Caitlin Magda Shepherd

"Art belongs not to the active life but to the contemplative life—not to the vita activa but to the vita contemplativa." Nicholas Wolterstorff

Category: Uncategorized

New Commission; Assembling Newtown

In June I was commissioned by Aberystwyth University as Artist and Researcher to work on The Assembling Newtown research project. It is an in depth case study within GLOBAL-RURAL and has been running since 2014. The research team: Jesse, Laura, Marc, Mike and Sam have been trying to understand some of the ways Newtown is connected with other parts of the world; through trade, through migration, through consumption, through culture and ideas and through  politics. The research sets out to try and better understand how what is referred to as ‘globalisation’ affects small towns in rural areas. We have tried to assemble a picture of Newtown as it is today and how it has changed over the last fifty plus years. Through our interviews, workshops, ethnographic work and household surveys we have also been able to look more deeply into how globalization affects people’s lives in a more everyday sense.

Working closely with the research team, I will be coordinating Listening to Newtown; a series of conversations with people who live and work in Newtown, about their hopes, dreams, concerns, visions and experiences. I am particularly interested in listening and recording to stories of the everyday; work, family, home, values, holidays and things people of Newtown do for fun.  Through recorded conversations, photographs and regular town visits, I will produce a new audio work, documenting the voices of every day experiences of people living and working in Newtown. Throughout July and August, I will be in Newtown, spending time in my listening booth in the Newtown market. Setting up a small comfortable and cosy installation.  Come and spend some time with me be it 5 minutes or an hour sharing your experience of Newtown.  In September there will be an exhibition of my final work, in audio and visual format.

I’ve already been out and about in Newtown talking with all sorts of people, and documenting our conversations through audio recordings and photography. Some pictures below.

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It Doesn’t Have to be Like This

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Some of the 58 missing presumed dead residents of Grenfell Tower

There are many ways to silence those deemed dangerous and unruly by the political and economic elite. Silencing the working class happens through misrepresentation (think Gavin and Stacey, and the pervasiveness of the term Scroungers), and disciplinary mechanisms such as infringement of benefits, domestic impossibilities such as the bedroom tax, and the deregulation of an abundance of poorly paid, insecure labour contracts. A job for life. Not anymore.

As we have seen just a few days ago in the profound tragedy that is the loss of homes, lives and livelihoods at Grenfell Tower (14th June, 2017), the poor are not only silenced, but neglected by the state.

As I watch in horror and anguish the events unfolding in front of us, I have been thinking about how listening is the opposite of being silenced, and how the two exist beyond the utterances of words. Silencing can take many forms; and in the case of Grenfell Tower, it seems that people have been silenced through the cosmetic and unsafe refurbishment of their homes, for aesthetic purposes. I have been thinking about how listening, and propagating the stories of everyday struggle endured by many earning less than £18,000 year (what mumsnet deems to be low income based on a popularity poll) is a political act; one of changing the representations of the working poor, one that reveals poverty to be what it is; endless hard bloody work with little rest-bite or return. Listening is the verb we need to be incorporating into our day-to-day language. Listening is relational, and sits in a power matrix. Listening needs to be done to those who have been silenced, ignored and dismissed. There are many minority groups that suffer the fate of being silenced, through complex and dominant ideologies running toxic through Capitalist society.

Funny, that the group that has been systematically silenced overtly is not a minority group. In 2016, Geoffrey Evans and Jonathan Mellon of the University of Oxford, conducted a survey that showed 60% of Britons regard themselves as working class (Guardian, 2016). According to Ipsos Mori, 45.8% of household heads are in the manual worker or lower-paid social grade bracket known as C2DE (a broader definition of working-class). It seems we are a nation of workers, enduring, surviving and embodying the triumphs and tribulations that come with that territory. While working class identity is firmly established along side complex class identities, this version of events is a reality continuously ignored by Conservative and New Labour governments, who under the austerity drive have disregarded the day to day difficulties that go with being broke, and continued to issue austerity cuts, while selling off public services and goods to private investors. As a resident of an estate close to Grenfell Tower commented that the Grenfell Tower tragedy “symbolises the divide between the rich and the poor in this area. The council is busy selling off our libraries. They’ve sold Ladbroke Grove library to Notting Hill Prep and other private schools.” (Chanel Four News, 2017).

While it seems that many people identify with working class status, values, and identities, it is still a lived reality that is misunderstood, shamed and politically neglected. Building on the work of social reformers and researchers of the early 20th century Beales and Lamber, Charles Booth, Maud Pember Reed and Beatrice Webb, and more recent artists, academics and researchers involved with documenting the everyday experience of the working class such as Hana Walker Brown, Charles Parker, Euan MacColl, Richard Billingham and Andrea Zimmerman, it seems important now more than ever to give voice to the misrepresented and underserved.

Current documentations of citizen response to the disaster express anger and grief in double blows. As the grief of the residents of Grenfell Tower, alive and dead, missing and found, runs through the veins of every person that has any empathy, it seems self evident that the residents of Grenfell Tower, and anyone else who seeks the protection of the welfare state are in uproar. It is because they know, that through neglect of funding, basic maintenance of homes that makes them safe, low income individuals and households have been silenced. One resident commented in a Chanel Four news broadcast “They’re not talking to us. We are the community. They’re not talking to us. Where are they?” (Chanel Four News, 2017). The burning of Grenfell Tower and the tragic loss of lives, possession, histories, stories, memories and social bonds symbolises the sustained neglect and silencing of the voices and needs of the working classes; people who don’t have family savings. People who don’t have secure, well paid jobs (although we’re all poor now as the housing system is so broken that £26,500 won’t get you a mortgage for an averagely priced house), people who don’t have access to the £9k a year costs of securing a good education, people who are decent, kind, well educated, smart, compassionate and embedded in their community. Grenfell Tower is the symbol of many political shortcomings, but most of all it is the symbol of neglect, of enforced silencing on issues of class. The residents association wrote many letters, well put together and evidenced letter. As the Independent reports, in November 2016 residents wrote on the Grenfell Action Group website that they feared such a fire could break out and warned of the potential for a “major disaster”. Members of the action group at Grenfell Tower wrote that they believed the building posed a fire risk, and that “only a catastrophic event will expose” the issues after their concerns fell on “deaf ears(Independent, 2017).

The silencing of the working class through systematic political neglect, shaming and social stigmatisation is not new. We can look back to 80 years ago, when dire straights compounded many working people in the UK to long term unemployment. In 1934, two researchers, H.L. Beales and R.S. Lambert published Memoirs of the Unemployed, a collection of testimonies and stories from men and women. While this study showed that the poor were not to blame for their circumstance, and every person struggling to secure an income had a backstory that illuminated struggles effecting their lives, outside of their own control (Todd, 2012). The Pilgrim’s Trust, the body responsible for publishing the work, that later became titled Men Without Work, concluded through such research that “in periods of depression, thousands of men are thrown out of work by conditions outside their own control” (Pilgrim Trust, DATE NEEDED, p.200). At the time this was an assertion that directly opposed the narrative promoted by the conservative press that “those drawing unemployment benefit were those who had never prudently saved, or paid into national insurance scheme” (Todd, 2012, p. 75). The idea of the undeserving poor was gaining traction, and political opinions of the poor included fecklessness, imprudence and laziness (Todd, 2012). While progress was made for the working poor through the 1911 introduction of the National Insurance Act, and later in 1920, the Unemployment Insurance Act, protecting people entering into unemployment from destitution, those suffering from poverty were still incarcerated by lack of more than basic support and the stigma of social shame. Unfortunately, sustained political neglect and social stigmatization are views espoused in much of today’s political and social thought.

“We watched them burn and die. We saw the fire envelop the flat they were in, and then we saw it rendered in ash. We have a friend who lived on the 15th floor, who managed to survive. He was falling over corpses, stepping over corpses. He eventually made it to the third floor, where he fainted, and was rescued by the fireman.”

Resident of Chelsea, Chanel Four News, 2017

“It didn’t have to happen, people didn’t have to die. We have corporations competing over the outsourcing of what should be functions of the council, and functions of the state. So what happens is they want to get the highest profit that they can, so they do jobs that are just not up to part. Neoliberalism is discredited, austerity is discredited. It is a matter of choice, it doesn’t have to be this way, and it is a matter of life or death.”

Kareem Dennis aka Lowkey, Double Down News, 2017

It doesn’t have to be like this.

The Production of Space as a Site of Class Struggle

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This essay sets out to explore the relationship between Marxist class theory and Lefebvre’s definition and discussion of social space. The common thread running through both of these themes is cultural and economic production, and the idea that a capitalist system of production can only be understood and dislodged, by analysing the power structures that underpin a capitalist means of production of goods, services and space. Specifically I set out to answer the question “How have Marxist theories influenced Lefebvre’s theory of social space?”

In the first section of the essay I introduce Lefebvre’s term social-space, and introduce his key ideas on comprehension of space at large. I then explore his ideas through a Marxist framework, something that he himself was doing as he was thinking through conceptual definitions, interpretations and critiques of spatial production. I go on to discuss space as a reflection of cultural identity and dominant political identity and argue that, how we define space conceptually, and what we do with it practically is a means of reinforcing or reforming the capitalist modus operandi. Towards the end of the essay I provide a brief criticism of capitalism and introduce the idea of listening in space as a means of political and spatial resistance to a culture fixated on commodity fetishism. I conclude with an attempt to answer the above question.

So let us first introduce Henri Lefebvre (b.1901, d. 1991). Lefebvre was a French Marxist philosopher and sociologist. He is best known for pioneering the critique of everyday life, and for introducing the concepts of the right to the city and the production of social space. In this essay I will be predominantly referring to his text The Production of Space (1991). The idea presented in depth in this book, that I will be examining through a Marxist and relational lens is the term “social space” (Lefebvre, 1991). I am also examining his interest in protecting the conceptualisation and dialectics of space from scientific reductionism, and Lefebvre’s interest in space and its social contents as a mirror of dominant socio-economic ideologies, and in particular the injustices and limitations of capitalism. I attempt to link his ideas on the morphology and the “intertwinement of social spaces” (Lefebvre, 1991. p.84) to the act and practice of collective listening, and listening situated with the public realm. Let us now examine Lefebvre’s contribution to taxonomies of space, although I’m not sure he’d appreciate the term. Perhaps concepts of space is better, with a healthy dose of shape shifting thrown in. In The Production of Space (1991) Lefebvre posits three basic definitions of space. He asserts that the broad study of space is concerned with the logic-epistemological notion of space, and building on this theme, he presents three definitions of space that deviate from purely metaphysical conceptions of space. The first definition he presents is the conception of physical space; an idea he claims is equivalent to the notion of the cosmos, in as much as physical space is a microcosm of the universe at large. Secondly there is mental space that can be distilled to logical and formal abstractions, akin to mathematical accounts of space. Thirdly there is the term, social space, which is cultural, linguistic and relational (Lefebvre, 1991p. 12).

At the most basic level social space can be viewed as anywhere, virtual or real where people gather and interact. Lefebvre emphasised that all space is inherently social, and that space cannot be thought of as an empty void, waiting to be filled, or as a receptacle. He argued that social space is the term he uses to describe sites that hold complex relational, economic, and behavioural exchanges. For Lefebvre, social spaces considered in abstraction are redundant. Social spaces are defined by complex “networks and pathways, by virtue of bunches and clusters of relationships” (Lefebvre, 1991 p. 86). He uses the example of marketplaces as an example of social spaces, and at the same time stresses that social spaces are all around us, taking multiple forms and are the site of the everyday. Lefebvre is well known for his work on the critique of everyday life, and we can see his ideas from his interest in analysing the everyday, come through into The Production of Space. “We are talking after all, about the setting in which we live” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 92). For Lefebvre, the everyday, the banal was the site where capitalism reproduced and validated itself both consciously and unconsciously. Lefebvre saw the site of the everyday, the basic material concerns of citizens as a main site for structural and political revolution and for radical self-expression. Like traditional Marxist theory, Lefebvre recognised that culture must be “finally interpreted in relation to its underlying system of production” (Highmore, 2002, p.95 ). It is quite clear that in the Production of Space, by coming up with the term social space, Lefebvre was developing a vocabulary to help define the individual in relation to invisible forces of economic power and privilege that give shape to the very fabric, the materiality of everyday social space. We are referring not only to architectural space, bricks, concrete, glass, steel, rubble, plastic, and chiffon, we are also talking about symbolic, ritualistic, relational and economic spaces. But we are always thinking about how systems of thought, and dominant ideologies shape the materials and commodities that Western society has come to depend on, and define identities by. For Lefebvre, the observation and analysis of social space, of the everyday, was the ideal mirror to hold up and look at, examine and ultimately theorise about ideologies underpinning social behaviour. In a similar line of thinking he recognised that space was not limited to conception in terms of literal materiality, but could also be thought of as the site of power relations, means and methods of economic control and production and ideas of national and local identity. In this sense, he was interested in moving beyond a Marxist analysis of material commodities and means of production, and observe and analyse space itself. He called for a critical method that would analyse not things in space but “space itself, with a view to uncovering social relationships embedded within it.” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 89). Why look beyond objects that are the material outputs of capitalist ideology, why look beyond technological and scientific activity to do with economic production and social power? Why look beyond reductionism? Perhaps for Lefebvre, these already existing conceptual terms failed to account for relational complexity that revealed their forms transiently, and temporarily in specific time based contexts, taking multitudinous forms both material and conceptual.

As we have already seen, Lefebvre identified as a Marxist, and throughout his work had examined everyday life, social space, the home and the workplace, as site for politicization, cooperation and revolt against the capitalist machine. Lefebvre’s argument in The Production of Space is that space is a social product, or a complex social construction (based on values, and the social production of meanings) which affects social-spatial practices and practical uses of, and abstract perceptions of space. This argument reveals the shift of a research interest in exploring the material and relational contents of space, to research and thinking interested in understanding the social, political and economic processes of its production. With this interest in the means of producing space, and taking into account his Marxist position (although he was highly critical of economic structuralism that dominated the academic discourse in his period), we may look to some basic Marxist theories that informed his work. Lefebvre incorporated many Marxist ideas into The Production of Space. He argued that space was a social construct, produced and enacted using dominant ideologies of the 20th century, i.e., Capitalism. For Lefebvre, like many Marxists it was important to analyse what power relations, ideas and interests shaped social space, as the social production and reproduction of space. Space represented a pillar of societal norms that reinforced Capitalist values, ultimately giving more power to the ruling hegemony, and it was therefore important to identify, name and critique complex social exchanges taking place in the formation of virtual and real space. “(Social) space is a (social) product […] the space thus produced also serves as a tool of thought and of action […] in addition to being a means of production it is also a means of control, and hence of domination, of power.” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 26). The ideas put forward by Marx that are important to bear in mind when thinking about the social production of space (school, home, workplace, post office, race track, night club, rave, hospital etc.) are the following; Ideological control, False Class Consciousness, Commodity Fetishism, The Economic Base and The Superstructure. Lefebvre understood that space and the everyday needed to be interpreted through the lens of ideological control; which social groups, and specifically which classes are dominating the validating the production of social space; and how such control shapes what we do, where and how we do it. As well as examining how the production of space shaped by consumerist desires of the working masses, he also referred to the risks of ideological control shaping the ability of theorists and social researchers to understand social space in the 20th century. While he was ultimately interested in looking through the lens of space to understand power relations between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, he was critical of limiting the interpretation of space to a Marxist method interested in materialism. He asserted that preceding thought about social space had been carved and shaped by an overarching interest in material and practical sites of economic production and consumption instead of the more complex, relational, emotional, and banal exchanges that reflected social norms of the time. Through the study of the everyday, endemic and internalised values and ideologies can be interpreted. For Lefebvre, social space and everyday life are “synonymous with programmed consumption” (Lefebvre, 1991, p.89), and he wanted to move beyond a critical analysis of social productivity (economic products, means of production, social labour etc.). He stated that within a material Marxist method of analysis there existed an “ideologically dominant tendency to divide space up into parts and parcels in accordance with social division of labour” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 89). He felt that an analysis interested only in understanding space as a material or economic product, risked reducing the understanding of space to “isolated units” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 90). In The Production of Space, he stated that a science of space was still to be bought into existence. Although Lefebvre has influenced many contemporary academics across a range of fields with his research and thought into the production of space, the calls for a decent science of space could arguably, still ring true. “The search for a science of space is on going….knowledge of space waves between dissection and description” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 91). His concern for a reductionist and over simplified analysis of social and political power relations in the understanding of the production of space could be said to be one of his main critiques of the Marxist method of analysis. Lefebvre was more concerned with the whole, with the pulsing, imbricated, morphing and ever changing social space. “Space is social morphology – It is not a neutral container or a frame for actions that take place within it” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 94).

Having examined the ideas of space as a complex, morphing space, and one that speaks volumes about social and political values, aspirations and constraints, let us now explore the idea of social-space in relation to the idea of culture. Looking at the links between Lefebvre’s concept of social-space and culture as ordinary (Highmore, 2002)I am interested in the radicalisation of social space through spatial interventions of small-scale social listening events and activities. This is done through situating day-to-day cultural practices such as listening, placed in highly symbolic locations, with content that echoes the lived experience of the day to day, framed within a systemic analysis of forces shaping experiences of the day to day. I shall discuss this more in the next section of this essay, where I explore cultural practices for the radicalisation of social-space. For now let us examine social-space through the theoretical lens of cultural studies and in particular, culture as ordinary. There are many, contested terms of culture, but in this setting I refer to Stuart Hall’s definition of culture as a set of shared meanings which enable people to understand and communicate with one another. In his view these meanings are not set things – for example, objects of high culture with eternal value as dictated by the superstructure – nor are they simply a collection of particular behaviours or values that characterize a social group. Like, social-space, cultural meanings are produced and exchanged. Culture, according to Hall is “a process, a set of practices.” (Hall, 1997, p. 2).   Social Space is a site that accommodates cultural processes and practices, it is also a conceptual container for the production and exchange of culture itself. For now, I turn now to the process of examining how the idea of social space has been informed by the idea of culture as ordinary, and everyday culture as the prospective site of resistance and reform. As Hall asserted, culture was not something to simply appreciate or study, but a “critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled” (Proctor, 2004, p. 2). It is this idea of social –space and culture as means of practicing everyday social action, with the intention of challenging dominant power systems through everyday action; in particular challenging capitalist economics, a pursuit that Lefebvre followed throughout his career. Before we consider how might we as artists, philosophers, workers, family members, and citizens create and engage with radical acts of cultural expression that shape social-spaces, and tie into artists and philosophers that have been practicing such intervention in recent history, we need to look back to a social history that has grown through the systemic exploitation of the working poor. We are also considering a social history that in the same breath has issues a sustained dismissal of customs, community and language that originates in working class community. I refer now to work of Williams who sets out to defend the cultural validity, and indeed importance of the everyday, and the everyday as a means of producing culture and custom, in the context of working class culture. This interest in the everyday, is central to my examination of Lefebvre’s social space, as he was in part interested in the cultural identities expressed through the cultural and economic production of space. He was also interested in how behaviour and use of space perpetuated dominant ideologies and in essence the privilege of the ruling class. It is therefore important to incorporate culture studies, and class studies into our thinking as we attempt to understand how Lefebvre informed his own thinking with the Marxist concern of economic equality, and class struggle as a means to attain such equality. Raymond Williams was a critic and intellectual very much engaged in the class struggle, through his contributions to political and intellectual thought, and indeed his own interest in cultural studies, and everyday studies. In his essay Culture is Ordinary (1958), Williams talks of his education at Cambridge University, as a working class young Welsh man coming from the borderlands. His observation on class and access to pulling the levers of power, are astute, and while he recognises that class relates to an ability to access and affect the centres of power, class does not preclude access to complex cultural practices and identities. This seems to be stating the obvious, but for me there is a striking link between Lefebvre’s concept of social space as a means of cultural and socio-economic production, and his intention for the utilisation and theorisation of space to allow for better interpretation of oppressive economic systems that only serve the interests of the already powerful by silencing and dismissing the customs of the working masses. This is both a Marxist interest and an interest in understanding the politics and the power systems that inform and shape the everyday, and the everyday playing out in space. Here is a quote from Williams’ conveying his ardent defence of working communities, and their dissatisfaction of Bourgeoisie imposition on definitions of cultural identity. “There is an English bourgeois culture, with its powerful educational literary and social institutions, in close contact with the actual centres of power. To say that most working people are excluded from these is self-evident, thought the doors, under sustained pressure, are slowly opening. But to go on to say that working people are excluded from English culture is nonsense; they have their own growing institutions, and much of the strictly bourgeois culture they would in any case not want.” (Highmore, 2002, p 95). I find it useful to refer to this quote as it provides an illustration of until recently, how working class and popular culture has been deemed primitive, undeveloped or broadly of disinterest. As Owen Jones articulates in his book Demonization of the Working Class (2011) what used to be called salt of the earth, is now called scum of the earth. Until the advent of cultural studies and thinkers such as Hall, Williams and Richard Hoggart, who identified culture as a means of social and linguistic expression and construction of identity. Really, what we see here is explicit structural, and coded dismissal of social identity that doesn’t belong to the teashops and elaborate rituals employed by the Bourgeoisie for no other purpose but to spell our their difference, and their supreme difference at that. Understanding this history of perpetuated exploitation of the poor, and the dismissal of the significance and interest of their culture, is the starting point from which I decide to make audio work, situated in public space, with the aim of unsettling the capitalist the status quo. From slavery, to feudalism to Capitalism, the progress of society in intellectual and material terms has come with a great human cost. Crap working conditions, preacarity and exploitation still rule the world, while the divide between the rich and the poor increases. In 2017 it has been stated that Eight billionaires own the same wealth as the 3.6 billion people who form the poorest half of the world’s population, and this figure really is the tip of the structural iceberg in terms of wealth distribution and the impact of poverty on quality of life, and life expectancy (Marmot,2015). Through my own research and practice, I’m interested in shrinking the social and economic distance between the rich and the poor. I am interested in closing the unfair distribution power between the Bourgeoisie and the Proletariat, asserted through expressions of high culture, through drab and dull social complexity expressed by the aristocracy, and today the global elite to signify and convey their difference, their power and their elevation. As Williams passionately asserts “Culture is ordinary; through every change let us hold fast to that” (Highmore, 2002, p.94). Within this frame of the everyday, and in particular everyday, quotidian use and production of space, the ordinary as site for political disruption and reform, and indeed as a site of cultural expression and appreciation, I now link in my interest in the cultural practice of listening in public spaces, and listening as a radical act within everyday culture.

You may well ask, how can listening be deemed a structurally and relationally radical act? For me, listening is a radical act because we exist in a culture fixated with the gaze, and to listen is to move beyond a process of conceptual taxonimisation, distinction and analysis. Through the same means we are susceptible to misinformation, visual bombardment and lean close to the flames of a social history that associates the gaze with the power and the visual preference of the commissioner; be it the church or wealthy mercenaries, intent on portraying women as property equivalent to their other purchases. Ah the dark, dank histories of money as a means of human degradation. Occularcentricity dominates our sense making of the world, and at the same time increases individual susceptibility to consumerism, visual and conceptual seduction, and in the age of digital; a propensity for on going distraction. All these states of arguable decent, are achieved by the eye, through act of looking, and perhaps, not looking hard enough. You many now be asking, how does collective listening relate to the production of space? Sound is spatially defined. How it relates acoustically to surfaces, different spaces, and moisture; space alters the characteristics of sound, and sound alters space. In addition, as I have stated I’m interested in observing and understanding what group listening experiences do to individuals interacting with each other in social space, but also within a conceptual space. By listening together, to a particular topic of ideas and information, the shared encounter with a listening act, creates another sort of space; a social space that is concerned with the same focus; listening, and listening to learn. In the context of social-space, listening can be a means of challenging consumerist methods of mind control (namely through visual advertising and the visual fetishisation of commodities), as well as a process of conceptual and political critique. Capitalism is a means of economic organisation, in private and public spheres that depends on the under paying and over working of people trapped in a world of economic exchange. The system also depends on a skewed system of power, whereby those in possession of private property, inheritance etc. can generate unearned income to assist in the perpetuation of their profit making, and wealth assimilation. This does not need spelling out, we are well aware of the injustice and degradation of capitalism; and the loss is not only one based on the lack of time. It is argued that capitalism also degrades space for complex social ritual and expression that unites people to the environment, each other and place; practices that compound bonds instead of alienating them. Mark Fisher in his book Capitalist Realism states, “Capitalism is what is left when beliefs have collapsed at the level of ritual and symbolic elaboration, and that all is left is the consumer-spectator, trudging through the ruins and the relics” (Fisher, 2009, p.4).

This provides a timely Segway into the social psychology, and social affect of listening. I believe it is through collective acts of listening, and listening to experience of the everyday, that the consumer-spectator can become more than a tourist to lost social sites of ritual, enquiry and discovery. Listening provides an alternative means of perceiving the social and material world, but also engenders a slower, more considered, embodied and empathetic means of relating to the world. It is argued to be the communication method most likely to cultivate and express empathy (Fuimara, 1996). Fuimara also argues that Western logo-centricity, concerned with a reductive logic intent of generating nomothetic, universal laws, has departed from the pre Socratic definition of logos, which defined logic as a much more holistic process than dialogic reductionism. Philosopher Hans-Georg Gadamer proposes that to listen is to be “fundamentally open” (Gadamer, 2004). He continues to elaborate that without openness there can be no human relation. Herein lies the essence of the term relationship; to see the world through the eyes of another, must be done through listening and experiencing another perspective; meeting the other where they are at. Through facilitating listening events in public social-spaces, that focus on subjects that communicate a critique of a capitalist economy, and the day to day trappings of it (low wage, temporary contracts, alienation from production, housing insecurity and food poverty), I am interested in making sonic interventions that shape social-space in such a way, that it is provocative, lucid and critical of the limitations of capitalism. I am interested in exploring how listening interventions shape individuals interpretation of public space. I am also interested to examine how, and if, sonic art situated in social-space can evoke emotional and intellectual responses to the oppressive forces of ideological and economic oppression; capitalism.

As we have meandered through a range of explorations in this essay, let us know return to the original question. “How have Marxist theories influenced Lefebvre’s theory of social space?” As we know Lefebvre identified as a Marxist, and was concerned with developing a vocabulary and a conceptual apparatus for the analysis and interpretation of social space in with the effort of revealing and dealing with oppressive power relations. He saw space not as a final product or a fixed vessel, but as a series of inter-related, complex, and fluid relations, all specific to their spatial and social context. The link to Marxism here, is to be found in Lefebvre’s commitment to understanding the significance and symbolism of lived space, of everyday life. Such lived experiences are not separate from the political and economic ideologies that rule us, but instead convey the lived reality of policy making, and the shape of political thought on all of our lives. If one is concerned with the pursuit of social justice, then a study of the everyday is a good place to start in terms of exposing the structural injustice that limits all of our choices. For Lefebvre, the site of the everyday was a place to plant a seed to critique the status quo and come up with workable, scalable alternatives. Interestingly, Lefebvre identified that the day to day is a great place to start to express everyday micro expressions of resistance to intense individualisation, alienation through the fetishisation of material goods, and people ensconced in so much work that they have little time to cultivate nuanced and lasting social bonds. Within the quotidian, is the site of resistance; questions people can ask in public, through in depth discourse. For Lefebvre, acts of resistance against a false consciousness and against structural submission of Capitalism were the tools of structural change. We can see his borrowing of Marxist ideology in his concept, the Moment. The concept of Moments reappears throughout his work as a theory of presence and the foundation of a practice of emancipation. Experiences of revelation, deja-vu sensations, but especially love and committed struggle are examples of Moments. By definition, Moments have no duration, but can be repeated and re-lived. Lefebvre argues that these cannot easily be reappropriated by consumer capitalism and commodified; they cannot be codified. In another example of his critique of the oppressive nature of consumerism and capitalist reality, he uses the banal as a site of critique. Another example of Marxist thought influencing his conceptual labelling and exploration of social space, can be seen in the importance Lefebvre gives to the analysis of social space, how it is produced, and who benefits from social, relational, and economic contracts agreed that give material form to the spaces we occupy and use on a day to day basis. The reason this is important, is that such analysis allows all important power relations to be revealed, which in turn provides an opportunity for the proletariat to identify and diagnose their structural oppression, and carve time to re-think how they might redefine their day-to-day existence, and indeed the political and ideological system that incarcerates them. The study of space can be closely linked to the day to day. Think about the various spaces we inhabit daily, the spaces we occupy in the cycle of a week. What do we do in these spaces, who makes us do them? For what purpose? What relational and expressive options are we given in social space; what social spaces are offered to us in a time where we see the systematic and on-going erosion of common space, side by side with the expansion of sites of explicit consumerism, i.e., the shopping centre. Lefebvre didn’t go as far to say that profit was theft, but understood that the unfair distribution of wealth, exploitation of workers and the privilege of inheritance influenced all aspects of social life, and the structure of labour and opportunities for improved and fair living standards, and this included understanding the social impact of the production of social space. There are many conceptual building blocks that were taken form Marxist thought is the development of Lefebvre’s discussion of space, and in particular social-space, and it is impossible to cover them all in this essay. To conclude, it is clear that he borrowed an array of conceptual terms and a diagnosis of the sickness of capitalism from Marxist theory, and these can be seen in his earlier works A Critique of Everyday Life (1947), and indeed in The Production of Space (1991).

 

Bibliography

Fisher, M. (2009) Capitalist realism: is there no alternative? 0 Books: Ropley.

Fiumara, C.G. (1990) The Other Side of Language; A Philosophy of Listening.London: Routledge.

Gadamer, H.G. (2004) Truth and Method. London: Contiuum Press.

Hall, S. & Open University (1997) Representation: cultural representations and signifying practices. Sage: London.

Highmore, B. (2002) The everyday life reader. Routledge, New York: London;

Jones, O. (2011) Chavs: the demonization of the working class. Verso: London.

Lefebvre, H. & Nicholson-Smith, D. (1991) The production of space, Blackwell.

Marmot, M. (2015) The health gap: the challenge of an unequal world. Bloomsbury: London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Documents of home #1

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Feeling It; Exploring Sound and Space and their Contribution to Aural Architecture

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In this essay I will be examining the discipline of aural-architecture and discussing artists who work in this field. I will be exploring the term aural architecture, and zoom in on the idea of sound as a means of shifting architecture into a sensory and embodied realm. I also spend time assessing the impact of a sonic reality in a predominantly occularcentric world (LaBelle, 2006). I will link aural-architecture to Lefebvre’s discussion of space, and the divide between mental, physical and social space (Lefebvre, 1991). To conclude I will discuss the impact of spatial and sonic studies on the emerging field of aural architecture and explore similarities between notions of social space, and interaction with sound led art installations.

So lets start with Aural Architecture. The term refers to a broad field of study that examines the interplay between architecture and sonics (LaBelle, 2006). It’s roots date back to the 1950’s when artists such as John Cage and Oskar Fischinger were examining the social location of sound outside the cultural and architectural constraints of the music hall, stage, theatre and church. During Cage’s practice he made controversial and notable challenges to the idea that sound was a child borne of the practice and theory of music. Creating works such as 4’33 and Silent Prayer challenged audiences to listen to the silence in between the music for an entire performance, and in the case of Silent Prayer, Cage challenged the popularisation of Muzak, by countering a repetitious and dragging soundtrack played in the background of shopping malls and retail centres with the broadcast of silence. Both these works are important for aural architecture, as the manipulation of convention and use of sound (or silence) as a medium, was repeatedly located in unusual cultural and physical spaces not associated with traditional modes of cultural production /consumption, and often outside of venues associated with musical or sonic performances. Sound became the leading medium to challenge and redefine social conventions associated with particular spaces such as the mall and the music hall.

There is not time to give a whistle stop tour of the historical distinctions made between sound art, sound and music, I will save that for another essay. Let us now focus on sound over music, and look to the sonic artwork of artists Max Neuhaus and Bernard Lietner, two artists who have been working with space, site and sound, and aural architectural practices for over 30 years. I intend to refer to their work as examples of artists who work within the discipline, and then draw out shared attributes of their practice. Lietner is an artist and lecturer, who originally trained as an architect at the Technical University of Vienna. Since the late 1960s, Leitner has been working between architecture, sculpture, and music, conceiving of sounds as constructive material, as architectural elements that allow a space to emerge. He belongs to a set of artists who work in the area of sound installations, and is regarded as the pioneer who introduced sound into installation spaces. He prefers to strip his installations of visual forms, fully immersing the listener in an auditory landscape (Archdaily, 2011). For Leitner, the exploration of space and sound is done through the medium of the body, and it is this interest that underpins his physical – sonic architectural installations that envelop the senses of the visitor (not viewer). Within the same channel of thinking is Georgina Borns assertion that the act of listening is inherently embodied (Born, 2013). It is widely acknowledged that sound is concerned with the act of listening, in both the conceptual and physical sense. In Leitner’s case, the body is part of the perception of sonic artwork. He expresses such values in statements such as “I can hear with my knee better than with my calves.”

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Bernard Lietner, Sonorous Presence, Sound Installation

Max Neuhaus was a classical musician and sound artist who also understood the sonic relationship to the human body and geographical environment, and a sense of specific place. His work was concerned with sound installations and sound sculptures, often situated in a particular place, where site was part of the conceptual and material content of the final work. Neuhas started as a professional musician, giving performances of pieces by composers including John CageKarlheinz Stockhausen and Pierre Boulez in numerous music halls. He then went on to focus on sound sculptures that worked with electronic sound that would emanate from particular sources, in relation to their location in specific sites. Notable works include Drive in Music (1967), Siren (1989) and Time Piece (2003; 2006). His work uses site as material, and his interests lie in the exploration of how sound, when installed outside the conventions of the gallery, music halls, or concert hall is shaped and influenced by the social and natural forces at play within the installation. This interest can be grouped under the term expanded field (Krauss, 1978), which refers to the turn in sculptural practice in the 1970’s where sculpture, and sound work situated itself in conversation with the complicated and unpredictable forces of landscapes, environment and architectural spaces. The expanded sonic field was integral to Neuhaus, who was particularly interested in the sonic terrain of the city. In his work Siren, he made multiple recordings of alternative siren sounds including spacious pauses, to allow public normally spooked and made anxious by the colloquial sound of emergency service sirens, to still be alerted but not alarmed, and the pauses to provide space to locate the source of the siren and move out of the way in a calmer manner.

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Both Neuhaus and Litner have been producing sonic work that interacts with space and place, the expanded field and the body since the 1970’s. They both belong to the discipline of sound installation art and the auspicious beginnings of aural architecture. This medium of expression is a characteristic of aural architecture in the sense that sound installations bring into conversation spatial, cultural, geographic, physical and architectural aspects with sonic expressions, be they live, acoustic, electronic, amplified or site specific. As Brandon LaBelle elaborates “Sound-space interplay is inherently conversational in so far as one speaks to the other. When sounds occur they are partially formed by their spatial counterpart” (LaBelle, 2006, p. 149). Sound installation art is a medium concerned with a technical, aesthetic and emotional understanding of the conversation between sound and space. LaBelle argues that a broader sonic-social architectural environment has been sculpted overtly through the medium of the sound installation. This relates back to music concrete’s and early avant garde sound artists interest in separating sound from the conventions of concert hall and creating a specifically conceived and designed space that hosts immersive listening opportunities, and less frequently, site specific on demand recordings. As LaBelle expands, “the project of the sound installation, and sound art in general, stages the integration of the sonic with the built, nurturing mutuality between sound and space, which at time must also be heard as argumentative, antagonistic and problematic. Sound installation activates this intersection, intervening with architectural spaces and making sonic additions” (LaBelle, 2006, p.150).

We have examined a brief history of two artists who paved the way for the emergence of aural architecture, however there are many more that could be named and have made significant contributions to the discipline. For now, we will break apart the term and unpack it, examining the composite conceptual parts of that discipline. These two strange siblings, from very different ancestry but inextricably bound, are the phenomena of sound and space. In this section I will go into more depth discussing definitions, histories and interdependencies of the two conceptual and physical siblings.

Let me start with the phenomena and study of sound. As we have seen, sound is distinctly different from music. Bound by a heritage of cultivating private and public aesthetic experiences, music and sound have both been used to create specific, emotive, symbolic and atmospheric expressions. The capabilities of both music and sound have accelerated with a blooming availability of sound media in the late 19th century (Born, 2013, p. 3). While music is described as organised sound, sound is often described in terms of a perceptible audible environment. To perceive and define both forms of auditory expression, is the ability to hear, and more than hearing is the ability to listen. Michele Chion posits three definitions of listening, that refer to various modes of perception of sound and differing approaches to listening and perceiving sound. These are reduced, semantic and casual (Chion, 2012). Meanwhile the founder of the term soundscape R Murray Schafer describes a soundscape as the perception and interaction with an acoustic environment. To engage with sound is become aware of, attuned to the auditory space, and often an arbitrary and environmental one at that. Music is the conscious construction of part of that soundscape, whereas sound is the study of, manipulation of, and relationship with an independently occurring sonic environment.

Sound is imbricated with different sorts of space, and is not a supplement or addition to that space as music is. Maryanne Amader details the distinction between music and sound. “In regular music you don’t have any models to learn about spatial aspects, because usually the performers are on stage or the music is on the record and you don’t really hear things far away and you don’t really hear things close up and you don’t hear nothings and you don’t hear things disappearing and appearing and all these kinds of shapes emerge” ( Labelle, 2006, p.172). It is this connection between spatiality and sound that aural architecture as a term emerges, the fundamental sonic and spatial interdependency of the source of sound and it’s behaviour on a physical and cultural level after the sound has been made. Sound is ultimately a conceptual term given to an awareness and manipulation of the incidental and intentional aspects of an aural environment.

With the increasing ability to convey emotional, geographic, logical, and all sorts of other information through sonified means, came an examination into sounds ability to describe, convey and shift perceptions of space. Academic and sound expert Steven O Connor of Cambridge University suggests that “the most important and distinguishing aspect of auditory experience is its capacity to reconfigure space” (Born, 2013, p. 3). He argues that with a more readily available sonic cultural expression, has shifted perception from a Cartesian rationalised grid of visual imagination to a more “fluid, mobile and voluminous conception of space” (Born, 2013, p. 3). With the advent of sonic worlds, and sonic expressions has come a shift in perception of space, and indeed new mediums of representation such as sound installations and an interest in deep and reductive listening. While it is possible to observe how space shapes sound and sound shapes space, lets us first examine some existing definitions and theories of space.

Historically speaking, the first conceptions of space, Lefebvre claims, were originally referred to as a mathematical terms. Definitions of space included theories and terms such as non Euclidean spaces, x dimensional spaces, and curved spaces (Lefebvre, 1991, p 2). However, through this abstract definition a rupture occurred between the conception of different types of spaces; there was the abstract concept of space, achieved through mathematical abstraction and the idea of immediately tangible notions of space, expressed as conceptual, social or ideological space within a social context. In The Production of Space Lefebvre posits three basic taxonomies of space. He asserts that the broad study of space is concerned with the logic-epistemological notion space and social space, an abstract and mathematical representation of ideas of space. More specifically, he presents three key frameworks of space that deviate from a metaphysical conception of space. The first definition he posits is the conception of physical space, an idea he claims is equivalent to the notion of the cosmos, in as much as physical space is a microcosm of the universe at large. Again, to expand on in another essay. Secondly there is mental space, that can be distilled to logical and formal abstractions, akin to mathematical accounts of space, and lastly there is the term, social space, which is cultural, linguistic and relational (Lefebvre, 1991p. 12).

Within this vein of thought Lefebvre asks the question, does the concept of space reflect differing concepts and explanations of the universe. This may seem like a conceptual chasm, but the two are related in looking at historical prowess and effect of dominant epistemologies that have shaped our world views, and indeed our methods of philosophical enquiry for exploring definitions of and theories around the phenomena of space. He questions the validity and credibility of an epistemology that pursues a singular teleological definition of the universe, and other philosophical explanations of social and natural phenomena. Lefebvre criticises the pursuit of a universal theory of existence and a nomothetic account of reality, and instead introduces us to the work of astronomer and cosmologist Fred Hoyle. Hoyle was an advocate of the theory of panspermia and refuted the big bang theory, instead arguing that life on earth came about through the existence of seeds of life that took the form of cells and viruses deposited by comets, and therefore there are multiple strains of life originating from multiple deposits of basic life forms, instead of one singular theory of how life came to be. You may ask why are theories of cosmology important at this stage of thinking about space, sound and aural architecture. In my mind there is a big link between universal theories of existence and theories of space, and indeed theories of cosmology and philosophical ontology. The cosmos is the fruit while philosophy is the seed of the same fruit. Ontological positions are important here, again we see tensions between the reductive scientific approach and the ideographic approach, which express the tensions between the well-established conflict of ontological approaches of verstehen and erklaren. In the pursuit of a single theory of existence, there is a reductive approach to reality that limits the existence of multiple theories and valid experiences of reality, and indeed the multiple literal, emotional, cultural, poetic, abstract and sonic experiences spaces.

To conclude let me attempt to answer the question; how do sound and space relate, and how does the basis of this physical conversation contribute to the discipline of aural architecture? Space, Lefebvre postulates, has three main forms. In the relation of the phenomena of space to sound I will focus on one of three taxonomies of space that Lefebvre calls the social space. It is this particular type of space that shares characteristics of sound. Both share non linear, relational and context specific characteristics. Social space is based on the observation and comprehension of social codes specific to that space, while sounds resonance, reverberation and quality is sculpted physically by the shape of space it falls into. Neither are consistent in their physical and conceptual expressions of ideas into action, they are dynamic and perpetually changin. As LaBelle claims “acoustics offers a relational exchange between sound and space” (LaBelle, 2006, p.149). He perceives sound and space as inseparable, locked into a symbiotic relationship. At the crudest level, sound cannot exist without the space that received sound waves, rhythm, and frequency, and sound shapes the way sound is perceived by the subject beholding it. Another significant relation between sound and space, is that both phenomena place the listener within it rather than in front of it; both are embodied sensory data that envelop the individual interacting with it. Further, it is claimed that sound as a sensory stimuli that is ephemeral, dynamic, inconsistent and embodied. Taking these forms it chips away at the Cartesian rationalism that has anchored cultural identity, dominant epistemologies and assumptions stemming from a rationalist and positivist world view. Georgina Born elucidates in more detail by quoting Steven o Connor, with the development of modern sound media, “the rationalized, Cartesian grid of a visualist imagination has given way to a more fluid, mobile and multi-faceted conception of space” (Born, 2012, p. 3). Unlike visual representations such as drawing, painting and sculpture, sonic representation is not static in time. It does different things to the body and the mind. Labelle claims that sound lends to space, and specifically architecture an immediate, sensual vitality (LaBelle, 2006). Sound doesn’t honour one sense over the other, it is inherently multi sensory. With sound, unlike sight you can perceive it through two or three senses at once, it reaches into us instead of statically remaining in front of us. Labelle elaborates, claiming that sound “operates though intensity, through ephemeral events. It’s immersive and noisy, it can’t be easily contained. It operates according to different notions of borders and perspectives” (Labelle, 2006, p. 150). With borders and perspectives in mind let us link the ephemeral, multi faceted and non linear nature of sound to Lefebvre’s discussion of social space as complex system, fluid and context specific. “Social space is not a thing amongst other things, nor a product among other products; rather it subsumes things produced, and encompasses their inter-relationships” (Lefebvre, 1991, p. 73). Space is not a single thing, rather can be expressed as a set of relationships between subjects and objects. Social space contains it’s own language of form, materiality, use, appropriation, gesture and production. It is a physical and semiotic language that can be decoded using interpretive and semiotic analysis. There are many meanings imbricated into the fabric and form of one given bench, many utilisations, connotations, and mimetic meanings attached to a couple of planks of wood held together by metal.

We have examined the phenomenological and perceptive similarities between both sound and space, but how have these attributes shaped thinking within the discipline of aural architecture? Aural architecture stems from the term acoustic architecture that has focussed on the science and perception of sound within the built environment (Labelle, 2006). At the same time, like many other traditional fine arts, the architectural realm has been historically understood through graphic representations and occularcentric acts of beholding. It is argued that visual representation, the mark, the sign, the image belongs to the same linguistic tradition as the printed word. The definitions of space and sound as outlined above, and the fluid, multi faceted shape of both help to situate the beholder into an immersive, embodied multi-sensory world, and we interpret them using sight and conceptual abstraction and interpretation. Aural architecture belongs to more complex and relational modes of perception and knowledge and at the same time seeks to expand on the binaries and reductive logic embedded in our culture since the enlightenment. Many philosophers have sought to argue that cognition, thinking and perception lies beyond conceptual and linguistic abstraction and mental cognition, and aural architecture is a discipline that examines the role of social behaviour in the cultural and pragmatic utilisation of sound, sound installations and the built environment of urban centres. Specifically practitioner / researchers such as Brandon LaBelle, Steven O Connor, Max Neuhaus, Bernard leitner and many others identify the embodied, fluid, non linear and abstract attributes of sound and their effect of traditions and methods of comprehension, perception and communication. Henri Lefebvre meanwhile explores the history of philosophical accounts and explanations of space, and explores the features and uses of different sorts of space, as well as interrogating the means and uses of the cultural and economic production of space. Through this brief journey of thought it is possible to see that the shared characteristics of space and sound are the fluid, non linear and multi sensory idiosyncrasies and complexities that validate the discipline of aural architecture and make it a relevant lens to look through when we ask who are designing our cities, towns and rural environments. Through this lens of enquiry, those interested in urban design, urban ambiances and the affect of sonic and spatial material can better examine which professions, policies and budget sheets are paying attention to the affect of sonics and space, and ask how aural architecture could be improved, added to and developed.

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Bibliography

Born, G. 2013, Music, sound and space: transformations of public and private experience, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Chion, M. (2012) The Three Listening Modes. In The Sound Studies Reader, edited by Jonathan Sterne. London: Routledge.

Krauss, k. (1979) Sculpture in the Expanded Field, In October, Vol. 8. (Spring, 1979), pp. 30-44. Massachusetts: MIT Press.

LaBelle, B. 2006, Background noise: perspectives on sound art. New York;London: Continuum.

Lefebvre, H. & Nicholson-Smith, D. 1991, The production of space, Blackwell.

 

 

 

 

We Can Make @ Knowle West:Week 2

Last week I was working up at Knowle West Media Centre. I’ve been commissioned to work on the practically progressive We Can Make project there as artist / researcher. The project, broadly looks at the hows and whats of citizen led housing. The concept is to explore a citizen investment model that funds the build of small-scale affordable houses, situated on ‘micro plots’ lying between semi detached post second ww housing stock.

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Houses in Knowle West 2017

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An example of a micro plot. Knowle West 2017

Most of last week was spent with me walking around the area, and on St Whytes road in particular, where the research is being piloted. Following  my time in the area last month, where I also knocked on doors, ran surveys with residents and took the area in, this week I walked up and down each side of the road, knocking on every door, asking if people would be up for me interviewing them about their experiences of, and stories of home. In the end I got about ten people to agree, and spent the rest of the week going to their houses and interviewing them. I think the space given to listen, and hear people speak about intimate and personal subjects such as finance, home ownership / rentals and aspirations about how we live at a basic level is quite profound. As Gemma Fuimara (1996) asserts, to listen is to empathise, and to understand the other. Last week, I spent a lot of time listening, and immersing myself in other peoples experiences and space of home. I also felt a complex mix of affinity with a hard working, proud and kind working class community, but frequently came up against racist ideas and anger at the lack of support for low income earners in the form of social housing. In one interview two members of the same household stated that “the government had made them racist”. This was in reference to priority housing given to ethnic minority groups and immigrants.

Another interviewee was a kind neighbour and an open hearted citizen, advocating the brilliance of Nigel Farage. Her reasoning was that he was “kind, honest and spoke the truth for working class people.” We ended up discussing immigration and politics at length at the end of the interview, which felt worth-while given the difference in our political views. I don’t think either of us persuaded the other, but we did practice a degree of tolerance and listening to very different perspectives.

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Testing recording kit before interview

During the interview phase, I spent on average, and hour with each person, talking around a semi-structured interview that looked at personal situation, finance, materiality of home (how do things and objects convey our identity), perceptions of the housing crisis and interactions with Bristol at large. Many other stories came out, and I’ve ended up with about 10hrs of audio content to edit down into 4 short audio documentaries over the next month.

During the week, I spent the evenings in the gallery space experimenting with projections, throw, lighting and image. I’m going to incorporate digital projections into the final audio work, which will encourage people to immerse themselves in the audio stories of people who live in the area of Knowle West. I’m now preparing the audio and digital images for exhibition at Knowle West Media Centre opening early in April. Watch this space for developments of a new work in progress.

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Experimenting with Projections in the gallery space 2017

Home and Analysis

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Yes, so I went house hunting. Um it’s supposed to be something exciting but it ended up, um turned out to be very thought provoking, personal, emotional. Yeh. So I started with the, um number 12. Which was the smaller space. I was excited when I was going to open the door. It was such a tiny space, and um, I felt like, uh, I felt like I was being the invader of this personal house uninvited.”

Discord Audience member

Analysing over 100 audience feedback comments, 5 in depth written accounts of Discord and 8 in depth interview videos is no mean feat, and at times has led me to feel prisoner to the task. But the experiences and the accounts of the experience is fascinating, and it underlines why non didactic story-telling to invigorate the personal and political address of key issues (housing security) is an effective and important way to initiate discourse within our burning political theatre. I mean, I would say that wouldn’t I. I’m someone interested in the banal stories of everyday life (Highmore, 2002), and how the presentation of these stories invites personal and social reflection and action on today’s unequal society, and how to readdress such inequality.

Interestingly, while I listen, read, re-listen, re-read, code, design coding hierarchies, re-read, re-watch, re-listen, spot themes, groups of ideas, recurring criticisms of the work, spoken through the lips of others, I’m sitting in my own home. I’m concurrently looking at my own object of identity, that which signifies me, those things I carefully choose to surround myself with. And I’m aware as people talk about home as safety and security, how insecure my own housing journey has been over the past decade.

“It’s sort of kind of hopelessness, It seems like this crazy environment that out of control, and I don’t know how I’d ever afford a house. I mean you feel kind of powerless, I mean what can you do? Well I’m kind of I feel like I’m too young to worry about these kind of things, so it’s a future problem.”

Discord Audience member

This was not to do with a shame and subsequent denial of privilege but to do with basic need. I’m one of those people who has needed cheap, secure tenure; but have wanted it to be nice, pretty, clean, cultured, spacious. Fat chance. In the past few years, I have felt as though I have sacrificed the nice part. Since 2007 (there are many stories before that, but I draw the line at 10years) , I have lived in a flat above a listed public house, an abandoned office block, an attic above a pub, a dull room at street level, a tiny corridor room in a shared house, a train carriage perched high on a hill at a farm, a library in a bell tent, a tiny box room on a street with my bed on stilts to ensure enough room for a few possessions, back to the farm only to be curtailed by a financial freak out, a spacious room in a shared house, a boat, and finally back to the farm. It’s a wonder I’ve managed any security at all; and I’m led to ask, have I been secure? And in amongst the security of short sightedness induced by a perpetual and over active survival drive; get job, get house, rest, keep learning, cultivate and nourish significant bonds, eat, I realise I have been very insecure.

“Like I said it was like an emotional rollercoaster. Um but I think having finished it, I do feel sad. That’s the reality of the property crisis in London especially. You do feel as if there’s no hope. Just like, especially the council house it was so small, you see all these old DVD’s and this table, and that’s all they can afford and that’s their life, that’s their reality. I don’t live in a council house. But it’s bought to life really well, that’s the best thing about this.”

Discord Audience member

There is a proximate irony to my interest in the inequality of housing, and the index that is the key factor is wealth. Money, dollar dollar – ker -ching. As I watch friends who have families that have money, made money, invest in property, had two parents, a large support network etc, I am on the side of the fence wondering if I would buy such expensive tiles and farrow and ball paint if I could risk a moment to dream about buying my own house. Sure, I can see a way it would be possible, but it’s going to take a long time, and some hard decisions about social bonds vs work, and I’m not so young anymore. I also wonder about the values possessed by friends who buy to let, and then get their friends to pay going market rents to accelerate the wealth divide; get someone to pay such high rents that they can’t save for their own deposit, while the landlord meanwhile comes into expedited possession of a much desired capital asset. Oh shit, I didn’t mean for this to become a trajectory, I was talking about housing. Oh wait, this is a key issue of the structure of wealth inequality that determines who gets to call their home, their home.

Anyway, what was has become clear to me during the analysis of audience feedback on Discord is that it created a space where people could think openly about their own privilege, along with the causes of such an unequal distribution of access to basic security; the home. Privilege is as real as the food on your plate. Some people have more and others have less. It is a material force and it shapes health, identity, self-worth, the clothes you wear, the homes you keep. I also think, it was a piece of work that invited people to connect to the idea of equality, who owns what through personal stories that level a shred desire. The pursuit of security, and at a basic level the pursuit of resting and seeking refuge in secure home.

This is a spontaneous and self-reflective write up, it’s not a formal part of my analysis, but then going through the in depth thinking that is activated from analysis is bound to activate some deeper thoughts..

“And then I put that me and my crew are up for occupying these properties, and then we’re going to squat these properties and return them to the homeless and people who are council housing lists. It will be really interesting to know what people have been saying. Other people have taken it really seriously and put in real bids. I really liked it. I didn’t know if I was going to like it when I came as sometimes political art is really dogmatic and in your face, and this wasn’t and the reason this wasn’t, was because you did what you did in that Sanctuary project because you go the whole affective and emotional thing that a home is a place that means things to people because they live in it, they have relationships in it, their lives unfold in it, they fill it with things that are there way of making meaning in the world. So there’s this really interesting dynamic going on in the piece between what housing means as a personal lived experience, and what it means as economic commodity in the market place, and there’s obviously such a disjuncture between them that um, it’s interesting because it doesn’t offer any solutions, and that’s interesting because it lets people think about it without being told what to think.”

Discord Audience member

 

Experimenting with Home

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Unstable but standing firm

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It the last day of the first month of the year. What a perilous time of enormous change. And yet, here I am, tucked up inside my Blue van, parked on a quiet street, at the Bottom of Bower Ashton. While the world spins into disarray around me, I’m not content with a single life, but in fact appear to live three.

However, in the bigger scheme of things to think about, this fragmented yet fertile world appears diminutive. I am preoccupied with mapping out the Whitehouse staff, and thinking about all the housing papers I’m yet to read, to situate my interest in UK housing security. On that note, I must make a note to read the housing news feed daily to keep up to date with current issues. In my mind the housing struggle is all part of the same anti austerity drive that is sweeping through the UK, and as headlines read today, making UK the poorest and most economically vulnerable since Thatcher’s rule.

Donald Trump is a beast with a brain half intact and the other half shrivelled under the glare of his self-importance. Banning entrance to the US for people from seven majority Muslim countries; Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. Airports have been thrown into disarray and he appears to have given short notice to airport staff. At the same time he prioritises care of Christian refugees. What we are seeing here is a broad daylight arrival of ethnic and religious preference at the great expense of people, and many of the most vulnerable. Charity, compassion and humanitarian principles appear to have been shoved off the cliff of moral consideration. I also feel that this political force may well be a sleight of hand that conceals even greater misgivings.

Meanwhile, I continue to look into experience of home and housing security in the UK today. It strikes me how hard it is to live now, how basic needs such as housing security and job security are far and few between, and that the cost of living is rapidly inflating while wages stagnate. According to IFS director Paul Johnson, Britons are due to have suffered more than a decade of flat-lining real earnings growth, with real wages still below their pre-crisis peak in 2021. (Financial Times, 2016).

British workers aged between 22 and 30 are the only UK demographic to have seen their real incomes shrink from 2007 onwards, with the IFS showing median wages have fallen 7 per cent in the seven years after the financial crisis. Still, those of us on decent incomes without the bank of mum and dad have no chance of owning our own houses, and while the private rental market gauges out our monthly earnings, social housing is at an all time low.

By contrast, the over-60s have had a much better time of it, with their incomes rising 11 per cent over the period. Overall however, working age incomes have been flat between 2007 and 2014 – a development the IFS has previously described as “highly unusual”.

In addition, stagnating wages and a cut in welfare provisions, is likely to see the lowest earners hit hardest. According to the IFS, benefits are likely to take a hit of 6% in 2017. In July 2016 it was widely reported that UK wages had dropped by 10%. Just yesterday The Resolution Foundation published that the current parliament would be the worst for living standards for the poorest half of households since comparable records began in the mid-1960s and the worst since the early years of Thatcher’s 1979-90 premiership for inequality.

So what can we do? Get political, get together. If you’re not in a union, join one. If you think temporary short-term contracts are great opportunities; think again. Lobby, sign petitions, visit your MP’s, do some research into your workers rights. The work –place is where many of us go everyday, and as Stuart Hall liked to say culture is the “critical site of social action and intervention, where power relations are both established and potentially unsettled”. Know your rights, and assert them at a local, regional and national level. Now is the time to education, organise and support each other. It feels so dark, but we must not surrender to moral aberration and bad ideas.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We Can Make…

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Today I spent my first day in Knowle West. In the morning I met with Melissa Mean, Head of Arts and Knowle West Media Centre, who I am working closely with on the current community housing project We Can Make.

Over the next three months I will be spending a week a month living in the community, and interviewing residents about their relationship with their home and housing, and exploring what home means to them. This will contribute new content for my audio documentary work, and form the basis of future installations I plan to situate in three Bristol locations, as part of my PhD practice. I will also be assisting in data collection, by conducting surveys with a range of residents for We Can Make.

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We Can Make…Homes,  brings together a team of local people, artists, designers, architects and policy experts to explore new approaches to housing that will support communities to live better together. It is currently in it’s pilot stage, and I’m really excited to be working on such a practical venture into rethinking housing.

Knowle West is a neighbourhood situated on a low plateau in the south of Bristol, England, about 2 miles (3 km) from the centre of the city. Historically in Somerset, most of the area is coterminous with the Filwood ward of Bristol City Council, although a small part of the estate lies within Knowle ward to the east. To the west are Bishopsworth and Hartcliffe. To the north are Bedminster and Windmill Hill and to the south Whitchurch Park and Hengrove. The population as of 2008 was estimated as 11,787. The area is approximately 1.26 square miles (3.3 km2) in extent.

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Knowle West remained a rural area until the 1930s, when a council housing estate was developed to provide homes for people displaced by slum clearance in the centre of the city. It now consists of roughly half owner occupancy and half social housing tenants. Famous former residents include the musician Tricky, the boxer Dixie Brown and late 1950s rock and roll band the Eagles.

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The area has high levels of deprivation. Six out of eight areas in Knowle West are ranked as being economically deprived.The closure of the Imperial Tobacco factory at nearby Hartcliffe in 1990 meant the loss of 5,000 jobs and an estimated further 20,000 jobs in service and supporting industries throughout South Bristol. A House of Commons report noted that this had a seriously negative effect on the area as many people in Knowle West and neighbouring areas lost the opportunity for “manual and semi-skilled employment”. The Independent in 1995 noted high drug use and associated crime and reported on the establishment of Knowle West Against Drugs, led by local parents concerned about these problems.

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Today I walked around and noticed some things. The houses are very similar. Doubles of semi detached 2 – 3 bedroom Red brick houses. There are centres such as the Health Centre and the Park that house multiple services such as physiotherapy, dialysis, GP surgery, cafe’s, chemists, sure start service, disability support, local history groups and another cafe.

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On the street, the most notable thing are the houses. There are clusters of small shops, food discount shops, kebab shops and Spar and a Best One food shop. Overall there is a run down feel to the area. Some houses are very well presented, but many have an abundance of rubbish sprawling in the front yard, and there is a surprising number of horse trailers and horse boxes in the front drives. I have heard rumours that people keep their horses up here. The people I saw were young people drinking energy drinks and dressed in comfy casual clothes, young mothers pushing their prams towards the health centre, middle aged men who looked ill and tired, and a couple who were dressed in night clothes and looked high. A woman was shouting at them from her front door to buy her some paracetamol. I also saw two men working on an engine of a car outside their house, talking about specific engine parts.

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Later, I met the other project artist Charlotte Biszewski and we went to the Park, which is a community hub in an old school that “offers opportunities to all the Community from 0-100+.” Here we met head of operations Emma Hinton, and two older men who ran the local history group. It was a vibrant place with lots of people working on different local community projects; from disability support groups, to youth support work to sure start offices. I would quite like to do some work there, but have yet to figure out exactly where I will find my research participants. This evening I have been reading The Comfort of Things (2009) by Daniely Miller who interviewed 30 people living on a single street in London. I am thinking this would be a good parameter to set myself, working on this project. Ideas firing, and no need to hem them in just yet.