Out of place – Creative engagement with the undesirable

This week’s events seemed to take place under a somewhat accidental theme which I have temporarily dubbed ‘creative engagement with the undesirable’. It started rather innocently with a departmental outing to the Wellcome Trust’s exhibition on ‘Dirt – the filthy reality of everyday life’ (amusingly announced as ‘trip to see dirt’). It continued with a visit of the British Library’s ‘Out of this world – Science Fiction, but not as you know it’, and has, at least so far, culminated in the academic workshop on ‘Cultural Landscapes of Boom and Bust’ (unless you count my appearance at my cousin’s wedding this weekend). The introduction to the ‘Dirt’ exhibition phrased the theme really well: to ‘take[…] a closer look at something that surrounds us but we are often reluctant to confront’. Yet it is not just taking a closer look, but proposing interventions in situations where these are, or felt by certain stekeholders to be, needed. In the case of the Wellcome Trust, these ranged from art projects shown in the space of the gallery such as ‘Touch Sanitation’ by Mierle Laderman Ukeles to the redesign of sanitation facilities in countries where managing human waste poses enormous health and societal issues. In the case of ‘Out of this World’, it is was the suggestion of futures that are either warned against based on present developments, or desired. In the ‘Boom and Bust’ workshop, the question occupying its participants was: what can be done within a recession and what are the consequences of such actions – prominent examples being London, New York and Detroit?

A particular focus of the academic workshop was creative production and its role in/influence on recession. Projects from music, art, fashion and architecture were examined in terms of their agency within economy, community, urban fabric and wider culture: their contribution and/or opposition to regeneration, their appropriation and transformation, their engagement with their wider environment or networks. The most obvious parallel with both exhibitions was the simultaneous casting of cultural agents such as artists and immigrants as ‘filth’ to be removed AND vitalising forces in desolate spaces. An issue discussed in the workshop was whether the ‘removal of filth’ through a ‘sanitisation of space’ was hindering the ability of cultural agents to make the kinds of contributions which, in the past, seem to have proven themselves as motors of transformation. Examples were the music and art scene of New York and the rapid gentrification of London’s ‘cultural’ spaces and their subsequent cultural death, which includes the dispersal of artistic networks.

UFO incident at the British Library in expectation of Space Children

When it comes to ‘creative agents’ affecting futures, the ‘Out of this World’ exhibition offered an interesting take: it asked how quickly such imaginations of the future become undesirable themselves or ‘go out of fashion’ … or are not even about a better future but a romantically distorted past: ‘Will today’s ideas of the future soon look old-fashioned? Are the images of science fiction those of nostalgia for a past that was never possible rather than a future that we could create?’ Here, an example was Miriam Greenberg’s commentary on the nostalgic framing of 1970s New York City.

One obstacle in the way of our imagining of futures could be described as a ‘fetishisation of outcast materiality’, especially of our decaying present surroundings. As Ken Arnold, Director of Public Programmes at Wellcome Collection, suggests: ‘dirt is everywhere and periodically we get very worried about it. But we have also discovered that we need bits of it and, guiltily, secretly, we are sometimes drawn to it’. This seems certainly true for so-called ‘recessional aesthetics’ such as the aforementioned ‘ruin porn’ (although, in the workshop, the term ‘recessional aesthetics’ was more frequently used to describe the aestheticisation of protests and social gatherings). And there is plenty of ‘ruin porn’ to feast on. As the Wellcome Trust website put it: ‘we live in unmistakeably filthy times’. The question is whether this kind of fascination can have a transformatory impact – for instance, political activism or economic benefits – or whether it remains an entirely narcissistic enterprise of celebrating an apocalyptic aesthetic.

Detroit, April 2011

A question that was raised in this context by workshop participant Mireille Roddier was how much certain forms of creativity contribute to transforming a space and what kind of relations these interventions have with the people who live in a particular place. As an example she contrasted artists/architects taking advantage of the cheap space Detroit has to offer and forming a Marfa-like scene (separate from the original inhabitants of a place, but taking credit for a positive reinvention of a place) with artists/architects rethinking aspects of the city and trying to enable the survival and cultural development of the existing population. Rather than suggest that all artists need to take on social responsibility as community builders — a default burden when setting up a practice in such a socially loaded site — she blamed the media for not differentiating the local artists working on Detroit from those simply working in Detroit, a confusion which all too easily hinders the real efforts at play, as it brands artists under a single umbrella that is, more often than not, counter-effective.

Again, the question is what kind of spaces are desired by whom. Among the many visions that are on offer in terms of transforming a place, or even a recessional trajectory, only one or a few will be supported. It was pointed out that those benefitting from such support are rarely the ones holding long-term promises. This is explained, on the one hand, with an inevitable incompatibility of visions of what a desired spaces consists of and, on the other, with an incompatibility between the social needs of a place’s inhabitants and the needs of a place as measured by land-value, a standard that benefits future populations of investors before existing ones. A recurring question for me during both workshop and exhibitions was whether a radical, workable vision of a better future would ever be implemented if available and not endangered by misguided investors – or whether we would still shy away from it – for fear of it actually working out alright.

Reactions to closure of the Catherine Ferguson Academy for Young Women

Things to do:
Participate with your ‘dirty images’ in the Wellcome Collection’s ‘Filthy Flickr Pool’.
Hear George Clinton and Nona Hendryx speak as part of the British Library’s ‘Out of this world’ exhibition.
Comment on the Creative City Limits or ‘Out of this world’ blog.
Join the London Literature Festival’s ‘London as Satellite’ discussion.


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