August 31, 2018

ICCPR 2018, International Conference on Cultural Policy Research, Tallinn University, Estonia.

For me, and don't ask me why, the most memorable event at a conference is the conference dinner. This one was at a converted aircraft hanger (now the Seaplane Harbour Museum) and was very enjoyable indeed. Colleagues Chris, Clive, and David, could attest to that. Here’s one view (as we were being serenaded by an Estonian youth choir). See below and http://iccpr2018.tlu.ee/

Conference Dinner

I organized a “roundtable” with Daniel Gad of Hildesheim University – entitled “Arts Rights Justice: policy, activist and legal approaches”, and held on the morning of Friday 24th August. The four participants in the roundtable were myself, Milena Dragićević Šešić (UNESCO Chair Belgrade), Marcin Górski (a legal specialist) and Daniel. We did not present papers, but rather perspectives that invited immediate responses from an audience, aiming to position Rights and Justice as principle subjects of cultural policy research.

Roundtable

There is a sense in which rights and justice were always implicit in European cultural policy as a public policy, but arguably they are currently not explicit in a way that effectively engages with issues in legal or activist spheres, particularly in relation to increasing urgent issues of the cultural freedom of, say, refugees in Europe, artists under censorship or religious repression both in Europe and beyond. In Bangladesh right now, photographer and activist Shahidul Alam (whom I have met a few times), is currently under arrest for simply making a political statement. This arrest is not, de facto, a form of censorship of art itself (his photography is not at issue), but indicative of a more complex relation between artistic identity and political agency. Moreover, Shahidul is a muslim, with a particular view on Islam, so that this might play a role in the motivation for his detention; contemporary religion is a neglected area of cultural research and cultural policy, and like art itself, religious discourse is highly context-dependent in terms of our understanding its intelligibility, meaning and reception.

The roundtable members were diverse and insightful into their own experience of arts, rights and justice Professor Milena spoke on Rights, diversity and cultural policies in Europe and her experience as UNESCO technical advisor in Cambodia. Daniel Gad spoke from his role as director of the new Arts Rights Justice Academy at the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Policy for the Arts in Development at the Department of Cultural Policy, University of Hildesheim; it is primarily concerned with artistic freedom and protecting artists at risk. Lawyer Marcin Górski is writing a book in international legal perspectives on artistic freedom from censorship. And I am currently interested in the legal discourse on the relation between culture and human rights. Running a masters in arts and development, and have become increasingly interested in human rights approaches, the UN’s so-called “rights-based approach” to everything. More immediately as visiting professor at Hildesheim last year, I taught a short course on Cultural Rights.

Further, I edited a special issue on cultural rights in the Journal of Law, Social Justice and Global Development, available here http://www.lgdjournal.org/[Daniel and Marcin contributed]. And Professor Milena and myself edited the research papers of the next Istanbul Cultural Policy Yearbook (2017-18) – entitled Cultural Policy and Populism – where rights issues and the subject of freedom echoes throughout the issue. I will be launching the Yearbook at the inauguration of the UNESCO Chair in Cultural Diplomacy (Prof Serhan Ada) in Istanbul on the 23rd September.

The phrase “Arts Rights Justice” was probably already familiar from The Arts Rights Justice EU Working Group (under Culture Action Europe within and the EU’s civil society dialogue platform “Access to Culture”). Its importance is that it co-joins the older debates and discourse on censorship and the repression of artists and writers with the UN-level human rights discourse of cultural rights. My policy approach started with the critical observation that cultural organisations in Europe – particularly the UK – are very good at using the rhetoric of rights and justice (particularly access and participation – enforced by law, in the UK with the Equalities Act 2010, Human Rights Act 1998 and previous iterations of both these areas of law and policy), but they are arguably not so effective at understanding or challenging the political and legal powers that issue such legislation…(the role of that rhetoric in ideology and formations of political discourse). Governments can use Rights as a form of patronage and a discursive means of promoting ideology.

By extention, Rights (as an individualisation of political behaviour and self-assertion) is instrumentally important to the global neoliberal order – which has coopted democracy and liberty (for example, an appeal to the supremacy of civil society, “access” and participation as condition of free markets, the individual’s right to choose fundamental to consumerism, and so on..). In the UK, the incorporation of policy directives for (minorities in mainstream cultural life and institutions, the elimination of discrimination, the recognition of interest groups and so on) is conducted by political fiat of national, local government and funding bodies, and not public deliberation. Consequently, arts and cultural organisations are not routinelly involved in deliberative thinking or research on rights – or indeed act as, in the UN’s terms, Human Rights Defenders in the cultural sphere. What would it mean then -- the roundtable briefly discussed -- for arts and cultural organisations to be activist or official Human Rights Defenders in culture? Why do cultural organisations (even eminent or well-endowed cultural institutions) reject potential political agency in this area?

Indeed, the growing discourse of human rights is huge and complex. On the one hand, cultural rights has an increasing profile (with a second UNHRC Special Rapporteur), but on the other hand (and despite its official recognition in the 1966 ICESCR, UNESCO’s own human rights complaints facility and its appeal to the 1948 UDHR for all its seven conventions), cultural rights remain a matter of few deliberations or cases. This is true of UNHRC or anyone else (except perhaps the Council of Europe). This presents some academic opportunities for research, which roundtable members will be exploring in the forthcoming months.

During the conference, we had a range of organised trips: this picture is the creative city development at Telliskivi, north east of the old town (and not easily captured in a single photo).
creative city


July 13, 2018

More statues of comedians

Les Dawson statue, St Annes-on-Sea, Lancashire. Sculptor: Graham Ibbeson.Last year I blogged about my developing research project on Monumentalising Popular Culture. I thought I’d write just to update on progress and developing themes.The project is examining the contemporary phenomenon of statues of comedians, on the assumption that the dedication of such memorials to popular entertainers connects with a number of inter-related issues within Cultural Studies, the sociology of culture and cultural policy making. These include, but aren’t limited to, ‘cultural value’ debates about the ways in which popular culture becomes official or legitimate, the relation between culture, identity and heritage and the role of culture in local and regional development and planning.

One thing I have discovered is that, gratifyingly, there are more such statues than I had originally thought - and thanks to the generosity of the Humanities Research Fund at Warwick I've been able to visit many of them this year. My latest running total is of twenty statues or monuments to 17 comedians (including three statues of Stan Laurel, one of which with his partner Oliver Hardy, two of George Formby and two of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise, one of them together). In keeping with the general pattern identified by campaign groups such as Mary on the Green and inVisible Women, these are predominantly statues of men. Gracie Fields in Rochdale is currently the only statue of a woman in this category, with a statue of Victoria Wood due to be unveiled in Bury later this summer. A number of interesting themes are emerging from this work. I’ll just outline two here.

First, fifteen of these statues have been unveiled since the turn of the century. If we add to these similar statues to pop/rock artists, such as to David Bowie, or Amy Winehouse, or AC/DC’s Bon Scott, unveiled in this period, as well as a slightly more established recent history of statues to athletes, we can perhaps identify a growing trend for the commemoration and celebration of figures from twentieth century popular culture. This implies that people from these realms have now joined the category of the ‘memorialisable’, which might previously have been the preserve of political, military, civic or industry leaders or figures from what is traditionally understood as ‘high culture’. Among the many reasons that I think this is interesting is that, while in the past it might have been that choices of who to commemorate were imposed on local populations, contemporary selections seem more likely to have to be justified and negotiated over by residents, enthusiasts, councils and planning authorities. What’s more, in cases such as Frank Sidebottom (alter-ego of Chris Sievey), Ronnie Barker or the soon to be unveiled Victoria Wood, the statues were produced within five years of the deaths of their subjects, implying something of an appetite and enthusiasm for the chance to claim and celebrate such figures and their connections to a town or region through this kind of memorial.

Second, but relatedly, there is something of an uneven spread of the statues geographically, with the majority being located in the north of England, and nine being in the North West (I’ve made a google map of the ones I’ve found you can see here). Analysts such as Andy Medhurst and Mike Featherstone have speculated about the place of comedy in British regional identity, inflected by the more general ‘North-South divide’ and its relation to patterns of economic inequality within the UK. The North has also long been identified as a source of the UK’s most abiding and significant popular culture, even if ‘success’ in such fields has often involved its protoganoists moving away to London or beyond. In examples like George Formby in Wigan (and on the Isle of Man) and Gracie Fields we see the commemoration of figures who, even at the height of their national and international fame (they were the biggest male and female box-office stars of British cinema in the 1930s) were ineluctably associated with their Lancastrian roots. As interesting to me, though, is that the first of this ‘new generation’ of statues– the Eric Morecambe statue in Morecambe on the Lancashire coast- is also in this region. It was a key part of a local strategic investment to revive a tourist destination that had suffered years of relative decline. That so many nearby towns and councils followed this route suggests a degree of entrepreneurialism on the part of local authorities based on the belief that such monuments can both appeal to local pride and attract and enhance the experience of potential visitors. It also suggests the development of an increasingly well-navigated route through local government and planning structures to make such memorials possible.

I’ll be working on plans to develop research into these themes and others – over the summer with a view to speaking to both people who are directly involved in the decision making processes and the making of the statues themselves, and those who live with them. I’ll also be talking about the project at the ICCPR conference in Tallin in August. I’m keen to hear of any more examples, so please do contact me via twitter or in the comments below.


June 02, 2018

AHRC Protest Memory Network Kicks Off

Writing about web page https://protestmemory.wordpress.com/

PM1The first workshop of the AHRC funded and Warwick-led Network, The Afterlives of Protest kicked off at the Humanities Lab at the University of Sussex this week (30/31stMay 2018). For the live tweeting of the event go to #protestmem and for a fuller version go to the blog posting on the wordpress site on above link. The first day started with badge making, and our wonderful student-designed logo (by CMPS' very own Nazeer Jaunoo from the MA Global Media and Communication) which looked amazing and was creatively adulterated in many ways by the participants. Badge-making was so successful we might consider protest sticker-making, poster-making and banner-making at forthcoming events, so the network itself creates its own protest research memorabilia.

Highlight papers from Hannah Awcock on Geographies of Protest Stickers (she spent time in Brighton with her camera out capturing more material stuck to street furniture!) were juxtaposed with performance-based food presentations from Alison Ribeiro de Menezes and Carmen Wong, who baked Empanadas, inside of which were handkerchiefs with protest slogans stitched on. Presentations from Anna Feigenbaum, Sam Merrill, the Text Analysis Group (Sussex) and Louise Purbrick made for an exciting and eclectic first day, with lots of time for discussion.

The second day (the day after the evening's Radical History Walk of Brighton ending at the Cowley Club, a collectively-run libertarian social centre) we were treated to Anna Reading's presentation of Protesting Methods, and her Moving Hearts Project. We had Lizzie Thynne on remembering the miners' strike, preserving public space through film with Winstan Whitter, a mapping of Spare Rib magazine from Margaretta Jolly, and reflections on anti-poverty campaigning from Rachel Tavernor. The day was topped off with an excellent visit and presentation at the Mass Observation Archive, a wonderful resource for students and researchers interested in the everyday lives, thoughts, ideas and beliefs of those residing in the UK since the 1930s.


May 09, 2018

Exhibition at the City Arcadia Gallery

Writing about web page https://warwick.ac.uk/research/priorities/internationaldevelopment/

‘Poverty, Inequality and International Development: an exhibition of Photography from the 2018 GRP International Development Annual Photography Competition. City Arcadia Gallery, Coventry 1-4 May 2018. Curated by Dr Jonathan Vickery.

The GRP International Development Annual Photography Competition this year attracted many high quality submissions, with photographs from around the world. The breadth of places and subjects represented testify to the global reach of Warwick students as well as its diverse international student community. Countries represented include Nepal, Myanmar, Cuba and Vietnam. Each year a selection of submissions are exhibited in Millburn House on the Warwick campus. This year the GRP-International Development have funded a public exhibition in Coventry city centre – at the City Arcadia Gallery.

City Arcadia Gallery

The City Arcadia Gallery is run by a city artists association, Artspace Partnership, and is an old converted shop in the 1960s shopping centre, the City Arcade. The location (near the pioneering Shop Front Theatre, and Coventry University’s Fab Lab) means that the Gallery is visited by many passers-by (from shoppers to students to homeless people) that otherwise wouldn’t visit. This year’s GRP International Development research theme is ‘Poverty, Inequality and International Development’, and the context was apposite to this neglected part of the city. Last year’s theme – Gender and Development – attracted some excellent submissions, but this year two new genres of photo appeared – urban landscapes and social realism.

When people think of International Development, they often think of poor people in dysfunctional places, or more accurately, think in terms of global media representations of poor people in dysfunctional places. We all think about, and understand, the world out there with the aid of images and the cultural archive of images to which we maintain access through media and also retain in memory. And yet, so-called ‘developing countries’ are often culturally productive and creatively colourful places, and poverty is not simply a “lack” of economic resource, or a visually apparent set of social conditions.

Exhibition Curator

This year’s Annual Photography Competition opened with a challenge – How can images of development (of people, of places and spaces, of activities or organisations) teach us about the nature of global poverty, and how it is being resolved or can be solved in the present or future? How is poverty entangled with colonialism and its legacies? How do gender and other vectors of inequality cut across our approaches to poverty? What are the limits of global governance to poverty – and how can we use visual media to stimulate the need for alternative paths to sustainable development?

The questions raised by this exhibition can be phrased as follows: How do we define and represent poverty – without voyerurism or visual exploitation? And how is poverty concealed or invisible when presented photographically? How are images and narratives of poverty represented both by and to media audiences, and how can these be countered by more “engaged” forms of visual research?

Exhibit


November 12, 2017

New Academic Year and Re–Freshed Start for CMPS

group 1

On the 18th October 2017 CMPS had a get together to mark the occasion of a new centre director, Joanne Garde-Hansen, a re-freshed identity through the incorporation into our centre name of the significant amount of media and media policy research and teaching we do, and the first of our Seminar Speakers for 2017-18.

ss

Prof Seamus Simpson from the University of Salford engaged us all with his presentation on international civil society activism in Europe and the articulation of public interest goals in recent policy debates around possible changes to historic spectrum allocations. Simpson debated the role of European civil society actors on the potential reallocation of spectrum away from broadcasters and towards the mobile communications sector, as well as the implications of this on public service broadcasting.

group 2

PhD students discussed their latest research and colleagues from inside and outside the Centre re-connected over lunch and chatted about the year ahead.

It was also really an honour to have the past Centre Directors all in the same room together and we took the opportunity to open a bottle of champagne to celebrate all the good work of the past and usher in some new opportunities for the future.

CDs

Not least of all, of course, our new intake of postgraduate students for 2017-2018 will bring with them fresh opportunities for Centre colleagues to demonstrate the excellent teaching and research they undertake, and the students will share their experiences of media, creativity, communication and culture from their own contexts.


October 17, 2017

Urban Cultural Intermediaries: pedagogy, creativity and the City

Last year ended where this year began – planning some experimental pedagogy using the city as creative platform. Last summer's module was funded by IATL (Warwick's Institute of Advanced Teaching and Learning), and has resulted in a new module format – which will heavily influence this autumn’s Creative Project (a dimension of the core module), and will continue to evolve next summer. Summer (May and June) is a great time to teach – it’s festival season, there are visitors and tourists around, and people are out and using public space.


Students in the city

My original project proposal stated that "this project will activate students' creative potential across disciplinary boundaries and through interdisciplinary interaction -- in the context of the City of Coventry and current opportunities offered by its embryonic creative economy". This sounds good, but before constructing a framework for "interaction" or anything in the city, there were legal and well as ethical issues to think-through: after all, there are limits in what students are “allowed” to do off-campus -- particularly on a Tier 4 visa. The relation between "students in the city" is an historically tense one -- if one that has historically become subsumed in the question of economy. People may not have a particularly positive regard for students en mass, but the student population has become so embedded in the local economy, not to have them means less prosperity all round. The traditional "town and gown" tension is pretty much gone (as a social phenomenon, grounded in class) and has largely been supplanted by a less socially-grounded moral disdain (students are noisier, less socially conscientious, less cognisant of the value of the money, and so on). At the same time, universities have become such a huge presence in the city (in most cities) that few would question their importance. Yet, there remains a policy gap – the City Council are clear on the role of university institutions in the city, but not so clear on the role of 50,000 students when they are not inside the university (or a bar, or a rented apartment).

The initial rationale for the new module project was the conundrum of "creativity” -- the increaingly normative demands in teaching that somehow creativity will be in evidence or that creativity is a wholly positive and constructive phenomenon. Yet in my experience -- and I am sure I am not alone --- creativity can make demands that students cannot fulfill. Some students find themselves with a facility for creativity, others do not; and what kind of creativity do we expect? Amateur creativity? Professional-level creative products? Some students find creative production helpful in their learning, but others find it mystifying. Recent scholarship on the creative industries, however, now recognises that creativity is more often than not a collective endeavour, and even where individual talent and skill is involved, this is usually an individual working within a set of conditions that include the contribution of others. We all too often identify creative skills with an individual’s powers of creation – not collaborative methods, or different ways of engaging with a social space or place. Creativity as a concept is still derived from the proverbial romantic artist and inspired work of art.

Exploring models of creativity that are collaborative (and in this case, hopefully transformative of a place) means that the students needed to think about the material conditions of creativity as a form of labour -- what can we actually do, and how, and to what effect? Creativity as an urban intervention has to be more of a process, collaborative and managed in stages, and where many of the students must assume roles not normally associated with creativity.

Our summer module we call the "practice" module, as it allows the students to experiment by putting their theoretical understanding into practice. In the context of the Arts, Enterprise and Development masters -- we explore project design, management and the collective and collaborative dimension of creativity. Working in the city demands social engagement, networking, locating and using resources and understanding the policy and political contexts in which everyone is working -- in this case, the resurgence of interest in culture generated by the official bid for the UK Cit of Culture 2021 award.

The IATL funding was a ‘strategic project’ award – which gave us a range of extra resources and contributors, events and activity spaces, all normally outside the scope and budget of a regular module. An attempt to re-think the summer practice module was thus subject to a range of opportunities on a city cultural intervention, and participation in the city's Positive Images Festival -- said to be the largest festival of multiculturalism in Europe.

At the start of the project, I was considering of the role of “intermediary”, and how, in the creative industries, the intermediaries are crucial parts of a chain of events, multiple conditions and a collaborative process -- yet may not themselves be involved in the creation or the shaping of a final product. They may, rather, use skills in communications, management, enterprise, marketing and client or public engagement, all essential to the function of a project or enterprise. In other words, the intermediary is part of a value chain, and more often than not, part of a line or collective that is defined by the frameworks of creative production, such as a branded project. The intermediary may also be a catalyst, entrepreneur, provocateur or instigator; sometimes they are just agent or representative; but they are always one essential role in a much longer creative process, and they usually engage with constituencies or social groups that inhabit that industrial or cultural space.

Creative teamwork is difficult enough, let alone undertaken in a city of unpredictability; a foreign city; a socially unsettled city; a city that doesn't actually know who or what it is -- at least, these were the students’ initial observations. Moreover, one of the aims of our module was "inclusivity" -- constructing an urban space through pedagogy, where others (non-enrolled, or non-students) could participate in learning processes (perhaps the undergraduate, city youth, creative workers, refugees).

In the first few weeks city artists and activists taught the students how to navigate the city, and how to peel back the laters of history and meaning of which so many remain unaware. While it became apparent very quickly that "student" as a social category is tied to consumption -- outside their learned institutions, student have only one role in the city and that is transient consumers. They buy courses, food and drinks, entertainments, short term accommodation contracts, and if they are fortunate, clothes and luxury goods (though the latter probably in Leamington Spa and not Coventry). Yet, it began to emerge just how many students there are in the city, and with the organised labour of culture just how much students could potentially play a role in the city's cultural economy -- not just the economy of retail and consumption. Moreover, important research questions about the city began to emerge: Why is the city so indifferent to the potential of students – particularly after graduation? Why are students so indifferent to Coventry, and are unlikely to choose it as the place to begin their career? Why do students have a postive regard for Leicester and Nottingham, stay, and expand those city’s cultural economies? And are these questions based merely on anecdotal evidence – does anyone really know? What kind of data or evidence do we need, and what would we do with it? In fact, what is Coventry's creative economy -- and does it have one?

Our project conctructed a framework where the need of students for recognition, empowerment and employment was brought together with the needs of the city in expanding its urban creative economy. This was discussed at our three public events: 'The Right to the City' (at Artspace, Eaton House, on 14th June); 'Students, the City, the Creative and Cultural Industries' (at Fargo Village, June 28th) and 'Coventry Culture Forum' at the Belgrade Theatre (Patrick Suite, July 21st).

Altogether the project featured the contribution of nine creative practitioners and three academics; it had three stakeholder meetings, nine student seminars, an exhibition, and a public performance in the oldest pub in the city, the Golden Cross. Four blog postings on the progress of the project were requested by the Warwick public engagement office. Their blog (relating to the University's contribution to the Coventry City of Culture Bid 2021), can be found here: https://www2.warwick.ac.uk/about/cityofculture/research/support/jonathan_vickery/

City Arcadia Gallery


October 02, 2017

CMPS: Our Values

CMPS: Our Values

Philip Blond, Director of ResPublica think tank and an English Political Philosopher has had a lot to say recently about ‘values’. The author of Red Tory (2010) is often in the media explaining the culture wars in the USA (Trump voters versus ‘the rigged system’) and the follow on culture wars in the UK (Brexit voters versus ‘the status quo’), and he has argued that cultural and social values of place, family and identity need to be returned to by politicians. In a recent Radio 4 interview he said:

If you do the values based research that I do now …. you see the beginnings of the culture wars taking place in the UK right now [. . .] producing people with radically different world views’ (BBC Radio 4 2/10/17)

Our own university has also made a clear statement about values, stressing cosmopolitanism and diverse community. We find ourselves then, as a research community, in a space between competing notions of values. Some of us have strong views on place, family, religion and identity in which values of heritage, identity and rootedness are fundamental. Others are exploring disruptions to those values and champion technology, commerce, mobility, plurality and transformation in their thinking and research.

Our Centre lives and breathes these tensions every day. We have courses and students and research projects that grapple with these different and sometimes conflicting epistemologies.

phd photo

We recently worked through some of this at our 2017/2018 Postgraduate Research Day in which staff and PhD students came together for the beginning of a new academic year, to share new research, issues, anxieties, challenges and opportunities. This year we had three PhD students deliver papers, Jufang Wang on Online Content Platforms in China, Deema Sonbol on Female Entrepreneurs in Saudi Arabia and Hanzhi Ruan on Chinese National Identity. Colleagues at the Centre could offer valuable feedback and there was a general air of fun, generosity and humour as well as intellectual rigour in the discussions and debates that followed the papers. We all learned from one another, we shared our value systems and we negotiated between competing ideas.

We had a broader discussion about how PhD students can contribute to the research environment of the Centre for Cultural & Media Policy Studies through inviting speakers, organising conferences, reading groups and generally socialising and sharing ideas. This is not always possible if we feel disconnected from one another but we have now created a space at the heart of CMPS in Millburn House for our PhD students where they can feel at home, recognising that a sense of place is just as important as a sense of purpose or project. This led to some discussions about senses of place and identity and we undertook a self-evaluation of our networks, connections, people and projects that keep us busy and active as academic staff and as students. Such networks offer many directions for the future but they also create a sphere within which we operate, and it is the connectedness of those spheres that is key to development.

We also discussed research leadership, what it means to be a leader, how do we like to be led, and how PhD students can consider themselves research leaders: navigating, guiding, making decisions, organising, building consensus and taking control of their research, as well as encouraging those around them.

As part of an on-going renewal of the Centre’s strategy, I invited our PhD students to contribute to our strategy by discussing and agreeing upon the VALUES of the Centre for Cultural & Media Policy Studies. Some had been Masters students with us and so could draw upon a longer period of experience, one had coached Masters students after she completed her own course. Both the academic team and the PhD students agreed on three value statements that we all felt best described the teaching and research in the Centre, as well as all the other activities undertaken:


1) FRIENDSHIP & TOLERANCE – the opportunity to simply ‘hang out’ as well as the feeling of integration and the people-oriented nature of the Centre were highlighted

2) DIALOGUE & SELF-EXPRESSION – the opportunity for Eastern and Western ideas to engage with one another, for Global South and Global North to be in discussion, and the possibility that however idiosyncratic there is space for self-expression

3) INTEGRITY & RESPONSIBILITY – the opportunity to give feedback honestly to one another and for it be acted upon diligently


These represent not only good principles for all scholarly work, and a solid basis for a productive research year ahead for students and supervisors, but they also represent a need to have a wider acknowledgement of the need to bring different value-systems together and agree upon some shared values.


August 23, 2017

Monumentalising Popular Culture: Starting a conversation with Spike

Conversation with Spike, John Somerville, Stephens Gardens, FinchleyLast month I was lucky enough to receive a small grant from the Humanities Research Fund here at Warwick to develop a larger funding application for a project entitled ‘Monumentalising Popular Culture’. I made a start this week, by visiting Stephens Gardens in Finchley North London – to look at the statue of the late writer and comedian Spike Milligan. The statue, made by the artist John Somerville, was unveiled in 2014 by the Finchley Society of which Spike was the president.

The idea for the project emerged from a chapter from my book on Understanding Cultural Taste in which I discussed the role of cultural policy in making cultural hierarchies. We often think of distinctions between high and low, legitimate or popular culture as abstract things, perhaps especially in the contemporary period where hierarchies are almost always either viewed with suspicion or at least conceived as being in flux. Such a view belies the extent to which there are identifiable processes through which things are legitimatized by people in various positions of authority, making decisions. Examples might include the selection of items to study on educational curricula, or the selection and curation of items deemed suitable for public exhibition and display in museums. In the book, though, I became particularly intrigued by the idea of monuments to cultural figures as providing a material evidence for the kinds of culture that are valued. In this I was following the insights of Priscilla Parkhurst Clarke about the centrality of monuments to writers and their strategic positioning in symbolically significant places in the ‘making’ of France as a literary nation. Taking this idea as a starting point, my initial focus will be on statues of comedians. This is something of an arbitrary choice – but hopefully one that is also revealing.

It is certainly an interesting summer to start a project on statues. Events in Charlottesville, and other, earlier or less heralded controversies from the UK and beyond have served to put concerns about why some figures from the past are selected to be given these kinds of monument into sharp relief. They have also reminded me that, in an apparently ephemeral and fast-moving age, that material culture still matters. The media theorist Harold Innis recognized this in his distinction between space-binding and time-binding media forms. Space-binding forms might be fluid and easily transferable across huge distances – Innis imagines this in relation to broadcasting but we might also see digitally enabled networks as exemplifying such forms in the present day. Time-binding forms might have less of a geographical reach but they have a power to communicate across time in a more immediate, forceful way. These forms last across generations. Statues exemplify this in communicating both a kind of solid permanence but also in communicating a consecrated version of a past which can – as in the case of Robert E. Lee – become unstable and unsuitable for the present.

Such issues might be less pressing in the case of statues of comedians as they are in the case of civil war generals or the figures of our colonial history, but there are some similar questions about how what was valued in the recent past is selected to be given an apparently permanent place in the present. What does it mean for Spike Milligan (and the other, so far fourteen statues of comedians that I have identified in the UK) to be remembered in this way? And given that the significant majority of these statues have been unveiled since the turn of the century why commemorate these figures now? Answers to both questions seem to implicate these statues in a process of making certain types of popular culture ‘official’ in some way – bestowing on them a kind of legitimacy. At the same time it also seems to be a feature of such statues that they emerge from local campaigns amongst fans or enthusiasts –so they might also be decidedly ‘unofficial’ or at least an attempt to re-define what is worthy of this kind of treatment. I’m interested, in the project, to find out a bit more about how these kinds of decisions are made, to explore what is at stake in this kind of process, to examine how these kinds of statues are approved and sited, as well as how they are lived with, interpreted and valued by the people around them. I’ll keep the blog updated as I go along – and I’d be glad to hear of other statues of comedians or other figures from popular culture, in the UK or beyond either in the comments below, or e-mail in the meantime.


May 04, 2017

Water Culture Matters (especially in Brazil) Part 2

Cultures of Water

My visit to Brazil last month was, then, full of meetings and presentations at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of São Paulo (USP), and at São Paulo State University. Where I discussed the RCUK DRY Project currently underway and explored the ‘anecdotes, stories and narratives’ of drought that have had such an impact on British collective memory and mediated representations of hot weather, current dry spells and discussions of drought among differently invested stakeholders and publics. A significant part of the DRY Project is not only public engagement but co-production of knowledge about drought through memories, storytelling and imagining future scenarios. In Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, Gregory and Miller state that ‘lay people mobilise a broad array of tools to solve problems through science, culture, emotion, ethics, morality, trust relationships, and customs. These may be small tools…but they cut through the tangle of contemporary existence and produce solutions that sit more easily with people’s lives and consciences’ [1998, p. 65].

As the UK press publishesmore stories of water shortage, after a dry winter 2016-2017 and low rainfall in April
2017, citizen scientists through blogsand discussion postings are creating their own platforms for debate, mobilising social media tools at local and meaningful levels. While the press addresses the issue quickly through shorthand templates of hosepipe bans, balmy weather, blazing headlines and reference to 1976, we do need to address the complexity of understanding drought in terms of an absence of culture as much as an absence of water, or at least make the case that if water is absent then it is not only due to something much larger and global that we may feel we cannot do anything about such as climate change. If water and culture and memory are so intimately connected, then drought is some kind of forgetting, drought is forgotten where the mediatization of flood provides spectacular copy.

I have had many discussions in Brazil over the last ten days about how drought is framed in news. My colleagues, there, are of course surprised by the lack of 'politics' to the UK framing of drought in terms of discussion of WHO is exactly using the water, and that hot weather is often welcomed in a way thatmisses the point about how water is or should be managed even in a country that is associated with wetness and flood. Brazilians have an interesting phrase I often heard at various meetings. 'It is not that we don't have water, we do have water, lots of it, it is just missing.' There is also a famous Brazilian geographer who said ‘seca’ (drought) is not the problem but ‘cercas’ (fences), the point being to emphasise ownership of land and the management of resources as far more important to the debate than endless surprise that it's a dry spell. Any shame and blame often directed at domestic users in media stories must be thoroughly and critically understood through the ‘moralities of drought’ framework, especially if the majority of water is being used elsewhere. So we need to return to water, we need to turn the benches alongside the river around so they face the water, and remember its cultural value; and in the meantime we have in November 2017 in Brazil, a social action for connecting to global water movements through the work of Waterlutionwho are planning a water festival for young people.

drought book 2


It is also worth reading two British books on drought often forgotten (the first more so than the second): The Great Drought(1976) by Evelyn Cox tells the 'true' story of 1976 from the persepective of a young mother and farmer: ‘The drought divided us into two nations – those whose lives were deeply, at times dangerously disrupted, and those to whom the drought was at most an over-publicized inconvenience. The drought provided, for those caught up in it, a common, shared experience unlike any other in Britain since the Blitz. I hope it will be useful to have an immediate record of what the drought was like, before we begin to forget it or before – which is more probably – we begin to embroider our memories into myths’ (p. 9). There is also The Drought(1965) by JG Ballard. ‘The drought at the heart of The Drought is cultural. Culture is withering. In the guise of rainfall, old social and political meanings run down to the sea and are decreasingly renewed. Where the land seemed fertile, its inhabitant can now admit that it is exhausted.’ John Harrison’s introduction to The Drought (2009). Both, in different ways, conjoin water with culture and memory, as the key female character of Ballard's novel notes: ‘Catherine gazed out at the exposed lake-bed. “It’s almost dry. Don’t you feel, doctor, that everything is being drained away, all the memories and stale sentiments?’”


Water Culture Matters (especially in Brazil) Part 1

I mentioned in my last blog posting (about the Centre name change) that the quotation from Bell and Oakley’s Cultural Policy (2015, 157-158), has been important to my own thinking about the direction of cultural and media policy research. So that those economic resources (energy, water, food, transport, housing, environment etc) should be seen in cultural and social terms. To cultural geographers, this is a no-brainer who have been working to understand what trees, rivers and landscapes mean to people, or how buildings, architecture and hard engineering become symbolic markers of social life to be mediated and experienced.NoW

For myself, I kind of fell into water research! Or, perhaps was led to water research, and took a drink, while there was an inundation of water, but not much research from an arts and humanities perspective. At the time (after the 2007 Summer Floods in the UK), it was not clear to our research team of geographers, media theorists, historians and hydrologists what was the connection between media, culture, water, rivers, flooding and drought. To the participants in our research, those who lived with, loved and feared the river, the connections were clear. Managing water and water governance, is also to manage cultural activities, cultural memories and media representations. Therefore, to find the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies very open to stretching and defining what counts as ‘cultural policy’ opened up new ways of thinking about what has recently been termed ‘hydro-citizenship’ by the AHRC funded project running from Bath-Spa University, led by co-author Prof Owain Jones. (His work on ‘tree-cultures’ for example influenced the research I did in the Forest of Dean on Dennis Potter’s TV fans, extras and audiences in the forest).

But, I digress. The last two years have found me exploring not simply why water culture matters in the UK (where institutionalisation of both cultural and water industries may obscure access to a clear understanding of the importance of rivers, flooding and drought to the nation, to regions, to those living with too much or without water) but to the trans-national and trans-cultural connectivity of water stories.

Why Brazil?

Water culture really matters to the Brazilian colleagues and social actors I have met in São Paulo State and in the State ofposter brazil Minas Gerais. As part of the Narratives of Water project, I have been working with Dr Danilo Rothberg of Unesp, to find connections and disconnections between how water is managed as an economic and cultural resource and how the management of water is represented and communicated through media and cultural activities. Developing hydro-citizenship in the Brazilian context is very much participatory in those ‘water councils’ that conjoin the social, cultural and economic. The Manuelzao Project (Worldwide Movement for Rivers) on the das Velhas River (Belo Horizonte) is a good example of this. Abers and Keck (2013, 187) in Practical Authority: Agency and Institutional Change in Brazilian Water Politics, note the connection between social movements, activism, political popularity and media mobilisation at a local water basin scale for river revitalisation. To move from armchair to policy and action meant ‘creating organizations with the capacity to implement projects, to mobilize complex, diverse networks of actors, and to communicate with a broader public’ and all this requires gaining access to media, occupying spaces where decisions are made, and insisting that water is not only understood through a hydrological, hydraulic and economic perspective.

In fact, I am reminded by my Brazilian colleague Prof Gilson Schwartz from USP that Jean-Jacques Rousseau made this point quite some time ago, concerning how water creates community because it requires co-operation, communication, social interaction and dialogue if its use, quality and availability are to be sustained as an emotional as much as an economic benefit:

‘There the first ties between families formed; there were the first rendezvous of the sexes. Young women came to fetch water for the household, young men came to water their herds. Their eyes accustomed to the same objects since childhood began to have softer ones. The heart was moved by these new objects, an unknown attraction made it less savage, it felt the pleasure of not being alone. Water became imperceptibly more necessary, the livestock were thirsty more often; one arrived hurriedly and left regretfully. There were held the first fêtes, feet leapt with joy, the impressed gesture no longer sufficed, the voice accompanied it with impassioned accents, pleasure and desire mixed together made themselves felt at the same time. There was finally the true cradle of civilizations, and from the pure crystal of the fountains rose the first fires of love’ (Essai sur l'origine des langues où il est parlé de la mélodie et de l'imitation musicale, translated and cited in ‘Diverting Water in Rousseau: Technology, the Sublime, and the Quotidian’ by Julia Simon, 2012, p. 87)



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