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August 28, 2014

'Cultural Intermediaries' in context

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Very pleased this week to receive a copy of a new edited collection to which I have contributed. The Cultural Intermediaries Reader, edited by Jennifer Smith Maguire and Julian Matthews provides a comprehensive and critical overview of an influential concept in theoretical and empirical research on the creative industries. Identified by Pierre Bourdieu as strategically significant figures in in the field of culture in the France of the 1960s, ‘cultural intermediaries’ were members of those then ‘new’ occupations – advertising, marketing, public relations etc. which were concerned with the supply of ‘symbolic goods and services’ and engaged in the processes of identifying, shaping and circulating tastes for new products and lifestlyes. In the fifty years since, such industries have become even more significant, both in their relative scale and in their apparent sophistication. Workers in them have also, through such assumed characteristics as their creativity, dynamism, and their blurring of distictions between work and leisure become models for workers in other industries. An accompanying valorisation of youth subcultures, new technologies and emerging forms of urban living has appeared to place these kinds of workers in the vanguard of social and cultural life – although some well-placed satire has also helped to prick the more grandiose claims made for their significance.

The essays in this collection provide a timely critique of the original concept and also point to some developments of the theoretical language, drawing from the now far more established field of cultural economy which has complicated the distance between cultural production and consumption which the figure of an intermediary depends on. Contributions from the editors, and from influential voices in the field including Liz Mcfall, Sean Nixon and Toby Miller unpick and critique the claims made for cultural intermediaries and for labour in the ‘creative economy’ more generally. These essays are complemented by case studies of empirical work in specific fields of mediation including from Liz Moor on Branding, Victoria Durrer and Dave O'Brien on Arts Promotion and from Warwick’s own Lynne Pettinger on fashion retail.

My own contribution is also in this latter camp and provided a welcome opportunity to revisit research originally undertaken as part of my PhD into workers in the retail book industry in the early noughties in the light of the developments in this field since. Most significant here is the increasing dominance of online forms of retail and the accompanying digital means of mediation. The rise of online retailing was arguably a continuation of a story that had begun much earlier in this particular field. In the UK and US large retail chains had, since the early 90s dominated the book retail landscape, taking advantage of the rational and logistical technologies of modern retailing to reconstruct a field with a long history of shaping literary tastes. Such chains placed smaller stores who were unable to benefit from economies of scale in their negotiations with publishers under particular pressure, and shifted the power relations in the book industry away from publishers and towards powerful retailers and supermarkets able to pile ‘em high and, following the end of price maintenance policies protecting books from the market in the early 90s, sell ‘em cheap. The rise of Amazon effectively beat these firms at their own game, combining the logistical power of computing technology with a mail order - and then through Kindle and e-books, a digital- mode of delivery which physical stores can't compete with in terms of either space or price.

One consequence of this story is the change in the role of the book shop worker. Once imagined as a ‘profession’ amongst service work, and even as a means of entry into the publishing industry, the re-organisation of book retail over the last thirty years has also arguably involved processes of deskilling of its workers. The booksellers of the past might have been intermediaries in the classic sense, taste- makers whose expertise and enthusiasm enabled them to provide guidance to their customers. Processes of rationalisation have undermined the power of that expertise - for better or worse - such that the bulk of the day-to-day work becomes passing a barcoded product, linked to a electronically organised centrally managed stock-database through a till on behalf of a consumer who knows what s/he wants. Workers and firms in my study were often able to negotiate the tensions in this process. Workers were able to insulate themselves from the low pay and insecurity of service work through the pleasures of working with things they loved. Firms were able to use worker enthusiasm as a resource in shaping the semiotic meaning of the shop space – so crucial, so the story goes, to the ‘experience economy’. This accommodation is threatened by the digital context in which the apparently rational calculative consumer meets the algorithmic means of recommendation of the digital retailer, rendering any form of face-to-face mediation at best marginal and at worse an expensive indulgence.

The on-going consequences for these changes for cultural workers and for processes of cultural consumption – in this and equivalent fields - are yet to be worked out. The essays in this book should give students and researchers some useful context to understand the processes at play and provide the theoretical and methodological tools to help think them through in the future.

You can follow my research, including links to the original articles about bookshop work via academia.edu and see other publications via my author page on Warwick's WRAP repository.


June 26, 2014

The IPPEA Conference: A treat in Utrecht

Just home from an enjoyable couple of days in Utrecht at a conference, International Perspectives on Participation and Engagement in the Arts, organized by the networkbrought together by Leila Jancovich and her team at Leeds Metropolitan University. The two day conference explored the issues of meaning, measurement, method and values which continue to animate debates about thwp_20140622_016.jpge arts and culture and their relationship with their broader publics. An impressive range of papers and presentations, began with reflections from the playwright America Vera-Zawala on her work in community-based theatre, one example of which concerned the impact of the closure of a mill on the Swedish town of Norrsundet. A play was written and produced with the local community at the precise time of this trauma and, amongst the many fascinating aspects of this process, what stuck with me was the relationship between the artist and the community and the vexed question of who had the responsibility for creative decision making. Participants expressed considerable anxiety about taking control over the direction of the project in deference to the accredited expertise of the theatre professionals. They in turn, for reasons relating to their commitment to the integrity of the process they had initiated, were equally reluctant to impose the right way to proceed. It was an impasse resolved by nothing more complicated than time and dialogue, through which participants took eventual ownership of the narratives of their own experiences.

This story had a perhaps surprising echo in a plenary from Andrea Bandelli about processes of participation in the management of science museums. Science, Andrea reminded us, is not a democracy, although this does not mean that scientific processes, and priorities should not reflect democratically established priorities, or that scientists are not required to communicate with the publics who fund them. There was a degree of fear, expressed by the boards of science museums in Andrea’s study, in managing this balance, especially as science is so regularly deliberately or accidentally, misrepresented in public discourse, as either saviour or villain. There was a telling piece of evidence, though that perhaps this fear was partially misplaced. When asked, attenders of science museums wanted there to be public representation of some form on museum boards. At the same time, when asked if these lay board members should have an executive role in decision making, attenders seemed happy to defer to the experts. Both these stories might be interpreted as evidence of an impulse to be involved with decision-making that gives a lie to one of the more abiding narratives in this field, that of the ‘deficit model’. So much of the official discourse relating to participation starts from a working assumption that people lack some capacity which prevents it. Too often that serves to cement the position of the institution or individual accredited with the means to fill the deficit, who are all too ready to pay lip service to the notion of participation but are also reluctant to embrace the accompanying challenge to their own authority that it brings. It was gratifying to hear some critical voices on this topic in many of the presentations.

CCPS was well represented by both me and Maria Barrett, who presented some initial findings from her research project into the theatre audience of Liverpool. I was presenting some further 'work-in-some-kind-of-progress’ thoughts about participatory arts work as work, which I first blogged about here. It was really useful to think and talk this through in this forum, which included artists who had lived through the processes I was examining. It was especially exciting to meet up with the Artworks team which has been engaged in an extensive sector analysis and important empirical inquiry into this topic. Hopefully these conversations can be productive and ongoing.

In keeping with the mission of the network, the event brought together academic researchers with policy makers and arts practitioners. This sounds blindingly obvious but is difficult to do, and especially difficult to do well and there are inevitably some grumbles in the process. These might be, depending on which camp you’re in, about ‘rigour’ of research, about the use of theoretical ‘jargon’or abstraction, about the fetishisation of anecdote or personal experience or the search for ‘practical’ applicability or the critical examination of assumptions. Such debates can be uncomfortable – exemplified by the intense looking at the floor of some academic colleagues when it came to actually participating in composer Merlijn Twaalfhoven’s Saturday lunchtime interactive music performance. More seriously, such discomfort might stem from public forums like this also being places where professional identities in all these areas are performed, and where stakes in the territory are marked out and defended. That might be inevitable - but the organizers are to be commended for creating a comfortably uncomfortable space for people in these different fields to talk to, rather than past, one another. It was certainly a thought-provoking couple of days in developing my own research. Utrecht was a lovely place to visit and my thanks go to our hosts and organizers for their hospitality.


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