being and doing in public places

‘It was an exceptionally soft balmy evening for the time of year, which was just that transient period in the May month when beech trees have suddenly unfolded large limp leaves of the softness of butterflies’ wings. Boughs bearing such leaves hung low around and completely enclosed them, so that it was as if they were in a green vase, which had moss for its bottom and leaf sides. Here they sat down.’ (Thomas Hardy, The Woodlanders) 

It feels wrong to try to exactly determine the function of place and landscape in Hardy.  Place is no more or less than the sum of its parts, perhaps. Equally, place is living, breathing, dynamic and changing. 

In thinking about how and where culture is made in 21st Century communities, it’s easy to overlook the ingenuity of humans. Where allowed, creativity thrives in street stalls and corner shops, fly posting, graffiti, street preachers… etc. The problem, if there is one, is not that we don’t know how to be creative.  It is more that there are gatekeepers to venues, sanctioned culture outlets, funding and capital, who are determined to maintain the status quo. 

In this unforgettable period, there is renewed interest in people’s stories, documenting the what happened, how did you feel, how did you get through. Photo essays, interviews, videos, all collecting and storing this so that we don’t forget. Nothing is lost if we make a conscious decision to remember it. As a great example of this, South London Gallery has commissioned a walking map of radical publishers. Looking at this map, for me, there’s a fairly overwhelming sense of what’s been lost and what is threatened.  But our collective memory can hold on to it through its documentation. 

But where does this leave imagination? Arguably we need space and time to think and explore new ways of imagining and telling stories. Which brings us back to the problem of venues and structure. Community and youth centres (where they still exist), libraries and other ‘public’ spaces are essential refuges for people needing space to sit, think or do. But the controlled nature of them suppresses spontaneous activity and self expression. 

In the documentary about the emergence and development of the Wu Tang clan, there’s an electrifying moment where someone (possibly RZA) talks about childhood days mucking about in an abandoned piece of nature near their housing development. And it struck me that the freedom of this experience is central to their ability to tell stories through rhyme, and therefore their success. 

Public space is shrinking and available space is conditional on agreed behaviour and sometimes the exchange of money. Regeneration projects continue apace, and while I have sympathy for cash strapped local authorities, green space and playing space is constantly being eroded or re-created as private space. 

So while I applaud the documentation of our lives and struggles (and it is so important to remember what has happened in this year, particularly with reference to the current wave of Black Lives Matter protests, and to initiate change while remembering it), we also need to think about who makes culture and where it is made. Is it in theatres and artists studios? In pubs, libraries, around public housing estates, community centres? I would say all of those places make and contribute to the production of culture.

As a final thought, I remember being involved in an artist talk in a large public library next to which was a busy Citizens Advice Bureau. As we set up, there was a growing queue of people waiting for advice – it was a place of anxiety, grief and stress. None of what we were doing, as good as it was, was relevant to any of these people.  They didn’t have space or time for it. Arts Council England’s current 10 year strategy makes a valiant effort to talk about everyday creativity and to re-focus the making of culture. But it’s not enough. We need to be more radical and we need to take action. 

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