Here is a version of a text I was asked to write, about the idea of 'communities' and working as an artist on 'socially engaged' artworks, its published by The People's Bureau.
Phantoms, controversies and communities
For the past thirty years I’ve lived on the Boundary Estate in Shoreditch east London, it's the first public housing scheme built by a London wide authority, the recently formed London County Council (LCC) in 1891. The estate was designed by a team of young architects with utopian intent, inspired by the Arts and Crafts movement and led by Owen Fleming head of the Working Classes Department within the LCC. The scheme was to replace the notorious Old Nichol slum - fictionalised in A Child of the Jago by Arthur Morrison in 1896 - and be a model for future public housing.
The Boundary Estate's housing stock consists of 23 blocks of flats arranged around seven tree-lined roads radiating from a central raised garden, with a bandstand at its heart. Each block is subtly different and beautifully detailed, with banded decorative brickwork, sash windows, Dutch gables, Doulton ceramic signage and main entrances that always open onto or from courtyards. The flats themselves are varied in size, some designed for large extended families, others couples and some for individuals, the original plan was to house some 5,000 people in a dense yet generous urban setting.
As well as housing, the development included infrastructure, the kind of infrastructure necessary to encourage communities to form; two schools, shops, a communal laundry, a community centre, gardens and bandstand, courtyards in which children can play and clothes could be dried, a church, two mews made of small craft and small-batch workshops and two pubs - although they were not in the original design and added later. Public housing for an aspirational working class.
While housing Bethnal Green locals, the estate has also accommodated waves of migrants, initially European Jews escaping fascism, Irish families seeking employment and since the 1960s Bangladeshis working in public service, the local garment factories and increasingly the restaurant trade. Since I’ve been living on the estate, and the Conservative government’s 1981 Right to Buy scheme has come into effect, the Bangladeshi majority has been offset by an influx of younger, creative types.
All the time I’ve been living here, there have been constant attempts to make the Boundary Estate Community appear, and it never does. Never.
Communities are like phantoms. Everyone - artists, funders, architects, politicians, developers, community workers, even members of a given community - know that they exist. Everyone can name them – Bengali community, the local community, beekeepers, mining, millennials - sometimes you can even identify as belonging to one, yet when you address them; when you ask their views - through appeals to vote, referenda or questionnaires, or call them to assemble en masse, they fail to appear. Always.
Communities are like phantoms; like dark matter.
The philosopher Bruno Latour has challenged what constitutes the social in social theory and practice. For Latour, the social does not pre-exist any attempt to encounter it. The social is not a substrate or a given, like gravity, the social has to be made to assemble and there is enormous labour involved. Latour thinks that - at whatever its scale - the social needs a controversy or a matter of concern, a trial or an issue to convene around. By tracing the mass or mess of associations that make up this controversy, the social is made fleetingly apprehensible.
Like a glimpse of a phantom.
So communities aren’t just waiting at the Boundary Estate Community Centre for your desire to interact with them. The best we can do is to participate in the assembly a temporary community, usually around a specific interest or common concern - my experience of community on the Boundary Estate is precisely this.
For example, in 2006 the local authority planned to transfer the whole estate to Housing Association management, to essentially privatise a public asset. To legally do so, a ballot would have to be held, so what followed was a series of competing campaigns, both for and against the transfer. The Housing Association organised many ‘Community Consultation’ events - at playgroups, coffee mornings and seniors lunches, they built a ‘show kitchen’ and produced publicity.
Local politicians participated in 'community' discussions, debates and often animated round-tables, there were community pic-nics, elders convened at local mosques and campaigned, the tenant association splintered, leaseholder groups formed and reformed and met at endless meetings.
Leaflets were leafletted to every flat, at the Quranic study groups, to local dog walkers, the weekly volunteer gardeners, at the monthly Tea Dances, computer club, Food Bank, Baptist Meetings and via the Community Laundrette.
At the ballot, the majority who voted, voted for the estate to remain in public ownership. All the intense and passionate activity produced by the controversy momentarily enacted a range of Boundary Estate communities. Few of which were visible before, nor the relations between them.
And of course, when the controversy dissipated, the result declared, so did the clusters, communities and relations it illuminated.
These fractured partial assemblies, in my experience, is as good as a local community gets.
Traditionally, for politicians, sociologists, advertisers and art funders this temporary assembly can be made to stand-in for the ideal community you have in mind, or have named, modeled or imagined. Which is why representation is so popular. A temporary assembly can be made to speak for the absent phantom. Like the will-of-the-people.
Although for me, the idea of representing, working with or speaking on behalf of a community makes no sense.
Which is not to suggest that communities don’t exist. No, obviously they do.
They are incredibly powerful, capable of exerting huge force - sometimes literally moving mountains, or mobilising to defeat ‘development’ proposals, and resilient through time, and sometimes place - often over decades, sometimes centuries and occasionally millenia.
Communities can coalesce around many kinds of controversies; like linguistic affinities or climate catastrophe mitigation, or specific enthusiasms, needs or passions. Communities are the networks that store and exchange the values we value, our most precious of capitals; like solidarity, generosity and love.
They’re also able to produce and circulate these capitals equitably, often without the need for ownership, a comunis.
Feeling you belong to a community is a beautiful thing.
If communities produce and exchange the values we value, it’s understandable that artists would be keen to participate in the creation of, and to work with, these values. But of course, it's difficult. Very difficult. Complex questions, even questions of ethics emerge when you work as an artist with others, especially in a collaborative, participatory and what we have learned to designate as a ‘socially engaged’ manner.
And yet all art is socially engaged. All art is made collaboratively, in groups and as part of various communities. It could not exist otherwise.
It's just that art produced and distributed through commercial galleries and competitive markets obscures the dense network of social relations, the controversies and issues; of debt, obligation, ambition, prestige, profit and jealousy that are its motive forces. The most visible of our artworlds overwrites the collaborative nature of cultural production, with apparently effortless, individuated, stardom.
Artists tagged as ‘socially engaged’ are consciously working creatively with and on the social relations, the matters of concern, that produce the values a community value. Values that are held in common. And they make those relations illuminated by the matter of concern, in all their often contradictory, provisional messy-ness, apprehensible; part of the work, of the work of art.
And this is where the complex question of ethics arise. If ethics frame the appropriate conduct of people in a specific context, in co-produced art projects this pertains to both the process, and who has access, or can claim rights, even authorial rights to the values, capitals and resources produced. It’s all too common for artists who are ‘socially engaged’ to expropriate or monopolise any labour, artifacts or values produced through individually authored exhibition or publication.
The challenge, and I think it is an ethical challenge, is to ensure that the process of co-production remains visible and acknowledged, and that all the actors in the community have access to the resources produced.
Including sharing any benefits that accrue, and obviously, I don’t mean the merely financial. Equitable relations have to overwrite singularity, that’s ethics.
Communities are networks of relations and institutions, or better said, a set of interests instituted and illuminated by controversies. When there is no controversy, matter of concern or issue, there is no visible community.
Imagine, the Boundary Estate is made of people and buildings, of public spaces and infrastructure - like water, gas and electricity, there are schools and shops, a church and mosques, huge public/private organisations of management and repair, affinity groups, stories told and retold, books written, films made and development plans proposed and contested, and one of the things that circulates through this dense network are various instances of a local community.
Although the local community is not reducible to these assembled networks, it's always elsewhere. And yet, without the phantom community, the Boundary Estate would literally fall apart.
* For some of the utopian thinking behind the Boundary Estate design see: William Morris The Housing of the Poor, originally published in Justice, 19th July 1884, pp. 4-5.