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. Here's a documentary called "Build it Bigger" about the remaking of Mumbai's main airport. 

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?