As I walk through Birmingham streets on the way to the university, I notice that the city experience for a new visitor is shopping, as it is in many other cities. I find out that the university had to abandon years of planning after HS2 was announced – the trainline was due to go through the space allocated for a new building. Even universities, massive institutions as they are, have to move out of the way when the corporates are coming through.
Predatory corporates, sit like hawks watching people as they go about their lives, swooping in to pick up any assets of potential value. People worry that their (Council owned) homes will be handed to the developers and they will be moved somewhere else (unknown) with other people (unknown) rather than in the safe and familiar community they live now. Gradually, every available patch of land is converted into expensive flats.
In inner cities, billboards loom suggesting lifestyles local people know are not aimed at them. It has happened before, in the 1960s when whole estates were knocked down and rebuilt. In Balsall Heath, a community member recalled how houses just round the corner were bulldozed due to damp just months before damp proof coursing became available. It’s hard not to be suspicious of fingers of power working invisibly to lay claim to these areas for profit. Who can be trusted and who cannot.
It’s hard to talk about ‘a community’ as people are not bounded, although they do all live physically in one area and what affects that area would affect them all. Try to identify people within the ‘community’ to talk to and every time you try to zoom in on community, it disappears. People do orient around common interests. The cost of living has been cheap in inner cities until recently so people for whom high income was not possible or not a priority were drawn to these areas. Especially if they needed to walk places.
In this project focused on cultural activities, we asked are artists just a niche community who get funding to show artworks to each other because they cannot access funding for it any other way? Are audiences for artwork incidental to the artmaking process? Is that the same for culture as well? Does the audience matter? In this context, how then to interpret art, culture, community, creativity in ways that make sense to others or even to each other in the research team? What words do you use, if you don’t want your words to affect how people understand what you are trying to say. Does art provide obliqueness and therefore a form of transparency?
Timing itself becomes a frame. The terms, the process, the arrangement. Who is in and who is out is predicated more on the structure of the process than anything else. Who gets to decide who decides? The point of this project is to sit outside the local authority / Arts Council frames and yet it would perhaps help to select another alternative frame rather than having one emerge which we do not like. As people manoeuvre to ‘jerrymander’ the process, we could end up in an uncomfortable position, painted into a corner.
My own assumption was that we would support cultural activities as small scale initiatives done by local people who had an idea for something they thought would be cool and which they could persuade their friends, neighbours, local people to support them to do. I imagined a girl who wanted to get a recording contract and needed time in a studio; a kid with a great idea for an app who wanted to get some advice/programming support; a woman with an idea for fluffy dogs that she could sell on a market stall.
Since a university will only pay organisations or people set up as sole traders, this whole vision collapsed and I did not know what to replace it with (immediately). A new vision is building but the question remains – how to enable people’s ideas, and where are the blocks, even unintentional ones?