Arts & Science Festival – 1960s Art & Architecture Tour

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The University of Birmingham Arts & Science festival, now in its second year, ran for a week from 16th – 23rd March 2014.

The festival was described as “a week-long celebration of ideas, research and collaboration across campus” and as my research looks at the cultural festival and how universities are engaging with it, I went along to a few of the events to see was happening.

The 1960s Art & Architecture walking tour of Edgbaston campus was part of the Arts & Science festival’s programme, presented in partnership with Ikon gallery’s Ikon 50 programme, a special series of events and exhibitions marking the gallery’s ‘milestone year’.

Last Saturday afternoon at 1pm, a group of around 25 people converged in the sunshine at Eduardo Paolozzi’s huge bronze Faraday sculpture at the edge of the campus. Claire Mullet, Deputy Curator of Research and Cultural Collections at University of Birmingham, and one of the collections’ other curators, Chloë Lund, met us there. Claire explained that the University’s Research and Cultural Collections contain around 1,500 objects and artworks, many of which have been commissioned by the University and many acclaimed artists have leant or donated important pieces. This collection is separate to the Barber Institute’s collection and much of it is exhibited in the departments and public spaces around campus.
So began a fun two hours or so of discovery within the campus boundaries!

Now, I am a veteran of many public walks and have a great enthusiasm for them, so it came as no surprise when within minutes the sunshine was replaced by a sudden hail storm – this seems to happen all the time. BASF_blog_1Claire was prepared and undeterred, and from under a frilly umbrella she described the circumstances in which the 1970 Barbara Hepworth sculpture Ancestor I (pictured right) was bequeathed to the University by the sculptor, following the award of her honorary degree in 1960.

Thankfully, we were then lead us inside Staff House and into the warm. It is worth mentioning that the University boasts a huge amount of astonishing and extraordinary spaces within its buildings and the top floor of Staff House is definitely one of them. At the top of this building, almost hidden away in a corridor with an elegant roof that floods the space with natural light, is one of the most notable works of the tour, a framed blue abstract painting by Robert Groves. He was one of the Ikon’s founding group of artists and the man who gave the gallery its name in 1964. We had to take turns to see it, there is only room in front of it for a few people to stand.

There are many other wall-based art works on display in this building, one particularly notable one is a huge John Walker canvas called Anguish at an intersection in the stairwell. BASF_blog_2
While we stopped to admire it, Claire mentioned the artist’s connection to Birmingham and Chloë offered a more personal observation of how the piece visually fits with the space where it is presently hung.

Next we headed across an open space to the Finance office and clustered around a really unusual piece of public art, situated in a less airy stairwell. BASF_blog_3

The legend attached to Anguished Skein by Patrick Maher, a ‘punk orange’ painted metal squiggle, it is incredibly significant to the tour, as it turns out the piece was commissioned for the University’s former Finance Officer, Angus Skene, a ‘character’ who was also instrumental in setting up Ikon gallery. Angus was a collector of contemporary art, he and his partner donated a large amount of money to start the Ikon gallery and he urged the University to make funds available for commissioning and collecting work from this period and investing in public art around campus. It is likely that his story is pretty fundamental to the University of Birmingham’s Research and Cultural Collections and one member of University staff I spoke to was certainly interested to hear the story behind a piece of sculpture she sees frequently. But soon we’re off again, this time to the Law building, to see Moonstrips Empire News (1967), a collection of up to 100 screen prints installed in the entrance lobby to the Law building and the stairs leading up to the Harding Law Library. BASF_blog_4

The recent refurbishment of this space combined a £4000 grant from the School of Law and Claire’s own vision for the space, she explained that the bold colour scheme was designed specifically with the work in mind. The investment in the space created a serendipitous opportunity to have the work that had already been adopted by Research and Cultural Collections properly framed and mounted so that it could be displayed publicly.

The combination of colourful elements sets up an excellent and very pop-arty juxtaposition between what was probably a neat but stuffy institutional lobby and the riotous colours, kitsch and logos of the 1960s prints. It is a complete surprise, it works and I love it! BASF_blog_5

As we left the Law School it was nice to see that the sun had come out again. Claire explained that it is not only 1960s art that the University could offer to Ikon on this tour, but examples of architecture too.
BASF_blog_6 The Grade 2 listed Muirhead Tower could be seen from here, somewhat dominating the campus, and this is one example of these. It was built in 1963, although it was modernised with a £27 million refurbishment in 2007. Chloë adds that in the early 60s the university experienced a big expansion in student numbers. This must be the 1963 Robbins committee report on higher education that I have already read about, in which it was suggested that universities should become more democratic, with places available to all who attained the relevant qualification for them. The expansion led to a new phase of building and consequently a new style of architecture appeared on campus.
There are other examples of 1960s building directly next to the Muirhead Tower, but just before we set off towards them, I notice a poster for The Handsworth Scroll on a pillar next to where we are standing.BASF_blog_7

The Handsworth Scroll is an item from the CCCS archive that was on display earlier in the festival, in fact the festival guide listed that event alongside today’s walk.

Claire tells the group that the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies (CCCS) resided for many years at the Muirhead Tower. There is currently an AHRC funded project at the University to mark the 50th anniversary of that institution and the Arts & Science Festival presented John Akomfrah’s new film The Stuart Hall Project (read my review of the film here) this week too.

At this point, a member of the group mentions another 1960s related event taking place on the following Saturday at The Library of Birmingham which is also part of Ikon 50. Those Were The Decades is a day-long event with an Illustrated talk about the CCCS by Dr Kieran Connell, a panel discussion on Ikon in the 1960s with John Salt, the first artist to exhibit there, plus other events including film screenings of Motorcity Music Years: Second City Sinners (1992) and Medium Cool (1969) – this 2nd film is part of Flatpack Film Festival‘s programme.

This had become a truly fascinating walk, connecting so many of Birmingham’s cultural organisations and innovators to the times when these things were made and revealing some of the cultural developments that link them together. We still had a couple more places to see too, so we headed to the Arts building to look at one of the last major commissions by Cornish modern painter Peter Lanyon. His ‘Arts Faculty Mural‘ (1963) fills the whole of one wall inside the school’s lobby and extends up over the door. It was imagined as an abstract representation of elements of the campus that could be seen from either side of the lobby and it is reported to have cost £13.23 per foot. This expense had provoked some opposition at the time it was made, as quotes from Redbrick, the university’s own newspaper, confirmed. Claire had prepared many of these sorts of notes and had also printed out pictures to hand round, all of which added extra context to what we observed.

BASF_blog_8Next we were taken to see the prefab Modern Languages building, built using innovative methods for its time, with a surprising, elegant interior space and so much natural light!BASF_blog_9

We ended our walk at the Metals and Metallurgy Building situated at the North of the campus, looking at a set of reflective grid paintings with geometric shapes painted onto mirrors by David Prentice, another of Ikon’s founders. This work, Pleides, was commissioned and designed especially for the building, which is built as a grid itself (below is a picture of the ceiling at the Metals and Metallurgy Building).BASF_blog_10
This tour was completely fascinating (and free, as was much of the Arts & Science festival programme!) Claire and Chloë provided ongoing, valuable contextual information, helping us to understand some of the hidden meanings in the buildings and art that we saw. Writing about it has also made me wistful for something else that I’d really like to see, but never will to be able to: Ikon’s first home, the glass-sided kiosk in the Bullring shopping centre.

Created to be mobile and ephemeral, a so-called ‘Gallery without walls’ – would it be have been called a ‘pop-up’ gallery, today, I wonder?

 

 

Cultivating Culture Symposium: Birmingham

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‘Cultivating Culture’ was the title of a symposium organised under the auspices of Birmingham City Council, which took place on Tuesday 18th March 2014 at the new Library of Birmingham.

The day was a chance to reflect on the provision of arts in Birmingham and in particular on Local Arts Forum (LAF) development in the city and its Arts Champion Scheme, both of which have relevance for our project and activities in Balsall Heath in particular. In addition, Phil Jones had been asked to make a presentation on our work on cultural intermediaries.

Birmingham’s LAFs were set up in each city district by BCC’s Culture Commissioning service between April 2011 and March 2012. The aim of the scheme is to bring together individual artists and local arts organisation, education providers and community groups with an initial brief to organise public meetings, audit cultural infrastructure and to build a contact database for cultural workers. The brief has developed over the last year in tandem with the Arts Champion Scheme.

Indicative of the straightened times, funding for these activities has been miniscule yet the very existence of such initiatives testifies to a continuing faith in cultural provision as well as a desire or need to support the well established cultural infrastructure of the city (see illustration in link below). Indeed Ginnie Wollaston, Culture Officer of BCC’s Culture Commissioning Service described many in the audience as ‘fed-up’ yet ‘brave’ for their perseverance in the face of current pressures and their dedication to the value of culture.

Arts Champion Scheme

Faith and the missionary zeal for the value of cultural projects and participation (as well as issues of ‘nourishment’ and well being), particularly amongst the economically disadvantaged were familiar refrains heard across the day. Indeed, it was a rich day for those of us from the project who were present (Jones, Saskia Warren, Dave O’Brien) for the occasional discussion of notions of ‘hard to reach’ communities. That such discussions took place between a sizable assembly of arts administrators, artists, community leaders and local policy makers allows for a sense of ethnographic observation regarding the dispositions of the very intermediaries whose work is the object of our study.

Derry: City of Culture 2013

The day was organised into a series of presentations for the first half followed by ‘break-out’ sessions later in the afternoon. The first keynote speaker of the day was Claire McDermott, Cultural Programmer for Derry’s UK City of Culture tenure of 2013.

Something of the potentially high stakes game of culture was conveyed in McDermott’s presentation – illuminating the economic hopes for such initiatives as well as the potential impact of policy on the lived culture of communities like Derry. Of course, what is at stakes is underlined by the fact that in instance a representative of the ‘winners’ was addressing those of a losing bid in the City of Culture round and points of comparison and practical instruction were a focal point.

As is often the case in such instances, we heard a lot about the many interesting things that had taken place – from running competitions to a massed choir of Orphan Annie – and the quantitative evaluation of Derry’s year of events. However, direct comparisons and lessons are hard to draw. For instance, Derry spent around £20m on its programmes compared with Brum’s positing of a headline £121m budget for culture and development (of which £100k is actually for for Culture & Commissioning, £45k for community arts for instance). Derry’s population of around 100k souls is barely that of one of Birmingham’s wards. Furthermore, cultural differences in Derry based on historical/religious traditions meant that the very use of UK in the project title of Capital of Culture was tendentious (Londonderry is of course the city’s official name, Derry the preference of nationalists ): in previous bids in his category Birmingham’s champions have advertised its cultural variety as a basis for its added value and attractions.

McDermott was candid and insightful regarding some of the challenges of Derry’s year, whether in the form of local cynicism to how some initial promises had failed to materialise – largely in terms of financial support for arts organisations. Of particular attention here was a digital history project that she identified as one initiative that had not been fully realised and which fed broader questions about the legacy of the kinds of cultural intermediation represented on the large-scale of the City of Culture. Likewise, and balancing the emphasis on ‘leadership’ manifest in so much of the discourse of intermediaries and policy makers evidenced early in the day, McDermott framed some important ideas about the democratic entitlement of communities. Positioned as consumers or co-creators of cultural work, a priority for Derry’s activity aimed to develop autonomy and empowerment amongst communities in terms of their participation in City of Culture developments. Such ideas were clearly manifest in some of BCC’s current small-scale endeavours and resulting projects and of course resonate with our research as it aims in the next work package of enabling arts commissioning in Balsall Heath and Ordsall by community members.

Soap Box

The morning also featured several ‘Soap Box’ presentations including one from Sheila Arthurs of Active Arts of Birmingham’s Castle Vale area. Castle Vale is an interesting reference point for how cultural activity has played a part in local regeneration initiatives – in this case where the declining quality and reputation of a post-war estate have been overturned by community engagement. Arthurs offered an impassioned testimony of her own tenacity in engaging her fellow residents to get involved and to produce the kinds of cultural work that were on show across the event. Here, I think that Arthurs’ authenticity and connectivity to place and its lived culture carried a different weight to those who come from without of such geographies. Such presentations are heartfelt and whatever ways in which we approach questions of value and meaning in cultural intermediation, they are tangibly affective evidence of the passions such work capitalises on and is felt to evince in participants.

Cultural Pilots

The next session surveyed the pilot programmes of the LAF’s across the Birmingham areas of Castle Vale, Shard End and Balsall Heath. Our research team pinpointed the first two areas as the possible sites for case studies in the current work package investigating community responses to cultural intermediation. Of course, we have decided upon Balsall Heath for our investigations and it was both stimulating and challenging to consider the evidence before us. LAF work is well known to us, as is a wider variety of activity which underpins the manner in which Balsall Heath represents a site where a lot of policy and practice has been enacted.

An apparent challenge was presented for us in consideration of the fact that local company Merida Associates are conducting an evaluation of the impact of the variety of pilots. As Karen Garry of Merida revealed, the research will be published in May and will add to our variety of materials to consider ‘in the round’ of activities, some of which are emerging (or not) in our pilot interviews in the area as points of discussion. It would have been valuable to explore how our research diverges from that of Merida and the servicing of BCC expectations. Likewise, we might have explored the politics of our approach that mean that we are not seeking to repeat impact research or track individual projects within the lineaments of policy discourse and its rationalisation.

Whatever opportunity might have been missed on this occasion, the nature and integrity of academic research was outlined by Phil Jones as a conclusion to this session. In these circumstances this proved to be a useful means of attracting local attention for our project and inviting comment on themes that emerged on the day such as the nature of the ‘hard to reach’ and cultural value.

Certainly, the interest in our work was also couched in some comment from the floor on communications across the local cultural scene, between organisations and policy makers about their work and with audiences too.

Further points about communication and a familiar aspect of conceptual confusion was brought home by an impassioned request from one participant for more activity in the city based on Bollywood dancing. As a representative from one organisation pointed out not only is there regular programming of such dance across venues, there was actually a wealth of specialised activity organised last year – the centenary of Bollywood film. To my mind, these exchanges raised questions about the degree to which any one individual – whether a full-time cultural worker, or an audience member – is able to keep track of what is in effect a vibrant scene of cultural programming of some variety, some of which takes place in spite of a lack of funding. The digital world is one means of advertising the fact that so much takes place in a city the size of Birmingham that it would be a full time job to keep up with it. Whatever the complaints about what appears to be lacking, from one perspective such individuals sound like malcontents who might be failing to appreciate what it means to live in a modest utopia.

Break out

The afternoon saw several break out groups concerned with ‘Empowering individuals and groups – creative leadership opportunities’ (concerning the development of local leadership in the arts; ‘Branding Local Arts – finding the local appeal’ (challenging perception of arts activities in city wards where projects already exist); ‘Building partnerships and collaborations – local to global’ (concerning how to overcome a local lack of infrastructure in order to connect Arts Champion offers with the ambitions of residents). Then there were the two in which I participated: ‘Capturing the local – making it resonate’ which explored how venues connect with areas in which they are not based and ‘Responding to diverse communities and inclusive agendas’ which explored how to overcome ‘cultural barriers of perception’ in order to develop intergenerational and family audiences.

Each explored session themes via presentations from four arts organisations or their representatives. Time prevents an overly detailed outline of the many interesting accounts and personalities present but I was particularly interested in how the Town Hall and Symphony Hall (THSH) had developed a virtual project to explore memories of the legendary rock venue Mothers.

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This project resonates with this researcher as the heritage aspects of popular music are an area of specialisation and I was intrigued to discover how the project had created little wooden artefacts in which to house and display MP3 players with some of the accrued testimony (pictured). I was not surprised to find that one or two of these artefacts had disappeared: if there is one thing worth knowing about the canonisation of pop culture as heritage it is that original, and reproduction artefacts are totemic and highly treasured.

Elsewhere, an account from Erdington Arts Café revealed how, in this Northern ward of the city, there were few venues where cultural events could be programmed although there was a wealth of amateur and ‘off the radar’ activity taking place. As someone with a keen interest in the amateur and informal aspects of cultural work this insight proved tantalising and I am eager for more data about the extent of this activity.

Across other discussions I was taken with a reflection from a representative of the Birmingham Rep theatre concerning how so many people within walking distance of the venue rarely attended. Some of the issues impacting on this locality – around the edge of the glittering Broad Street entertainment strip – are explained in part by high levels of deprivation. The nature of relations between institution and locality was further underlined and explored for him by Rep activities at a local hospital in search of families to recruit as audiences. Underwhelmed by the lack of response to the cultural institution amidst the rather vibrant regular business of the hospital this representative gained some kind of enlightenment from his colleagues in health when he discovered that a significant proportion of hospital users were non-English speakers, a fact that impacted on wider average measures of literacy amongst the recruits they sought to enlist. When it comes to definitions of ‘hard to reach’ and assumptions about the need for cultural participation, such factors barely touched upon the kinds of challenges faced by such organisations – for their outreach projects and indeed for their very conceptual basis and faith in the transmission of Culture.

Across these two break-out sessions there was much discussion of the audience and a challenge to the idea of ‘hard to reach’, of who and what this term was meant to describe and in fact whose responsibility it was for being ‘hard to reach’ at all. In tandem there was discussion of the distance described in such terms between those who ‘have’ culture and those who may be without it, which, as we explored (and as Raymond Williams noted) reduces the category to a formulae. Nonetheless, others reflected on the difficulties of cultural work with the ‘hard to reach’, of the cynicism, rejection and sometimes outright hostility to the kinds of projects with which they have sought to engage communities.

In turn, these sessions gave way to some final performances that made use of the Library of Birmingham’s elegant ‘rotunda’ space. These involved the choirs Ex Cathedra and So Vocal as well as poetry from Amera Saleh and Joe Cook of Beatfreeks as well as the current Poet Laureate of Birmingham Jo Skelt. A fittingly cultural turn at the end of day of reflections on cultural work.

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Finally

As a veteran of such events it was a pleasant surprise to find that it was both focussed and marshalled evidence from participants in order to direct discussion in meaningful and provocative ways. While there was much for us as researchers to connect with in terms of project themes, there was a wealth of insight that inevitably escaped: many threads might have resulted in further productive discussion. For instance, an issue that emerged for anyone with a perspective on the day overall concerned the intense localism of cultural work in each of Birmingham’s wards and how a missionary zeal for meaningful activity and structure was the object of so much activity. There are particular reasons for this approach given the nature of ‘barriers to participation’ for so many in a city of the size of Birmingham and the logistics of its geography. On the other hand, such devolution poses familiar questions about the quality and ambition of cultural provision for a city like Birmingham and the possibilities of trompe l’oeil projects that look outward as well as inward in bringing together communities rather than running a risk of confirming their separateness – even at the level of the post code.

Cultural Work/Cultural Value Symposium, Open University, 21 February 2014.

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The eerily quiet campus of Open University was the locale for an invigorating symposium which set about teasing out the knotty tensions in how we understand value in cultural work. Mark Banks (Open) kicked off the day with an introductory paper on ‘What is Cultural Work Worth?’ Banks resisted the model of a totalising economy, instead pointing towards Justin O’Connor’s work to think of the two values of culture and economy as a genealogy entwined, though not collapsed, into one relation. Culture matters, Banks argued, because of the examination of life, the sharing of cultural and social needs, and the generating and distributing of resources (a doubling of value across the cultural and economic). Calvin Taylor (Leeds), who followed Banks, sought to develop these ideas through a tripartite, rather than ‘bipolar’ model, inserting the need for ethics into how we value the cultural. A tour de force of theory from eighteenth-century philosophy (Locke; Third Earl of Shaftesbury; Smith; Hume; Bentham) to contemporary feminist theory, Taylor questioned the foundations of creative value measured according to utility. In foregrounding social production, and not the marketplace, a space was offered for challenging the dominant paradigm that cultural labour is commodified labour, and that we live within a fundamentally economic set of relations.  Pointing towards the domestic as a scale of non-commodity or exchange forms for cultural work, the paper resonated with our recent research on localism in community-orientated activity. Alike the petty cultural producer, can non-commodity community cultural work be scaled up and spill over out of the localised context? If a new value regime could become the dominant one at a regional, national and global scale, then it remains to be elucidated how this would be worked through, and benefits distributed.

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Excellent other papers included  David Hesmondhalgh (Leeds) on  ‘Cultural, Aesthetic and Economic Value: The Case of  Music’ (including a short Candi Staton interlude) and Kate Oakley (Leeds) on ‘Work, Justice and  Mobility: Policy for Cultural Labour’. In the latter Oakley pointed towards a lessening in mobility in recent years in the cultural creative sector (hardly surprising under the Con-Dem coalition) and a spatialised inequality to where cultural workers are clustered (London!). Still, while not exactly diverse, the average worker is 35, female, earns under £20,000, works two jobs and has a degree (and often postgraduate) qualification. Not exactly big returns in spite of – or perhaps because of – an affectual (cultural) economy of passion and sense of vocation.

Walking interview pilots

Just a quick posting.  We’ve started piloting walking interviews as part of the ‘communities’ work package, where we’re investigating how people living in Balsall Heath and Ordsall experience the creative economy within their neighbourhoods.  I’ve previously done work using walking interviews as part of investigating sense of place in Digbeth, but Balsall Heath poses some interestingly different challenges.  This is not the least because where Digbeth is primarily a working area with not many passers-by, Balsall Heath a has much more active streetlife during the daytime so, in a close knit community, researchers on the street can be highly visible leading to questions being asked as to who were the strangers seen walking around…

Paul and Saskia had already run one pilot when Saskia and I went out on Friday to talk to a second participant.  The weather was somewhat biblical, but our interviewee nonetheless was enthusiastic to show us around for 45 minutes in squally downpours.

GPS data from a walking interview

Paul is also keen to try capturing GPS tracks of the walks and I recorded Friday’s on my phone.  I’ve anonymised this track as we need to get permission from participants before publishing.  As you can see, we didn’t walk terribly far, but spent quite a bit of time hanging around on street corners discussing various features in the landscape as my trainers slowly filled up with freezing rain water.  I think the participant was a lot hardier than me!

We’re going to meet shortly to think through the pilot walks and how we’re going to use this technique appropriately for the neighbourhood contexts we’re working in.  Hopefully we’ll report back on our thoughts about this soon.

Intermediaries, policy and place linked in new United Nations Creative Economy Report

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This week has seen the launch of a ‘Special Edition’ United Nations Creative Economy Report 2013, co-published by UNESCO and the United Nations Development Programme.

Principal investigator, writer and editor of the report, Yudhishthir Raj Isar was speaking on Wednesday 22nd January at the AHRC Community Filmmaking and Cultural Diversity conference at the BFI Southbank (more on the whole conference on this blog soon!). The report has chapter-long contributions from respected academics David Throsby and Andy Pratt and this special edition was produced with the UN Office for South South Co-operation and focuses on creative economy at the local level in developing countries in the global South.

It can be downloaded from here.

He told us that at its launch the previous evening, the response to the report from those who were there was that it was also relevant to developed countries. In a presentation that linked academic research with the policy world, he said the same issues affect the growing subsector of the economy labelled as ‘cultural’ as affect all cultural practitioners: intermediaries, policy and place. He added “It suits us to be included in the cultural economy because it is a sector that is moving ahead” but this is a tendency in economic development that continues to ignore the deep-seated and persistent inequalities between North and South.

However he went on to urge for caution in wrapping creative industries policy up in economic growth terminology, describing it as counter-productive. Success is contingent on many conditions, including geographical, structural and cultural, and any development must pay attention to local strengths. Outside influences may contribute to the generation of highly original hybrids (as is frequently seen happening in music), but they must not impose a model or an agenda for development. Raj mentioned Justin O’Connor’s response to the report on this blog in which he supports it for building on a 2005 UNESCO convention that supported a “diversity of cultural expressions” over what Raj referred to as ‘the reigning paradigm of the creative economy’ that reduces cultural value to the bottom line.

Commercialisation of cultural forms also loses sight of cultural forms that are a communities’ rights to communicate and pays no attention to disonnant voices, leading to disenfranchisement and decreased social capital of local communities. To quote Justin’s article again “purely market-oriented development erodes local cultures and undermines the ability of individuals and communities to access material forms of cultural expression”. Alternative futures for cultural economy development need to be imagined. Funding is one element to be considered in these, but others include ethical decision-making, trans-national connections, access to markets, leadership and education; intermediaries may emerge from many backgrounds. “It is an argument that suggests a new approach to cultural economy would not just ask what kind of culture we want to produce – but what kind of economy we want to help us do this.”

This also begs the question – what kinds of intermediaries are capable of providing meaningful support to the development of cultural economy sectors?

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Birmingham Surrealist Laboratory

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Good news. Just before Christmas, I found out we had successfully been awarded a bid, titled ‘The Birmingham Surrealist Laboratory’ (with Dr Stephen Forcer, Modern Languages, University of Birmingham). Funded by the Communities and Culture Network+, the project builds out of our ongoing Cultural Intermediation work. It represents the first stage of a feasibility study for a heritage space dedicated to the Birmingham Surrealist Movement (1930s-1950s). The seed-funded experimental project aims to investigate the ways in which new digital facilities can help unlock complex issues of cultural heritage and cultural sensitivity in a diverse city. It was inspired by a recent Surrealist House competition staged as part of an art programme for residents in the area of Balsall Heath, south Birmingham (Balsall Heath Biennale 2013; http://www.balsallheathbiennale.com/decorate-your-house-competition).Of particular interest to the project is that Balsall Heath was home to the Birmingham Surrealist Group (Levy 2003; Sidey 2000; Remy 2000), and, indeed, the locale for British Surrealism nationally over the 1940s and 1950s, given Conroy Maddox’s role as a champion of ‘orthodox’ Surrealism (Levy 2003). The Birmingham Group comprised Maddox, Desmond Morris, John Melville and Emmy Bridgwater, and was at the centre of a community of alternative cultural figures including jazz musician George Melly, writers Stuart Gilbert and Henry Green, and poet Henry Reed.

Today, Balsall Heath has been identified as falling within the lowest 5% of neighbourhoods – referred to nationally as ‘Super Output Areas’ – for multiple deprivations (Census 2011). A low take-up from the established, predominantly Pakistani Muslim population in the Surrealist House competition offers productive ground for working through how digital technologies can be used to investigate multiple barriers to mainstream, and more subversive, manifestations of culture and heritage in the city. The project comprises two digital workshops in the Digital Heritage Hub, University of Birmingham, and a roundtable with surrealist experts and community leaders. It also neatly dovetails with the Cultural Intermediation research which will be focusing on communities and the creative economy in Balsall Heath this calendar year.

Exhibitions, texts & mediation – two cases, different objectives

As 2013 ends, I think it’s time to update the project blog with how my PhD at University of Salford is going, I’m now exactly one year into my research (proposal succesfully upgraded in November) and my ideas are developing as the reading and exploratory fieldwork progresses.

Just a quick reminder: the PhD was created to explore how universities interact with the creative cultural economy. I started off with an idea about how film festivals mediate ideas between communities on, off and around campus, animating cultural sector connections and making them visible. I’m becoming more interested now in how universities play a role as intermediaries in the curation, circulation and validation of cultural texts and artefacts (including films) and how the discourses that these texts and objects represent are mobilised through their exhibition or presentation. What are the objectives and orientations of the people involved in this practice? How are people engaged?

Examples of this idea in practice come from recent visits to very different exhibitions in Liverpool and Nottingham, both assembled with university involvement – it’s funny how research into cultural subjects can happen when you aren’t even planning it! I went to Leicestershire last week to visit my sister and because it was raining we scanned the ‘what’s on’ pages of Nottingham city centre venues looking for something to do. We picked Pop Art to Britart at the University of Nottingham’s Djanogly Art Gallery, a selection of around 50 pieces from a private collection of late twentieth century and contemporary art owned by David Ross, entrepreneur and trustee of the National Portrait Gallery.

The gallery itself was founded through the philanthropism of Sir Harry Djanogly (a collector of LS Lowry paintings) and is part of Lakeside, the University of Nottingham’s public arts complex, which has occupied its present loction on the South edge of the University of Nottingham campus since 1992. Also on this site is the D.H. Lawrence Pavilion, built in 2001 and home to two more exhibition spaces as well as a 225 seat theatre. I’ve visited lots of times before and there is always something interesting on.

The current exhibition is free (on till Feb) and includes work by Bridget Riley, Patrick Caulfield, David Hockney, Allan Jones, Gilbert and George, Mark Quinn, Damian Hirst and Peter Blake. There are some pictures from inside the gallery here and more information about the exhibition here:

I was interested to learn that David Ross, Nottingham alumnus and co-founder of Carphone Warehouse, is also co-Chair of a University fundraising campaign Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, the University’s largest ever philanthropic fundraising campaign, launched in October 2011. A press release states that the campaign has now reached £100m of its £150m target and the announcement was made at the launch of this exhibition last month.

While wandering around this impressive show of paintings and prints from Swinging Sixties to Cool Britannia, I’m thinking about what the artworks have been asked to stand for in this context, and whether that matches their original purpose. The double irony of Gavin Turk’s ‘Turkey Foil’ readymade drags pop art into a mildly funny pastiche of itself, gavin-turkDamian Hirst’s spot painting is predictably unsatifying – “insistently frontal” as Adrian Searle puts it. I find them a bit like a Cath Kidston design – basically inoffensive, will hold just enough credibility for now.

1972 by Richard Hamilton There are Pop Art reproductions of images from magazines and newspapers such as Yuri Gagarin in Joe Tilson’s toy-like piece, or Richard Hamilton’s picture of Mick jagger in ‘Swingeing London’. There’s a lot of Kate Moss, too.

‘Rubber Ring Floating in a Swimming Pool’ – an abstract looking David Hockney from 1971 is beautiful and mesmerising, but unsettling given the implied priviledge of the title. In the 2nd room there’s this little portraint of David, by (friend) Jonathan Yeo.

Despite enjoying seeing the works themeselves, there is a pervading sense of fait accompli about this show, it seems to be about acqusition and display, ownership, the images of celebrity culture reflect some sort of self-aggrandising triumph of marketability over substance. It’s as if its strategic function as celebration of philanthropic giving has eclipsed the meanings that the artists ascribed to the individual works on display. I also suspect (maybe unfairly, but hey) that these pieces have not been ‘collected’ for any political potential, rather for their aesthetic value as home decoration combined with ‘bankability’.

As a contrast to this ‘big name, big philanthropy’ message, I’d like to mention a new exhibition Art Turning Left: How Values Changed Making 1789–2013 at Tate Liverpool, put together with the support of Liverpool John Moores University, that takes a global view of how the production and reception of art has been influenced by left-wing values throughout the last two centuries. It has been curated by Francesco Manacorda, (Artistic Director, Tate Liverpool) Lynn Wray, (PhD Researcher at Liverpool John Moores University) and Eleanor Clayton, (Assistant Curator). Francesco is one of Lynn’s supervisors.

The top floor of the Tate is basically a riot of ‘stuff’ – hand-printed agitprop posters, piles of free newspapers, a reading corner arranged by Russian collective Chto Delat? (meaning: What is to be done?) piled with books donated by Radical & Community Bookshop News from Nowhere, a bolt of fabric and coloured threads for you to embroider your own message, Jeremy Deller’s videos of folk practices along the wall and this remarkable banner:

One star piece is one of Jacques-Louis David’s ‘Death of Marat’ paintings, a piece much copied to aid its swift disemmination across France and make Marat a martyr of the Revolution. William Morris wallpapers hang nearby, alongside pictures from the 1930s Mass-Observation project in Britain, we see art in a role as democratic representation, radical response, as subversive framework, an unauthored collective endeavour, challenging order, inviting discussion and negotiating possible utopias.

The Office of Useful Art inside the exhibition space is a project in association with Liverpool John Moores University and is running interventions and workshops throughout, while in January a selection of films will be presented in the gallery with talks by Film Studies scholars at University of Liverpool.

This exhibition suggests that art’s value lies is in its process, asking how to merge art and life. This reminds me of a lecture by Mark Banks, who looked at some of the realities of work in the cultural sector, and suggested these ways people could deal personally with issues of critique in their work:

Grounded aesthetics – Treat everyday life as a source of creativity and aesthetics, remain open to unorthodoxy, apprehend wider structures and create alternative cultural responses.

Social production – Recognise work as a socially embedded activity and find pleasure in everyday practices. Re-moralise economic imperatives by building in social rewards and ethical production. Despite its obvious difficulties, this practice is still persistent.

I want to know how universities are using these socio-cultural practices to connect with the public, to mobilise art as part in political discourses. These two examples aren’t meant to be comparitive, just recent observations and worth mentioning because they can still be seen in January. With this quote (from the Art Turning Left teacher’s info pack) Jeremy Deller perhaps offers a serendipitous link between the two exhibitions : ‘If Pop Art is about liking things, as Andy Warhol said, then folk art is about loving things’.

With my research I’m going to be asking questions about the purpose, rather than the content, of cultural events. By working with the discourses embodied in the texts and objects, do the curatorial collaborators hope to provoke a reaction? What reaction, with what effect? What can the mechanism of art exhibition (in this case) do and how would that benefit the institutions involved?

Diary-keeping and communities workpackage

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We’re now coming towards the end of the Governance workpackage (led by Beth Perry, SURF, Salford Uni). One of the final research exercises the team is undertaking is an innovative diary-keeping exercise with 10 participants in each city (Birmingham and Manchester). These participants have been selected because they offer a unique perspective on working in the urban creative economy: whether as a consultant, artist or education programmer (and in some cases juggling two or more jobs at once).  The diary-keeping exercise is intended as a way in which we can better understand the day-to-day activities of creative workers, and give space for critical reflection on barriers – or support  - that impacts upon work with the most diverse communities. The exercise is now in its final week and we’re looking forward to starting on visual and textual analysis of the diaries.

The new year will see the project segue into the Communities workpackage, led by Paul Long (BCU). In each city we’ll be focusing on a particular area as a way of exploring in-depth the layering and dimensions of community engagement with cultural and creative activity.  One of our key methods for investigating manifestations of culture from a ‘grass-roots’ perspective will be 40 guided interviews with local residents in particular urban neighbourhoods. Balsall Heath is the area selected in Birmingham. It’s a compelling case study, lying 2.5 miles beyond the city centre with a population of around 15,000 recording themselves as 60% of Asian origin, 24% white and 10% black in the 2011 census. While Balsall Heath is well-known for once being the locale of a red-light district, in more recent years the neighbourhood has become a testing ground for national pilots and creative and cultural ‘interventions’, including the Balsall Heath Biennale. Also less well-known is the fact that Balsall Heath was the centre for the Birmingham Surrealist Movement in the 1930s-1950s. It’s therefore a fascinating place that brings to the fore complex issues of cultural value and transmission in a diverse city.

The State of the Creative City

Back in July we held a focus group as part of the ongoing ‘Governance’ work package for the project. We had a great attendance, from organisations including Cornerhouse, Creative Concern, Salford City Council, Brighter Sound, Islington Mill, 42nd Street, Writing Lives, Z-Arts, PalmerSquared, TiPP, Let’s Go Global, BBC, Unconvention, Mancuniverse and the University of Salford. Many people already knew each other, but as it was the first time the project had brought them together, an initial ice-breaker from Karen let everyone introduce themselves and share their reasons for attending.

We focussed mainly on exploring current operating contexts and issues of connectivity and community engagement in Greater Manchester’s creative economy. Having invited participants from SURF’s ‘sister’ project on urban sustainability, the Greater Manchester Local Interaction Platform, funded by Mistra Urban Futures, we were also able to have a broader discussion about the discourse, policy and practice of the creative city and the relationship between creative and cultural organisations and the sustainability, in all its guises, of the city-region as a whole.

Karen asked the groups to choose a framework – either PESTLE (Political, Economic, Social, Technical, Legal, Ethical / Environmental) or SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) and then three groups split up for discussion. One group emphasised the overall context and state of working within Greater Manchester. One group discussed ‘sustainability’ – though they made the persuasive point that siloing the debate on sustainability into a ‘special interest’ is a central part of the problem in integrating aspects of the urban agenda.

A broad ranging discussion ensued from which a number of themes emerged. Participants noted a series of strengths within the current operating context linked to the diversity and variety of creative organisations in the city. They noted that Greater Manchester is more connected now than it was five years ago and working better with different communities. However, this brings challenges as well as opportunities in terms of managing complexity, keeping track of who is doing what and smoothing the flows of knowledge in the sector.

The strength of leadership and brand were cited as success factors by some. However, others noted that reputation can create complacency and a gap between strategy and implementation. The distinct context of Greater Manchester was a factor here, with differences between the 10 local boroughs, uncertainties about how to engage and shape the emerging city-regional governance structures and ensure that the voices of multiple diverse creative and cultural organisations working with communities can be heard and valued. New forms of leadership were seen as necessary, which involve, engage and respect community interests, rather than the current ‘drawbridge mentality’.

Unsurprisingly, a strong economic imperative shaped the current priorities of different participants. Phrases included the need to ‘stay ahead’, overcome ‘project by project funding’, be more ‘commercially minded’ or ‘savvy’ and develop new economic models. Yet equally important was the articulation of different kinds of non-economic values – social, wellbeing, sustainability – which characterised cultural organisations engaged in addressing in meeting social and environmental aims. The passions, beliefs and commitment of individuals were widely acknowledged, but caution was also called for: ‘you shouldn’t build a system on the assumption of free labour’.

Looking forward, participants expressed the need for courage to adapt to changing circumstances, especially as the financial and political landscape is being reshaped in the context of cuts, austerity and local authorities’ defaulting to minimum statutory provisions. This ‘courage’ included joining up audiences and seeing the cultural sector as taking the lead, being brave enough to alter or even reject existing partnerships. Key themes included ‘cultural democracy’ and the ‘democratisation of talent’, as well as celebrating success through the sharing of good practices. Universities were seen to have an increasing role to play in the creative urban economy – good news for Laura Ager, whose PhD focuses on those issues; and a challenge for universities to think through what their role and value beyond the economic might be.

Participants were interested in making different arguments about cultural value – including the wellbeing agenda – and in learning from models overseas. South America was referenced by some as a country to watch for grassroots innovations. Our has started to create a context for this international learning through commissioning scoping papers – one of which is about Medellin in Colombia from Theresa Bean. You can see Phil’s summary presentation on from the recent Project Continuity Day here.

Overall, community engagement was seen to be facilitated in Greater Manchester’s cultural and creative sectors through collaboration, openness and partnerships, along with strong community and voluntary sector networks, innovation and activism. Yet participants were clear that the public sector needs to better recognise, understand and value the third sector as equals, with greater access to discussions at a senior level, via a range of media – not just technology; such as community summits or peoples’ assemblies.

Lunch and networking finished the session – along with an opportunity to look over the posters that had been produced for the Connected Communities programme summit which had taken place in Edinburgh in July.

This was the first focus group of the project and we were really grateful to everyone for coming, giving their time and expertise. Another focus group is planned for the end of the ‘Governance’ work package. Going by the quality and reach of discussions so far, we are really looking forward to it.

Kickstarting a model for participation – communities within the crowd

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I first started to think about the democratic potential of Kickstarter’s funding model in February 2013 at FutureEverything, Manchester’s annual festival of ideas.

The crowdfunding website was established in 2009 to connect people looking for project funding to people looking to invest, launching in the UK in November 2012 (using £ not $). It is not the only one, but I’ll use it as a generic model just for now. The rewards for investing are negotiated into a number of different options (from a free poster to advance access to products to exclusive one off experiences) and the model appears to work well for the creative industries: films are currently the 2nd most popular category of project funding after music.

(Source: stats – open ‘categories’ under ‘successfully funded projects’)

Stephanie Pereira represented Kickstarter at the Manchester conference, speaking in the ‘Platforms’ session which you can see on Vimeo here (her talk starts at 16.00). She suggests that the company provides a “creative ecosystem” for creators and that the 60 or so Kickstarter staff are themselves a community of “artists, designers… philosophers”. However, it was her suggestion that when creatives like games designers use Kickstarter, they are effectively working directly for their fans, that got me thinking about how ‘pay it ahead’ models have a role in connecting communities in the creative cultural economy. This was something to be explored further – and what better way than to have a go? (This is my usual response to most things!)

I’ve been following campaigns around factory farming issues for some time, so when news of a low budget UK film about an organic dairy farmer in Sussex started appearing in tweets by Compassion in World Farming and WSPA I backed it on Kickstarter to help the film maker fund a professional UK cinema launch.

The distribution system for new and specialist films in the UK is currently one of the sub-themes in my PhD. The US movie industry has had a terrific monopoly for many years over what UK audiences get to see in cinemas, historically this has been a problem almost all European countries and affects the circulation of non-American films and their domestic film industries (for some jaw-dropping history on the US cultural mission in the 20th Century, check out this book). Independent film distribution in the UK is supported through film policy in a number of ways, but cinemas still need people to buy tickets if the screenings are to be viable. If a UK film gets distribution, even if it has done well at festivals – as this one had – being able to provide posters, a press campaign and extras such as special guests to support a booking makes a cinema manager happy. The Moo Man film was trying to raise £5000 for such things, including the travel costs of the guests. When the campaign ended, I was pleased to see that they had exceeded their target!

This is where for me, the sense of community can be found in crowd-funding. It comes from knowing that my small pledge and those of hundreds of anonymous, like-minded people had made something tangible happen. Very tangible, actually, as the film was then booked by my local independent cinema and I was able to host the Q&A with film maker Andy Heathcote and farmer Stephen Hook (sadly no cows were available for the date).

This offered another perspective on the community outcomes of the campaign as on a sunny Bank Holiday afternoon in Leeds, about 50 people came to the cinema to see the single screening of this very specialist film and we had a milk tasting and chat afterwards. Puts a new spin on ‘taste communities’, too, doesn’t it?

I’ll be blogging about these sorts of events and screenings regularly on my own blog now and will be hosting more Q&As at Leeds International Film Festival in November.

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