The Changing Cultural Paradigm

Once the thriving heartland of industry, the inner city suburb of Ancoats, Manchester is undergoing one of the most comprehensive urban renewal projects in the UK. Channelled through culture and implemented through plan, the concept of urban renewal – in any city – strives to build upon, change and in some cases completely overwrite what already exists. In this article I will briefly cover this process, taking into account the role of artists as mediators, and touching upon gentrification as an inevitable consequence of their activity.

The demolition of buildings and the rebuilding of new ones, is an ongoing process propelled by a largely hidden force that seems to be the active agent in the contemporary city, whilst we, the citizens, witness this transformation from the outside. This familiar process defines the urban environment; what was there yesterday may be completely unrecognisable tomorrow.

After the recession of the 1960s, and the two decades that followed, the rapid deindustrialisation of Ancoats meant that the economic base was lost and poverty took over. When industrialisation loses its function, a new economy must replace it, and so in 1997 the New Labour government set about to regenerate cities through the use of culture. Since then, the global recession, the election of the Coalition government, and the subsequent cuts made to spending in the arts has shifted the grounds on which culture exists, how it is defined, and consequently how it has altered the face of the city.

I am writing this in the wake of a sweeping recession that slowed down redevelopment plans and in-turn led to artistic activity flourishing. When there is a break in the shield, a brief time period of experimentation where a building lies empty, artists – I use this term in the broadest sense – make use of empty buildings or further develop the spaces that they already inhabit.

Their cultural activity puts Ancoats in a position of fluidity; the role of the artist as mediator between past and present takes full effect as they draw lineages to the old world of industry through a new form of artistic production. As the developers move back in, this idea of fluidity and creativity becomes the foundations for growth. However, it grows beyond this initial concept into something far more standardised; an apartment block in the shell of an old mill; offices that offer ‘flexible mixed use spaces’; a large supermarket to cater to the hoards of new people that descend on a district. All the while, the artists clutch at their affordable rent prices until they become unfeasible and they move elsewhere.

The production of art within the urban context is a constantly evolving narrative which is inevitably linked to the circumstances in which culture finds footholds within the city, and also how politics and policy shapes it. In a speech at the 1994 Labour Party Annual Conference, Tony Blair declared that ‘New Labour’ would shape a ‘New Britain’ with a fresh brand of progressive politics able to adopt a truly globalist approach.

With this came a new wave of inner-city regeneration: an ‘urban renaissance’ which, coupled with the use of collaborative public and private sectors, meant that the regeneration was heavily based upon design and neoliberal sociocultural principles over the simpler tactic of solving housing, poverty, and employment. This placed the arts in a situation where their true function – to inspire, create, and evolve – was trapped and confined into being a vehicle for change.

Since Blair’s induction of a creative economy, the definitions of culture have broadened and distorted. In a recent book by Robert Hewison – titled Cultural Capital: the rise and fall of creative Britain (2014) – one quote sums this up: ‘Culture was an industry, and its products a commodity.’ By this, Hewison means that this new creative Britain needed a creative economy, which was found in the market through the use of signs and symbols that could be consumed in a commoditised form.

Based upon a neoliberal ideology of individual freedom, hedonism and flexible labour, the artist (or the formula of the artist) – with their apparent autonomy – are in fact ideal candidates to appeal to the market. The creative entrepreneur, who propels the imaginative start-ups that Blair championed, lays the ground for the corresponding businesses to invest, i.e. commercial and residential real-estate for people who want to move to an ‘up-and-coming’ area. In this process, the old world of industry: dark, regimented and machine-driven, is replaced with an open, flexible and creative mode of work, thereby re-establishing a building, whilst still retaining its history.

It is now two decades after Blair’s New Labour initiative and a recent article published in Manchester Evening News – reporting on Nick Clegg’s Northern Futures Project – highlights this exact form of state-led cultural gentrification. Clegg makes the rather ignorant and outdated suggestion that Manchester should model itself on Berlin’s “edgy, bohemian lifestyle” by occupying vacant buildings for creative projects. Despite the fact that this has been happening for at least four decades and, as Dave Haslam rightfully points out, ‘Cool’ activity has been integral to the rejuvenation of the city in the post-industrial era. Evidently, Clegg fails to acknowledge the inherent value of such “creative projects” for the development of the city when he makes the further suggestion that this could be a “meanwhile” solution. The use of the term “meanwhile” is indicative of the fact that these ‘arty’ types can use these vacant buildings until something better comes along, i.e. a property developer or a bulldozer. In his plea to champion the North, Nick Clegg has obliviously spelled out state-led gentrification and undermined Manchester’s vibrant and long standing independent culture.

In Manchester, property developers such as Urban Splash (among others) have ceaselessly profited from this rampant ideology.  Nurturing the idea of an ‘urban renaissance’ and targeting a market outside of the Area Based Initiatives (ABI’s), they market themselves on a sleek, almost glamourous design for the upwardly mobile business type. Whilst these new constructions stand alone, on the other side of the industrial wasteland you have buildings such as Hope Mill, a grade II listed building just off the Ashton Canal corridor which is home to AWOL Studios. Since its inception in 2001, where it was a music start-up, it has gradually expanded to facilitate 81 flexible studio spaces for creative individuals (artists, organisations, businesses etc.). This use of a post-industrial building with its affordable rent, multiple rooms, and good location is a prime example of how the creative industries – as they have been so frequently called – form a marriage with the post-industrial urban environment.

Another example would be Rogue Studios – situated in Chapeltown Mill – and home to approximately 97 artists working across a 30,000 sq. ft. space. Or across in Salford at Islington Mill, set up in 2000, and now an internationally renowned creative space that is propelling Salford into a new realm of regeneration. This alliance between urban decay and artistic activity has been at the forefront of many post-industrial cities worldwide. As the critic Lucy Lippard posits: “The dialect between place and change can provide the kind of no-one’s land where artists thrive.”

On the one hand we have the artists who are making use of empty buildings and often integrating with the community, and on the other hand, we have the property developers who are standardising urban spaces and overwriting any recognisable history, segregating any locality in the process. Whilst these two sides appear to be opposing, they are frequently branded with the same stigma: culture, and all the social implications that this word brings.

If policy encourages artistic activity, then you would expect this sort of space to flourish. And it does. However, there is an aspect of control that is governed by the market which relates back to the aforementioned neoliberal ideologies; if artists are truly free to exercise their creativity in derelict buildings then they must rely upon a certain amount of modern patronage, i.e. the Arts Council or private funding partners who see these types of organisations as an investment.

Islington Mill, for example, recently received £1 million of funding from the Arts Council so that they could continue to expand and redevelop the building’s infrastructure. In a strange twist of irony, shortly after this large injection of funding, the locals made complaints about the noise which resulted in the Statutory Noise Nuisance notice under a 7 day deferral from Salford City Council, thereby somewhat restricting their independence.

Ideologies and phrases that litter regenerative propaganda: terms like ‘place making’, ‘local identity’ and ‘community’, appear to paint the picture of locality; when in reality, the complexities at street level are often misunderstood. ‘Community’, for example, has an ideological resonance for participants of regeneration. However if we are to address the individuals who are part of these communities, I’m sure the patronising ramifications of these terms would arise.

In the end it all comes down to a question of authenticity, a term that is so incorrectly used that it has lost its meaning. We become nostalgic for the city we once knew when we see the chain stores homogenising the high street, we seek a sense of place, a humanistic level to this standardised society we live in. Artists, on some levels, provide this rootedness to place. Naturally – and without ideological bullshit – they can form a local identity and parallels with an industrial history. Often they can integrate with a community; a recent example being an exhibition at Hope Mill called ‘Politika’ which was heavily engaged with the surrounding community and creating sustainable connections – something that is often written about by policy makers, but rarely executed successfully.

It is not necessarily the presence of artists that induces gentrification but more so the businesses that artists create: the boutiques, the bars, the studio apartments. Whilst it all begins innocently enough, the age of culture is ironically suffocating any creativity; stifling the freedom. The definitions of what culture is, how it is understood and who contributes to it are being blurred; broken down; ignored. What we are left with are urban pockets with warehouses, apartments, artist studios, studio lofts, offices, wide open derelict spaces, all mixed up in a confusing blend of past, the present, and the quickly advancing future: a future that holds no real ‘authentic’ lineages to our past, however great or prominent that past may be.