Thursday, September 17, 2015

Performances of Hope

Kerrie Schaefer and I will be talking about this at the "Poor Theatres" symposium at the University of Manchester on the 4th of November: 

Performances of Hope: minor acts of cultural re-imagining within austerity's 'extreme economy'

Remaking Society set out to ethnographically document and critically analyse four community-based arts and participatory media practices in contrasting contexts of socio-economic deprivation in the UK. No longer viewed as a grassroots movement of counter-cultural activism (Kelly 1984), but as publically subsidised cultural provision, community-based cultural practices have been criticised (from within and without) for facilitating (unwittingly or not) neo-conservative government policies of ‘social inclusion’ (Merli 2004; Belfiore 2006) or the ‘Big Society’. Writing on the broad ‘turn to community’ in the arts, Wyatt, Macdowall and Mulligan (2013) posit a close link between the recent ‘instrumentalisation of the arts’, wherein the arts are geared to the production of government determined ‘social impacts’, and Nikolas Rose’s theory of ‘governing through community’ in which “governance in a post-welfare state shifts from the ‘disciplinary’ governing of society to a more collaborative and consensual” (p.83), or community-based, mode. Whereas Kelly bemoaned the increasing ‘mini-welfare-stateism’ (Kershaw 1992: 181) of community arts in the 1980s, the shift noted by Wyatt et. al. (2013) appears to tie community-based cultural practices to a mode of governance that aims to economically rationalise the welfare state itself. Community is at its most ideologically slippery in this genuflection to the forces of market capitalism, offering the chimera of ‘solidarity’, or at least a loose (post-modern) sense of ‘togetherness’, while actually instituting precarious social conditions through the decimation of the welfare state and associated public services and infrastructure. 

This paper proposes an active, critical and dialogical engagement with the politics of intersecting community–based practices – cultural and governmental – in relation to discourses of ‘austerity urbanism’ (Peck 2012). Community-based cultural practices are situated, contextualized and activated through partnerships across social divides, agencies and categories. This fundamental interdependence produces messy, contingent and unpredictable outcomes. Our account aims to acknowledge these ambiguities, and the critical problems and social possibilities they generate, while teasing out frameworks of meaning and value. 

Thursday, September 03, 2015

the politics of community, documentary and policy

Hugh Kelly and I are speaking at this event in Sheffield as part of an ESRC seminar series on 'Ways of Neighbourhood Working' on October 1st - here's what we are talking about: 

Reflections on regeneration: the politics of community, documentary and policy

Hugh Kelly, as Swingbridge Media, has been making films and videos with communites on Tyneside for 35 years. What can be learned from his engagements with various regeneration initiatives? At various times his work has been cast in the role of documenting social and physical changes, campaigning for alternatives, celebrating apparent 'successes' or challenging the failures of urban policy. Underlying all this are ethical, political, pedagogical and representational dilemmas about how participatory approaches to film-making might open up spaces for people to speak out, share their worlds and offere responses to the local impacts of policy initiatives that almost invariably originate from 'elsewhere' and which often fail to acknowledge underlying structural inequalities. Who decides what a 'challenging neighbourhood' is and in whose interests are policy 'solutions' implemented? 

This presentation/conversation reflects on 35 years of practice and draws on material produced for Remaking Society, an AHRC Connected Communities pilot demonstrator project (2012 - 2014) that sought to address the value(s) of participatory arts and media practices in communities experiencing high levels of deprivation. A film that Hugh and Graham made, exploring some of these issues, can be found here

In this conversation we will share some brief extracts from Hugh's work and discuss some of their implications, in the context of wider debates about community media, inequalities, and community politics. Can a participatory film-making process confer some power on its participants? Are there ways in which it might frame more constructive dialogues between unequal communities? 

Saturday, June 06, 2015

June 2015

I walked down to an almost-deserted UWS Paisley campus this afternoon to pick up photocopies and materials for our Govan-Gdansk symposium on Monday and Tuesday; the rest of the university seems to be packing up for the summer holiday but the pace of events and activity is still pretty relentless in my world. We're welcoming a group of activists, academics, artists and civic leaders from Glasgow and Gdansk for the first workshop for our Royal Society of Edinburgh - funded research networking project. This will be followed up by the third Gdansk Shipyard Summer School at the start of August. Govan (and specifically, Water Row and the Graving Docks) is one of the sites that we have selected for our AHRC Connected Communities large grant proposal: Challenging Elites: rethinking disconnection and recovering urban space. That went in last week, and will now be chewed over by peer reviewers: we will hear if we've got through to the next stage in September. Whatever the outcome, it has been a useful and productive process and has enabled the team to crystallise some thinking about 'austerity urbanism', elite theory and the cultural politics of contested urban sites. It would be great if we get the opportunity to put some of the ideas we have developed into action.

Working with Remco de Blaaij, the Curator at CCA Glasgow, I have organised the first of a series of workshops/seminars in the run-up to an exhibition in 2016, which will happen on 19th and 20th of June. The 2016 exhibition, provisionally titled The Image Event,  will examine the relationships between journalistic practices, contemporary arts practices, politics and citizen/social media. For this first workshop, we're delighted to be welcoming Eliot Higgins of Bellingcat to Glasgow, for screenings, presentation and discussion with Joanna Callaghan (University of Sussex) and my UWS colleague Peter Snowdon. It promises to be a stimulating evening: tickets can be booked here.

Drawing on work I did a decade ago, I'll be contibuting to an RSA symposium on Creative Apprenticeships in Manchester on 23rd June. I need to do some more thinking about how the 'creative learning' agenda has mutated/evolved in a possibly more hostile policy environment (at least, south of the border) and this might just be a stimulus for that. Then, back in Ayr on the 24th June we will be hosting a small psychogeographic adventure as a workshop for the Scottish Graduate School for the Arts and Humanities Summer School, which will be led by our erstwhile PhD student, now Dr Ben Parry. (Ben and I are also working on a book which draws on the marvellous range of presentations from the Cultural Hijack Contravention at RIBA, which we hope will see the light of day towards the end of 2016).

Finally, before taking a couple of weeks off, most of which will probably be spent dealing with a garden and a house that has got massively out of control, Kerrie Schaefer and I are presenting at the Community Development Journal 50th Anniversary Conference at the University of Edinburgh. We'll be talking about the messy and pragmatic (but also political and ethical) negotiations that take place in community media/film practices, drawing on work from the Remaking Society project. Kerrie and I are also presenting later this year at the "Poor Theatres" symposium in Manchester; drawing together some work on deprivation, austerity and community performance (which also links to the work that Ben Parry has done on the politics of representing poverties in Dharavi, as well as the films that Hugh Kelly and I are continuing to unpack together). But that can wait for another post.

Saturday, May 09, 2015

24 hours in the media bubble (a rant)

I've got that aching tired headsplitting feeling that comes from spending most of the last 24 hours sprawled on the sofa watching the election spectacle unfold, eyes dulling. It started once I'd finished a drive around Paisley, my son Finn hanging out of the window taking some photographs (a selection of which are below), calling in at two different polling stations to allow him and his girlfriend to cast their votes, just as the sun went down. 

I think this is the first election in my lifetime that the votes our household cast actually did count for something, as most of them contributed to the downfall of the smooth but utterly ineffectual Douglas Alexander, who has just become a Portillo-esque poster boy for the failure of the Labour Party to connect with the concerns of people who live here. He promised austerity lite and 'nicer cuts' and tedious gradualism: nothing to connect with the urgent politics of climate change, total capitalism and constant attacks on the poor, let alone offering a vision of a more positive, inclusive Scotland.  For decades the Scottish Labour Party has taken the 'ordinary people' it claims to represent for granted, and in the last 24 hours they have kicked back with a vengeance. Some more forensic historical thinking is needed too - this starts, after Kinnock and John Smith with the Labour Party's accommodations with Thatcherism - the continuities between Thatcher, Major and Blair and even Brown. Perhaps it could also end here, although with a newly empowered bunch of Thatcherites in charge from the South it's likely that the SNP will be reduced to shouting from the sidelines while the Labour Party retreats into of deep introspection - and possibly chooses to align itself more back to Thatcherism as well. And no doubt there will be some hardcore economic 'medicine' to swallow in the dealings over devolved finance, which will lead to more austerity, less public service, north of the border as well as in the south. 

I can only hope that some sense prevails and that Jim Murphy is forced to resign - I'm sure he's keen to get a top of a list seat for MSPs in 2016 but unless the Scottish Labour Party buries its attachment to Blairism it really could be well and truly on suicide watch.  A vicious combination of municipal paternalism and command and control Blairism just will not cut it, particularly when offering an apologia for Trident, and failing to grasp the deep sense of disempowerment and disillusion in communities which have been constantly told to shut up, be grateful and enjoy the spectacle - in Glasgow, all civic circuses and no bread. The Yes movement offered something else, and the fallout from that and the fateful decision by the Labour high command to campaign alongside the Tories set up this particular showdown. Just as with the lethally tight embrace of power-greedy LibDems in coalition, Labour allowed itself to be suckered in too close to the Conservative brand of UK-plc nationalism - although since 1992 it's always liked to talk about "Britain", aping Thatcherism without really doing any serious thinking about what "British" means any more. Clearly it's now very different depending on where on these islands you happen to be. And the Tories have executed an textbook example of divide-and-rule in this election process. If in 2014 we'd been offered a serious constitutional conversation, a serious consideration of what a federal state might look like, some serious devolution, we might not be at this point now. 

No doubt there are many decent people who were on the 'No' side in the referendum and who still have a deep loyalty to the Labour Party who have very decent motivations, but we are beyond that now - there is a need for a complete rethink of how to oppose endless marketisation and endless neoliberalism, and it could perhaps be that the UK state is something that will need to be sacrificed along the journey, as the contradictions become too much to bear. If the EU referendum looks like it will comes out with a 'No' at UK level then isn't that also a green light for a SNP government to call a second independence referendum?  My much more articulate London-based colleague Jeremy Gilbert summoned the energy at 3am to write something that encapsulated the mood better than me - it's here - and as he says, it's democracy or neoliberalism, we really can't have both.  

And all the constitutional problems - federalism, the voting system, the relationships with Europe, the West Lothian question, are going to come into play - and even a tiny Tory majority means that these will be negotiated in the context of a continued, relatively unchecked, power grab by the wealthy. The only silver lining is that perhaps we may see a re-run of the '90s Tory civil war, only with an even tinier majority at stake. Cameron was there, as a bag-carrier for Norman Lamont, and it'll be interesting to see if he learned anything from that: all the Tory demons will start howling around in the wide open gaps between the dual Pandora's boxes of global capital/free market ideology and Little Englander anti-Europeanism that sit on the backbenches waiting to be fired up.  

No doubt that the SNP has been opportunistic - they've always had a neoliberal streak too -  and no doubt that the idealistic sheen will wear off as the realpolitik between Edinburgh and London unfolds, but the stark contrast between how Scotland and England voted (with perhaps the exception of Brighton Pavilion, bits of other cities and London) is self-evident. The failure of the Labour Party even to match the results of 2010 will open up all the sores of the post-2007 Blair-Brown splits or even the more serious wars of the 1980s.  I've never been a fan of the Labour Party but I completely agree with the Compass call for some serious thinking about how to build a new kind of left that is open, pluralistic, engaged, and above all able to talk intelligently and make a serious offer about the future. Earlier this evening The World Tonight offered a kind of face-off between Matthew Taylor and Neal Lawson but they both navigated the conversation intelligently - insisting that offering more than just 'better jam tomorrow' was needed but actually thinking about what a 21st century politics needs to look like, drawing on the experience of Syriza and the other European left parties in aligning with social movements and opposition to the dull drum of deregulated globalised marketisation (although they didn't exactly say that, so perhaps I'm being too rose-tinted). 

And so it unfolded: the return to the sinking feeling of 2010's drift rightwards, and even more perhaps, 1992, and I watched one politician and pundit after another parade across the screen, most with little to say and most with the smug look of people who even if they have lost their jobs, have plenty of cash in the bank and plenty of options, unlike their constituents, most of whom are hard pressed and worried about the future.  The campaign was dull, politicians sealed away from the people in manicured photo-ops, endless repetition of slogans, straplines, and messages: fairness, better plans, hard working families; what about a politics which actually opened up some conversations about possible futures? We had that in Scotland around the referendum and after that experience I'm not sure sub-Blair and sub-Thatcher tactics work so well. 

I watched Cameron's polished Jaguar cutting through the dawn at high speed en route back to the Whitehall palaces; leaving the tired faces at the counts and easing itself back into the smooth choreography of the state, confirming that there would be no transfer of power; and then, later, the defeated and victorious 'leaders' lined up together in front of the union jacks at the Cenotaph. It was ironic; it was boring; it was business-as-usual. But underneath the statecraft and ceremony there are some deep traps and faultlines waiting to open up for all sides

So I guess we are back to the everyday politics of action and doing things - of not waiting for someone else to step in, of getting on with everyday solidarities and everyday resistances. I'm fed up of being a spectator in someone else's crap story - back to that dull aching televisual feeling...One of the great advantages of living in contemporary Scotland is that there are plenty of good people around who also want to make things happen. We just need to make sure we build networks of solidarity and hope that reach across the simplistic divides of nationalism and political parties to form alliances which are informed less by market values and more by human values - values of trust, hope, of generosity, of gifts; values which will be in short supply as the political rhetoric cranks up the money machines,  the economic bullshit, the fear, greed and hate, over the next few years. 

Sunday, March 15, 2015

2015: moving and skating

There hasn't been much time to stop and write over the last few months. I've been backwards and forwards to London quite a bit (via Grimsby and Govan) since the turn of the year, putting together a bid for an AHRC large grant, with an excellent team of collaborators, which may or may not materialise sometime later this year. I've also been in Manchester a couple of times and spent a really stimulating few days exploring the different ways in which artists have been working within the Connected Communities programme with another team of collaborators: I have tons of stuff stored up and ready to write about this kind of thing, but somehow pressure of work means I never quite manage it. The most difficult thing about writing, for me, is just starting...there are two publication projects somewhere down the pipeline: one an edited book with Ben Parry on "The Experimental City" and the other a kind of rant about participatory and community arts, with Kerrie Schaefer,  that I need to get off my chest...

I've also been to Stuttgart to see our excellent PhD students there - two, Mirjam Müller and Andrea Braeuning, on course to complete this year. I'll be back there just after Easter to contribute to a symposium about urban media quarters. And I should congratulate Anna Sznajder and Ben Parry, both of whom reached the end of the PhD journey with minimal post-viva work to do in the last couple of months. Very different projects - one a feminist ethnography of lacemaking in Southern Poland, the other on interventionist arts practices. A third student with whom I've been working, Chris Dooks, has his viva just after Easter: his work sits somewhere at the intersection of philosophy, auto-ethnography, film, and sound art.  It's great that we can support such a range of work at UWS; there I've been looking after the Creative Futures Institute since October.  Such is the current level of institutional flux and churn that right now I'm not sure it'll continue to exist after Easter (the Institute, not the University...) but the work will continue, and there have been some excellent things happening.

I'll be having one of the Artworks Conversations in Ayr on Wednesday evening with my colleagues Jo Ronan and Diarmuid McAuliffe - talking about the place of participatory arts in the higher education curriculum and what we've been trying to do about it at UWS - blog about that coming soon, all being well. Just after a brief interlude to celebrate my Dad's 80th birthday with the family at Easter I'll be making a small contribution to this big conference which is a landmark of sorts in Jackie's work (with a massive team of collaborators) - launching the public art programme at the new South Glasgow hospitals campus.

At the end of this week I'm heading for a break - 10 days in India -  but before that, there's a heap of bureaucracy and administration to get through - great to see David Graeber's latest intervention on this subject.

Here's a bit of Ibrahim Maalouf that has kept my energy levels high this evening. It makes me want to take up the trumpet again: maybe I will.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Update on 2014

In between all the rushing around and trying to carve out space to think and write and do stuff this blog has been rather neglected. Anyway, here is a quick update on various projects I'm attempting to keep in motion at the same time.

1. Remaking Society has ended but there is still some more 'output' that has yet to come to the surface from the project. Here's a short film that Hugh Kelly and I cut together which reflects on his 30 years of working in 'communities on the edge' in North Tyneside. We're going to write a longer reflective piece that comes out of this, hopefully to be published in one of the publications on 'Media at the Margins' that is coming out of the MECCSA conference earlier this year. In the meantime you can read the working paper that we produced for an AHRC Connected Communities symposium on social justice and co-produced research in November 2013 over at

The Odd Numbers project with Lee Ivett (Baxendale) and Nicola Atkinson (NADFLY) in Milton continues - we took the participatory pavilion to Room 13 in Caol, Fort William for a joint seminar/workshop with the UWS MEd Artist Teacher programme in February and we are planning a further pavilion to be developed for events later this year. There will be a book - and a ceremonial burial of the figures - later this year.  There are also some other chapters in other publications, co-authored with Kerrie Schaefer, Tom Wakeford and Neill Patton, that should see the light at the end of the year.

2. Following on from the Cultural Hijack extravaganza last year, I'm contributing to a project which UWS doctoral researcher Ben Parry is leading - The Experimental City - which seeks to build on the idea of the 'user generated city' (a term originated by URBZ in Dharavi, Mumbai) and how this is generated through live experiments in urban design, cultural interventions, and symbolic forms of occupation. There will be a book, a series of events and possibly even a film...

3. With Angie Bual of Trigger and the excellent theatre makers Davey Anderson and Gary McNair, together with Ben Colburn, Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Glasgow, we've just launched Flip Side - a project which seeks to explore the philosophical ideas sitting underneath the independence referendum debate. More on the project here:

4. I'm just back from a few days at Columbia College in Chicago and an excellent songwriting residency hosted by Gary Yerkins, who runs the programme in Contemporary, Urban and Popular Music there. There will be an album made of some of the wonderful music that has come out of the songwriting workshops which were initiated by my colleague Davie Scott who runs the MA in Songwriting and Performance at UWS. It's great to see some of the UK-US conversations that I began more than a decade ago lead to direct transatlantic collaborations between students. Surely more to follow.

5. I'm involved in a small way in another Connected Communities "legacy" project led by Kate Pahl and Steve Pool at the University of Sheffield, examining the roles that artists have played across the programme - in some ways this builds on the work that I did as part of the TAPP (Teacher Artist Partnership Programme) project - but translates these questions a little more broadly into a wider debate about artists' pedagogies, practice-led research and the role of artistic-academic dialogues - and the kinds of spaces in which these might happen -  in generating productive frictions that might open up enquiry.

6. I went to the AHRC research development workshop on exclusion, disconnection and division in March 2014 and came out with an interesting consortium of people developing a large project with the provisional title: Challenging Elites: Land, Rights, Resistance.  More on that when we know whether our proposal for a development grant has been successful...

7. Another ongoing research theme is about pedagogies for a networked and connected age - something akin to the work that is going on, in a more thorougly developed fashion, in the big MacArthur project on digital learning. Here's a presentation I did the other week for a group of staff from UWS and other Scottish universities. One of these days I will write all this up properly into some sort of publication/provocation:

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Against the Terrorizing State

A friend shared this story, about British citizens being effectively denied entry to their country of citizenship, and it set me off on a Sunday morning rant. Of course the nation state is always an ideological construct, and culture, language, geography, ethnicity etc play a much bigger role in identity-formation than legal procedures, but this kind of smoke and mirrors policy-making, aligned with a blatantly exclusionary approach is more characteristic of the values of a fascist or apartheid-regime than a liberal-democratic state. But without the right papers, it's hard to go anywhere... So, rant's angrier than usual, but I thought I would let off some steam...:

...The story below is absolutely characteristic of this bunch of idiots' policy-making process - dream up a slogan, surround it with nasty rhetoric, implement it too fast and never, ever, consider the unintended consequences of this arbitrary bullshit. I came through immigration on Friday and was struck by the hostility of the signage - no 'welcome to the UK' (or even 'welcome to Scotland') to be seen, just large notices warning the queue - all of EU citizens - that 'tougher checks take longer' and other such aggressive bollocks.

People have citizenship rights - the case below would surely suggest that a legal challenge would have good grounds for success. But when the courts label 13 year olds as 'sexual predators' and the police have hundreds of files of their own abuse of citizens left uninvestigated (see yesterday's 'Guardian' headline) - not to mention the industrial scale of state surveillance of communications, and wars fought on fictional grounds at vast expense, while three quarters of the planet struggles to secure a basic livelihood - it's not surprising that people feel cynical about their prospects of securing any kind of justice in this corrupt neoliberal empire.

This is the hijack of the state by corrupt, greedy, short-termist, ignorant windbags who care only for their own self-preservation (because this is intimately bound up with their wealthy paymasters' preservation) . They are doing everything possible to pull up the drawbridge, with a population anaethesetised by sickeningly divisive 'us and them' language, the chains of indebtedness and a continued assault on working conditions and wages in the name of 'global competitiveness' and 'efficiency'.

"Just keep your head down and stay quiet", says Lord Suit-Fracker: "conditions will improve if you don't make any noise or trouble. Oh, and look! Here's some money you can borrow to help feed your family. Get a job! House prices are going up again! Let's have a nice shiny spectacle in a stadium somewhere! Have you bought your private health insurance yet? Just ignore the security vans over there - they've come to keep the terrorists out. Nothing to worry about. Alarm clock Britain! Cut benefits for scroungers! The Greenest Government ever! Let's frack! Tough but fair! More Money for Everyone! We're all in this together!" 

And "Her Majesty's Official Opposition" is virtually silent on these or any other aspects of the coalition's hideous corruption. Total abdication of responsibility. Utterly spineless. 

This is institutionalised abuse of citizens by the state. (Ironically enough, implemented by a government propped up by the so-called "Liberal Democrats"). This is a simulation of democracy, where words are stripped of meaning and in the process, basic rights quietly evaporate in the move to creeping authoritarianism. I'm going to re-read Reich's "Mass Psychology of Fascism" - we need tools to counter this nonsense. Human rights? Civil liberties? Democracy? Social justice, tolerance and solidarity? No, instead we have menacing border guards in black stab-proof vests stopping "suspicious looking" people at stations, demanding to see their papers. A kind of terrorizing state. 

We are genuinely in danger of sleepwalking into a state of fascism. It's frightening. And I suspect that it's fear and insecurity, and sheer exhaustion with the struggle of keeping going, and cynicism about their abilty to change anything, that is also keeping a lot of decent people quiet. Largely as intended.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Perambulations, knotty problems, and other (divided) lines of enquiry

As is usual in the over-leveraged, under-resourced world that I inhabit,  I've been suffering the effects of divided time/divided attention, attempting to keep a number of projects moving simultaneously.

Last week, I went to Newcastle to witness screenings of Hugh Kelly's films as part of Remaking Society and was reminded of just how much has changed in the years since he began working in community media on Tyneside 35 years ago. The abiding image was of his footage of the massive steel frame of the Millennium Bridge moving gracefully down the Tyne before being craned into place, cut together with a soundtrack of a young woman from East Gateshead singing about 'Hollywood Dreams' in a karaoke session in a working men's club (the club has since been demolished; Newcastle-Gateshead's very own "South Bank" is now firmly established, and there are plenty of unanswered questions to explore about 'whose culture is it anyway?' - the title of the screening). In that single sequence Hugh conjured together all the complicated issues about the industrial heritage of North East England making way for a different kind of economy; of the question of what all these rhetorics of  'creativity' and cultural participation are for; of the value of skilled, craft, manual labour almost evaporating as the so-called new/knowledge/creative economy is superimposed on working class communities, with symbolic totems of an industrial past re-purposed for contemporary art and culture. And underneath that, a story about the cultural politics of Northern England, globalisation, oh-so late capitalism and shifting narratives of 'regeneration'. We're going to interview Hugh at the start of June and try to tease out some more answers.

Oddly enough, the similarly de-industrialized and re-purposed spaces of the London Docklands cropped up again at the start of the month, with a trip with my practice-based methods students that began and ended with a drift through "Newham's newest neighbourhood" (if it can be called that), the empty spaces around ExCeL, where we slept. We took the Boris-backed, airline-branded cable car, which stretches out across the Thames like a kind of aspirational gesture, from where all the hollowed, divided, over- and under- capitalised communities of London's East can be seen stretched out on both sides of the river. More to write about that too. We were down there for a spot of urban drifting and exploration as part of the Cultural Hijack exhibition/event at the AA School, which has been put together by UWS PhD student Ben Parry and Glasgow-based artist Peter McCaughey. I'm there again later this week for a big series of events which bring the month to a close, including an exciting conference that we're running at RIBA with some luminaries from the interventionist/activist art worlds.

Alongside this I've been trying to keep the time free to finish off the Remaking Society project, or at least to move it into another phase. The central idea that we've been exploring has been to investigate the ways in which participatory cultural practices are generative of social relations, particularly for communities that are suffering significant hardship/economic deprivation. Linked this to are debates which come from Jon Hawkes' 'fourth pillar of sustainability' argument - trying to examine whether we can show that cultural participation is part of the generation of social wellbeing, of engagement and conversation, of imagining - and enacting - alternative futures. This has been most developed in policy terms in south Australia but there are traces of this argument elsewhere too, most particularly in the arts and health movement and in some of the more radical bits of the community arts movement.

I talked about this a bit at the Artworks conference in Lancaster - the need to try to reclaim the politics of participation and understand that there is a need for some critical engagement with the 'big narratives' of 'participation' or 'inclusion' - ought we to be asking more awkward and fundamental questions about the purpose and value of our work? But artists are also howling with rage at the moment about the effect of funding cuts, so there is an urgency in articulating models of value which can explain why public spending on cultural activity is socially useful/productive; of how it's a form of 'invest to save'?  At the same time, as François Matarasso pointed out at the Imagining Possibilities conference, art is valuable precisely because it is use-less - it matters more than being about simple, instrumentalised social utility or about making money. So do people value the arts and culture because they provide moments of transcendence from their everyday struggles? Or because forms of cultural participation are deeply bound-up with class and other social affliations? Or because cultural participation might be generative of forms of community? I'm quite taken with Greg Sholette and Oliver Ressler's argument that we should attempt to "rescue the notion of the social...through artistic means."

The culture/economy dyad exists in a permanent arm-wrestle. As does art/design: we design to 'solve problems' but art/performance (although they are designed processes) are less about explicit problem-solving or generating 'solutions.' It's interesting to see how people have seized on 'design' as a catch-all metaphor for what the arts and humanities can do for society - whilst design is undoubtedly important, it seems to me that 'problem-posing' is at least as important as 'problem-solving' and the teleologies, the functional logics, of design (which suit our performative times) can crowd out more fuzzy or oblique ways of thinking.

So these tensions are all a bit of a struggle to think through - which my colleagues from Grays School of Art Anne Douglas, Chris Fremantle and Paul Harris did in an interesting seminar they presented on work in progress about the relationships between participatory practices in the arts and user-centred design/communities of practice that we hosted at CCA a couple of weeks ago.

Tatzu Nishi, Ascending Descending from culturalhijack on Vimeo.

In some ways, Cultural Hijack, funded by a mix of distinguished backers, catalogues these issues well, with work in the exhibition that ranges from the whimsical and playful to the almost-illegal, and all of which certainly opposes any easy consensus about the spectacularized, centrally managed consumerist city. On the other hand, when these practices find their way into centres of urban power like AA and RIBA - do they get sanitised and neutralized?  Doesn't their power come from their 'outsider' status?

Within the Remaking Society project we've been trying to resist simplistic formulas for 'measuring' cultural value or wrapping everything up in definitions which are about either economic or 'social' capital. It's not that I don't think cultural economy is important - how stuff happens matters - how projects/organizations get financed, supported, brokered and produced is crucial - but I suppose I'm most interested in the kinds of cultural practices that resist a vision of commodification, being bought and sold...and aren't these actually what generate value? Greg Sholette's "Dark Matter" thesis, about which he will be talking at RIBA next Saturday, explores this. Regimes of performativity - such as the painful REF imperatives to elicit 'impact' - that insist on constant explanation/justification - of constantly generating what Stephen Ball calls 'performative fictions' within a hyper-competitve 'neo-realist' academic identity - are pretty inimical to any sense of community or productivity.

Several people pointed out in response to my last blog, about the '80s, Thatcherism and the present state of the culture business, that I'd failed to mention Neville Brody or The Face. I should have done, and also should have made reference to this Dick Hebdige piece from Hiding in the Light. Just on cue up popped Neville Brody in the Guardian with a characteristically provocative piece on the state of the creative economy which challenges the instrumentalization of Maria Miller's recent speech and the typically anodyne "GREATBritain" (or come to that "Year of Creative Scotland") marketing campaigns that seems to want to reduce UK design and culture to a series of nonsensical branded themepark cyphers. Cultural energy comes from grit and the challenge...not from pre-programmed, set-piece spectacle.

The visible formal cultural economy - markets, institutions, what is bought and sold - rests on a more slippery, less visible informal economy of cultural exchange - which is perhaps to be found in  the combinations of formal/informal learning, apprenticeship and radical interdisciplinarity and friction of particular 'scenes' and networks. We need to resist attempts to make everything measurable, demonstrable, or about buying and selling in marketplaces. The point about arts and cultural practices is that it's their murkiness  and playfulness that opens up 'spaces of possibility', spaces of imagination, imagining other futures. It follows that perhaps a less marketised less Thatcherite definition of 'cultural industry' (and certainly of 'university') is needed.

So that brings me back to another set of reasons to value participatory approaches to making and inventing - thinking about how to build forms of knowledge construction  that span disciplinary divides and build connections between different kinds of communities of interest. People who work in learning institutions should be seeking to enable this, providing infrastructures and support mechanisms that enable connection and collaboration. This is an organisational question and therefore, partially, financial, but it is above all cultural - i.e. the culture of how resources are allocated - the kind of climate and atmosphere in which we work - is it conducive? Is there trust, permission to experiment, calculated risk taking? This is clearly a question of design - in the sense that we need to design more intelligent, reflexive, participatory learning systems - but it's also a question of improvisation and performance...

In that spirit, my colleague Diarmuid McAuliffe and I, with a bit of money from Creative Scotland,  have been leading a project that has brought together a diverse group from across the University to make use of walking and drawing methodologies and exploring sites for learning - connecting outwards and building more networked and collaborative pedagogies - thinking about how to extend projects into external settings. These are more conversational, improvisational styles of teaching and learning - we're trying to generate conversations which are more mobile than fixed. The results of some of this work will be presented at an event we've organised on the Ayr Campus on the 18th June - which is part of the aptly named 'festival of dangerous ideas'. And we're really delighted that we'll be joined for the afternoon by Professor Tim Ingold to explore these lines of enquiry together. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Mrs Thatcher, enterprise culture, and unintended consequences

The talk I gave last week at CCA on cultures of collecting and curating music turned out to be eerily topical, and not quite in the way that I intended. Not only because I found out whilst bashing it together that we have almost reached this year's Record Store Day, but because Mrs Thatcher finally exited the planet, right on cue, just as I was digging up memories of living and working in London in the late 80s.

I was there in the year between school and university (1987- 1988), working as a shop assistant in the High Holborn branch of Farringdon Records. This period was arguably a kind of zenith for the music retail trade, before the massive megastores had completely taken a grip, before the World Wide Web, before Amazon, and at a time while the affluent classes were pumped up on a wave of credit and would think nothing of spending £11.99 or even £14.99 on a full price CD. And we still sold LPs and cassettes too.

Farringdon had three branches, one on Cheapside in the City, one on High Holborn and a smaller shop on Lamb's Conduit Street from where its owner Mr Schulman counted the takings and most of its thriving mail order business operated. I can't remember that much about the history of the company, but I know that its founders had started out selling records from a stall in Farringdon Market. The company specialised in selling rare and deleted classical recordings, which had eye-watering mark-ups, but which still offered great value for the customer - we'd buy in the 'product' at 50p or £1 a unit and sell it for £3.99, £4.99, or even £7.99. 300 - 700% margin! Decent niche markets, and we had a reputation for specialist knowledge and good customer service with a worldwide reach.

It was there, in the months following Mrs Thatcher's third election victory - the autumn of the great storm and a great stock market crash - that I first learned that we priced up 'product', put it on shelves in categories, and bought it in 'units'. In that year between school and university I learned a huge amount from the expertise and knowledge of my more experienced colleagues - in the typical fashion that so much learning and informal apprenticeship on the fringes of the so-called 'cultural economy' occurs, and also in that way that record shops become cultural destinations in their own right - places where people share enthusiasms, make discoveries, and meet.

Around the same time (1985 to be precise) the consumer music music technology magazine Sound on Sound launched, marking the beginnings of a big shift from analogue to digital technologies in music, and also the rise of affordable home music production gear, which heralded the demise of big bucks recording and some sort of democratisation of access to affordable music production technology. So there was a sense in which from the seismic shift charted by Walter Benjamin in his landmark essay 'the work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction' we were beginning to see some of the consequences for art/music in an age of digital reproduction. All this went much further (and that was the topic of last Tuesday's talk) but in this blogpost I'm thinking more about that late-80s period, and the ways in which we're still living through the consequences of it.

At trade fairs, talking to sales reps, and getting slightly involved with pop music retail, I learned about the entity called 'the music industry'. I wondered about this term long before I read any of Adorno's stuff. Then I went off to the Cambridge music faculty where the only trace of any discussion about the relationship between music, economy and power was in fairly positivist accounts of Henry Purcell's London, patronage and political allegory. The bigger questions of the relationships between music, economy, society, institutions and policy were mainly ignored, the implication perhaps being that money or politics - and certainly 'the music industry' - were too vulgar as topics to consider in relation to the canon of great works (or the celebrated 'imaginary museum') with which we were mainly told that we should be concerned.

Fortunately the libraries and bookshops were good enough for me to dredge up some reading that had a much bigger effect on my thinking than anything I was formally taught - books like Evan Eisenberg's "The Recording Angel" (1987),  Christopher Small's "Music, Society, Education" (1977), Richard Middleton's "Studying Popular Music" (1990), John Shepherd's "Music as Social Text" (1991) and the brilliant MIT anthology edited by a collection of US-based cultural studies scholars/anthropologists: "Out There: Marginalization and Contemporary Cultures" (1990).  So I stumbled across cultural studies and popular music studies by accident, as this sort of thinking wasn't really 'encouraged' within the cloisters of the Cambridge curriculum at that time.

In the vacations, in something of a dialectic between the world of abstracted ideas and the need for material subsistence, I went back to work at Farringdon Records to earn some cash, but by that point it had been bought up by the massively expansionary Our Price empire. Mr Schulman, ever the shrewd entrepreneur, managed to sell the company at the top of the market for an undisclosed sum (there were rumours that Our Price had paid more than £2 million) and he, presumably, retired on the proceeds. The company was never the same after it became corporate - for a while it expanded, eventually becoming a branded franchise in the Royal Festival Hall, but by the millennium it had run into trouble and eventually disappeared off the map altogether, like so many of its peers.

It's interesting to think about the atmosphere of London at that time. Ken Livingstone's GLC, which amongst many other populist offerings had championed youth arts, cross-community festivals and policies to promote cultural diversity, had just been abolished. A swaggering post-industrial economy of retail, finance, fashion and media was getting into its stride, for those that were in a position to participate. And swathes of the city were beginning be 'remodelled' in the huge urban experiments of the London Docklands Development Corporation.

The core of Thatcherism, despite the jingoism and the rhetoric of self-enrichment and self-development through hard work, was the decimation of Britain's manufacturing economy and the promotion of rapacious greed and self-interest above all other values. We were moving into a realm of informational exchange, of service providers who serviced other services, of global trade based on 'knowledge exchange' rather than physical exchange, accompanied by an intensification of culture-as-commodity. This atmosphere is captured very well in the video for the Pet Shop Boys' breakthrough single. It's a haunting audiovisual essay on London as a world of glittering surfaces, of blank anomie, of sideways glances and a "west end town in a dead end world", presented with a knowing, studied boredom that captures the ambivalent, libidinal intensity of a restless, money-oriented society.

Thatcher also had an ambivalent but utterly dependent relationship with the media industries. It's a cliché to say it, but she was one of the first European politicians to consciously develop her persona and her party as a 'brand' with the help of her close friend and confidante Lord Bell and image-makers for hire Saatchi and Saatchi.  She looked across the Atlantic to the advertising techniques of American politics to manufacture the necessary consents for neoliberal globalisation, working in tandem with Reagan's Republicans and her allies in the right-of-centre press to offer a consumerist utopia to those families that fitted the aspirant mould, with nuclear family values at the core of the offer.

Despite her espousal of 'traditional values' her government did much to deregulate and liberalise media channels. Arguably this was as much to with the the proliferation of affordable information technologies, lower barriers to entry/production costs/and increasing co-production/internationalized media markets/ the residue of the libertarian ideas of the 1960s and 70s - as it was anything to do with government policy. But in particular, the formation of Channel 4, the rise of the independent production sector and the global success of fashion, advertising, media and music industries meant that by the end of the '80s huge quantities of corporate cash were swirling around what had begun to be described as the 'cultural industries,' which had a far more hedonistic, ostentatious and cosmopolitan style than the stark formica-clad austerity of Thatcherite Little England domesticity. (but the alliance of austerity for some and consumerism for others, or maximising private affluence, with the consequence of public squalor is a theme in Tory rhetoric that I've commented on before)

This TV advert, versions of which aired incessantly on LWT between 1986 and 1991 (and maybe in cinemas as well, but I can't remember), captures the atmosphere of the period rather well. It's a smart and economical bit of storytelling, in which a lone aspirant young musician finds his way through with the help of a cool, older role model of an iconic Black sax player. Its a story of aspiration, mentorship and cosmpolitanism, in a multicultural London, where the power of music binds people together across race and class divides, boiled down into a tight one minute narrative, cut fast, with a grainy, documentary feel. Of course in this fiction the point is that they bond over a beer, but it's a very clever bit of execution. I wish I knew who was responsible for it.

In the figure of the aspirant young entrepreneur of the ad we can also see the traces of subsequent narratives (mythologies?) of 'talent' and individual achievement and informal apprenticeship. But the ad also showcases the spaces of the city as spaces of possibility - the transformation of the young fan who can't afford a ticket and is kicked out of the club, via a chance encounter busking on a central london bridge, rehearsing in a shabby flat, to a mainstage gig at Dingwalls Dance Hall in Camden. So it encapsulates some of the rhetorics of possibility and transformation that were present in attempts to codify and advocate the value of cities as creative spaces - as places that could allow citizens to unlock their desires and dreams - as well as make money in the new economies of culture.  Thatcher (and Major's) Enterprise Allowance Scheme, (which after 1997 morphed into 'New Deal') allowed those young unemployed people who could raise £1000 to reinvent themselves as 'cultural entrepreneurs.' I remember in the work I was doing from the early '90s onwards that we took the rhetorics of 'vocational and enterprise education' and turned them in order to build more project-focussed, applied curricula and make 'partnerships' with 'industry' - which was more often likely to mean working with a self-employed sole trading artist than some glittery multinational conglomorate.

Geoff Mulgan and Ken Worpole's work for the GLC, followed by much work undertaken by the Comedia consultancy, amongst many others, provided a new rationale for public investment in culture - as a foundation for economic growth, regeneration and "talent development", which, eventually, was enthusiastically taken up in the Lottery-fuelled cultural building boom of the mid-90s and morphed into the breathlessly entrepreneurial "Creative Britain" rhetorics of New Labour, - and which, until recently, formed the thematic spine of the master narrative of Creative Scotland, transposed northwards.

Enterprise culture, cultural industries, creative's a long and windy road, described in detail in this very useful survey by David Hesmondhalgh and Andy Pratt.

Another way of thinking about the rise of cultural industries policy discourses is as a kind of civic (and latterly, national) counter-narrative to the threat of permanent redundancy and decline; framing the entreprenurial city as a competitor for 'talent' in a global positioning war for cultural advantage - in an economy where  'symbolic capital'  matters as much as any other kind. As we wrote in both 2000 and 2005, taking a cue from Sharon Zukin, the unanswered question is who really stands to benefit from this competitive city branding? And what can be done to ameliorate the exclusionary effects of competitive city policies?  Hyper-branded cities, culture-as regenerative spectacle, and event economies, and their (recent) origins in the Thatcher-Heseltine axis of the mid-80s (although we mustn't forget the World Fairs and Festival of Britain, etc)  are brilliantly satirised by Jonathan Meades in this programme from 2005.

Angela McRobbie captures some of the traces of class struggle that remain in the precarious state of young people's aspirations for 'creative careers' in this piece that pre-dates the crash of 2008. And for recent reflections on these matters it's also worth reading this, from Geoff Mulgan, one of the people who started it all, before Richard Florida c(r)ashed in.  My money, what little of it that I have, however, is I think on Greg Sholette's thesis on 'dark matter' - on the ways that non-commercial, unofficial oppositional cultures provide the materials that become appropriated by the art market/offical cultural economy. And it follows that the critical importance of the marginal, the informal, the unofficial as a source of cultural vitality is in perpetual struggle with official narratives, with Big Policy and cultural masterplans. What if, paradoxically, value creation ultimately resides in the free exchange of gifts? Or in making places where people would like to live, but also can afford to live well? Nonetheless, until an alternative economy is built, making a living from dark matter is something of a challenge. But I'm really looking forward to hearing him speak on this topic at the Cultural Hijack event that we're running in London on 25th May.