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 follows...it'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 be 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 industries...it'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.

Friday, March 22, 2013

From record collecting to 'music curating'


From record collecting to 'music curating': cultures of discovery and consumption in a 'post-retail' age

Commercial Music Seminar Series 2012 - 13: No 6

Tuesday 9th April 2013

UWS Space, CCA Glasgow, 5.30pm - 7pm

Graham Jeffery
Reader in Music and Performance, UWS

All welcome - to book please contact Holly.Tessler@uws.ac.uk


My first exposure to the music industry, other than as an occasional public performer, came in the form of a shop-floor job in a celebrated but slightly grubby London specialist classical record store in my year off between school and university. In this talk I will reflect on just how much has changed in how recorded music is bought, sold and consumed since the heady and profitable days of the late eighties, which were arguably a kind of zenith for the record (and CD) industry; these were pre-mass internet days but just at the dawn of the digital revolution that would bring down most of the edifice of 'physical' music retail.  In 1987 Evan Eisenberg published a landmark book, The Recording Angel, which changed the way I (and many others) thought about cultures of collection and consumption of music. He named this field ‘phonography’, and of course since then much has been written in academic work and in fiction about the pleasures and intimacies of ‘crate digging’ and the random musical find, the place of rarity/scarcity in an era of pervasive media, the ‘long tails’  and short wait times of digital sleuthing, and shifts in business models forced by globalization, digitization, peer to peer sharing and fast data transfer. 

What is the future of music consumption, and collecting, now that so much purchasing has migrated online, into the supposedly weightless world of cloud storage? How do we keep and collect our musical treasures? Is the idea of a record shop now an hopeless anachronism or can we see some persistence in the idea of specialism, scarcity and authenticity as a marker of difference within the cultural sphere?

Thursday, January 17, 2013

2013...

...after the new year celebrations settled...

....the year has started well with a trip to Derry for the MECCSA conference, where my colleague Neill Patton and I gave a brief overview of some of the issues and debates coming out of the two Scotland-based projects in Remaking Society. More about that another time, but here's the presentation.



Whilst there we visited the Museum of Free Derry, which is a visceral memorial to the struggles of the last 40 years of the Bogside community. Very powerful. Hoping to go back this year for some more of the City of Culture events - the Void Gallery has a really strong programme, but there's lots of good stuff happening. 





In the meantime, here's a good article from the Hindustan Times about Reversing the Gaze, the project that our UWS doctoral student Ben Parry has initiated, working with the Acorn Foundation and sundry others in Dharavi. 




It's shaping up to be a very busy year...and hopefully a little pivotal, as the wheels fall off the scrappy carts peddled by the shameful austerity merchants in the UK government and the Scottish independence debate hots up. Much happening, at home, abroad, at work; feels quite interesting.

Also - a quick plug for The Eskdalemuir Harmonium - the first in a series of coloured vinyl albums being made by my excellent PhD student Chris Dooks, and just released by Toronto-based Komino Records










Thursday, October 18, 2012

Discourses and difficulties

This autumn's schedule has got fairly frenetic. A couple of talks coming up, both of which are a bit introspective, in the sense that they try to analyse the dynamics and discourses that underpin the way we're framing our curriculum and our research in the School of Creative and Cultural Industries at UWS. On Tuesday I'll be in London at the MECCSA Practice Network's conference at the University of Kingston discussing the approach to practice-based research in the dreaded REF (Research Excellence Framework) that we are attempting to take. Here's the quick abstract: 

Shaping our Submission: Interdisciplinarity, practice and the spaces 'in between'

The School of Creative and Cultural Industries at UWS has evolved from being a small undergraduate-focussed media school to a more ambitious operation with an increasing volume of research output and knowledge exchange, encompassing digital art, performance, and film/broadcasting/journalism practice alongside established work in media and cultural studies. Using some examples of work from researchers in the School, I will explore some of the dilemmas and difficulties we face in positioning our submission within UoA 36, which for reasons of critical mass and impact we are concentrating on for this REF. I'd welcome suggestions for appropriate strategies to deal with the difficulty of accounting for research which falls in between REF categories and criteria. 

Then in a couple of weeks I travel to Lapland for the World Alliance for Arts Education summit, where I'll be presenting a paper with the following title:

Education for cultural practice/education for cultural economy? Intersections, interdisciplinarity and issues


The School of Creative and Cultural Industries at the University of the West of Scotland (UWS) has grown rapidly in recent years in response to a government-led agenda of widening participation in higher education. UWS is a multi-campus institution that has its roots in a vocational, polytechnic approach to higher education but its ambitions are not limited to vocational training: in common with other ‘post-1992’ institutions in the UK it offers higher degrees, Masters programmes and conducts significant academic research.

Economic studies repeatedly emphasise the scale and significance of the Scottish creative and cultural economy, but these claims are contested and contingent, and beset with definitional problems.  The notion of creative/cultural employment, which is frequently flexible, freelance or network-based does not fit neatly into the definitional categories used by statisticians. The apparent divide between professional and participatory activity in the field of culture is also  problematic and contested.  Through partnership-based pedagogies and careful project design involving professionals from outside the university, the School seeks to offer students, many of whom are first-generation entrants to higher education, immersive opportunities to undertake cultural practice in professional settings. The model could be seen as a hybrid of polytechnic university, art school, and research institute.

What is at stake when we operate within these rhetorics and discourses of creative economy? Using examples from the range of work undertaken by the School I will explore some of the conflicts and collisions  in practice-based research, which combines vocational awareness with critical and cultural theory.

Hopefully these will also see the light of day as journal articles before too long. 








More on the histories of participatory arts

Here are the slides for a lecture I gave a couple of weeks ago for the 3rd year Performance students at UWS taking the Community Theatre module.





Place Making, Place Breaking

Lots of discussions about 'place' and 'placemaking' over the last few weeks. In Paisley and Glasgow, with my colleagues Gayle McPherson and Liz Gardiner, we've been running a short course in Cultural Planning which through a mix of walking and talking and mapping has been enabling a small committed group to explore questions about the relationships of culture to planning and community development. We visited projects in Govan and Easterhouse which in different ways are  advocating for and accelerating locally rooted cultural provision, for the rights of residents to be able to access spaces and resources for self-expression and representation. We drew on a number of approaches but focussed in on the particular school of participatory cultural planning involving mapping local cultural resources which owes a lot to Franco Bianchini and Lia Ghilardi, but also which has much in common with the school of 'asset based community cultural development' championed by people like Tom Borrup and Arlene Goldbard in the USA.




Then, the week before last, we hosted a reception at the new UWS Ayr campus for delegates to Architecture and Design Scotland's Design Skills Symposium and there was much discussion about how Ayr might become a 'university town' rather than 'a town with a university'. This raised many questions about the idea of learning towns, access to learning resources; the question I left with was 'where does learning take place anyway?' I've always been more interested in the idea of educators  developing and designing learning environments, contexts and situations rather than formally planned instruction - learning through exchange and conversation, rather than through one way transactions (a.k.a. Freire's 'banking' education).  Next Monday night I'm chairing a discussion with the Ayr Converses group  which will focus on 'adaptation' - again thinking about how places can reinvent themselves through small tactical acts of reclamation and redesign of existing spaces and buildings.

In the intervening period I've been in Mumbai, visiting Ben Parry, the artist and researcher who's doing a PhD with us at UWS and whose edited volume Cultural Hijack: rethinking intervention tells some important hidden stories about radical public art practice over the last 30 years or so. He's doing a very different kind of ambulatory practice in the hot, dry, dusty and very dirty world of Dharavi, working with families, workers and NGOs in the 13th Compound, which is the core of the recycling business. There, in intense conditions in packed makeshift factories, teams of ultra low paid workers reprocess waste bought from the brokers who buy from the ragpickers who systematically scavenge from the tips of Mumbai, and turn it into raw materials and products that can be resold by their bosses - cans, paint, glue, wood, fabrics, plastics, bottles, metal fabrication, side by side with bakeries, food shops and every conceivable item for sale. It's free market economics in an unbridled form, barely regulated, with little regard for the long-term health of the people living there, but offering plenty of opportunities for entrepreneurs and advancement.
And it runs at full steam with an apparently endless supply of cheap labour to feed the machine. The dark mirror of globalisation?




During this visit, Ben has been focussing on gathering together the stories of the families who were displaced from the section of the water pipeline that runs through the western boundary of the 13th Compound, when the city authorities came to bulldoze the settlement 18 months ago.



Dharavi, as one of the largest 'informal' urban agglomerations in Asia, has been written about and researched relentlessly. As an 'urban enterprise zone' it has become globally known and regularly attracts the attention of researchers seeking to understand the dynamics of Asian megacities, models of entrepreneurship and issues in public health/development.  Prior to demolition, the section along the pipeline had become a particularly iconic location, not least because tourists and photographers could stand on the bridge on the Mahim Sion Link Road and shoot telephoto portraits of the inhabitants without having to seek permission or venture further inside. It was also used as a location to produce cover shots for National Geographic and featured in Slumdog Millionaire. Ben's project, Reversing the Gaze, seeks to interrogate "his own outsider 'gaze' and that of others who come to extract knowledge about Mumbai's informal urban practices."




There will be a small exhibition of photographs on the bridge next to the offices of Ben's current hosts, the Acorn Foundation, and some of this work will feed into more projects that Ben will develop over the next couple of years. Acorn is an NGO that does advocacy and education work with children and their families, with a particular focus on access to artistic expression. We travelled with the young people of Acorn to an air-conditioned downtown auditorium where they performed in a high energy junk percussion ensemble to a well-heeled audience of diplomats, donors and dignitaries. A collision of lives and worlds, anaethetised by emollient speeches about the need to do more for the condition of the poor, all made by people who'll never have to live anywhere like Dharavi. Ben will present a talk at CCA Glasgow about the project on the 23rd November, and a podcast/audiovisual piece of documentation is coming soon.

All of these experiences have made me reflect on how important it is to try to think beyond the simplistic binary categories/shorthands that are used to describe the different conditions in which people live, and the ways in which public political debates tend to boil down complex problems to simple slogans - an inevitablilty of policymaking and advocacy perhaps. What is at stake when heavily populated, heavily utilised, heavily productive urban areas are described as 'no-go areas' or 'slums'? The relationships between the formal/informal, the  so-called affluent and the deprived, the 'socially included' and 'socially excluded' are not easily understood as polar opposites once there's an encounter with material social worlds. A fascination with the condition of urban poor has preoccupied writers and explorers for centuries, from Henry Mayhew through Jack London through George Orwell, amongst many others, but the key question is - who gets to write/inscribe whose histories? In whose interests are these stories being told? Perhaps it suits city authorities just to write off zones of apparent poverty and extremity, and the story of the destruction of the pipeline community is a particularly potent example of an urban hotspot where these narratives of inclusion and exclusion, of formal infrastructure and informal habitation, of questions of land value and labour value, collide in explosive ways.

Now back in Scotland, I'm thrust straight into the Love Milton and Theatre Modo projects which are being undertaken as part of the Remaking Society intiative - which in some ways connect with these issues because they are also concerned with trying to articulate and demonstrate an 'asset-based' approach to community cultural development which tries to view communities as resourceful and gifted, unlocking potential rather than writing zones off as 'deprived'.

Places are designed, but they are also performed - they are the product of multiple interactions across power structures, economic flows, cultural norms etc; Designers and planners might think that they manipulate the conditions - economic, social, material - in which interactions take place but everyday performance - how places/objects are inhabited and used -  also shapes and reshapes them. This dynamic might also be used to describe the tensions between masterplanning (hierarchical) approaches and user-centred design (network/peer-to-peer); the actuality is that there is always an relationship between the two and this clash of perspectives, where grand infrastructure projects seem to be presented as 'solutions' is thrown into sharp relief in megacities like Mumbai. In this video, National Geographic seems to like the idea of using India's ingenuity and expertise in large-scale engineering to build massive bypasses: 



However, it's interesting that the solutions promoted by city planners focus on free flowing highways and arterial infrastructure, servicing the orgy of high rise development underway; there may well be other more indigenous and appropriate solutions to issues of urban improvement if the planners paid more attention to the actual patterns of inhabitation that shape the way most people survive.

Places are also the product of narratives - shaped by all the different stories that are told and retold about them. So sensitive urban development has to start with an understanding of the complexities of power and acknowledge the expertise and inside knowledge of people who live in particular situations. Matias Echanove and Rahul Srivastava of Urbz, the organisation which facilitated Ben's passage into Dharavi, articulate this dynamic in thoughtful ways

           "A combination of greed, prejudice, and ideological bias prevents the authorities from    supporting the incremental, locally-driven development of Dharavi. The labeling of it as a ‘slum’ has the perverse effect of delegitimizing a neighborhood altogether and thus justifying the lack of provision of public services. This is because slum dwellers are perceived as squatters who have no rights to the city.  Thus, the label of ‘slum’ is itself the biggest obstacle in the improvement of the quality of life in Dharavi and other such settlements. This is why through actual and conceptual intervention we aim at normalizing a neighborhood that doesn’t have much to gain from being described as an exception. What we should recognize is that Dharavi is a natural urban formation, unique and banal at once. It is the tip of the iceberg. Dharavi is urban India at its best, because it is a testimony to the capacity of people to lift themselves up against all odds; and at its worst because it also has the messed up aspect of a creature that was beaten up, marginalized and oppressed by powerful forces over too many years."

Contrast this approach with the teleologies and ideologies of competitive world city discourses - the way governments and authorities talk about positioning cities so that they can be high performers/winners in the economic arms race, of branding, of 'attracting inward investment'. In recent years the language of policy makers and their corporate 'partners' seems to have focussed on making Mumbai  a 'world class city' which given the intense congestion, creaking infrastructure and spectacular income differentials, presents considerable planning paradoxes.  In one sense Mumbai could be read as a paradigmatic future city, here right now - it presents a vision of what happens when neoliberal capitalism is allowed to unfold without reference to the right to the city of all citizens - a chaotic, dense, dynamic clash of commerce, cultures, classes; a dynamic that might find some of its origins in the experience of colonial rule and in the wider economic histories of India's exposure to globalisation processes.  In the meantime, the corporate world seems to be doing its best to erase from view much of the actual condition of the majority citizens of this 'world city' and instead fetishize the immense 'wealth creation' opportunities for the winners in the economic race. It's interesting to think about to whom this clever ad is addressed: 



Such  dreamworlds of neoliberalism seem to me to be a horribly inadequate response,  given the challenges of making the most basic human rights entitlements -  a decent standard of sanitation, housing, education, healthcare etc - available to the majority of the population. But of course Mumbai is far from unique in this dynamic. The privileged and powerful always seek to shape place narratives in their own interests. And the sheer size, scale, energy and dynamism of India and its ambitious, optimistic peoples provides plenty of possibility for radical change.

  

What if the current effort to promote "global infrastructure" could be connected to a similar intensity of ambition to improve basic local infrastructure or greater equity of access to resources? A segment of contemporary India's relentless persuit of growth and 'wealth creation' appears to have become largely uncoupled from the attempts to promote social progress or economic development for the poorest half of the population. A model for David Cameron or Mitt Romney to emulate perhaps?