Dear XP newsletter readers and fellow balloon blowers (all will be explained),
Today your Extra Practice newsletter comes from Jack Bardwell and is quite different from the format of my previous contributions. It starts off pretty bleak, but there is hope, kind of, so stick to the end for some positivity.
August for me has flown by. In spirit spring was really my summer and through summer I have been in a sort of autumn mode. Trying to knuckle down in financial preparation for the looming hardship of winter. My morning reading is bursting at the seams with news of war, climate crises extreme weather events, abortion rights in the US, inflation, labour strikes across Europe, rising energy prices, how they are all inexplicably linked and then of course the plethora of ways that us as individuals should cut our bills. One economist went as far to say that clean fuel burning laws in the city should be lifted to allow the elderly to burn books and furniture to keep warm this winter…dire.
Amongst all this apocalyptic economically confronting news there is one topic that always grabs me by the gut. In the UK right now there is a Prime Ministerial race going down and one of the topics that has quite rightly come up is education. Not, as you might optimistically expect, how we can educate a generation of economically aware critical thinkers, nor how we can embrace culture and give purpose to a generation entering into a treadmill of crises. Instead, Rishi Sunak, one of the two leading candidates, has, according to the Guardian vowed “to phase out university degrees that do not improve students’ “earning potential”.2 Already English Literature degrees have been axed across the country for this same reason. I think this strikes fear into me because after education, is there anything else? They have finished picking all the leaves and chopping all the branches and instead of watering the soil so that this tree we call society has some chance of growing back, they are now digging at for the roots too, what’s left?
British comedian Stuart Lee, when being interviewed about tuition fees and theatre closures back in 2010, recalls a piece of TV in which Margaret Thatcher is visiting a Women’s college in Oxford and asks a woman what she is studying to which she replies “Ancient Norse Literature” to which Thatcher says “oh what a luxury”. Lee goes on to point out that this passing comment reveals their intrinsic notion that if something has no commercial future it is of no value and should not be pursued and especially not funded by the state. It is tempting in this case, as was the retort of the interviewer, to argue that the pursuit of such non-commercially viable work is worthwhile because it often transfers to large scale pieces – think a Netflix series or a show in big theatres which attracts lots of viewers and eventually makes a lot of money – but that is of course when they really have you where they want you.
Lee’s argument is that you should not be funding the arts because it could eventually transfer to the West End and sell lots of packets of crisps to visitors. Instead, Lee asserts that what they should have said was that:
“[for a week we put on a show with] a bloke blowing into a balloon and dragging it around on the floor and making funny sounds and that didn’t transfer to the West End because it has no commercial future but it is inherently worthwhile.”
The Extra Practice group, before it was a space, was conceived as a kind of school for continued learning and support for each other outside of the institution. That need for support is only going to grow. A need to reassure each other and the wider public that it is worth pursuing things that don’t have a visible economic value. Even before art courses are cut or design education curriculums are forced to be more and more geared towards producing workers with “earning potential” for an existing industry (which will come also in the Netherlands, the UK seems to be a crystal ball for this neoliberal shit).
Even before this, there is a feeling, a pressure on our time, a pressure on the language we use to explain what we do. This is no longer a conversation reserved for the likes of Margaret Thatcher, today it is recognisable in conversations with family members and friends. A logic that has silently nestled its way into day to day chit chat. A logic that without looking at or talking about easily becomes commonplace. A logic that has us defending the arts because “they are the people that make Netflix series” and hey “millions pay subscriptions to that!” A logic that seduces us to accept that money is the measure of whether something has a valid place in our society. Perhaps I should point out here that I am not suggesting these activities are not worth money, quite the opposite. Many of the activities I will go on to outline are work and should be reimbursed as such. There is a distinction between what these are valued for and how they are paid for. The latter however, will never come if we do not deal with the former. (I am sure our readers who are more well versed in Marxist critique will have a succinct quote about surplus value for describing this.)
Many of the things that make up a scene, a community; what we do for each other, with publications, talks, screenings, internet radio broadcasts, newsletters, residency programmes, reading rooms, music nights, life drawing, ballroom, theatre clubs, the list goes on, provide a validating framework for this important work.
This month we have the Groot Rotterdams Atelier Weekend, a state funded programme, where the general public come to explore the Rotterdam network of such initiatives. Last year we had nothing to 'show' except ourselves. It felt a bit awkward and at times confronting to the expectation of such an event. To have something to show, something to sell. In retrospect, this tension was kind of great. A somewhat unintentional statement in defence of what we do. This year we are taking the next step in the five stages of grief…irony. We are selling out. Everything in the space will have a price tag. Half tongue in cheek, half a desperate attempt to “sell more packets of crisps” off the back of our work for the coming winter months.
David Hammons, Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983. Performance view, Cooper Square, New York, 1983. Photo: Dawoud Bey.
There is a lineage of artists and designers creating these faux-shops that is also similar to the turn for faux-establishments and faux-educational institutions. There is the David Hammons, now famous Bliz-aard Ball Sale, 1983 in which he set up a stall selling snowballs after a blizzard on the street amongst other vendors. Or No Shop, by Thomas.Matthews design studio, 1997 that set up a shop for Friends of the Earth selling nothing to mark the launch of Buy Nothing Day UK plus many many more. It is no coincidence that these pieces were all cropping up in the 1980s-1990s when there were similar political threats to the value of culture and to the language/tools that we have at our disposal to try and express this.
No Shop, Thomas.Matthews, 1997
Is this use of irony really the last tool in the toolbox? A kind of mocking of the master’s tools to show their ridiculousness while simultaneously admitting our position? I’m all for comedy as a subversive medium but what other language can we use, can we develop in order to express this value, in order to begin to change the dominant narrative, the party chit chat?
I will end with this quote from Audre Lorde’s “Uses of the Erotic”3 that Ben brought to my attention. A more poignant conclusion than I could muster, which succinctly puts the value of human need and fulfilment at the top of the hierarchy, and in doing so paves the way for an alternative framing of value.
“The principal horror of any system which defines the good in terms of profit rather than in terms of human need, or which defines human need to the exclusion of the psychic and emotional components of that need – the principal horror of such a system is that it robs our work of its erotic value, its erotic power and life appeal and fulfilment. Such a system reduces work to a travesty of necessities, a duty by which we earn bread or oblivion for ourselves and those we love. But this is tantamount to blinding a painter and then telling her to improve her work, and to enjoy the act of painting. It is not only next to impossible, it is also profoundly cruel.”
2. Original interview with comedian Stewart Lee by Richard Atkinson for Devereux & Onians, 15th January 2010 about art funding cuts, tuition fees and theatre closures. Original unedited video can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qWCN9mV-Vyk
3. Lorde Audre, Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, 1978