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A few subversive things…

I haven’t posted in a while, and I can blame that on a number of things – illness, marking, administration, family – but  the bulk of most of my ‘free time’ has been devoted to writing (the fact that writing is now something done in our free time is I think, rather sad). The book is well on the way, and there’s a few papers forthcoming on the subject of cultural quarters and Tactical Urbanism. I’ve also been reading Bradley Garrett‘s book Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, which I had the pleasure to review for the Antipode Foundation.

Also, I have been aiding the Long Live SouthBank (LLSB) campaign which is calling for the preservation of the undercroft skate park in the face of demolition as part of the South Bank Centre’s Festival Wing plans. LLSB made a video ‘The Bigger Picture’  (embedded below) which puts the campaign in the wider context of the contemporary nature of urban development. I had the pleasure of being interviewed for the video, but more importantly, it gives a balanced and objective account what’s going on with these plans (and there is also a very revealing video on how the South Bank are committing ‘cultural vandalism’ here). If you feel compelled to sign the petition, then please do so now, the deadline is the 3rd January 2014 and we need as many signatures as possible by then.


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Save the South Bank’s Undercroft

The Subversive Beauty of the Undercroft

The Subversive Beauty of the Undercroft

On the 6th March this year, I tweeted about plans to redevelop the South Bank in London. The following day, the full extent of these plans were detailed. The new ‘Festival Wing‘ development includes “the under-used spaces from the undercrofts” being turned into retail outlets, and the creation of a “new riverside area for urban arts”. This translates as the reconfiguring of the iconic skateboarders ‘mecca’ (known simply as the ‘undercroft’) into a row of shops, as it is a key site of entry into the new Festival Wing. Moreover, the plan is to create a new site in which the skateboarders and graffiti artists can go, situated a few hundred metres further west, under the Hungerford Bridge (more details here).

For me, this exemplifies many of the problems associated with current urban redevelopment policies. Not only is it a case of a consumerism that is predicated upon a rarified notion of urban culture trumping a subcultural community, but the notion that the skaters (and associated activities) can be ‘rehoused’ in a designated area shows a complete lack of understanding of how such activities work, and what they can bring to a city’s cultural offerings. There are many (inter-connected) reasons why I am in such staunch opposition to this particular part of the development, but for the sake of clarity, I have delineated them into 3 key points…
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Creative Failure – cr8net 2012

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cr8net 2012 at the Royal Institute of Great Britain

Failure is a dirty word. Business leaders won’t stand for it, politicians try to hide it and generally, it’s seen as something to avoid. But it seems, given the talks and discussions today at #cr8net hosted by CIDA, it is essential for creativity. The stories of how creativity has escaped the shackles of prescribed education via playful experimentation with software, and how networking with everyone who will throw a business card at you is critical to success, they sum up the rhetoric of the creative industries for the last 15 years or so. But is failure such a critical part of what constitutes creativity? Does allowing for experiments to fail really aid creative businesses? Or is it more the will to take a creative idea and putting it into practice in a meaningful way?

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The UK’s Cultural Quarters

The notion of the cultural quarter is one that has been around for a while, yet is still being refined. Many cities across the UK have initiated the planning and development of a cultural quarter in an attempt to to stimulate growth and attempt to ‘re-vitalise’ the local economy along the lines of culture, the arts and the creative industries. But are they working? Who are they really for? What kinds are there? Who was involved in their development?

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I hate EveryOne

When you read stuff like this, it really does make you realise the folly of structuralist thinking, or more accurately, the curse of the ‘ism’. I remember reading something by Marcus Doel once when the opening line was “I hate everyone” (I forget in which one of the myriad of his marvellous essays it was in and Google is no help). Of course, by that he was not expressing his hatred for the entirety of the population on Planet Earth, but rather everyone. The idea of a singular notion to describe complexity is a disturbing notion. So, when you read Mr. Cameron denouncing ‘State Multiculturalism’, you have to think what was going through the script writers mind. By extolling multiculturalism as a singular concept to be treated like a commodity is a forehead-slappingly simplistic rhetoric of linearity. There is much reticence in reducing multiplicities to a single form anyway, but to do with something as complex as the cultural rhizome of the UK by shoving an ‘ism’ on the end seems reckless. Culture is not a noun it is a verb. It is a constant juxtapositioning of ideas, things, people, beliefs, practices, communities and so on. It is performed on a daily basis by the constant to-ing and fro-ing of people’s interactions with each other and their surroundings.

Using such language then is a mistake and when it becomes to inform policy it becomes dangerous. Labelling and pigeon-holing is an exercise which is often frowned upon, given that it can reduce richness and diversity to a single descriptor. So by using language which is insensitive to the nuance of UK culture risks reactions that are not helpful, in that they are reactions against an incorrect use of language more than anything else.

In attempting to attack extremism, Cameron has, by using poor language, attacked particular people. Mutliculturalism is not something to attack precisely because it is not a thing at all.


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Homogenous Townscapes: The case of Guildford’s Picture Palace

Having spent the last few years studying cities and extolling the virtues a more inclusive, democratic and less hegemonic urban environment, it was with a certain amount of exasperation that I recently heard some sad, and quite frankly, bewildering news concerning my home town of Guildford. For years now, there has been (essentially, a one-man) campaign to get an independent cinema built in Guildford. Mark Gudgin has lobbied the local government for well over a year (as far as I know anyway, it may well be longer) in order to get planning permission for various sites in the town centre to be converted into The Guildford Picture Palace. To cut a long story short, last week, the local council decided that 170 High Street, the site that Mark and his supporters were hoping to convert, is to be rented by a “fashion retail outlet that does not currently have a presence in Guildford”.

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The BBC and the Body Culturik

Having just attended a seminar at Demos regarding the ‘Politics of Cultural Participation‘, then listening to the speech which was given by Margaret Hodge, it was hardly surprising the speed at which the discussion focused on the ‘arts for arts sake’ debate, given the talk of public spending cuts. Without reiterating the argument that was articulated by Richard Sennett at the event; the cuts in arts funding should not be at the expense of the artist, who often exists uncomfortably at the crash site between a need to foster an environment where ‘creative waste’ is acceptable, and the need for government to satisfy treasury figures and a perception that efficiency is championed over speculative funding for experimentation. One only has to take lessons from the collapse of national banks and the vitriol directed at them to see how amenable the body politik is to failure.

So it is perhaps with a sense of ironic timing that on the same day as this debate, the BBC announces that it will be ‘streamlining’ its products, axing 6music, the Asian Network and reducing the capacity of their website. I will admit that I do not listen to 6music nor the Asian Network, and it would be difficult to argue that if I did,  it would swell the listening figures to a level which would deem the stations ‘un-cuttable’. However, the argument that I would like to make is that the BBC, given it’s special status as an institution that does not have to genuflect to the god-Capital (although sometimes it does seem that way), why does it feel the need to narrow its production remit? Surely it, of all cultural providers, should be in a position to allow for failure? Quality over quantity is essentially the argument that Mr. Thompson is forwarding. This is an admirable stance if ever achievable, yet there are many facets to this neologism. Diversity (and here I do not mean simply cultural/ethic, but a more liminal sense of societal and sensory diversity) is forgone to the detriment of societal well-being. Sure, 6 music may not be to my taste, but that is all the more reason why it should be allowed to remain; the same goes for BBC3 (it pains me so to admit).

Producing “fewer things better” is simply an argument that does not wash. Ploughing more money into Strictly Come Dancing or securing the rights to Mad Men or The Wire is clearly a good way to spend money, but it should be done not in proportion to the target audience. Feeding more money into the ‘middle’ of cultural artefacts (i.e. populous programming) only catalyses and accelerates the narrowing of cultural consumption. If 6 music is turned off, there will be very little market pick up given it’s smaller audience figures, yet celebrating these ‘marginal’ (and I mean this in relation to the sheer weight of numbers rather than as some sort of cultural elitism) should be encouraged, not restricted by what is (hopefully) a short-term depletion of funds.

This decision to centralise funding streams (i.e. depth not breadth) is something which I have witnessed before in Australia’s film funding policies with limited success. The cultural provisions of the BBC should not follow a similar path, as this “centralisation of provision” process is one which is difficult to reverse and one in which a culture of allowing for creative waste is not tolerated. We should be encouraging the increased visibility of media at the margins of what can be called the body culturik. (To quickly qualify this term by visualising it; it is the ‘bell-shaped’ distribution of cultural uptake in society (although less ‘linear’), with elitist culture at one extreme and well, BBC3 at the other.) We should hence not be augmenting the resources that are available to cultural provision that will have little problem gaining similar resources from market forces with public funds. The BBC should be allowed to experiment as this is good for diversity, and this necessitates allowing for failure. This is what has predicated Google’s success. I think Sam Beckett (not the one from Quantum Leap) put it best when he said “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”

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