Staatskunst Pioniernutzung Repräsentation

Stephen Pritchard: “We need to undermine the thing, that is undermining our art”

An interview on the role of artist in gentrification, the involvement of the British art scene and government, the trickiness of challenging those dynamics and creative ways for artist to do so nevertheless. This interview also gives a critical perspective on our projects of investigation: MACAO Milan, Schlesische 27 and Assembles "GranbyFourStreets".

Carla Mann in conversation with Stephen Pritchard
Stephen Pritchard is an academic, a community artist, an activist, a writer and a filmmaker. Crucially for him, his theory reflects his practice and his practice reflects his research and theory, including made experiences and learning as a reflexive process. Over the last years this learning focussed intensively on the topics around art washing and gentrification, leading to the development of artistic and political strategies as an alternative to those dynamics.

The role of artists in gentrification

What role do artists play in gentrification?
Artists are involved in gentrification and have been for a very long time. They become involved because art is a great way of dressing up and selling a place, for whoever that may be.
Traditionally, artists have been unaware of their role. They would take on spaces for exhibitions, studios and projects. They would meanwhile inhabit temporary spaces and improve them, bringing with them coolness. This would lead to others following, and the area become seen as cool and trendy, house prices rise and eventually often the artist themselves moved on. I call them hobos, always moving on from one place to the next, riding on the crest of a wave of gentrification. The wave has a front edge and a trail behind, and the developers follow in the trail behind. That’s the traditional model.
And now increasingly artist have been commissioned by developers, by their local authorities and by their governments as a front end, as a knowing means to begin a process, which would be seen as planned gentrification. Planned by the state, by authorities together with developers to plant artist into places and do the same things: studios “meanwhile”, but this time artists are following knowingly that they are working for the gentrification process, instead of the traditional model.
The third way would be that artists are involved in anti-gentrification campaigns. That’s an area that is important for my research and practice, which I am also involved in, fighting perhaps other artists sometimes, to point out this process and also undermining by what we call “anti-art”. This is the practices of art, dressed as “not-art”, which is in fact a very high art, in a way that we use our knowledge of the art world, to undermine the art world, not using anything that perhaps looks like art, so it can’t be recuperated or appropriated by the state or by developers.
As an example, in London, there is this archive group made up by artists and activists, some of them in really big art collectives, but they disavow, they had to use a pseudonym and deny their artistic practice. But I know, we know, that we are artists, we are a campaign group that works with the community.

Art washing

What is art washing?
Art washing is the use of art as a mask. It’s something that looks like a piece of art – a good piece of art – and it’s been done to show, that an oil company or property developer has some social responsibility, or to sell houses or to reinforce state policy and ideology. Art washing proves a very powerful propaganda tool to mislead people.
The most cynical way of all art washing is, when art went “socially engaged” in a community, harvest their stories and perspectives and histories in what seems to be a good natured way: finding out, trying to record social lives, but actually it’s been used. By taking their social capital and turn it into financial capital, which is then been used to sell. Like:“This used to be an area where ethnic minority groups lived and this was their lives.” All put together in a little tiny package to people, who are moving in through gentrification. “You are moving to what was the old fish marked area and this is the authentic history on what it was about.” People are actually giving their time and live and stories and good faith only for it to be used to effectively replace them through gentrification. Art washing is used in all of this different ways.

On the trickiness of fighting gentrification

How could artists participate in fighting gentrification?
It’s much more tricky for artists to use tactics to fight gentrification, than it is in other areas, where there is a lot of reputation. One of the reasons is that developers and institutions of the state becoming sophisticated at using, what seems to be anti-gentrification-action as a means to recuperate that and sell it as a way of saying that “this area is pretty and dangerous” and then actually bring that on board.
An example for this is the work of a group in the USA in the 1970ies and 80ies in the east side of New York, called “political art documentation and distribution”, lead by a guy called Gregory Shollette, who now is a famous academic and artist, but at the time they created street art and anti-gentrification graffiti-posters. The same stuff that is still going on today, while east side was still a no-go zone. They were trying to fight gentrification, but what happened there was: the magazines, the art world, the press and the developers actually used that anti-gentrification art to sell the area as being a really non-conformist area.
The anti-gentrification actions, instead of fighting gentrification, brought 60 art galleries and a whole art exhibition and the global press to lower east-side, which turned it into a place actually gentrified. Every time arts are being used, they can easily be misrepresented. The history of artists fighting gentrification is a long one and it’s tricky because the developers normally win.

Making a dynamic permanent

Is it possible for a dynamic, like the temporary use of space by artists, to be transformed and turn it into something permanent?
First of all, I do not believe that this dynamic is a transit movement, caused by short-term meanwhile spaces. I don’t know weather that dynamic contributes to good art. I don’t feel like it does, and I am in a space, where we have to move soon. There is a mystique around this of being an “ideal and fluid dynamic”. It is an ideal of Neoliberalism, for precariousness, for uncertainty. It’s about being moved on, not chosen to move on, but being forced to move on, by the state, by developers, by plans. Artists don’t choose to move normally. Sometimes they do, but this dynamic is not driven by artists. It is a dynamic that is driven by the managed, planned decline of areas, and not just something that randomly happens. Gentrification is a planned activity: Regeneration is planned and so is degeneration. Areas are intentionally left to fall, to become poor, because of what is called “Rent-Gap-Theory”. Artists come to these tower blocks because it’s cheap. But it’s cheap for a reason, it’s not just eventually cheap.
Artists can be seen as the ideal post-Fordist worker, freelance workers, no rights, very poor people, move willingly where ever they are told, at the drop of a hat. It’s perfect. But what sort of society does that really create? At best, artists are exploiting this system out of pure opportunism, it’s cheap, and that’s all we can afford, but is that, right? No! And is there something we can do about it? Yes! If artists and the creative scene in Europe are seen as the biggest economic growth area for the 21st century, the creative economy – and we are at the heart of that – then it’s time that we as artists stop being pushed around, stop being told that the only work there is to do is for property developers, stop accepting meanwhile spaces and demand certainty, demand respect, demand proper rights, along with many other people, which are also losing their rights, like people in social housing (etc.). Artists are not special, we are more privileged than many people and have to say No!
We, as a group of artists, have been working in Cardiff with the city council and said: “from now on artists want buildings to keep”. The first step is to say: “we as artist want that building, not as a temporary space, but to be given to us forever.” And that we will use it for community use, very much taking those assets back and tying them into a cultural and community use. If all artist say: “okay, this is how we are, we are not meanwhile anymore, we want spaces to keep”, then what they gonna do? Loose all the artists? Because that’s the thing they sell their city on: “Look at our artists and all the creative industries!” And what will the press be? “All the artists have left Cardiff.” It’s about thinking about that dynamic and changing it. Basically everyone in Cardiff, the people, the artists and the community wants permanent spaces, not temporary spaces. I would suggest that you challenge that idea of riding the crest of the wave of gentrification leads to a vibrant dynamic art world. I don`t think it does.

Comparing MACAO, Schlesische 27 and Assemble

What is your impression about the projects we are exploring: MACAO Milano, Schlesische 27 and Assemble?
I don’t know the one in Milan, I know Assemble quite well and I know a little bit about the one in Berlin. 
MACAO Milan sounds like a sort of squat thing, a very self-organising collective action, quite politically probably. And that sounds interesting, I definitely want to find out more about it.
Schlesische 27, the one in Berlin is like really problematic from what I know, because it is backed by the local authorities and by developers, if I am right. If you look at that board of directors, you will find people from the industry as well, and they are there for a reason, leading in a certain type of direction. So, I would say it is one of the examples in Berlin of art washing. When you look, for me the crucial thing is: who is backing these projects? What areas are they in? And if you have private interests, this one is right in the centre of Berlin, at this huge round about, with a lot of artists, property developers, global investors, the city government and everything.
For Assemble, their project in the Granby four streets in Liverpool is a classic example for art washing: Assemble was commissioned to do that project by a private investor, who invested half a Million pounds in the project and who owned buildings in the streets next door, which were bought for one pound. The ten houses in the street that Assemble worked on have some sort of anti-gentrification clause on them, but all the streets around them haven’t. Now, people all over the world are coming to see this Turner Prize winning street. And the house prices of the others houses that this investor payed for are now worth a fortune. Winning the turner Prize was a massive “For Sale”-sign for the whole area. Half a Million pounds have been a worthwhile investment.
In the past, Assemble have been commissioned by the Glasgow city authorities, by the city of London and by the major of London. And everything that the major of London does is to use art to sell gentrification. They know it. The classic example for Assemble is this: They have a studio space, which used to be in south London and was called Sugarhouse Studios. It was the space, where they worked and opened it up to a lot of other art and crafts people. It seems on the surface like: “oh, we found this building, and it was so like cool and it was all run down and we did it up.” That is how they tell the story, just like they tell the story of Granby: “Oh we found these people in Liverpool and this magic happened”. But actually that’s a lie. The Sugarhouse Studios in London were commissioned by the London Olympics legacy group, which were basically part of the government. And the building, the factory was given to them by VASTINT, which is the property development arm of IKEA, a massive global company. They gave Assemble this building and then they had to move out, and now the area is massively gentrified.
Assemble moved to another place in south east London called Bermondsey and sat up another Sugarhouse Studios in a toffee factory and this is the story: “Oh, we just found this great space.” This is the story they are telling: “We build it like amish people, diy, it’s all grassroots.”
That building was given to them by Grosvenor Estates, on of the oldest property development companies in the world, and they build luxury housing on the side, which is displacing thousands of families and they are building 1500 new homes, no social housing, everyone luxury and Assemble are still in there now. The developers website says: “This side used to be the home of Assemble. Here is some quotes from Assemble about how great it is that they got this space.” The evidence is clear, that they are knowingly working over and over again as agents for gentrification. These guys – Assemble – know exactly what they’re doing.
It is sad to see that Assemble held up as such a good example for art washing. I mean, those children are some of the wealthiest ones of the UK. If you are working in the architecture field, it seems to be some sort of gritty grassroots thing and it is actually not. It’s a class thing. What they are doing as upper middle class people in working class areas, is working as agents of the displacement of families, giving their wealthy background and their privileges and dressing it up as “oh, everything is lovely” is really deceitful. It’s not fair on those, who have never had the luxury that they had all their lives.

The role of government and industry

What role does the government and private Industry play in these projects and dynamics?
I would say the UK and the US are the leaders of Neoliberalism, it’s been well developed in all these countries since Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan in the 70ies. That has lead to a very deregulated free market economy, and that applies to local governments, charities, everywhere, it’s a very capitalist system indeed.
I think Germany and Italy are less neoliberal, but increasingly with Europe, and I am pro European, the European governments moving more and more towards Neoliberalism, and I think that is really dangerous. Italy resists, one the one hand they have a strong communism, on the other one a strong fascist right-wing government almost and that creates a tension there. It’s always quite fragile, whereas in Germany the government structures are much more well established and observed by a lot of people, respected even by a lot of the population, and in Britain, people of the working class are completely known to not rise up and do exactly what they are being told, so a very subservient population, people don’t really question anything, and I think that what we have, is what in the art world is known as instrumentalisation of arts as part of the instrumentalisation of public policy with planning and governments. And in Germany, Berlin and Hamburg, the authorities are often instrumentalising artists for state policy, which is to support planned gentrification. Artists blame the developers, but what they don’t see is: They can only do that with the permission of the authorities, who are enabling them to do so. I think the guys in Milan got it right, and the only way you can do this is as David Harvey and Henri Lefebvre, who are important influencers of me, Marxist theorists, is to take back the city. And I would say in the case of Milan, they have done the right thing.
There is a difference in taking a building back, creating something in opposition, or being paid by the state to use this space: “Oh dear and now we have to move out, we are now looking for a new space” – of course they know were they gonna go. They’ll find somewhere, because they are valuable assets in this gentrification game, they`ll move, they`ll get a new space in a new area that is at the beginning of gentrify or not even been gentrified yet.
And that’s the evidence, that where they move to shows where the next wave of gentrification will happen. Guaranteed. In London it’s this arts organisations that are 30 years old and wherever they move, everybody knows, this area is next, this is where the money is. It’s almost like a beacon, a flag, stuck in the ground, a burning flame saying: “Come here, if you wanna make big profit! “ The biggest money is investing in the areas before they are gentrified, knowing that they are going to.
There is a difference in taking a building back, creating something in opposition, or being paid by the state to use this space: “Oh dear and now we have to move out, we are now looking for a new space” – of course they know were they gonna go. They’ll find somewhere, because they are valuable assets in this gentrification game, they`ll move, they`ll get a new space in a new area that is at the beginning of gentrify or not even been gentrified yet.
And that’s the evidence, that where they move to shows where the next wave of gentrification will happen. Guaranteed. In London it’s this arts organisations that are 30 years old and wherever they move, everybody knows, this area is next, this is where the money is. It’s almost like a beacon, a flag, stuck in the ground, a burning flame saying: “Come here, if you wanna make big profit! “ The biggest money is investing in the areas before they are gentrified, knowing that they are going to.

On the UK art-scene politics

In which ways is the UK art scene involved in regeneration policies, often leading to gentrification?
Assemble knew they would win the Turner Prize. Alistair Hudson, who nominated them, is a well-known art world figure in art utile, so in useful art. He nominated Assemble, but he was also on the prize board and one of the 4 people, who chose Assemble as the winners. It is basically part of the game, it was always clear the winner would be a social engaged project and it was clear, that they would be picked. The whole thing, Turner Prize, isn’t like some random thing where no one knows who will be the winner. There is few people picked, and everybody knows pretty much beforehand, who is going to win, because it is part of the art world system.
I am a member of the art world, I sit within it intentionally and position myself both within the system, and work with the government on policy, regeneration, place making and I also critique it. I use it to build my critiques. The interesting thing of all is: Why do they allow me to do that? And that’s the question I think. They know, that I will take the information that they give to me, as someone involved in policy making, to undermine and challenge those policies. Publicly. This is how democracy works. I don`t stop them. Its an annoyance, but ultimately that allows them to say: “look we have critique, we listen to it, we accept it, we change a little maybe, we modify what we are doing, but nonetheless we still gonna do it.” So in a way I become an agent in this myself. I am paid by them to speak to critique them, knowing that they will use this to validate that they are democratic, listen to opinions. And I profit from that, I know them, I know how it works.
I am really interested in performativity, the idea that everything is performed. What role are you performing? We all play a role. At any given time, any situation and contact. What role are we playing and who for? Really? Are we really as independent and self organised as we think? For me though, that isn’t a bad thing, because at least within the UK system, being one of those actors enables a possibility of change.
In Cardiff, what we are saying to the city council is: We need to invest into giving artists and communities permanent spaces. Ultimately you know how we sell that? On the community and economic levels. In Britain it’s so neoliberal, that the answer is: “This is good business”. Being the next place that got lots of artists studios, Richard Floridas model that is done by every city, on the entire planet, is really, really bad for business now. It’s boring, it’s cliché, everybody is art washing, it’s so boring! What you need to do is to stand out from the crowd, by saying: “We are investing in artists, we are building a permanent community.” And that’s what I do, I sell it in pure neoliberal terms. I say: “What makes you stand of from the rest and makes you unique is that you don’t want to be like everybody else in Berlin and London, it’s so boring, and you never compete with them anyway, because they are massive cities and you are not. Go for it!”
We need an example of a local government that shows a change, and then what we’ll do is say: “Oh! Look at Cardiff! They are amazing! Look at Cardiff!” And I spoke recently with Sir Nicolas Serota, the head of arts council in England and said on the stage: “You like to think that the english art system is one of the best, most contemporary in the world, but here is an example: Wales, the welsh art system is way in advance of England.”  And so suddenly I play them against each other, while I am not interested in any of that. But capitalists thrive on competition. What I am interested in is: Now people are talking about making change and an acceptance that we need to create.

UK government’s art-support criteria

How is the current situation for artists in the UK compared to other European countries?
The UK is a place to watch in the art world in terms of what’s happening with art washing, its very advanced, its normal now, every developer commissions artists. And artists in the UK used to say: “No, it can’t be like this, Stephen.” And now its like: “Yeah, that’s how it is, it’s terrible.” If you want to get any work, you have to work with a developer. The UK government is highly centralised, all policy comes from London, everywhere apart from small decisions in the devolved nations. Even for art strategy it’s the same. You won’t get any funding from the government, unless you follow what they say. We would support people from all areas with at least one government person involved and one private partner. You have to work with the private sector, the capitalists, and best case it should be involved in regeneration. Basically they say if you want to get any money from us, get involved in art washing. And if you don’t, and you come around with something different, unless you are lucky like me. And this isn’t even people, it’s a computer system, if you don’t meet these criteria, the computer says no. The UK system shows how highly authoritarian we are, it’s deeply authoritarian, always has been, and it’s even more so now, highly technocratic, and everything is ideological and state driven.

On strategy – undermining the thing that is undermining our art

What is your personal strategy as an artist for dealing with the dynamics of art washing?
The first thing that I do when I work in anything that I accept, and this is crucial for me – I always look and say: okay, who is the sponsors? And if it has got people in, that I don’t feel comfortable with and I think are unethical, I won’t do the work. The thing, that we are really pushing on the big companies like BP, Shell, Sackler, BAE Systems, etc. is that we want to see a world, were it is so toxic to manipulate, to use artists, that art washing becomes counterproductive. They see it as positive PR but we want it to be seen as really bad. In the art world it is already like that. They now increasingly say: “Stephen can you come and work with me to tell us how to avoid art washing?” I want it to be like: “In this particular case its art washing” and everyone is like: “OMG! No! Oh no!”  That this person is almost like the spawn of satan. Like: “That is art washing...Oh, dear!”  We want to build that, because then it prevents people from doing it. We are undermining the thing that is undermining our art! Because it is giving art a bad name. It is giving people a bad name. We are playing their game. They think they are good in PR but what they don’t realize is that we are crafty, that we have a dynamic that they don`t have. It’s more critical, its quick, and if we position ourselves right, there is all this weaknesses, and these weaknesses are often: “Oh, sponsored by: dodgy arms dealer; massive property developer...”.