A one-day symposium about socially engaged arts and cultural democracy titled Uncommon Ground crumbled upon the slightest scrutiny, and left a good number of the audience disappointed and let down to say the least. In advance of the event which took place at The Lowry on 22nd March 2018, little information apart from two underwhelming personal blog posts were given as lead-in material. The morning session involved four presentations, and NO discussion or Q&A of any kind. Tweets were welcomed to be responded to later – I wondered if they have replaced real nuanced discussion?
It’s the Economy, stupid!
By mid-afternoon it was clear that nobody was going to bring up the economics of inequality or within the arts, nor how arts can have an impact on such structural inequality. An embarrassing omission given that there is a common understanding of inequality being first and foremostly related to economic and political power. In most symposia or conferences, a subject is usually given some broad sweep overview of the history and key pieces of work and debates that have developed over the decades, plus some critical and fresh perspectives on the gaps – those areas which still need addressing. This kind of basic context was completely absent at Uncommon Ground, an insulting slap in the face for those who have tirelessly worked in the field and against the grain for those decades.
A key issue for cultural democracy is that there has been a gradual decline of self-determined activity taking place out in grass roots communities, it has slowly been replaced by social engagement workers employed by more mainstream-oriented organisations. This has taken place alongside a widening of the gap between richest and poorest, both globally and in the UK. This is no accident – the depletion of community resources and local support towards a dependency model is a well known part of the neoliberal agenda. Again, no mention of this structural process whatsoever at Uncommon Ground.
There were a number of presentations of interesting work from outside the UK, but which seemed to be more showcases than really adding a great deal to the debate. As the day went on, disenchantment with the day led to Evie Manning throwing out her presentation, getting people to revolt by coming on stage to discuss whatever they wanted to or chat in groups in their seats, and then played music for people to dance to. Responding to the ineffectiveness of this, at the end Basma El Husseiny said that revolution can’t be an unplanned simulation, as we saw it ends up a mess. Perhaps that was a metaphor for the whole Uncommon Ground event. The symposium was stated to be the ‘beginning of a conversation’, even though the conversation has been going for a very long time.
The real conversation ‘will not be televised’…
At the end, one of the Uncommon Ground facilitators / MC’s said to the audience, “We want the conversation to continue, so go and get on with it” – this abdicated any role or responsibility from the organisers for taking the conversation further. I really wondered whether we as an audience were the product for the symposium, rather like we consumers are the product for the likes of Facebook and Google. And whether that is the model for a lot of ‘representation-focused’ art these days such as the Deller commission for Manchester International Festival, or the many other forms of ‘co-creation’ or ‘co-production’ that have been fashionable for some time now?
A number of people I spoke to that day struggled with the idea that this was really the best that well-funded and leading authorities in the arts could do these days when it comes to so called ‘socially engaged practice’. (The event was put on by the Arts Council of England, The Lowry and The British Council).
Uncommon Ground crumbled but …
Fortunately a well prepared and thoughtfully critical cultural democracy symposium is taking place in a few days time on 4th and 5th April 2018, organised by Alison Jeffers and Gerry Moriarty to coincide with the publication of their worthwhile book ‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art’. More info about that Cultural Democracy Symposium here:
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Despite the critiques presented here, there were some important and useful points flagged up by a number of speakers. This critique is more about how this was prepared, curated and what material to be presented were selected than about major issues with any particular presenter – it is the overall effect and glaring omissions that are in question.
Here are a few rough notes I made during the Uncommon Ground symposium in case they are of any use, apologies for any lack of coherence but they really are v rough:
Inclusion vs exclusion, but inclusion is also a liberal way of maintaining inequality yet make it invisible – on the bottom rung but at least on the ladder.
Language and practice of inclusion, access and representation is over riding real development of wider critical and political understanding of the wider contexts, economic interests and histories that underpin social and global inequality and injustice.
Increase in participation and voice at the same time as increase in inequality, people happier feeling they have a voice as a therapeutic distraction from structural problems.
Lack of and historical depletion of self determined small grass roots groups with an informed progressive agenda that are stable and ongoing over a long term period. Increase in mainstream orgs engaging artists and communities, institutionalised and mediated.
People are the product, like Facebook Google etc, like Deller at MIF, like Co creation and Co production, instrumentalism, top down framework, multiple voices in a predetermined tapestry of willing citizens.
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Scottee: focus on class, critiqued a lot of tick boxing. But simply said working classes don’t engage because the arts don’t mean much to them.
Eileen from UNIA, Cuba, much about audio visual project, young people training and education programme expanded to 250 centres.
Ketevan from Georgia. Wheelchair dancing project. Talked about process of breaking boundaries for wheelchair users.
David Jubb, Battersea Arts Centre, we are into process but structures around us assess product just like schools do. Over specialisation in departments has been trusted. Industrial legacy. Brazilian examples. Contact MCR, Salford Young carers. Much exceptional practice only exists in well supported centres.
Tweets replace discussion, no discussion in the morning no responses to any of the speakers.
Where does power lie debate? Alistair Hudson, Whitworth, is about differential, redistribution of authorship away from artists and organisations to people. Matt, artists practice as challengers. Another woman (?), power to shape the future, digital issues. Anjana, curated women’s exhibition in Nepal. Are we supporting or fighting oppressive practice.
Q of what can we do to affect injustice? Nat Geo have undertaken audit of their complicity with racism through their imagery.
Social enterprise models? Education as enabler and power redresser! Role of artists with economic damage esp for disabled. The word art itself is a problem.
Evie Manning, theatrical workshop approach to get everyone talking. V short exercises… – disrupted into dance!!??
Visual arts development agency, long term projects, good stuff spoken about in relation to industrial decline incl references to structures, exoticism, destabilising influences, isolated overworked artists needing self care,
Chloe Meineck, arts in care homes. Eg of music box project, interactive story boxes. Another nice project that gives creative value to a community context, notes about not profit making design tech that is human centred against the grain of dominant app tech giants.
Abdullah Al-Kafri, Ettijahat (org), Syria /Lebanon. Asked for responses to various photos. Does a lot of work with refugee communities.
Jackie Hagan, suggests mixing best qualities of working and middle classes together. People need process and investment to move forward. Suggests going to people rather than expecting them coming to your centre.
Ended with we want the conversation to continue, so go and get on with it.
Basma, Middle Eastern woman, v good, talked about solidarity, revolution can’t be a simulation or be messy. Others in the final panel short, Susan though did go into money and structural issues a bit. Then some deconstruction of the day.
British Council agenda?
by Kooj Chuhan.
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Watch it all on YouTube now
The entire symposium is on YouTube but its over 5 hours long. They haven’t as yet broken it up into sections of individual presentations, which along with a brief list of what’s in each section would have made it much more useful. But hey, its here:
The Uncommon Ground website is currently: http://www.uncommon2018.org/
The Eventbrite booking page for the symposium was: https://www.eventbrite.com/e/uncommon-ground-registration-42508521131#