Skip to main content

Blog: Culture Matters

Culture Matters

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

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.

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.

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

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.