Cultures of Water
My visit to Brazil last month was, then, full of meetings and presentations at the Institute of Advanced Study, University of São Paulo (USP), and at São Paulo State University. Where I discussed the RCUK DRY Project currently underway and explored the ‘anecdotes, stories and narratives’ of drought that have had such an impact on British collective memory and mediated representations of hot weather, current dry spells and discussions of drought among differently invested stakeholders and publics. A significant part of the DRY Project is not only public engagement but co-production of knowledge about drought through memories, storytelling and imagining future scenarios. In Science in Public: Communication, Culture and Credibility, Gregory and Miller state that ‘lay people mobilise a broad array of tools to solve problems through science, culture, emotion, ethics, morality, trust relationships, and customs. These may be small tools…but they cut through the tangle of contemporary existence and produce solutions that sit more easily with people’s lives and consciences’ [1998, p. 65].
As the UK press publishesmore stories of water shortage, after a dry winter 2016-2017 and low rainfall in April
2017, citizen scientists through blogsand discussion postings are creating their own platforms for debate, mobilising social media tools at local and meaningful levels. While the press addresses the issue quickly through shorthand templates of hosepipe bans, balmy weather, blazing headlines and reference to 1976, we do need to address the complexity of understanding drought in terms of an absence of culture as much as an absence of water, or at least make the case that if water is absent then it is not only due to something much larger and global that we may feel we cannot do anything about such as climate change. If water and culture and memory are so intimately connected, then drought is some kind of forgetting, drought is forgotten where the mediatization of flood provides spectacular copy.
I have had many discussions in Brazil over the last ten days about how drought is framed in news. My colleagues, there, are of course surprised by the lack of 'politics' to the UK framing of drought in terms of discussion of WHO is exactly using the water, and that hot weather is often welcomed in a way thatmisses the point about how water is or should be managed even in a country that is associated with wetness and flood. Brazilians have an interesting phrase I often heard at various meetings. 'It is not that we don't have water, we do have water, lots of it, it is just missing.' There is also a famous Brazilian geographer who said ‘seca’ (drought) is not the problem but ‘cercas’ (fences), the point being to emphasise ownership of land and the management of resources as far more important to the debate than endless surprise that it's a dry spell. Any shame and blame often directed at domestic users in media stories must be thoroughly and critically understood through the ‘moralities of drought’ framework, especially if the majority of water is being used elsewhere. So we need to return to water, we need to turn the benches alongside the river around so they face the water, and remember its cultural value; and in the meantime we have in November 2017 in Brazil, a social action for connecting to global water movements through the work of Waterlutionwho are planning a water festival for young people.
It is also worth reading two British books on drought often forgotten (the first more so than the second): The Great Drought(1976) by Evelyn Cox tells the 'true' story of 1976 from the persepective of a young mother and farmer: ‘The drought divided us into two nations – those whose lives were deeply, at times dangerously disrupted, and those to whom the drought was at most an over-publicized inconvenience. The drought provided, for those caught up in it, a common, shared experience unlike any other in Britain since the Blitz. I hope it will be useful to have an immediate record of what the drought was like, before we begin to forget it or before – which is more probably – we begin to embroider our memories into myths’ (p. 9). There is also The Drought(1965) by JG Ballard. ‘The drought at the heart of The Drought is cultural. Culture is withering. In the guise of rainfall, old social and political meanings run down to the sea and are decreasingly renewed. Where the land seemed fertile, its inhabitant can now admit that it is exhausted.’ John Harrison’s introduction to The Drought (2009). Both, in different ways, conjoin water with culture and memory, as the key female character of Ballard's novel notes: ‘Catherine gazed out at the exposed lake-bed. “It’s almost dry. Don’t you feel, doctor, that everything is being drained away, all the memories and stale sentiments?’”
I mentioned in my last blog posting (about the Centre name change) that the quotation from Bell and Oakley’s Cultural Policy (2015, 157-158), has been important to my own thinking about the direction of cultural and media policy research. So that those economic resources (energy, water, food, transport, housing, environment etc) should be seen in cultural and social terms. To cultural geographers, this is a no-brainer who have been working to understand what trees, rivers and landscapes mean to people, or how buildings, architecture and hard engineering become symbolic markers of social life to be mediated and experienced.
For myself, I kind of fell into water research! Or, perhaps was led to water research, and took a drink, while there was an inundation of water, but not much research from an arts and humanities perspective. At the time (after the 2007 Summer Floods in the UK), it was not clear to our research team of geographers, media theorists, historians and hydrologists what was the connection between media, culture, water, rivers, flooding and drought. To the participants in our research, those who lived with, loved and feared the river, the connections were clear. Managing water and water governance, is also to manage cultural activities, cultural memories and media representations. Therefore, to find the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies very open to stretching and defining what counts as ‘cultural policy’ opened up new ways of thinking about what has recently been termed ‘hydro-citizenship’ by the AHRC funded project running from Bath-Spa University, led by co-author Prof Owain Jones. (His work on ‘tree-cultures’ for example influenced the research I did in the Forest of Dean on Dennis Potter’s TV fans, extras and audiences in the forest).
But, I digress. The last two years have found me exploring not simply why water culture matters in the UK (where institutionalisation of both cultural and water industries may obscure access to a clear understanding of the importance of rivers, flooding and drought to the nation, to regions, to those living with too much or without water) but to the trans-national and trans-cultural connectivity of water stories.
Water culture really matters to the Brazilian colleagues and social actors I have met in São Paulo State and in the State of Minas Gerais. As part of the Narratives of Water project, I have been working with Dr Danilo Rothberg of Unesp, to find connections and disconnections between how water is managed as an economic and cultural resource and how the management of water is represented and communicated through media and cultural activities. Developing hydro-citizenship in the Brazilian context is very much participatory in those ‘water councils’ that conjoin the social, cultural and economic. The Manuelzao Project (Worldwide Movement for Rivers) on the das Velhas River (Belo Horizonte) is a good example of this. Abers and Keck (2013, 187) in Practical Authority: Agency and Institutional Change in Brazilian Water Politics, note the connection between social movements, activism, political popularity and media mobilisation at a local water basin scale for river revitalisation. To move from armchair to policy and action meant ‘creating organizations with the capacity to implement projects, to mobilize complex, diverse networks of actors, and to communicate with a broader public’ and all this requires gaining access to media, occupying spaces where decisions are made, and insisting that water is not only understood through a hydrological, hydraulic and economic perspective.
In fact, I am reminded by my Brazilian colleague Prof Gilson Schwartz from USP that Jean-Jacques Rousseau made this point quite some time ago, concerning how water creates community because it requires co-operation, communication, social interaction and dialogue if its use, quality and availability are to be sustained as an emotional as much as an economic benefit:
‘There the first ties between families formed; there were the first rendezvous of the sexes. Young women came to fetch water for the household, young men came to water their herds. Their eyes accustomed to the same objects since childhood began to have softer ones. The heart was moved by these new objects, an unknown attraction made it less savage, it felt the pleasure of not being alone. Water became imperceptibly more necessary, the livestock were thirsty more often; one arrived hurriedly and left regretfully. There were held the first fêtes, feet leapt with joy, the impressed gesture no longer sufficed, the voice accompanied it with impassioned accents, pleasure and desire mixed together made themselves felt at the same time. There was finally the true cradle of civilizations, and from the pure crystal of the fountains rose the first fires of love’ (Essai sur l'origine des langues où il est parlé de la mélodie et de l'imitation musicale, translated and cited in ‘Diverting Water in Rousseau: Technology, the Sublime, and the Quotidian’ by Julia Simon, 2012, p. 87)
Why we are now the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies
In the last decade studies of media have simultaneously expanded and collapsed. Expanded because the development of social media, smart communications, digital film, radio, TV and journalism, and the rise of the games and animation industries have generated new courses, new research and fresh ways of thinking about how news, entertainment and politics are produced and consumed. Collapsed because the traditional ways of teaching and researching media have come under increasing pressure to adapt to the creation of new kinds of media work and creativity, increasingly layered distribution infrastructures, exploitation of natural resources and environments, and the globality of new value chains, media commodities and connected publics.
If media can go anywhere, should research be somewhere?
In the past, media policy studies have tended to focus on political economy questions of ownership, distribution, the state, governance, commodification and technological growth (Golding and Murdock 1991, McQuail and Siune 1998), questions of the public sphere, democracy, citizenship and freedom of speech (Habermas 1989, McQuail 1994, Miller 1996, Murdock, 1992), or the audience, viewer and consumer (Hartley 1988, Livingstone 1996, Alasuutari 1998, Wicks 2000). Yet, since the turn of the century scholarship has begun to realise the limits of its reach into influencing policy (Friedman 2008, Simpson et al. 2015). What is the social demand we need to research and how should it be done? How much entertainment is needed before a critical mass of finite resources is exhausted? What is the impact of media production, distribution and consumption upon spaces, places, natural resources and environments? How can ‘natural’ environments and events communicate their non-human experience through media, data and new kinds of sensing and ambient technologies? What are our media needs (really), are they being met and if so by whom, and if not, why not? What new kinds of global citizenship grow out of media creativity, activism, popular cultural heritage, social networks and environmental politics? If media are both structuring and agentic then new ways of mapping, tracking, mining, modelling, working through and across media histories, practices, technologies and industries are needed alongside considerations of representation, textuality, discourse and communication. This means inter-disciplinary working scaled up, across, between as well as working down into the vernacular.
It may be time to re-tool
Quite some time ago, Raboy et al (2001, 101) argued that to make a policy intervention in this area then we cannot simply ‘be injected into policy work’ for ‘the trajectory from living room couch to policy chambers requires that the question of how the relationship between audience and text is negotiated be restated in rather different terms’. There are media and cultural infrastructures built into our communication systems that have been ignored and are now being overlaid with new layers of hard engineering and soft politics every day, occupying old and new territories, traversing and consolidating national state containers. There are also those entrepreneurial individuals who may put the question of the relationship of the audience to the text to one side to create a media world of their own choosing, carrying it around with them, and calling upon a much wider range of powerful organisations and networks to mediatize every aspect of their civic life, from finance to football, food-water-energy to film, from journalism to activism and so on. Are cultures still delivered to audiences, like water, electricity and food?
Daylighting our media research and teaching
These are some of the questions the Centre for Cultural and Media Policy Studies is committed to researching and teaching. In daylighting what we have been doing for a while, we see the inclusion of the word ‘media’ in our Centre name as a significant development that addresses how we have been working in areas of media, culture and communications research and scholarship, how media policy is not to be collapsed into cultural policy and has distinctive features that need attention. CCMPS, through its Masters courses, PhD supervision and research culture, attends to key issues often forgotten in the field of media research and teaching more generally, and asks critical questions for those producing entertainment media for industries. In practice, we have been teaching media for some time but within a cultural policy context, and the new name is not so much an indication of a change of emphasis or direction as an acknowledgement of how our practice continually mirrors and aligns with contemporary practice as well as cultural and behavioural shifts.
We seek to push media research further into pragmatic policy debates and discussions across a range of disciplines and sectors by understanding what people ‘do’ with media and culture, rather than only what is done to them, and what media do to people, places, and practices, including how media develop out of materials, environments and resources. For example, our work aims to explore the ways pre-mediatic materialities (Parikka 2014,) and the afterlives of media (Gabrys 2011, Miller and Maxwell 2012, Starosielski and Walker 2015, Cubitt 2017) feed into media policy and practice. We will be looking, in particular, to consolidate the following media themes as part of our teaching and research programmes:
- media and cultural infra-structures, labour, resource-risk and resilience
- cultural and political economies of media and cultural entertainment
- eco-criticism and media-environmental studies
- entrepreneurship and media management
- creative media and non-commercial media practices
- storytelling, media narratives, and performance
- mnemonics, archives and media heritage
In Bell and Oakley’s Cultural Policy(2015, 157-158) book, they signal a need for cultural policy to move into new directions such that culture is not seen only as the context in which policy acts but that culture acts on policy (and, we would say, increasingly through uses of media):
Rather than seeing culture as a resource to be used economically, as the creative economy of cultural industries traditions generally do, the argument would be to see “economic” resources from water to housing to green spaces in cultural terms, to help understand what they mean to people and hence how they can be valued in terms other than the economic – or through a radical rewriting of the definition of the economic.
CCMPS is exploring how we can re-write what is valuable about media, not simply in terms of economics, politics and entertainment, but in terms of heritage, wellbeing, affect, materiality, or sense of place, environment, and connected-ness to landscape, natural resources and new forms of identity and rights.
The 9th International Conference on Cultural Policy Research was held last week at Sookmyung Women’s University in Seoul, South Korea. I was there, along with several CCPS colleagues, PhD students and graduates for what was a very stimulating few days. Seoul, the first Asian venue for this conference, was a setting which was timely and appropriate. Korea has been the home, in recent years, to a vibrant re-imagining of state-led initiatives in culture in relation to city regeneration, cultural diplomacy and the cultural economy, culminating in the hugely regionally and globally successful Hallyu wave of music, film and TV. These achievements, now retrospectively re-branded into a strategic vision for Creative Korea, provided the backdrop to the event as researchers and policymakers gathered to learn from, reflect on and contextualise them in the longer history of the project of cultural policy.
Personally the week started on a rather sombre note, having escaped an especially damp UK summer, dampened a bit more by the deepening gloom of the post-Brexit political crisis and arriving in a Seoul that was being brushed by the edge tropical storm to welcome conference go-ers with a thorough drenching. This, and jet-lag, might have accounted for the rather downbeat tone in the opening session on the Changing Role of Cultural Policy in the 21st century – and certainly all the speakers in various ways identified the Brexit vote as reflecting a significant change to the global context in which research in the field could operate. For me it was hard to get away from the sense that if, among the already proliferating interpretations of the meaning of the result, Brexit was a vote against a vision of a tolerant, outward looking UK, then British cultural policy itself, and its attendant research community, had also somehow failed. The catharsis of discussion, though, and the reminder that other places in the world (including the Mexico of Gonzalo Enrique-Soltero’s contribution) faced challenges in the social and cultural landscape which were even more immediate than those in the UK, helped me to re-focus on the on-going contributions that research in this field should still aspire to make. This re-awakening was helped by an opening ceremony in which performances of traditional Korean dance and music were accompanied by some slick video introductions to Seoul and to Korea and by some words of introduction from eminent local dignitaries and the organising committee. I’m often struck by how international conferences are so much better at this kind of thing than we are in Britain and, while the cynic in me might reflect that there’s nothing academics like better than being told how important we are, the warmth and sincerity of these greetings made for a very welcome start to the week’s activities.
The rest of the programme was packed with papers and themes. Amongst many potential highlights I’ll pick out three memories from the sessions I saw. First were from the sessions and papers which were addressing the theme of cultural work. Some years ago an influential paper asked where work was in creative industries policy. On the evidence of these sessions (including about ‘Inequality, Meritocracy and Wellbeing in the Cultural Industries’ and ‘Artistic Survival and Public Policy’), it is still being looked for and found in diverse places as researchers attempt to identify and to explore the realities or delusions of work in the creative sector. I’m writing a new module on this topic, and the papers and discussions I saw here will be of great use in shaping these issues on behalf of our students. Second I was really struck by a paper from Takashi Ishigaki on the use of film-showings as a mechanism for re-building community bonds in Tsumani-struck Japan. The author had worked as a volunteer on the program and displayed images of films screened on the side of buildings in village squares or in community centres, for children and adults, all provided free by local distributors. It offered a nice reminder of the important work that apparently simple forms of cultural participation can do in re-establishing ‘normal life’ in a traumatised region.
Finally the closing plenary, featuring an address on 'Cultural Strategies of Urban Regeneration in the Instagram Age' from Sharon Zukin, author of the influential Loft Living, with a discussion from an associated panel, was genuinely memorable. This was not least a result of its location in the spectacular setting of Seoul’s Dongdaemun Design Plaza, itself perhaps exemplifying the kind of ‘McGuggenisation’ that the panel and others introduced and critiqued. Alongside the celebration of the potential of the nomination of cities as ‘creative’ Professor Zukin also reminded us of the ambiguities and tensions in this process. For all the celebration of such initiatives, they might also be complicit in the re-shaping of the city as a façade for the aesthetic delight of the elites of global finance, or for extracting value from tourists rather than the cultural enrichment of its citizenships – a point made forcefully by a local discussant, Professor Dong-Yeun Lee of the Korea National University of Arts. It was a telling discussion that highlighted the inherent tensions between visions of culture (and the city) for policymakers as, on the one hand a thing to be produced and consumed and, on the other, a space to be lived in and shared.
It was especially nice to experience all this with colleagues from the UK cultural policy research community, as well as several of our PhD students – some of whom were presenting and responding to papers themselves, and some of whom, as Seoul natives, were able to act as valuable restaurant guides too. That, and the return of the sun by the end of the week, made for an inspiring and energising conference. My sincere congratulations and thanks to the organisers for their hard work in putting it together.
We’ve now completed the first run through of our new module The Mediated Self Project. This was an IATL-funded Strategic Project to develop a module for our Master’s programmes to critically engage students with the processes and consequences of personal and professional forms of self-mediation as enabled by media and digital technologies. You can see our previous entries about this here.
In developing the module we were interested to enhance skills needed to mediate the self, to give students the space to practice and play with these skills and to reflect on why they might be necessary in contemporary life and work, how they can be resisted, played with and adapted. Having set, assessed and fed-back on our students' work, and collected their evaluations, we’re in a position to consider what we’ve learned in the process.
Lesson 1: A Different Approach to Delivery
First, this was a module that tried to take a different approach to delivery and assessment. We avoided a simple seminar-topic-reading-assessment based model and instead constructed a framework, based around ‘themes’ and ‘skills’ and mixed up teaching to include two symposia, technical sessions on video, photography and writing for the web (delivered by Rob Batterbee from the Careers and Skills Academic Technology team) a documentary film and a discussion around a novel The Circle by Dave Eggers. It may have been that some students felt there was a lack of more formal ‘lecture’ delivery styles and a clear narrative through-line for the module but generally this made for a dynamic, riskier and potentially richer teaching and learning experience. We especially felt this at the very start of the module where we’d asked students to come to the first session having made, with very little instruction, a video introducing themselves. Walking into a teaching room with not much more, in terms of material to ‘deliver’, than the hope that students will do what you’ve asked over a vacation was a bit nerve-wracking. The time, effort and skill that had gone into the student videos reassured us that students had bought into what we were trying to do – even if they didn’t wholly understand why we wanted them to do it this way! Subsequent sessions similarly rewarded this trust in students.
Lesson 2: A Different Approach to Assessment
Second, the forms of assessment that we used – an online mediated portfolio based on a curated self-media product – and a critical reflection on the process of producing it – allowed us to push the boundaries between theory and practice in a way which is well worth refining. One of the original impetus’s for the module was an identified lack in the curriculum of a means to test and develop many of the skills that students already possess and are being pushed to take up in media and creative industries (as well as other areas of work and life) – which we might crudely define as reflecting forms of digital and social media literacy – and which aren’t easily translatable into ‘conventional’ modes of assessment, such as exams or written assignments. These conventional forms still have their value but are arguably constitutive of print forms of literacy and, for some students, feel useless or even irrelevant for their future lives.
Lesson 3: Nothing more Practical than a Good Theory
This module was practical and applied in its nature but it was also critically informed practice, and we wanted to change the way students think about media, online life and the ubiquity of digital technologies. The skills that we want our students to develop - of research, critical reflection or of weighing evidence in the construction of narrative arguments – might indeed be wedded to conventional assessment strategies more for the convenience of assessors than assessed, but we also want them to use this in the workplace and in daily life. There is certainly value in exploring new ways in which they can be captured. The quality of the work produced this year – which you can see examples of here – and the experience of working with students to produce it, should enable us to provide both excellent examples and clearer guidance to future students in approaching these tasks.
Lesson 4: We're all in this together (aren't we?)
Finally it has been interesting and gratifying to see the interest that the project has generated amongst colleagues in the Centre, in the University and beyond. We feel very fortunate to have had the luxury to develop a module in this way, thanks to IATL, our original team of student stakeholders and the various kinds of expertise, within and beyond the University, on which we’ve been able to draw. You can read our interim and final project reports here and we’ll be presenting on the first year of the module at a Window on Teaching session in the Autumn Term. Thanks most of all to the students for their hard work. They really did step up to be co-researchers in the development of the curriculum for the next cohort and then delivering insightful and unique windows on their mediated lives.
Our IATL supported Mediated Self Project module, that we’ve blogged about before here and here has begun in earnest this term, and Saturdaysaw the first of our symposia. One rationale for the module is to provide a place to explore and reflect on the place of self-mediation in professional life, either in transforming how we work, especially in the cultural, creative and media industries, or producing new forms of work entirely. With this in mind we invited four people whose working lives we thought might exemplify these changes to reflect on their experiences with our students.
Our speakers were Callum Goodwilliam, a facilitator at Squared Onlineand Warwick graduate, Marie Haycocks of Certanovo, life-coach and image consultant, Jon Bounds a writer and Pete Ashton an artist. We asked students to prepare for the day by researching our speakers through their online presences, and asked speakers to respond to our themes in explaining their own career trajectories. We followed this with a roundtable discussion at which students were able to ask questions, both practical and general, in relation to their own work on producing a Mediated Self portfolio.
A number of interesting themes emerged from the day for me – but I thought I’d highlight three. Firstly the discussion confirmed, gladly given our premise, that working on or managing the self is an important component of contemporary working life. The very existence of a market for Marie’s services, and indeed the accompanying forms of accreditation and qualification which underpin her practice are a strong indication of this. Online and offline forms of self-management and representation, though, also reveal some interesting tensions, especially in relation to the development of the technologies of mediation. More than one of our speakers referred to their own changing perspectives on and experiences of self-mediation as their appreciation of the implications of the online context grew. Callum bravely shared early Facebook photos, and early attempts at blogging, both of which he suggested he might prefer to be no longer accessible. Jon by contrast, and in opposition to the story of an internet that never forgets, had some early published work – pioneering work in relation to the short history of blogging - that was no longer visible. Both stories were perhaps a timely reminder that these forms of self-mediation are often achieved on terms over which we have little control. It was a theme re-iterated by Pete’s rules of self-mediation, which included knowing what the platforms we use are getting from us as we use them. Awareness of this perhaps helps rebalance the power dynamics between our abilities to mediate ourselves through technology and the possibility of being mediated by that technology. We might assume that these skills are tacit, especially amongst young people, and as the infrastructure of the internet and social media become more embedded into everyday life we might think less about them, but they can and perhaps should be learned.
A second theme related to the notion of being ‘authentic’ or ‘true’ to oneself. While ‘being oneself’ is the assumed path to various forms of success in contemporary life, it seemed easier to say than do. Marie, whose progression to her current role was strongly informed by her family and personal history wrestled with having different selves in personal and professional contexts, at least inasmuch as these were represented in talking about her business. Her ‘brand values’ and her ‘personal values’ became blurred, in a context in which reflections on her own experiences fed directly into the service she provided. Jon, by contrast, described using a variety of online selves in his various professional roles –some personal, some political and some reflecting the playful subversive potentials of digital cultures. He was careful and disciplined in policing the boundaries between them, but this also led to some difficult decisions about the appropriate forum for some outputs of his creative work. The possibility of a diffuse and diverse identity emcompassing the complexity of human experience was one of the utopian ideals of the early internet cultures. The political ambiguities of the more contemporary drive towards a single, coherent self, exemplified by Mark Zuckerberg’s assertions about integrity and identity, perhaps puts even more importance on the decisions we make about how we represent ourselves online and through what platforms we choose to do that work.
Finally, Pete described the importance of being driven by our own interests and enthusiasms in making a distinctive mediated self, and also described his own trajectory towards a situation of ‘not caring’ what people thought of his work, beyond an aspiration that they thought it interesting and worthwhile in the chaotic world of the web and its reputation economy . His imperative for us to 'create our own metrics' for success, rather than be driven by ‘likes’ or ‘views’ or ‘shares’ might well become a motto for our module. All the speakers seem to espouse the need to 'be the/your message' in a way that moves us from McLuhan's the 'media is the message' to 'self mediation is the message'. We will be exploring these ideas with our students for the rest of the module and we hope to have challenged them into thinking about the mediated self as NOT simply self-branding or personal PR or self-marketing. It is far more than that and touches on a variety of value systems. Like the rest of day, it should, provide some food for thought and inspiration for our students as they explore their own forms of mediation.
Many thanks to the speakers and students for their contributions – and to the staff at the Teaching Grid for allowing us to use their space on a Saturday.
Today’s news that Facebook has begun the process of developing a ‘dislike’ button resonates with some of the issues I reflect on in my new book on Understanding Cultural Taste. The book is an exploration of the relations between taste and social and cultural life and it includes a chapter on Digitalizing Taste, in which I speculate on the particular significance of taste to online cultures, including those of social networks such as Facebook.
‘Liking’ and ‘disliking’ has become something of a taken-for-granted dimension of social networks, for both users and the networks themselves. They are central to the very creation of a profile – in which identifying and sharing the music, films, books or TV that we like, as much as our occupation, our education, or our relationship status, is tacitly understood as a kind of performance of the type of person we are or, perhaps, the type of person we would like to appear to be. The display of such tastes – and indeed the possibility of judgment of the tastes of others amongst our ‘friends’- becomes part of the pleasure of contemporary cultural consumption as we identify and connect with common communities of interest, or distance ourselves from others. There are also the pleasures of gaining likes for photos we’ve taken, or for links to interesting stories or videos which we’ve ‘shared’, or for more general bon mots, to get instantly reassuring and re-inforcing feedback from our networks that we are appropriately cool, witty, radical or affected by and engaged in current events. Equally there are the significant feelings of disquiet and insecurity when expected likes do not materialise. Such anxieties perhaps reflect the success of social networks in constructing themselves as microcosms of social life more generally.
What might be more uniquely contemporary is that, for the networks themselves, our ‘likes’ are not just descriptions of our characteristics and interests but are crucial to their business models. The spread of the ‘like button’ across the web (there’s one in the corner of this page. Please click it!) indicates the extent to which liking has become part of its very infrastructure. The lists of things we like and the clicks on pages and posts with which we interact through liking are not just positive feedback or commentary – they are also data which feed into the complex construction of individual and collective users as products to be sold on to advertisers. They also feed into the algorithmic construction of news feeds and searches, in which data about the kinds of things we have ‘liked’ in the past is used to probabilistically predict the kinds of things we might be interested in in the future.
It is this latter aspect – crucial to what Gerlitz and Helmond describe as ‘the like economy’ – which has been at the heart of the controversy over whether Facebook should have a dislike button at all. Facebook’s historical reluctance to include such a button, they argue, reveals the crudity of ‘liking’ as a tool to express the range of sentiments (agreement, enthusiasm, even sarcasm) which users might wish to share in social networks. It also reflects the construction of such networks as spaces where the default setting, as it were, is to ‘like, enjoy or recommend as opposed to discuss or critique’ (Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013: 1358). Dislikes are as important to the performance of taste in relation to identity, we might speculate, but harder to monetize.
It is interesting to hear the parameters which Mark Zuckerberg has placed around the proposed dislike button this morning – that the aim is to allow for the expression of empathy or solidarity even when ‘every moment isn’t good’. These seem laudable enough ambitions – but raise interesting questions about the ways in which data that will inevitably be gathered about dislikes can and should be put to use. What does Facebook get out of the effort to develop this innovation? As interesting for me is the extent to which this move fits with the ambition of organisations like Facebook to shape and alter social norms in the digital or machine age. As I suggest in my book, Facebook doesn’t really know what we like. Liking is a complex process involving, amongst other things, sensory, aesthetic and moral forms of judgment that emerge from a range of life experiences. Facebook knows what we click on. Its ambition might be to encourage or train its users such that the latter more frequently equates with the former but – thankfully in my view- it has a long way to go to achieve that.
The Second Shanghai City Lab (SCL) Cultural Economy International Summer School was held at the School of Media and Design, Shanghai Jaio Tong University, between 3rd and 17th of July 2015. It was a full two weeks (13 days) full time with lectures, visiting talks, case studies, field trips and social events. This year 55 students attended; many of these were masters students but there were also PhD and even young faculty scholars. Students had come as far as Stanford and Oxford. Altogether, the 2015 summer school featured 16 formal lectures by nine faculty members, visits to 13 different Shanghai cultural sites, six visiting professionals talking about their industries in the city, three days of group work (supervised urban research in Shanghai), and a final presentation day. The photo below was take on a site visit to the creative cluster M50 -- it doesn't include everyone.
This year’s theme was “Work in the Cultural Economy”. We began with the questions -- What is it to work in the cultural economy? What kind of labour is involved, and what kind of skills are required? What kind of career strategies are needed? This was framed by Bourdieu's theory of the field of cultural production and the 'trajectory' cultural producers within it. These questions continued throughout the various lectures, discussions and site visits. And mostly because we had some great visiting professionals, as well as visiting scholars, students were able to find out what working in the creative field like in Shanghai.
Justin O’Connor (Monash University) on cultural economy, cultural field and cultural work.
Jonathan Vickery (Univeristy of Warwick) on cultural policy, cultural economy and cities.
Gu Xin (Monash University) on the field of Chinese contemporary art, creative city and creative clusters.
Scott Brook (University of Canberra) on Bourdieu, applied field theory, the literary field and cultural work in Australia.
Jen Webb (University of Canberra) on graduate careers and creativity.
Shan Shilian (Shanghai Jiao Tong University) on China’s cultural policy.
Li Kanghua (Shanghai Jiao Tong University) on Shanghai’s cultural economy and policy contexts.
Deng Lin (Shanghai Jiao Tong University) on cultural economy field research.
[This picture above was our seminar in a Maker space in Shanghai]. Our visiting professionals included Professor Wang Hong Tu of China’s first MFA program at Fudan University – talking about Shanghai’s literary field and the life young creatives can expect. Lisa Movias, now head of the China bureau of the Art Newspaper, talked to us about Shanghai’s emerging cultural milieu and the new venues in the city. Social theatre pioneer, Zhao Chuan, told us about experimental Chinese contemporary art in Shanghai and particularly his Grassroot Stage organization. Advertising guru Peter Soh gave us an insight into the communications media industries in the city, and Linda Lin similarly opened up the animation industry, with particular reference to its global influences.
Our site visits this year – both tutor-led visits, with talks, and the students own group research – included the Rockbund Art Museum; The Shanghai Bund; the Old Town; the old EXPO 2010 site – particularly the China Art Museum and the Power Station of Art.
We paid particular attention to two urban phenomenon – first, the new West Bund Cultural Corridor (including the Long Museum, Yuz Museum, K11 art space, Photography Museum, and the public art and design of this expanse of land); and second, the Creative Clusters, particularly Creative Warehouse, Tianzifang, South Suzhou River, M50. We also had a day discussing Maker and Hacker culture, with site visits to pioneer David Li’s space in south Shanghai, and new enterprise DF Robot, and their community space at the giant technology enterprise park in Pudong.
The two weeks ended with two days of student group research in the city, where each student chose a site and topic for investigation. Research methods could be experimental – using film and photography – or standard methods, like interviews, observation, compiling data. On the last day – the Friday – we heard all eight presentations, after which feedback was given, and then finally, all students received a signed and stamped certificate for successfully completing the Summer School.
For more pictures, see my Flickr site:
Last term’s summer ‘practice’ module – Culture and Social Innovation – saw a student group of eight generate a two day micro-festival. The site for this event was the NHS-City Council Mental Health and well-being centre, the POD, (situated in Coventry city centre). This site was not just a venue for a series of performances – the POD was a partner in delivering something that attracted over 100 people.It was exhausting (the run-up to the event involved weeks of non-stop work).
The brand concept for the event was the idea of student Emilia Moniszko – who is now developing KALEJDOSKOP as an independent arts platform. And to quote from its strategy document:
KALEJDOSKOP is interdisciplinary, and aims to combine some of the most dynamic aspects of contemporary art, the creative industries and social enterprises. It is a platform and will provide a space for launching new projects, events and initiatives. As an organisation, its priority will be production, engagement and generating value. As a series of events, its priority will be diversity, democracy, participation, and the ‘right to the city’. KALEJDOSKOP, fully developed, will act as agent, entrepreneur, creative producer, cultural management, researcher, consultant and advocate. It will both act on its own initiative, and in partnership.
The first KALEJDOSKOP event at Coventry POD lasted from Friday afternoon to Saturday evening – and whose dynamic program included the following: [SEE the Facebook page for more]
> Seven performances including: Poetry, South Asian Poetry, Rap, Fusion of Punk and Folk.
> An open discussion with a panel consisting of local small theatre director, artist, film-maker and a chair of BOPA.
> A short film screening of a film on Coventry’s history and cultural evolution.
> An alternative tour of Coventry – walking the city’ – exploring urban memory, contested narratives of the city, commerce and anti-commerce, and the relation between culture and the social landscape.
> Food and drink buffet, representing the City’s cultural diversity
> A sonic improvisation with ‘Collective // Pod’ and members of the audience, against a screening of films created by West Midlands based filmmakers.
This event has generated a dialogue, from which the POD has invited KALEJDOSKOP to produce a Friday night special event once a quarter (three months), for a year. This will launch Emilia's career as a cultural entrepreneur once she has completed her MA (in October).
I have blogged in the past about an emerging European research project on which I am a partner, and which in part grew out of some work I did with the European Centre for Creative Economy in Dortmund in 2012-13. The last meeting in Essen in April saw the launch of a new Wiki space (photo below), and since then we have had the final report from our consultants TFCC (Tom Fleming Cultural Consultancy). See also links below – then my comments will follow, but these pertain to the as-yet-to-be published Final Report. I think this will come out very soon – our next scheduled meetings are Amsterdam end of July, then Essen again in September.
On the Final report -- I think an important aspect of the report is the importance awarded to objective, impartial and wide-ranging research – this is important in two respects (i) research (particularly for arts organisations or policy consultancies) is so often 'information gathering' or the production of ‘evidence’, which, as we know, is required to inform or legitimate decision-making. With research on spillover, however, the ‘information’ is not simply ‘there’ to be gathered; it is embedded in forms of knowledge and practice that need to be explored. The old dichotomy of positive and exploratory research (or however you want to phrase it) is not useful here. Research will be more process-oriented, as along the way we need to discover possibilities, conditions of thinking, as well as practice, overturn assumptions on the nature of phenomenon like 'impacts' or 'benefits', and the definition of valid aims – at least, this is what we have found in aiming for a paradigm shift in our understanding of the socio-economic function of the cultural sector. I must admit, I have been getting impatient on how the project has taken almost two years just to define its aims and scope, but on reflection see that this time was needed – and the process has been as significant as what we have ended up with (right now two reports and a wiki page).
(ii) There are some institutional problems with spillover research. It contains what is outside the usual orbit of cultural research – where the people, the organisations, the products, the outcomes, are clearly delimited -- a spillover involves all, or a number of these, with uncertain outcomes. The centrality of free and impartial research is important given the complex ‘ontology’ of the spillover phenomenon – in its broadest sense. Certain forms of spillover can emerge spontaneously, and, at the time, largely undetected. We will need to re-define ‘evidence’, or the material for thought, or at least become more innovative in our understanding of how data can be used. In theory at least, there’s no reason why spillover is not ‘whirlpool-like’, with multiple spillover impacts generated by primary spillover effects or all kinds of compound reactions going on – in the age of virtual knowledge ‘Iconomies’ and post-Triple Helix model…[cf. Professor Gilson Schwartz’s recent Centre organised IAS-fellowship lectures] where new patterns of knowledge production are emerging, through mobile, innovation networks, commons, the ‘gamefication’ of collaboration: it is not so much the ‘effects’ we are looking for, but the way culture and CC actors can engage strategically in open innovations and generate value for and from spillover dynamics. As a research aim, we are starting to look for levels of spillover beyond ‘impacts’ – i.e. not just conceived as one object hitting another object, generating something obvious out of the impact -- or all those other externalities that happen as a matter of course. Spillover is moving more into a productive process outside of organizational entities, with layered dynamics and many possible points of value diffusion or dissemination…and various networked actors or agencies involved in various parts of the process. The underlying assumptions of our spillover concept is still rooted in the old incubator-investment-Silicon Valley, organisation-based, model?
One challenge we face is that our rationale for spillover research (and a large part of the motive of the main funding partners – Arts Council England, for starters) is that spillover can provide a broader route to justifying public investment in culture. In making an emphatic appeal for public investment, I think we need to firm-up our concept of ‘public investment’, particularly in relation to the ambiguous role of government in cultural policy as well as the different and shifting constitution of ‘public’ within each EU country – and in relation to EU level bodies. This is true in terms of the way ‘public’ funding is often calibrated, using partnership agreements, mixed or blended funding, and involving entrepreneurship.
Given, as the Final Report states, we are not rehearsing an argument for public funding per se, we also need to explore what we mean by ‘investment’, given that our understanding of a ‘return’ is more complex than the past policy language of benefits or value. For if spillover is as significant as we think it is – involving the broader milieu, habitus, social, industrial or organisational fields in which cultural activity does or can operate -- then we might find a tension opens up between the assumptions underpinning broad public funding and the specific aims of public investment for new or increased value. For it would make sense for public funders to progressively prioritise cultural organisations or CCIs that have spillover capabilities – or even fund spillover activity as a distinct genre of value production. If spillover becomes equally as important as the value generated by the core competencies of cultural organisations, then spillover could change how those competencies are configured or exercised.
What I like about the Final Report, and the project as it is developing, is the way we insist that the orientation and ‘framing’ of research is informed by the current requirements of both policy and strategy -- that there should be a consistent dialogue between the enterprise of research and the debates and thinking-processes of policy and its implications for strategy (i.e. policy interpreted at the level of the organization or practice). These areas should not be run together, or research be treated like the handmaiden of policy, but they both involve separate discourses, values and procedures.This could be problematic, or could be a needed level of critique on the way publicly-subsidised cultural organisations work.
I think we probably need a distinct and strong agenda for each of three quite different levels and their audiences – the research and academic communities, the policy community (bringing together national and EU policy thinkers, so often working apart), and the level of cultural managers, entrepreneurs and industry innovators (both inside and outside the creative industries). And one important dimension of spillover research is how it can broach the separation of the constituencies that represent the public ‘cultural sector’ and the ‘creative industries’. While, self-evidently, publicly subsidized institutions and commercial businesses operate in very different financial ecosystems, our concern is to find how reconstructed public policies can be instrumental and empowering to both. Up to now, urban policy (creative class, creative city) has been the means to integrate culture’s torn halves or define how arts and CCIs are bound up. However, this has reached its limits. Spillover could define a more effective framework for a fully ‘cultural’ economy.