July 24, 2012

#ICCPR2012 – A first timer’s view

Graffitied doorway, Barcelona

It was fabulous to be in Barcelona for the 7th International Conference on Cultural Policy Research (ICCPR) at the beginning of July. Of course I love conferences, and of course I love Cultural Policy, and I would just have to get on with the fact it was in Barcelona. We suffer for our research. This time in Barcelona it struck me profoundly just how much the city uses culture as part of its identity. Every surface is tattooed with identities political, commercial, regional and personal, from graffiti to logos, design to decoration. Every piece of street furniture is designed, every metal shutter is graffitited. This visual culture is official and unofficial, planned and unplanned, commercial and expressive, corporate and civic, strategic and ad hoc. It is identity through culture wearing its distinctiveness on its sleeve.

It is this broad, eclectic view of culture, and thus of cultural policy, for which the ICCPR – and indeed the discipline of cultural policy - provides a wide umbrella. This reflects the contested field of cultural policy. Cultural policy researchers and academics have taken into their purview not only the purposive actions of nations and states (and for that matter the supranational, and what might be called the ‘infranational’, i.e. the regional and parochial), but also the implicit, such as those policies not aimed at culture but which affect it, like town planning, and those actions which affect culture that come from what Althusser called the ‘private domain’, i.e. non-governmental agents such as the family, the church, education and so on. This wide ranging and eclectic field means that cultural policy academics come from a catholic range of disciplines. The conference reflected this, presenting research on a broad range of aspects of cultural policy and cultural politics.

The first session I attended was themed ‘digital culture’, and I was intrigued to find out about the Icelandic experience of extending democracy through social media. (Disappointingly, it turns out, there was not very much take up of Social Media by Icelanders as a way to engage in the democratic process. I have more followers - and tweet more - than Iceland. However, I would say that this was not so much a criticism of digital democracy per se but of a poor use of social media, and perhaps a cynical one at that.) The interesting thing for social policy discourse though was that this was in the same session as digitising museum and library collections, which is a very different subject. Pau Alsina (@paualsina) of the Open University of Catalonia tweeted that there was a ‘confusion between digitalization of culture and digital culture at #ICCPR2012’ and worried about a feeling of ‘techno utopia’. He had, I think correctly, picked up on an uneasiness about technology and what it means for, and more importantly where it fits into, cultural policy discourse. There is certainly plenty of space for future cultural policy researchers to tease out the strands of technology and separate subject from object, to define and to acknowledge the distinctions between and implications of phrases like ‘new technology’, ‘digitisation’, ‘social media’ etc.

As well as the emergence of the new, one of the things I really love about academic conferences is that received opinions and beliefs are challenged if not shattered. One of the shibboleths under reconsideration was that of French protectionism of films: JP Singh asked, “Why is France so welcoming of tourists but so protective of films? Why is cultural imperialism only discussed in terms of films?”, suggesting this was more of an economic than a cultural imperative. And Anna Upchurch disrupted my received understanding of the formation of the Arts Council of Great Britain with evidence from the Arts Enquiry at Dartington Hall. Of course it was also good to have some things confirmed – Upchurch talking about the difficulties of getting theatre people together to meet in the 1940s, and even more so the reluctance of the then theatre managers’ association to release their statistics (compare that with the Society of London Theatres who only release theirs in anonymised form) showed that not much has changed.

In a sold out session (we had to change rooms to accommodate everyone), Ele Belfiore went further, suggesting a paradigm change. She reminded us that we did not have to accept the current terms of the debate, and declared her mission of ‘dethroning economics’, wishing to open the ‘cultural value’ agenda to humanists as well as those doing cost benefit analysis. Belfiore’s argument, built partly on Lakoff’s theory that frameworks shape the debate, is that we have given too much ground by arguing for cultural investment in economic terms, using the economic importance arguments of Myerscough, playing to the cost benefit preoccupations of the Treasury and so on. According to Belfiore, the argument ‘This is the only language this government understands’ is a counsel of despair which has set limits on the discourse by accepting an economic frame which reduces arts to numbers. This was very well received within the room, a delegate from Greece declaring, ‘The emphasis on just economic values has led my country nowhere!’, and I imagine this view would be just as popular with many arts practitioners. To find out more and to join Belfiore in her paradigm revolution, follow @CulturalValue1 and the hashtag #culturalvalue on Twitter.

Of course I saw so much more (highlights include Clive Gray examining the structure of cultural policy itself, Ben Walmsley effortlessly presenting on organisational change, Monica Sassatelli and Franco Bianchini on festivals, Egil Bjørnsen on the social impact of culture), and, as is the nature of conferences, missed even more (apologies to Annette Naudin, Dave O’Brien and David Wright – bang goes the PhD!). I also had some really stimulating conversations around cultural policy and politics outside of the seminar room. Overall I had a very inspiring time, and am left reflecting on cultural policy as a project that is not settled, still under review and, like Sagrada Familia, Gaudi’s greatest gift to Barcelona, a work in progress that may never be completed, and that may even be its strength.

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