authenticity & resources: mango&lime on the top deck of the bus
I have been stuck by writing for a while; reviews come easy, but the institutions have begun to feel like a sticky floor that holds me. I don’t know how to write about them; my words are often too hurried, rushed out. Everything is so urgent, but I am stuck; I have held onto things for fear of botching them, scared because I don’t have one perfect answer. But what the fuck does perfect mean, here ~on twp~ where we have made a career of being quick, impulsive, cowboys w our regard for things. 2 weeks ago, Gab wrote a review of the show at soft spot in manchester, she said ‘i want it all to be secret or incidental; for the art to feel like it has landed here without ego, before organisation and before ‘we are a registered charity.’’ I am bored of waiting for an answer to arrive. I hope you read this with a generosity for the gaps I leave, for my lack of singular ending and solution. View this more as a moment in time, me writing using what’s within arm’s reach.
On Thursday 6th Feb, I rushed from work to the dark gallery space at the Chisenhale. Sharp contrast between office lights and tea rounds; I was there for an ~artist in convo~, Imran Perretta with Jemma Desai. It was to accompany the show that was on, Imran’s film <the destructors>. I reviewed the show at Spike Island last year, but I felt like I had loose ends still. The talk began with a kind of verbal cleansing: Jemma asked us to close our eyes, centre ourselves n flip the switch, be happily present in the space. Imran then read an acknowledgement of the land that the gallery n this talk took place in: Tower Hamlets, a borough that has the largest Bangladeshi population in the uk (~half of all Bangladeshis in the uk live in Tower Hamlets), the single largest migrant group in the borough (32% of the Tower Hamlets population), and then charting demographic shifts against the backdrop of gentrification, communities being priced out n the loss of social housing. Bangladeshis have the highest overall relative poverty rate of any ethnic group in the UK, around two thirds of us live below the poverty line. Two. Thirds. Imran mentioned that he is the first artist of Bangladeshi heritage to show at the Chisenhale. primed canvas, reset, clocking into IRL outside this weird dark room - it is good to remind people that only come to east london for the art, or now because of the art, of what was here before them.
Imran spoke about how the commission started, at the point of workshops with locals n community groups - he described the workshops as an exercise in diverting public money to these focused local groups, rather than just using people and their experiences, harvesting them for subject matter to grab, co-opt n deploy within the film. He said, they just had some money for workshops, n it felt urgent to hold space for these kids in Tower Hamlets, even if they were just sat about playing xbox. It struck me as a deeply important thing to do, as a kind of restorative gesture, considering the tender and specific subject of the work. It felt like generosity n care; but also deeply deeply rare. I was surprised, because I am never satisfied in these kinds of buildings - galleries have begun to represent a deep and insatiable kind of hunger to me. It was weird to feel my hunger being met.
Saturday afternoon, 7th March. I got off the bus and bustled into the Chisenhale again, this time to the front room in a smaller crowd. It was a panel rather than an in convo, with 4 speakers: Rizwan Hussain, Director of Jawaab (a grassroots activist org challenging islamophobia; they host political workshops n publish the products of conversations on their blog); Nurull Islam, Co-founder of the Mile End Community Project (also a grassroots org, created to fill the gap where state provision of youth services should’ve been); and Zeinab Saleh & Lamisa Khan, founders of Muslim Sisterhood (again, we find ourselves @ the grassroots, founded & run by young muslim women for muslim women; representation but also discrete, healing action). All 3 of these organisations and initiatives were set up to fill a gap that existed in the communities these speakers are a part of; Mile End Community Project started in the mid-90s, Jawaab in the early 10s, Muslim Sisterhood most recently a few years ago in the late 10s. They all spoke around this commonality, this experience of interacting with other more established, powerful institutions for money, resources, space, a stable and bankable kind of capital. None of them had the power to just ~do~ the things that needed to be done, because of a lack of something; this lack was met by the institutions that had the capacity to meet their needs, and at the point of this lack, that was where their questions started.
Nurull remembered the time Channel 4 got in touch with Mile End Community Project, wanting them to act as fixers for a documentary they were making about chicken shops; facing the prospect of no payment beyond a couple of pizzas, they decided to sack it off and make the film themselves. There is a deep and understood difference between these 2 real/potential films about chicken shops: one made by a media giant (regardless of how edgy its programming history may be) wanting to use local grassroots organisations as fixers to find some vague authentic truth about chicken shops // the other made by a local org that doesn’t need to seek out any authentic truth, the ~authentic~ isn’t even a consideration bc it’s banal and irrelevant, a mundane fact or asset - the lack takes the shape of ££s and resources, skills and industry contacts, distribution and exhibition. Regardless of quality and actual output - between these 2 models I have a kind of vague fuzzy question about who wants what: authenticity or resources.
For organised institutions with registered charity numbers and established links with funding bodies, what you’re looking for is the soft capital of authenticity. A scenario, if u pls: ur a gallery. Your programming inevitably leaves a section of the local population behind, and you’re looking to sincerely fill that gap by engaging this community. To do that you’ve got to: 1) build a relationship with an existing organisation that’s already doing work on the ground with the community you want to reach out to, or 2) run your outreach efforts in-house, grow the relationship from scratch with the community directly. If you want this to end in exhibition, then you will probably need to invest a considerable amount of time, money, and/or space. And, if we skip along here, once you’ve got to the end of that, when you’ve got some like, cool exhibition output that’s imbibed with the shimmering social capital of this marginalised, previously forgotten group - that’s when I’m going to stomp in and have a critical look at things. And I’m a dickhead, so I’m probably going to point out that although this is nice, a real cute try, this is a plaster over the problem and it doesn’t amount to the structural change that is really needed to meet the gap head-on. And I’ll probably be right. Because you’ve not changed all that much; there’s still a gap there, you’ve just groomed the community that was missing to meet you where you are. Whether you’ve partnered with a grassroots org, or worked with that community directly; how much have you, big organised institution, allowed yourself to be changed too? How much can you change? How can you ensure that in a few years when this project is over, this problem won’t re-emerge? And this previously excluded community, are they now set up to make stuff without your help? Or are they still dependent on you for the resources they need to make and affect change? It’s more than likely, in my pessimistic scenario, that you’ve just lowkey done a Tokenism™️. You’ve just taken the social capital and run, got way more out of the interaction than you’ve given; and even if you don’t see it, the community you’ve worked with will - because they’re the ones on the harsh end of it, dealing with the lack first hand. I almost feel bad for big organisations; it’s a loaded dice you’re throwing, your chances of getting it right are so so slim because the system just isn’t set up in a way that supports this being done properly, sustainably, or for impact to be lasting. There isn’t the infrastructure or expectation to prioritise longer-term relationships, mutual care, or transference of power. The wider sector doesn’t prioritise power balances that would ~be~ equitable; from the current definitions of curation & professionality that are being taught in art schools, to the funding bodies that have a direct hand in defining what public value, evaluation and best practice actually are.
If you’re a smaller community org, the question of acquiring resources seems relatively simple in comparison to the scenario above; surely just bag the funding? But where are you getting that from pls. In the year of our lord 2020, the government might have ended austerity on paper, but the reality in London right now is that money for public services and social provisions has literally never been scarcer. And you have to bend so much of yourself to get a slice of what’s there - Riz described how Jawaab had become a registered charity, to make applying for funding more straightforward. In doing so they discovered that this professionalisation imposed severe restrictions on their ability to carry out the work they do: freely discussing the affect and shape of an islamophobic state, and how to challenge it in direct and practical ways. So they stopped, they undid the process, they’re going back to not being a registered charity. But their decision isn’t one that all grassroots community projects can make, or actually want to make. Maybe in this one instance, I sighed a sigh of good relief, unclenched and chuckled at the bureaucracy of it all, but it doesn’t happen often.
There’s such tension around equity in these specific transactions, and even the question of what conditions are necessary for these transactions to be mutually equitable (can they ever be equitable?) I genuinely wana know. How can you, a large organisation, equitably exchange your vast resources for the authority of the authentic, the social capital of marginalised communities when you work with them? Is that possible? And are there better ways of funding community activism and social change; a way that doesn’t force grassroots orgs into a rigid expectation of professionality that inevitably attempts to crush any radicality they might have had?
In my honest, humble and unsolicited opinion: galleries should strive to their utmost to serve a public. I don’t think this is a particularly radical thing for me to say, but what if galleries were happily accessible public services like libraries, parks n lidos. As the state’s provisions for the most vulnerable amongst us shrinks and starves, I think galleries, as public buildings that actually receive continual and steady funding (unlike youth clubs), have a duty of care to their local constituents to provide something for them, something sincere and solid. Hearing about the workshops at the start of Imran’s commission was a kick to my chest; this force that tells me that it could be different, that it should be different, that art can make itself socially useful or caring. But why are marginalised artists tasked with the job of leaving a trail of progress behind them, when they’ve got enough to be getting on with? If we’re looking for change, if we’re looking to fill the gaps, there are projects that have been doing this already, they’re continually being set up - in the mid 90s, early 10s, late 10s - and they’re doing it without steady access to stable funding streams.
At the end of the panel on Saturday 7th March, it came to questions. A friend stuck his hand up; Hassan Vawda, he asked ‘if funding is an issue, and this relationship between Mile End Community Project already exists [it does: Chisenhale listed Mile End Community Project & Jawaab as Community Partners in their Trustees Report for the year ending 31 March 2019], why don’t you do a funding swap for a year? Why don’t the Chisenhale swap yearly budgets with Mile End Community Project?’ Reader, I nearly gasped aloud. According to the Charity Commission, Chisenhale Gallery filed a total income of £745,354 for the year ending 31 March 2019 and £642,575 for the year ending 31 March 2018. Of that, they’re carrying £244,485 forward into 2020. Mile End Community Project is listed on Companies House rather than the Charity Commission, so their 2019 returns will be filed in August, but for 2018 they filed a yearly income of £33,979 for the year ending 31 October 2018. Of that, they carried £4,972 forward into 2019. The Chisenhale’s yearly wallet is enormous in comparison to Mile End Community Project - twenty times it if, like me, you’re bad at maths - yet in the grand scheme of things, it’s not actually that much in comparison to other galleries in Tower Hamlets. The Whitechapel Gallery’s returns showed income of £4,298,879 for the year ending 31 March 2018 (their 2019 returns were 49 days overdue at time of writing this specific paragraph - naughty), with - I believe this is true, but pls someone check bc I also can’t believe it - £17,874,623 being brought forward into 2019. All this money in Tower Hamlets and still, there’s little to no filling this gap. Tower Hamlets is still the 10th most deprived local authority in England, with the highest rate of child poverty in Great Britain (31% of children live in families below the poverty line, almost double the national rate of 17%).
We all know the arts are bad at being inclusive, we all (hopefully) read Create’s Panic Report and were able to intellectually understand the importance of throwing the doors open; but I now think we need to actually fucking ask ourselves sincere, critical questions about how we logistically do that, and more importantly, we need to re-up on why we’re doing it. As public spaces and services close, their funding cut to the bone, as the state withdraws and starves it outer edges, galleries and the arts are increasingly talking to a smaller and smaller audience, while remaining one of the few public sector spaces that regularly receive a considerable amount of funding - be it public or private. What is their social responsibility here - really, what is it? I leave the Chisenhale panel as quickly as I can, my face is hot, my collarbone flushed and embarrassed. I’m hungry; but I’ve got a pot of Mango&Lime from Pret in my jacket pocket. I get on the bus, sit on the top deck, the seat at the front on the right, just above the driver. The arts could be changing the shape of society; could be providing a safe, nurturing space, giving back, facilitating the fucking creative expression, or just channelling some energy into something productive or generative, for a community that’s facing a London that is increasingly hostile to its existence. The arts could be nurturing them, and it would only benefit us; the only thing we’d get back is more cultural output, more culturally engaged viewers. We could be genuinely accommodating, inclusive, expansive in how we define ourselves; all it would take is the relinquishing of <some> power, some resources, redistributing things that are clustered in tight concentration on one end. I pop open the pot of Mango&Lime, pull a fork out of the same pocket, squeeze the lime quarter over the mango chunks and jiggle them around a bit before I stab the smallest one with my fork and raise it to my mouth. Why don’t they just swap funding?