June 06, 2010

Dortmund - The Exclusion of the Artist

Dortmund. 15 nations represented at the Shortcut Europe convention on Culture and Social Inclusion. I must admit that I was a little uncertain as to why I was invited to speak during this event, and a little nervous, therefore, that my contribution might not be pitched at the level at which with no evidence I valorised current German theory-practice function. The event opened as I have previously experienced with welcoming speeches from the hosting organisations followed by an interminably dense academic lecture by a professor from the University of Tübingen. Long theoretical speeches at the beginning seem to be a German tradition. This put me at ease because while turgid it located where things are here for me. This was followed by a panel discussion – the themes of most of the panels tended to be ignored once the conversations started. The standout contribution came from Franco Bianchini (Leeds University) who was notable because his global research gave him a much greater range of practice to reference. He was the only one for instance who could throw latest developments from South America into the debate – especially how culture is being used in failing or semi-criminal States to rebuild civic engagement and community cohesion.

On the second day I was pleased to hear Christopher Gordon, a UK consultant who did the research for the European Commission on culture and inclusion policy across the member states. Gratifyingly, in passing he confirmed my view that the target culture of the UK regime was disastrous for culture. In the break I was told that the Germans are fascinated with the British system but only ever hear that it is good, because official spokesman UK usually present the official story. If that wasn’t an invitation for me to fire with both barrels I don’t know what could be.

Then we broke up into different theme panels in which I chose the one on the possibilities of public art. Oddly the case studies were a conceptual approach to a community park in Berlin – which had some good ideas such as a community dance group choreographed to clean litter as a performance at the start and finish of every event and turning the park into everyone’s living room at night by inviting all the residents to bring out their lamps to light it – and two mural projects, one high profile architectural approach in Lyon and a free-culture radical graffiti in Düsseldorf. I think I am not alone in reaching for my gun when someone proposes a mural commission but there is more of a tradition of the form on the continent and higher quality. I think the problem with the UK experience is that murals are usually commissioned to do something worthy and so tend to be limited to subjects of local heritage or happy-clappy communities. Graffiti is also much more prevalent in Germany; virtually the whole railway system is decorated with it. Generally I have an artistic problem with graffiti: mostly its praxis seems to be a progression from naming (usually the ‘artist’) through to either figuration or cartoon(figuration) – not actually that interesting at any point. There are rare exceptions of course and it turned out that I had seen some of the case study examples as I came into Dortmund on the train – a huge monkey head pondering “What to do?” and a small building painted like a bank containing a banker robbing passers-by. This latter was presented during the artist Klaus Klinger’s talk. He showed one slide of it after it had been finished in which the figure of the banker had been painted out with a grey square and joked that this was obviously the banker’s trying to censor dissent. I would have joked back that it seemed more likely to me that it was radical minimalists striking back at the excess of graffiti – but when discussion is carried out through simultaneous translation you are always slightly behind the conversation so the joke would have been lost (twice in translation). The Lyon projects were striking paint jobs that turned rundown areas of cities in the region into trompe l'oeil palaces or classical idylls – from the evidence presented these seemed to have been successful interventions both in terms of the effect on the living environment and the sense of community in those involved. http://www.cite-creation.com/eng/wall-paintings/frescos-lyon-painted-wall.html

Afternoon tours were the next thing but the prospect of being bused here and there on such a scorchingly hot day wasn’t inviting so I went to Dortmund Art Gallery & Museum instead – a nice collection though nothing special except, I was surprised to find some remarkably beautiful 17th Century German furniture, something I have never really appreciated before.

Saturday and on to my session. My points on the danger of social inclusion policy for culture and cultural inclusion couldn’t have been exemplified better if I had planned the morning myself. Just before me, a senior manager from another UK city proudly presented the strategic policy structure of her authority (which is exactly the same as every other authority in the centralised system): having clearly become inured in the mind-numbing fallacies of it and having not understood the dynamics of European theory her presentation became increasingly ridiculous. I actually do an ironic version of this sometimes to audiences of artists to show how bad things are. But it is even worse when it is not done with irony. The audience were visibly losing their will to live and in the end in their restiveness she asked whether she should continue and they said no. So when I came on and said the UK system is bollocks, I was just confirming what they had seen for themselves. I opened with the half-serious point that because I was actually presenting rather than just attending I had scored an extra 2 points in our next government inspection. This got a laugh but is true so just shows how stupid the UK system is. Apart from warning the delegates of the dangers of the top down monitoring approach to cultural provision, my main thread was an idea that had come to me during the convention: in all the discussion of culture and social inclusion, because it is a policy concept being imposed on a fundamental practice, a new group in society now experienced exclusion – artists themselves. It was noticeable I pointed out that artists had been hardly mentioned in the conference and in the programme I was the only participant listed as an artist (and curator). I gave a load of examples how in the institutionalisation of culture (including academia) in UK over the last ten years at least has created an environment of compromise and artistic constriction which, especially in its indoctrination of children and young artists, has damaged the creative possibilities of a generation. There was a very positive response from a Danish delegate Soren Ohlsen, the ENCC co-ordinator in Copenhagen, who shared my anger because that country also has this system, and also from a number of different German participants – as parts of the country are also moving in this direction. This was an important message I think because surprising to an English ear, the continentals still talk about the importance of artistic freedom and autonomy. When was the last time you heard someone talk about that in England? As I left a woman from Berlin caught me and thanked me for exposing the fallacy in the frequent use of the word ‘empowerment’; politicians especially appropriate it – empowering the community is dangerous to their control so empowerment is never what is meant. I made some interesting contacts including Kristina Volk, curator of the Reichstag Art Collection, which I will arrange to go and see, and Peter Kampf, chair of ENCC, who will hopefully visit Manchester in the summer.

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