Get Real! Art, Regeneration, and Resistance

By Laura L. Sullivan, 4 October 2005

Curatorial duo B&B’s ‘Real Estate: Art in a Changing City’ at the ICA this summer promised to target public art’s integral involvement within the urban regeneration process and question how such art could be tactically deployed to resist its instrumentalisation. Laura L. Sullivan ventured some of her temporal capital to see what lessons could be learnt

An exhibition with rotating curators and London-linked themes, the ICA’s ‘London in Six Easy Steps’ ran from 16 August - 25 September 2005. The second week’s show, ‘Real Estate: Art in a Changing City’, curated by B&B (Sarah Carrington and Sophie Hope), focused on London land use, property development, and the relationship between art and ‘regeneration’ efforts. The extensive gallery exhibition was accompanied by a programme of films, talks, performances, and related outdoor activities in London.

My appetite whetted from recently devouring If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism, Brian Wallis’s edited collection about Martha Rosler’s late ‘80s project on homelessness in New York City, I was looking forward to ‘Real Estate’. B&B’s show usefully brought the art-regen coupling much needed public attention (and also seemed to be the only ‘easy step’ of the ICA’s six to take an explicitly politicised approach to London). However, inspired by the Wallis anthology to expect political-economic contextualisations, I was disappointed when these were mostly lacking, even in the two related events I attended on Olympic Mega-Projects and ‘Real Estate Agents’.

Image: People's Armada to Parliament, DCCP, 1984-86

For Real Estate, B&B filled the ICA’s lower gallery, showcasing seventeen projects in a variety of media; photographs, slides, film & video, newsprint, and maps were featured, as well as wall-displayed textual descriptions of experimental art. Roman Vasseur’s garland announcing ‘An End to Culture Assaults’ greeted the viewer, setting the somewhat confrontational tone of the collection. A library-like wooden table in the centre of the room provided seated viewing of videos, as well as a bookshelf chock-full of relevant texts (including the Wallis book), producing a nook that encouraged the audience to settle in and thoroughly explore the assembled material. A slideshow and selected enlarged photographs documented Polly Braden and David Campany’s Adventures in the Valley, an ongoing project exploring changes in the Lea Valley, due to be radically changed by the impending Olympics.

Disconnected and Decontextualised

I appreciated the breadth of the exhibited work, yet in the end found the lack of coherence frustrating. Without much of an overall context in which to situate the texts, it was difficult to relate them to one another, or to the overall trajectory of ‘Real Estate’, perhaps because the terrain was framed in fairly imprecise terms by B&B, who offered the following introduction in the exhibition’s accompanying booklet:

‘Real Estate’ focuses on the use and ownership of land in London, which shifts with the city’s changing realities. In a London preparing for the 2012 Olympics and threatened with terrorist attacks, streets and open spaces are commercially managed, regulated by new legislation and surveyed by four million surveillance cameras ( Meanwhile Government policy emphasises the potential of culturally led regeneration to transform the city and artists become accidental property developers through processes of gentrification and a hunger for ‘creativity’ within lifestyle housing. In ‘Real Estate’, this appropriation offers starting points from which to play, disrupt and intervene in the city.

The connections between such themes and some of the exhibited texts were evident (for example, videos made by residents of the Silwood Estate in Southwark), but the relationship of other showcased work to these ideas was tenuous at best. For instance, Black Spot by Phil Coy addressed the recent capability of digital satellite photography to produce a model of the earth’s surface. In ‘Real Estate’, Black Spot was represented by a photograph of ‘a vain attempt to replace a single pixel’ of this model of earth as well as by a large wheelbarrow containing five rolls of black polythene – presumably the material used to create the ‘black spot’ in the image.[1] The purpose of the piece is elaborated in annoyingly vague terms: Part of ‘a series of prototypes that use basic analogue means to interfere with this homogenised model of the earth’, Black Spot ‘is also an attempt at negation, and an attempt to draw a line between the earth and the sky. Like a world defined by its obsession with property it is both a claim and a curse’. Huh?? While I am all for critiquing and subverting cartographic enterprises that contribute to an agenda of social control through homogenised representations, I do not see how this endeavour speaks to the concerns about the appropriation of cultural producers and products by development efforts that B B referenced in their introductory remarks.

The exhibition’s problematic framing evident in B&B’s explanatory remarks is also reflected in its title. ‘Real Estate: Art in a Changing City’ implies an imbalanced view of the art-city dualism, where the former is essentialised, and only the latter changes. By replicating a transhistorical notion of art and presenting art as something external to the (evolving) city, B&B not only missed the opportunity to help us conceive of a dialectical relationship between ‘art’ and ‘city’ – seeing these as mutually implicated terms, imbricated in one another – they also advanced an image of artists as occupying a privileged position outside of the messiness of the ‘city’s changing realities’ and, paradoxically, at the same time having little power to influence the direction of these changes. If ‘artists become accidental property developers’ through regeneration processes, for B&B, they can only ‘play, disrupt and intervene in the city’ only in ways that are not very subversive or influential (introductory blurb, as quoted above).

Image: Land for Local People, contextualisation material, DCCP, 1981-1990

Given its underlying framework, unsurprisingly remnants of traditional gallery habits of presentation crept into ‘Real Estate’, epitomised to the greatest degree by displaying Anna Best & Jules Mylius’s 1994 video Roads for Prosperity and Progress in a completely insipid wooden box with a little door that opened onto the video monitor. I watched numerous people do what I did: approach the box, open the door, view the start of the video, wait for something interesting to happen, and give up on the whole thing after a few minutes.

Another of the works, Common Star, simply left me totally perplexed. The nature of the animated object depicted in 3D on a computer monitor was not illuminated by its description: ‘An object exists above St. James’s Park, Whitehall and Trafalgar Square, measuring approximately 1400m long, 1100 wide and 1000m high. While appearing static, the object is in fact moving along a path that will take it across London over the next 17 years.’ No better idea about this ‘object’ was conveyed by the collection of letters in the accompanying binder. Addressed to prominent politicians and business people, the letters each described the ‘location’ of the ‘object’ in relation to their offices and the like. Maybe if I’d attended the artist, Jon Fawcett’s walk around the area ‘taking in the best views of the entity’, I’d have a better idea of the point of this work – not to mention how it relates to the expressed themes of ‘Real Estate’ – instead of finding it pretentious and frustrating.

The Gallery Exhibition’s Highlights

In contrast, Local Heroes, which documents both a development effort and a corresponding artist-activist response through drawings and verbal textual explanations on a section of the gallery wall, was fascinating. Produced in 1997 by public works, aka Torange Khonsari, the project investigated possibilities of reclaiming public space from a commercial development in Vauxhall by mobilising aspects of planning law. As the notebook accompanying the piece explained, Khonsari wanted to take advantage of the English Heritage Law which specifies that structures attached or added to listed structures also become listed, and the ‘rule of light’ which provided ‘the tools with which [they] could create physical gaps in the new development for light entry to proposed underground spaces and claim the gaps as public realm’. Khonsari produced architectural diagrams that show these proposed public spaces (designated V1-V3) overlaid onto the original commercial plans for the site.

The sweet narrator of Lottie Child’s short video Urban Street Training (2004) is a young boy, Callum Dublin, the ‘trainer’ who rather hilariously demonstrates various poses one can adopt using the city’s physical spaces, such as the ‘Swinging Pig’s Tail’. By conveying the childlike sense of wonder and vision frequently displaced by the rigid, confined ways of seeing and moving that cultural imperatives of growing up dictate, the video whimsically shows us the expanded possibilities of movement within our urban environment.

Another historical effort to bridge art and activism in resisting development was Vauxhall Pleasure, a one-day event organised by Anna Best and Paul Whitty that protested about pollution and traffic. Amy Plant’s broadsheet with the same name was simultaneously inspirational, playful, and informative, yet Best and Whitty’s sound installation was less successful. The annoying quality of the operatic songs booming into the gallery was not mitigated by reading that they were from recordings of the Vauxhall event in which ‘Fifty singers performed transformations of the songs of Thomas Arne (one-time composer-in-residence at the Pleasure Gardens) to the passing traffic’.

Roman Vasseur’s recent Murder as a Fine Art (The Ritualised Death of the International Mural Artist) was another stimulating piece in which the artist responded to the painting of a mural on his East London estate by drawing up an elaborate plan for a community ritual in which the commissioned artist (substitutable with the commissioner, curator, or project manager) is killed. The drawings and narratives on the gallery wall and printed handout correlate the area’s 18th century crimes and community responses with Vasseur’s satirical outline of present day counterparts.

As much of my own digital art practise and intellectual interest concerns text-image juxtapositions, I was predisposed to appreciate most the photographic murals from the Docklands Community Poster Project (DCPP) by Peter Dunn and Lorraine Leeson (the latter’s interview by C4 also displayed on video), last exhibited at the ICA in the 1980s. These posters brilliantly combine text, including statistics, with provocative visuals.

Image: Big Money Is Moving Back In, DCCP, 1981-1990

An early image in the 1981-1990 series shows the consultation documents being thrown in the bin, the question ‘What’s going on behind our backs?’ in large type, and a list of current activist efforts. Another, boldly captioned ‘Big money is moving in’ displays an image of a businessman holding wads of cash and states in small print:

Docklands boroughs’ unemployment – 80,000 planned public housing scrapped – 5, 000 housing waiting lists:Tower Hamlets – 9500 Southwark – 9000 Newham – 6700

This list of revealing stats is concluded with a direct address of the viewer: ‘If you had £10 for each person on the waiting lists you might just be able to buy a penthouse flat in St. John’s Wharf’, a calculation that brings home the disparity of wealth this development will only exacerbate. The Docklands posters’ meticulous design and their evolution in response to the public’s voiced concerns about the developers’ actions made them visually and politically very effective.

Sampling the External Events

The regeneration of the Docklands also featured in a film screened at the evening Olympics evening. Produced before the announcement of the successful bid, the documentary All that Glitters by Naomi Rodriguez explores what might happen if the Olympics come to London. Cross cutting between interviews concerning the Docklands developments of the 1980s, and those concerned with Olympic effects on East London, the film successfully implies that past trends in the Docklands – an erosion of public spaces, including those for young people; skyrocketing property prices; total disregard for the working class; increased unemployment; the proliferation of luxury housing, shops, and businesses with the concomitant destruction of their non-luxury counterparts – are likely to be repeated in Stratford and the Lea Valley. The broken promises for the locals, including dockworkers, in the Docklands highlight the hollowness of the almost identical pro-Olympic claims and promises.

The Bid, a film by Parmijit Singh, covers other, equally important aspects of the pre-bid struggles between locals and the government-led Olympics cheerleaders. It features interviews with some of the 450 members of the Clays Lane housing co-operative, who are due to be evicted when their land is used for new stadiums, and provides many factual corrections to the celebratory descriptions of Olympic-led regeneration produced by mainstream media and government documents. Amongst these is the astonishing revelation that the London Development Corporation plans to transfer £2.5 million of co-op money to the Peabody Trust, where it will then be off-limits to co-op members. The views of angry business people, ecologists, and local authorities are also aired in this documentary, which in total presents a scathing indictment on the destruction that will be wrought by the London Olympics as currently planned.

I attended one other session on the final afternoon of the exhibition. Presumably, the session’s title, ‘Real Estate Agents’, was intended to pun on ‘agents’, as in also ‘agents of (social) change’. The curators asked participants to address four questions:

*Why is art used in areas of regeneration?*What is art perceived to do or achieve in order to ‘change’ an area?*How do artists negotiate their roles as agents in redevelopments?*What is the assumed role of the artist to establish better relations between communities?

These questions disappointingly narrowed the scope of the ‘social change’ potentially conjured by the day’s title, and I was even more chagrined to see them ignored by most of the presenters. Again, my highlight was Lorraine Leeson’s presentation, a narrated history of the Docklands’ activism with a slideshow tour of related images, including photographs of the Joint Dockland Action Group’s stunning ‘people’s armadas to parliament’, yearly processions of protesting barges on the river that involved over 1,000 people at one point.

Artists and Audience Not Always Considered

However, for all the facts I gleaned from attending ‘Real Estate’, I came away ultimately feeling that the lack of contextualisation that I experienced in the gallery characterised the whole enterprise. The exhibition itself was presented at a remove, starting with the way that the ICA’s locatedness was not questioned, but taken for granted, with the curators neglecting to acknowledge that the ICA itself is a social space. There was no way for me to view and consume this exhibit (and some of its adjacent programme of events) and not be aware of the privileged position of the ICA itself. The ‘production of space’ was in operation there as well, where the ICA’s occasional tendencies to place aesthetics over other values, ‘cool’ over substance, were abundantly in evidence. This tendency was continued by the ICA’s decision to prioritise trendy gallery design over usability and comfort, particularly in the upper gallery where the talks and screenings were held.

‘Real Estate’ was, to some extent, infected by a similar miscalculation and abstraction of audience, and, at times, a similar elitism produced by the substitution of flashy texts or artists for those of more (political) substance. While I didn’t expect any kind of lengthy or thorough critique of the ICA as a social space, I was disconcerted by the lack of any kind of reflexivity. In general, socioeconomic forces and institutions were identified but not always critiqued, and the overall project, viewer and institution were not situated within the exhibition’s own parameters. A lost opportunity? Or impossible in a one-week gig?

An artist friend was especially upset that attributions for the works were missing from the cluttered gallery walls and space, and I concede that such an arrangement contributed – whether consciously or not – to the sense of the exhibition’s promotion of B&B’s authority and power at the expense of the artists, who remained anonymous to viewers unwilling to consult the exhibition’s accompanying texts. (A related complaint concerned artist compensation – I’m still unclear if artists were paid or not, but at least one I spoke with donated her artworks and services for free.)

After an initial, rather harried foray into the exhibition, it soon became clear that the show would be impossible to navigate without the aid of the accompanying booklet. I went into the small wooden hut and just saw a collection of numerous art event advertisements scattered all around. I didn’t ‘get it’, as many of the events promoted by these posters and pamphlets were entirely unrelated to property/regen. When I returned to properly explore the gallery, I consulted the room map and booklet to discover that the hut piece was a ‘Memorial – Archive of Diorama Arts Centre’, part of Shezad Dawood’s The Killing of Crazy Horse, Performance Strategies 9 (ii). A monitor near the hut showed a video of Dawood’s performance that ‘re-stag[ed] the assassination of the Native American chief Crazy Horse at the soon to be extinct Diorama Arts Centre’. This revelation blew me away, as I’ve attended many wonderful events at the centre, which has been the home of the Gay Men’s Chorus, Survivors’ Poetry, film festivals and theatre collectives, and scores of other crucially important art programmes. The hut and adjacent video spoke to a critical example of the destructive tendencies of the prioritisation of profitable real estate developments. As the booklet recounts,

The building with its histories and studios is due to be demolished by property consortium British Land to be replaced by office space (bringing with it corporate commissions from the likes of Michael Craig-Martin and Sarah Morris). By situating the performance at this location, Dawood makes a link between land disputes at the time of Crazy Horse’s killing, in relation to the US government’s attempts to force the Native American onto the ‘reservation’, and current disputes over accessibility and cultural provision in the city.

Neglect of Systemic Perspectives

I experienced a similar sense of gratitude for important issues being raised coupled with a dissatisfaction with their elaboration in the satellite events I attended, where, again, systemic perspectives that took into account political economy were missing. In the Sunday session about art(ist)-regen relationships, I hoped for acknowledgment or extension of a theoretical context informed by systemic, anti-capitalist critique, yet my questions along these lines were not very successful.

Artists Peter Hames and James Levack presented a project in development that will take place on the big pillars crossing the river that remain from an old bridge near the Blackfriar’s Bridge and the Tate Modern. With another artist, they came up with the idea of having white refugee tents placed on each pillar. Currently they are negotiating to obtain the proper permissions from two local councils, the coast guard, and an environmental agency; raising the funding; and searching for people who can do the needed marine engineering. Given the terrain of this most recent artistic attempt – as refugees will presumably be living on these pillars, there will be much potential to illuminate issues around immigration – I asked Hames Levack to elaborate on their politics. Peter Hames said their politics come from the need to engage people and groups around the spaces they use for their artworks, a reply which seemed to reflect their liberal perspective and elide the more pressing dynamics inevitably tied to their practise; for example the increasing abandonment or destruction of public/social spaces (from playgrounds to parks, community and youth centres), or the increased production and marginalisation of homeless populations resulting from factors such as sky-high property prices, the outsourcing of service sector and industrialised jobs, and the closure of many shelters. Very well intentioned and clearly passionate about opening up art production, distribution, and consumption to typically excluded groups of people, Hames and Levack nonetheless replicate what many of the artists in Real Estate demonstrate: a lack of systemic perspective regarding the role of capital in the movement and destruction of both people and property and the situatedness of ‘social’ artists within this nexus.

Even more frustrating was my exchange with some members of the following panel, which was opened with a description of Andy Hewitt and Mel Jordan’s Three Functions (produced in various locales and formats):

1 The economic function of public art is to increase the value of private property.2 The social function of public art is to subject us to civic behaviour.3 The aesthetic function of public art is to codify social distinctions as natural ones.

Along with Dave Beech, Hewitt and Jordan contributed Function 4, The function of public art for regeneration is to sex up the control of the underclasses, which was displayed on a billboard at 193 Homerton Street, E9, from 15-29 August and reproduced as a large photograph in the exhibition gallery (as well as on take-home postcards).

The exhibition booklet’s blurb accompanying their ‘Function’ was a rare gesture towards more explicit economic dynamics:

[This text work] is [. . .] concerned with the way in which culture-led urban regeneration is advocated within regeneration strategies. Regeneration aims to change the ‘mindset’ and ‘behaviour’ of residents, to improve their effectiveness in creating capital and growth in order to reduce what is seen as a dependency on state provision. Whereas the need for change in terms of social justice and parity is necessary, the methods and motivation of these cultural policies, particularly the roles assigned to art and culture within them, need to be examined.

In the artists’ presentation, Dave Beech addressed the theoretical context of their ‘Functions’, saying they situate art within the social totality, politicising by opening within the social structure a hermeneutics of suspicion. Recalling the functionalism of Malinowski and Giddens, Beech drew an analogy between those anthropological-sociological approaches to societies and those examining the human body. ‘If we detotalise the heart from the body, we won’t understand the body,’ Beech said, emphasising the same dangers in separating art from society. He acknowledged that in viewing individuals as complicit with social functions we should not neglect to consider individual forms or experiences of resistance. In their view, art does not only function ‘for power’, but also against it.

Mel Jordan explained that they had intentionally placed their billboard with Real Estate’s ‘Function’ in East London because it is the site of the future Olympics and part of the overall trend of the ‘branding’ of cities. They lament the way that contemporary public artists are given briefs to consider particular issues such as social cohesion and education, so that commissioned public art is tied to the agenda of public-private redevelopment, and thereby participates in the hollow arguments made it its favour, such as the claims it provides economic growth, increases ‘competitiveness’ and the like. Art, in this way, provides the undertone for the dominant discourse of democratisation, according to Jordan, while masking the real beneficiaries of economic and symbolic capital. Public art, in short, legitimises capitalism in a UK system which, they emphasise, is coming to resemble more closely the U.S., where 40% of people are secure, 30% are subjected to a controlled lifestyle, and the remaining 30% are the controlled underclasses.

In the lively q-and-a for the whole afternoon session, B&B curator Sophie Hope rightly questioned Hewitt, Jordan, and Beech, asking just who are these ‘underclasses’ referenced in their presentation as well as their Function billboard; she wasn’t really answered. My impression was that Hope herself had become more politicised as the exhibition progressed, so that on this last day she was thinking more concretely about class issues, prompting her question – but this is only my impression. While in part I would have liked such questions to have preceded the exhibition and informed its context and choice of texts more concretely and thoroughly, at the same time I was heartened to see some political horizons expanded (including the curators’ own) by parts of their programme.

Possibilities For Resistance?

Provocatively, much of the q-and-a revolved around the question of resistance Beech had initially invoked. I mentioned Beech’s claim that the artists wanted their Functions to provide motivation for resistance, but raised concern about his examples. First, Beech had imagined an artist saying ‘I’m not going to make art that does that’ after having been alerted to art’s problematic functions as specified in their works. He had then drawn a parallel with someone seeing the nuclear family’s role as a function of/for private property and then deciding to not participate in family systems or life. When I asked him for examples of non-individualistic resistance, he initially seemed quite defensive, asking how his examples were ‘individualistic’. After I explained, he then took a more Foucauldian tack, arguing that ‘Power isn’t just in particular, for example, government structures; it infiltrates everything.’ ‘We can’t just resist where we think power is,’ he insisted, saying we have to look at ‘all the ways we serve the functions of capital’, trying to make change on all levels, including acknowledging and changing our complicity. When Roman Vasseur, the other panelist, pushed Beech – ‘Is all knowledge empowering?’ – he answered affirmatively. Feeling misunderstood and typically frustrated with the Foucauldian ‘knowledge=power’ line, I pressed on, saying I agree we need to move beyond just changing structures and acknowledge complicity, but pointing out that their presentations provoked explorations of other forms of change, for example the elimination of private property. Jordan explained that they hope by looking at functions to reveal the way that capitalism uses culture, and they believe that changing how we understand culture/art will suggest how we change capitalism. At this point I was thinking Yeesss, and how?? but I knew enough to relent. Now I see that what was underneath my frustration was the exhibition’s overall problematic conceptualisation of resistance. Frequently elided, when the topic of resistance was raised, it was, as in the exchange just cited, either superficially addressed – as if its mere mention was enough – or it was dismissed with a depressing fatalism.

I trace this neglect of questions of resistance not only to the exhibition’s focus on past and present dynamics at the expense of future possibilities, but also to the general malaise amongst much of the left, including progressively inclined artists. What can we do, as artists and activists and hybrids thereof, to participate in resistance related to regeneration and property relations here in London? This question – and its responses – need to be viewed in the context of current possibilities of resistance more generally. The social forums and affiliated movements insist that ‘Another World Is Possible’, but debates abound about how to go about making that ‘other world’ (and about what the nature of this ‘other world’ will be). Yet we cannot have these debates properly unless we first agree that social change of some revolutionary variety is possible. As she described the work of the DCCP and co-ordinated efforts of many groups in that struggle, Leeson declared that we couldn’t work in the same ways now. She said that the cut-and-dry, ‘us’ and ‘them’ perspectives are inappropriate, now that we have a Labour government with no socialism. She ascribes the failure of the Docklands activists to the fact that the hoped for Labour government didn’t materialise at the time, claiming that a change of national government would have been the only way to have stopped the Docklands’ developers. From such an angle, people believe that the lack of Old Labour governance, the weakness of trade unions, and the absence of a mass ‘base’ in the grassroots and working class renders the type of activism seen during the ‘80s around the Docklands plans obsolete, if not impossible.[2] Additionally, the despair and sense of futility of such a stance is accompanied by the presumption that urban ‘development’ of this type is inevitable (and unstoppable).

In the wake of the massive recounting of the oppressive (and depressing) dynamics of Olympics developments pre- and post-bid revealed by the session’s documentaries and discussion, at the end one questioner timidly asked, ‘What can we do?’, and one of the curators pointed her to the noolympics2012 Website, sidestepping the more detailed response the question warranted. A few days later, Leeson said that her experiences with the Docklands efforts led her to shift from being ‘only reactive’ to proposing ‘alternative strategies’. Her current work with CSpace involves having her students at UEL do art projects, such as photography and video, about areas of regeneration that affect them personally. Another project is a Website where hundreds of children from all over the world have created a planet called Volco.

A different strategy was also considered in an interesting strand of the discussion of resistance that last day: the idea of an artist joining a planning committee. Dave Beech pointed out such a move could speak to the ideology that art is a superior form of counter culture; Roman Vasseur emphasised that in this sense, it is a way of sidestepping politics. Beech said that if he was ever on a planning committee, he’d disavow his identity/role as ‘artist’ and stop doing art outside, because, in his experience, the designation of ‘artist’ is a constraint because others then have particular expectations of you. Another audience member disagreed with that tactic, contending that disavowing one’s status as an artist on the planning committee would only be useful if later one moved back into the space of ‘artist’ and used what you had gained in the political arena. Leeson closed the exchange by emphasising the importance of strategy. She explained that because she described the Volco project as a tool for ‘education’, she received £95K for the project, predicting that the figure would’ve dropped to £3K if she had used the term ‘art’ instead.

Concerns About the Bottom Line

And this issue of funding is fundamentally related to the fatalism and despair that I encountered regarding resistance in this session. Hames and Levack correctly read their audience when they followed their presentation by offering to address what we were most curious about: how they sustain their practise financially. ‘What you really want to know,’ Hames proposed, ‘is how we make money’; copious murmurs of assent followed. (The upshot: after primarily exploring and utilising corporate sponsorship, which they found difficult to find and to match to the concerns of their projects, they instead separated out a commercial wing, called HL Creates, that draws upon the extensive contacts and experience in putting on large-scale events gained during their initial years of putting on art events in public spaces.) I sensed an all-too-familiar underlying anxiety amongst the practitioners in the room that afternoon, the worry that there are no viable ways to make a living as a progressively inclined (public) artist. Similarly, in this light Leeson’s claim that an undertaking such as the DCPP would be impossible now because of the nature of the government in power has everything to do with the differences in funding opportunities as a result. Although Thatcher was in power when the DCCP existed, socialist-leaning local structures played pivotal counterbalancing roles. As Leeson explained, not only was the Joint Docklands Action Group funded by the Tower Hamlets Arts Council, they also received funding from the Greater London Council (GLC), overseen by Ken Livingstone. GLC subcommittees were characterised by provocative debates and included an ethnic arts committee and a community arts committee, the latter of which had £1million a year to spend on community arts (this last statistic communicated by Leeson with astonishment, as if such a sum for these types of activities is now unthinkable).

There is no doubt that the drying up of such funding streams has had an effect on the production and quantity of radical public art projects. As revealed in the closing notes pasted onto the gallery wall, Local Heroes was a casualty of these recent trends, suffering a parallel fate to the DCPP and other efforts to resist regeneration in southeast London:

Although the development is still not entirely complete, the 1 million square feet mixed-use scheme comprising of [sic] offices, apartments, hotel, health and fitness, and retail and restaurant accommodation is well underway.

In 1998 due to a lack of further commissioning bodies the project came to a halt and remained theoretical as more research needed to be done on the condition of the tunnels and intense community participation projects.

Just as with the Docklands, the proposed development went ahead as planned, and the artist-activist efforts of resistance were not only thwarted but stopped, as funding was withdrawn. The conclusions and future plans of the Local Heroes artists are nonetheless revealing:

[W]e strongly believe that [the project] can still continue and retain its ambitions in creating the informal Museum and the Active public spaces V1, V2 and V3 within Brunswick House which is being transformed into an Antique shop called Lassco. As part of this work a proposal letter will be sent to both English Heritage and Lassco and request for a public[-]private partnership. The new proposal will also be presented to Vauxhall community forum to gauge the level of interest by the new communities.

My reading of this is that after being asked to resurrect the Local Heroes piece by Real Estate, the only way the artist(s) could imagine proceeding was through a PPP. I cannot help but see this articulation as a reflection of the pervasive idea that with any socially motivated endeavour involvement of private enterprise is essential or, at the very least, inevitable, a naturalisation promoted by both the Labour government and neoliberal media.

If the current phase of the composition of the welfare state – this entrenched promotion of privatisation as the cure-all for every social need – is accepted by left-oriented artists, then how we conceptualise social change and the nature of resistance efforts is indeed greatly compromised (or completely effaced, as was the case for much of Real Estate). I am not claiming that working with corporate sponsors in public art efforts or having private investment in some art schemes that are aimed specifically at social benefits are always untenable options. Rather, I am arguing that without engaging in more explicit theorisation of neoliberal political economic dynamics, and art’s role within them, these options will be chosen unthinkingly, not only with the detrimental effect that others will be unconsidered, but also with the reinforcement that there simply are no other choices, which is, of course, exactly the ideology of dominant government and media these days.

The Purpose(s) of Socially Engaged Art

Martha Rosler describes two types of film and video as used in her project. Some videos use ‘the interview format’ to allow ‘the unheard to speak about their lives’, while ‘rallying tapes’ are those which ‘inform[. . .] people about others who are fighting or have fought successfully to save or improve their homes and provid[e] a set of steps to follow’ (37). Many of the texts showcased in ‘Real Estate’, including films and videos, serve the informative purposes Rosler outlines, yet do not offer the additional plans of action. The question is: can we no longer ‘rally’? It is true The Bid and All that Glitters do show some people’s struggles in relation to London’s quest to host the Olympics, but we don’t get any sense of how they worked, and certainly no blueprint to follow now that the bid has been accepted. Perhaps these are part of the current genre of documentary that has capitulated to the despair that is so pervasive right now. The evidence in ‘Real Estate’ implies that activist art, such as documentary, can inform us of the views and difficulties of people usually marginalised or silenced but cannot be used to organise.

Socially directed art – revolutionary art, if you will – should both inform (counter misinformation and provide information neglected by dominant accounts) and help us to strategise (offer plans of action). The systemic perspective missing from ‘Real Estate’ is essential for the production of the most effective art along these lines. A systemic understanding of the workings of capitalism on both the macro and micro levels can help us in our interpretations of dominant discourse and in our creation of art that responds to it. Moreover, a consideration of what’s wrong with current configurations of political economy as well as what we want to build alternatively enables more successful strategies for organising, which also need to inform the consumption and production of radical art.

Instead of only presenting theoretical works on a bookshelf for exhibition viewers to peruse, the curators could have brought some of these texts’ systemically oriented theorisations into their framing of the array of texts and talks they gathered. For example, two such highly relevant theoretical points highlighted in If You Lived Here speak to the dynamics of political economy involved in recent trends of regeneration:

Following David Harvey, Rosalyn Deutsche underscores ‘the central contradiction of capitalist urbanization’, that is, ‘between the social character of the land and its private ownership and control as a commodity’:

As a collective resource, land fulfills needs that facilitate individual profit-seeking activities as well as social needs that surpass those of individual capitalists. Capital’s social needs in relation to land include, for one, the use of land to maintain and reproduce a labour force through the provision of housing and services; such requirements are distinct from the demand of real estate capital to exploit land as a commodity for direct profit. (57)

Is there a potential wedge to be driven between these competing tendencies?

A second point from the Wallis anthology that would’ve added political context to the texts and discussions of ‘Real Estate’ comes from radical geographer Neil Smith, who explains that ‘Gentrification [. . .] involves the reinvestment of capital, but actually all the problems of gentrification begin with the disinvestment of capital’ (‘Housing’ 111). This hidden disinvestment that precedes, and is used to justify, regeneration efforts needs to be exposed and challenged, including by activist-inclined artists. Clearly the ‘decrepit’ buildings and ‘empty’ land on planned Olympics sites in London are products of these very deliberate disinvestment strategies.

BishopsgateImage: Dougie at Bishopsgate, Risk Conference, Lottie Child, 2005

Instead of such concrete ideas, in ‘Real Estate’ we got vague notions of political economy. Any exploration of land and property in London should seriously investigate the city’s central role in finance capital and how it relates to the real estate market. (In this regard, the London Plan was a gaping aporia in the exhibition.) The one attempt in this direction did not do this connection justice. Lottie Child’s video Climbing Club: Subverting the City (2004) was accompanied by a handout ‘Guide to Risk in the City’, which ‘equates physical with financial risk’ and provides ‘risk and reward curves [. . .] for climbing on major financial institutions produced with risk analyst Navin Reddy’. We are invited to climb on buildings such as the Midland Bank and Lloyds so as to take risks ‘with socially unconventional behaviour’ and with ‘confronting one’s fears’, and to reap rewards that are ‘social, physical, emotional, [and] psychological’. However, although the project cleverly sends up the language and logic of the market and points our attention to the physical environment of the City, ultimately it substitutes individual reconfiguration and emotional experience for any larger changes to socio-economic structures and operations. Filled with many artworks that only loosely addressed the city’s physical spaces and presentations that often glossed systemic dynamics, ‘Real Estate’ substituted flash for substance and left me unfulfilled by its naive politics.

REFERENCESDeutsche, Rosalyn. ‘Alternative Space.’ In Wallis. 45-66.

Rosler, Martha. ‘Fragments of a Metropolitan Viewpoint.’ In Wallis. 15-43.

Wallis, Brian, Ed. If You Lived Here: The City in Art, Theory, and Social Activism – A Project by Martha Rosler. Dia Art Foundation, Discussions in Contemporary Culture Number 6. Seattle: Bay Press, 1991.



Common Star

Anna Best & Paul Whitty

Lorraine Leeson:cspace. org.uk

Archive of the DCCP:

Hewitt & Jordan

Spectacle (producers of the Olympics & Silwood videos)

Against the London 2012 Olympics Bid

Lottie Child / Climbing Club


[1] Unless otherwise specified, all quotations are from the booklet accompanying the gallery exhibition.

[2] Hearing these expressions of displaced faith in government/electoral politics reminded me of an exchange following a presentation by Douglas Crimp in the late 1990s. After the artist, activist, and writer gave a talk at the University of Florida, one of my Media Studies students asked him why the group he helped found, the Aids Coalition to Unleash Power (ACT UP), folded in the early 90s. Crimp’s explanation was telling: he asserted that because the group had mistakenly framed its enemy, initially focusing on Reagan and then Bush Sr. and their draconian AIDS policies, they didn’t know what to do when an apparently more benevolent/progressive government came along (i.e., Clinton). Lacking a systemic framework that would have located the dynamics they wanted to change within the emerging neoliberal regime of capitalism, the organisation disbanded soon after Clinton’s election. It seems to me the opposite but equally misplaced reliance on government by activists occurs here, as evidenced by the view of DCPP’s Leeson.

Politicians are to be engaged with, addressed, critiqued, used, etc when appropriate, but they are neither the ‘enemy’ nor the ‘saviours’ – by focusing on them, one ignores the larger systemic dynamics at work in individual instances, whether concerning medical policy or property development.