Thinking recently about the exchanges people make, in their minds or in some kind of actuality, to make sense or order out of grievances or gratitudes. If we perceive debt as a kind of recognition of some sort of exchange, often between unequal partners, this makes sense of the conservative view of worth. Some children are hungry because their parents are feckless, not because of a range of vicious inequalities over which they have no or little control.
David Graeber, referring to the debt between child and parent says ‘the fact that mothers transform their very flesh and blood flow into milk; they feed their children with their own bodies. In doing so, however, they allow unlimited love to be precisely quantified…The figure soon became canonical. To repay this milk debt, or indeed one’s debt to one’s parents more generally, was simply impossible.’
The choice inherent in this kind of parental ‘love’ is negligible: it is something most people feel instinctively. To expect to have it repaid in some way may feel like justice, but is this really fair or just? No one, after all, asked to be born. Parenting is (at its best) ‘if you fall, I will catch you’. It is an abstract trust that increasingly over time gets tested. Families, in theory, provide a regularised and predictable structure in the early years before a gradual pulling away loosens, stretches and distorts bonds.
In the film Fish Tank, the hero character – the petulant, angry and slightly wonderful Mia – is alone in the truest sense. She alienates or is alienated by a series of people: friends, education, mother. The director uses breath, silence and submerged sound to create a sense of being ‘under’: out of control, out of her depth, underwater. The mother is hostile and emotionally absent.
For Mia, the trust in people and things to back her up has long dissolved into nothing. Her ties to social and institutional relationships are tenuous and fractured.
Most of my buildings either vacant or drug spots
You dream to make it out but then you wake up to gunshots
I know you consider me your home, your family for life
But I betrayed you, left you scarred and damaged for life
I took a childhood from you and murdered your friends
If blood thicker than water, you better learn how to swim
Urban centres (or more correctly, neo-liberal governments) in the Global North have decided to leave families to it. Sink or swim. If you sink, it’s your fault. If you need services, you can expect to be treated abysmally, or, you can throw yourself at the mercy of charities. The predictability of ‘I will catch you, if you fall’, the unspoken contract of mutual care whether inside or outside the family unit, is present for some (and we tend to call these the privileged) and absent for others.
‘Shivering, Denver approached the house, regarding it, as she always did, as a person rather than a structure. A person that wept, sighed, trembled and fell into fits.’ (Toni Morrison, Beloved)
In Buchi Emecheta‘s The Joys of Motherhood, a searing indictment of abandonment and inequality, we see both the frailty and fierceness of families. There is nothing weak about Emecheta’s women, but neither are they the selfless martyr that we often have forced on us in Western mythology. The concept of the selfless martyr enables the concept of a debt to parents that must be repaid.
For most of us, families are messy and unconventional. Sometimes we are caught, sometimes we are left to fall on our own. The best and the least that we can do, as my dear friend Lee-Anne used to say, is give them something to tell Oprah about.
*In the UK, for those reading from elsewhere, people have started calling the large, hierarchical, national arts organisations the crown jewels (not in a nice way).
(I apologise for the length of this, it was written for something else but sharing it here anyway.)
Governance & the development of local groups
Arts Council England’s Creative People & Places (CPP) programme is predicated on the principle of empowering communities to take the lead in shaping local arts provision. In Hounslow, groups of local people (by which I mean communities of people in a particular place who exist outside of power or authority holding positions) meet to determine what is needed in their communities. This looks like small gatherings of volunteer community members, facilitated by a paid arts worker, developing creative activity ideas and co-managing the process. It is a genuinely shared system, where decision-making is solidly with the group of local people.
Over a period of 5 years, this has evolved into attendance at consortium (the governing body) meetings, meaning local people are taking steps towards a genuine sharing of the governance of the programme, embedding it in the life of the community in a move towards real sustainability.
There is an ebb and flow to this work. People have busy lives and the appeal of meeting in a room, to talk about culture and creativity where you live, is not necessarily self-evident. Even trust based relationships don’t always equal attendance and commitment. But sitting behind the engagement work, is the intention to build the cultural infrastructure of the borough, linking groups, supporting artists and creative companies, and sharing expertise.
One thing that has always been evident is that I (we) don’t need to teach anyone how to think or how to appreciate culture and creativity. Even in spite of the crushing depletion of imagination by formal education, work and family duties, it is crucial not to assume that there is a group of people who get culture and a group who don’t. This is a fallacy.
Why would or should anyone be involved?
Aside from the broad benefits of watching, performing, taking part in cultural and creativity activity, why would anyone want to give up their free time to do the hard work of making this happen?
If we understand that ‘local communities’ are organisms that contain disparate individuals, community groups, power players, change makers and people or institutions of authority, then power structure in any given community can be seen as ‘a pattern of relationships which enables individuals possessing social power to act together to affect the decision-making of the social system on a given issue area…social participation is oriented towards gaining a reward or avoiding a punishment’ (Power structure and social participation in community action, Abdel-Hamid Mohamed Hasab-Elnaby). People need a reward for the time and energy they put in. This is rarely money in community settings, something that should be considered if we are serious about an equitable approach. Equally, evidence of success (tangible, visible outcomes) and fun, enjoyable processes in the short term are likely to engender enthusiasm and commitment. The challenge with building longer term participation based decision making is that the quick, visible wins are not always possible. Community organisers and facilitators must understand this and structure a framework that includes opportunities for participants to engage in fun, imaginative workshop style activity, social activity as well as building towards a long term strategic goal.
For this work to be embedded in the life of the community, we need to draw in people with social influence, people who are able to connect and network socially and to maintain a fair balance of different sectors of the community including consideration to gender, ethnicity, class, age, disability, faith, sexual orientation etc. We need to understand their individual concerns and to have a flexible approach that can take these differences into account. This said, the work that is derived through gathering people together must then be determined collectively by those present, not by those nominally ‘in charge’. This is where the individual may become the collective. Mobilisation around local issues can then take place in a shared forum.
If we accept that ‘participants exit from both instrumental and expressive structures because of asymmetrical exchange’ (Abdel-Hamid Mohamed Hasab-Elnaby), we also must consider that participation is a conveyor belt that people step onto and then step off of. It is not linear and there isn’t one trajectory that leads to success or completion. Theory is only worth as much as our understanding of people’s personal and group pressures and needs. To maintain participation, organisers must be adaptable and flexible in their approaches. A methodology that enables people to step off the conveyor belt when they need to will sustain their participation in the longer term.
Where will this community led work be programmed?
Visibility, location and relevance feel like keywords for community led practice. In CPP programmes, work often takes place in public spaces, where people are, live, shop and play. Visibility also supports the involvement of new people into the decision making group – noise, colour and action feel important to this. One of the most successful hyper local activities I’ve been involved in was a night time parade with lanterns, singing and an almost life size elephant puppet on an estate in Hounslow West. The action itself drew people out of their houses, it had the quality of spontaneity.
This can be a difficult issue where communities come into contact with paid staff and illustrates the inherent contradiction of ‘professional’ community work. ‘Paid workers’ need to be protected as they carry out work on behalf of an organisation. Yes, this is valid. But what does this say about the relationship between community members and an organisation? That interaction on a personal level is taboo or to be feared? And what about the consideration of homes as spaces of production and what values – what different value – could this bring? And what about equality? What does it mean when one set of people are paid to maintain systems and have their ‘personal’ protected and the other set are unpaid and, by default, feared? These are anachronisms that need to be investigated and articulated. With public places becoming privatised as part of new developments, the home and personal space becomes increasingly important.
Who are the gatekeepers to venues and money?
Authority has an inverse relationship to influence. Meaning that the roles of power players in the community – or those with social influence – are not the same as those with authority – funders, local authorities, the holders of actual power. Arguably, cultural venues are also authority figures, or perceived to be. Relationships and balances of power are delicate, and those holding authority should be working hard to de-mystify their systems in order to enable two-way conversation.
Do we have truly embedded cultural venues? Some, not many, I would say. Community centres often have entrenched difficulties with literal gatekeepers and can present financial barriers. Properly staffed cultural venues are often hemmed in by the need to raise income and must compete with other organisations. Neither of these models quite seem to fit what is needed.
Closer to a solution, the Transport and General Workers Union 6/612 Branch in 1970s/80s Liverpool, with a membership devastated by unemployment and in a city suffering from generational disadvantage, was involved in setting up centres for unemployed people. Having physical centres where people could sit, talk, celebrate, commiserate and learn is vital to the development of confident communities.
‘We were very interested in getting young people involved, so we set up music facilities and a concert venue…We also had a recording studio..which we used as a place for young unemployed people to help get their bands into the music business’ (We shall not be moved, Brian Marren).
The centre had bar revenue, heaps of charitable donations – notably from people in the music business – and a supportive Merseyside County Council (abolished by the Thatcher government in 1986). That the centres were able to exist for as long as they did is due to the characteristics socially and politically of Liverpool at the time. But it tells a story of being responsive to the needs of the community – opportunities to learn, socialise and create music – and of being managed by local people. It surprised me in no way that Marcus Rashford attended a youth centre that offered friendship, learning and food. How do we expect children to grow, physically or emotionally, when they are hungry?
Venues are by their very nature expensive and labour intensive. Does this indicate that a shift away from traditional, often exclusionary, venues is necessary?
Certainly, a situation where well-dressed people paying £75 plus for a ticket to the opera may step over the body of someone sleeping on the streets, is indicative of our ravaged priorities. This doesn’t mean there isn’t a place for opera – or west end, or any other kind of high price entertainment. The problem is not with opera and the people who pay the price of attendance: the problem is the failure of a system.
It is futile to talk about the provision of art and culture without considering its wider context. Nothing exists in a vacuum, after all.
What is needed is a complete overhaul of our system of democracy. An occasional vote at the ballot box is not a truly representative democracy and actively disempowers people. We have a network of local authorities that have local relationships, and connections with their communities. Let’s start there. Properly funded local authorities that are accountable to their communities, are empowered to set budgets and make decisions that benefit local people, that are informed by and collaborate with local groups.
To support this invigoration of local authorities we need Universal Basic Services that are managed by central government: health, education, clean public transport, digital services, access to safe, secure and affordable housing with a financial support system for those not working. And culture.
How can culture be managed as part of Universal Basic Services?
The crown jewels – an extended network
Everyone should have access to an institution of national significance. These would need to be in towns or cities – but somewhere accessible to people in a defined geographic area within a reasonable time frame. These types of large institutions should be governed by boards that include local people.The complete removal of the prerequisite of expertise will support people to have a go. Communities should have influence and share decision making with a paid staff. Local people need to be invited in, and underrepresented groups supported to be creators and consumers. Mentoring, incubators, co-creation, young people programming, community take overs.
Arguably this is unfair to people living in rural areas. Maybe this can be reflected in additional funding for those places and in supporting people to run the events and activities that are right for their communities.
Local Authorities (LAs) are responsible for the support, including funding, of smaller venues, artists, and community ideas. As above with the larger institutions, LAs work with local people and groups to identify needs, gaps, opportunities and challenges. LAs work with and for the needs of the residents, with regeneration and improvement work benefiting local people, not pushing out those without a financial stake. Community groups should be given the management of shared spaces, if they want it, for long term use for entertainment, culture, leisure and play. Housing estates should have tenants and community spaces returned and restored. Spontaneous activity should form part of this community based cultural output.
ACE, strategic direction and quality control
What’s the role of arm’s length bodies in all of this? They remain as important advocacy and advisory groups that lead on research and strategy. They are transparent, accountable and scrutinised.
‘We need free money’ (Hounslow community activist)
The hand of organising, or state authoritarianism if you like, is evident in this proposal. Which suggests that the underpinning theory is one of the ‘knowledgeable’ holding (continuing to hold) power over the rest. This is not in fact the intention. Leveraging state power for the benefit of local people, however, will support the creation of the conditions where permission isn’t necessary, and spontaneous, reactive and proactive community organising can occur.
Culture is not something that we offer, or give, to people, it is something that exists. Popular culture, as a community based tradition, seems to have lost its momentum with the acts of enclosure and the right to common land. However, television, cinema, fashion and music, for example, continue to thrive in what we might call the popular realm. People are accessing culture everyday in homes, streets, pubs and workplaces.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t need for a more public form of cultural creation and consumption. We need to work towards a point where the ‘work of creation’ is a possibility for more than the elite, where there isn’t a cultural cringe about ‘popular culture’ or ‘community art’ and elite, professional practice. Where access to knowledge and information is not quarantined for a few and owned by the powerful. Where the state provides access to good quality education, housing and culture, developing a population that is politically engaged locally and nationally, and is able to think critically and imaginatively about the world.
Arguably, we have been experiencing an economic and social catastrophe that started with the Thatcher government and is getting progressively worse. With a climate breakdown imminent, we cannot afford to be complacent. Change is needed, and I realise of course that there is no utopia, and nothing comes without a fight. The status quo is unequal, benefitting a few over the many, creating both billionaires and people who are homeless and stateless. The establishment and their media friends have very good reasons for keeping it this way. Improving political engagement and our form of representative democracy would be a way of starting to shift our paralysed way of making decisions.
‘We are being sucked into a foul, bureaucratic swamp’ Lenin, quoted in S.A. Smith’s ‘Russia in Revolution’.
‘Within this fetid ecosystem the air was too stale for new ideas to grow’ Gary Younge, quoted in Nesrine Malik’s ‘We Need New Stories’.
There is much fetidness and foulness in the world today. Nigeria, Trump, Tory MPs (who are as clueless as they are hypocritical). What we’re seeing at the moment in England is the continuation of entrenched class hatred wielded by Tories in the name of maintaining and consolidating power.
Two massively alarming topics this week: the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the rejection of a continuation of the Free School Meals scheme over holidays. Does this feel like an opportunity to change? Or is it a moment that a stressed nation will quickly forget? It’s too early to say. One thing feels clear: local leaders making a noise, whether they be elected officials like Burnham or members of the community with a large platform like Rashford, are crucial and needed.
Local engagement – actually any kind of engagement – in politics is desultory. Grass roots activism and local campaigns mobilising around local issues can be and have been successful and are an important part of the political ecosystem. But representative democracy is devoid of the input of local people (by which I mean communities of people in a particular place, who are outside of the political and capitalist classes) beyond casting the occasional vote at the ballot box:
‘Under the parliamentary system each citizen casts his vote into the ballot box once in four or five years, and the field is then clear for the members of Parliament, Cabinet Ministers, and Presidents, to manage everything without any reference to the toiling masses. Gulled and exploited by its officials, the toilers have no part whatever in the administration of the capitalist state.’ (Soviet or Parliament, Nikolai Bukharin. Source: Marxists Internet Archive)
Looking purely at the structure (and this is in no way an interrogation of what is a complex history), Soviets were workers’ councils: ‘It is not an organisation of officials independent of the masses and dependent on the capitalists.’ (Soviet or Parliament, Nikolai Bukharin. Source: Marxists Internet Archive). Soviets are ‘the immediate organisations of the masses themselves i.e. they are the most democratic and therefore the most authoritative organisations ..which facilitate to the utmost their participation in the work of building up the new state’ (The Foundations of Leninism, J.V. Stalin). So, a way of local people to influence, steer and shape policy and decision making.
In 1950s Colombia, Juntas Accion de Communal (JAC)s (community action boards) were adopted as ‘strategic state induced mechanisms created to pacify class-conscious peasants’ (Revolutionary Social Change in Colombia, James Brittain.) Nevertheless as a methodology for involving local voices, there is value here and tradition here. A way for communities to take action and be involved in local planning. JACs evolved over time, changing their relationship with the State, and in some cases were mechanisms for resistance.
Rebel groups like FARC-EP governed areas, creating new systems of social order. Ana Arjona’s Rebelocracy analyses how armed groups and communities develop a new way of working together and what contradictions are thrown up: ‘when (local) institutions are legitimate but not effective, or effective but not legitimate, the (rebel) group can expect to find a divided community where at least a sector is willing to bring about change – be it regarding class structure, ethnic prerogatives, social mobilisation, or any other grievance…By making alliances with key actors, infiltrating their organisations, or colluding with them, the armed actor penetrates the community, gains power, and eventually establishes a new social order of rebelocracy’. Arjona goes on to describe the role of rebel groups (and paramilitaries) in administering justice locally and I feel that this idea of taking the ‘law’ out of the hands of ‘experts’ and re-creating it as a system of listening and sharing, within a framework of rules that citizens abide by, has merit. Again, I’m wary of being reductive and am aware that these are complex histories.
In early Soviet Russia, as S.A. Smith observes, ‘the majority of peasants, though disgruntled, appear not to have been deeply hostile to the government and a sizeable majority positively approved the Communist ideal in principle, seeing in it an extension of the values of the collectivism, equality, and mutual aid that were inherent in the commune’ (Russia in Revolution, Smith). In Latin America ‘building communal power meant dissolving political power into the community itself; it meant “broadening of democracy in which the communities will assume the fundamental powers of the state”’ (Building the Commune, George Ciccariello-Maher).
In 21st century Britain, there is little interest from power players in this way of building decision making: of course there isn’t, it would remove them from their happy place. The chip chip away at the ferocity of late stage capitalism can bring us some relief: improved working and living conditions, better roads, schools and hospitals. A Corbyn led Labour government would certainly have been a step in the right direction. But our connection to communal living, localised ways of truly making decisions, seem to have largely disappeared with enclosure.
There is rage, of course. Focus E15 have campaigned on council housing for over a decade, Grenfell United continues to stand up for the rights of tenants, BLM UK has become a constituted body and renamed as Black Liberation Movement UK. These are important and necessary campaigns. But they are mobilisations around issues and the work does not necessarily address structural change or provide visions for a new way of governing.
Closer to a politically wide-ranging solution to an issue and in a generationally different Britain: in 1970s/80s Liverpool, the TGWU 6/612 branch (of which 90% of the membership was unemployed) was involved in setting up centres for unemployed people. Brian Marren quotes Kevin Coyne: ‘The Unemployed Centre in Liverpool was founded on the basis that unemployment was a creation of political action and therefore only a political solution could solve it…(we) felt that we had to pursue a policy of campaigning by way of mobilising politically’(We Shall Not be Moved, Marren). Having physical centres where people could sit, talk, celebrate, commiserate and learn is vital to the development of politically informed and confident communities. That the centres were able to exist for as long as they did is due to the characteristics, socially and politically, of Liverpool at the time. It would be very difficult to do this in gentrified London, for example.
The signs of urban Mayors now speaking up and providing politically based opposition to central government are heartening – could this be the start of a revitalisation of local authorities? Local authorities are closer – should be closer – to their communities and have embedded local relationships: ‘Mayors work hand in glove with local NHS leaders and regional public health experts. We have a deep understanding of the complexity and diversity of our communities. We have strong links with local business leaders and understand the strengths of our local economies. Crucially, we have shown ourselves capable of reacting to events more quickly and devising more innovative solutions than national government.’ (The Guardian)
In spite of the specific public health topic of this article, it is time that local authorities were funded and empowered to deliver real services that respond to local needs. Any change must incorporate local representation – in a meaningful way. Soviet style committees, that have power and cannot be ignored, local groups based on mutual aid and care. These are models to adapt and learn from.
Whatever the current government may say about levelling up, what they don’t mean is listening to and devolving power to local people. And to be a truly representative system of governance, this is exactly what is needed.
Reading some old, old letters written by my father to his brother, I came across this critique of the ‘dead sterility of Beckett’: ‘audiences feel at once flattered and reassured by him…the modish despair helps. There is something comforting…how much harder to accept and live up to Blake’s optimism, which is a judgement on all our failures’.
Although it would be misguided to read too much into this, there is something very real about digging into despair and what this offers us. Viewing, listening to or reading narratives of poverty and struggle, mental ill-health or trauma is a kind of vicarious, therapeutic activity. It’s like lowering yourself into despair knowing that you can easily pull yourself back out.
People who write and create stuff about their experiences, what they see and hear in the world, what change is needed: they are not creating work explicitly for that or any audience. There’s something to say, something that needs to change. Whatever the audience sees and feels, well that’s up to them. I remember once someone walking into an exhibition of my work, glancing at the walls and saying ‘I don’t want to see this, I want seascapes and sunshine’. There’s nothing to do but shrug and say ‘well, you will have to look for that elsewhere’.
In October 2020, every day is getting progressively worse. And it isn’t just about public health, although that is casting a long shadow. The distance between government and power and people on the street is growing. It is only a handful of Labour MPs, Andy Burnham, Sadiq Khan and Marcus Rashford who seem to have any grasp on reality whatsoever. Scientists, artists and left journalists are enabling me to hold on to my sanity. If it wasn’t for these few voices, I feel we would be slipping into a dystopia that not even science fiction writers would dream up.
Of course I’m being self-indulgent, and for many people in the world, this has long been the status quo. In the UK, it is Black History Month. Catherine Ross writes: ‘2020 has held a mirror up to the world and forced many to see the reality of racism in all its guises…In the UK, the scale and impact of institutionalised racism has been laid bare, with young Black men stopped and searched 20,000 times in London during the coronavirus lockdown (the equivalent of 1 in 4 young Black men)’. This period has certainly highlighted a gaping inequality. but we knew it was there all along. There has been no meaningful intent to change by those that hold power, and there never will be.
‘Poverty made me a beast, I battled the law in the streets
We all struggled, but your struggle ain’t a struggle like me
Well how could it be when your people gave us the odds that we beat?
I mean, fuckin’ hell, what about our brothers that are stuck in jail?
That couldn’t bust a bell, they held a bird and gotta live with it’
It is up to us, to force change and, without wanting to sound reductive, we must do this together.
The question of who gets to tell stories – whether of despair, power, joy or change – must be remembered. Who gets to imagine a new way of being, who is represented in these conversations and who has the power to effect change? Artists, writers, poets and musicians have an important role in shifting thinking. The way that they are able to share and shape information is critical. But that doesn’t necessarily result in access to power. Regardless of whether young people want to be writers, bankers or power players, they need to be given opportunities to think and play, supported to take risks and explore ideas, no matter what their cultural or class background is. And, as Rashford reminds us, while we allow children to go hungry, so the status quo remains, and the prominent and dominant voices continue to be principally those from ‘privileged’ backgrounds.
I’m still dwelling on how we change local energy into power, how we address the distance between the governed and the governors. The freedom to play (by which I mean explore and create) must form part of this. How can we live in a future without voices like this one:
then once those white boys were done with me
they turned their god onto Francis Uwagboe
pulling the sky from under him the salmon of fists
the faith of feet curving him into another dramatic
pause his breathing mirroring a faulty generator
his pupils two slammed priests my poor Francis
who would always clock the more difficult levels
who always managed to beat the bosses in silence
was left in the hush of the forensic team’s brush
the police incredulous a voice safe in its transceiver
Returning to despair (but not sitting in it like a lukewarm bath). I’ve lately been exploring the work of Andrey Platonov, and it’s interesting to view his work in the context of where we are now. Platonov was active in post revolution Russia and reputedly got on the wrong side of Stalin, although not to an extent that endangered his life. His narratives of an early Soviet Union struggle to build socialist states are the talk of a kind of alienating power but one that is not very different from what we are experiencing now.
‘In accord with the activist’s words, the kulaks bent down and began to push the raft down towards the river. Zhachev crawled along behind the kulak class – in order to guarantee it a sure departure downriver and out to sea, and to calm himself still more deeply that socialism would come to be and that Nastya would receive it as her wedding dowry, while he, Zhachev, would most likely perish all the sooner, as a tired prejudice.’ (The Foundation Pit, Andrey Platononv)
The Kulaks are fated to launch their rafts to nowhere; a state enforced ‘socialism’ is envisaged for the leaders of the future and death is the only certainty.
What the rest of the year holds is not certain. And this uncertainty is contributing to a kind of collective inertia. What is clear though is that if we don’t force a change, raise our voices and do something, history will wonder why.
(Cultivating sorrow in a locked chest is from the story ‘The Locks of Epiphan’ by Platonov)
‘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.
”I was only a working-class boy from a Nationalist ghetto, but it is repression that creates the revolutionary spirit of freedom. I shall not settle until I achieve liberation of my country, until Ireland becomes a sovereign, independent socialist republic. ” The words of Bobby Sands as quoted in IRIS, Vol. 1, No. 2, November 1981 (IRIS was a publication of the Sinn Fein Foreign Affairs Bureau).
The complex patterns of rebel systems and anti-systems are intriguing and well documented. Ana Arjona’s Rebelocracy looks at rebel (FARC, ELN etc) and rightwing militia held areas of Colombia, examining how rebels create systems of governance that are often more responsive to people’s needs because of their very localised nature (my interpretation).
Sands and his comrades set up alternate systems inside prisons, they had hierarchy and leadership. Those who were chosen for hunger strike were carefully selected. It wasn’t anarchic, it was precisely planned and executed. ‘Prison writings originating in the Cages of Long Kesh provide dramatic evidence of how Republican prisoners co-opt and appropriate the space of the prison to at least partially invert the disciplinary structures intended to break them and isolate them from their comrades’ (Lachlan Whalen). Steve McQueen’s ‘Hunger’ situates Sands’ political activism in the physical body and mind, these becoming the embodiment of the Republican message: its actuality.
Political activism as a driving force co-opts creativity and imagination. The desire to know more about the struggles of others can tell us much about how our own battles may be fought. What has happened elsewhere can help us understand and reimagine that story as our own. Systems, as described above, enable things to happen: they create the space where collaboration and new thinking may happen, disruptive and imaginative.
‘Sands… read voraciously – his favourites including Frantz Fanon, Camilo Torres, Che Guevara, Amilcar Cabral, George Jackson and, of Irish writers, Connolly, Pearse and Mellows’ (Ten Men Dead, David Beresford).
Inside prisons, creativity emerges, perhaps through boredom, perhaps through the need to self-express, in drawing, painting, music and writing in ways that are both allowed and forbidden. The most interesting activity is that which is of the forbidden kind. The ingenuity of prisoners in finding ways to communicate tells much about how creativity, repression and political activism may go hand in hand. Irish republicans used codenames to protect identities both within and without prison walls. Radios, code named ‘Mrs Dale’ (a popular radio soap at the time) were smuggled into Long Kesh in the usual way (i.e. hidden internally). Ngugi wa Thiong’o scammed a ball point pen from prison guards for the writing of a ‘confession’ and proceeded to write ‘Devil On The Cross’ on squares of toilet paper. There are many other examples of such ingenuity.
Critical consciousness developing inside prisons is also well-documented: Malcolm X, George Jackson for example. Countless radical activists are well known for their prison writings: Assata Shakur, Eldridge Cleaver, Wole Soyinka, Nelson Mandela. What leads people to be imprisoned (not all people) is the brutality of oppression, often political in its motivation. But thinking cannot be crushed in this way.
There are not ‘those that have creativity and imagination’ and ‘those that don’t’. A framework for how this can be expressed and communicated would seem to be what enables some and prevents others: who has access to this framework is carefully guarded by those that seek to maintain the status quo.
The cultural sector, in the global north anyway, is obsessed with the creative/non-creative binary. There are those that ‘perform’ or ‘create’ and those that ‘consume’. Even the more imaginative and progressive organisations get stuck with this. There may not be a ‘stage’, performance may be informal or have participative elements or be immersive. I’ve been to many brilliant performances like this. But what can be learnt by looking outside of the ‘cultural sector’?
In 2016, a group of Australians used the same performative methodology, speaking the exact words of the leaked case files documenting physical, mental and sexual abuse on Nauru, a ‘performance’ that lasted almost ten hours. A kind of durational reading, documenting wilful torture in the name of the Australian government.
There is much to be learnt from understanding the stories of others, from political prisoners to grass roots movements, about the communication of injustice. In these two examples there is leadership and decision making, a system in place that allows the activity to happen. But there is no creative/non creative binary at play. That kind of ‘hierarchy of worth’ is missing. And it is more powerful for it.
I often think about what Dickens would be writing about if he had been writing now. I’ve long thought that he’d be writing for television: incisive, insightful portrayals of contemporary life. Maybe a writer like Michaela Coel, whose I May Destroy You is one of the best, most beautifully made, pieces of eviscerating art that I’ve ever had the joy of witnessing.
Television, film, music, books are all forms of writing (obviously!) and I’m drawn to what you might call real life narratives. I’m not interested in fantasy or where writers place themselves in a time and space that they’ve never been. There’s a place for this kind of work, of course, it’s just not for me. I’m also not interested in the creative/non-creative binary. Imagination is what gets us through childhood and a way of learning about the world. Imagination is something that gets lost if it is not actively used, usually at the point of High School education. In a 2018 interview, Kenyan writer Ngugi wa Thiong’o says ‘art has to do with imagination. Imagination makes possible everything we do as human beings. We can picture all the possibilities and try to realize it in practice. What nourishes the imagination? It is actually the arts, the songs, the culture. The problem with repressive regimes is that they like to starve the imagination. They don’t want you to think or imagine the possibilities of a different future.’
Creating narratives – whether in television, song lyrics, novels etc – is a way of understanding the world and providing different perspectives. I read because I want to know more, because I want to know that there are different ways of thinking about the world. Returning to Dickens, his novels are fun, beautiful, engaging, thoughtful and critical (and yes, sentimental at times). From Bleak House:
‘With houses looking on, on every side, save where a reeking little tunnel of a court gives access to the iron gate – with every villainy of life in action close on death, and every poisonous element of death in action close on life – here, they lower our dear brother down a foot or two: here, sow him in corruption, to be raised in corruption: an avenging ghost at many a sick bedside: a shameful testimony to future ages, how civilisation and barbarism walked this boastful island together.’
When trying to work out what it was that I wanted to say about this passage, I slightly floundered. The energy and vitality of the writing and how it evokes a picture of social injustice is what I’m drawn to. Or more insightfully: ‘The indignation…is transformed into the deep fury of the tragic poet: it is the human condition which enrages Dickens in Bleak House, not any ephemeral injustice’ (The Dickens Myth, G Thurley). Or, equally, you might say people create conditions and conditions create people: both actions happen, simultaneously or dialectically. How do we look at this, interpret it and why? Which might bring us back to Ngugi wa Thiong’o’s point about the function of imagination.
Before I completely wrap myself up in riddles, let’s return to contemporary writing with Mobb Deep:
‘I’m pullin’ out, strippin’ n****s just like a porno flick/ I’m sick, the Mobb rolls thick/ Cross paths with my clique and get vic/ I’m on some bullshit, that’s how I was raised, G/ Each level is a stage, have you slidin’ down blazin’/ Pools of alcohol, walk before you crawl/ I’m in this to win this, you gonna take a fall/ The Infamous, Queensbridge, we on the scene kid’ (The Start of Your Ending (41st Side), The Infamous).
Now 25 years old, Mobb Deep’s vision of Queensbridge is resplendent with internal rhymes, flowing through the music with visceral energy. Like all great writers, they bring their lived experience to the fore, narrating their story on their terms and in their language. But if the narrative is deliberately ‘real’, the prose is imaginative, poetic, and transports me to a place I don’t know.
On a final point (for today) about imagination and its embodiment in the world, not the ephemerality of art for art’s sake, I’ll leave you with the words of Alan Lane (EEA webinar 9 July 2020), Creative Director of Slung Low:
‘The best of our sector has responded radically to a drastically changing world. Those who have continued with what they were doing before, even though every part of the world has changed, should take a moment to question whether they are responding creatively to anything’.
‘The people of Shavi knew that their words were like rags – wherever you leave them, there they will stay’ (Buchi Emecheta The Rape of Shavi).
Reading this short novel recently, I was struck by this repeated notion. Social media has been brilliant and terrible. Twenty plus years into this experiment into the democratisation of thought, we know that even at its best, social media provides opportunities for misrepresentation that can have negative impacts on the ‘consumer’. People present both the best and the worst of themselves, with little room for nuance or reality, so it seems. If these words written are like rags, there are good arguments for people being a bit more careful about where they leave them.
My relationship with the various social media platforms is dynamic. I rely on certain platforms to provide me with information on music and politics. But I steer away from getting involved in conversations and arguments (admittedly I occasionally slip, and immediately regret it!). I have complete admiration for people who constantly go into the social media battleground with a vision for something better. This is important work, to keep talking about issues on platforms where people form and share opinion. I just can’t do it.
The horrific abuse sustained by, for example, Priyamvada Gopal, following her critique of whiteness involved the expected gendered and racialised slurs along with death threats. Equally, Ash Sarkar, was recently attacked online, including death threats, following a Twitter post involving the eating of an orange lolly. What could it possibly be about these successful, smart and knowledgeable women that enrages people to this degree?
Patricia Hill Collins, in Black Feminist Thought, writes about the class, race and gender oppression that US Black women experience: ‘The foundations of intersecting oppressions become grounded in interdependent concepts of binary thinking, oppositional difference, objectification, and social hierarchy. With domination based on difference forming an essential underpinning for this entire system of thought, these concepts invariably imply relationships of superiority and inferiority, hierarchical bonds that mesh with political economies of race gender and class oppression.’ That the people in public life who experience the very worst abuse are women of colour should surprise no one. Labour MPs Dawn Butler and Diane Abbott are recipients of the most vile racist and gendered abuse, are confused with each other by people too lazy and careless to see that they are different people and even confused for the cleaner.
There is a lot of work to be done to change this. It is deeper, of course, than Twitter’s homicidal maniacs and careless words. Structural change that starts with equality, reparations, and rethinks our systems of government and public office seems like a nice place to start.
In renaissance painting, the use of hand gesture is effectively a hidden message. One of the great things about visual arts is its ability to say something and not say it at the same time.
I started looking at football as a metaphor about 20 years ago. This evolved, as thinking does, but started as an idea about substituting historical figures for sporting ones, in the uniform of their sport. There’s a much longer story to tell here about who is ‘allowed’ (or encouraged, if you like) to participate in sport and who is ‘allowed’ to participate in thinking and learning. It’s worth reading Akala on this for a more comprehensive take. But for me it was always the symbolism of sport rather than the actuality of it that held my interest.
The popularity of sport and how it attracts and inspires devotion – particularly football (of all codes) – has parallels with other kinds of popular movements. People seem to seek out kinship in people who agree with them and/or follow the same team/live in the same area. ‘One-eyed’ is a term often used, indicating a lack of critical thinking. This weekend in London has been a horrifying reminder of this kind of tribalism among people who identify as football fans.
In the early 2000s I started painting a series based on Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. There was something about the popular mass movement, the number of bodies involved, in the idea of the many not the few, that connected with the idea of a team and its followers. A movement of people wanting the same thing, working together to achieve its ends. My figures were/are defined by their absence of ego. They’re getting on and doing a job – not motivated by personal gain or giving themselves a platform.
Movements need leadership groups of some kind or other. I don’t know if a completely flat structure has ever worked. At the very least there needs to be some kind of system in place for agreeing on focus and actions.
Last weekend, during the wave of Black Lives Matters protests, the gathering in Central London on Saturday felt different to anything I had ever been to before. The usual suspects were absent. It was led by young people, young black people in the majority. Walking from my home to Westminster, I saw an almost continuous trail of people walking in the same direction. It felt like people walking towards the football stadium, eager for the game. On the march from Westminster via Victoria to the US Embassy south of the river, families waved and cheered from their windows with home made signs. People stuck in their cars, unable to move due to throngs of people, beeped horns in support. This felt like the celebration of a victory, with fans waving flags and cheering on their team. It’s a daft analogy really. There is too much at stake and too much work to be done. But the point is, this feels like a mass movement with young people of colour engaged, participating and leading. And we need more of that.
I spent the whole day in my head says Mac Miller on ‘Good news’ (Circles, released 2020). Since mid-March, probably many people have felt a bit like they are living in their heads. I know I have. The casual and spontaneous interactions suddenly stopped. Everything became strange, planned and yet unplanned. And accessed through a screen.
We don’t really know what the impact of all of this will be on people’s mental health in the long term. There was a lot of anxiety in the early days about the suddenness of the unknown and perhaps now this has shifted into a larger anxiety about the future, about the global recession that is going to hit hard.
When all of this came tumbling down in March, there was a lot of care expressed between strangers and colleagues, which was a lovely response to a dramatic and sudden change in lifestyle for us all. I’m not sure that this is going to live on, but many people have expressed a need for change. A radical and meaningful change that addresses inequality. How to effect this lasting change is not an easy proposition.
Culture for me has a transformational character. I enjoy artwork that really gets to grips with difficult issues, that shows depth but allows space to think about and around what is being presented. I’ve watched the Shane Meadows mini-series The Virtues three times now. The final scenes completely transport me every time. PJ Harvey’s scoring of these scenes is masterful: ebbing, flowing and humming along like a messed up generator.
Creative self-expression, as a creator and as a consumer, is crucial not just for mental well-being, but to enable us to imagine, create and share new ways of thinking about the world. I’m not interested in endless re-hashings of old work: I want to see communities co-creating new work in collaboration with artists and organisations. I want to see work that explores the world through people’s lived experiences.
To do this we need youth centres, community centres and other public/community spaces for people to gather and be in. We need funding for young people to be in places where they are safe, where they can explore identities and have fun, away from families and carers. We need to offer children and young people connections with other adults and peers that are healthy and based on mutual trust and respect. If we don’t do this we end up with unhappy and potentially dysfunctional adults. We need the next generation to be confident adults who are able to think creatively and critically about the world.