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Free Balloon.Free Balloon.

Free Balloon.

This is a short response to my experience of taking part in Tabloid for the Oppressed, an invite-only event that was part of the Hidden Civil War programme at the Newbridge Project in Newcastle upon Tyne.  A critical reflection not about the aims of the event but rather about the strange feeling I got when I realised I was at an arts event about ‘the oppressed’ at which the participants were almost 100% white, where there were more men than women, where the presenters were all men, where most people there were from a certain class and possessed higher-than-normal levels of cultural capital.  The blog has led to an interesting discussion on Facebook – click here to read or join in – or comment on this page…

I was extremely interested when asked if I would like to participate in Tabloid for the Oppressed.  I took part because I found the idea of attempting ‘to extinguish The Sun readership across the North East of England’ by developing a ‘blue print for a new tabloid publication to platform grassroots voices and a bottom up politics’ a rather brave objective for an essentially arts-led project to aspire to.  I also had some serious concerns, primarily, as usual, about terminology; about wording.  The event took place on the evening of Thursday 6th October 2016 in Newbridge Project’s main exhibition space which was filled with other Hidden Civil War art works, including the mock-political Free Balloons by ‘urban-absurdist’ interventionist, Richard DeDomenici.  I find the balloons and DeDomenici’s work deeply problematic primarily as I read them as popularist post-political parody.

The event was a heady mix of goldfish bowl discussion, group idea ‘harvesting’ and disseminating, expert presentations, etc. all underpinned with that now oh-so-common deliberative approach.  Arts events love deliberative, democratic, participatory, consensus-building these days.  The fact that, in the end, the ideas harvested from the participants were so diverse and confusing so as to leave me feeling like nothing more would probably arise from the discussion, was unsurprising.  Perhaps the group was too large?  Perhaps the task set for us was too broad, too open?  Perhaps.  Perhaps.  Perhaps.

But what stood out for me was the lack of diversity in the room which I suddenly became aware of (this is my problem too – I’m a white, middle-aged, man who was once working-class but, having accumulated cultural capital, might now be considered by some to be some sort of middle-class, precarious worker/ academic) after a female participant in a group I was part of early in the event discussed the importance of a female voice and a feminist perspective in any new tabloid.  A male member of the group responded by attempting to say, amongst a number of other uncomfortably incorrect things, that women were ‘well represented’ in the room.  The female participant responded by asking him to look around the room, to note that there were more men than women present.  I looked around the room and this was indeed true but it was also immediately apparent (I confess to not noticing until prompted, as so often happens) that almost of the 30 plus people in the room were white, with one exception.  Was disability well represented I wondered?  What about sexuality and gender?  What about different classes?  What about people from outside the arts?  There seemed to be a colossal elephant in the room.  There ALWAYS is at arts events, no matter what the subject matter.

I had taken issue with the choice of wording for the event: why Tabloid FOR the Oppressed, I wondered?  Shouldn’t we be attempting to ‘co-create’ a new politics with and by ‘the oppressed’?  And who were ‘the oppressed’ anyway; how were they being defined here and by whom?  It became clear that, to some participants, artists were ‘the oppressed’, perhaps even freelance journalists.  But, after noting the clear and apparent lack of diversity, I realised that the discussion, in my opinion, accurately reflected the choice of title.  ‘WE’ (artists and media people) were talking about how ‘WE’ could ‘co-create’ a ‘new media’ that could ‘meaningfully support the unseen and platform the unheard’ – ‘THEM’, ‘the oppressed’!

Things felt a little patriarchal, patronising even.  Three presentations by experts: four men – four white men – three middle aged white men – one younger white man.  A TABLOID FOR THE OPPRESSED.  I sensed a dialectic: A BROADSHEET for the LIBERATED.

This is, of course, unfair to the organisers and participants who all actively contributed to what was an interesting, if ultimately entirely inconclusive, event.

Nevertheless, I think ‘WE’ – those with cultural capital – must be more aware at events like this, must call out lack of diversity.  And, perhaps, organisers might think a little more carefully about diversity when inviting participants, particularly when the topic of discussion relates so obviously to ‘the oppressed’ and the many, hopefully equally obvious, people, groups and communities who are oppressed by our technocratic, deeply divisive Western neoliberal political and economic systems locally, nationally, and globally.

There is always an elephant in the room at arts events (and many other types of events too) – A WHITE ELEPHANT – lots of white elephants…

It seemed as though this Hidden Civil War event was no different: well-meaning white people wondering what to do about ‘them’, the oppressed, whilst simultaneously and (I certain) unconsciously othering ‘them’, othering the oppressed.

I am part of the problem.  I am a white elephant in many rooms.  We must change.  We must look beyond ourselves.  We must unlearn our deeply internalised, often invisible prejudices.  We must acknowledge our privileges (even if relatively small when compared to what we may consider the ‘Big Oppressors’).  We must decolonise our minds.  Our minds are polluted with the ideologies of a long-standing white, male, heterosexual, bourgeois elite that others difference in every form.  We must look within ourselves.  We must look at ourselves.  We must rid ourselves of our own hidden civil wars: our own hidden oppressions.

0 thoughts on “A tabloid for the privileged: White elephants in a #HiddenCivilWar room?

  1. Julia Heslop talking nonsense. (on the Facebook post) about engaging groups (here’s a list, folks) while "not really being bothered" about, well, about what?It has become the case that artists who really have little to complain about in their lives seek to appropriate the struggles of others. This is cultural theft carried out with political opportunism and shows both a lack of imagination and a dearth of talent.Printing nonsensical slogans onto balloons ridicules philosophy and intellectual endeavour which working people fought (yes fought and fight today) to develop and achieve. Making clever remarks about feminism is a bundle of laughs for women on low pay, or in violent homes and workplaces. Invite a few sassy lesbians and a colourful gay, who together with the obligatory cripple can maybe form a salsa band for.the evening, performing survivor poetry for the closet queens consulting Grindr.Now "Elephant in the Room" would make a great first album.

  2. Angela Kennedy says:

    We could look to working outside of ‘Art’ contexts and sharing our skills and privilege of education – it shouldn’t be a privilege , but its becoming more and more one unfortunately – make work with and engage alongside others; listening, facilitating as well as through art – I know many artists already do; though its hard to get funding for ‘participative’ – even a word?! – activities that do not use the language of the ‘academic’- .. we discussed some of these dilemma’s of how to share learning and what is learning at the DeSchooling Society event I facilitated a little while ago through Newbridge.. Its not easy; it think we need it all, but to get funding for quiet/radical/life work is still so subjective and a minefield of privilege, gender, class, age, education, race, disability. I would welcome a further open event to discuss the ways that people do find to do this..

    • Stephen Pritchard says:

      Hi Angela,
      Excellent points as always. Totally agree.
      The need for an additional open event is absolutely essential to enable people to voice their concerns, positions, etc. about issues raised by the Hidden Civil War programme (which itself reproduces some, if not all, of the narrow forms of quiet oppression that are all too common in arts and culture). I have raised this issue with Chris, a key figure in this project, and will be discussing this further. I think the deschooling model is brilliant and should also figure too. We must avoid a programme "popping-up", doing some stuff then disappearing again. The issues at stake are far too big, far too important.
      In solidarity as always.
      Stephen.

  3. Andrew Wilson says:

    Stephen Pritchard, mate, you rascal, I am no fan of those balloons and am uncomfortable that they are your cover image for a blog post which otherwise dissects the event on Thursday evening. If you would like to write a blog about Demonici, please do so, I’d love to read it, but splicing him and his work with a critique of our event set an unnecessary tone in (what could have been) an otherwise well-articulated response about ‘events like these.’
    I love your writing, the way unlike many others you are prepared to stick your neck out over the parapet and ‘say something’ and I have spent a fair bit of time (and energy) counter arguing voices that are keen to quickly dismiss it in recent months. I get it. I get what you are saying in your response and am glad you are saying it – and that it has evoked a fruitful exchange in response. I am encouraged that Angela has introduced the notion of ‘Deschooling Society’ and very much hold the idea that a tabloid can exist as a platform to deliver in this spirit … or as Illich puts it, ‘to provide all who want to learn with access to available resources at any time in their lives; empower all who want to share what they know to find those who want to learn it from them; and, finally, furnish all who want to present an issue to the public with the opportunity to make their challenge known’
    This, coupled with the bold aim of bringing the readership of The Sun is an unashamedly huge proposition but not one I am going to shy away from. ‘perhaps, perhaps, perhaps’ or more likely ‘of course, of course, of course’ our proposition to write up a blue-print for an alternative tabloid media was mis-leading and unattainable within the 3-hour time frame and ‘of course’ it would remain incomplete, ‘of course’ hosting such an event within an ‘art’ context will attract an incomplete cross-section of participants … ‘of course, of course, of course’ … these predicaments are rooted way beyond and far deeper than whether our decision to have 15, 25 or 30 people in the room, (and by the way it wasn’t an invite only event).
    This event, the one attended was the start, a first roll of the dice, to be followed up and shaped by more, more, more … not more of the same, but in addition and in response to what has come before … this conversation thread, as with its sister on FB, is part of that … and I’m grateful for it … I’d invite all who has contributed to keep it up, keep invested but to do so in the spirit of friendship. As Mark Fisher puts it in his 2013 article exiting the vampire castle:
    “We need to learn, or re-learn, how to build comradeship and solidarity instead of doing capital’s work for it by condemning and abusing each other. This doesn’t mean, of course, that we must always agree – on the contrary, we must create conditions where disagreement can take place without fear of exclusion and excommunication”
    Ta,Andrew Wilson

    • Stephen Pritchard says:

      Hi Andrew.
      I’m sorry you felt my use of a ‘Free Balloon’ image muddied my writing and argument. I see your point entirely but I used it because it (along with its many other snarky rubber friends) set the tone for my evening at your event – a contradiction between setting and intent. I may well write a critique of the ‘Free Balloons’ (alongside, perhaps, all of DeDomenici’s work)… I accept that it does not reflect your work nor the theme for the evening nor perhaps my critique of your event either.
      I’m aware that there are many people, particularly within the Art World that find my writing (and, if they can be bothered to read them, academic arguments) offensive and annoying, but, hey, that’s antagonism for you!
      Angela Jane Kennedy’s ideas about deschooling society are excellent and offer a definite possible route forward. I really want to see your concept taken forward as we need new forms of media and methods of communication to self-organise, debate, oppose the many ills we face in our lives today – within the Art World and without… I wrote on my note: "Do anything I can to help". That may seem contradictory given how you may read my blog post but I meant it. I also didn’t mean to attack you personally. I merely feel it is important we all acknowledge elephants in every room – not through tick-box Creative Case nonsense, nor through the Chatham House rule-based What Next? ‘movement’, nor any other top down initiative from those with too many vested interests to be trusted or believed. I believe in direct actions; that consensus is our enemy. I think that Ron Moule and Angela Jane Kennedy raise excellent points and, together with other comments from activists, artists, arts facilitators, and academics, I think there is an urgent need to create more such spaces where different voices are listened to and accepted.
      We all know that the Art World (like the rest of the world) is dominated by white male elites, that women, disabled people, people of colour, people from outside the UK, LGBT people, young people, old people, lower class people, homeless people, refugees, migrants, asylum seekers, on and on and on. They oppress us. The West oppressed the rest of the globe. We are both oppressors and oppressed. But, we care. We want change. We want fairness and equity and social justice for all. I just wish we could have spoken more about that, particularly given the make-up of the people in the room for the event. Really talked about it. Argued about it. Sometimes, perhaps, a deliberative space is unproductive. We must wear our hearts on our sleeves and work with others prepared to do the same, even if their hearts beat to different rhythms… Otherwise, liberal consensus reigns and that only leads to one place: compliance.
      I think there is an opportunity to really bring the elephant into the room and then welcome those not present into the room on equal terms: not as artists or cultural workers but as fellow human beings. I look forward to hearing more about how you want to progress this idea – it has great potential – and, as I wrote on my note, I am always willing to help move things forward…

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