Monika Vykoukal is currently running the Black Country Creative Advantage Programme, which is linked to Longhouse and the Research Group CADRE at the University of Wolverhampton. Kathrin from public works has been a research fellow at the University until May 2009, just when Monika started, but they never met in person. The following e-mail conversation was a way to catch up on some ideas about art, architecture and regeneration.
Kathrin: You are very much involved in discussion and projects where art/ artists are getting involved in regeneration projects. From our point of view there are many possibilities on the level of discussion, exchange and communication, but it is very difficult to include art in the operative system of regeneration projects, means where artists are involved in making decisions. Do you have a different experience from working in the Midlands?
Monika: To actually briefly try and answer your question, I don’t have a different experience from working in the Midlands. Perhaps Will Alsop in his building of The Public came closest to making decisions about a regeneration project. I am not interested in artists as artists being entitled per se to be involved in decision-making in regeneration projects. I find this could potentially lead into notions I find deeply problematic about the artist as a ‘special’ individual who brings something good because ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’ to a regeneration project. This is, in my view actually quite common in the marketing of such projects, which somewhat obscures questions I find more urgent in terms of both art and regeneration. Since I don’t have the time to write an entire essay, some handy short-cuts: Who decides? Who is affected? The “spin” vs. what actually happens?
My work is not actually directly involved in any regeneration projects, and have moved to the region, and indeed England, for this two-year arts project. The project has developed, through a process-based exchange amongst a group of artists and other researchers as an analysis and critique of regeneration as a discourse and a set of practices. I personally believe that it is important to be specific as to what we talk about, in this case what is called regeneration, and by whom, and to what ends. This project I have worked on has focused on the centre of West Bromwich. Developments that have taken place under the regeneration label include most prominently the art centre The Public, the Tesco supermarket scheme, and the housing schemes on the Lyng. All three schemes, in terms of how decisions are made, in terms of the ‘governance’ modes they exemplify, are conflations of various private and public interests, with the processes leading to their development by and large not transparent or open to non-specialists, including artists. Thus, for example, the council paid towards the hoardings of the Tesco site, and obviously CPO’d local people to clear it. The housing development on the Lyng is an example of removal of council housing, with a concomitant degree of removal of the local community, and replacement with only partially social housing, potentially of poorer quality than what is being replaced, and with much more private property than before, thus lessening the opportunity for poorer people to move, or even move back, into the area. I actually feel that artists might want to take with getting to closely involved in legitimizing such developments through their contributions.
I still think that greater involvement is possible, but it depends on the political frameworks, the institutions involved, and the individuals involved. I believe I could have constructed a project that was more connected to concerns and activities around the town’s development, rather than an external critique, as it were, if I had had more time to identify an appropriate focus for this.
My question for you would be what exactly you mean by including art in the operative system of regeneration projects, and what kind of decisions you think artists should be involved in and why?
Kathrin: I think the ambition to involve the arts in regeneration processes shouldn’t stop when it comes to fundamental decisions, such as whether or not to go ahead with existing plans, which format of cultural regeneration to use, how to define culture,…
The artist doesn’t need to be seen as a special person, but as one of many who can make structural decisions.To avoid misunderstandings, I don’t think that just artists should be involved in decision making, but obviously all those who use the site/area/neighbourhood that is undergoing regeneration, and that more decision power should be with those who use an area.
When it comes to culture led regeneration I think it could often be helpful to actually involve artists/cultural producers more in the discussion of what this could mean. Many prominent schemes use familiar strategies (provision of studio spaces/gentrification, establishing cultural festivals, building landmark buildings) and I’m sure that if artists would have been more involved in those strategies, we would see more ambitious and unfamiliar formats of cultural regeneration.
The planning – the “how to regenerate” – doesn’t really reflect on current debate and practice. If I think of more independent public projects linked to regeneration, such as Park Fiction or Ecobox, it’s apparent that those projects have developed new forms of participation and construction. They have been truly innovative in how to involve/make/shape, and I think it is exactly this innovation and ambition that I’m missing a bit in fully formalised and bureaucratised regeneration schemes.
I keep thinking that it would be great to have “Non-Plan” scenarios again (or, for once), where the outcome is open and all who are involved in an area can be part of shaping it.
I guess what interests us as a practice is the relationship between constructing real-estate and constructing socio-cultural spaces, which could be the same thing, but practically they are very different entities. One is formalised, financed, physical, permanent, etc. whereas more ephemeral spatial constructs such as networks, routes, territories are often highly informal and not easily adaptable to new physical spaces. So the aim would be to be able to think new forms of constructions and buildings as part of culture led regeneration.
You are more familiar with the story/ies of The Public – if you could revise some decisions, when and what would they be?
Monika: As much as it makes me feel uncomfortable, I will try and answer about the Public, but picking up from what you say. Having been created by Jubilee Arts, initially, the involvement of all the artists who were part of the organisation is one of the arguments being made in accounts of the development of The Public, which is quite interesting in relation to what you are saying. Although I am not sure if this is a contradiction there, or just something that could demand further investigation, or if it merely suggests that some artists create buildings like The Public, and some artists get involved in work like Park Fiction.
I have not been involved in this at all, obviously. Compared to the derelict surroundings and lack of alternative entertainment in the town, my first reaction to The Public was almost a shock, and the instant impression that it embodied a ‘Let Them Eat Cake’ sentiment towards local people displayed by the powers that be.
I then read some more specific accounts about the building and talked to some people who have been involved. I think the building and its development are symptomatic in many ways of wider trends, including beliefs in: art and culture as some sort of “magic trick” to solve wider socio-economic issues , an idea of destination tourism , and probably the gentrification you talk about, an idea of creative industries as an economic driver … and all this expressed through big statement architecture with a big name attached to it.
More specifically, it seems also indicative of a lack of sustainability in the widest sense and a lack of consideration for the purpose of the building and to plan what would happen in it. I tend to find that this last – ‘what are we doing and why’ is more important than just a space. However, it t is very much of its time, and was probably very persuasive, attractive and otherwise hard to resist to those involved. Bodies like the Arts Council and I imagine also the local council have been leading organisations in the direction of capital buildings, I believe, and funding those more readily at times, it seemed, than ongoing activity without or in existing venues. Also, the ability to get European money for this one must have been a ‘big carrot’.
I think the notion that you can both work with a – however defined – local community in a social justice orientated way and at the same time create a high art money-maker and tourist destination is probably flawed in and of itself, in particular given a suburban, economically deprived location such as this town. However, even if this venue was more ‘hip’, the question of its relationship to local people, and to the culture made by them in their daily lives would arise. I have had some very interesting conversations with, for example, Graham Peet, who still works there and has been involved from the outset. I think they are y opening up the building to more activity for local people,. I believe they should focus on being a resource for all kinds of activities done by people in the area, and not on generating profit .
But I also think there are issues with the space around feeling welcome there, the static displays of what seem already dated digital art, and which seem very much insensitive to formats and media, ironically. Artworks, with no apparent regard to original medium and format, are displayed on those laptop-screen sized displays, the lighting cannot be controlled very well, you have to go from entry point to exit in one fairground-ride type go, rather than going to whichever exhibit you wanted to look at, Noise travels through the entire building… The issues with the quality of the actual space are better summed up by one of the artists in the project I have organised, Heather Ring, in a text and collages ”The Public as Public Ruin”. It’s part of a pamphletby two other contributors, the Urban Research Collective.
As an incomer and foreigner, one usually has a bit of a hard time coming to a small town anyway, so being open about my misgivings in the face of the most commonly incredible and relentless optimism of those involved with the building has been a challenge. More generally, I think, buildings such as The Public are very much a particular type of ‘Tulip Fever’ of our time and in this sense perfectly embody the speculation of regeneration boom/bust cycles.
I have a few questions for you coming from this, answer what you would like:
How do you see the inter-relationship of real-estate and socio-cultural spaces?
What is culture-led regeneration to you and how does it work well, what would that mean?
Maybe the question I am most interested in is the temporality and mobility you write about in an alternative consideration of regeneration. How do you think this could manifest in planning as well as in lived experience, and does it have to?
Kathrin: Thanks for your very open and differentiated view of the Public and its whole development and meaning for the town, and you make it clear what the role of the building was meant to be. I know less than you, and my critique is not towards a single group or a single decision, but is basically towards the current concept of architecture, and that it responds with buildings.
I very much respect the work of Jubilee Arts and the initial ambition to lift their work in the town to a different level. I’ve seen Will Allsop very early on presenting his models and concepts of the building, and to be fair, at the time it seemed like a new approach towards “community architecture”, one where the different members of the client group and the future users are involved in shaping an idea. I think what has been missed out at the time was a more thorough analysis of the kind of spaces Jubilee Arts was using, appropriating and generating. This basically was a very elaborate, complex and multi-facetted construct. It didn’t have one single building or shiny landmark, but it spread across town, networks, social
I think Allsop’s response as an architect would have been more interesting if he (or his team) could have suggested spatial ideas that would strengthen the “Jubilee Arts Space” and supporting it with either physical interventions and additions or programmatic ones.
And it’s of course not simply the architect’s failure not having delivered something completely new, but a lack of possibilities within the funding system. Things have to be capital or programme, and I think a lot of arts organisations suffer from this.
I think Jubilee Arts did very good cultural work and therefore regenerative work. They have/had access and connections with so many different local groups that their work was probably a good representation what was going on locally. In my opinion, and not really knowing any details, this work should have continued as was, and in order to get more ambitious, new spatial and programmatic ideas could have been tested. Large new buildings and capital investment eat a lot of resources, not just financial ones, and a more hybrid spatial concept probably could have responded better to the previous good work of the organisation.
Jubilee Arts could have defined a new sort of cultural space – with the same architectural ambition, but without the focus on a landmark building. We get easily caught out by the conventions of architecture, because if we can’t see a building, we don’t think there is one.
I think that’s where the challenge is, not by producing more shiny visible architecture, but by paying more attention to everyday spatial production.
How can artists be more involved in this?
I think artists and cultural producers are very aware of how they work in socio-spatial situations. Issues of audience, participation, temporariness, appropriation of spaces etc are well considered, but not taken seriously enough as an actual spatial construct. Artists and art organisations should be more critical when architects promise a building that can respond to what they do and want. Often that is not the case, for many reasons, one being that newly built architecture is a much more formalised process and outcome, and can hardly respond to quick changes, informal uses etc.
At the same time the architectural profession uses its authority to push ideas and decisions, often more in the interest of the developer and client than those who will actually use the space.
Friday Session 42 will bring together two speakers who’s work as artist and architect has led them to a close involvement with nomadic and pastoral cultures across the globe. Pooya Ghoddousi, Architect and researcher born in Tehran and currently living in London will present his work nomadic and transitional cultures. Fernando García Dory, artist and ecologist from Spain will introduce his practice and involvement with the global pastoral movement from setting up of a Shepherds School in Spain to organising a global gathering of pastoralists.
On WEDNESDAY 17th of November 2010
From 7PM at the public works studio
Friday Sessions are informal talks and presentations hosted by public works mostly on Friday evenings - but sometimes on a Wednesday – with invited guests and friends.
Anyone is welcome.
Beer is served.
Pooya Ghoddous (Theran 1974) has worked as an architect, consultant, and designer in companies in Iran and The United Arab Emirates. From 2004 to 2007 he worked with CENESTA, an NGO based in Iran working with Qashqai Nomads on Sustainable Livelihoods and Nature Conservation. During this time he had a first hand experience to live and learn from the traditional nomads and study aspects of the mobilities of transnational Iranians. Together with Farshid Behzad and Sohrab Daryabandari he is currently producing a documentary film on the subject of Nomadism in Iran. He received his master’s in Architecture and Urbanism from Shahid Beheshti University and a master in Urbanisation and Development from London School of Economics and Political Science which was dedicated to Global Nomads or Temporary Citizens: Transnational Mobility of Middling Iranians.
Fernando García Dory (Madrid, 1978) is a neo-pastoral and agro-ecologist artist. His work deals with subjects affecting the current relation between culture and nature in the framework of landscape, countryside, desires and expectations related to aspects of identity, crisis, utopia and social change. He often uses self-organization strategies, initiating collaborative social plastic processes. He studied Fine Arts at the Universidad Complutense de Madrid, and Rural Sociology. His interest in mobility, rythms and relation with space, made him to start to work with trashumants and nomads. After creating a Shepherds School, he organised a World Gathering of Nomadic and Trashumant Pastoralists, resulting from it the WAMIP ( World Alliance of Mobile Indigenous Pastoralists) , representing the 250 mill of nomadic pastoralists in the world.
cultural production can come together – and in simple terms, it is by letting go of the building as the only form of construction. Over the last years we had a few opportunities to work in the Midlands – most of them addressed this question of how does a cultural space become one, and how is it shaped by whom. In 2009 we did a public mapping.
The mapping took two weeks and invited all visitors of the Gallery, to put themselves on a wall size map, with information of where they come from and why they are here today. Over time the clear outline of the gallery got covered by hundreds of lines, connections and reasons. Wolverhampton Art Gallery disappeared as a buidling and became visible as a widespread, heterogenous field of connections and locations. A similar question “Where and what is an art space?” was asked during a Symposium in Shrewsbury in January 2008 (well, this is not exactly the Midlands but it was in conjunction with a research post at the School of Art and Design in Wolverhampton), called ” Rural Art Space“. This was part of a two months long public programme of workshops, exhibitions and events co-organised and curated with myvillages.org and Adrian Plant from Shrewsbury Museum, called “Why we left the village and came back“. We specifically looked at cultural production within a rural environment, and the symposium tried to tackle the question of what might be specific to the rural, and if rural art spaces should simply be copies of urban models or develop their now typology. And, last but not least, we did a project with what was then Jubilee Arts, using our Mobile Porch as a roaming public space on West Bromwich High Street, to propose and test different ideas of publicness and public structures.
Sunflower Avenue connects MaBley Green to Victoria Park cutting straight through the heart of Hackney Wick. It is a Local Initiative by Lea Bank Square Purple Garden to establish a planted connection between the two local parks
The walk will take approximately 1 hour and will finish with a nice cup of tea at Lea Bank Square Purple garden
The debate about “commons” both as a concept and practice seems to be growing by the day. It even seems to replace a discussion about “public space” and the “common” is by some talked about as the “third way” between private and public. We don’t think that’s necesarily the case, and “commons” could lie both within the private and the public, and always has done. It is a term that is close to what we do and how we think. We are currently working on a joint text together with Celine Condorelli from support structure, who has done extensive research on the history of Commons. Here are a few of the texts and sources we use for our discussion: a whole issue of the An Architektur magazine on commons, a website called the commoner, and the book commonwealth by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt.