner – a well-connected corporate partner.

It’s about the ESRC funded Gentrification, Displacement, and the Impacts of Council Estate Renewal in C21st London – a three-year research project led by Professor Loretta Lees that seeks to ‘address gaps in knowledge about gentrification, displacement and the impacts of estate renewal in London’.  The funding awarded is a staggering £615,341.

This big money research project also includes a now almost ubiquitous ‘art’ element.  It’s a sad sign of our neoliberal times when there’s not only money for research but also money to do some art on (or at least loosely about) council estates yet no money to retain council housing!  There appears to be three forms of ‘art’: another Channel 4 documentary; a theatre piece in which some ‘tenants’ will perform; and, strangest of all, an 'art-intervention' to ‘engage communities beyond London indirectly impacted by displacement from estate renewal’.  How far beyond London this art intervention will stretch is anyone’s guess.

Art commissions dressed as ‘interventions’ are, of course, ten-a-penny nowadays.  Councils love their ‘engagement’ value; developers love their PR value.  These interventions are often Trojan Horses – ‘creative’ consultations to pacify communities, effectively making people seem complicit in their own demise.  But when a project such as this one signs up a partner who has a very suspect reputation within the arts, things get very complex.

In this case, the research has chosen to involve Platform 7 a ‘an abstract live art events network’ that’s not really a network – it’s a vehicle for John McKiernan – Platform-7 was ‘spun’ from his previous venture Moonbow Jakes – a coffee bar/ theatre chain.  McKiernan has an interesting background: he has academic qualifications in Culture Industry, Business Innovation and Distributive Trades; he was involved for 10 years in ‘above-the-line advertising’ and worked for ‘internationally renowned agencies’ Bartle Bogle Hegarty (BBH) and GGT (now TBWA) - big brand advertisers; he has also worked with Lees before on ‘Art-led regeneration in Margate: Learning from Moonbow Jakes Café and Lido Nightclub’ and featured in this research entitled ‘The Enigma that is Platform-7:  CWL Creative Voucher, The Silent Cacophony case study’.

McKiernan is certainly a bit of enigma!  He has a lot more strings to his bow, all linked paradoxical and complex, of course, but that’s how he likes it.  Let’s unpack this situation now as it is a little disturbing, particularly given the financial scale of this ESRC research project…

Meta Diagram of some of the interrelationships involved in this complex artwashing exercise.  Click here to download PDF version.

First, it is important to note that, whilst Platform 7 are mentioned as a research partner, the company was dissolved in 2016 – see the Companies House listing here.  McKiernan set up Kinerji which he describes on the Platform 7 blog as his ‘commercial company’.  He talked about both Platform 7 and Kinerji in a Londonist podcast in November 2016.  The company had been dissolved by then.  It filed for dissolution in July 2016.  Yet it is still on the ESRC funding abstract in February 2017!  Why?  Platform 7 Events is no longer a legally constituted company.

Kinerji is the commercial company which McKiernan now runs.  It is actually a brand name for Creative Publics Limited.

Creative Publics has 2 other directors as well as McKiernan: Professor John Wood and Professor Maurice Biriotti.  It has 4 shareholders.

Biriotti is not a named shareholder but Birmore Limited is one of Creative Publics’ 4 shareholders and Biriotti is one of Birmore’s directors and shareholders.  Biriotti is also a director of Spitalfields Festivals Limited which trades as Spitalfields Music.  Spitalfields Music is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) and is also funded by Tower Hamlets Council and the City of London.

Birmore is a holding company.  It has another very influential director Professor Henrietta L. Moore - Director of the Institute for Global Prosperity at UCL.  Moore is also a director of the Barbican Centre Trust, SMH Productions Limited and Lapidus Investments Limited.  Use Companies House beta to check this information, if in doubt.

Biriotti is also a director of SMH and Lapidus.  So Biriotti and Moore are quite a team, pairing up in Birmore, SMH and Lapidus.  Both are highly influential establishment figures.  Google them for more.  Biriotti and Moore are, via Birmore, shareholders in McKiernan’s company.  Lapidus (itself a holding company) is entirely owned by Birmore (another holding company).  Biriotti and Moore own 50% of Birmore each.

Now things get more interesting.  Birmore (i.e. Biriotti and Moore) also entirely owns SMH Productions LLC (USA) and 77% of SMH Productions (UK).  Lapidus is also, through Birmore, also entirely owned equally by Biriotti and Moore.  Lapidus is a holding company for SMH Productions (Mexico) which it (i.e. Biriotti and Moore) owns fully.

SMH Productions is a big company – a ‘specialist provider of business services’ that seeks to design solutions to ‘complex human-centred problems’.  Biriotti is SMH’s CEO – read about him here.  Moore is Chair of SMH – read her profile here.

SMH also has a foundation.  The SMH Foundation ‘works globally to bring about positive social change through projects in the areas of learning and citizenship, health and the arts’.  It was also set up by Biriotti and Moore.  SMH Foundation has funded at least 2 Platform 7 projects: this one and this one.

To be clear: Biriotti and Moore funded McKiernan’s Platform 7 projects.

What’s more, Biriotti and Moore are also part-owners of his Kinerji (Creative Publics) company.  Biriotti is also a director of McKiernan’s company.

The circle is complete.  It’s also very complex.

Take a look at Kinerji.  They’re about converting creativity into economic assets!

So, given that Platform 7 has been dissolved, WHO WILL ACTUALLY BE WORKING WITH LEES ON THE ESRC ART COMMISSION?  Kinerji – a private company?  Or a new not-for-profit company McKiernan might set up?  THIS NEEDS TO BE ANSWERED NOW!

Whilst no one is suggesting that anything illegal has happened here, it is obvious that there’s been some artwashing going on for quite a while.  As an academic, I feel it is essential that, if art must be used in this project, a grassroots not-for-profit collective should be employed and full transparency maintained.  If not, it is possible that the ESRC funded research may contain artwashing within its stated impacts and that cannot be good for anybody.

Mind you, perhaps we should think carefully about the suggestion made on Twitter to think about spending at least some of the money on an action research project that instigated judicial reviews against local councils and developers for displacing council and social housing tenants.  But who would fund radical action research like that?

It is essential that council house tenants do not become fodder for indiscriminate art-as-business-solution-as-PR.  It is equally essential that ESRC research isn’t used in this way…

I must stress again that this is a piece of art as praxis. Part of an ongoing performance.  Part of my own personal research into artwashing and gentrification.  This is not part of my PhD or any other work.

Click the phone box below to hear John McKiernan talking about his 'Idea' - things get interesting from between 20 minutes and just past 30 minutes, although it's worth listening beyond that...  Is 'The Idea' a sell-out?  The podcast is on the Londonist website and was from November 2016.