Basically, as far as I can tell, the Southbank’s logic is that: a) if there’s no redevelopment, there cannot be any new educational facilities for deprived kids, and b) if they don’t destroy the historic skate park and replace it with retail units, there cannot be a new redevelopment.
The argument is then that, without giving up a certain amount of public space for private profit, we cannot give young people and children the cultural and educational opportunities that I think we all agree they deserve. The skateboarders are being ‘selfish’ by not ‘making space’ by giving up the ‘prime commercial space’ of their current skate-park in order to allow the Southbank to make spaces for ‘other “tribes”‘ (many of these of the Southbank’s own creation) who ‘don’t have a voice’ (apart from the voice of the government-subsidised Southbank Centre and of the private funders who are making up much of the new development’s budget).
Southbank Centre act as if There Is No Alternative, as if the assumptions glaring from the arguments outlined above are ‘natural’ and ‘self-evident’ even. But surely such an argument is not natural or self-evident, it is absolutely grotesque and abhorrent. What kind of a world are we living in when it appears ‘obvious’ and ‘unavoidable’ that the cost of culture and education for under-privileged children has got to be the sacrifice of some of the most beautiful, iconic urban vistas and well-loved public space in the country to commercialisation, corporate homogeneity and the limiting of social/communal activities to purchase and consumption, for those with disposable income (i.e. the literal polar opposite of the Southbank’s mission statement)?
I don’t see how adhering to this logic is any different from suggesting that it is impossible to provide beneficial educational experience without some private corporation profiting financially from it. (And there aren’t even any of those horrible ‘incentive’ mechanisms in place, to yoke the ‘market forces’ and make sure that the more ‘cultured’ the deprived children become, the more money Eat or Yo! Sushi or whoever are able to earn.) What these people are effectively saying is that they cannot make the redevelopments that they suggest they ‘need’ to make, in order to fulfil the potential of the organisation, without some other private company generating revenue from it, forever. This would make the new ‘Festival Wing’ effectively a ‘for-profit’ venture, although it is not the Southbank Centre which would be profiting but Pret or Wagamama or some similar faceless behemoth.
In a reasonable, rational society, surely the provision of culture and education for young people shouldn’t cost anything. Rather than assuming that this is somehow ‘obviously’ naive and idealistic, we should start from this point of view, and then ask – stage-by-stage – why it is that, in the ‘real’ world, this is apparently not the case?
At some stage in the planning and negotiation process, the question must have been raised: ‘How much public space are these children’s souls worth?’. And when the new developments get old and need refurbishment, the question will return, again and again, until there is no more public space to be sold. The more public space is sold (and free creative spaces like the Undercroft are lost), the more children will rely on these institutions for their creativity and freedom, and the more public space will have to be sold on again in order to provide it. How many times will the skatepark have to be moved, before it stops interfering with the ‘prime commercial space’ on which it so naively took root? The end point of this logic is a perfectly rationalised world in which all space is either privatised, to be used to generate profit, or incorporated into one big institution prescribing and overseeing our ‘culture’, ‘creativity’ and ‘free expression’ (which will continue to shrink as these provisions too will come to be privatised). This would obviously be a total travesty of ‘culture, creativity and free expression’, in any real sense of these words.
This is happening everywhere all the time of course, it is only particularly remarkable in this instance because of the vomit-inducing hypocrisy of the Southbank’s selling of space which is used for a far more free, creative and genuine cultural practice (in the anthropological sense of ‘cultural’, not the ‘Time Out’ leisure-consumer sense) than anything they could prescribe or curate (sponsored by Mastercard).
Of course, it is not just the Southbank Centre that is in thrall to the economist logic of privatisation, of the ‘natural and inescapable’ trade-off of basic human rights, dignity and freedom for increasingly shameless private profiteering. It is not normal or unremarkable that all social and communal ‘good’ has to be paid for by commodification and alienation, it is a horror and a violence, but it is supposed to be the duty of artists and publicly-funded cultural institutions, in nominally ‘democratic’ and ‘liberal’ societies, to recognise such violence and decry it, rather than actually try and normalise it for their own near-sighted ends.
It is also not really a surprise that the Southbank are acting in this way. As a publicly-funded institution within what I would consider a totalitarian-capitalist state (in which democracy means choosing between differently-tinted capitalist ‘centrists’, whose education and media systems teach us that this is (obviously) the meaning of true freedom, and whose property laws mean that the entire ‘status quo’ is necessarily in support of validating an original act of extreme violence) they’re obviously bound to support the ruling ideology (which decides what ‘just the way things are’ looks like), or else be called radical. Because the Southbank Centre can never be radical, their approach to programming and management is quite a good barometer of this ideology, in terms of a curated and prescribed ‘culture’ which is ‘good for people’ (i.e. won’t cause riots, will encourage GDP growth, etc). What the Undercroft clash reveals is just how far the status quo has shifted.
So I hope that the redevelopment plans fall through, and I hope that they have to seriously reconsider all their ideas, and adjust their strategy so that the Undercroft space is kept exactly as it is now. If they scale back their ideas, and their budget, so as to take out of the equation the ‘vital’ ‘funding’ (or plunder) which would be ‘raised’ by effectively making the Southbank promenade even more shit than it already is, then fine. I hope this event will provide a precedent to stem the tide of wanton privatisation of public space, and show institutions like the Southbank that There Is An Alternative. I hope it makes other institutions think more carefully before they plan massive flashy redevelopments in a time of financial crisis and intensifying social strife. And sure, I hope they can find other ways to provide at least a few new educational opportunities, and help the disenfranchised kids forget about their problems for a few years and stifle their class hatred with a lot of vague humanist sentiment and striving.
BUT if we were to take the Southbank Centre seriously for just a moment, and identify with its own conception of itself as an ‘arts’ centre (which presents/produces high-quality ‘art’), if we were – for just a few seconds – to pretend that we believed in its integrity and that it wasn’t dictated by management goals and marketing strategies and audience ‘development’ programmes, we might expect more from it. We might expect it to start asking why, despite receiving significant public funds, they are being pressured to destroy a historic public space and replace it with homogenising, alienated spaces in which people must pay, consume or be asked to leave. We might expect it to use its incredibly privileged position as an institution nominally dedicated to free expression, autonomous structures of meaning, and the space to criticise, to confront the terrible decision that it’s being forced to make, tearing apart one of those ‘communities’ which its role is supposedly to build. We might expect it to acknowledge, as an overwhelming concern, those forces which are telling it that it is ‘unavoidable’ that they must choose between the cultural values of two groups of young people within the same city, and forsake one for the other. We might expect it to rear up, in the face of these bullies, and enlist all its contacts and associate artists from across the world, into curating a mighty festival which would investigate and interrogate the overwhelming logic of privatisation, of the economic rationalisation of all of human experience, community, culture and space, and of the ‘injunction’ that an arts institution sells souls (in as literal a sense as I believe is possible in our society), in order to fulfil its basic function.
The Southbank won’t do any of this, of course. And there is nothing more heinous at the moment than its dreadful ‘Festival of Neighbourhood, with Mastercard’ affair, which is the curatorial equivalent of face-painting a homeless person. But we must remember that the Southbank Centre are victims too, along with the poor under-cultured kids of Lambeth, and neither of them are the victims of skateboarders or BMXers. They are all victims of austerity, of capitalism and of dehumanising economic rationality. But unlike the skaters and the children, the Southbank have the money, the power and the mandate to speak out and speak very loudly indeed. Isn’t that what art is for?
Read about the Long Live Southbank campaign, sign up and take action HERE
Send your objections to Lambeth Council NOW
There’s a nice Vice piece about the issue HERE