20130223 City Re-Searches 04

OMALLEY Chloe“Disseminate arts funding to encourage a shared future”: City (Re)Searches
By Chlöe O’MALLEY for Northern Ireland Foundation
23 February 2013

The City (Re)Searches initiative, supported by the Community Arts Partnership, recently brought together artists and activists, along with funders and local community leaders, to a four day pop-up event in Writer’s Square, Cathedral Quarter. The programme, ‘Pop! Culture’, saw host to a series of events, conversations and creative opportunities on the nature and role of culture and creativity in our society.

“In an unequal society, how do we enable everyone to share in the cultural life of a place?” – Conor Shields (Director, Community Arts Partnership)

The programme kicked off with an open tent for the general public to drop by and offer their opinions regarding issues of access and participation in the cultural life of our society. This was followed by two days of conversation, designed to provoke discussion and debate in a round table format. The events deliberately avoided expert presentations but encouraged informal conversation amongst diverse groups of people. These conversations sought to question who the cultural agents are in our society, the purpose of cultural agency and its future.

City (Re)Searches questions the role of Cultural Agency
City (Re)Searches questions the role of Cultural Agency

What is cultural agency?

Agency has been defined as ‘the active element of culture’. Within this context ‘agency’ focuses particularly on issues of power and status, as well as on issues of practice and action.

“Cultural agency in unequal societies has largely been confined to the powerful, with the recognised producers of culture drawn from a restricted circle.”

The who

Cultural agents would be those in power who are able to affect change and cultural development. Participants argued and deliberated ways in which this power could be shared with all types of people. Visual artist Fiona Woods described ours as an institutionalised society, where things are valued over others and the individual is atomized. With this in mind groups discussed ways in which we can progress from this by working and sharing collectively as a community.

Creativity is a catalyst for change.

During the currently turbulent climate in Northern Ireland, it was granted that now is a good time to act for change and allow voices that have been marginalised to be heard. It was argued that opportunities need to be created to make cultural access more available to all sides of the community, as the creative arts allow subjective interpretation and expression. It was agreed upon by many that those from non-creative backgrounds need to gain more access to creativity, be it as a partaker or passive observer. With arts funding predominantly distributed in the city centre, it was recognised that this should be disseminated at a more local level so as to encourage people to participate and share their traditions and culture and anticipate a shared future.

Discussions acknowledged that ‘culture’ is not something that can be brought to people, but something fluid and interchangeable that can be recognised and interpreted by all in a shared space.

“We are the agents of our own lives and of our culture. Without agency, we are neither conscious of that nor living life” – Mary Jane Jacob (Curator)

Artists, activists, funders, organisers and policy makers join to discuss the role and influence of creativity and culture in our society
Artists, activists, funders, organisers and policy makers join to discuss the role and influence of creativity and culture in our society

The purpose

“Why has social art taken off? Because it works in any culture. Because it listens to the heartbeat, tapping into the essence of a culture while at the same time drawing upon commonalities within all cultures. Why has this social art taken root so well? Because many in the world are desperate for change, and change is dependent on the rest of the world. We feel our interconnectedness in art.”  – Mary Jane Jacob (Curator)

Conversations merited that while there is certain ownership associated with the concept of culture, in order for it to facilitate change, it should be regarded rather as something that is shared and evolving. There are makers of change and receivers of it; consequently the former is looked upon positively whereas the latter conveys negative connotations to most.

Confidence, empowerment and identity come from the self. We need to discover how this can be shared publicly.

What art can allow us to do is step back and objectively observe conditions that enable us to develop identity and identify purpose. The person must at first be comfortable with the self before they can find alliances with others and recognise shared values.

Joby Fox, songwriter, musician and activist from Belfast reasoned that all opinions should be valued, even if they are contentious. Groups also noted that among the general public there is a feeling of no license to have a voice or ability to critique what is chosen for them by governmental bodies. Funding for the arts can be restrictive, not just financially but facilitators of the arts felt that their freedom of imagination was limited by accepting funding from certain bodies with certain views.

Co-Creation by artway of thinking
Co-Creation by artway of thinking

The future

During the conversation we were presented with an excerpt from Gregory Scholette’s Dark Matter: Art and Politics in the Age of Enterprise Culture:

“Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of artistic activity produced in post-industrial society. However, this type of dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture – the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators and art administrators. It includes makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organised practices – all work made and circulated in the shadow of the formal art world, some of which might be said to emulate cultural dark matter by rejecting art world demands of visibility, and much of which has no choice but to be invisible. While astrophysicists are eager to know what dark matter is, the denizens of the art world largely ignore the accretions of creativity they nevertheless remain dependant on.”

It was agreed that all types of creativity should be allowed to flourish. Those who do not have access to resources or means must be a priority for facilitators of the arts to share with. The question of funding and distribution was raised, and groups were challenged with finding potential solutions.

Keep the channels of communication open.

It was agreed by all at the event that as facilitators of the arts, funders, artists, activists, and policy makers alike must help promote interest and support innovation of the role of culture in creativity. This can be done by first establishing collective core values.

The four-day pop-up culminated with a day of cultural expression and creativity open to the public. This featured various workshops including a drum circle and poetry readings. The Community Arts Partnership extended the invitation to all to share their views on the role of culture in society.

The City (Re) Searches project is supported by the EU Culture Programme. The research came from Cork to Belfast and will go on to Kaunas, with a final event set for Rotterdam later in 2013. By using art to confront what culture can do in communities, the project seeks to engage discussion and provoke change on a local, national and international scale.

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