Skip to main content

Blog: Culture Matters

Culture Matters

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.

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