Making New Futures: Art and Community during a Pandemic

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Chromotogram by Liam Hopkins at the National Festival of Making. Image: Lazerian.com

Depending on who you’re in contact with, and whose views you pay attention to, the current crisis wrought by the Covid-19 pandemic will present different urgencies, on top of the shared ones. By many accounts, Britain now looks to be on course for a terrifying spike in cases, which could potentially have been mitigated by quicker, clearer action by the Government, with disturbing reports appearing daily that rightly condemn the consequences of the early ‘herd immunity’ approach.

When first commissioned, this piece was going to be a broad overview of how ostensibly cultural projects in two distinct areas, Blackburn and Lincoln, were using their position to implement and test systems of community organising in the face of outright antipathy, or at least a contraction of services and infrastructure wrought by ongoing austerity. Organisations and projects of this kind depend not only on mass gatherings and regular meetings to pursue access and achieve participation, but also on a range of freelance practitioners, short term contractors and partnerships with independent businesses. With the cultural industries, like many others, having become increasingly casualised and cash-strapped over the past decade and beyond, a reliance on freelance, temporary and zero-hours contracts means that many workers are now left with little recourse to funds, as the potential for months and months of social distancing yawns before us. The recent announcement that only self-employed workers who have consistently earned fifty percent of their income in this way will be eligible for support, and even then not until June at the earliest, fails to acknowledge the way that many operate with a portfolio of short term, relatively low paid jobs that can differ drastically year on year. The two organisations in focus here, Blackburn’s National Festival of Making (NFoM) and Mansions of the Future (MotF) in Lincoln, have rightly honoured their agreements with contracted artists and others, to pay for work that will now either be delayed or will not go ahead at all — a practice that should have been mirrored everywhere. 

The ecologies that have grown up around these organisations are now seriously threatened by a political and economic environment that is hostile to the sort of work they do: community-led, locally-focused and non-profit.  Dr. Susan Jones, commentator and consultant on artists’ practice and director of A-N The Artists Information Company between 1999 and 2014, has advocated tirelessly for artists’ livelihoods through rigorous research and reporting, and promptly put forward a first set of proposals on March 16th, noting that ‘Ameliorating for economic uncertainty is entirely different when you’re operating at the bottom of the food chain of a highly-competitive arts hierarchy’. Across all industries there has been a dramatic inversion, whereby many of what were dismissed as ‘low-skilled jobs’ a few weeks ago have had to be recognised as utterly essential. More widely, the unsustainable precarity under which so many operate, including artists and other cultural practitioners, has been thrown into acute relief. As Stephen Pritchard recently articulated in a piece titled ‘Duty Now for the Future’, ‘Art, whether publicly funded or privatized, is immersed in neoliberal capital. Artists are cast as the new post-Fordist ideal: self-reliant, precarious, adaptable, creative and, crucially, primarily operating as freelance professionals.’ As such, this evolving crisis has devastatingly illuminated the issues and pressures already faced across the board in terms of precarity in work and housing, and when it comes to cultural industries; organisations that previously relied on gatherings and hospitality to forge community and build solidarity must adapt whilst staying true to their principles and aims. 

In 2007 and then again in 2018, BBC Panorama broadcast documentaries on the supposedly divided nature of Blackburn, titled ‘White Fright’. Both of these segments sought to dramatically present the town as being strictly segregated according to ethnicity, often unhelpfully presenting the everyday lives of Muslims as a counterpoint to blatant bigotry. Arts producer and facilitator Sophie Skellern describes this treatment of Blackburn as ‘national, public shaming’, arguing that not only was Panorama’s portrayal inaccurate in a number of obvious ways — a bridge described as ‘linking divided communities’ actually leads from the train station to an industrial estate — but also actively harmful. After having studied and then worked in the town and around Lancashire since 2012, Skellern applied for funding to run her own project, designed to question and counteract the image that had been painted by the national broadcaster. The culmination of Skellern’s co-produced project, ‘Kick Down the Barriers’ was to be presented during the fourth edition of the National Festival of Making, planned to take place in Blackburn over the 6th and 7th of June and produced by Morecambe-based Deco Publique. Of course, now any festivals and exhibitions planned for the summer of 2020 are cancelled or postponed indefinitely, and from within the early stages of this crisis it’s impossible to predict how and whether the cultural norms of mass gathering will evolve in the coming months.

Around a hundred miles away from Blackburn in Lincoln, Mansions of the Future, funded by the Arts Council’s ‘Ambition for Excellence’ stream is being directed by Kerry Campbell, a curator and producer who has emphatically written and spoken on the need for funders and leaders in the arts to recognise class as an axis of oppression and a barrier to inclusion. In light of how the preservation of established organisations has been prioritised over support for individual practitioner’s incomes, the reality of either a private income or separate day job as a requirement for entry into the cultural industries could easily become further entrenched. In towns like Blackburn, that have been relatively culturally isolated by virtue of their size and location, and cities like Lincoln that have been granted funding on the grounds of being ‘culturally underdeveloped’, arts activity is intrinsically linked to efforts towards community organising as well as social and political education. Both Mansions of the Future in Lincoln and The National Festival of Making in Blackburn are recent additions to their locales, with the first NFoM taking place in 2017 and MotF opening in 2018. The futures of many arts organisations are now uncertain, and Campbell has already drawn attention to the often temporary nature of organisations threatens to undermine fragile trust. This issue is set to be compounded as carefully planned programmes are cancelled and organisations scramble to commission reactive digital content, although MotF had moved quickly to address the needs of their local community in setting aside certain days for food bank collections.

Although ostensibly an arts organisation, MotF isn’t set up as a ‘white cube’ gallery with a cafe or learning space tacked on as is typical. Campbell is explicit that their organisational approach is to decenter the exhibition as the only, or most valid, curatorial form, which has successfully facilitated the use of MotF’s spaces by numerous local groups; something that other organisations often struggle to establish, as the moniker ‘hard to reach audiences’ demonstrates. Furthermore, as the international shipping, long messy days of installing and social gatherings that constitute exhibitions as we know them are indefinitely prohibited, all cultural organisations are now forced to reassess their previously accepted norms. The way that the different spaces are organised at MotF can be traced back to Kathrin Böhm, the artist who was commissioned to develop the organisation’s architectural and organisational approach. Böhm is a London-based artist whose practice is largely collaborative and politically motivated, having been a founding member of various collectives that are concerned with architecture, economics and ways of living together. In particular, ‘Keep it Complex - Make it Clear!’ is relevant here, as an organisation founded with the aim of providing ‘tools and ideas to get involved in everyday politics’ and positioning itself as explicitly anti-austerity and pro-remain during the Brexit/EU membership referendum (but not aligned with any political party). For MotF Böhm conceived ‘Culture is a Verb’, which comprises architectural interventions in the space, including a playful and sculptural yellow ramp that defines the entrance space while facilitating access. 

    Campbell has noted how, with different communities using the MotF facilities, communal lunches have proved particularly popular. Interestingly, the project’s initial funding grant reportedly did not specify engagement or audience development as a goal, but was instead geared towards ‘high quality international commissions’ working from the assumption that an injection of impressive and unexpected cultural activity would stimulate ambition and thus production, without an accompanying commitment to instigating long term infrastructural provision. In acknowledgement of the temporary nature of the organisation, MotF curator Colette Griffin spoke about the importance of making use of existing infrastructure, which in the case of the programme taking place in late February with architectural collective ON/OFF, meant holding days of activity at the St John the Baptist and the Ermine United Reformed Church on Lincoln’s Ermine Estate. In turn, by basing cultural activity with all its attendant expectations in these spaces, their limitations were exposed, such as the absence of any council rubbish collection from the Ermine United Reform Church, which obviously limits what kinds of activity can take place there. During a four day spell of art workshops for young people and family activities, MotF staffwent door-knocking to let residents know about what was available, and as well as constituting a strange mirror-image of recent political canvassing, this demonstrated the difficulty in communicating the availability of provision to those outside of known networks. This is something that has now become an urgent concern nationally, as communities rush to set up mutual aid organisations in order to share resources and organise care. 

The founders of NFoM in Blackburn emphasised the central importance of mass participation to their project. Something that must now be urgently rethought, especially as the issues that the festival set out to address will not disappear from within the current crisis. Elena Jackson, Director of NFoM, was careful to point out that the goal of NFoM is to platform and amplify what is already being made and done in Blackburn, as well as commissioning new work to install within the town. This is how Skellern’s ‘Kick down the Barriers’ was to interact with the festival, as the project’s commissions from local painters, poets, academic researchers and others come to fruition. While clearly rooted in Blackburn, in that it takes place there and draws on Blackburn’s arts organisations, creatives and manufacturers for content, the festival is designated national. This is significant as a marker of pride and ambition, as well as an acknowledgement of the statistic that inspired the festival’s focus during Deco Publique’s initial research and development phase: that a far higher proportion of people in Blackburn and the surrounding area work in manufacturing than anywhere else in the UK. With a healthy cynicism towards cultural festivals, having lived in various Northern cities from West to East, and seeing first-hand how the regenerative promises of ‘transformative’ culture can fail to support local practitioners and communities, or implement lasting infrastructure, the apparent embeddedness of Blackburn’s festival, biennial and contemporary art gallery is hopeful. This burgeoning activity is now obviously threatened, but the producers who had been engaged with Kick Down The Barriers and the National Festival of Making are, along with practitioners across the industry, now engaged in thinking of ways to ensure that their work will not be undone. Related to, but independent of this festival and project-based work are companies like Blackburn’s Community Clothing, who have been manufacturing quality, affordable clothes in the town and employing local pattern cutters and machinists. Founder Patrick Grant recently put out a short statement confirming their semi-reopening to produce emergency workwear for the NHS during the pandemic. 

Deco Publique and partners were invited to develop a festival by Blackburn with Darwen Borough Council as part of their plans to put regenerative policies and enterprises in place, aiming to address the effects of funding cuts that have afflicted the North of England in particular. One part of this ‘twelve step plan’ for Blackburn was the reanimation of empty shop units by artists and other creatives, a process that has been undertaken in many towns and cities and has its own attendant issues with regards to gentrification and precarity. The NFoM had grown out of a year long period of research and development by Deco Publique, along with a collaborative approach that sought to bring a variety of stakeholders into decision making. Admittedly this is a claim made frequently by similar organisations, but Jackson mentioned how regular monthly meetings in the run up to each festival had been surprisingly well attended and had become more popular with time, indicating a proactive commitment amongst different communities and organisations. The projects discussed here and the attendant interventions made in them had been at an early and fragile stage when the current crisis hit; forging relationships with members of their locale’s communities, and building trust where it had been eroded. Whether the delicate networks of cooperation between communities, independent businesses and cultural organisations that have tentatively germinated in the cracks between casualisation and financialisation can survive this ongoing shock remains to be seen. For now, Arts Council England have responded quickly to changing circumstances, but can offer little reassurance to those who have lost gigs and therefore income. There have also been a number of hardship funds established — Pritchard has initiated the first steps towards setting up a freelance and self-employed workers union, while the extant Artists Union England and A-N have both been advocating specifically on behalf of freelancers and the self-employed in the cultural industries. Despite this, the commitment and hope that was necessary to build initiatives like Kick down the Barriers and Mansions of the Future survives, and will yet be needed.