Wednesday, 27 February 2013

Land Grab

I'm half way through Writing Urban Space, a Zero Books publication edited by Liam Murray Bell & Gavin Goodwin, which, as the cover-all tagline states is an exploration of "the relationship between imaginative writing and the built environment". It's a compilation of short, digestible chunks of essay texts, that meanders gently through the subject matter, until I got to Can Writing Shape Place? by Sarah Butler, writer and director of UrbanWords - a consultancy setup "to explore how writing and writers might intersect with the process of regeneration". Oh dear.

Whilst Butler tries to allay my fears around the use of terms like consultancy and regeneration, I'm not convinced. It all feels like a physical and metaphysical "land grab". The property developer/ council/ regeneration agents has the monopoly on the physical land and it's planned architectural development with artists/ writers subcontracted (through a consultancy agency) to lay claim to the more ephemeral spaces that occupy the soon-to-be-developed site. In the case of this short essay, Butler's projects are "participatory, community-based projects, which look to explore, unpick and articulate communities' relationships to their environment." Oh my.

I'm perhaps coming down too hard on this idea of a consultancy/ agent working with communities to help articulate their sense of a place/ space through writing or any other creative forms, as this is something artists are often parachuted in to do. However, it is the motivations of those retaining the consultancy's services that I question and their ability to "harvest" the creative outputs of a community for their own gains. The allusion of "control" extended to those within a community in such a situation, again, unsettles me greatly - "We're knocking down your town centre, but as you've indicated you'd "have a café with huge sofas and bottomless coffee pots..." therefore we'll lease the new prefab to Starbucks". Butler certainly wants to challenge the artists being "'used' as a tool"in these circumstances but the examples given in this very short text completely undermines the conclusion that the artists' role is anymore than that of 'tool' (both as instrument and person).

Despite appearances to the contrary this entry is not a 'cheap shot', as Butler's essay has raised a lot of interesting considerations when dealing with place/ space. Specifically around the term 'ownership' (and similar terms like authorship, control, etc.) and the simultaneously empowering and powerless act of reigning over conceptual place. Perhaps we can define these places/ spaces as 'property', aligning the terminology more closely with terms used in Andrea Phillip's essay Art and Housing: The Private Connection (in ArtSocial Housing-Housing the Social: Art, Property and Spatial Justice, 2012). This allows us to draw out the sense of ownership or implied ownership aspired to by unsuspecting Community D who sees Artist C descend on them with creative writing groups, drawing sessions and all other manner of conceptually camouflaged psychoanalysis employed as a control and feedback mechanism for Consultancy B under the employ/ instruction of Property Developer A - I imply a linear hierarchy starting at A moving through to D in order to highlight possible power structures inherent in such relationships.

My thoughts have dried up, so until I've mulled over it a little more I'll end this post here.

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