It’s better to lose the right bid than to win the wrong one

An interview of Julia Rone with François Matarasso on art-washing, the cities we want to live in and how to navigate the waves and tides of cultural change

I first met François Matarasso almost ten years ago, when he was invited by Yuri Vulkovski, exectutive director of Reach for Change Bulgaria, at a seminar discussing the necessity to decentralize culture in Sofia and involve peripheral neighborhoods in the cultural life of the city. Back then, François Matarasso insisted on the need to foster a complex cultural ecology in peripheral neighbourhoods – allowing for traditional and contemporary artists, professionals and amateurs to coexist and work together.  

François is a writer and researcher, a community artist himself and a consultant who is always read to give his opinion and advice, turn upside-down our understanding of what we are doing, make us think, reflect on and question our preconceived ideas and meanwhile inspire us with the restlessness of his thought and his exceptional kindness.

All texts by François are available for free download online, inviting us to participate in his thought process and opening a dialogue in which we can participate. Throughout the years I have several times “lost myself” reading piece after piece on his blogs in which he analyses fascinating cultural projects – from artists playing music in hospitals to make the last hours of the dying more beautiful to prison theatre to an old woman lying in a huge bed in the middle of the street who tells to whoever has time to stop and listen her story, raising attention to the invisibility of old people in our societies obsessed with youth and the relentless race to success.  

Bed, a project, conceived and realised by unprofessional actors from the theatre company of elderly people Entelechy Arts. Source

The writing of François, as he himself acknowledges, disrupts methodologies of art and sociology to create new work that stands or falls in its own terms. The basis of his project Regular Marvels which led to the publication of five books is the belief that “Shaping your own cultural identity – and having it recognised by others – is central to human dignity and growth. If people can’t represent themselves culturally how can they do so in any other way, including politically? If people are only imagined and portrayed by others, how can they be full, free and equal members of society?

And yet, in every society, people’s access to culture is very uneven. Those who identify with dominant cultures have no difficulty creating and promoting their values. Others, passively or actively denied cultural resources, platforms and legitimacy, remain on the margins.”

Throughout his career François has explored- both practically and theoretically – participatory art as a way for those from the margins to regain their voice, to tell their own stories, to participate in culture and society on their own terms. The democratic core of his work lies in the notion of art as a “parliament of dreams”: “Whatever else it is or does, in a democratic society, art enables citizens to think about, debate and negotiate their changing values. It is in this sense that I describe art as the parliament of dreams. Parliament, from the French ‘parler’, to speak, is the symbolic and actual heart of a democracy…”.

In his latest book, A restless Art: How participation Won and why it Matters, François traces masterfully the radical history of community art and the way it has been increasingly co-opted by contemporary artists and the state in a more tamed “participatory art” version that often does not allow communities to set the terms and goals of their participation. In the book, he studies the concepts, intentions and ethics of participatory art through a masterful analysis of a number of projects, their successes, shortcomings and illusions.

The cover of A Restless Art; How Participation Won and Why it Matters; Source

It is a brilliant book and as his other work it is available for download online for free. As Francois shares “Part of community art’s radicalism was its rejection of art markets and the commodification of culture. In the age of the ‘creative industries and the cultural economy’, I have to admit that project hasn’t gone too well, but the principles remain valid. Actually, it’s even more important to defend non-commercial and uneconomic cultural practices today than it was then.”

In this interview for dVERSIA, we discuss what it means to be a successful Capital of culture, the neoliberal tides that often carry us in directions we don’t want to go and the limits of trying to steer political change through art.

JR: What has been your involvement with the capital of Culture and how has it evolved over the years?

FM: Like a lot of people, the first time I noticed the European capital of culture programme was in 1990 when Glasgow was selected as the UK capital of Culture. That was one of the most significant shifts in the position of culture within European Policy. Because until then the European capitals of culture I am remembering – they were Florence, Athens, Paris – exactly what you would expect. And nobody noticed them. But if you look at this list of the first capitals of culture and you add Glasgow after Florence, Athens, Paris, it was a shock.

Glasgow in 1989 did not have good reputation. It was a tough city. It was a post-industrial, no it wasn’t even a post-industrial city– it was a city that was losing its industrial base and had not yet become a different kind of city. And I think that Glasgow saw it as a way to find a new future for itself. And it’s not an accident that it happened in that moment historically. Glasgow was the first city that really needed the “Capital of culture” title and it was linked with this marketing, advertising campaign “Glasgow’s miles better” and it was really a very deliberate attempt to transform the image of a city. It was linked with some of the beginnings of the first culture-led regeneration. That was the first time I really noticed and paid attention to the programme.

JR: How were they brave enough to apply back then? What you describe is a significant shift in the program?

FM: I think there were some visionary cultural and political leaders in Glasgow at the time. The UK was also probably the first country to adopt a competitive approach to the title. Until then, it had simply been a national award. And of course, when it was France’s turn, they would give it to Paris.

I think it was done competitively in the late 1980s in the UK for two reasons. Partly, because we had a Thatcherite Government. And so competitive approaches were absolutely in their lifeblood. And secondly, they simply didn’t care about culture so they had no interest in who won the bid. So politically, the easiest way to do it, was “oh shit, we have to be the capital of culture, well, we’ll just make a competition and whoever wins it, will get it”. So Glasgow won the competition. And that model of competition has since been adopted by most countries since then.

To move forward a bit. Glasgow was really important because it had a story. There is no story in the idea of Athens as a European capital of Culture or Paris capital of culture. But as soon as people said Glasgow European Capital of Culture, people’s reaction was “you are joking”. And suddenly you had a story. You had people’s interest. And because Glasgow was largely seen to be very successful in those times – And of course, success is a very complex and contested idea in all of these things – But, you know, it was successful in engaging a lot of people. I would argue that it was even successful in creating controversy. There was a lot of activism from artists and writers in Glasgow complaining where the money was going. Actually, that in itself, I would argue, is part of what Capital of Culture can do.

The value of the Capital of Culture Title is to invite a city, a region to ask itself who it is and who it wants to be. For me that might be the biggest criterion of success. If at the end of it, the place has had a useful debate with itself about what kind of place it wants to be, it would get the most of this process.

So then, in 1997 I published “Use or Ornament” which is a book about the social impact of participation in the arts. It was the right document of that era.

JR: Yes, in fact it was an obligatory reading for me in university. Could you tell us a bit more about its main argument?

FM: I laid out there a table of 50 potential impacts of participation in the arts. It was the first work that mapped diverse consequences of participation in the arts: from changing people’s feeling of local identity to education. It was a map, a landscape of how art was relevant to social policy. And because this book was the right thing at the right moment, people started asking me to speak at Capital of Culture events, to give lectures, etc. That is how I started paying attention to Capital of Culture.

The other thing that happened that did give me a better insight happened in 1998 when it was again the UK’s turn to be the capital of culture. Of course, now the world was completely different. First, there was a Labour government. There was a movement of possibility that many people felt even if they didn’t instinctively warm to Tony Blair. You couldn’t have lived, as I did, 17 years under a Thatcherite government and not suddenly feel “Someone has opened the windows. There is some movement, some new possibility in the air”.

So in 1998 the UK had to nominate a new city. Straightaway I was asked by Gateshead in the North East of England if I could advise them and help them on their bid. They decided they would do a joint bid between Newcastle and Gateshead. Newcastle and Gateshead are like Buda and Pest – they are on the two sides of the Tyne River but they are completely separate cities.

Newcastle is the ancient city – it was a Roman city, a Norman city, it has all the power and beautiful buildings, cultural resources, etc. Gateshead was basically an industrial city that grew big in the 19th century and  J.B. Priestly who is an English writer wrote a famous book in 1934 called “English Journey”, at the height of the Great Depression, he walked around Britain. He wrote about Gateshead “if anyone ever made money in Gateshead, they made sure not to spend it here”.

JR: Not a very nice remark!

FM: That’s exactly like a lot of places in the UK. And it happens still today. I was hearing today that Amazon opened a new distribution centre in Doncaster. Great, 2000 jobs, but none of the money they create would stay in Doncaster.

JR: And also the quality of the jobs is highly problematic.

FM: Yes, precisely. So I worked on Newcastle-Gateshead’s bid. For me it was all about talking to the people. And the one thing I told the people from Gateshead the first time I met them and that I still believe was a wise advice was that it was better to lose the right bid than to win the wrong one. The reason I said this was that I had in mind what had happened with Sheffield, another industrial city, steel city, in the 1990s.

Sheffield bid and won the World Student Games. There is another date that matters here – the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. What they did for the first time was that they proved that you didn’t need to have anyone at the stadium to make money at the Olympic Games. Because they understood that how you make money was through the television rights. What you needed the people in the stadium for was to create an atmosphere. You were creating an atmosphere that you could then sell as “great TV entertainment”, right? That was the beginning of these international events as spectacular events, and you could absolutely say this is part of the neoliberal logic, the bread and circus’ of the neoliberal economy.

So in the 1990s Sheffield had bid for something called The World Student Games. I think the leaders of Sheffield had seen what had happened in Los Angeles and thought “We would have fantastic audiences, we would sell the television rights”. But of course there is no television audience for students. So Sheffield built a whole new range of sports facilities which they finally demolished only a few years ago. They got themselves in massive debt which caused real problems for the city for many years after.

That was what I had in mind when I said it’s better to lose the right bid than to win the wrong one. If you win the bid, you have to do what you said. My approach was essentially about having community conversations and shaping an idea.

The decision was announced in 2003. They didn’t win. It went to Liverpool. There were 12 cities bidding so it was all very interesting. Liverpool, Belfast, Bedford, etc. One of the reasons I said “it is better to lose the right bid, then to win the wrong one” was Belfast. The Good Friday agreement had been signed in 1998. I had worked in Northern Ireland and I had a lot of affection for the place and the people. For the first time in my adult life and childhood, peace was coming to North of Ireland. And I said “If I were the British government and I thought that giving the Capital of Culture title to Belfast would cement the peace process, why wouldn’t you do it”. In the end, this is a political choice. It can be dressed up in all kinds of criteria, independent panels, etc. But in the end I can’t accept that any national government would let the title going to a city that it doesn’t want. Because it happens once in 20 years.”

What Newcastle-Gateshead did was to implement the programme anyway. They called it Culture 10. It ran until 2010 and it was a programme of cultural activities and events they had decided would be right for the city. They made what was right for the city. From the 12 cities that bid, they were the only ones that were not depressed and could carry on with the programme. Also, probably with less pressure than Liverpool in terms of delivering results.

Since then the Capital of Culture has grown, it settled down and doubled. There are now two capitals of culture. Now they’ve settled down to a fairly standard model. There is a growing level of participatory work.  You guess a mix of high profile artistic commissions that they hope will get attention and critical acclaim. It’s not a difficult thing to make a success of the Capital of Culture. You just have to hire the right artists that are currently in fashion and then the whole world will come to see what they’ve done in your city. Whether what they’ve done in your city has any meaning for your city is a whole other world.

I remember some years ago, suddenly this image came to me: there is a part of the contemporary art world that is a bit like what the Catholic Church used to be before the Vatican Council, when the Catholic Services were all in Latin. Which meant that you could go to a mass in the Philippines or London, and it would be the exact same thing and you would have to adapt to it. I think it’s the exact same thing. You could go and see a contemporary dance performance or a contemporary art exhibition in Dubai or Bogota or Manhattan and it would be the exact same thing. I am talking about this high level international field here, where art just circulates in relation to money and power.

JR: And there is certain universalism to it that is really remarkable.

FM: In the end, like the Catholic Church then, contemporary art is in service of elite power.  

In the project Restoke people who have moved or who have been moved into Burslem, Stoke on Trent, tell their stories. Source

JR: But may I ask you here about the other side of coin? While preparing for this interview, I read a lot of articles on the European Capital of Culture what struck me was how many of these articles focus on participation – was it participatory enough. Almost all of them presume participation is good. So how would you explain this focus on participation, or should we even maybe call it “co-optation of participation”?

FM: Part of what I say in my new book is an exploration of the normalisation of “participation”. Participatory art when I started my career 30 years ago was radical and controversial and the art world didn’t want it. The art world now is very happy to have it mostly. And some artists are happy and excited about it with good reasons. Others see it as a way of gaining political legitimacy or gaining bigger audiences or responding to social change without actually changing their offer.

The thing is when it comes to the Capital of Culture project, any city or any city manager has to accept a number of realities. One is that expectation and demand will always far exceed your capacity to meet it. You won’t have enough money to fund all the projects that people bring forward. People will be angry because their vision of what is happening is not the one being chosen.

That is almost inevitable because you will need to meet at least three kinds of imperatives. First, the expectations of the political leadership in your city, region and national government. Second, you want the respect of your peers in the international art and cultural world because this is your chance as a cultural manager to show what you can do. And thirdly, the expectations of local people themselves. And the big danger is that you give more attention to the first two than to the last one. But the first two types of actors really don’t care. They just want it to be a success, no matter how that can be spun, right, so they want the story.

The difficult truth is that most people are not aware of the Capital of Culture program. If you asked people today in Europe, what is the Capital of culture in 2019, I doubt you would find one in a 100 who could tell you. And the numbers of people who would actually go there and experience anything are tiny, whereas the people who really will experience it are the people who live there. So you should get it right for them.

And again, this is what I was saying about Newcastle-Gateshead, the trick of the good Capital of Culture is you make it work for the city and then what you’ve done is so attractive and also so authentic. There is a limit to ordinary people’s appetite for the products of international art world laid out as festival products.

The image of cultural tourism that works for people, is if you were to imagine that you stop for an evening in a rural town in Ireland, and you push the door of the pub, and they are playing music and drinking Guinness, and they open the door for you and say “sit down”, you feel you are experiencing genuinely authentic Irish culture. Mostly what we don’t want is to go somewhere and see something that has been manufactured for our pleasure or our money.

JR: Well, a little more provocative question in this respect. This year Plovdiv in Bulgaria won the Capital of Culture title. Plovdiv has been historically a multi-ethnic city. It has a big Armenian community, Jewish community, Turkish community, it also has the Balkans’ biggest predominantly Roma neighbourhoods. And when the bid was being done there was a lot of talk about including all these communities. But after winning the title, all this has been side-lined. Now it’s a mixture between cool hip events in some of the neighbourhoods, festival events, and much less socially engaged art.

On the other hand, this trend very well reflects the national politics of Bulgaria and reflects the opinions of the majority of Bulgarian citizens. It is, in a very troubling way, authentic in corresponding to the very racist authoritative turn in Bulgarian politics. So whose voices matter? These ideas of participation have been imported to Bulgaria but democratically and politically speaking it is very difficult to push them through in an increasingly conservative society.

FM: Let me say a couple of things. First of all about authenticity. For me authenticity is not a good. Authenticity is a quality of things. Things can be authentic and inauthentic but it’s a mistake to think authenticity can be desirable in itself. Sorry to go back to a familiar example but the Nazis were extremely authentic. There was complete coherence in their actions, vision of society, organization and everything. Because there are ideas in the art and cultural field, theoretical ideas about the value of authenticity have been muddled up with questions of quality and morality. The paradox of authenticity in art is that there is nothing more artificial than art. It is a construct.

The second thing I would say is that the belief that the Capital of culture project can address deep seated social exclusion or attitudes is so naïve as to be frightening. Part of it is “okay, we’ve been given this capital of culture title, we must show our best selves to the world. So, of course, we are going to show how inclusive, non-racist and welcoming we are.” But you can’t turn around your society and city for a festival like this one, in which most people in the city will not participate at all, to begin with. There has to be some realism there.

The Capital of Culture can be successful only if it helps a city to talk about who it is, who it wants to be and where we are going. So this thing that you mention “We said we want to include the Roma, but we are not doing it” could be a good starting point for a discussion. And then of course it is a political question how do we move this forward, how do we respond to this. But at least we have to face up to the fact that we are saying one thing but we are doing another. We have to acknowledge this. Or at least some of us have to acknowledge this. Then we create new dynamics of political discourse.

Plovdiv – European Capital of Culture 2019. Source

JR: Moving beyond my provocative question about “authentic racism”, I understand why we need to be careful about authenticity as a good, something to be desired in itself. But what about authenticity as a commercial strategy? Every capital of culture tries to find what is unique about it and the result is that they all try to sell a similar story. They look for an authentic element but they seem almost standardised to me.

FM: Yes, they are trying to manufacture authenticity which of course you can’t do.

JR: Is this result of the logic of competition? Is it avoidable or is it something we should get used to and accept it?

FM: This is all part of a wider discourse about the place of culture in the global neoliberal economy. Culture has become economically massively important. Culture understood in its widest sense. The products of culture are one of the most important sectors of developed economies. The Capital of Culture is swept along by deep historical and geopolitical forces that require the value and promote certain things and not other kinds of things. So every city wants to have its artistic quarters – they young artists that come and make it hip. In the last five years, there are more and more artists who talk about “art-washing”.

JR: Interesting! I’ve read about “wiki-washing” in the digital context. But what is “art-washing”?

FM: Art-washing is using artists to soften the brutality of urban regeneration and exploitation. You could classically see it in London. Areas of the East End that, when I was living there 30 years ago, were absolutely working class places with their own pride, are now completely changed. Property prices have boomed so much, that it then became economically viable to renovate cheap housing. Already in the 1990s from America was coming this idea that artists moving into run down areas could make it hip and eventually renovate the run down area. That’s one thing when it was simply a social movement – what happened when artists simply needed to find where to live. Art-washing becomes politically controversial when in effect, property developers use artists to sanitize their procedures of privatising the city and its spaces.

When Liverpool became the Capital of Culture there was also a massive commercial redevelopment of a part of the city which is now called Liverpool One, which is a huge commercial retail office space. This is now private development. And some streets that used to be streets are now private, which means that security guards can stop you from walking there. Now there is no reason to be walking there unless you have money in your pockets because there is nothing to do there except buying Starbucks coffee.

So this is the argument against art-washing – that neoliberal forces are using art, exploiting artists, often the artists are either naïve or unaware, or sometimes some artists have sold themselves to this because they can get good money out of it and don’t care what the consequences are. So this is part of the answer to your question about the co-optation of participation, morality, etc.

The difficulty is that, I think, we see – again another metaphor that I often use is the difference between waves and tides. We see the waves because we are a little boat floating on the waves. We are pushed about by the waves, the winds, the storms and all that so we are very conscious of that. What we are not conscious about is the tide that may be carrying this in completely different direction to the one we think we are going in. And I think this neoliberal economy that we have lived with for 40 years is a massive tide and sometimes we think – because we can’t do anything about the tide – we can, if we are skilful sailors, we can go where we want with the winds and the waves. But we have to accept that, with Capital of Culture for instance, there are massive tides, a force of things we are not in control of.

There is an illusion shared by many politicians and particularly shared by managers, whether they are managers of cultural events or other things, that they are in control of the events, when they are not. They can only control how they respond to the winds and the waves.

JR: I remember in your book “A Restless Art” there was a very funny and sweet anecdote about some women that got together and started a reading club and something that happened completely unexpectedly was that a high percentage of them left their husbands. And you used this anecdote to describe the unpredictability of change through art, the difficulty to measure it and the uncertainty – do the participants or the funding bodies want it to begin with. So my last question is about change through art. Is it really naïve to believe that we can achieve political change through art? Can art change society and do we want this?

FM: I think that politicians, and we in our political discourse, often confuse the existence of something with our ability to control it.

So yes, absolutely. Art changes society all the time. Look at the explosion of popular culture in Britain in the 1960s. It transformed so much. The Sex Pistols are an example of artists who had very little ambition to change the world or even make sophisticated art. They had very little skill or training compared to the classical musicians who had spent 15 years learning how to play Mendelssohn. But they had far more effect on culture across the world than most other artists of their generation.

The mistake politicians make, and this is a much wider mistake, they make the mistake of believing that because something can happen, they can control it.

JR: Well, they managed to do this quite successfully in socialist times through a varieties of means.

FM: Yes, obviously as someone from an ex-communist country you know there was a very clear attempt to control art under the communist regimes. It was quite successful because it was a totalitarian regime. You close down all other possibilities of alternatives and you create repressive measures against anyone who went against it. There were also some good aspects to cultural life back then. I remember being in Serbia some years ago, talking to working class people who talked nostalgically about when their factory used to have their turn to go to the theatre. The whole factory would regularly go to concerts and the theatre and it was organized. And this was a value people miss now for all sorts of reasons.

But, apart from more totalitarian attempts to control what art does, and even they were successful only to varying degrees in different periods, my answer to your question is: yes, art does bring change. But the ability to control that change and the legitimacy of trying to do so are completely separate questions. And if there is a problem with the rhetoric of Capital of culture, it is that it has absolutely bought in into this naïve idea that “Oh, we will transform our city through the Capital of Culture program”. This is not going to happen.

JR: How does it happen then? How does change happen.

FM: Your city will change because you do a Capital of Culture Program. But it will change for many other reasons as well. It will change because migrants are arriving, because some global company has decided to invest in or disinvest from your city, for so many possible reasons. All of these things are not in your control. And some of what will happen, if you are a skillful sailor and can do the winds and the waves well, you will get closer to better outcomes.

But the idea that you can somehow fully manage the outcomes is naive…

If you have read management theory, most of the theories we still have were created by engineers in the late 19th century because factories were beginning. The people running factories were engineers and they conceived of the factory as a machine. And that influence on management theory still makes us see our social systems as machines.

In the last years, we started having conversation about seeing social systems as an ecology or an ecosystem, which is much more accurate and realistic, because then we can at least begin to understand that if you introduce the cane toad to Australia, the consequences can be devastating. So if you imagine your actions as being intervening in an ecosystem, you might have a bit more humility than if you see yourself as an engineer fixing a broken machine.

JR: Dear François, many thanks for this interview and for reminding us of the necessity to be humble when we try to achieve change through art! One of the ways in which we could better navigate not only the waves but also the tides of contemporary culture is to understand better what is going on and not drown in complexity. Talking to you has helped me at least understand better the Capital of Culture and has raised many more questions. But I leave them for future occasions. And for anyone interested in your work and in community art in particular, I once again recommend “Restless Art”.

Dance workshop with Antonio Buckar. Source

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