THE POTENTIAL OF ART IN COMMUNITY-LEAD CULTURAL GROWTH

The community events which have been held recently in aid of the families affected by the disaster at Grenfell tower show a strong sense of community. A testimony of a community which has put togetherness at the fore. And there are more events being held still. The whole community of London is pulling together to help, with music, sport, dance, performance, murals, stories, all bringing donation after donation to an exceedingly worthy cause.

Often when a community needs to heal it bleeds art and culture, bonding people together. Re-establishing community identity. Community DNA.

Art is a powerful tool for communities. Perhaps because the practice of creating community art is the most visible peak of the aggregated actions which distinguish a community from just a location with set apart peoples. A community’s art is a natural manifestation of that community’s culture and individuals. Art can offer communities strength.

Despite this today dozens of plans labelled as community development in the capital and around the country are airbrushing away cultures and displacing communities in favour of economic opportunity.

More than ever we need unity. Not division of peoples. Yet the perpetual gentrification of our capital is an unrelenting echo of the unpalatable plague of us and them sentiment swelling in the UK.

To challenge this threat we must recognise real cultural value in community identity. What turns a place into a community is how people interact with the place, not the place itself. And the most visible and representative result of those interactions is community art, worn by community spaces like heraldry.

What do I mean by Art and Community Art?

By community art I mean: places which provide ripe and open potential for discussion; collaboration; creative production; and the art brought about as result of those places.

This collaborative potential can be provided by a theatre, garden, café, music venue, gallery, or any space offering itself for sharing ideas, resources, joining people together, fostering new thinking, and strengthening social arenas.

Without places for this the sense of community doesn’t occur in our cities. That is a sore loss, because community is common unity: something which we, the UK, are in urgent need of uplifting.

The sole motivation of any community development scheme should be to aid the interests of that neighbourhood and reinforce its culture. Unfortunately in some cases culture is now little more than a term bandied around on development proposals in the hope of appearing to give local interests primacy.

The reality of failure to value community interests are painted plainly by the Heygate estate and Elephant and Castle redevelopment scheme commenced in the 2000s:

In 2006 Southwark council promised that of the 5,300 new and developed homes which were proposed for construction, 50% would be affordable housing. By 2010 Peter John, speaking on behalf of Southwark council said that 25% would be affordable, but that they were ‘hoping for 35%.’

In reality the social rent housing provided just 82. An insult to the hundreds of families making up an entire community priced out of homes and forced into displacement.

Where does community art come into this?

The fabric of a culture and community is in how people interact with and within an area. Visual art, music, literature, traditions and trends, collective interests, niche cultures to be championed. One example being the UK garage music scene which calls The Elephant & Castle pub its birthplace.

The parties hosted by the 250 year old London pub to which Elephant and Castle owes its name, were the start of a new kind of music which for many people across the world put South London culture on their radar. In 2015, the pub was torn down despite protests and widespread anger amongst South-Londoners and UK garage fans for whom the pub was cultural heritage, disregarded.

This can hardly be called community development or remodelling but outright replacement.

Cultures like UK garage tend to occur most in city suburbs and as a result are repeatedly put at risk by development plans. The argument is often made that a growing city’s suburbs necessarily become the expanded centre and the suburbs move outwards.

But for many it is difficult to believe that developments like Elephant and Castle are taking place because there is no space in the centre when half-empty high-rises rear their heads across London’s skyline from East to West and North to South.

For argument’s sake however let’s imagine for a moment that it is actually city expansion which is causing these suburban replacement schemes.

Were this the case, surely any plans to change can still benefit those living in the area and the community art and culture there first and foremost before any other priorities?

Unfortunately we repeatedly find that the sole focus for the development is put on attracting commerce, creating sources of revenue, and erecting shiny things which say this is a thriving, stylish place; a metropolis which neatly meets the needs of the cosmopolitan social elite.

Put simply, this cannot continue to occur at the cost of entire neighbourhoods filled with livelihoods. There is legislation in place to make community displacement impossible but it is currently a mesh of loopholes in favour of the developer’s pocket.

The issue has reached a crisis point but the solution is a simple one.

For communities to survive, the issue must be escalated through the courts to put sanctions into effect, as a matter of urgency, which safeguard the rights of residents against developers and elevates sites like the Elephant & Castle pub to statuses of protected heritage.

Because our heritage is no longer limited to the castles and manor houses of history. Our heritage is multifaceted, radiant, and very much alive but in need of protection.

This toxic us and them attitude which Britain has found itself dealing with today has unity as its only antidote. Which is why it is infinitely important now that our capital city puts its communities first in development.

Communities themselves must leading the discussion and make the decisions on what betterment means for that community.

The Nomadic Community Gardens in Shoreditch London are a fine example of where artistic development has been led by the community itself.

A short walk from Brick Lane and you arrive at vibrantly decorated wall with an unassuming opening. On the other side, if you venture in, is a space bursting with art and community value. Allotments for the Shoreditch locals are permeated with sculpture, music, and just about every form of art out there.

The initiative is in place to improve quality of life for those living in the city. It is a shared space to combat inner-city alienation of individuals and groups. It has a bar where visitors and locals alike can get a drink, make donations to the scheme, buy some vegetables grown on-site, and just sit and talk.

The infusion of art into small-scale business; eco-initiative; humanitarian initiative; and community shared space, has resulted in a tactile environment which demands that you experience feeling involved in the community just by walking through, even as a visitor.

To stroll around the gardens is more than visiting Shoreditch and seeing shops, spaces, and people. By looking around the gardens one acts as an ear to the priorities and passions of individuals who have contributed there.

It is not just art to behold, but in that space community opinions are aired and shared through the art present. Metalwork sculptures twice the size of a man strike you with a sense of the simple grandeur that is the gesture of even small community art efforts. Politically astute poster art intones like a marching chant that it is not just Banksy and Politically harrowing artist who can scream with a raw voice of urgency.

In fact it can hardly be denied that community artworks often take on a more corporal determination to their message than their widely acclaimed, gallery occupying counterparts, because their very existence does more than represent, but are voices needing to be heard. Visible voices out in the open which silently reveal a multitude of opinions and active, interlacing lives within one community. The gardens reveal local opinion and passion to the community itself; to passers-by; and, if they will listen, to those in power.

It is a space which opens itself up for local opinions and priorities to be heard and strengthened. If elevated to their rightful importance spaces like this might be a priority in all development schemes because it truly has the community interests in mind.

As Grenfell has taught us, countless letters, emails, complaints, and pleas sent hurtling into impermeable walls of bureaucracy often go ignored. If we were to give places like this due priority then it may not be so easy for community voices to stay unheard.

HANNAH PLACE

This article was originally published at the-perception.com

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