Spiralling into Modernism
In the book Participation, Claire Bishop underlines three common aspects of participatory art: the desire to create an active/thinking subject who will be able to formulate their own social/political position from the experience of the work; asserting a socially oriented and egalitarian position for themselves by ceding part of their authorship to participants; and the restoration of a social bond in a community through the collaborative elaboration of meaning.
On a recent visit to Barking I saw “Through the planned cities fire will rage“, an exhibition of participatory art between Laura Oldfield Ford and a group of years 10 and 11 students from local schools. Given that my own research touches on the social interactions that constitute the regeneration project in the particular context of the Barking Town Centre I was interested to see how the principles outlined above applied in this specific case. Here the collaboration happens during the development process, with some of the projects (like Barking Town Square) already completed and others (like most of Barking Riverside) still under development, which gives this type of event a vital importance.
The imagination of the students is fantastic and some of the pieces offer genuine moments of reflection. For example a map of the borough with clearly marked unhappiness right of the centre and the great unknown of Dagenham further east: the recognized political divide of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham. Another group of drawings questioning the value of change and its ‘façades’ in the town centre. There are also moments of levity: is Barking spiralling into Modernism or is it not? The darkly metaphorical Happy Birthday! comic strip. And moments of downright, well… see drawing of plane flying into One Canada Square below. Certainly, the collaboration has succeeded in engaging students with urban issues by which they are directly affected and that must be commended. The participants are indeed given a better position to formulate their own critique of their local socio-economic and political situation. The whole of the work is clearly and thankfully representative of the ‘fire’ of adolescence. (On a marginally and I’ve-listened-to-it-recently related note, let me plug Robert Harrison’s podcast on Pink Floyd.)
The following quotation is taken from the Council’s website:
Ford’s own work uses the strategy of psychogeography to coax out the hidden narratives in the city and formulate a critique of urbanism. In the case of Barking and Dagenham it is the issue of housing that forms the crux of contention. For this new work she imagines militant groups emerging and the planned uses of the new regeneration schemes radically subverted. Her work references the Blitz, 1973, 1981 and points in the future to set out alternative possibilities.
I want to pick up four elements from this description, because although the work of the students is in many ways engaging, I think the handling of the issues at hand and principles of participation need some criticism. What first struck me is how much of the artist’s own aesthetics seem to come through the students’ work. It appears evident from the artist’s own work that there is a tendency to draw on dichotomies, be it planned/unplanned or construction/destruction. This strong dialectic aspect appears to come through quite clearly in the students’ work. The arrangement is fragmented, relies heavily on contrasts (in both form and content) and is primarily oppositional. This leads to a second point: I question whether the students are exploring their own experiential perception of their city through the loose (and highly subjective) framework of psychogeography or rather through the lens of the organiser’s oppositional stance on planning and private development. This again is not to say that the work itself is without merit, but that the premises posited by the artist are not entirely congruent with the result. And certainly not all the pieces are representative of this point. But these first two points should be weighed against the ‘desire to create a thinking/acting subject’. ‘Through the planned cities fire will rage’ recalls a critique of Modernist town planning from the mid-twentieth century rather than an accurate critique of contemporary practices. Some images featuring One Canada Square, for example, raise the question of whether the intention is not off the mark. Being explicitly critical of private development and branded commercial hegemonies is excellent, but it becomes a tricky line to follow when urban planning is brought in under the same critique. The absence of government planning often goes, as was evidenced in the late 1980s at Canary Wharf, hand in hand with the market’s desire for deregulation. The last point touches on the ‘alternative possibilities’ that are explored in the work. Because the premises of the critique draw on moments of tension and crisis the ‘collaborative elaboration of meaning’ has a hard time escaping wholesale rejection to look more at positive transformation. Could the ‘radical subversion’ of the built environment be gentle?
Change is overrated
I love this city