Realities of a sabbatical in lock-down

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He has no dog, he has no friends
And his lawn is dying
And what about those packages he sends?
What’s he building in there?

With that hook light on the stairs
What’s he building in there?
I’ll tell you one thing, he’s not building a playhouse for the children
What’s he building in there?

And what’s that tune he’s always whistling?
What’s he building in there?
What’s he building in there?
We have a right to know

Three verses from Tom Waits’ song What’s He Building

The Spring term has recently ended. I want to acknowledge all the work my colleagues and friends at Birkbeck have been doing to get through this term and all the support from friends and family, remote and near, that this has required. I was officially on sabbatical/study leave this term which meant I felt even more distant from colleagues as I didn’t have to attend as many online meetings or do any teaching. I know for those who have been managing the shift to online, this has been a really tough term. The lock-down has highlighted the wide variety of circumstances people are living through. My own privilege is made more obvious as I have a happy, stable home from which to continue work in a relatively stable job. Most people around me do not have these basic conditions, let alone the prospect of a sabbatical!

As a full time academic I can apply for a term of study leave after every 9 terms (3 years) of service. I started work at Birkbeck in 2010, had one sabbatical in Spring term 2014. This is my second term of study leave. As pointed out on the Birkbeck website: Study Leave is primarily for the benefit of the College, as well as enhancing the career of the staff member concerned.

The reality of going on study leave during the pandemic has been a mix of a relief (not having the pressures of lots of online meetings and teaching prep and delivery) but also slightly compromising in terms of getting any research done. As with so many people during this period, trying to work and do the childcare has been challenging, particularly as we have been shielding as our daughter Alice has Down’s Syndrome and has a compromised immune system. We have been missing the external support of her other carers during this period. My husband and I have had to cover 100% of the childcare so we divided up the week and have basically been operating on a tag team system: I have been doing approx. 2.5 days childcare while Barry works and approx 3 (long) days Birkbeck while Barry does the childcare, made possible because his freelance work has taken a hit. Life is either Birkbeck work or home/child-care work and not much in between! We try and have Saturday mornings and Sundays together as a family. We are very fortunate we have each other to share the childcare and housework and can both work from home. The happiness and safety of our kids has been our priority throughout, and I feel so fortunate I’ve had this time with them. Although it’s been intense at times, we’ve mainly been dancing and singing through the mayhem! Their daily needs, demands and tomfoolery keeps us distracted, grounded and exhausted.

Despite feeling constantly busy, I often feel I am doing very little or never enough. This has been an ongoing trait of mine and probably has some deep roots in a protestant work ethic, years of being self-employed and some insecurities about whether what I’m busying myself with is considered worthwhile by others. My very supportive mentor Katie Grant suggested I write down a list of things I’ve done during this study leave.

So this is a list of things I’ve done between 27 April 2020 to 10 July 2020, in no particular order, during the approx 36 days I’ve been doing the work that isn’t childcare or domestic work, but which has been fitting around it and amongst it. It would have been much harder to this without the support of my husband Barry Sykes (solidarity to all those single parents!) and my supportive work place for paying me full time throughout, and my work colleagues, particularly Simone Wesner, Lina Dzuverovic, Elena Yuan and Mike Brimfield for dealing with the knock-on effects of being a ‘man-down’. Huge thanks and appreciation also to Jenny Richards and Owen Kelly, my long term research collaborators who I love working with so much.

Writing this list has made me realise a lot has been done, and that I have managed to do some practice-based research despite not leaving the house (specifically the Global Staffroom podcast, MIAAW podcast, finishing off an article, planning and starting the BE PART evaluation and making a start on a book proposal). These projects, apart from the book proposal and article, are in their admin-heavy stages (an important and necessary aspect of practice-based research for me), and so I still feel I haven’t done the reading and writing that I’d hoped the sabbatical would allow me time for.

While term officially ends, online academic life continues in a similar pattern as it has this term, but with teaching prep and planning for the Autumn term taking precedence over research. I’m looking forward to at least a week ‘off’ in August!

In no particular order… [27 April 2020 to 10 July 2020]

Approx 6 c. 2 hour PhD tutorials plus all the reading prep

Approx 4 MA dissertation tutorials plus reading prep

Co-organised and co-hosted 14 live podcasts called The Global Staffroom with Jenny Richards with c.30 guests every Monday at 12noon (20 April – 20 July)

Made corrections to a peer-reviewed article I wrote earlier this year (yet to be published, but article accepted)

Pre-recorded a Room at the Top session with Simone Wesner for our Arts Management students

Co-organised an online game show with Rebecca Davis and Henry Mulhall as part of a new piece of research/evaluation I’m working on with Henry Mulhall for the BE PART network, plus meetings and planning for this work.

Interviewed by Kim Wide (Take a Part) for Plymouth Culture (not live yet)

Peer reviewed an article

Planned and delivered of 2 online workshops for Creativity Works, which included making a short video (see below)

Recorded 4 new MIAAW podcast episodes with A Little Piece of Land, Andrew Demitrius, David Teevan and Loraine Leeson

Discussions / interviews with 3 prospective PhD students

Organised an online Show and Tell Corkscrew workshop with Henry Mulhall and Selina Robertson

Applied to Birkbeck for some funding for the Corkscrew podcasts (successful but not heard if I can spend it next year instead of this year)

Co-organised with Rebekah Cupitt 2 online Reclaim the Tea Breaks with colleagues in my department as we were missing the informal space to chat and catch up

Read various blogs, articles, chapters such as The Angry Worker’s Class Power on Zero Hours, The White Pube’s piece on riots and reform, Johanna hedva’s Sick Women Theory…

UCU Case work

Attended an online MA Arts Management student dissertation workshop

Prepared and co-hosted (with Henry Mulhall) an online workshop for UP Projects and Constellations using Cards on the Table

Started, very tentatively, a book proposal

Started an (international) online reading group of Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson

1 x Research meeting

2 x Arts Management meetings

1 x Birkbeck online open evening

1 x PhD viva as external examiner (online), plus reading prep and feedback

 

Video made as part of my workshop for Creativity Works

Image: experimenting with home-made filters during the workshop for Creativity Works

Image: collaging at home during lockdown

image: still from the online BE PART game show with participants from 10 countries across Europe hosted by Mavis Davis (29 May 2020)

Shape shifting

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I’ve been thinking about the different strands of research I’m involved in (simultaneously) and have come up with a simple classification system to contain the chaos. I have very little time to do all I want to do with these strands of research, and that’s making my head hurt, so I’ve spent most of the day trying to figure this out rather than getting on with it, but that will come.

Inspired by my 16 month old’s shape sorter, I have clustered my areas of research into four simple shapes: Square = Manual Labours; Cross = Between Us; Circle = Cultural Democracy and Triangle = Corkscrew. My plan is to shape shift to focus on a particular area of research when I can. If I think like a square I can become the square and wallow in all things Manual Labours, for example, in the comfort that it’s fine, because I will become a triangle another day. These shapes of research are all connected and their roots go way back in time, but I’m hoping my shape shifting will help keep me focused in the time I have to do the thinking, reading, talking, admin, organising, practical work and writing that each area requires.

SQUARE: Manual Labours
This is the ongoing research I’ve been doing with Jenny Richards into physical and emotional relationships to work – exploring the times and spaces for complaining and caring at work.

CROSS: Between Us
This represents the research I’ve been doing into criticality, governance and intersubjectivity in the socially engaged art economy. It incorporates Cards on the Table, Social Art Maps, the research I’ve been doing for UP Projects and a new piece of research I’m doing with Henry Mulhall for BE PART.

CIRCLE: Cultural Democracy: histories, theories, geographies
This includes my work with Owen Kelly on the podcast MIAAW, my 1984 Dinners and my interest in exploring methods for doing histories work into cultural democracy, community arts and socially engaged art practices.

TRIANGLE: Corkscrew
The triangle connects the work I’m doing to try and understand and reflect on practice-based research as a methodology and provide a framework for peer-support and shared resources for practice-based researchers.

Socially engaged art in a time of ‘social’ distancing

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Some thoughts, notes and links for further consideration…

image: When worlds collide. Alice’s bedroom becomes my office and my office becomes Alice’s bedroom.

Are we really all in this together? Olena Hankivsky and Anuj Kapilashrami provide a crucial policy briefing which calls for an intersectional view of the COVID-19 pandemic outbreak and response. While the common thread connecting us all is the virus itself, our experiences of it are so diverse, depending on our circumstances: our age, mental health, the type of employment contract we have, if we live alone, or with kids, the age of our kids, if you live with people you get on with, or abuse you, your internet connection, and if you can figure out how to use Zoom, or not….

The virus is highlighting the existing inequalities in societies and across the globe and potentially making things a lot worse. The ability to publicly resist corruption and inequality are becoming harder as physical protests are being cancelled and Parliaments are shut down. Those already on precarious contracts and informal employment conditions have no rights and protections with Universal Credit being stretched to the max. For others, there’s money to be made  from ‘coronacapitalism‘ (including the online platforms harvesting data to profit from increasing online connectivity).

For a livelihood based on physical social interaction, the current necessary distancing measures have put the principles and incomes of many socially engaged artists under huge strain.

In the name of physical distancing but not social distancing, there are many inspiring attempts to ‘reach out’, connect up and support friends, families, neighbours and strangers via WhatsApp groups, online conferencing platforms and collective projects (such as Mass Observation’s call out to document your Covid-19 experiences), with socially engaged artists adapting their practices to the conditions of the lockdown (such as Pablo Helguera’s singing telegrams or Alan Nakagawa ‘s invitation to write haikus). In the world of research, resources are being shared on how to carry out field work while physical contact is on hold.

The virus also forces us to take stock and reflect on the very principles of engagement that we live and work by. With many socially engaged art contracts cancelled, funding withdrawn or projects on hold, there is a real concern as to where the money is coming from to pay for food and rent. For the socially engaged art organisation A Blade of Grass in New York, “the most helpful thing we can do is send money that artists can use on things like rent and food, and later address the reality of projects that will need to be massively reshaped and re-scaled”.  In the UK, the artists’ organisation Keep it Complex are providing a well-needed critique and alternative to Arts Council England’s competitive emergency fund by creating solidarity syndicates. Arts Professional reports that the DCMS has announced a call for evidence into an Inquiry into the Impact of Covid-19 on DCMS Sectors. They refer to the Directory for Social Change’s response to the government’s funding package for the charity sector (often the commissioners of socially engaged art), which outlines that this only amounts to 1% of the amount of support offered to businesses. With the future of the charity sector uncertain, where will the money to pay for future socially engaged artists come from?

The hiatus raises questions about what it means for socially engaged art to be a profession when there are thousands of people being socially engaged at the moment, for free (such as through the Mutual Aid networks). What are the roles and purpose of the professional socially engaged artist in all of this unpaid care work? And how can we use this time to (re)consider economies of care and social reproductive work and our role within them?

For many, being a socially engaged artist (or whatever you want to call yourself) isn’t necessarily because it’s where the money is, but, like it or not, over time, artists have become professionalised and a practice of socially engagement has been turned into a waged form of labour. With the wage no longer there, however, the principles of social engagement don’t disappear. Indeed, the current crisis has highlighted how fundamental and essential practices of care, mutual aid and the commons are. It does beg the question, however, (how) do I continue ‘practicing’ my socially engaged work for free (if I’ve got time and the capacity) in the hope that once this is over I can start charging for it again? Just as some self-employed musicians and yoga teachers are providing content for free during the crisis so as to maintain their fan / client base, are socially engaged artists compelled to provide free arts participation services in the hope of future paid work down the line?

The virus is highlighting extremes in the terms and conditions within workplaces as well as across sectors, such as the agency nurses who aren’t paid sick leave. While unions are working hard to make sure key workers are not expected to work for free and have the right to PPE and adequate sick pay, the slippage between paid and volunteer work are becoming more apparent as thousands of people sign up to volunteer or return to work after retirement.  This foregrounds the inequalities in society as those with capacity are more able to help than others.

What role do socially engaged artists play in this crisis and what does this mean for the profession? As a profession (albeit precarious and underpaid), socially engaged artists could be seen as key care workers, focusing on connection, interaction, facilitation and ‘holding’ spaces for others to make those connections with each other and the contexts they are in. How does a practice that facilitates intersubjectivity between people cope when mediated through screens?

As Naomi Klein points out, there are alternatives to the impending message of ‘back to business as usual’. As with the (what feels like an age away) limbo time on the picket lines, can we reserve some of our limited and context-dependent energies into a critical analysis of the economies and societies we usually operate in and consider if the time is right for pushing forward with principles of social engagement for social justice (aka cultural democracy)? Is this the moment to introduce Universal Basic Income, for example?

Here are a few more links I’ve been reading to help me through this discombobulating time:

The amazing USDAC have some great links and ideas about community care in the time of COVID-19.

Kandida Purnell has written a well-need Foucauldian analysis of the body politics of COVID-19.

Kenneth Bailey and Lori Lobenstine consider Social Justice in a time of Social Distancing and suggest we “seize this opportunity to explore and challenge what COVID19 shows us about the hidden (and not-so hidden) arrangements of our lives” They “suggest folks turn outwards—instead of inwards—to come up with new arrangements that are not just healthier, but also more just and more social.”

Psychotherapist Esther Perel asks when the most socially responsible thing we can do is avoid other people, how can we maintain social connection?” She refers to how “collective trauma necessitates collective healing, a process dependent on the activation of our communities, not just ourselves. It lifts everyone and takes certain pressures off our partners and families to do it all ourselves, a crushing and near-impossible feat.” (thanks Keep it Complex for this link).

If you have any other links, ideas or responses to the above ramblings, do get in touch!

Notes from the picket line…

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image: picketers on the picket line at the School of Arts, Birkbeck, 11.3.20

Picket line duty involves standing (usually in the cold) on the threshold of the entrance to our workplace. We create a visible presence to our non-striking colleagues and students, reminding them (embarrassing them) that we have collectively decided to withdraw our labour in the hope that the labour conditions for everyone in our workplace will improve. Hanging about on the doorstep of work inevitably involves some critical reflections on what that workplace is (and how on earth we can effectively withdraw our labour in the context of academia).

I’ve been in my current job ten years now, but still tend to feel out of place. One of the criticisms of our strike action is that we are acting selfishly – that by doing this we don’t care about our workplace. But despite my awkward relationship with work in general, I am on strike because I care about my teaching, research, even admin, deeply. I care about my work so much in fact, it can get me into trouble emotionally and financially.

In my ten years of being an employee at Birkbeck, I have been on many picket lines and each time I get to meet amazing colleagues who become friends. The picket line is a liminal space that, devoid of the usual workload which usually prevents us from hanging out with each other, cracks open some time and space to have a natter and put the world to rights. It’s so impressive what people can do when they don’t have to go to work (e.g. see: https://ussbriefs.com/  and all the teach-outs happening on the thresholds of university entrances all over the country, e.g. https://kpigge2020.wixsite.com/strikes2020bbk/teachouts). For many of us, our research focus faces outwards into the world, using case studies and objects of study from other places, but during strike action our critical faculties do a 180 and lock on to our own places of work. We start investigating, digging, reading, discussing, analysing the systems and structures that surround us.

So, one of the things I’ve been doing on my strike days (as well as picketing, childcare, going to see the exhibition Play Well and getting my hair cut!), is reading Birkbeck’s Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2019 as a way to get to know the inner workings of the college better. To counter this, I’ve also been reading The Slow Professor by Maggie Berg and Barbara Seeber (2016) as a way to think about the neoliberal university and how we could maybe do higher education differently.

Here’s some useful pie charts from Birkbeck’s financial reports outlining the income and expenditure at Birkbeck:

images: analysis of income and expenditure 2018/19 from the Birkbeck’s Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2019 p.21 + 24.

Further detailed critical reading of these figures is needed, but essentially, you can see that most of the money (64%) is form student income and the majority of expenditure is on salaries. According to the Financial Statements, a key concern is the college’s current deficit of £5 million mainly due to reduction in EU students following the uncertainties around Brexit. The dominant narrative in the report is that student income is reducing and staff costs are increasing, giving a rationale for the college to reduce the deficit by: increasing student recruitment, creating ‘additional income streams / income diversification initiatives’ (p.10 + 11) and ‘closely manag[ing] our staff cost base’ (p.11).

 

image: Diagram presenting the relationship between staff costs and tuition income from the Birkbeck’s Financial Statements for the year ended 31 July 2019 p.9

The report uses the language of competition, performance, efficiency and effectiveness to frame its strategy, for example:

“Cumulatively the goal is to ensure that we keep true to our unique mission and look and perform at a level in keeping with our reputation for excellence” (p.10)

These words describe how a place sees itself and wants to be seen (marketing speak).

There are increasing concerns over the current non-closure of universities to control the spread of the Coronavirus, implying universities are more concerned with income and reputation than the health and wellbeing of employees and students.

It is no surprise that universities are having to operate as businesses since the withdrawal of state support, but what effect is this having on the students and staff that are engaging with this sector? To what extent does a strategy for sustainable higher education go beneath the surface and re-examine how learning and research is supported?

The college is proposing a ‘significant level of organisational change’ (p.11). Could this be the moment to collectively write an alternative strategic review for Birkbeck based on the seven co-operative principles and the demands of dispute we are currently engaged in? I’m interested in exploring the possibilities of turning Birkbeck into a co-operatively run university. For one of the teach-outs last week, I invited Emeritus Professor at Lincoln University Mike Neary to come and talk to us about his research with Joss Winn into co-operative higher education, his work at the Social Science Centre, the new Co-operative University in Manchester and his new book Student as Producer. Mike’s discussion made me think about how:

A co-operative university involves its members taking democratic control of the governance of the university

A co-operative university run on a stakeholder model would involve students, staff and community partners as constituents who would all have a say on how the university is run

A co-operative university is still a business and would have to consider where the income is from and how to distribute it. This means that the college’s current financial deficit would still be a concern.

 

image: Framework for Co-operative Higher Education (click to enlarge). Design by Sam Randall, student at University of Lincoln.

Thinking about Birkbeck as a co-operative might involve:

Rethinking the concept of ‘student experience’ from the perspective of students as members of the co-op (and boycotting the NSS and TEF)

Rethinking how research can be supported, in relation to teaching (and boycotting the REF)

Rethinking the premise of real estate expansion from the perspective of community stakeholders as members of the co-op (acknowledging we need physical places to meet, learn and work together)

Rethinking how staff are supported from the perspective of staff as members of the co-op.

Becoming a co-op is not necessarily the answer and I’m not even sure it is possible practically and legally, but as a thought experiment it allows us to think about the different ways universities can be run on a co-operative, democratic member controlled basis. Alongside thinking about the survival and sustainability of our work and study places, we need to be fighting for a change in government that leads to HE returning to being a public good, with state support. The financial statements report points out how Birkbeck continues to offer ‘no barriers, financial, practical or otherwise, to the benefits of university education’ (p.12). But this is proving harder to do, and is taking its toll on the staff and students in what feels like an incompatible neo-liberal workplace.

Right, back to the picket line!

 

 

 

 

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?

Ouch.

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).

horse

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

Numbi

Group Material

PAD/D

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! https://www.reunionprojects.org.uk/blog/2006/04/

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): https://welcomebb.sophiehope.org.uk/projects/tradingplaces2.html 

There’s also this text Sarah Carrington and I did for Variant in 2005: http://www.variant.org.uk/23texts/b+b.html

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 http://www.unfinishedhistories.com/ 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 https://dibdibdob.com/

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 ucu@bbk.ac.uk 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]me.com 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.