31 Jul

monopoly manVia artist Mimei Thompson on the F***book, news of a property developer soon to be bulldozing over a hundred artist studios near Hackney Road in London. They’ll be replaced by a twenty storey tower with “workspace” (whatever that is) and 170 homes including “a number of affordable”. Britain’s cities and towns desperately need more and better housing accessible to everyone regardless of their income, but we all know what the “number” of affordable units will be: as few as possible, probably with a separate door so the poors don’t rub their poor all over the investment/money laundering boxes of all the Chinese, Russian and Arab one percenters who are just about the only people who can buy these places. Affordable is a laughably– and conveniently– ill-defined and slippery developers’ term anyway.

Don’t worry, though, the loss of this artist community (who stupidly, inconveniently brought life to a rundown area and made it attractive to developers in the first place) will not go unmarked. The developers and Eastside Educational Trust are offering a princely £1000 sculpture prize. “The winning artist will receive funds to make their sculpture, as well as a £1,000 cash prize, and the exciting chance to have their piece exhibited as a public work of art.” It’s probably not conscious, but note that they avoid the word “work” in favour of the word “piece”. The page linked here gives the number of new homes as “over 200”. An attempt to contact them about the prize met with– oops or not oops?– an out of office autoreply stating that the person responsible wouldn’t be back until the second week of August. That’s how bothered they are in whether artists actually apply for it or not, anyway. UPDATE: See below.

In case anybody was wondering about the outrage, £1000 is an insultingly low sum to offer for the design, fabrication and installation of a professional quality sculpture for a public site. Not to mention that professional artists should be commissioned, not offered prizes. Nor does calling it a prize obviate the responsibility to pay artists fairly for the work they do, any more than calling dead-end drudge work an internship excludes it from minimum wage legislation. Public art commissions and artists who work with the public can greatly enrich our environment and our daily lives. They can make people look at the places they live and work in a new light. They can become much-loved emblems of particular communities or locations. Pay and respect the artists accordingly.

Artists quoted in the Hackney Citizen article are rightly calling on everyone to boycott this prize and others like it. Nobody’s saying artists shouldn’t take on commissions for public art works. This isn’t a commission for a public art work, though; it’s a blatant token gesture towards public art and civic responsibility. Marsha Bradfield, who runs a sculpture centre in London Fields, is also quoted and should be ashamed of herself on several counts for this soundbite:

“The issues are systemic. There is so little paid work for artists, and so many feel atomised, even desperate,” said Bradfield. “The problem is the art world’s winner-takes-all economy. Many will apply but only one will succeed.”

So because it’s winner-takes-all economy, there’s so little paid work for artists, and some artists feel desperate… artists should go along quietly with this winner-takes-all economy and desperately accept whatever scraps that the winners deign to offer? That’s what she seems to be suggesting here. This property company and its lickspittles are actually obliterating a relatively egalitarian and mutually supportive community in favour of a winner(=rich person)-takes-all exercise in cynical profiteering whose benefits to the wider community of ordinary working people in London will be at best minimal. Hopefully instead of many, none will apply and the developers won’t succeed in putting a public art fig leaf on their profiteering.

Bradfield is right that the issues are systemic, but I think that means we need to change our behaviour and change the system instead of just shrugging that it makes people desperate. Her position is particularly laughable in light of the fact that her biography says she’s involved in “activism” (on behalf of what, property developers?) and is affiliated with “Critical Practice Research Cluster, Precarious Workers Brigade and Contemporary Marxism Collective.” The centre also has on its board the director of the super-rich-via-the-arms-trade Zabludowicz Collection, which is also not likely to endear anybody to me. Meanwhile Bradfield has a cosy fellowship at UAL, which is pretty much the polar opposite of being a precarious worker. The cognitive dissonance is astonishing. Although on the other hand, unsurprising because all the Marxists in academia I’ve dealt with have been the most staggering, petty hypocrites who were completely blind to the privileged and (mega-ironically) bourgeois assumptions behind their arguments. Contemporary Marxism is an oxymoron. Academia is the only place pure, old school Marxists can survive and thrive, because beyond statistics and theories they never come into the kind of meaningful contact with the poor, disempowered and marginalised people that might instil some corrective pragmatism.

I’m very left wing, but dogmatic Marxists piss me off. Actually, dogmatic anythings piss me off. Can you tell?

UPDATE: I’ve got hold of the brief, such as it is. “Designs must be for a new sculpture” so no cleaning out some of the old shit from your studio, OK? “A maximum of £2500 will be set aside to commission the artist to make the sculpture” though it’s unclear if this includes the £1000 prize, which would leave a meagre £1500 for the work of making the sculpture, the cost of materials, and making it safe and compliant with all the healthy and safety regulations that apply to publicly sited art works. Though on the plus side, if £1000 of it is just your “prize” then you’re free to blow it all on the finest wines available to humanity or whatever you fancy. The sculpture must be “site specific, reflect the theme of regeneration and be unique and original” so get the fuck out of here with your same old unoriginal sculptures and whatnot. Perhaps it could depict several hundred artists who’ve been deprived of their workplaces?

Reflecting the theme of regeneration.


  1. Alistair 06/08/2015 at 8:49 PM #

    Reblogged this on Alistair Gentry.

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