In the last few days and weeks I’ve been thinking about racism, feminism, cultural democracy and my very imminent PhD. There are moments when these things overlap and shed light on each other. I’ve also been making photomontage, that isn’t finished. Nothing is permanently stuck down. I’ve used white tac, so I can continue adding to, moving and changing the position of each part and the relationships between them. Every time I encounter new ideas, the work changes and becomes more refined, sometimes quite radically. This blog is a further attempt to orientate myself within the systems, structures and hierarchies that I’ve found myself flipping and spinning between. Now, more than ever, I need to live and embody my politics.
Cultural democracy is everywhere at the moment. Last week the Movement for Cultural Democracy launched their democratically formulated Manifesto at The World Transformed at the Labour Party Conference in Liverpool. Sophie Hope, Nick Mahony and Owen Kelly were workshopping about it at Social Tools 2018 in Helzinki last weekend. This is all happening within days of The Arts Council nailing their cultural democracy colours to their proverbial mast on 17th September, by publishing a new report Cultural Democracy in Practice (by 64millionartists). Unsurprisingly there has been a flurry of responses and further discussion about the notion of cultural democracy via social media and through the press and journals. The likes of François Matarasso, amongst others, has tweeting and blogging about it. On 20th September Arts Professional published Are We Misunderstanding Cultural Democracy by Steven Hadley and Elenora Belfoire who quote Nicholas Serota, Owen Kelly, Alison Jeffers, Geri Moriarty and Roy Shaw in their arguments.
Despite this current storm, cultural democracy feels adrift, floating on a vast sea of; policy documents, research, reports, critical writing, case studies, protest and language. Within all this stuff is a mass of contradictions, indifference, sweeping generalisations, panic, frustration and misunderstandings. There is an imperative for cultural institutions to leave education, learning, inclusion, exclusion, participation, outreach, interaction, audience development, education and community programmes behind and progress to becoming culturally democratic. We are told, (we) the cultural elite are anxious, concerned about quality, in crisis, experiencing friction, risking cultural apartheid. We are told what we need - indeed demand, are new styles of leadership, governance, buildings, cultural validation, expertise, co-production and co-curation. We are told this is new, a moment, a shift, an opportunity – whilst another article tells us that we’ve been here before as far back as the 1960’s; this crisis is nothing new and that we are missing the point by not attending to the hierarchies of power at play in this dangerous game of cultural politics. We (those of us who work in the arts) are in short lost; drowning not waving. There is very real threat of everything getting lost and disappearing altogether, without a trace.
I’ve written about my encounters with the Feminist Archive South (FAS) in a previous blog. The learning I’ve experienced through FAS has been so generously facilitated, with cultural democracy embedded deep within it. Everything centres around and grows out of archive.
On September 2nd September I attended the launch of Hatpins to Hashtags (a project developed by FAS) at the Redbrick Building, Glastonbury, Somerset. This event included the exhibition Politics and Protest, Posters from the Women's Liberation Movement exhibition, badge, zine and poster making alongside a ‘discussion in the round’ Feminism Then, Now and in the Future. Hatpins to Hashtags is funded through the Women’s Vote Centenary Grant and aims to explore and reclaim the tools of democracy to mobilize activism and celebrate herstory. Throughout Autumn and Winter 2018, the exhibition, digital engagement, and educational workshops will tour the south west, advocating for greater gender parity in local and national politics and UK democracy.
Democracy can be difficult; opening up discussion with those who have very different lived experiences can make for awkward, even painful encounters. During the discussion at the Hatpins to Hashtags launch, the conversation turned to intersectionality and racism, alongside frank exchanges about how and why someone might identify as cisgender, non-binary and/or goddesses. There were moments when I felt out of my depth and unable to help ease or contribute to the situation. This left me with more questions than answers about how you hold a space for tricky conversations and difference. I do believe, although they are difficult, these tricky conversations need to be given space, so we can move forward. Cultural democracy might not mean hammering out a group consensus, but making space for difference.
On Friday 7th September, I took part in a workshop as part of the digital democracy strand of Hatpins to Hashtags. Alison Bancroft took us through; working with cPanel and Instrallatron, building an online community with Drupal 8 and a brief introduction to command code. There were five participants, including myself. The emphasis of the session was not about learning the 'grammar' of code, but providing a hands on and practical introduction to the basic concepts and skills. Alison wanted us to start with imagining the potential of creating an online community through jumping straight in at the deep end and building and sharing our own individual sites with each other. During the session I experienced the internet as malleable, handmade space, that I could personally restructure and shape around an evolving situation or dynamic. To help me get my head around the concepts I tried to visualise the online structures that Alison introduced to. I imagined the FAS website or domain as an umbrella which was held by a server. Underneath this umbrella, Alison made each of the workshop participants a subdomain umbrella containing a control panel. Using my smaller subdomain umbrella I now have the capacity to create any number of subdomains or sites . With a great deal of practice I could use Drupal8 to construct as many different sites as I want containing public facing elements and sections with private or restricted access.
The first ‘draft’ of my photomontage was a direct attempt to illustrate my understanding of the online structure of the FAS website. Instead of imagining the subdomains as smaller umbrellas I began to think about them as trampolines, which acted as platforms, enabling movement and activity. The process of editing and remaking the collage is not unlike the process of making and remaking a website through code; adding to it, shaping it, leaving it, coming back to it; revisiting and editing again and again. The women in my photomontage are leaping, diving, falling, jumping and swinging within the structure provided by the umbrellas and trampolines. Some are walking, waiting and watching too. Some are well known writers, coders and artists, others are anonymous and sourced from Google Image. Whilst making this collage I had to constantly refine my search terms to find the right images, in women performing parkour and early computer scientists. The early photomontage included scaffolding. It felt right to eventually remove these and just leave the trampolines and umbrellas, in order to allow the women to move freely around the space.
Participating in Engage’s Extend programme (see footnote for further information) is enabling me to step back and view these democratic gymnastics and manoeuvres from a distance. I met last week with my Extend Group Enquiry team and Dr Sarah Plumb on Monday this week to tease out the focus and structure for our group enquiry ‘Who is leading cultural democracy?’ We spent a great deal of time exploring current debates around cultural democracy and our own perceptions of what characteristics make a good leader. Our intention is to collect and analyse data about the qualities that those leading cultural democracy might share and different perceptions or definitions of cultural democracy. We’ve created a short list of individuals that we hope to interview including; a community activist, carnival club organisers, a retired museum Director, young people from a cinema based in a school and a theatre company. We know we need to be acutely aware and mindful about how we create a safe space to have these discussions, whilst enabling those we are interviewing to direct the conversation. It needs to be a democratic process in it’s own right.
Before I go any further with Extend and my PhD I need to acknowledge my own privileged position within the cultural hierarchies I am investigating. During a discussion at the first Extend residential Meg (who is also part of my Group Enquiry team) recommended Reni Eddo Lodge’s book ‘Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race’, which has enabled me to reflect further on my own agency, power, and privilege. I finally managed to read it after experiencing the tricky conversations at Hatpins to Hashtags launch. This book has created space for me to figure out how I can begin answering some of the questions this experience raised about race and holding or facilitating tricky conversations. My PhD is a platform through which I can very publicly question assumed hierarchies and systems that prejudice others. To do this I need to call out racism and prejudice when and where I see it, be acutely aware that my experience isn’t universal and truly listen.
In a conversation about structural racism, a friend of mine once made a point that was both glaringly obvious and painfully elusive. Structures; she said are made out of people. When we talk about structural racism, we are talking about the intensification of personal prejudices, of group think. It is rife. But rather that deeming the current situation an absolute tragedy, we should seize it as an opportunity to move towards a collective responsibility for a better society, taking account of the internal hierarchies and intersections along the way.
Reni Eddo Lodge, Why I Am No Longer Talking To White People About Race p222
Whose Cake Is it Anyway, commissioned by the Paul Hamlyn Foundation 2009, further articulates the problems or difficulties around instrumentalism and institutional power that I want to tackle head on through my PhD.
In a few cases, at the far end of wide spectrum of poor to excellent practice (often within the same organisation), there was a feeling expressed by community partners of being ‘used’ by their museums and galleries as a means to access further funding. For others, while praising the museum’s or gallery’s efforts at ‘reaching out’ to their local communities, the organisation’s claims of community and reciprocity seemed, to their community partners, to be somewhat exaggerated
Whose Cake Is it Anyway, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, p6
I anticipate that Arnolfini’s archive will contain a very wide spectrum of poor to excellent practice. I hope to make space for a range of memories about Arnolfini. I may find funding reports and Council of Management minutes that paint extremely positive impressions of Arnolfini’s education and engagement work. I want create opportunities to explore these situations from the perspective of participants and communities as well as staff.
At an individual project and organisational level, the actual experience of engagement and participation frequently revealed a level of control, risk aversion and ‘management’ by the organisations that served to undermine it’s impact and value for the ‘target’ participants.
Challenge to the organisation’s plans was typically averted or subtly discouraged. Thus, while an illusion of creative participation is on offer in such situations, decisions tend to be coerced, or rushed through on the basis of the organisation’s agenda or strategic plan. Manipulating a group consensus of what is inevitable, usual or expected…..with the concerns, complexities and ‘messiness’ of their (community partners’) lives filtered out’
Whose Cake Is It Anyway, Paul Hamlyn Foundation, p11
Sophie Hope articulated this messiness a little more in a blog post responding to the launch event for the publication ‘Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art’, April 2018
A lot of what I heard was a very positive spin on community engagement and it’s impact, but what about the negative impacts? What about forms of cultural action which don’t fit comfortably with morally, socially correct forms of participation? What about the embarrassing encounters, the awkward bits?.... how do we also acknowledge the power structures, battles and structural inequalities……’
Dealing with tricky conversations may get messy and will need an approach that gives space to all voices, no matter how awkward, clumsy or at odds with the status quo they might be. Exactly how I identify and capture a diverse range of voices and how I create spaces where frank, honest and open discussions can happen, remains to be seen.
There is an ethical question at stake here in the sense of competing to be the authoritative or authentic voice, the voice that is allowed to make definitions, create and hold the dominant narrative – we have called this the question of ‘who gets to hold the umbrella?’. The person who ‘holds the umbrella’ is implicitly allowed to shape the narrative; they maintain control over definitions and frames, getting to say what makes up the umbrella and what is allowed to shelter under it. The inevitable question of who is not permitted shelter also arises; are unsheltered narratives destined to be somehow ‘washed away’, lost to the history that is shaped in the iterations here?
Chapter 1: Introduction, Culture Democracy and the Right to Make Art, Alison Jeffers
Alison goes on to question if Gerri Morriarty (co author) can be trusted to ‘hold the umbrella’ as she continues to work in the field of community arts. Likewise I have many years experience of working at Arnolfini. How might this affect my ability to ‘hold the umbrella’ for this PhD? My handwriting, reports and even my image can be found throughout the archive. I’ve been a participant, freelancer and also a member of staff. How can I produce an ethical project in these circumstances?
The other evening when I was on the way to the supermarket, I put on Radio 4 on the car stereo. Debris Stevenson and Writer was in conversation with Samira Ahmed on Front Row, discussing her new play 'Poet In Da Corner', Royal Court Theatre until 6th October. Something she said made me stop and listen;
For me as a white woman, making a show about Grime, I can't not address that.....I had a moment when I asked ‘Should I not be making this show, why have I been given a platform?’…. Yes I am aware that I have privilege as a result of the way I look. Often how I see it, is there is a room with all the resources in and I’ve gotten into that room and I don’t fully know why my friends aren’t in it. I could be like, ‘No it’s not fair that I’m in this room and none of my friends are and just leave, or I could say actually how do I get my friends in this room?
Debris Stevenson, Interview with Samira Ahmed,(go to 20.01) Front Row, Radio 4, 26th September 2018
Her honesty and directness resonated with me. Likewise, how can I not address and explore the mechanisms of privilege that have enabled me, particularly in the context of this PhD which explores education and learning through the lens of a cultural organisation's archive? As Yusra Warsama said; '....always just take a look around the room, take that personal responsibility to look out the room and see who is not there, then deeper and better still, what voices are in the room and which ones are missing?'
I want to make these systems visible and enable as many of us as possible to navigate, play with and create new structures of power, culture and democracy. Engage have recently published a call for papers for their forthcoming journal on Ethics and Activism (working title). The questions they are inviting responses to include; are there examples of museums and galleries engaging directly in activism and can gallery education be understood as activism?
I want to bring a host of others, their voices, activism and ideas, into the University and the archive with me. I am saying this as I am entering the university which is a complex array of hierarchies, privileges and power. I can not navigate this space alone.
How does the group enquiry work?
On the basis of the preferences expressed in your application form and the Personal Development Plan we ask you to complete once you have been accepted onto the Programme, we will place you in a group of 4-5 peers from the cohort who share similar interests. The purpose of the group enquiry is to: - Enable Extend participants to work together to interrogate aspects of leadership, education and learning by developing, completing and reporting on a joint enquiry - Give participants practical experience of distributed leadership and to enable participants to acquire the skills to devise, lead and manage a project where responsibilities and roles need to be shared, agreed and possibly altered over time - Enable participants to share the outcomes of their work with peers and the wider arts and cultural sector, through Engage’s extensive networks
At the first residential, participants begin to define the means by which they will tackle the enquiry. Afterwards, you’ll develop a budget and project plan. A budget is available to support the costs of delivering and disseminating the outcomes of the enquiry. Outcomes of enquiries might include: - Production of resources and toolkits - Production of online learning and other digital materials - Presentations at conferences, seminars etc. - Production of articles for journals - Artist commissions Additional ongoing support with the group enquiry is provided by the Extend Programme Coordinator. At the second Extend residential, groups will present the interim outcomes of the enquiry to an invited audience of senior arts and cultural professionals. The final outcomes will be disseminated by the end of the March 2019