Why culture competitions and 'artwashing' drive urban inequality

From Los Angeles to Liverpool to the new London competition, 'creative cities' policies are designed to soften gentrification's hard edges, never asking 'culture for who?'

Oli Mould
14 September 2017
balfron couple.jpg

Image: Sascha Pohflepp/Flickr, Creative Commons.

This summer, London's mayor Sadiq Khan launched the 'London Borough of Culture Competition'. Celebrating London as the 'cultural capital of the world' the 32 boroughs in London now have the chance to compete for £1m of arts funding by showcasing their creativity, originality and character.

Last week the Guardian proclaimed that competitions like Khan’s creates “socially relevant, resilient, sustainable and equitable future-proofed culture”.

The narrative of the ‘creative city’ – first coined by Charles Landry and Franco Bianchini for Demos in 1995 – simply won’t go away. It’s been a kernel of urban development discourse, one that uses ‘creativity’ and ‘culture’ as tools of economic growth.

But this complete genuflection to creativity and culture as an uncomplicated and neutral form of urban development (read gentrification) obscures one vital question. The question that is never asked by these hyped-up competitions and accompanying obeisant literature, is “culture for who”?

Critiques (my own included) have argued for decades that the policy has given new clothes to gentrification, inequality, social cleansing and the destruction of people’s livelihoods. Perhaps equally as damaging, it has mobilised the complex notion of culture for purely economic means.

Khan’s competition has been modelled on the success of the UK City of Culture competition (currently held by Hull), itself inspired by Liverpool’s 2008 award of the European Capital of Culture title. Both competitions have been designed to foreground how culture can be ‘showcased’ as a means of celebrating a city’s diversity, culture, creativity and civic pride.

However scholars have argued consistently that the EU and the UK’s competitions are vehicles of urban development and infrastructure programs. Building on its 2008 European Capital of Culture award, Liverpool created a ‘model’ of urban development based around cultural development, which aimed to be replicable in other cities. The huge boost in tourism and to the local economy convinced the then New Labour administration to replicate the competition in the form of the UK City of Culture competition.

Lately and perhaps more nefariously, the ‘creative city’ policy narrative has been given a shot in the arm by the process of ‘artwashing’. As the researcher and activist Stephen Pritchard has argued, it is a process that uses artistic practices unwittingly (or not) in the service of private capital. It is the deliberate use of art as a tool to make a place more ‘amenable’ for private capital and the aesthetics that it currently desires.

A now classic example is the Balfron Tower in East London. Over the course of nearly a decade, it has been lusted over by developers for its now kitsch brutalist style, proximity to Canary Wharf and its panoramic views over the city. These developers, the housing association and the council have all conspired to use artists and artistic institutions to dress the place up as somewhere desirable for the elite. Community projects, all-night ‘immersive’ Shakespeare performances and street art are just a few of the practices that have been funded, with the goal of making it a cool, funky and bohemian place; the kind of place that cannot help but be gentrified.

For Pritchard, artwashing “turn[s] the benign into the terrible; interpersonal relationships and dynamics into global statistics and generic standards; people reduced to little contributions to the financial bottom line”. Artwashing therefore is the deliberate use of arts and culture to secure future profitable gain rather than social inclusion or commentary. It is the mobilisation of artistic creativity completely devoid of its subjective, complicated and politically-charged context.

Boyle Heights in Los Angeles is another area undergoing artwashing, but in this case the local community is fighting back, hard. A predominantly Latino community, they have seen many of the recent gallery openings as an attack on their way of life. Very quickly they have organised protests, which have been very noisy, militant and sometimes downright filthy in their activism (even throwing faeces as a gallery window). The resistance groups’ demands are relatively simple. Demanding needle exchanges, Laundromats and affordable housing instead of art galleries doesn’t seem unreasonable, but of course, that doesn’t fit with the current creative city development agenda.

Artwashing then is when private capital, and those State institutions that smooth its application, act collaboratively to soften the image of demolition or ‘decanting’ poorer tenants and residents by mobilising an artistic front that prepares the ground for future ‘redevelopment’. And it is happening because of the persistent popularity of the creative city model. Despite continuing scholarship exposing its gentrifying qualities, this model continues to be wheeled out as a policy of urban renewal, as this week’s Guardian article demonstrates.  

Local cultures, and how they contribute to the construction of a ‘global’ city, are made, unmade and remade constantly by communities. Artwashing, cultural competitions and the many other policies of creative city development foreground a particular kind of culture; one that is more about consuming the latest fads (be that pop-up retail, cereal cafés, or urban theme park rides) than actual urban citizenship.

At Boyle Heights, the resistance of many of the local groups to artwashing has been predicated upon their cultural predispositions toward activism, protest and fierce protection of their own way of life. It is seen as militant and rather indiscriminate at times, but it is part of their culture. In Balfron (and indeed many other council estates across the UK), the working class culture is being admonished; all because they have the temerity to occupy a building that has stunning views. The culture of these marginalised groups often goes unrewarded by the ‘creative city’ narratives, yet they are far more ‘cultural’ in that they represent the day-to-day life of the city’s citizens.

Khan’s competition, on the surface, is a welcome source of funds to allow councils to invest in local cultural events that will benefit communities and celebrate this day-to-day citizenry. However this must be seen in the broader landscape of London’s desperate public sector funding situation. For example, the chronic housing crisis (that the recent film ‘Dispossession’ so acutely details) is evidence of how London’s councils are allowing private real estate developers to completely destroy local amenities and social housing stocks, all for the promise of more housing for residents (which of course, never materialises). The desire for affordable homes for all Londoners should really be taking preference over which council can put on the best cultural festival. Culture is a slippery concept in this regard. It is broad enough for it to be universally positive in its application (who could really not want cultural provisions?), but such breadth allows too much room for corporate agendas to use it simply to mobilise private capital.

Artwashing techniques, Cultural Borough competitions or continent wide urban renewal programs; they all use the tired platitudes of 'culture', 'creativity', 'originality' and 'innovation' that should by now act as red flags of a deeper process of making culture fit an economic and market narrative. A narrative in which culture is emptied of its nuances, contradictions and indeed its humanity, all for the purposes of lining the pockets of developers and the politicians who placate them.

Culture does indeed have the ability to transform lives, build friendships, tell new stories and write new histories. But to wrap this up in a narrative that is designed to find new ways of implementing financial investment that has a proven track record of harming local communities is pernicious at best. All it does is create a competitive milieu that forces local communities (who are already on their knees due to gentrification and political disavowal) to fight it out for table scraps. At a time of political turmoil, social unrest, a chronic housing crisis and public sector decimation, culture should be utilised as a way to forge new alliances, social movements and collectives to push against these ills. Culture is not something to be used to maintain the status quo, it is an instrument for change.

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