Participation as performance?

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Still from the The Truman Show (1998)

I’m heading to a seminar in Zagreb this week called The Age of Cultural Participation: Democratic Roles and Consequences and wanted to prep some thoughts before I go.

The panel discussion I’m taking part in is titled: Limitations and Perspectives of Participation – From Dark Side to Ideal of Participatory Practices and the other contributors will be: Nico Carpentier, Goran Sergej Pristaš and Nora Sternfeld.

I am drawing on old PhD research, some more recent interviews and some literature I’ve been revisiting and rediscovering:

Bill Cooke and Uma Kothari’s edited book Participation: The New Tyranny (2001)

Erving Goffman’s The Presentation of the Self (1959)

Barbara Cruikshank’s The Will to Empower (1999)

Francois Matarasso’s A Restless Art (2019)

Scott Rankin on cultural justice (2018)

Steve Rolf on governance and governmentality in community participation (2018)

My entry point for thinking about participation is the socially engaged art commission and I’m using this to explore the meanings, politics and economics of participation. Here are some points I made in my PhD (2011). I’m obviously very cynical about the socially engaged art industry here!

  • Increasing opportunities for socially engaged art commissions over the last ten years have led to a professionalisation of the field and with it a focus on the artist as entrepreneur who can charge for their empowering services. Paradoxically, this has hindered the power that participants can have in terms of deciding their own modes of practice, despite the premise of the projects being based on participation and social engagement.
  • It is assumed that the professional, trained artist can bring a conceptual approach and high-quality experience of art to a culturally barren landscape of deprivation that did not realise what it was missing. The local populace pay inadvertently through taxes and lottery tickets for a service they never asked for or may never use.
  • Why is it that artists are parachuted in as catalysts, researchers or irritants when they rarely have the time, inclination or funds to do this in the neighbourhoods where they live?
  • If the ‘empowerment industry’ is constructed to provide professionals with incomes, to what extent does it rely on perpetuating systems of exclusion and illusions of social inclusion in order to keep the industry afloat and the professionals in work?


Participation as performance

Let’s take this participatory art commissioning industry as the stage, participants as performers and the commissioned artist(s) as the director(s) and curators as stage managers. How can we use this metaphor to understand better what participation is and what happens when we get messed up in it, adopt the lingo and accidentally or on purpose find ourselves participating, or not-participating? Who is able to perform? Who sets the stage? Who writes this script?

Participation implies a web of power relations: “acts and processes of participation… can both conceal and reinforce oppressions and injustices in their various manifestations…” (Cook and Kothari, 2001, p.13).

Participation = an invitation into something already (partially) formed?

Participation = an enforced, embarrassing encounter?

Participation = the existing and evolving power-relations between people, things, contexts, environments?

Like Kothari (in her article in the above publication), I’m taking Foucault’s approach to understanding power-relations as weaving in and amongst us, at all times, including through acts of participation: “an individual’s behaviour, actions and perceptions are all shaped by the power embedded and embodied in society” (Kothari, 2001, p.144). The word participation is loaded with unspoken assumptions. Cooke and Kothari ask, “What is the politics of the discourse of participation?” (p. 7).

Why is participation (in the context socially engaged / participatory art) considered a good thing to do? Why is it considered better than not-participating? I have found that the motivation to make connections, get involved and create a sense of community identity can often be met with an unwillingness to participate on the terms and conditions set by the artist or commissioner.

Why are we always trying to get other people to participate in things? How do these invitations to participate veil other political motives, such as transferring responsibility from the state to the individual through forms of governmentality (see Rolf, 2018): “Whilst governance implies a process of the state ‘stepping back’, governmentality suggests that such an ostensible withdrawal may conceal a degree of ‘stepping into’ society in order to control behaviour and surreptitiously responsibilise citizens.”(Rolf, 2018, p.581). Participation could be understood as a ‘technology of citizenship’, as a system for turning individual subjects into (self) governable citizens (Cruikshank, 1999). If these ideas/ideals underpin attempts to get people to participate, what are the issues with this? What/whose ideologies are we perpetuating when we embrace the language and practices of participation? What are the ethics and politics of this?

In the projects I have been involved in there is often an underlying premise to encouraging participation: that people need help in order to help themselves. By participating in this, you will be a) happier b) healthier c) more employable d)distracted from the defunding of public services e) less of a burden on the state f) more connected to your neighbours g) ideally all of the above. This is also class-based. Are the middle classes expected to participate and communicate with each other and create a sense of community or is it accepted that the middle classes are defined by their empowered [entitled] sense of independence and privacy?

Acts of non-participation

I think deciding not to participate or participate in ways that contradicts expectations of participation is under-explored. Here are a couple of quotes from some residents who did not want to get involved in an art project happening in their neighbourhood:

“Everyone’s kind of in their own little circle, they’ve got friends, they’ve got family. This might sound really anti-social but do I really want to meet other people? I’ve got enough friends” 

“I’m not a person that would be involved in any community event anyway. I find it hard to believe it will work without pushing people to do it, offering a big incentive” 

In another project, non-participation is driven by anger at not being involved enough in the process:

“They’re not listening. They’ve got their agenda, from day one. We know what you want, we’re not going to do it anyway… they’d already decided”

“If you can’t do what we ask, then bugger off.  

Acts of non-participation are often seen as a problem with the individual or characteristic of the area, rather than a critical reflection on the project itself. One of the artists for example, was ‘genuinely surprised at how many people have not participated, out of all the contacts and places she visited. But this in itself is part of the place – reflecting people’s values and attitudes”. 

People have learnt to rely on or ignore participatory activities in their neighbourhoods as something they have a right and reason to engage in or that they find irrelevant to their cultural needs. One can take or leave these extra-curricular activities in one’s life depending on time, information, resources and interest.

The projects I was researching as part of my PhD revealed that it is often when the limits of a project are sensed that a critical awareness of the conditions of the invitation to participate come into focus and one is able to reconsider one’s relationship to it. The stage, props, performance are revealed (it’s the Truman Show moment). Often, one only discovers these limits when they pose a barrier or obstacle to the progression of the project.

Methods for keeping things messy?

In my PhD I was researching the contradictions in frameworks for participation constructed by artists, curators, commissioners and/or funders, which are open to others to participate in the ‘wrong’ way so as to change, contest and critique the direction, parameters and ideologies of that framework. I keep trying to find ways to point these out by developing mechanisms for embracing and encouraging these encounters within the frameworks of the commissioning process. These methods include playing a card game (Cards on the Table, developed with Ania Bas, Sian Hunter-Dodsworth, Sophie Mallet and Henry Mulhall – more info to come!) to reflect on the language used in project meetings, the assumptions behind each other’s roles and agendas; writing lengthy timelines of projects together to listen to each other’s diverse beginnings, middles, ends of the life of a project, what sticks, what’s forgotten (Social Art Map); anonymising stories of failure so as to unpack performances of success (Performative Interviews) and facilitating groups of expert/serial participants to critically evaluate the meanings, methods, experiences of participatory art (Critical Friends).


Still from a Performative Interview (2007)

These are experimental methods in opening up the process of reflecting on participation from the perspective of participants in the process. They result in complex, messy power-maps and timelines indicating who is who, the strains, tensions, push and pull of agendas and identities. 

Exit stage right: Cultural democracy as a different way of performing?

I have been looking for moments of cultural democracy that weave their way uncomfortably through the prescribed frameworks of imposed art-as-service contracts in a way that exposes the structures and frameworks of these contracts. There are numerous ways and means for people to participate in culture and society depending on time, budgets and motivations. The assumption that one form of culture or a certain mode of engagement is more worthy and important than the next is patronising to say the least. Cultural democracy challenges discourses of participation as there is nothing to participate ‘in’, we just do stuff from the position we are standing.

All this raises questions about the positions we stand from, how do we decide what to do with our (limited) time and resources? Where to put our energies? What will the implications be of deciding to participate in this and not that?

Anyway, I’m slowly merging from maternity leave and this is a way for me to start ‘participating’ in non-baby-related discussions (which I love as well by the way and will no doubt find a way of weaving in!). Looking forward to thinking this through with colleagues later this week!

Mouthing practices

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Umm. Mmmm. Ahhhh… Huh? Exploring the sounds, speech, utterances and un-articulated moments in project meetings.

Notes for Common Place.

image: film still from Borris’ painting buses anecdote

“It is my argument that to understand the full range of the voice, as an event (and discourse) entangling itself around bodies, desires, politics, identities, and nations, it is important to recognise the mouth in all its performative verve, effective influence, and complicated drama.” (Brandon LaBelle, Lexicon of the Mouth – Poetics and Politics of Voice and the Oral Imaginary, 2014, p.4).

“The play between vocal emission and acoustic perception necessarily involves the internal organs. It implicates a correspondence with the fleshy cavity that alludes to the deep body, the most bodily part of the body. The impalpability of sonorous vibrations, which is as colourless as the air, comes out of a wet mouth and arises from the red of the flesh.” (Adriana Cavarero, For More Than One Voice, Toward a Philosophy of Vocal Expression, 2005, p.4)

Let’s open our mouths and look inside. How are words, sounds, utterances formed through this fleshy wet orifice? Which pre-articulated thoughts get caught at the back of your throat? What preparation does your tongue do while you listen and prepare your response? Where in your body did that laugh originate? Is the mouth a space where listening and speaking meet and mingle? How do secretions, dialects, silences, jargon all swill around and influence our sonorous encounters in a project meeting with other artists, funders, collaborators, participants, community groups, activists, curators? Which words and phrases do we end up repeating, so much so they loose meaning? Our mouths breath in and out complex political landscapes. Let’s reflect together on how this busy orifice influences the way we communicate, interpret and interact.

A burp under the breath in the middle of sentence.

A tongue clicking the roof of a mouth making a quiet tutting sound.

An uncontrollable yawn rises and contorts a face.

He tries to pick a stubborn bit of lunch from a molar with the end of his tongue.

An excitable pre-announcement lick of the lips.

A sentence attempted a number times to try and get the words in the right order.

Their every sentence begins with an apology.

An interruption from someone who thinks they’ve got this.

A nervous repetitive swallow to bide the time before finding the right time to contribute.

Damn. I whisper. They’ve moved the conversation on.

Parted lips as if about to interject. Close again.

The pressure to be articulate makes my mouth go dry. It needs lubricating before the next item on the agenda.

I repeat the acronym slowly, each letter rolls around my tongue to see if it feels familiar. Surely I must know what it stands for, everyone else does it seems.

I spend a lot of time in meetings. I find them fascinating places, like stages for us to play out certain versions of ourselves, reflecting our assumptions of other people’s expectations. The mouth is an opening through which temperature controlled air and corporate language is breathed in and out. We learn through this space, make mistakes, take things back, speak before we think. Through our mouths we reach out to others. 

What is the story of the mouth before it arrived and opened here today? The air is thick here with past words being inhaled by us newcomers.

Words are recycled, on spin cycle creating cleaned up jargon ready for the washing line.

Mouths are performing certain forms of behaviour – behaving, efficiency savings.

What about the non-human voices in the room? Have we forgotten to listen to them? [“Is not every object a potential body with a voice?”  (LaBelle, p.6)]

Which ways of speaking are privileged? Which accents are taken more seriously? Do certain words and the way we say them carry more weight than others?

In socially engaged art practices we have to talk to each other, don’t we? My listening to your voice can result in ‘story theft’ – the taking of other people’s stories for my own self gain. Recording, capturing, reworking. A form of cultural embezzlement (Bourdieu) can take place. ‘Giving voice’ implies some people don’t have a voice and others have one to give. Everyone has a voice, it’s just that they aren’t listened to. Or their voices are not articulated in the way power understands. How can we keep hold of the reality of inarticulate mess and a cacophony of voices, messages and agendas that play out in meetings? Which voices are absent? Which voices are heard in / through the archive? How can voices (beyond/behind/to the side of speech) reveal something more about the in-between practices, the stuff that is not made public? The mouth and all that swashes around in there could provide the behind the scenes of speech.

Someone is speaking. But what is their mouth doing?

Someone isn’t speaking. But what is their mouth doing?

[Thanks to: Jenny Richards, Sarah Browne, Henry Hope, Alice Hope, Barry Sykes, Henry Mulhall, Selina Robertson, Viv Blanchard, Adriana Cavarero, Brandon LaBelle, Claudia Firth, Lucia Farinati – I’ve been breathing in your words, sounds and ideas and they’ve been percolating and circulating…]

Further links, references and inspirations to come…

image: Henry chewed on my presentation notes, as I was talking (1 July 2019)

Notes towards a proposal for a Cultural Democracy Histories Research Centre

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image: B+B Archive, 2003, Austrian Cultural Forum, London

This is the beginnings of a proposal for a practice-based research initiative into complex, contradictory histories of cultural democracy and social art practices. This includes culture and leisure policies, all sorts of practices (invited, uninvited, publicly funded, self-funded, professional, amateur), technologies, philosophies, theories and economies related to histories of cultural democracy.

This is a way to interweave my past, present and future research into histories of cultural democracy, community arts and socially engaged art practices, to develop collaborations with others interested in this stuff and create shared resources for our research and teaching.

So, this is me trying to pull those threads together and think about what to do next.

This connects to my past/current work, including:

Years of conversations with Emily Druiff, Director of Peckham Platform about developing a Social Art Resource together – I see this ‘research centre’ as a series of threads that can both nourish and feed off the resource at Peckham Platform.

Conversations I’ve been having with Alison Jeffers, Owen Kelly, Leila Jancovich and others about histories of cultural democracy

Meanwhile in an Abandoned Warehouse podcast series about cultural democracy with Owen Kelly

1984 Dinners – an ongoing website-archive of a series of dinners about art and politics in different parts of the world in the year 1984

My PhD – ‘Participating in the Wrong Way? Practiced Based Research into Cultural Democracy and the Commissioning of Art to Effect Social Change’

Social Art Maps – creating timelines of socially engaged art commissions

Movement for Cultural Democracy – I’m a member of this campaign for the realisation of a radical and transformative cultural programme in the UK.

Contribution to Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty’s publication Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art (2018)

B+B Archive – developed with Sarah Carrington as part of our practice B+B (2000-2006), which is now housed in my office at work.

And a number of related conferences and workshops I’ve co-organised on these themes, such as:

‘1979 Revisited’: The Cultural Production of ‘Structures of Feeling’ under Thatcherism – symposium organised with Herbert Pimlott, 21 November 2014, Keynes Library, Birkbeck, University of London

Storming the Citadels? Changing attitudes and frameworks to arts practices and research in community contexts – conference, 25 July 2015, Keynes Library, Birkbeck, University of London.

Footprints and Fingerprints – tracing socially engaged art – 17 March 2015, workshop in my office, Birkbeck, University of London

Archiving the Practice Lab with Rosalie Schweiker and Emily Druiff as part of the Social Art Summit, Sheffield, 2 November 2018.


About the Cultural Democracy Histories Research Centre

The Research Centre is about collecting, preserving, distributing, analysing and sharing traces, but it is also an experimental investigation into how to do this research, and how not to do it. The Research Centre provides some headspace to explore and experiment with feminist, queer, decolonial methodologies and methods of doing history-work. It is an example of slow research based on care, listening and respect.

This Research Centre is not really a Centre, but a leaky container for collating, talking, uploading, rethinking and making visible research into things overtly and tangentially related to cultural democracy and social art practices. An anti-archive in the making.

It involves a process of:

– Keeping the material open, available, free.

– Acknowledging the situated, partial and subjective nature of history-work.

– Making connections between people, spaces, groups – cultural democracy cartographies.

– Looking at the edges, margins of cultural democracy and social art practices (and the connections between these things), foregrounding behind the scenes work and invisible labours, the unhappy stories, awkwardnesses and troubled aspects of these histories.

– Exploring ways to do things that are intergenerational

– Actively looking elsewhere, making meaningful inter/trans-national connections

– Zooming in to explore fine details.

– Panning out to understand the broader political, economic contexts.

– Supporting the bodily, vocal and spatial aspects of cultural democracy and social art practices.

– Playing with the oral and aural aspects of history-work.

This Research Centre might involve physical materials, a website, discussions, readings groups, interviews… All the time, we will be addressing who is speaking, who is listening?

The aim is that any material generated, published and shared through the centre would be done so under a creative commons license.

There are many inspirational history projects which relate to this proposal, including:

The GLC Story

Film and Video Distribution Database

May Day Rooms

Remember Olive Morris

Jubilee Arts Archive

Centre for Historical Reenactments

London Community Video Archive

June Givanni Film Archive

Interference Archive

Arte Útil


Group Material


Charles Parker Archive

Unfinished Histories



The Sweetest Dream?

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images (top to bottom): The Sweetest Dream, Nemanja Cvijanovic, flag (2005); ‘Advanced Science of Morphology, Nada Prlja, installation in Marble Arch (2006), allsopp&weir ‘Call to Prayer’, film (2006) and Loránt Anikó and Kaszás Tamás, Shelter of Hope installation (2006).

In all this depressing Brexit mess I’ve been thinking a lot about the ‘reunion’ projects I did back in 2006-7 with Nemanja Cvijanovic, Raffaella Crispino, ŠkartNada Prlja, Tamás Kaszás, Anikó Lorant, Andy Weir, (allsopp&weir) Lucy Catherine Parker and many more amazing artists. We did The Sweetest Dream exhibition at SPACE in London about ‘unity and dissonance’ in Europe. I re-found this old website I did with my sister Fran Hope which is quite strange to read back 12 years later!

The formatting has gone strange with time but the blog content is there.

Back in 2004, Sarah Carrington and I did a project at the Pump House Gallery called Trading Places about migration in Europe with over 20 artists (blurb below): 

There’s also this text Sarah Carrington and I did for Variant in 2005:

These curatorial investigations and meeting points came out of concerns over increasing xenophobia around the widening of the European Union and the anti-migration feelings that were around. They were about bringing together different artists and activists with different experiences of living and working in Europe. These sorts of meeting points seem so crucial to continue given the UK’s determination to drift off from Europe in an act of tortuous self-righteousness. What I liked about these discussions we were having back then was that they incorporated healthy critiques of the EU and the power of borders and rising nationalism. I’m revisiting this work because I want to find ways to continue these conversations with comrades across Europe, somehow, somewhere!

Nemanja describes The Sweetest Dream:

‘The european ‘second empire’ or ‘sub empire’ is united by dreams and symbols. Its boundaries are open to the circulation of goods but waterproof to the circulation of people. Near custom houses there are CPT (temporary permanence centres, along all the mediterranean coast: from Gorizia to Italian coast, to French coast, to Spanish coast. They look like concentration camps, from an age not so far, where people have no freedom, no justice and no culture). CTP are managed by a shameful society, that lives of wars, exploited countries’ misery (they are its new ‘colonies’). My point of view is from outside the EU, as Croatian citizen. EU approves without any problems the co-existence of ‘first and second degree (level/class)’ citizens within the community, and if we wanted to we could name even a group of ‘third’ degree invisible citizens. I hope that everyone who sees The Sweetest Dream, when observing the EU flag next time, would reflect on what is become of this EU ‘anti-fascist’ dream of equality and economic sharing.’

Here’s the blurb from The Sweetest Dream exhibition (the title of which is from this work pictured by Nemanja Cvijanovic, which we weren’t allowed to show in the exhibition at the request of the funders, the Austrian Cultural Forum – a whole interesting story in itself):

Attempts to create kinship across Europe take diverse forms, from transnational cultural projects to efforts to control populations by redrawing borders. Nada Prlja’s project ‘Advanced Science of Morphology’ (2006) which presents 26 combinations of the five national flags of the states that once made up Yugoslavia. Prlja’s flags create distorted national identities, reflecting the impossibility of drawing clear distinctions in such contested territory.

Singing together, be it national anthems or union songs, connects people while spreading political ideals. A series of video works in The Sweetest Dream capture the desire to sing from the same song sheet across national and cultural boundaries. In ‘Learning Freedom’ (2005) we watch Dragan Djordjevic attempt to teach Raffaella Crispino how to play ‘Think’ by Aretha Franklin with no common language between them. The painful process of learning an unknown piece of music is echoed in allsopp&weir’s video ‘Call to Prayer’ (2005) in which a classically trained female singer learns to sing the Islamic call to prayer from a record.

The invention of Esperanto hoped to overcome our communication barriers and to create understanding across borders. Tamás Kaszás and Anikó Lóránt will install an Esperanto classroom constructed from locally found materials. During the exhibition, the public can access information and resources gathered by the artists as well as take part in a free Esperanto class.

The Sweetest Dream brings together artworks that criticise and celebrate attempts at unity and invite us to reflect on the roles we play in making and breaking dreams of European togetherness.

Here’s the info about Trading Places at the Pumphouse in 2004:

Zeigam Azizov, Big Hope, Ursula Biemann, Phil Collins, Petja Demitrova, Esra Ersen, Grass Roots Collective, Edina Husanovic, Adla Isanovic, Sejla Kameric, Klub Zwei, Martin Krenn, Kristina Leko, MAIZ, P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Museum, Photoinsight, Lisl Ponger, Marko Raat, Isa Rosenberger, Social Impact, Szuper Gallery, Wochenklausur, Moira Zoitl

Trading Places is an exhibition developed by curatorial team B+B on art and migration. With the expansion of the European Union in May, issues of asylum and immigration are gaining widespread media attention. Trading Places will offer a critical platform to discuss Britain’s relationship to Europe and its borders by presenting sensitive and provocative projects that investigate and map experiences of migration. A programme of free screenings, artists’ talks and discussions will provide a space for constructive dialogue on issues of prejudice and representation.

Trading Places brings together works in video, photography, public interventions and collaborative projects. Contributors include internationally renowned artists such as Ursula Biemann (Switzerland), Phil Collins (UK) and Lisl Ponger (Austria) and emerging artists such as Esra Ersen (Turkey) and Sejla Kameric (Bosnia and Herzegovina). Many of the works in Trading Places are being presented in London and the UK for the first time with a particular focus on issues and practices emerging from Central and South East Europe. At the heart of Trading Places is a lively orientation area containing a video library, an archive of project documentation and reference texts.

A series of new commissions will be realised especially for Trading Places. Phil Collins will realise Delivery 2, the second part of a three-phase project that was first commissioned in 2003 by Photoworks and the Brighton Photo Biennial. Collins hand-delivers portraits of asylum-seekers in the UK back to relatives in their country of origin, returning with a newly taken picture of each, examining the importance of photography in specific situations, and the common misconceptions surrounding refugees and asylum-seekers. Martin Krenn has been commissioned to develop his ongoing photographic project City Views for the first time in London, working in cooperation with migrants who show him sites, buildings and areas in urban settings that hold a particular personal significance. In Cartographies, the artist-activist group MAIZ will generate an alternative map of London in collaboration with women migrants living in the city.


image: Signage to the Trading Places exhibition, Battersea Park (2004)


Cultural Democracy is alive!

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I went to a Cultural Democracy symposium yesterday in Manchester. As part of the launch of the publication Culture, Democracy and the Right to Make Art edited by Alison Jeffers and Gerri Moriarty, in which I have a chapter.

I’m pleased to say the book is now available to read for free online here.

Here are a few initial responses to the day, which I need to mull over some more. This is a working document! I’ll also endeavour to tidy up my presentation and post this on here soon too.

I have come back full of inspiration, ideas and questions and wanted to get them down before other things start to fill my head again. I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed by the event and emotional too as it was quite something to have so many people in the room working on a topic that has been pre-occupying me for some time. I also got to meet Owen Kelly, Cathy Mackerras, a member of the Cultural Policy Collective Glasgow and many other inspirational people, and got to hang out with Loraine Leeson on the way home, which made me very happy.

So, it turns out, cultural democracy is a thing other people are working on, unpicking, reworking and are seriously committed to. I have recently joined the Movement for Cultural Democracy as a way to channel my energies and research in this area. There are lots of other related initiatives on the go, such as the 2017 Kings College report: Towards cultural democracy: promoting cultural capabilities for everyone, the 2012-17 AHRC/Uni of Manchester Understanding Everyday Participation and the 2015-16 64 million artists report Everyday Creativity, commissioned by Arts Council.

However, it also transpires, unsurprisingly, that there are lots of people who still have no idea what this term means, its history or relevance today.

In hind sight, I wish I had spelled out my own understanding of the term and how, in terms of policy and institutional engagement it has, in my view, never really been accepted or understood. Democratisation of culture being the dominant discourse, practice and generally considered the right thing to do by those holding the purse strings and power (including Arts Council, Trade Unions and Labour governments). Cultural democracy threatens that.

For what it’s worth, here’s my working definition:

I understand cultural democracy as realising the right for everyone to be critical and for everyone to have the right to exercise that criticality as a form of political agency. If we take as an underlying assumption that art involves a process of self-reflection and critical inquiry, then cultural democracy is the extension of that to every person. This then leaves the question as to the role of the artist – a profession, with qualifications, daily rates and contractual obligations. How does the notion of the professional artist fit with cultural democracy or is this a contradiction in terms?

It was acknowledge by most people yesterday that there are different people ‘holding the umbrella narrative’ of cultural democracy, that there is not one narrative. I was reassured and pleased that at least some of these narratives were being explored. I’d like to do some more work on figuring out where the shared overlaps in thinking, ideologies, politics and practices are amongst these narratives, and where the differences lie.

Did we mention that we are working and living in really shitty times, and that is why cultural democracy is so relevant and important now, as a political project, which contests what democracy is, could, should be? There are things that enable and constrain cultural practice and freedoms. What prevents people from doing what they want/need to do? What are the structural inequalities that make cultural democracy difficult / impossible? How do we challenge the individualisation of society and the discourses of freedom? How do we collectivise cultural democracy?

Did we give enough examples of the kinds of counter-cultural critical moments of what cultural democracy is today (beyond the everyday, vernacular, expanded versions of cultural expression such as enjoying a football game or painting at the weekends)? Where and how is cultural happening in the gaps (the dark matter)?

A lot of what I heard was a very positive-spin on community engagement and impact, but what about negative impact? What about forms of cultural action which don’t fit comfortably with morally, socially correct forms of participation? What about the ASBO as an unofficial certificate of cultural democracy? What about the embarrassing encounters, the awkward bits?

Andrew Miles talked about the ‘cultural ecosystem’ research they’ve been doing as part of the UEP project and Nick Wilson and Jonathon Gross talked about they ecological nature of their research. What do these organic metaphors offer, what do they loose? I like that this allows a more holistic approach to thinking through relational, ‘dividual’ aspects of cultural practices (it might de-hierarchies things), but how do we also acknowledge the power structures, battles and structural inequalities that influence, inhabit and infest these ecosystems which are fraught with complexities and struggles? Also, it feels like there is still an imperial nature to the research and practices going on – who is doing the discovering and the uncovering, the documenting and narrating? Where are the feminist, queer, decolonial, embedded approaches to research and practice? 

Can everyone read Barbara Cruikshank’s ‘The Will to Empower’ please? 

There was a call for a glossary of terms – let’s do it!

Governance came up a lot – seems crucial to any discussion about democracy! What forms of democratic governance are out there that we can practically re-purpose, e.g. co-operative, egalitarian structures?

There was a call to hold these seemingly opposite, polarised positions in tension – the dialectic position of not collapsing these opposites.

Importantly there was an accusation of institutional racism of the cultural democracy movement of the 1980s. Kooj Chuhan pointed out how the Black Arts Alliance grew out of and in opposition to the CD movement in the 1980s. There is need to decolonise cultural democracy.

The day left me enthusiastic about the need to share resources, archival material and research (a bit like but for community art/cultural democracy)? What can we do to be open and non-territorial about collating this material? Which archives (e.g. Bishopsgate Institute, Mayday Rooms) might be interested in holding archives of cultural democracy and community arts which might be lost otherwise?

Owen Kelly has  helpfully put Community, Art and the State (1984) and Culture and Democracy the Manifesto (1986) here

There was a call to also include the recent shifts and changes in cultural policy, politics and practices (1990s onwards) as this is part of the story and needs to be told so that younger practitioners are aware of how and why things have developed in certain ways.

There is a need, I think, to tie these discussions into specific campaigns and policy developments (I’m thinking here of the Cultural Democracy manifesto + movement mentioned above). Get involved!

How to make sure these concepts, tools, tactics are built on and made available for others at local, national, international levels?

How to keep the cultural democracy movement radical, countercultural, ethical, decolonial, transparent, relevant?

How to make links between these cultural democracy and community art histories and politics and the (perhaps less politicised?) socially engaged practice folk? Are these art histories being taught in current art schools?

Apparently cultural democracy needs social democracy. But I think it needs socialism. (Again, up for some discussion on this!)

What are the roles of cultural policy and cultural institutions in cultural democracy? Abolition? Reform? Take over/revolution?

More soon…

image: Cathy Mackerras’ membership card for Telford Community Arts

Can I have a P please Bob?

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I tend to glaze over and my mind wanders as soon as pensions are mentioned. I’ve potentially got at least another 26 years of work ahead of me and I struggle to think about what’s happening next month let alone in the year 2044! The current changes proposed by Universities UK are forcing us employees in higher education to become experts in pensions so here’s me trying to get my head around what the hell is going on. It’s also a way of me finding that nugget of anger that I feel I need to sustain me for 14 days of picketing! 

Most of my friends don’t have a pension. As freelance cultural workers they can’t necessarily afford to pay into one. I became a salaried employee for the first time in 2010, aged 33. That was the first time I could afford to join a pension scheme. There are precarious generations heading into pension black holes.

Birkbeck relies a lot on hourly paid teaching and scholarship staff. Many of them have uncertain futures in terms of employment and pensions (they aren’t putting as much in and so won’t get as much back). The most precarious workers are unsurprisingly the worst off in terms of financial long term security. This is worth baring in mind as we enter 14 days of unpaid strike action.

My pension is called the Universities Superannuation Scheme. It is the largest private sector pension in the country.

Universities UK (UUK), ‘the voice of universities’, has proposed changes​ to this scheme. ​

Currently as an employee 26% of my salary goes into the USS defined benefit pension scheme (8% from my salary and 18% from my employer). These pension benefits are based on each year’s salary throughout the period of my membership to the scheme.

UUK wants to close this scheme and transfer our investments into a full defined contribution fund.

It’s really important we understand the difference between these, as this is what the strike action is all about.

As far as I understand it, a defined benefit scheme places the financial risk on the employer (that’s what we’ve currently got) whereas a defined contribution plan places the financial risk on the employee. So you can see why this move is popular for UUK and the university employers they represent.

According to Alistair Jarvis, Chief Executive of UUK: “Without reform now, universities will likely be forced to divert funding allocated from research and teaching to fill a pensions funding gap, or if they did not, they would risk the sustainability of USS. The option of no reform is a dangerous gamble. It is a risk that employers cannot take.” 

The UUK proposal is to shift this risk onto the individual employees leaving the university more able to survive the turbulent times ahead. Pension pots invest in the markets to make interest, enabling them to pay people back the salaries they decided to defer when they can no longer work (I’m sure it’s more complicated than that, but that’s how I understand it). It’s a risky business, the questions are where does that risk lie, who takes that risk and at what cost? The defined benefit pension means as employees we are protected from the fluctuating profits and losses of those markets – our employer is still responsible for paying us that pension, no matter what how the investments perform. We know we will have a guaranteed, fixed amount once we retire.

Changing the scheme to a defined contribution fund would mean as employees we are likely to have less income from this scheme when we retire. Employees “may be faced with a decision to delay retirement or find a source of supplemental income when they retire” . According to First Actuarial “lecturers who started working in 2007 and have 10 years of service will lose out on £131,000, a loss of £6,100 annually, while staff with 20 years of service could lose out on £35,000 in total by the time they retire in 2027”.

I can’t imagine ever retiring, but at some point I imagine I will have to stop working. As a parent of a 2 year old with learning difficulties, in 25 years time when I am 66 and Alice is 27 I may well still be a carer. If a defined benefit pension scheme is one guaranteed way I can support her and others who haven’t had the benefits of being able to pay into a pension so far, then that is definitely a fight worth having, in my opinion. Especially given the demise of disability benefits and state pensions. 

We had a high turn out at Birkbeck in our ballot for industrial action over this. 53.7% of members returned their ballot papers (I wish it had been higher, why did so many not return their ballot?!). Of them, 93.7% voted to strike. We had the first of our weekly meetings at Birkbeck to organise which was really well attended. People are angry and now I’ve found my nugget of anger in this sly shifting of risk, I hope even more of my colleagues will get angry too.

By joining the picket lines from 22 Feb I am prepared to lose pay for the days I am striking as I want to stand alongside my colleagues and fight these changes publicly and loudly.

I hope those who voted to strike will join us on the picket lines (if you work at Birkbeck email to be added to the picket rota).

I hope those who aren’t members are encouraged to join UCU and stand with us in this fighting this threat to our terms and conditions of employment.

Email me on sophiehope[at] if you have any edits to suggest, facts to add, or stories to share on this matter!

Disclaimer: These are my own thoughts and ideas on the matter, best check your union branches and employers for more info. 

Value in Doubt

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“From a historical point of view – no matter how miserable my situation is – at this hour in the world’s history I have an advantage over you because I am compelled – I am speaking as a Black man, to doubt my history, to examine it, and I am compelled to try to create it”…”That means I have to question everything, whereas the White liberals at precisely the opposite position of being in the main, unwilling, and as well as unable, to examine the forces which have brought him to where he is, which have created him in fact. To make, which must be very difficult, to know that quite apart from whatever his own attitudes, aspirations, morality may be that he is never-the-less part of the people who at this very hour are jailing some Black boy in Mississippi, who at this very hour are whipping some black African slave, who at this very hour are perpetrating the most tremendous enormities against aggregatable people who look like me. That innocence can be – in crucial moments – a very grave danger. It can menace much more than the white liberal can imagine.”*
James Baldwin and Dick Gregory’s ‘Baldwin’s Nigger’ (1969)

I was at a workshop yesterday in Kings Cross, with about 20 other invited people (independent practitioners, people working in/through organisations and researchers). We spent the day talking about ‘socially engaged art’, in a broad sense, through critical reflections of first hand experiences. The workshop was titled ‘Curating Community? The Relational and Agonistic Value of Participatory Arts in Superdiverse Localities’. It was part of the AHRC-funded Cultural Value project, organised by the Centre for Urban and Community Research at Goldsmiths. The discussions flew in numerous directions, I sensed urgency, passion and anger in the room. Everyone had a lot to say. This was a group of people who spend a lot of time thinking, writing and doing this stuff, probably talking to lots of people about it, but this particular configuration of ‘experts’ (as we were labelled) was new (to me at least) as it cut across art-forms, institutions and disciplines. I can imagine we were all taking mental and/or written notes of triggers, frustrations, inspirations and references to follow up and deal with at some point. I thought I’d share a few of mine here.

There was some discussion on what and who the Cultural Value project was for. It seems it is primarily a project to inform, open up and ‘advance’ the debates on the value of culture. We talked about the need for this debate to also attempt to effect change, perhaps through policy. I think many people in the room are trying to effect change, in a myriad of direct and indirect ways, through their work, so why not through the channel of a funding body like the AHRC? We didn’t get to clarify exactly what those changes might be.

We tried to identify what it was about the role of art and the artist (for it is the The Artist who is still at the centre of the Industry we were there to discuss), that purports to hold open a space for conflict to play out. What is it about artistic forms of facilitation that other forms of facilitation and mediation don’t manage to do? Is there even a difference? I’m not sure we managed to communicate how artists harness those special art powers of theirs (where’s the aesthetics in these situations?). But maybe that’s because there isn’t any mystery about it – it’s just people using skills they have learnt over the years to negotiate situations and hold back, ignore and / or challenge existing pressures, frameworks and demands. (I need to follow up the point about how socially engaged artists are taking work away from community development workers.)

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May Day rally in Trafalgar square

There has been much written and said about the professionalisation of the socially engaged artist and how they are carrying out, critically-minded or not, the ‘harmonisation’ (cleansing) process needed for neo-liberal urban development to continue. Most of the people in the room, it seems, have been involved in the critique and subversion of this in various ways. But even though some little clogs have been jammed in the machine, it hasn’t stopped the bigger wheels from turning. How do you position yourself? Who are your allies? Race needs to be talked about upfront. How are we perpetuating and reinforcing the same colonial, entrenched positions? In the debates on cultural value, whose culture, whose values are being promoted?

Which imperial Western/European/North American vidmate intellectual tools of conflict, critique and disruption are being appropriated by artists and others to sell their theories of art? I am reminded of a Pacific Island artist I met in Melbourne who refused the call for art to be ‘angry, naughty and confronting’. For her, the value of culture is in preserving, training, moulding, respecting. It’s about humility.

We discussed the ethics of introducing doubt and embracing uncertainty, about embodying fear and embarrassment (to return to Baldwin’s need “to doubt my history, to examine it”). There was a strong sense that this wasn’t happening nearly enough. The structures that surround, support and create obstacles for the kinds of thinking and practice in the room are a constant source of frustration. These relationships between individuals and structures are necessary, they are intersubjective, relational, co-dependent. These structures can be ignored or engaged with. It depends on where we put our energy and resources, for there was plenty of both in the room yesterday.

*Thanks to Barby Asante for the link to the Baldwin clip

Johannesburg, Joburg, Jozi

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I’m not sure where to start. I’ll go with the 1984 Dinner as that was my main reason for visiting South Africa. As with Singapore and Melbourne, I feel I have just scratched the surface of what there is to know about art and politics here. Repeating the format of the dinner has also been about rehearsing the method and learning new things about the process of convening, co-hosting and facilitating, and my role in this.

1984 Dinner, Bag Factory, Johannesburg, 20.3.14

The dinner took place on Thursday 20 March at the Bag Factory. There were twelve guests: Monique Vajifdar, Pat Motlau, Santu Mofokeng, Brett Pyper, Firdoze Bulbulia, Faith Isiakpere , Anton Harber, Joachim Schonfeldt, Malcolm Purky, Molefe Pheto, Aura G Msimang and David Koloane. I also had one to one conversations with people who couldn’t make the dinner: Ali Khangela Hlongwane, Omar Badsha, Cedric Nunn, Kevin Harris and Neil Dundas. There are still so many people I want to speak to.

The dinner and pre/proceeding conversations threw up lots of fascinating information and stories about South Africa in 1984. I feel like I have experienced a steep learning curve, with plenty still left to comprehend. I’m going to be doing some careful listening to all of the audio material gathered during the dinners over the next month, so here I just want to jot down some key terms and places that have been mentioned to me over the last couple of weeks. It might be that many of these are obvious and well-trodden ground, but it is the detail of the conversations that I want to eventually dive into – the tones, language, the nuances and divergences between opinions, the ways that people narrate their past selves.

Sketch from my bedroom window

1984 was still a very oppressive period in South Africa, eight years on from the Soweto uprising and a State of Emergency declared the following year. While it was obvious who the enemy was, there were also ideological differences between the Black Consciousness movement (aligned with the PAC) and the ANC, which also played out in the cultural movements at the time. Visiting the Apartheid Museum, Hector Pieterson Memorial and Museum and Rise and Fall of Apartheid photography exhibition at Museum Africa were emotional, immersive exhibitions that documented the atrocities and struggles.

Phrases that came up over the last couple of weeks included: uprising, revolution, liberation. Cultural action was central to the struggle, satire and humour was important as was the power of images, interpreting and capturing the everyday reality of apartheid beyond the superficial tropes. The use of the body and symbolism in theatre to avoid the censors, the role of trade unions, using art (images, theatre) as political intervention, the role of education and workshops in townships, the need to keep a record and the role of people’s media (posters, pamphlets) as a form of dissemination.


Many of the people active then are now dead. A 1984 dinner of ghosts.

Significant organisations people mentioned to me included:
FUBA (Federation Union of Black Artists)
Funda Art Centre (in Soweto)
Medu Arts Ensemble (Botswana)
Soyikwa African Theatre
Johannesburg Art Foundation (set up by Bill Ainsly)
Market Theatre Precinct
South African Council of Churches (funded a lot of the anti-apartheid work being done)
Afrapix documentary photographers collective
Congress of South African Writers
Creative Youth Association
Staffrider journal

I’d love to do a walking tour to these (mainly long gone) places, led by people who were active in them.

Front cover of Staffrider magazine, 1984

I found a copy of the 1984 Staffrider issue in a library at Wits University and read Njabulo Ndebele’s article ‘Turkish Tales and Some Thoughts on South African Fiction’. He wrote that there was an issue with art that was about ‘informing rather than transforming’:

“All the writer needs to understand is that he can only be genuinely committed to politics through a commitment to the demands of his art”.

He was critical of ‘sloganeering’ : “The slogan is the substitution of the gut response for clarity of analysis based on systematically acquired information”. Ali Khangela Hlongwane when I met him talked about how the theatre group he was involved with at the time (Soyikwa African Theatre) was a theatre of resistance rather than protest theatre. This distinction was important, rather than being reactionary and dogmatic, the theatre he was involved in was about the people themselves being the vehicle for change. And Wally Serote who was in the military wing of the ANC, stressed (at a talk of his I went to at Museum Africa) how their training then was about being informed about what was happening – this was crucial before beginning to learn how to rebel.

In the basement of the library

The issue of how to record, understand and comprehend recent histories seems to be an ongoing question, it has to be.

Part of Stephen Hobbs’ exhibition JAG SNAG

I visited Johannesburg Art Gallery and saw the ‘architectural responses’ by Stephen Hobbs in the basement which exposed the fact that the place is in need of major renovation. Rather than block off the mouldy, falling down bits of the museum, you can walk under the scaffolding and view the flaking walls for yourself. Tidy piles of wood lie about, waiting to be put to use. I spoke to one of the members of staff who explained the ‘organagram’ the artist had painted on the wall – the frozen posts are non-existent. This national museum is operating on a shoe string.

In contrast to JAG,vidmate on another day I found my way to the top of the gallery Circa to a plush lounge, splendid views and cabinets of curiosity while the sounds of a steel workers union protest faded into the distance.

At the top of Circa

At Goodman Gallery down the road, Hank Wills Thomas had made sculptures based on extracts of well-known photos (the burning of pass books and lining up of naked miners) and massive replica badges of political movements complete with pins on the back.

Singer, activist, Aura G Msimang showed me around her neighbourhood, Yeoville. She bought me a mango which I donated to Monique (sorry Monique, I forgot you’re not eating sugar)! Aura showed me where she used to organise open mic sessions every other Sunday in a park, the amazing undercover market and the Rasta house where I chatted to a young, newly trained traditional healer who’d had a calling.

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Another sketch from my window.

My time in Joburg would probably have been quite different if it wasn’t for these lovely people: Gabi Ngcobo and Rangoato Hlasane for talking through the project with me and suggesting guests (and Gabi for making me feel so at home!), Razia Saleh for explaining some of the SA background, Masimba Sasa for helping me shop for the dinner, Ashley Whitfield and Sarah Jury for your company, Molemo Moiloa for having a chat about the dinner, David for letting me share ‘his’ pool, Sara Hallet for being excited about the project and helping me contact people, James French for setting up and washing up and Monique Vajifdar for giving me her time, sharing her extensive knowledge and being so generous with her address book!

May the conversations continue.

Melbourne 2

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Weekly blogging hasn’t really worked. I was immersing myself in Melbourne life and didn’t really feel like writing it up at the time. The transitory space of the airplane seems to be the ideal time for this. I’m on the 14 hour non-stop flight to Johannesburg following one month in Melbourne. I’ve just had two days in Sydney, which mainly involved meandering about getting lost. I went to see Once in Royal David’s City by Michael Gow which was well worth it (funny, sad, clever, political). I popped my head into the Museum of Contemporary Art but it was all feeling very familiar (I think it was the same hang of the collection I saw when I was here in 2012). Anyway, the beach was calling. Bondi beach is a strange place full of fit people jogging with their iphones strapped to their arms, keeping out the sound of the sea and birds.

image: a view of Sydney

Post-conference, it took a while to get the balance right between productive sabbatical time and tourist-time. When seeing the sites, I felt like I should be working, and when working, I thought I should be out and about making the most of being somewhere different. The notion and experience of a sabbatical is quite unusual, it’s never happened to me before. It’s a strange limbo-like space where some well-needed thinking time starts to occur because there’s not a long list of things I should be doing. In my case, this has been a chance to further some of the research I’ve been doing into art and politics, but also to have valuable, slow conversations with some amazing people which has furthered my thinking and understanding (including Marnie Badham, Lachlan MacDowall, Rob Ball, Bianca Tainsh, Adva Weinstein, James Oliver, Bern Fitzgerald, Andy Best, Danielle Wyatt and many others). I got to spend some quality time with Anne Douglas, who was my PhD supervisor and who is also coincidentally in Melbourne on a fellowship. Anne gave an inspiring talk at the VCA last week on re-imagining the ‘social turn’, thinking beyond binary oppositions (e.g. control / freedom, autonomy / control) and towards contingency, situatedness and improvised aspects of leadership in the arts.

image: our flat on the VCA campus, next to the NGV

I haven’t done as much reading as I thought I would this month, but I spent some valuable time in the VCA library as part of my research into Australian community arts histories and started to read Gay Hawkins’ book ‘From Nimbin to Mardi Gras’ (1993) which is a fascinating insight into the policy-driven history of community arts. Hawkins critiques Left accounts of community arts as ‘romanticised’ and ‘stultifying’, too simplistic in their accounts of ‘ordinary people’ against the capitalist state. Instead, she focuses on the official invention of community arts and a framework of analysis based on the historical and institutional context of the development of a democratic cultural policy in Australia marked by the setting up of a separate Community Art Program in 1973. There are some interesting parallels with UK policy development in relation to community arts funding (e.g. the Arts Council of Great Britain established a Community Arts Committee in 1974). More on that in due course. A footnote in Hawkins’ book led me to an issue of ‘Art Network’ from 1982 which I dug out of the library, with a special supplement on ‘Socially Engaged and Community Art’. I was quite excited about this because it is a very early mention of the term ‘socially engaged art’. The earliest I have found in the UK is in Malcolm Dickson’s ‘Art with People’ published in 1995.

image: the subscription page from the Art Network magazine (1982)

My 1984 dinner in Melbourne took place on 3 March and was co-hosted by Bern Fitzgerald at Footscray Community Arts Centre and Marnie Badham, Centre for Creative Partnerships, VCA. Our guests were: Jon Hawkes, Heather Horrocks, Robin Laurie, Uncle Larry Walsh and Fotis Kapetopoulos. We held the dinner in the gallery space at Footscray, and ate a lot of Vietnamese food. The guests spoke of the relationship between art and politics at the time, including the fights against terms such as ‘community arts’ and ‘multiculturalism’, the importance of support and friendship between people, the rise and rise of bureaucracy and contradictions with indigenous ways of organising. I’m going to be setting up a website to house the research and audio of the dinners. Excitingly, it looks like there will be a dinner in Adelaide in June co-hosted by Steve Mayhew, who I met at the Spectres of Evaluation Masterclass and Marnie is looking to develop 1984 dinners on her travels to Indonesia, the US and Canada later this year.

image: the 1984 dinner at Footscray Community Art Centre, 3 March 2014

Other work-based activities in Melbourne these past few weeks have included a workshop I set up with Adva Weinstein, a performance artist and student I met during the Spectres of Evaluation Masterclass. We brought together five ‘cultural workers’ to map out and discuss physical and emotional relationships to work using drawing, discussion and movement. This is forming part of the Manual Labours practice-based research I’m doing with Jenny Richards and an article we are currently writing on the issues and implications of love and enjoyment of work. We did an exercise where we moulded our partners bodies into the shapes that we often find ourselves in to reflect on the physical and emotional experiences of these scenarios. My partner’s contorted, frantic pose, spitting swear words, perched on the edge of a chair reflecting me trying to answer a never ending flow of emails is an image I won’t forget!


image: one of the body drawings from the Manual Labours ‘Loving Work’ workshop

I also set up a workshop with Anne Douglas for PhD students at VCA about their practice-led research, asking the question: How is my Art Research? How is my Research Art? Everyone was invited to bring an ‘object’ of their research and we worked in pairs to interview each other, using the object as a talking point. This was a difficult exercise, but really pushed us to reflect on the specifics of the practice and how it related to the research questions we have (acknowledging that the questions can arise from the practice rather than a specific research question always directing the practice from the outset).


image: the collection of ‘objects’ brought to the practice-led research workshop at VCA

Other things we did: Rob Ball took Barry and I on a very enjoyable ‘Artist Run Initiatives’ (ARI) tour on Melbourne bikes, during which we made up a term for a new genre, Flop and Prop, for all the various found materials we found resting carefully against gallery walls. ARI’s are a peculiarly Australian phenomenon which seem to involve artists paying to use galleries as a career step towards commercial representation or shows in public spaces. I need to find out more as this seems an odd set up, especially in relation to campaigns elsewhere for fair pay for artists/cultural workers.

Andy Best took us to Heide Museum of Modern Art, an amazing art gallery just out of town, where artists John and Sunday Reed lived from the 1930s-80s. We saw Future Primitive, an exhibition of contemporary Australian artists, and the beautiful modernist extension built for the couple to live in.


image: me in a pond in Tasmania

Barry and I also spent three nights in Tasmania, driving around the beautiful countryside, walking up a couple of hills, drinking wine, meeting distant relatives (the lovely Dillon’s on my mum’s side), visiting the old convict colony on Port Arthur and spending a long time in the Museum of New and Old Art (MONA needs a whole blog post but I’m not sure I can be bothered).

image: a page from a 1984 Time Magazine bought in an Op Shop on the Great Ocean Road

Barry, Anne and I borrowed Hazel, Marnie’s car, to drive up the Great Ocean Road and stayed in vidmate an amazing airbnb house in Port Campbell, just past the Twelve Apostles. After some stunning views, winding roads, lovely grub and a speeding ticket (I discovered later), we managed to get back to Melbourne just in time for a mini-gathering at our flat before experiencing Melbourne’s White Night – a festival in the CBD that runs from 7am-7pm with events, light projections, outdoor exhibitions. The streets were packed, people were clambering up the sides of one building trying to take a peek at the synchronised swimming because of the two hour queue to get in. The crowds were eagerly searching for a cultural experience, hungry for the spectacle, happy to be part of it. It seemed we were taking to the streets for the sake of it, no one quite sure of the destination or purpose. We lasted until about 2am and went to bed after watching a Pierre Huyghe film in the park opposite our flat.

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image: drawing on the body, Loving Work workshop, VCA

Another thing that has stuck in my mind is the aboriginal tour Anne and I tagged along to that was organised for some VCA students. It started opposite the Crown Hotel, under the train bridge, where some of Melbourne’s homeless gather and where homeless man Wayne ‘Mousey’ Perry was murdered in January this year. Our guide, Dean Stewart (a Wemba Wergaia man), set out to challenge our perceptions of the city, and he successfully achieved this in my case. We went a short distance along the Birrarung river (original name for the Warra) in two hours but covered hundreds of years of history, focusing on the changing landscape we were walking through. The city of Melbourne was developed rapidly. Within 25 years of the invasion by the English in 1835 and development of the gold mining industry, the landscape had changed dramatically from eucalyptus forests and wetlands to a built up city. Dean described it as a cultural tsunami; about 80% of the indigenous population were wiped out. This meant that important oral histories and traditions were lost (such as the name, songs and dances connected to the waterfall that marked an important crossing and fresh water site before the English invasion).

The tidy patch of imported East African grass we walked across was wetland less than 200 years ago. Dean points out that it was a place the Wurundjeri, the traditional owners of the land where Melbourne was built, used to eat, drink, meet – a custom that still attracts people to the bars and restaurants of the Southbank today (at least those who can afford it). While Dean was keen for the purpose of the tour to be for anyone born in Melbourne to reconnect to their roots, the important process of understanding cultural and social histories of relationship to place was compelling and thought provoking. It left me with the obvious shame of being connected to English history (I’m feeling that a lot on this trip), but also a question of how and why we connect to layers of experience in the places we come from, walk through and inhabit, in a way that might inform and complicate attempts to preserve and to change. This seems to be about a slow, careful and respectful listening to those around us and the places we walk through.