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Who will be transformed?

Community art and Excellence

"We have become foot soldiers in our own movement, answerable to officers in funding agencies and local government recreation departments". [1]

By placing emphasis on intangible or transient processes, the radical art of the 60's and 70's attempted to undermine commercial art's system of value creation and engage more directly with an audience drawn from outside an institutionalised art discourse. However, this was where policy-makers and state funders first encountered the idea that 'socially engaged art' could be a picturesque and inexpensive alternative to social services.

In 1973 the Arts Council of Great Britain's 'New Activities Committee' produced the Baldry Commission report[1.1] which set out to describe and then provide funding for 'Community Arts'. Unfortunately, in the commissions' eagerness to make the movement palatable to funders, it excluded the radical elements of these practices, presenting it as a movement that 'worked with children' and 'disadvantaged elements of society'.

This was a defining moment, when funding for non-commercial arts was relegated to the recreation departments of local government, where it proved so useful that 'community art' took its place alongside institutional and commercial arts practices which have always been used as political-cultural tools.

More recently there has been a huge resurgence of interest in the sponsorship of 'community art' from funders and institutions, now using the terms 'participative art' or 'socially engaged art'. Vague political abstractions like 'inclusion' and 'excellence' have pervaded the rhetoric of the Arts Council's mission statements and funding applications, but there is also a new breed of art commissioning bodies, corporate/institutional hybrids that have adopted this language with equal if not greater enthusiasm.

The Arts Council's promotional materials do offer a justification for this 'radical' change of focus (the corporate/institutional hybrids are unaccountable enough not to need to produce justification).

"being involved with the arts can have a lasting and transforming effect on many aspects of people's lives. This is true not just for individuals, but also for neighbourhoods, communities, regions and entire generations, whose sense of identity and purpose can be changed through art."[2]

But this statement raises more questions than it answers: what kind of transformation will be undergone? Who will transform who? And to what kind of identity, and what purpose will peoples lives be turned?

The 'Community Art' that Kelly describes bore little resemblance to the impoverished notion of 'community art' in use today. For example, he applies that term to the work of Joseph Beuys and Stuart Brisley among others, artists who would now be described by subsequently developed critical specialist terms such as 'social sculpture' or 'performance art'. He describes how the rigid funding criteria that the Arts Council developed in response to the Baldry report fostered a malign dependency on state funding in the Community Arts movement, stripping it of its radical agenda. Even worse, the forms that were considered radical in their engagement with de-valued 'craft' production (as a transformation of life-into-art) such as basket-weaving or tapestry became synonymous with this de-radicalised notion of 'community art'.

In the public funding of arts, 'community art' is still a tainted phrase. On March 4th 2003 the Serpentine Gallery, in association with the Sackler Centre for Arts Education[3] ran an education workshop for "community arts professionals and arts educators" titled "Excellence for All". At this conference a representative from London Arts explained the new criteria for funding of the arts, and several housing co-operatives and art-commissioning companies talked about their joint artist-in-residence programmes. The premise of the entire conference was that 'community art' and 'excellence' were the opposite ends of a scale and that the standards needed to be raised somehow. But the metric for excellence was, as ever, very unclear. "excellence serves as a unit of currency within a closed field. The survey allows the a priori exclusion of all referential issues, that is, any questions about what excellence ... might be, what the term might mean."[4]

Bill Readings identifies use of the metric of 'excellence' as a process of 'dereferentialisation', a term he coins to indicate the removal of any stable or identifiable social and ideological relations from a system of value judgment. His observations of the term excellence (based on its usage in the University) point to the increasing commodification of knowledge, education and qualifications. In that both Universities and Arts institutions can be seen as sites of 'knowledge production', they fulfil a similar role in the process of 'dereferentialisation'. Readings' choice of the term 'excellence' as a focal point for his analysis is born out by the evidence of its ubiquitous use in the definition (or non-definition) of value in many cultural and economic fields.

"We will be unabashed about excellence in the arts. By excellence, we mean the highest possible achievement, not a value system placed on one group by another...We believe that access to the arts goes hand in hand with artistic excellence. Participation, contribution and engagement in the arts are the bridge between access and excellence. "[5]

The Arts Council of England's use of the term in defining its Ambitions for the Arts is almost comically meaningless. While the document carefully avoids recognising any of its own ideological or cultural bias, and states that the two go 'hand in hand', the abiding conviction that 'excellence' and 'access' are separate entities that need to be reconciled somehow is clear. Why else would they need a 'bridge between' them?

This new metric for artistic success, by which projects will be funded or excluded, points to a acceleration and transformation of the process that Owen Kelly was railing against. The exclusion of radical elements of the Community Arts movement by limited and rigid funding criteria at least provided a new set of boundaries and limitations for radical artists to kick against. The new metric of excellence, however, has no boundaries or limits against which to push.

"This trend towards alliances and partnerships has resulted in what have been variously described as 'virtual' or 'boundary-less' organisations. It has also made it increasingly difficult to identify 'cores': as companies loosen their physical structures through outsourcing, concerns have also been raised about the danger that activities are disappearing, leaving fragile shells or 'hollow' organisations".[6]

In the late 90's Davies and Ford wrote a series of papers and articles about the corporate take-over of the contemporary art scene. By 'boundary-less' organisation they are referring to the many umbrella companies set up by art institutions (state or commercial) and large multinational corporations. The Bloomberg New Contemporaries, Unilever's sponsorship of the Tate Modern, and Becks Futures at the ICA: these partnerships are now a dominant feature of the UK's cultural landscape, but unlike the state sponsorship that Kelly complained about, these institutions no longer focused on the exclusion of radical elements. In fact their mobility, the lack of geographical or ideological centres make these organisations more easily characterised as 'anti-institutions': mobile, apolitical, and unaccountable.

The general shift in terminology used to describe the relationship of funders to art institutions from 'sponsored by' to 'in collaboration with' points to a more direct involvement from funders than the handing over of money. The recuperation of radical aesthetic innovation by commercial interest is an established cultural trajectory, but the 'collaboration' of corporations with art institutions and artists suggests an accellerated turnaround. The art emerges from these collaborations fully formed, apolitical and ready for recuperation.

" networks and hollow organisations actively solicit and harness counter discourses to service the illusion of dissent and dialogue".[8]

These 'collaborations' often explicitly demand that the art they co-produce should be 'radical', 'avant-garde', or 'revolutionary' words which, like 'excellence' are easily robbed of any ideological or political value and re-applied to soap powder or (more likely) information-based products like stock-market information or software.

However, this kind of pseudo-analysis is easy to write, the anarchistic character of multinational corporations is a well-known platitude and has even induced the protest group Reclaim the Streets to re-brand their endeavours as 'anti-capitalist' rather than 'anarchist' in recognition of that fact (although apparently they are soon to re-brand as 'anti-imperialist', which seems more urgent at the moment). To ground this debate we need some examples of Arts Council funded artists that self-consciously position themselves in opposition-to or outside of institutional contexts, while still managing to fulfil the Arts Council's dubious criteria.

For her recent "Ice Cream Van Convention" project, artist Anna Best contacted and documented her interactions with owners and operators of ice cream vans across the UK while trying to organise a national convention. The work she presented at the Art for Networks show in Cardiff included video of her interviews with the drivers of ice cream vans, recordings of the sounds of their musical horns, and an improvised map of the people she had met and their resources, interconnections and histories. When talking about her research at a seminar organised by Steven Willats for Control Magazine in February 2003, she explained that since doing her initial research she had discovered that most of the vans would not be able to drive more than about 20 - 30 miles, and the owners work on such low profit (and in many cases loss) margins, that they could never afford to travel to a convention where they would be certain not to sell any ice cream. They were not even able to travel to the galleries where she would be showing her videos and photos of them and their work. She had also discovered that ice cream van vendors are more likely to conduct low-level 'turf-wars' than to co-operate or unionise their operations. She had made some attempt to suggest that they form a union, but but found little support for the idea from ice cream vendors that she met. During her talk at the Control magazine seminar, she expressed regret at this and hope that she might be able to organise something on a smaller scale.

Best is a regular speaker at 'access' or 'participatory' art conferences. Her work, unintentionally perhaps, performs the Arts Council's brief exactly - 'bridging the gap' between 'access' and 'excellence'. The fact that most ice-cream vans are not mechanically able to travel large distances to a national convention, and the vendors were unable to participate in their representation as anything other than recorded subjects, or even to come and watch themselves being represented in the gallery context reinforces the suspicion that this project fulfills the Arts Council's dubious criteria for 'participation'. The mental image of a field full of ice-cream vendors all playing their musical horns in a jolly cacophony (Best mentioned this idea in her talk, referring to it as a 'concert'), is compelling, but clearly disconnected from the reality of life as an ice-cream vendor. The ice-cream van convention idea was obviously fully-formed without the involvement of the vendors themselves.

It should be noted, however, that Best presents this as a project in progress, and the interaction of her idea and consultation with the ice-cream vendors does constitute a collaboration; albeit a collaboration with an alread-anticipated outcome and without shared goals and methods between collaborators. This points to a central problem in so-called 'socially engaged' and 'participative' art. What comes through her presentation of this process is the structure of arts funding within which she is working. Most often, the process of writing funding proposals involves stating the objectives and outcomes of a project before it starts. So ideas such as this, with a picturesque but unilaterally projected outcome are commonplace.

Best's work is one example of an increasingly popular strand of contemporary art, currently being referred to as 'socially engaged', 'participatory' art. Another artist whose name is synonymous with this emerging genre [8.1] is Jeremy Deller. His collaborative pieces have been fascinating. For example, Acid Brass (1997), a commission to the William Farey Brass Band to perform and record classics of acid house music, and The Battle of Orgreave (2003), a re-enactment of the clash between picketing miners of the NUM and riot police outside the BSC coking plant at Orgreave, South Yorkshire, on 18 June 1984. Filmed by Mike Figgis and Channel 4, this became a startlingly graphic documentary about the historical events and their social context. Many of the 'actors' had actually participated in the original riots as police or as rioters.

Deller's representation is well meant, and by involving the miners who had initially participated in the strike, he does alleviate some of the familiar problems of 'high culture' representation of working-class people and realities. However, the market reality is always in evidence. Press and documentation of the event refers to it as 'Jeremy Deller's The Battle of Orgreave', and on Art Angel publicity he is credited as having 'conceived' the idea. Of course this is standard practice in the naming of authored material, and without Deller's idea and cultural caché the film could not have been made. However, the naming of the project as art, the the standard assignation of an author, and the contexts in which it is marketed and distributed are problematic. Deller's position as conceptual author and the marketing of the film through art and media channels privileges his position above the participants, despite his objections. In the 'high culture' context of the art gallery this film becomes a commodity from which he gains notoriety and financial reward (whereas the participating ex-miners were volunteering), so the process inevitably commodifies the experiences, the stories and representations of the ex-miners. [8.2]

Similarly, in a lecture he gave at the Tate Modern in 1999, Deller showed a video of hundreds of George Formby enthusiasts playing their banjos and singing along en masse to a film screening of a Formby song. Of course the response from the audience at the Tate was hilarious laughter, at which point Deller looked shocked and said that he was actually really interested in what 'these people' were doing, neglecting the fact that despite his best intentions, showing this video on the context of a lecture at the Tate Modern was always going to be a freak show.

"That bridge [between 'access' and 'excellence'] is especially crucial in a society which is itself subject to ongoing change: more culturally and ethnically diverse; more educated and informed but also more distracted and cacophonous".[9]
The invective of the Art's Council's ambition is clear and, as they say, 'unabashed': to unify 'access' and 'excellence', terms that they use to posit a separation between ordinary people (i.e. non-artists) who by this logic need 'access' to the 'excellence' of high culture. This drive to unify and rationalise, to rid society of distraction and cacophony is disturbingly familiar to the now-heavily-critiqued notion of multiculturalism; the assimilation and diffusion of difference into a neo-liberal conception of the public sphere, where judgment of any kind (which the Arts Council's text phrases pejoratively as 'value systems placed on one group by another') are always explicitly deferred by a lack of contact or debate between culturally (and usually ethnically) separate elements of society. Of course the end point to this hermetic apolity is that pre-existing economic-historical conditions are allowed to run their course, however destructive.

"We are the community." - Kate Rich.

This was Kate Rich's response when questioned about how her art is accessible to the 'community' at a lecture at University College San Diego (in this case the word 'community' was used by the questioner as a euphemism for non-artists and working class people). Explaining it later she said she had considered the question and then realised that herself and many of her voluntary colleagues at the Cube are unemployed or on low incomes, from working-class backgrounds and crucially, do not consider themselves to be artists, or the activity they are engaged in to be 'art'.

Given that the University of San Diego had flown her out to give a lecture and do a two week residency, and that her work, and the work of many of the Cube crew (Heath Bunting for example) has been shown and collected by established cultural institutions such as the Tate and the ICA, shows that there is no 'gap' between 'access' and 'excellence' at the Cube.

The fact that this situation is a rarity indicates how widespread the exclusivity inherent in the division made by the Arts Council's "Ambitions for the Arts" statement really is. The success of the Cube and its members[10] is due in part to the concentration of talented people working there, but also to the ways in which they collaborate, and the focus of that collaboration.

"hogge: A cultural institution is usually a kind of transparent host, it provides culture to the masses. But the workforce, the organisation itself, will not be a factor in this overtly. We invert the whole thing and say - OK, let's not worry about the event: the organisation is the project... It's an artist-run cinema where the project is the running of it by artists."[11]

The 'workforce' at the Cube is a mobile gang of twenty or thirty volunteers. The building itself was partially constructed by previous generations of volunteers and all programming, projection, design and maintenance work is undertaken in this way, from the laying of cement on the front step (covered with the hand prints and scrawled signatures of the volunteers on that day) to the selection of cocktails and volunteer-baked cakes at the bar. To a great extent the voluntary staff are the most valued customers, contributing to and consuming much of the cultural programme, the cake and the alcohol that the Cube offers. This internal economy of skills, contribution and consumption, and the Cube's lack of core funding has lent the Cube a degree of freedom with their programming that other organisations, even marginal / specialist cinemas can only dream of. But beyond the financial practicalities, the fact that the voluntary workforce (which anyone can join) and the act of organisation itself is the main focus of the project destabilises the divisions between 'staff' and 'audience'. The fact that all the jobs are voluntary also allows a degree of freedom in what each volunteer does. Obviously some are skilled in certain areas; projection, building, administration etc. but the resources and will is there for people to learn and try out any of these jobs, or to invent new ones for themselves.

"Self-institutional initiatives have been a constant means of not only creating spaces for critique and sustainable oppositionality, but of creating social relations, means of being together."[12]

Howard Slater describes initiatives such as the Cube as 'self-institutions': the practice of shifting the focus of creativity in cultural production from the art or event produced to the social relations and infrastructures that surround such products, from the expression to the 'means of expression'. This term is being used by an increasing number of groups to describe both what they do and how they are organised, it relates in part to Anthony Negri's theory of 'auto-valorisation'. Negri's term is a development of Kropotkin's concept of 'self-valorisation' - "the diversity of autonomous efforts to craft new ways of being and new forms of social relations",[13] but in relation to the production and distribution of informational rather than industrial products. The concept of the 'self-institution' is too large and fascinating a subject of study in itself, so rather than hurriedly skirt over it in this text, I will pick one of its central themes, that of peer review - the metric for 'excellence' in self-institutions such as the Cube.

"How can one maximize quality if there is no metric for quality? If scarcity economics doesn't operate, what metrics are available besides peer evaluation?".[14]

Writing about the DIY culture of Free Software; software produced by groups of volunteers, working collaboratively via the Internet, Eric S. Raymond poses one of the central questions that artists such as the Cube crew face (and it is worth noting that the Cube crew is actively involved in the production and use of Free Software). In engineering terms there are all kinds of efficiency tests that can be devised to gauge the quality of code, but quality in other aspects of projects that have more connection to the social and personal dynamic of a project such as the naming of a programme or methods of coming to consensus on difficult and marginal decisions about future developments are far more complicated.

Julian Priest, an artist, software engineer and one of the founders of the Consume[15] project, a "strategy for the self-provision and distributed ownership of a telecommunications infrastructure", describes the process of project development in self-institutional groups, specifically with his long-time collaborator James Stevens, as 'collision testing'. Holding strong views and expressing them, and then listening to the views of other collaborators is a vital part of the process of decision making. If the idea gets past the "James Stevens Collision Test", it can survive anything.

"2.3) What's the economy of the Cube? heath: Everyone's a volunteer. hogge: There's a lot of seduction involved".[16] - Cube FAQ

The Cube is also a social network, with all the friendships, power struggles, difficulties and personality clashes that involves, but the result is that arguments and judgments can be made based on valid and strongly held differences of opinion. As Hogge says, 'seduction' is also involved, the emotional and interpersonal conflicts of peer review are as much a part of the discussion as the rational-theoretical or economic factors.

These are exactly the conflicts that the Arts Council's metric of 'excellence' seeks to exclude: the lack of a "value system placed on one group by another", the exclusion of 'distraction' and 'cacophony' mitigates against the possibility that opposing views can meet, debate and argue their positions.

"By postulating the availability of public sphere where power and antagonism would have been eliminated and where a rational consensus would have been realized, deliberative democracy denies this dimension and its crucial role in the formation of collective identities. "[17] - Chantal Mouffe

In her definition of 'agonistic democracy', Chantal Mouffe argues that the what is lacking from the dominant liberal formula of 'deliberative democracy'[18] is any sense of 'the political': the 'dimension of antagonism that is inherent in all human societies, antagonism that can take many different forms and can emerge in diverse social relations.'

Her observation that 'agonism', the political element of genuine debate and exchange is crucial in the formation of collective identities reveals just how offensive the Arts Councils criteria really are. Their thinly veiled cultural relativism only ever allows the 'participants' in 'participatory art' an impoverished identity in the project.

In light of this, the Arts Council's 'ambition statement', that art can produce a 'lasting and transformative effect', and change the 'sense of identity and purpose of 'individuals, ...neighbourhoods, communities, regions and entire generations', begins to make sense, which is not to say that it has any meaning.

Like questions about the value of 'excellence', those raised about these changes and transformations are unanswerable. It is impossible to say what the changes will mean, the statement could be paraphrased by saying simply that 'art is a powerful tool'.

But beyond the rhetoric, looking at examples of projects that do get funding and are championing 'socially engaged, participative art', the question it does answer is 'who will be transformed'. Not the artists, the funders or the institutions, clearly. The formation of collective identities is a dangerous and volatile process. When the political is allowed into the equation the collective identity that forms may be that of the protestor, the deviant, the criminal. By banishing the political from art, dissolving it in a sea of relativism, the collective identity that forms, the great and ghastly 'public' is always the same: alienated, apathetic and utterly disinterested in art.

Saul Albert - 31/03/03
revised 20/07/2003






[1] Owen Kelly, Community Art and the State: Storming the Citadels (London: Comedia,1984), p. 27.
[1.1]Baldry, H.C. (1974) Community Arts, London: Arts Council of Great Britain.
[2] Hewitt, Peter Ambitions For the Arts, The Arts Council of England website, February 2002. (31/03/2003).
[3] The Sackler Centre for Arts Education (SCAE) is part of the newly refurbished Dulwich Picture Gallery. There is also an SCAE in the Guggenheim New York and thousands of institutions and research positions (for Arts and medical research) throughout the world funded by the Arthur M. Sackler foundation.
[4] Bill Readings, The University in Ruins (Cambridge, MA, and London: Harvard University Press, 1996), p. 27.
[5] Hewitt, Ambitions For the Arts, 2002.
[6] Anthony Davies and Simon Ford, 'Culture Clubs', in Mute, 18 (2000), pp. 23-24
[8] Anthony Davies and Simon Ford, 'Culture Clubs', (2000).
[8.1] It may seem inaccurate to use the term 'emerging' here. However, although the terms 'participatory' and 'socially engaged' art have been used to describe related arts practices in the past, the current meanings of those terms are strongly related to the Art's Council's Ambitions for the Arts statement, and take on very different associations in the current political and social context.
[8.2]This film can be seen as the first stage in the 'heritagization' of the Miner's strike; not that the strike did not constitute heritage before Deller's film, but the representation of it was engineered by an outside interest, and used to generate and enrich a market that is completely independent of Orgreave and the people whose experiences are represented. Deller's re-packaging of social trauma as art makes it safer to talk about; melancholic history, rather than political reality. In some way, artists like Deller are the vanguard of recuperation, seeking out the under-represented, the repressed, the forgotten debris of social history and beginning the process of their aesthetic re-integration into 'high' culture. The well-documented process of urban gentrification (with artists always at the vanguard) is an analogous process, but in the property market rather than the art market.
[9] Hewitt, Ambitions For the Arts, 2002.
[10] (although there are many other collectives within that group and networked through it such as Irational (, 32c (, and the Bureau of Inverse Technology (
[11] Kate Rich, Heath Bunting and Graham Hogg, The Cube Microplex FAQ, 2001. Revised: 2001/03/31, v.3.2. (31/03/2003).
[12] Howard Slater, 'Ourganisation: Self-institution Research Unit', Media Arts Projects 2002 Proposal, 23/03/2002. 31/03/2003.
[13] See Harry M Cleaver 'Kropotkin, Self-valorization and the Crisis of Marxism', Anarchist Studies, 2:2 (1993), pp. 119-35.
[14] Eric S. Raymond, 'Homesteading the Noosphere', in First Monday, Vol. 3 No.10, October 5th. 1998. (31/03/2003).
[15] See [16] Rich, Bunting, Hogg, Cube Microplex FAQ (2001).
[17] Chantal Mouffe, Which Democracy in a post-political age?, The Dark Markets: Infopolitics, electronic media and democracy in times of crisis lecture series, Public netbase / t0, Wein, 5th October 2002. video documentation at (31/03/2003).
[18] Mouffe characterises 'deliberative democracy' as a development of a Habermasian concept of the social sphere, which she sees as inherently retaining the modernist drive to unify and find consensus through (inevitably) compromised debate.

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