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 Fran├žois 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. 

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