Utopia Against the World

 

This was my opening preamble for Utopia Against the World, an event I organised at the end of March. You can download the programme here.

Where is utopia today? Or, perhaps, what is utopia today? What, and where might it be tomorrow? Who is it for? Who is it not for?

Despite its vocal protestations against the concept, perhaps utopia is most terrifyingly realised in today’s neoliberal global order, which so confidently presents itself as the only game in town. ‘It’s easier to imagine the end of the world than the end of capitalism’ goes the saying: a chilling signifier of the extent to which capitalism has soaked itself into almost every fibre of the social imagination, leaving us – depending on who you read – with the ‘slow cancellation of the future’, or ‘the end of utopia’ . And it’s true that we don’t have many utopias anymore: even utopia is dystopia, as the recent Channel Four series ‘Utopia’ so edgily reminded us.  In a world where calling someone ‘political’ is rude; and where to call someone ‘ideological’ is seen as beyond insulting, perhaps we should all just pack up and go home. But isn’t there a danger that all this lamenting of the dominant anti-utopianism might simply end up reinforcing it?

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But of course the end of politics is really just the disavowal of politics. ‘The post-political is the most political’, as the saying goes. And as Slavoj Zizek has repeatedly pointed out, the denunciation of ideology is the ultimate ideological move. Thus, perhaps the anti-utopian position is in actual fact the most utopian position possible: the triumphant call of a victorious utopianism. If you’ve achieved perfection, you don’t need any alternatives. If you live in utopia, you don’t need to produce any utopian visions. Just look around you! Abundance! Plenty! The end of history!

Oh.

Can we avoid this double bind where utopia leads to anti-utopia, and anti-utopia is revealed as utopia fulfilled? How might we look for a different kind of utopianism in this era ‘after the future’? Do we, as some have suggested, look back to failed, forgotten or aborted schemes of the past? Social democracy? State socialism? Communism? Do we dream of some prelapsarian state: a slow-paced agrarian idyl where we can escape the noise of our daily existence: utopia as a permanent vacation. Or do we look beneath, rather than beyond, the present, to the trickles of hope that run through everyday life and occasionally pool together in all manner of times and places: an Andalusian pueblo, a queer film festival, a squat in Berlin? Perhaps we could look to science fiction visions so fantastic they seem utterly beyond the bounds of the possible? And of course the question can’t just be about where we might look, but also to who might we look? What kinds of subjects are pushing beyond the present? And what kinds of subjects might exist in utopia?

If there is to be a revival of utopia and/or utopianism, it clearly needs to escape perfection, and few of the practices and forms I mentioned above orient themselves to perfection. This is not to say, however, that utopia purged of perfection is without its difficulties. Some of these spatial experiments are small-scale and by nature they cannot do much to challenge the power of capital. Perhaps they even reinforce it on occasion. Others seem a little – well – unsexy compared to the luxuries that capitalism can tease and tantalise us with. Compost toilets? Growing your own food? Building your own house? Are these the price for utopia? And can we ever really purge perfection? Might it not sneak up when we’re least aware, transforming our utopias into dystopia? Might they have had that dystopia inbuilt from the start? To pre-empt (and paraphrase) Judie Newman’s discusison of Amy Waldman’s short story Freedom a little, might utopia ‘begin as a joke and end in disillusionment’?

And what is the function of these utopias? Is it to offer us models of how we might live differently today and/or tomorrow? Or is it to unpick our certainty in how we currently live, restoring to us a sense of the arbitrary nature of our present and estrange us from those habits that seem so natural? Might these two tasks – of making our present seem bad and offering us an alternative to that present – be simultaneous? Is it utopia against the world, or utopia for the world?

What’s for certain is that if we don’t think about different forms of utopianism – even if we disavow the term – we’ll end up with another utopian vision: that of the ruins porn fanatics: those millenial disasterbators whose utopia arises from disaster; secularised versions of the eighteenth century utopians who believed that a thousand years of communist utopianism would come around following the apocalypse, only here it’s climate change rather than an act of God that ushers in the promised dawn. If I may be permitted to mix my biblical metaphors a little, utopia here functions as a reincarnation of Noah’s Ark – populated by the righteous and sailing on as bankers disappear beneath the waves. Except as it plays out in reality it won’t be utopian, it’ll be dystopian. The only arks will be the rich’s gated communities and it’ll be the planet’s poorest who disappear beneath the waves.

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I don’t want to pre-empt what today’s speakers will talk about too much here, but in searching for – and questioning – spatial resistance and spatial alternatives to capitalism – our search for utopia (or maybe our rejection of the term) will take us to the island of Freedom, populated by former detainees of Guantanamo Bay; to the anarchist planet of Anarres; to intentional communities of various kinds; to couhousing experiments; to Beijing Queer Film Festival; to squats in Berlin and elsewhere; to up the road in St. Anns; and of course to Marinaleda, the self-styled ‘communist utopia’ village in Andalusia.

 

Utopia, Failed?: some thoughts on the demolition of the Lenton Flats

Utopia (has been) failed

On Wednesday 18th June I’m going to be taking part in a workshop organised by Nottingham Contemporary and facilitated by the really excellent Southwark Notes (whose writings on art and regeneration/gentrification around Southwark I strongly recommend). The starting point for this is a series of Keith Coventry’s paintings included in Somewhat Abstract, Contemporary’s current exhibition – which includes Berwick Tower, below.

Keith Coventry - Berwick Tower

Keith Coventry – Berwick Tower

There’s a whole series of these paintings, which are designed to mimic the ‘footprint’ plans of modernist housing estates as well as the works of the suprematist painter Kazimir Malevich (‘White on White‘ in this case). The standard reading of these – and the one presented in the curatorial notes in the exhibition – is that they’re about ‘failed utopianism’: “the moment when modernist Utopian dreams — the well-meant belief that peoples’ lives would be bettered by living in clean, modern, high rise buildings, with lifts, way up above the street with plenty of fresh air—evaporated. Because instead of being the touted New Jerusalem, homes for heroes, the estates spawned new problems, vandalism, violence, social isolation, drug dealing and addiction, prostitution and racism, recurring themes in Coventry’s work’, as Matthew Collings puts it (in a quote I have shamelessly lifted from wikipedia). In an interview with The Spectator, meanwhile, Coventry is a little less apocalyptic, noting that in these works there’s an air of ‘nostalgia’ for both ‘modernism’ and ‘lost traditions’.

But who lost these traditions? Implicit in Collings’ account is the ‘common sense’ perspective that human nature’s to blame for the problems of estates. In this, he updates an ancient anti-utopian trait, which – in the western world at least – has its origins in Augustinian notions of original sin. The City of God can’t be built on earth: the best laid plans will be laid to waste by greed, stupidity, racism, drugs etc. This, we are told, is as true of tower blocks as it is of Marxism. And it’s especially true when the utopia is home to poor people. Goodness! (Rich people, of course, are perfectly capable of living in high density blocks.)

Yet unless we believe that rich people are inherently superior to the poor (which many do, of course, it’s a belief at the core of Britain’s endemic class hatred) it can be argued that modernist Utopia has been failed rather than that it has failed per se. There are a whole host of reasons for this, and they’re far too complicated to discuss here, but the disregard with which councils across Britain have treated social housing tenants is certainly a factor (and should be seen not just as unhappy accidents, but sometimes as concerted efforts to produce the working class as abject subjects).

But is nostalgia the best way to deal with the failure of Modernist utopia? After all, it hasn’t just been failed by anti-utopians who never believed in it anyway, but by many of those who designed, financed and administered it. Perhaps the anti-utopians were right: its failure was in-built from the start, but they got things the wrong way round. The failure came from the top rather than from below.

The demolition of the Lenton flats

The other catalyst for this workshop is the ongoing demolition of the high-rise flats in Lenton (otherwise populated largely by University of Nottingham students), most famous for their appearances in the films This Is England and Control.  There’s been nothing particularly spectacular about this demolition – no grand claims about their dystopian nature – and the public aesthetics of the demolition are rather tamer than, say, the planned explosion of the Red Road Flats in Glasgow as part of the Commonwealth Games opening ceremony (by no means the first use of spectacular demolition as an aesthetic of gentrification), as in the above video’s wistful-yet-hopeful music and gentle timelapse footage.

The demolition is being overseen by Nottingham City Homes, who manage social housing in the city. They’ll be replacing them with a mixture of flats, bungalows, houses and ‘Independent Living’ flats for the over 60s – though these won’t house anywhere near as many people as the flats did and the council will be relocating some tenants elsewhere in the city. In addition to the timelapse demolition film linked above, they’ve commissioned local film studio Rubber Goat to  make a feature length film; and Tracey McMaster from Rubber Goat will be taking part in a discussion about the flats at Nottingham Contemporary on the 10th June. There’s also an exhibition at Crocus Gallery, close to the flats: though when I tried to visit on Saturday it was closed. These are well-intentioned things I think – but I really hope they avoid the trap of presenting residents reluctant to move out as a curiosity: a spectacle for those of us who ‘know better’.

And as council tenant Ethel Singleton makes clear in the opening to Nick Broomfield’s Behind the Rent Strike (being shown before the discussion on the 10th June), there are questions to be asked of artists, filmakers, academics and the media who engage with these issues. Indeed, Southwark Notes have repeatedly, and forthrightly, tackled related some of them around Southwark. (One of the films they critique in that post – Marcus Coates’ Heygate Estate set Vision Quest – is being shown at Contemporary on 17th June, with a ‘post-mortem’ discussion afterwrds). Here, again, we come to the importance of working from the bottom-up. Though as is clear from a radio interview with people remaining in the Lenton flats, starting from below doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t get high. “I don’t want to come down ground level…none of us want to go down to ground level; we want to keep high”, says one of them.

Not wanting to waste my trip to the closed exhibition on Saturday, I wandered around the site of the flats and took a few photos. 2014-04-19 14.18.01

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The shut gallery; and a row of shut shops (it should be noted that the gallery, and the cafe next door are run on voluntary labour and may have been closed because there isn’t much of that when the students go home [it was Easter hols] and when the nearby residents have been moved out).

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A gutted shell of one of the flats prior to dismantling from the top down.

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The underpass used in This Is England. Where will filmmakers go now for their authentically gritty 80s urbanism?

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The block on the left is still partly inhabited.

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Signs to now non-existent flats, Derby Road.

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This ‘City of Nottingham’ branding is well over ten years old, and the council – very proud of its more recent lime green image – tends to plaster it everywhere. That it’s not done so here says a lot, I think.

Mundane utopianism

Of course utopianism isn’t inherently Modernist. I’ve long maintained that it lurks in the background of all social orders; and all architectural projects. Indeed, the motto for the City Council’s building projects is ‘Building a Better Nottingham’; which is perhaps a little modest compared to modernism’s grand claims; but nonetheless seeks to ground a vision of the good in place. To get a sense of what this ‘better’ Nottingham might look like, we can take a closer look at the architect’s render (shown in full on this banner).

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An elderly white, heterosexual couple. Perhaps they live in the ‘Independent Living’ flats. Perhaps they’re just visiting.

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And maybe this (slightly squashed) white family is who’re they’re visiting. Kids nice and happy with both a mum and a dad. Some young people having a chat in the background.

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Another white, heterosexual elderly couple. And blimey! They’re some expensive cars in the background!

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As is that!

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And a Mercedes! Still, I guess the Yaris is a little more modest. Lots of trees. Wonder if they’ll ever get planted.

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A nice bourgeois wine-bar/restaurant. More trees.

And that’s it.

Of course we need to pay attention to the exclusions of utopias; that is, to consider who’s not present as well as who is. Now I don’t think the City Council is consciously trying to engage in social cleansing or gentrification in Lenton (it is, after all, building more social housing). But there’s an unwitting aesthetic of social cleansing behind their vision for a ‘better’ Nottingham that should disturb us all.

To book the events at Nottingham Contemporary, click here

Coda 

It’s interesting to compare Coventry’s paintings with Paul Waplington’s painting of the long-demolished Hyson Green flats in Nottingham (there’s an Asda there now). Here’s his portrayal of a May Day Parade there in the 1980s. Not a hint of nostalgia or irony; no knowing nods to those clever but foolish people who should have known better. Just a wondrous, joyful explosion of working class life, beautifully free of Collings’ glib stereotypes. It was on display at Nottingham Castle recently and moved me immensely. One can’t imagine similar works being produced around Lenton’s new develpoment…

the artist; (c) Paul Waplington; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

Coda 2

The demolition of the Pruitt-Igoe housing complex in St. Louis lead Charles Jencks to proclaim the death of modernism, and it’s often used as the exemplary failure of utopian Modernism in architecture (bound up with a load of classism and racism about its inhabitants). I’ve not seen it, but this documentary looks like it might challenge that rather straightforward narrative in an interesting way.

Some thoughts on creativity, hipsters and gentrification: a hasty reply to Aleks Eror

This started life as a facebook post and though I’ve tidied it up a little it’s a little rough around the edges…

This is half right in claiming that ‘hipsters’ (the pioneer-explorers of Richard Florida’s ‘creative class’) are among the losers of gentrification. Indeed Florida – the arch-guru of ‘creative regeneration’ – has always acknowledged this himself, stating that the benefits of creative regeneration are not distributed equally, even among his ‘creative class’. So yes, of course lowly paid, ‘creative’ young people (I put creative in scare quotes because it’s a very limited understanding of creativity that’s being peddled here) are victims of their own success in the sense that the ‘creative capital’ they bring to an area always benefits others more than them, to the point that – as Eror notes – they have to eternally move on like ‘self-gentrifying urban Bedouins’. But then that’s how capitalism works. Your work always benefits someone else more than you.

This idea of the ‘urban Bedouin’, of course, tells you why hipster-creatives don’t lose half as much as so many others. Because they can move on. By and large they’re young, they have disposable income, they don’t have family ties, they’re not in social housing, they don’t have children settled in local schools (unlike, of course, so many poor [and often Black, Asian and Eastern European] people). And after all, if they called their dad he could stop it all, yeah? I think it’s disingenuous to say that their nomadic area-hopping is simply a fun adventure – house-hunting/dealing with letting agents doesn’t stop being stressful just because you’ve got a new 7″ coming out on lime green vinyl – but there’s undoubtedly something rather eager about the way they move on to a new area (‘hey! everyone’s moving to Deptford now!’).

Attention also needs to be paid to the way that ‘creativity’ – particularly artistic labour – is used to try and mitigate the very worst effects of gentrification. So whilst public services are closed/forced out, artists are deployed to (very cheaply) give the poorest a sense of ‘inclusion’ (but never to challenge the status quo, of course). New Labour were quite naked in their use of participatory art to this end, and Benedict Seymour has been wonderfully vicious in his skewering of these practices.

So what to do? This is where Aleks Eror’s piece is really rather pathetic, capitulating to hideous stereotypes (Edmonton’s still as authentic as ever. But don’t forget your stab vest’) and the most abysmal capitalist realism (‘what’s the alternative?’). So what are the alternatives? Stop being ‘creative’? Well, perhaps. But ‘creatives’ can also resist. Those at the bottom of the creative class can realise that their true class allegiance isn’t with the other creatives, but with the working class, refugees, the poor, the dispossessed, the exploited, the excluded. Hamburg might offer some hope here – there, ‘creative’ areas fight (often literally) to prevent their gentrification (and link that struggle to other struggles – the struggle for alternative spaces, for migrant rights, etc). Artists organise alongside squatters and the poor to prevent capitalists hoovering up the profits from their hard work.

In the UK, sadly, ‘creatives’ (myself included,) seem all-too happy to follow Eror – to shrug their shoulders and complain ‘but I’m losing out too, it’s not my fault! I like poor people and black people! I don’t mean to force them out!’.

Capitalism, quite simply, doesn’t give a fuck.

Wasteland Twinning Nottingham needs you!

Wasteland Twinning Nottingham needs volunteers to realise a photographic work this Saturday. 

On Saturday 27th April, Wasteland Twinning Nottingham is producing an ambitious photographic work on ‘The Island’ wasteland, between Sneinton and Nottingham city centre. The work is a recreation of an artist’s impression of the unrealised Hopkin’s masterplan (above), which would have seen the space developed with hotels, restaurants, flats and offices. We’re going to ask people to stand on the wasteland in the same positions as those on the image, and this scene will then be photographed. The finished work will be exhibited at One Thoresby Street in the autumn. We will also talk to people about their hopes for the future of the Island; and ask people if they have any memories of experiences of the space.

If you would like to be involved, please meet outside the BBC offices on London Road at 10.30am. We’re providing lunch from the Secret Kitchen – a lovely community cafe in Sneinton. If you have any queries please email nottingham@wasteland-twinning.net

The project is funded by the European Culture Foundation. 

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Creativity, Capital and Commons in the Contemporary City: The Eastside Island, Pt. 2

This is the second part of a (slightly) edited version of a talk I gave to the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice at the University of Nottingham back in January. The first part – which covers the history of the site – is here, but they can be read as standalone pieces. This post focusses on the future of the ‘The Island’ – a large brownfield wasteland on the edge of Nottingham city centre, and then tries to offer an alternative reading of the site in which the commons (as a sphere of reproducing daily life) is granted agency in addition to capital.

…then as farce

According to the recently released Nottingham Growth Plan, Nottingham ‘stands at the threshold of a new era in its economic history, facing opportunity and challenge in equal measure’. Acknowledging the shift away from Fordist realms of production, it states that:

The traditional industries that made the city one of the 20th century’s truly world-renowned manufacturing centres – led by companies like Raleigh and Player’s – have been replaced by businessess in the service sector. Nearly nine out of 10 jobs in the city are now in services, a figure significantly higher than the national average’. Instead of bikes, fags and lace, Nottingham now has specialisms in ‘digital content, lifesciences and clean technology’, yet ‘does not currently make the most out its intellectual capital.

The council seeks to address this in a document entitled Connected, Creative, Competetive, which outlines the development of a ‘Creative Quarter’ for Nottingham, using money obtained from the government’s City Deal fund (a re-enactment of City Challenge with Eric Pickles as Michael Hesletine). Tellingly, the document boasts that Nottingham can offer ‘[s]alary savings…up to 7% on the national average’, and quotes Vince Cable saying that ‘Nottingham is clearly a place for innovative businesses and individuals to thrive.’ With this, he implicitly labels a divide that will re-occur repeatedly below: what about those who aren’t innovative? And what about communities?

Create! Generate content!

Geographically, the Creative Quarter encompasses the south-eastern section of Nottingham city centre (Hockley, the Lace Market, Sneinton Market and the Island site). The development will ‘encompass a wide ranging economic stimulus package to support the creation and growth of businesses, the retention and maximisation of talent, property occupancy and consumer spend.’ The Creative Quarter – an ‘incubator without walls‘ – will create a unique enterprise environment to lead the development of Nottingham’s new economy and as an emblem of our long term aspirations for the city.’ Elsewhere, Eric Pickles has announced that it will offer businesses ‘new freedoms and powers‘, and what this means becomes horribly clear when the Creative Quarter’s Chairman states that the Creative Quarter board is there to ‘sort it out’ if ‘politics gets in the way’.

Not that politics seems to want to get in the way: Jon Collins (remember him from Part 1? He’s City Council Leader now) claims that the Creative Quarter ‘is a significant step forward and a bold statement that Nottingham is prepared to think differently to effect change’. It is a deal that ‘provides a platform for the next generation of Nottingham entrepreneurs to carve out their future, create opportunity and jobs, and lead Nottingham to an exciting new future.’ The City Council also claim that the Creative Quarter could create ‘up to 10,000 jobs’ (‘could’ and ‘up to’ being the operative words here – though it’s certainly created one already – a ‘Chief Operations Officer’ for the Creative Quarter at £50,000 a year). 

Now I’m not sure when (or by whom) it was decided that ‘creativity’ was the long term aspiration for the city (and, incidentally, I’ve recently noticed a rise in a sort of ‘creative fascism’, where local bars, events, etc. brand themselves as for ‘like-minded creatives’. What if one isn’t ‘a creative’, or ‘like-minded’?); and quite what these ‘aspirations’ mean for those who don’t fit the bill remains to be seen. It looks ominous, though: the ‘detailed summary of the Nottingham City Deal’ states that it seeks to generate ‘new entrants that displace incumbents, forcing out those who are unable to compete. This is a feature of high-performing economies.’

These incumbents can clearly go to hell, though – and the City Council has been very pleased with itself for the Creative Quarter, particularly since the Vice-President of the European Commission Antonio Tajani announced that it would serve as a model for the ‘third industrial revolution’. But this is ridiculous PR guff that’s all-too-easily swallowed-up by a gullible local press – the Creative Quarter is actually a rather tenth-rate application of American sociologist Richard Florida’s work. Writing in the boom years of the early naughties, Florida argued that to survive in a post-Fordist climate cities needed to shift their emphasis to ‘creativity’, looking to attract the ‘high bohemian’ creative class, which consists of technology workers, artists, musicians and – I kid you not – lesbians and gay men. Thus, cities should offer tax breaks, incentives to those looking to start up ‘creative businesses’ and make some low level infrastructural changes in order to attract ‘the right kind of people’.

Far from Nottingham being a pioneer in this field, Florida’s ideas have been implemented in numerous cities across the globe as they try to come to terms with the fact that capitalism doesn’t need their workers or their land anymore. The London Development Authority tried something almost identical back in 2003 after it cottoned on to how a burgeoning arts scene in Shoreditch resulted in a sudden ‘regeneration’ a few years earlier, and numerous British cities have ‘creative quarters’ (hey, even Hebden Bridge has one!).

If it’s a little unfair of me to gripe at the lack of originality of the council, it’s certainly of vital importance to ask what happens to ‘the wrong kind of people’: those who aren’t ‘like-minded’ or ‘creative’. As Joel Kotkin at The Daily Beast notes, Richard Florida himself offers some answers:

Florida himself, in his role as an editor at The Atlantic, admitted last month what his critics, including myself, have said for a decade: that the benefits of appealing to the creative class accrue largely to its members—and do little to make anyone else any better off. The rewards of the “creative class” strategy, he notes, “flow disproportionately to more highly-skilled knowledge, professional and creative workers,” since the wage increases that blue-collar and lower-skilled workers see “disappear when their higher housing costs are taken into account.” His reasonable and fairly brave, if belated, takeaway: “On close inspection, talent clustering provides little in the way of trickle-down benefits.”

The article’s well-worth reading in full, as is this Mute editorial by David Panos, which notes that in London the ‘actual effect has been to escalate property prices out of the reach of all but a privileged minority, and drive up the overall cost of living.’ With increasingly vicious attacks on social security and welfare since then, the effects of promoting creativity today could be even more damaging.

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Which isn’t to say that such programmes are particularly good for all these ‘creatives’ either. At least not for all of them. Richard Florida might claim that they constitute a ‘class’ (his old tutor David Harvey would no doubt be quite dismayed by such a claim), but the truth (which he half acknowledges) is that there’s an enormous difference between the artist eking out a living as an artist in the face of massive cuts and the advertising executive or bioscientist. Indeed, as a number of people have pointed out, the artist surviving on part-time work and occasional grants provides a model for the ideal worker for contemporary capital: they’re naturally critical, used to making the best out of a bad situation, don’t draw a steady wage and have to creatively create their own solutions to a lack of infrastructural and budgeting problems. The artist’s role in the Creative Quarter, then, is to take part in what Hardt and Negri would term ‘affective labour’: to work across the ‘social terrain’ to produce ‘feelings’ and ‘affects’ that generate value for capital. Or we might call it ‘biopolitical production’: they ‘produce’ a lifeworld – a vibrant, cool, ‘happening’ social terrain. In other words, they make a place seem ‘creative’ by doing what they do – putting on shows in DIY spaces, organising talks, etc etc (and it’s worth noting – contra much of the rhetoric of the Creative Quarter – that this stuff has been going on for years in Nottingham). But of course this isn’t recognised as ‘work’ as such, and so they’re poorly remunerated for it. The surplus value their work generates goes to estate agents, landlords and the companies who take advantage of an area’s atmosphere of ‘creativity’. And you don’t  have to be a marxist to see this – a flyer for the creative quarter lays bare this class dynamic by talking of the creative people who ‘make the city’ and the ‘captains of industry’. In other words, the people who do the work and those who take the money.

One of the driving forces behind the Creative Quarter is BioCity – a ‘BioScience Business Incubator’, and in an interview with their Director (and Creative Quarter committee member) Toby Reid in Nottingham’s culture magazine Left Lion offered a rare glimpse behind the ideological curtain. This starts before you even read the interview with the image I’ve reproduced above (“We are the 25%” is meant to be a play on ‘quarter’ of course, but by subverting the Occupy slogan it neatly summarizes the way only a small minority could ever benefit from Creative Quartering – and at the expense of the rest). But the really disconcerting stuff comes when Reid is asked “what’s the catch?”. One has to admire his honesty, but the answer really is staggering:

The downside is – if all of this is successful – is that in the long term rents might go up and the creatives will be forced out to cheaper areas. But if that means somewhere like Sneinton suddenly has a creative community that does interesting things that attracts attention, surely that’s better than what we have at the moment.

What we have in Sneinton at the moment, of course, is a lot of pretty poor people: many of whom are black, Asian or from Eastern Europe, as well as a lot of ‘creatives’ who already find wherever it is we’re supposed to live too expensive (me, for one, I suppose – though I rather like Sneinton as it is, thanks). Now I don’t want to suggest for a minute that Reid explicitly thinks that creative people are better than these increasingly unproductive and expendable groups (though of course they’re still needed to clean up for the creatives, to build the buildings for the creatives, to service the telecommunications of the creatives…), but that’s precisely the point – this language of ‘creativity’ and ‘innovation’ quite simply doesn’t think about them at all. Benedict Seymour’s scathing essay ‘Shoreditch and the Creative Destruction of the Inner City‘ is pretty spot-on here:

If one abandons the quaint notion that regeneration’s real aim is to produce a mixed and balanced community with ‘social housing’ and (‘good’) jobs etc, then it doesn’t seem so perverse and ineffectual after all…Increased social polarisation and the (re)imposition of work through intensified economic pressure combined with private capital’s pillaging of former public resources (as well as existing communities, bodies, knowledges, etc) in a desperate scramble to suck up every last drop of surplus value from increasingly unproductive first world cities. Regeneration is not so much the rebirth of the dormant industrial city but its undeath, bled dry by a vampiric regime of inflation and austerity.’

The Creative Quarter, then, is post-fordist capitalism spatialized. It’s a vampiric appendage to already-existing creativity and an expansion of inequality. It shows a staggering disregard for most of the city’s population. 

For a common creativity (and the importance of communism)

Quite where The Island fits into all of this isn’t entirely clear, and I’ve been told that its owners Heathcote Holdings aren’t particularly keen on BioCity’s plans to expand onto the site (I can’t vouch for the reliability of that claim, though) – emphasizing, as ever, that the bourgeoisie aren’t a homogenous class. Whilst the consequences of a ‘successful’ Creative Quarter would, I believe, be bad for the city of Nottingham, it’s far more likely that the project will join the rather sorry list of failed developments I detailed in Part 1. The wasteland, it seems, is destined to go to waste for longer.

Yet to claim that the wasteland will continue to be wasted is to stick with a top-down view that ascribes capital agency in the production of urban space and little else. I’ve already hinted how artists establish autonomous, DIY communities regardless of capitalism’s attempts to generate ‘quarters’; and that capitalism is parasitic upon these commons (here I’m invoking Tronti’s ‘copernican revolution’ of traditional marxist understandings of the relationship between capital and labour, and the Midnight Notes Collectives’ work on capitalism’s ongoing ‘enclosure’ of the commons) – and when you look at how The Island site is used (that is, how it is not simply going ‘to waste’) one can already see the fabric of a commons in the heart of Nottingham. The Island may be privately owned, but it is commonly used.

Julian Hughes – Image from ‘The Island Site’

Back in 2007, the Nottingham based artist Julian Hughes drew attention to this with a photographic project entitled The Island Sitewhich documented people who traverse or use the space – a group which, he notes, includes ‘dog walkers, botanists and drunks.’ We might also consider the ways in which flora and fauna treat The Island – as they treat anywhere – as a commons, and Hughes also organised a walk around the site with a botanist. Buddleia, bee orchids and elderberry trees don’t respect private property rights, of course. 

Picture: Julian Hughes

Wasteland Rounders. Picture: Julian Hughes

Our work with Wasteland Twinning has also sought to amplify the ‘common’ nature of the land and its potential for common, recreational use. Our Wasteland Rounders Tournament took place there and utilised materials we’d collected on site – buddleia wood for bats, elderberry and buddleia leaves for bib dies, and we’ve hosted a series of discussions at Nottingham Contemporary that have considered how the space has been used (one of which was explicitly around the theme of the commons). Though relatively modest, these all point to what could be achieved for The Island. It’s such a wonderful, rich space that’s begging to be put to the common use for the city. Had any of the proposed redevelopments occurred, it would simply be another space for the extraction of surplus value by capital. The failure isn’t that they haven’t occurred, it’s that we still have capitalism.

So when people ask me what I would like to see on The Island, I can’t really answer. The question isn’t so much ‘what I would like to see’, as ‘how I would like it to be owned’: it’s not so much ‘what do you want there?’ as ‘why can’t it be something better?’. The crux of the matter is that the Island might be part of a social commons in Nottingham but it’s not legally common land. The commons exists – to put a quote from Colin Ward to new use – as ‘seeds beneath the snow‘: the task must be to encourage those seeds to grow. Only if we have common ownership can we release the potential of all – creative, innovative or otherwise. Why an ‘incubator without walls’ and not a common factory in which all take turns at the 3-D printer to make what they need, or where they can attend workshops on repairing bicycles? Why a ‘mixed use quarter’ and not common permaculture allotments in which all can grow vegetables, or an autonomous social centre?  And of course we shouldn’t be too flippant – perhaps some of the work at BioCity might help cure cancer. But imagine if that were free of patent: how many lives could the commons save then?

But we also have to beware the dangers of the commons. As David Eden notes, creating new social commons without the common ownership of land can be dangerous for precisely the reasons outlined above: capitalism is parasitic upon them. We (as Wasteland Twinning Nottingham, as artists, as ‘creatives’) can protest this all we like, but capital doesn’t really care and ultimately the content of what we do is irrelevant, just so long as we’re ‘creating’. (Nils Norman has offered some interesting thoughts on how artists can resist regeneration through ‘de-gentrification’, though I think the discussion on the issue at the end is illuminating too, not least because he calls Richard Florida ‘Darth Vader’). So I do worry that in amplifying the commons we help to enclose it; and I do worry that as artists we function as ‘the shock troops of gentrification’, to quote Ben Seymour. What I think this means is that our protestations must be as loud as our creativity; our critical content needs to function more profoundly than the social affects of creativity we produce. I don’t agree with Jodi Dean’s Leninism, but I do agree with her that the term ‘communism‘ should be used to name the incompatibility between the commons we’re for and the enclosure we’re against. 

So in that spirit I’ll finish by saying that we don’t need creative quarters. We don’t need a division between ‘the creative class’ and a seemingly expendable surplus population. With Full Communism comes Full Creativity, and until then a lot more than just the Island will go to waste.

Creativity, Capital and Commons in the Contemporary City: The Eastside Island, Pt. 1

This is the first (slightly edited) part of a talk I gave to the Centre for the Study of Social and Global Justice’s seminar series back in January, which focusses on the way in which economic forces have shaped the ecology and geography of a large wasteland on the edge of Nottingham city centre. Part two focuses on a more ‘bottom-up’ view of the wasteland, as well as looking at what the future might hold for the space, which now falls within Nottingham’s ‘Creative Quarter’. It draws heavily on local history, autonomist marxism and urban ecology; as well as the work I’m doing with Wasteland Twinning.

First as farce…

Pic: Toby Price

Pic: Toby Price

Just to the north-east of Nottingham’s railway station lies a 34 acre site known locally as ‘The Island’. Presumably named because a section of it was once squeezed in between two long-filled in arms of the Nottingham canal (the section where ‘Island Street’ is on this map), it has been home to lace factories, gas works, the Great Northern Railway’s line to Grantham, railway warehouses (one of which was designed by T.C. Hine – the architect and planner of the city’s upmarket Park Estate), workers’ cottages, pubs, a bank and a church – but is best known as home to a number of Boots factories for almost the whole of the twentieth century.

An aerial view taken from 1927, from Picture the Past. For those who know Nottingham, the road running across the top of the picture is Manvers Street and the warehouses top left are still there.

In 1923, the Prince of Wales (and future King Edward VII) visited, greeted by lines of cheering Boot’s employees.

prince of wales

Prior to the establishment of manufacturing on the site it had been used by locals to graze animals, and was traversed by the River Leen – culverted with the building of the Poplar Arm of the nottingham canal in 1793.

The canal attracted businesses – independent lace traders at first – and around 1886 Jesse Boot made the decision to shift production of pharmaceuticals there. He bought up properties as they came on the market and by 1912 owned a considerable portion of the site.

Now the space is largely derelict and is populated by masses of buddleia thicket, sporadic identikit business park buildings; and the gutted shells of those aformentioned warehouses – spectres of an altogether more productive time for British capitalism, and appealing fetishes for ruins porn fanatics – the ‘disasterbators’ whose idea of a time after capitalism is also a time after people.

Former Great Northern Railway warehouse. Pic: Toby Price

Former Great Northern Railway warehouse. Pic: Toby Price

In an economy that talks the language of flux, dynamism and growth, then, The Island remains stubbornly stagnant: the ghostly scar of an industrial past caught strangely out of time. On the surface, little has happened there in the 22 years since Boots’ closed their operations and now one of Britain’s ‘core cities’ is left with an unproductive blot just a mile from the city centre. The Island is a wasteland.

But what does it mean to say that a space is a ‘wasteland’? From whose perspective is it going to waste? Or, more accurately, ‘from what perspective is this land going to waste?’. The answer – I want to suggest – is capital’s.  A wasteland does not produce (enough) surplus value; either materially (in the form of things) or immaterially (in the form of ideas, creativity, affects). It is, therefore, land going to waste (the origins of the term ‘wasteland’ can actually be traced back to feudalism: it referred to the unproductive land of a manor).

To understand why this land is currently being ‘wasted’, it’s important to look at the changes in the forms of production in British society over the last few decades. This is a change that’s ongoing, and I think has been overstated by certain commentators (on both the left and the right), but as an ongoing tendency it’s an argument that I think has a certain amount of mileage to it – and which is born out in the geographies and cityscapes of Britain today.  Anyway, the argument is that we’ve switched from a predominantly Fordist form of production in which we produce ‘things’, to a post-Fordist form of production in which we produce knowledge. The former provided near full employment but was environmentally destructive and work was horribly monotonous, with a strict division of labour and products that were more than the sum of their parts.  As Steve Wright notes, it was an approach to work that decreed ‘you are not paid to think‘. In the latter, however, that’s precisely what you are paid to do: work becomes the production of knowledge and the circulation of affects (or indeed, what you aren’t paid to do). For Maurizio Lazzarato, ‘the activity that produces the “cultural content” of the commodity…a series of activities that are not normally recognized as “work” – in other words, the kinds of activities involved in defining and fixing cultural and artistic standards, fashions, tastes, consumer norms, and, more strategically, public opinion…since the end of the 1970s [these activities] have become the domain of what we have come to define as “mass intellectuality”’. Here, the city – in fact the entire social terrain – replaces the factory as the site of capital’s reproduction. In this light, activities such as spending time on facebook constitute work (Ian Bogost’s cow clicker makes this point wonderfully), but there are some profound effects on the geographies and ecologies of meat space too.

Jubilee Campus Extension and ‘Aspire’

Nottingham illustrates this point well. Raleigh Park and Jubilee Campus spring immediately to mind: formerly factories where things were made (bicycles and cigarettes), they’re now campuses with ‘signature architecture’. Those workers who ‘aren’t paid to think’ are in China now; and richer, ‘luckier’ people are paid to think on these spaces now (though of course many more pay to think – including a large number of rich Chinese students, who study Business on the site of the former Raleigh factory, with Raleigh bikes now made in China). MAKE – the architects of the recent Jubilee Campus extension – make much of the, ahem, ‘environmentally sustainable’ nature of their work (unlike, of course, those filthy factories), as well as talking about how the space now mixes ‘research, study, business and leisure’ (though without going quite so far as to say ‘all at the same time’). More than this, though, it’s Aspire which is the absolute symbol of this shift – a piece of ‘pure ideology’ if ever there was one, telling those rendered unproductive by the end of fordist labour that if they ‘aspire’ and work hard enough they might be allowed in to experience an altogether more pleasant form of exploitation. 

It’s my contention, then, that The Island is another manifestation of the shift in production. It’s ‘wasted’ because of the failure of post-fordism to really establish itself – particularly in light of the fluctuations of global finance: not only does it not need all the people that fordism did, leaving thousands unemployed – it doesn’t need the land either (of the remaining Boots buildings, all are now employed in classic post-fordist/biopolitical ways: there’s an art gallery and studios, and a ‘bioscience business incubator‘).

Of course, there’s also the usual sorry tale of poor local governance, bickering, nepotism, competing interests and economic downturn to contend with on The Island – all of which remind us that although this space has largely been produced by the actions of the bourgeoise, they don’t act as a single homogenous class but are themselves riddled with conflict. The upshot of this is that since Boots left the site in 1990, the history of The Island is less one of ‘first as farce and then as tragedy’ – more one as ‘first as farce, then as farce. Then as farce again’.

The first plan to redevelop was announced in 1990 and was Boot’s own.  At the time, they had a property arm, and they sought to redevelop the site at a cost of £150m. According to an Evening Post article from the time, this redevelopment was going to feature ‘a hotel, luxury apartments, a series of offices, a World Trade Centre and an industrial heritage museum. About 2,500 people will eventually work on the site…If [planning] is approved, construction will start in 1992…The redevelopment includes redigging the canal for leisure use’ and its commercial hub ‘will be the World Trade Centre’. The early 90s recession put paid to that plan, however, and the site was bought by the City Council for £2m in 1992.

Boots' proposed redevelopment. Image from the Nottingham Evening Post, November 1990

Boots’ proposed redevelopment. Image from the Nottingham Evening Post, November 1990

The council then put in a successful bid for funding from Michael Hesletine’s City Challenge scheme (I’ve not seen the bid, but I’ve been told it was ‘genuinely quite grassroots oriented’). This money, however, was soon diverted to cleaning up the site, which was heavily polluted from over a hundred years of industry. In 1994, a plan by Lincoln based developer called Simons was announced (drawing on City Challenge money).  On the 22nd March of that year, the Nottingham Evening Post wrote:

with the development comes an initial promise of 1,300 jobs.  And that may rise to 2,000 when the site is fully occupied in 1998-9…For St Ann’s welfare rights officer Wullie Kirkwood, the number of jobs created is the yardstick by which City Challenge must measure its success…”When it was first mooted, we thought we were going to get plenty of jobs, but they seemed to go on hold when private sector money wasn’t forthcoming. Now something seems to have been struct up to get it back on course”, he said…Councillor Jon Collins, chairman of the City Challenge board, believes the plans…will create the number of jobs claimed. “I think they are realistic predictions if you look at the balance of the development…”…John Taylor, leader of Nottingham City Council said he would judge the success of Island Street and City Challenge on his “so what” test. He explained: “If in five years we ask a youth in St. Ann’s or Sneinton about City Challenge and he says “so what” then we have failed”. He is confident the scheme will ensure that the answer is not a negative one.

Nottingham residents will already be familiar with the name Jon Collins. For those who aren’t it: it’ll crop up again in part 2. Suffice to say his and John Taylor’s optimism was misplaced – the development never came to fruition and at some point the land was bought by the mysterious Guernsey based Heathcote Holdings. In 2004 they announced a ‘mixed use’ redevelopment. They opened a sales office in the Hockley area of Nottingham and installed a countdown clock until work began.

It got to zero and nothing happened.

The sales office, meanwhile, was shut for a couple of years with this still emblazoned across its window:

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