Monday, April 8, 2019
The remit of her project was around a reflection on how places can be impacted by external factors and decision-making, and what this does to the experience of place, for people (and in my case, interested in the impact this has on flora and fauna there too.)
The resulting artist's book 'Adapt The Nothing' is a meditation on the Middleport of today, where there is a lot still to be done, but where there is so much to celebrate. Full publication here.
Here is my 6 page reflection on that walk, and the thoughts that it engendered.
Wednesday, April 3, 2019
In planning a lab for the Social Art Summit I saw an opportunity to create a safe space for open and honest discussion with other practitioners, to (just for a moment) centralise the position of the artist, in relation to the social contexts we are working within, and to be frank about the challenges, and sometimes personal cost that making the work requires.
As we put together the slides for the lab, we began to discuss how, particularly with social practice, we tend to show the positive parts of the project, the things that went well, the smiling faces of participants, but rarely do we present the other side of the project; the boring bits, the awful bits where it feels like everything is collapsing, the moments of failure and the dirty bits. We discussed that in leaving out the challenges, we fail to show what really goes into making the work happen and more, we make it easy for the true value of what we do to be missed. It was for this reason then, that Rebecca and I decided to present the two sides of our project; the side we always share, which we are careful to represent thoughtfully but often positively, but also to present the second part which we usually neglect to speak about; the more challenging aspects of making the work.
We felt it important within the lab to set out why we often err towards the positive when representing the work that we do, so we set out our Reasons to be cheerful:
1. Negative stigma In the area where we are working the community has had to overcome and battle with negative press and judgement for so long; part of the work is about rewriting the story with local residents. Although we may want to discuss the problems which the area faces, we are aware that in doing so, we are at risk of adding to the negative stigma.
An increasing number of artists are working in this way.
This Means it's ever more important to be truthful and clear about the two sides to the story, that we as artists have to negotiate. It feels important to make the true work more visible in order to benefit the audience and those who want to work in this way.
The Social Art Summit Lab included space for discussion around the work that socially engaged artists do, including going over where we access support, issues of representation and the strategies we employ in order to continue to make the work. This led to the putting together of a set of guidelines within the session, which each group talked through. The final 10 for the resource are expanded upon below, to reveal some of the thinking that initiated them, but there were some very good ideas that didn’t make the final 10, when the suggestions were voted on in a survey.
The full 20 are below, (the final 10 and then the ones that didn’t make it). Within the online survey was also a space to add any additional guidelines that artists felt were missing, I have included a few of those below too.
Don’t make assumptions: Never assume anything. Check and crosscheck, and check again.
Practice self-care; know when to stop: It is important for artists to be clear about how much time they can give to a project, and do their best to stick to it. At times, we can be our own worst enemies, if we fail to value our own time as a resource within the project, we cannot be so surprised when that same resource is undervalued by others.
Value the artist's role in this context (we bring something different): The value and impact of the work that artists do can at times feel misunderstood, or not fully realised. It is important that we understand and articulate what we bring to working in social contexts.
And the ten guidelines which did not make the top ten (but still worth sharing here):
Rebecca Davies have continued to discuss the issues raised within the lab, and in particular, have become interested in why it is that sharing the challenges is something that we rarely do, as social art practitioners. This feels like an important area to explore further, and something we want to spend more time on. The Social Art Assembly, taking place at Tate Modern, as part of tate Exchange on Thursday 25th April, 2019 is a perfect space to expand on this particular area. We are going to test the notion of 'The Shit Exchange' creating space for social artists to share the shit bits of projects, but importantly to uncover what the barriers have been for artists in sharing them. We feel this is going to reveal a lot about the role and impact of artists in social contexts, and make more visible some of the diffcult contexts which artists can find themselves in. It will, we hope. also show what additional support may be needed for artists working in these contexts, which should be useful for all commissioners, and projects or organisations working with artists in social settings.
Friday, February 9, 2018
We used pre-prepared lino cuts, referencing the Victorian Language of Flowers to invite people to say what works about the area, and what needs work. These questions were chosen carefully, to avoid going straight for the negatives, and encouraging a discussion around the things that are good about the place, but also what people felt should be priorities for improving the place for the people that live there. Looking back this was a really important exercise, first for meeting the neighbours, but also in order to begin the conversation about this area from their point of view, a space for the residents to represent their own place, but also right from the start to identify the most pressing needs.
To very quickly (because there are plenty of blog posts documenting what happened) round-up the 3 years, this is what happened:
- a set of partner organisations who will continue to be involved in the development of the project
Friday, November 24, 2017
'Artwashing' gentrification is a problem – but vilifying the artists involved is not the answerAnna Francis, Staffordshire University
The value of culture in regenerating cities has long been recognised. Sometimes this happens centrally, whether via the commissioning of high profile public artworks, or the rebranding of city areas as cultural quarters. But in many cities, culture led redevelopment occurs organically.
Artists, generally on relatively low incomes, move to areas of the city where rents are affordable. The presence of the artists make the area interesting, leading to more interest in property in the area, and ultimately, seeing the area develop. Sadly, this process usually ends with the artists having to move on, as rents increase.
Councils and developers are now attempting to emulate these organic, artist-led processes, by purposefully moving artists in to areas of cities which they wish to see developed. The presence of the artists in this new contrived context is conceived, from the start, as an interim measure. In the worst cases, it is intended as a distraction from the dirty business of clearance and demolition. This has been described as “a cleansing process in which the artists moving into a burgeoning area were treated by developers as a form of regenerative detergent”. Given such language, it is perhaps unsurprising that the artists involved in these schemes are finding their work labelled “artwash”.
“Artwash” is a relatively new term. It seems to have first been used to critique corporate sponsorship of the arts: large companies establishing a relationship with a cultural venue with the aim of improving their reputation. BP, for example, has long sponsored the Tate galleries in London, something that has prompted much protest. A spokesperson from one such protest group, Liberate Tate, explains: “Artwash is the process whereby a company buys advertising space within a gallery in order to cover up negative public image.”
Naming and shaming
But now accusations of artwashing are reaching beyond corporate sponsorship to apply to individual artists in local communities. A new practice of naming and shaming artists working within the context of gentrification, particularly in larger cities where large scale development is taking place, has seen some artists working in social contexts accused of being “artwashing gentrifiers”. In extreme cases, galleries and artists are being run out of town.
These recent, predominantly online attacks on artists and arts organisations have seen the artists being named as responsible within the process. At best they are labelled as naive to the developer’s game, and at worst complicit.
This practice is becoming particularly controversial in London because new development and fast gentrification is reaching an all time high, pushing more and more local populations out of their homes. Questions around who is really to blame for such a damaging form of gentrification are becoming more urgent. And more ugly.
The emerging animosity towards artists has led to a number of groups being set up in order to target artists working within regeneration contexts. The groups include activists, but in some cases, artists and academics are behind the campaigns, which use Twitter and other online platforms to voice dissent.
Interestingly, even artists aiming to question the role of the arts within processes of regeneration are finding themselves targets of the online criticism. I experienced this first hand when delivering an art project in London earlier this year.
The project, “Estate Agency”, involved a staged closure of London’s Campbell Works Art Space, to see it reopen as a fake estate agency displaying affordable property in Stoke-on-Trent. The project aimed to raise questions around the experience of many London based artists and arts organisations, who have been finding it ever more difficult to afford to remain in the capital.
The Stoke Newington area, where Campbell Works is based, has seen property prices rocketing in recent years. Over the course of the project we heard many stories about the loss of community and the devastating impact of gentrification on people’s lives and sense of self. The creeping processes of gentrification, which can happen gradually, are often difficult to pinpoint. We aimed to make these processes of change more visible, and to create a space to discuss issues raised.
The manner in which we did so was somewhat tongue-in-cheek. “#YourLifeButBetter” was blazoned on the “estate agency”, which reframed Stoke-on-Trent (a city which became known as Brexit Capital last year) as a viable place for artists to move to, with affordable housing and studio space on display. Stoke is bidding for City of Culture 2021, and as such, is actively courting a new future via arts and cultural activity.
The aim was to create a space to understand the role of art and artists in these challenging contexts. Using the language and imagery of developers and prospectors, the project also explored the experience of towns like Margate; where swathes of artists moving in have changed the cultural make up at an alarming speed.
In dealing with the thorny issue of culture-led development, we found ourselves under fire by online critics. They accused us of the very processes we were seeking to critique. Imagery and slogans from the project were taken up by online activists, who accused the project of artwashing gentrification. Their main objection was our use of irony in relation to a serious issue which is affecting people’s lives.
In understanding the role that art and culture can have in changing places, it is now important to ask if what we are creating is of benefit to everyone concerned. Artists have a role to play in both questioning the processes of regeneration, but also, I believe, in supporting communities within these places to articulate their experience, and to advocate for their rights. Far from being an artwash, this can be a celebratory and cathartic activity – even if the outcome, eventually, is the same.
Wednesday, November 22, 2017
As it announced on the brochure of activity, that was delivered to each of the houses in the area: 'Clay has been used to gather and activate the community, encouraging individuals to communicate and form ideas about the future of our place.
This summer, you can join Anna Francis to complete a series of interactive 'clay tests'. The tests are designed to see what types of clay and creative engagement should sit within the heart of the new social enterprise, The Portland Inn Pub.'
The plan was to have a launch event, and then a few weeks later, to begin a series of 4 Saturday making sessions, from 1-4pm with a core group of individuals, signing up to attend all of the sessions.
We learned in year one, that asking people in the area to commit to a programme was impossible, I had thought this may be because the project, and I, were new to the area, and that given that 2017 was the third year, perhaps our commitment to the community may be matched by some members of the community committing to 4 Saturdays with us this year.
2. problems affecting the area in 2017.
This then gave us a measure, to see how much had changed in the area in Summer 2017.
From the very first event, we noticed a change in atmosphere on the green space. Living close by, I was already aware that the well reported problems with addiction to legal highs in the city were impacting locally. It was also evident that a number of properties in the area were being operated by drug dealers. This, along with a public space protection order on the city centre, meant that the green space where we were hosting creative activity, which was just outside the protection order zone, had become known as a space to easily access, and consume drugs. We learned during the project, that it is known as 'The Mamba Fields.'
The associated problems caused by the above meant that running the project on the space was very challenging. We realised quickly that we needed at least 4 people to be present at each event, in order to manage the space, assure the safety of participants, and still deliver a viable and productive workshop. At times, the precariousness of the situation left us feeling very exposed.
The situation for the residents, participants in the activity too came into focus via the project. People told us that the green space was now viewed as a no go zone, and that the community would avoid the space when we were not there. All of this showed a need to reconnect the community to the services tasked with operating in the area. We contacted Marvin Molloy from My community Matters, a key partner in our work in the area, to ask him to help us to set up a meeting. The community were invited along with key service providers, the police, anti-social behaviour teams, drug services, housing teams, selective licensing team, and others. The idea of the meeting was to make visible the challenges in the area, and to ask for a multi-agency approach to dealing with the issues. The first meeting, there was a brilliant turn out from the community, but a disappointing turn out from the services, key partners were missing. At this stage, Marvin and I got in touch with our local MP Ruth Smeeth. Ruth has been a real champion of the project, and so we felt it was important to get her support in engaging the services. With Ruth's support, more of the services were engaged in understanding the urgency of the challenges being faced by the Community. Neighbours came to the meeting and talked about 'fear of walking into town' and young people refusing to leave the house, as they didn't feel safe.
Since then, a monthly meeting has taken place with the community, but with the services meeting fortnightly, to first set targets, and then to deliver the changes needed to improve on some of the problems in the area, without simply passing them on to somewhere else (as has happened here as a result of the public space protection order). This has been really positive, and within weeks the improvements to the look and feel of the area were visible. Community members have been incredibly active, and vocal about what was needed, and this has made a difficult situation better, quickly. There is still more to be done, but everyone is working together to ensure support is given where needed.
In many ways, the creative activity, making with clay, became secondary to the work needed to deal with some of the issues we faced in working here, and at times the real work felt to be in advocating for the community in the all services meetings, but still, a programme of creative workshops was delivered over a month.
This session was very special, with participants, some who had come for all three years, but some who had only just started to come this year, told us how important the sessions have been for them. Working with clay has provided a moment of pause for people, the transformative nature of the material, which can move from one state to another quickly, without fuss feels like a mirror for the community. 'We're going to miss these sessions,' one neighbour said.
Community Maker was used as a case study in the Local Government Association publication 'People, Culture, Place - the role of culture in Placemaking.' and within the newly launched Culture Hub, a partnership by LGA and Arts Council England, highlighting good practice in delivering culture with councils and their partners.