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.