This is the transcript of my talk entitled Cultural Democracy, Community Development and the Old/New Normal which I was lucky enough to be given the opportunity to present at the Imagine Belfast Festival on 28th March 2021. It’s about re-enchanting our art, cultures and everyday lives.
Sheelagh Colcough, David Boyd, Conor Shields and I had a great conversation after the talk which could have gone on a lot longer. The talk will be published by Imagine Belfast soon.
Hi, I’m Stephen and I’m going to talk about ways we can re-enchant our art, our cultures, and our everyday lives.
Remember what it was like to be sung to sleep. If you are fortunate, the memory will be more recent than childhood. The repeated lines of words and music are like paths. These paths are circular and the rings they make are linked together like those of a chain. You walk along these paths and are led by them in circles which lead from one to the other, further and further away. The field upon which you walk and upon which the chain is laid is the song.
From Field, John Berger, 1971.
We all have our own fields, paths, circles, rings and chains. Our own words, forms of music, our own songs. Our fields, paths, circles, rings, chains, memories, words, music and songs join together and crash into each other to form our cultures. And it is our cultures that make us human. Ordinary cultures. Everyday cultures. I think about these fields a great deal. Some want to break the rings and chains we make. Some want to make us follow their circles; to shackle us with their chains to their paths. And right now, our humanity and our everyday cultures are under attack. They want us to forget our songs and our ways of being together – to dig up our fields.
The world is on a knife edge, but our future is not about another journey down the yellow brick road – this time to Stakeholder Capitalism ushered in by those in power using the ominous notion of a Great Reset. Rather, we are beginning to tentatively rediscover the people who live next door, on our streets and in our neighbourhoods. We are beginning to rediscover caring and sharing and supporting each other. And we are beginning to rediscover the power of self-organising, collective action, shared learning and mutual aid. And we are rediscovering how these acts inspire creativity and are, in fact, powerful acts of cultural reawakening.
The pandemic has been devastating but it has also been inspiring. We are starting to revive our sense of shared humanity and our sense of the common good. And this can become a beautifully human revolution of everyday life, led by everyday people – by the imaginations and creativity of everyone. A new spirit of collective participation that can set free our fields – the fields they enclosed and stole and sold so awfully long ago. We are beginning to believe in the magic of being truly human again – to find our words, our voices and our songs, and to start dancing in the streets again.
We are creating new rituals. And our rituals and ceremonies are protective acts. Ceremonies and rituals “protect like a house”, allowing us to live within our feelings. They are acts of repetition – of lingering time. Paths repeated again and again. Always the same. Always different.
Art has always been part of our everyday lives.
Art can contribute to grassroots community development.
In the 1970s and 80s, community art generated a spirit of shared creativity, community participation and democratic local action that was hard for some people to understand – particularly people invested in High Art. Community art centres sprang up, murals appeared, lantern festivals, puppets, print workshops, radical community films, street theatres, and so much more. Cultural democracy was born, and it was inherently linked to community development.
For me, Meanwhile Gardens in Kensal Road, Kensington was one of the most inspirational examples of community art at its best. Derelict and contested land was reclaimed and turned into amazing community gardens with a skate park, amphitheatre, bike track, and more and more. The artist was Jamie McCullough, but it was a collective labour of love for so many local people who made the gardens their own and later defended them against all-comers.
It felt as if everyone’s part-time dreams had imploded into a single place; there was enough goodwill to get anything done, and everything was possible. It was magic.
Things were built and things were burnt down.
Maybe there is a piece of wasteland somewhere near where you live. If one day you find yourself taking that tiny, invisible step from, “I wonder what they’re going to do with that?” to “Hell, I can do it better. We can do it far better…” you’re in for quite an adventure.
And Meanwhile Gardens remains an important community space today.
And it is just this sense of Do-It-Together that led to rave culture. Collectivism and individual hedonism embracing and dancing and cooperating and self-organising and shutting down roads and motorways and digging them up. Individually and collectively beautiful, powerful performances – acts of active participation ebbing and flowing – and growing and growing. A rediscovery of the magic of the carnival – the carnivalesque – before it was turned into safe, empty spectacle.
Until the government shut it down with batons and horse charges and false claims that we were a threat to the peace and, finally, the hideously oppressive and anti-democratic Criminal Justice Bill.
They made our songs, our fields, our music, our “repetitive beats”, and our gatherings illegal because we did not ask permission and we dared to challenge power.
And now they’re stripping away more of our rights of assembly and our rights to protest. And they’re still beating us all along their way as they trample towards authoritarianism.
They do not know what is best for us.
Art can still challenge power.
Art has the power to be collective, ironic, emotive, powerful and beautiful. With our cultural practices and acts we create and recreate our paths, our circles, our rings – and we make new chains: chains that sing new songs of shared humanity and mutually cooperative action and anger at those who do not care enough for us; not the concrete chains of those who seek to suppress and oppress us.
Our art and our cultural activities are the ways in which we express ourselves and the things we care about and want to change. And it is our creativity and our everyday cultural activities that make us truly human, reconnecting us with people and the world around us – creating potential spaces in which we can begin to re-enchant our everyday lives.
Art can appropriate and recuperate the things – the ways and means and media – that oppress us and suppress us. Our creativity helps us to laugh at our oppressors and see things differently. We can hijack the tools of our “masters” and open up different ways of seeing.
When the world’s turned upside down
We have a gap
In which our cultures
Can re-enchant our everyday lives.
I have been incredibly privileged to have been able to carry on my work as a community artist during COVID-19. Many others have not been so lucky. These are terrible times. But I am really interested in how community art can be a really powerful way to help people reimagine who they are and what they need and want – to stir into action. I think this is part of the re-enchantment of everyday life.
My inspirations are John Berger, Silvia Federici, Suzi Gablik, William Blake, Raymond Williams, Jamie McCullough and many others.
My work in Dene Valley and Eldon began with my performing the role of “the visitor” and being welcomed as such and then invited to help the community get it what it has been asking for for a very long time: reinvestment.
Dene Valley had been designated as a “Category D” village (like so many others in County Durham) in the 1940. Its people were expected and sometimes forced to relocate to the new towns and all investment in the area was withdrawn. This designation was not removed until much later and the stigma and lack of investment remain. The area (and, by implication, its people – its communities) where classified by local authorities as “unviable”. But the people and the communities of Dene Valley are still there and are just as viable now as they always have been.
“No one listens to us.”
“No one cares about us.”
I listened and I cared. I still care.
Together we reclaimed the back lanes and derelict land and a dilapidated Quaker Meeting House.
People took back land and a building without permission and turned it into community gardens, places for their kids to play, an amazing new model railway club.
People learnt new skills and began to dream new dreams.
We installed community murals that are loved and cared for, even when other things are still being burnt down.
I discovered just how passionately some people who believe that Tommy Robinson is the answer to all life’s ills can be at genuinely caring for their land and their fellow community members. How cultural democracy and community development and common good can transcend political and ideological differences.
Later came circus acts and guerrilla projections and fire acts.
Little steps but important ones.
All funded and supported by central and local government funds.
Community art helped the people of Dene Valley and Eldon to begin to come together again. They rediscovered how being creative together and acting without permission could help turn their villages around.
Community gardens replaced back lane fly tipping sites and rubble strewn land where long demolished pit terraces once stood.
This once “unviable” area is now green and a target for 1,000 new commuter homes. The people laugh at how their once condemned villages now stand in a desirable valley. Some fear the worst. But they are still tending to the community gardens and starting new businesses and planning carnivals and youth clubs and music festivals and more community murals. They share meals with those in need for free. They care for each other a little bit more now.
Shouldn’t everyone benefit from regeneration? People in the area have plenty of ideas about what needs to be done to make their lives better.
We must begin by being invited and by listening to what people say and then help people develop the confidence to do what they want to do.
Art can play an important part in supporting people-powered community development. It can help amplify voices and ideas ignored and mistrusted for far too long. It can help communities rebuild themselves by investing in the things people know they need and, in many cases, once had before years of disinvestment stripped their communities bare.
Art and culturally democratic actions can build on past memories in ways that do not sentimentalise or create nostalgic, sugar-sweet pastiche, but instead rekindle still glimmering community pride and collective self-care. Art can help people create ways of coming together in hope and it can help them create their own shared visions of new possibilities, new futures.
Maybe we will begin the slow process of re-enchanting our everyday lives, rekindling old and new rituals, space for reflection, trusting communities to develop their communities their ways. Is this a path towards the freedom to be truly human once again?