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the pasts and the presents: a small-scale public art activity

The challenge was to create a simple object to be placed in a public setting in a way that could interact with an existing sense of place, and potentially prompt new perspectives for users of that space. The place chosen was a major public square in central Birmingham (UK). This acts as a place for occasional protests and demonstrations, as

Aspects of the contemporary – a context for thinking about art

In another piece of writing, it was suggested that elements of thinking about art would need to be viewed within some understandings of the contemporary context. What is it about society today that shapes how art is produced, exchanged and consumed? What is unique today about the conditions within which artists work and audiences approach the art made? What follows

Art Theorising: a process of open exploration

Art theory, like art history, is often presented in terms of sequences, schools of thought, or key individual thinkers– looking both for unique perspectives and for linkages between these. Art theory has also tended to be Art Theory ie a bundle of expert knowledge, to be taught and written about; usually treated as a summary. It is less seen as

Art and identity

For the purposes of this piece of writing, art will be restricted very largely to painting and performance art of Europe and the US. Some references will be made to art from elsewhere, particularly when considering the broadened art world of contemporary art practices. Identity will follow the lines of modern sociology (in which identity is taken as being created

A brief view of some of Birmingham’s dalliances with varieties of localisations

The city as a local entity

It is a long time since Birmingham was recognised, by Charter, as an administrative structure in its own right. Various surrounding towns and villages were incorporated into the city, making it the largest local authority in Europe.

There have been recurring issues lasting until the present:

  • What freedoms and flexibilities does the city have, or is it there mostly as a locality for the delivery of central government diktats?
  • The city has always looked for Birmingham solutions to Birmingham problems (from early sewerage systems; civic developments; slum clearances and Manzoni planning; ….) but with the dangers that its size makes Birmingham ‘over-important’ or that its history as the City of a Thousand Trades encourages it to dismiss ideas not Made in Birmingham.

Birmingham has had various attempts at getting a local dimension to city planning and governance, to service delivery, and to the engagement of residents in neighbourhoods in key actions in their locality. Some key features, and tensions, of these are set out below. This is not an in-detail account of all aspects of localisation in cities, but a brief overview of some developments within one city.

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Cities and Housing Issues – a bit of an exploration

In various European and North American cities visited in the last decade, housing has been a recurring theme, both as an everyday lived concern of residents and as a policy concern for city decision-makers.

Whilst there seem to be universal issues, generic across all such cities, each city has its own particular set of housing concerns shaped by that city’s culture, history and the interplay between local and national legislation. Although many of the observations are at city level, it is recognised that none of the cities mentioned are homogenous entities. Each city has its variety of neighbourhoods and its diversity of residents: its physical and social nooks and crannies.

This exploration has been based on looking at newspaper articles, journal articles and policy documents, as well as a degree of wandering and observing the day-to-day facets of a select number of similar cities. It is, therefore, by its nature only a partial view of the complexity of things. It certainly does not set itself out as a well-referenced academic study, nor try to represent every aspect or every city. Any errors, omissions or assertions are personal ones.

The housing concerns of cities looked at tended to centre around the same issues: affordability, renting, house-building rates, local renovations and redevelopments, levels of public/private investment, land ownership and land use, homelessness, who gets to make which decisions, how we define ‘home’, and local/national interplays.

Housing is seen as a key social and political issue for those cities. Declarations and proposals are made at various levels of city/regional/national government, with various ways forward being proposed. At the same time, despite strong commitments to change, the difficulties do not seem to go away in other than piecemeal ways.

What follows is a summary of some of the key points in those observations – not from the viewpoint of a housing expert but from the perspective of an interested bystander who puzzles why the same key issues continue to be revisited with, in many cases, few real permanent inroads being made to fix the problems

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Birmingham : a creative city?

This was written as part of a consideration of how developments might lead a city to think of itself as being a creative city. It started as thoughts linked to an online course run by the University of Toronto.

In terms of population, Birmingham is the UK’s Second City. It is located in the centre of England. Road and rail networks criss-cross the country here. Politically, it sees itself as second in importance to London but keeps a wary eye on Manchester which rivals it for this claim (on the grounds of seeming more inventive and more productive). Its population is steady at around 1million people.

This takes it out of any superstar city league, although it has aspirations to be a modern, world-connected city with a bright future. It is, relatively, a city of young people, a city with a tradition of creativity and industriousness, and a city of opportunity (even if more for some rather than for others).

Whilst not a recognised ‘World City’, Birmingham has a set of formal relationships with cities from around the world: ‘partner city agreements’ with Lyon, Frankfurt, Leipzig and Milan; and ‘sister cities agreements’ with Chicago, Guangzhou and Johannesburg.

It is a city that has undergone, and is continuing to undergo, economic transitions. It was settled in the 7th century and grew slowly as a set of farms and homesteads at a river crossing. It was granted a market in 1156 and by the 17th and 18th century was a place bustling with small workshops creating swords, guns, chains, machinery, jewellery, household metalware and so on. It had the conditions necessary to move ahead through the rapid industrialisation of the middle-late 1800s. It was regarded (or badged itself) as the Workshop of the World, the City of a Thousand Trades – certainly ‘Made in Birmingham’ was stamped on a large proportion of metal goods that supported development at home and in other countries.

This gave the city much of the shape that it has today – in terms of road structures and areas of terraced low-rise brick houses (even if the worst of these were demolished in the slum-clearances of the 1950-80 period). By the 1960s it had become seen as a place reliant  on motorcar use and motorcar manufacture. When this industry restructured and some parts moved abroad, Birmingham was heavily affected, although it never became one of those semi-abandoned, semi-boarded up cities as it tried to reinvent itself as a tourist destination turning the unused industrial canals in the city centre into wharves for bars, restaurants and meeting places.

It has, more recently, shifted from a largely manufacturing base to an economy substantially reliant on service/ retail/ hospitality sectors and sees a future for itself as a place of finance, knowledge and enterprise. It wants to be a city that works for all, with an ambiguity about whether this is possible.

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Contemporary Public Art and non-capital Cities (of NW Europe and N America) – A framework for exploration

What follows is seen as a set of lines for thinking along, routes of exploration, rather than chapter headings or specific research topics (although things may end up being both of those at some stage in the future). There are various crossovers between several the elements listed. It is not intended as a description of all the thinking that can be done around topics of contemporary public art and cities, more of a personal guide for activities, readings and exploration.

My focus on contemporary public art (loosely defined) is a way of limiting things by excluding historical monuments and modernist pieces of public sculpture. The option of excluding capital cities is based on the belief that such cities are often unusual, with more in common with each other as a group of global cities than being representative of their nation’s cities. Limiting the geographical focus to north-west Europe and north America is partly based on my personal experience (and ease of travel from a base in Birmingham, UK) and partly because cities in those locations broadly share some sort of underlying culture. If opportunities arise to look at cities in other parts of the world, these will be taken.

This framework-for-thinking has already shaped activities between 2015 and 2017, and will continue to guide activities over the period 2017-2025. Outcomes will include deeper personal understandings of the relevant topics; contact across a network of key intermediaries with personal, occupational or academic interests in public art and cities; as well as various writings and presentations around key themes that emerge.

An early action is to share this framework of ideas with others, as well as scheduling visits to more cities and undertaking more studies. Cities already visited have included 10 UK and 4 US/Canada cities. Proposed visits in 2017-2025 will be to at least 30 further cities (10 UK; 10 US/Canada; 10 mainland European).

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Curating, creative undertakings and exhibiting

Curating, currently, is used in a whole range of contexts. There have been references to curating an exhibition, an event, a home’s contents, a book or music collection, the totality of an individual’s possessions, a series of meals, a set of public responses and so on.

Pulling elements from this wide range of understandings of ‘curation’, one can list fragments such as:

  • Taking an overview; creating a context
  • Creating a framework – a set of organising principles
  • Bringing components together in various ways
  • Organising with a purpose in mind
  • Simplifying, analysing, removing extraneous things
  • Creating cross-linkages
  • Combining groups of fragments into meaningful compositions
  • Deciding the relative values of various components
  • Creating access routes, adequate signposting
  • Allowing for flexibilities and interpretations
  • Opening up possibilities for learning and insights
  • Deciding on balances between real/physical; explanatory/supporting; and virtual/imaginary aspects
  • Settling on structures and formats of exhibitions/showings of end-products
  • Working with a range of potential contributors and supporters
  • Finalising administrative and administrative elements
  • Letting others know what is intended; what is happening


In terms of the creative undertaking that carries the collective label of R:2025, I intend it to include:

  • Curating a set of creative activities that are producing ideas, ways of thinking, written articles, artefacts, seminars and linkages to the work of others – all things that can be gathered together and shown, both in a continuous way and as a culmination in 2025-26,
  • Curating myself, or rather aspects of myself – fragments of my life from 2010 to 2025 (drawing on things before 2010 and potentially signposting things after 2025).

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A potential Curriculum for Significance

All children and young people need access to significance – but each will have different routes towards it. ‘Significance’ here is more than general wellbeing or some sense of being involved in society. It goes to the core of how each person thinks and feels about themselves, their core identity, and the extent to which this is seen as being of value (to themselves; and in the perception of others) – to what extent any person has significance in a world that is complex and uncertain.

It is tied closely to emotional health, to feelings of hope and of value, and to a constructed sense of self. Hopefully such a sense of significance will be built around positive, productive facets – developed through nurtured opportunities. If this is not the case then the person may grow a sense of absolute insignificance – feeling of being worthless – or will create their own significance through antisocial routes.

One strong strand of my own professional training was based on a belief that a key purpose of doing teaching, or youth work, or adult learning, was to enable each individual worked with to develop and strengthen their own significance. Whilst most education and social activity nods towards a need to foster personal development, this now seems to come well below concerns around skills development. It is true that developing robust literacy, language, numeracy or other skills provides a strong base for developing significance, but it also feels as if current education and training practices are in danger of focusing on routine skills at the expense of developing positive feelings of significance.

The current concerns around levels of emotional health, anxiety and self-harm throughout society would suggest that significance, and how it gets actively fostered, is worth more attention than it currently appears to have. Steps on the way to fostering stronger, positive significance for individuals can form some sort of development curriculum for life. What follows is an attempt to set out the wide range of things that might be built into everyday activities – at home; in the community; at school, college or university; or in the workplace – such that there can be a stronger focus on enabling the development of significance.

It is not proposed that these form distinct taught topics or sessions but are signposts to opportunities that can be taken at every relevant opportunity, in many various contexts. Read more

Public and Private Issues

As with a number of other articles on this site, this is meant to be in the spirit of an exploration, bringing together a number of different aspects of a broad topic and seeing if any sense can be made of it all.

At one level, this is a matter of simple semantics: whatever one understands words like ‘private’ and ‘public’ to mean – but language matters as words shape an understanding of things, even things as tenuous as ideas – and those understandings can have everyday impacts on how people operate in the world – which, themselves, if repeated, begin to act as structurings within which things become taken as normal.

There are a number of elements around which understandings of public/private can be organised:

  • People designing things or doing things – in public/ in private
  • Things belonging to; consumed by people – as individuals (private); as society (public)
  • Organisational structures … private company/ public company … private/in common
  • Management of services to people – arranged as privately-purchased/ arranged as publicly funded
  • Different political conceptions around privatisation and nationalisation – the amount of control attributed to State processes or to market processes

It is the last two of these that will be taken as the starting point, if only because political debates around public/private still occur with some vigour.

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Some lines of thought arising from being researcher-in-residence

During the researcher-in-residence sessions at Grand Union gallery’s Im Bau exhibition (Artist: Aideen Doran, 2015) a set of recurring threads of thinking were revisited over and over.

Also thrown into the mix was a visit to New York, midway through the researcher-in-residence period. Although I had gone for other reasons, connections to the emerging thoughts from my sessions at Grand Union were uppermost in my mind as I wandered around that city so that the visit became yet another researcher session.

These interconnecting, and at times repeating, elements formed a loose framework that allowed for some reflexive thinking on cities, change, development, progress, decision-making, planning, style, art, the contemporary, memories etc.

Acting as researcher-in-residence took my thinking far and wide: moving across ideas, circling round and round (like some armature of connectivities), sometimes getting the wide overview and sometimes homing in on a detail.

The focus was always on the content of the ‘Im Bau’ exhibition, and the lines of thought that could be spun out from that; and on my own interest in cities, urban issues and decision-making.

The sessions extended understandings, appropriated ideas from elsewhere and made links between previously separate considerations.

What follows is an attempt to corral some of those swirls of thought under a small number of relevant headings, knowing that not everything can be tidied up in that way.

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R:2025 – An interim stocktake (Sept 2016)

R:2025 is an extended, fifteen year, creative programme of activities; a contemporary exploration (to 2025) of things linked to representations, ideas, people and places.

It has a couple of overall intentions. One of these (To engage in a range of exploratory activities, making the outcomes from these activities freely available) is felt to be substantially being met. There will now be a greater emphasis on developing the other strand (To explore how any insights gained can have real-world real-time impacts and value).

Activities underway since 2010 have been shaped within a loose and flexible framework constructed from a number of threads. Substantial progress has been made in exploring:

  • unfolding interpretations of ‘contemporary’, ‘progress’ etc
  • the pursuit of writing in a range of styles, for a variety of purposes
  • issues associated with cities and urban living
  • thoughts around places, spaces, neighbourhoods and locations
  • the construction of identities (of people; of places)
  • concerns with inequality, fairness and social change

More now needs to be done around:

  • aspects of learning and development
  • concerns with wellbeing, flourishing and sustainability
  • approaches to ‘value’ and ‘impact’ (at personal, public and social levels)
  • the nature of evidence, research, knowledge and understandings
  • the characteristics and usefulness of art and creativity
  • aspects of emergence, complexity, uncertainty and contingency
  • public and private innovation and policy implementations

The website already holds a substantial amount of eclectic content from the first five years of activity. This content is meeting the original aims of being broad-based, interesting, responsible, thoughtful, and different. There have been a number of seminars, workshops and focused conversations in cities in UK, USA and Canada; as well as the use of a small number of related blogs, and the publication of several books. The activity was intended to incorporate other outputs. These have included a photographic portfolio and a small number of paper/clay-based art objects: all based around the same framework listed earlier. There is more to be done to build up this stock of art objects. Links are being made with the broad ‘world of art’ – writings based on exhibitions; an outline framework for work on cities and public art; being Researcher in Residence attached to a 2015 exhibition.

The emphases within the work have ranged from quite personal concerns to recurring issues across an increasingly urbanised, globalised and uncertain world. The endeavour is still considered to be a contemporary undertaking since it reflects many of the themes of identities, change, ambiguities, relationships, fracturings and aggregations: locally, nationally, and globally.

The approach continues to be one of developmental and exploratory puzzling, and of purposeful development. Conversations with key contacts have confirmed that what has been achieved so far can be regarded as linked, curated content that forms an extended creative programme operating at a number of levels and in a variety of ways.

At the beginning of the activity a potential Vocabulary was set out. This was composed of words that would be expected to recur in articles, thinking and discussions. A review of these words has been undertaken. It is concluded that nothing additional needs to be incorporated and that any weak spots in usage of the vocabulary are highly likely to be addressed within the next set of developments.

Sitting behind the activity there is still a desire to impact on a number of social issues, and to explore the ways that creative activities can do this is the current context. Although stress is put on flexibility and emergence, the overall driving idea remains clear:

To use creative activities to make demonstrable contributions to changing the ways in which people think, behave and interact; in order to reach better understandings of social processes and developments with the hope of levering some practical impact on a number of significant issues.

This aspect of the work is seen as an integral part of the project’s development activities and is regarded as one of its greatest challenges. It is in its very early stages and will be a focus over the next three years and beyond. This will be interesting, but not straightforward. Emerging notions around usefulness, public value and social impact will increasingly be drawn on as the work continues. It is believed that continued, occasional reporting against this intention is important.

This is the first of such public reportings.

How did all this come about and where might it be taking us?

There are a large number of things happening that seem unusual, unsettling and unpredictable – and it all appears to be taking place more rapidly and in more widespread ways.

It seems that a set of disconnected events come rushing at us. This can simply be accepted as the way things are in contemporary society, part of the world we live in these days, but all these things can be traced backwards (uncertainly ie not in the sense that A caused B – just in the sense of the social world changing shape over time). The roots of these fast-moving current events lie somewhere in things that have been building up over time.

Attempting to understand what is going on, at the macro- and the micro-scale, is not straightforward. There are at least a couple of dozen shifting influences that feed into the changes in current society and these are interdependent and uncertain.

Thinking about recent events in UK politics and US politics throws up a number of things. Different people will have their own views about what has brought us to this point, and where it might be leading.

What follows are some simple musings to see if I can explain any of it to myself. These are a somewhat-disjointed (and no doubt over-simplified) surface skim over a few influences on the world I grew up in, and a loose application of these in order to try to get an understanding of recent political events in the UK. Read more