Liberating Tate

30 06 2010

There is no art collection I love and know better than Tate’s, no art museum I respect more, or visit as much. My art history education was thanks to teenaged visits to Tate. My steep learning curve into managing a museum/gallery education programme was thanks to my first proper job as Tate education officer in the 90’s. I haven’t worked for Tate for a few years now but I still feel grateful and awed, even Tate-branded. But that doesn’t mean I’m not critical too. I was quietly critical of BP’s sponsorship for the annual redisplay of Tate’s collections. I had been sickened by Exxon Valdez in 1989 (my cousin is a marine biologist in British Columbia & Alaska and is still dealing with the damage) and I was newly aware of anthropogenic global warming. The ongoing ethical crisis for Tate was the link between Henry Tate‘s patent ownership for the sugar cube and the earlier Transatlantic Slave Trade. I felt this was a really important aspect of Tate’s history that we had to address, but that the more urgent current issue was climate change. I was a pretty lone voice in that respect. When you’re a lone voice in a milieu of clever, strong-minded people, you tend not to repeat yourself or shout. I felt it was important to fit in, that my career depended on it.

In response to Monday’s artist-led protest against BP’s sponsorship of Tate, Nick Serota pointed out that the artists didn’t protest 20 years ago when the arrangement first started. He’s right that there weren’t dramatic protests. This is unsurprising as we had not seen or grasped the devastating effects of marine pollution on the climate at this point. We weren’t so aware, for example, of the effect of methane, a far more potent greenhouse gas than CO2, which is now emitting at 100,000 times more (or some estimate, 1 million times) than normal levels from Deepwater Horizon. Beyond the effect methane has of accelerating global warming, there is also the risk of a massive explosion leading to tsunamis, poisoning and mass extinction. BP ignored warnings that the Gulf lay over a vast area of methane, that drilling and small explosions may lead to bigger faults and rising pressure. Before now, we weren’t to know that BP would be at fault for a disaster that is looking liable to turn the Atlantic into a dead zone, as the Gulf sea bed is apparently now fractured in many places beyond repair (apart from the alarming use of Russian nuclear devices).

However, I do recall that there were questions about BP sponsorship at the time. Throughout the 90s I received many complaints about the endlessly changing displays, and within these were a few comments on the funding from BP that was enabling it. There have also been artists raising awareness of the links between fossil fuels and climate change for the past two decades. The group Art Not Oil draws together some of these artists, as well as the younger generation and the newly activist. Platform has been active in this area since 1996.

In retrospect I wish I had repeated myself and spoken louder then, not just about BP sponsorship but about the role of Tate’s learning offer in relation to the wider environmental crisis. I shouldn’t have felt fearful but expressed my authentic voice.

I went to Tate Britain on Monday night with three reasons for going. I took my camera and first joined the gang of paps shooting a patch of spilled oil, and a journalist assumed I was one of them. I’d been invited as a guest to the party too, so went inside and saw lots of old colleagues. (I also saw two women in floral dresses spill bags of molasses then attempt to clean it up.) Then outside, I became one of the protesters in my way. I caught Michael Craig-Martin and had a rather emotional discussion. (He felt that the oceans would heal themselves – which I doubt because the ocean is on the tipping point of acidification due to pollution. The media isn’t drawing attention to the fact that oil & plastic in the sea intensifies climate change. It doesn’t just destroy the livelihoods of shrimp fishermen.) I went and talked to the protesting artists and realised I’d been in touch with many of them before. Felix Gonzalez asked if he could film me speaking. If you watch this to the end you’ll see my bit.  What I’m saying is that the world would not be worse off if culture ceases to involve rich people going to parties, due to a reduction in public and corporate sponsorship, that what matters is that children around the world grow up to live freely and to think freely. These freedoms are threatened in a climate-changed world.

I find it hard to understand how Tate’s ethics committee, and all the artists and staff I canvassed views on inside the party, persist in seeing BP’s sponsorship as essential and benign given the situation we are in. In this Guardian piece, you can see that the majority of views are against the protestors, apart from John Keane and Mark Ravenhill. Colin Tweedy says ‘Who’s to judge what’s good and bad money?’ to which I would say a) the taxpayer has a right to express views on what is good and bad partnership funding for public bodies and b) such judgement is what a cultural organisation’s ethics committee exists for. Tweedy says ‘If a company is legally allowed to operate in the UK, they should be allowed to sponsor arts.’ The problem is a major omission in our international legal system, which allows companies to destroy the environment in the interests of profit. If ecocide was made an international crime then much of what BP and Shell do would be illegal. The protesters are not saying ‘sponsorship is evil’ as Grayson Perry and others suggest. They are saying that the climate crisis is desperate, made worse by the behaviour of companies like Shell and BP. I’m not sure they’ve made it clear enough in their publicity statements though. Christopher Frayling says ‘now [in a time of recession] is not the time to get squeamish’ about where money comes from. He seems to think that the crisis for arts funding is far worse, or far more important, than the crisis to the biosphere. That bigger crisis doesn’t make me squeamish, it makes me downright sick, and above all it is making many people, animals and ecosystems downright dead.

Ecological Guggenheim?

29 06 2010

This is a short post to raise awareness of this story. The Guggenheim wants to build a new museum which they are calling an ‘ecological museum’ about the creative process rather than just showing artistic treasures. That sounds fantastic. I’m all for museums thinking more about ecology and creativity. However, I wonder if it’s possible to create a new building which aims to attract lots of visitors, and to claim that it is ‘ecological’ when the chosen location is the Urdaibai Biosphere Reserve? Or to put the question less cynically, what kind of attraction can have the most minimal impact on a precious ecological reserve? Richard Armstrong, the Foundation’s director, says that they want to create a landscape icon, not an architectural icon. I’m fascinated to know what that could mean. If it doesn’t involve architecture, what can you do with an ecosystem to turn it into a landscape icon, which also celebrates human creativity? Incidentally, the population of this area lives in the town of Gernika (Guernica) so it is already an icon of history. Most importantly, the Urdaibai is a low-lying estuarine saltmarsh (though surrounded by hills). Sea levels are forecast to rise by up to 2 metres this century so any big investment in this area should take account of that. If the Guggenheim is becoming concerned about ecology could they be thinking more seriously about enabling human ingenuity to tackle rising sea levels?

Channel 4 education

29 06 2010

I was at the annual C4 education conference last week, which was eclectic, fun and inspiring in parts, especially the parts with Stephen Heppell, Martin Bright and Sam Conniff in it. I was also inspired by C4’s own contributions, but also rather concerned about a gap in their forward plans, about which more to come. The day was bookended with presentations from architects of the free schools movement, and fuelled by unanswerable questions about what would emerge in the educational landscape under Michael Gove. The mood was optimistic: Those supportive of Con-Dem policies were unsurprisingly so, but also the more radical educationalists seemed to feel that the freeing up of curriculum and schools management would at least allow for more progressive approaches. Hopefully.

For a full and fair account of the event see Joanne Jacobs’ liveblog. I’m writing this to highlight my concern about C4’s education plans. I don’t believe they fundamentally address the capacities that young people need to develop in facing a future which is predicted to reach 4C by 2050-2070. (A 15 year old today will be early to mid career when the planet may be shooting from 2 to 3C.) The themes they are addressing in recent and planned outputs are: conflict in history, sex and relationship education, financial literacy, body image, mental health etc. I appreciate that C4 is smaller (much) than the BBC and that they’ve made the right decision to shift from TV broadcast to multiple platforms and social media. However, I’m mystified that they’re not embracing the significance of our context. I think the answer lies in the ‘constructive denial’ response, that we tend to place environmental issues in a small box, to deal with it as a theme, rather than a real situation. In particular this affects education planning, because we think of education as a rehearsal or a simulation, not dealing with reality.

I asked Alice Taylor after presenting C4’s future projects, why none covered climate change, biodiversity or sustainability. She gave two answers. One is something I agree with in some ways, that we shouldn’t assume environmental responsibility lies entirely on young people’s shoulders, that we mainly need to persuade people in power or at least adults. I agree with this, but then I disagree that programming dealing with the environment should encourage young people to be eco-nags or focus on their lifestyle. It can help them understand biodiversity, help them be political about ecology, provide therapeutic support to face a different future, and many other things. Her second response was that the apocalyptic scenario of the future was too frightening (although one of their planned projects is set in an apocalyptic scenario, devastated by either/both climate change and war). Again, I disagree that programming should immerse itself in apocalyptic narratives. We need to focus on reimagining the future and nurturing optimism.

Let’s see. Hopefully C4 will rethink their policy with staff changes coming up. Even if they don’t change their programmes, they could think harder about the conceptual framework in which they sit, to reflect the real situation.

The role of culture in a Big Society

16 06 2010

I was asked by a colleague to write something quickly to help with an enquiry into this question: What is the role of arts and culture in the new big society?

As I haven’t blogged much lately, I thought I’d repurpose it….

Is this question really asking, what role will the arts and culture play in the emerging reality? Or, is it, what role can be claimed for culture in a State where cuts to public subsidy are justified by Big Society rhetoric? The first question is the more interesting given that, even if the smartest science comes quick to the rescue, all nations will be somewhat straitened and disrupted by many impacts of climate change and ecocide (over the next 10-50 years). If it’s the latter, then I can’t really rouse myself to answer it.

There is no new Big Society just because the Government has waved a magic wand to say so. There’s been emerging talk for 15 years about mixed forms of ownership (although to credit the Cooperative movement they’ve been talking about it for much longer, and yet it’s still not well understood, or very mainstream). The first employer to implement co-ownership and workers’ self-education, in the late 19th century, was George Livesey. He was benefactor of the Camberwell library, later to become the Livesey Museum for Children. This beloved museum was closed in 2008 because Southwark Council felt the costs of employing creative managers were less worthwhile than the ongoing costs of keeping the building secure against vandals. Actually, they wanted to sell off the building (until we pointed out Livesey’s bequest meant it wasn’t theirs to sell). Many officials who might have fought with us to save it, saw the positive side of closure – that this could be an experiment to see if community transfer of assets could provide a model for others threatened by local authority cuts. Great!

Except there isn’t a model to demonstrate, as the Council chose not to accept the community’s proposal to run the museum, underwritten by a housing trust, and the building remains locked after 2.5 years. Even if we had been given the chance, we may have struggled alone as, inevitably, anger at its closure may not easily convert into drive and imagination from local supporters.

Southwark Council was at the time a coalition of Tory and Lib-Dem, and so could be said to prefigure the current Government. Their idea of Big Society has been difficult to grasp as it is an odd mix of both New Labour ‘community agency’ (sprinkled with ‘wethink’ digital fairy dust), and the Victorian Livesey’s style of paternalist liberalism (where self-reliance and local heroism are lauded but in the end cultural freedoms become repressed by the dominance of the wealthy, the clergy and the technocracy).

The problem isn’t so much with the Big Society principles, as they represent good things: agency, resilience and democracy. See, for example, Nick Poole’s post on how the Big Society Bank may help shift the funding of culture away from (often wasteful) grants, to more sustainable investments. I think a new participatory democracy is poised to flourish in the virtual and augmented worlds, and the arts and museums sector have a barely tapped role to play in this. I’m also positive about the ways that young people are developing cultural leadership skills due to the youth voice agenda, making itself felt in the arts very strongly. That said, and to return to Nick’s key points, young people’s agency can be undermined when the funding structures force them to rush decisions on behalf of their peers, and there is a lack of planning expertise to support them. See for example, the petty-storm raging in my neighbourhood as a group of teens and parents has raised £47k for a skatepark but haven’t consulted well on its location, so don’t have full local support to site it in a tiny heritage park directly in front of a view across London.

The problem with Big Society is that the persisting system in Britain cannot allow agency, resilience and democracy to flourish. What agency do we have when our representatives have none where it matters? (For example, when Caroline Lucas MP is ignored by the Speaker when she tries to request an amendment that Parliament consider reviewing the renewal of Trident nuclear submarines, which the Lib Dems had earlier estimated at a cost of £100 billion?) What kind of Big Society, especially if it becomes less regulated by law and more led by corporations or ideological interest groups, can be trusted to do good when the unsustainable exploitation of resources for national, corporate or individual profit is held to be the ultimate good? To overcome the devastating crisis we face because of this orthodoxy, we need Government to support the mobilisation of society to one focused end, that is, a life sustaining planet. So, the only really important question is, what role could arts and culture play in this mobilisation of society (and what role will they play if this mobilisation doesn’t happen)? Perhaps a role for the arts and culture is that they shouldn’t aim just to be a recipient of decentralised funding and goodwill but to transform the way we make decisions about how to live well, helping us take a long view, and helping us operate on registers that are to do with beauty, complexity, mystery, empathy and invention.

Cultured Uncivilisation

1 06 2010

I’ve just returned from the Uncivilisation Festival in Llangollen. This was a gathering responding to the Dark Mountain manifesto by Paul Kingsnorth and Dougald Hine, about collapse, climate disruption and the role of culture. There’s too much to do a swift review of it now. The experience was quite profound for me.

I’m reflecting a lot on one particular session, with George Monbiot in conversation with Dougald. Monbiot has been very critical of Dark Mountain and some of his criticisms (if they are accurate) I can agree with. For example, I agree with him that we must promote green energy solutions and not be negative about geoengineering. Nor should we underestimate the determination of industrial capitalism to exploit every last scrap of fossil fuel riddling the planet. However, I was surprised that in painting this future picture of unarrestable growth he didn’t admit, or even mention, the tipping point and the effect that a rise to 4C will have on the infrastructure of our so called civilisation. This weekend I heard that the Met Office’s Hadley Centre, seen as the most conservative and cautious of climate centres, has recently issued a model predicting that 4C will be reached by 2050 due to the feedback effects we are now seeing. Others will articulate their challenges to these points better than me. The issue I can best address is Monbiot’s dismissal of the role of culture and creativity. He characterised Dark Mountain as romanticising ‘a feral possessive individualism’, that we must focus on working collectively and politically not artistically, that the manifesto promotes ‘going off alone to write your own poetry’. This is a misunderstanding of Dark Mountain and also of the role of art. I wouldn’t have had courage to put my challenge out to the room but I can write it here, pompous as it sounds:

I’m Bridget McKenzie. I tell you my name because I’m an individual, who believes in individual agency, but I’m also one who works in collectives with others. I think it’s not just possible but desirable for individual expressiveness and collective action to coexist. My name is the first on the list of pledgers of support for Dark Mountain. I wouldn’t have voiced the manifesto as such but I put my name to it because I believe that culture and creativity are vital. We can’t become the extraordinary creative problem solvers we all need to be without a balance of imagination and skill, or poiesis and techne. I do creative work not to escape from the world and others but to make connections with them. Culture is an entanglement. It helps us carry and share real and useful knowledge across boundaries. It is a way to be political, a way to act, a way to teach, a way to thrive, a way to cope. As Louise Bourgeois (who has just died this weekend) said, ‘Art is a guarantee of sanity’. The environmental crisis means that culture and creativity have to be understood differently. They have to be integrated into everything we do and also seen as integral with nature. Transcendence has always been seen as lifting us out of the mire of animality, helping us reach for the stars. Our capacity to make art was what defined us as humans, to be distinct from animals. Art is artifice. Now, we have to radically reassign the notion of transcendence to mean an ascent, to make us see the polluted mire of our own making, to take the long view, to fully become stewards so that we can restore the health of the biosphere.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.