Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper: A Response

I certainly welcome the Australian Government’s National Cultural Policy Discussion Paper (NCPD). It explicitly recalls the ground-breaking work of Paul Keating’s 1994 Creative Nation, whose modernizing vision for Australian culture in a new global age was at one with its bold attempt to bring the arts and (what were then called) the ‘cultural industries’ into a unified forward-looking agenda. The NCPD wants to bring the arts and creative industries into ‘the mainstream of Australian life’ but as the document acknowledges – in terms of their crucial contribution national identity, cultural tourism, the creativity of the population, GDP and employment, innovation and social cohesion and so on – they have never left this mainstream nor have they ever been so important to it! The real problem has not been the marginalization of arts and creative industries but their bifurcation into different policy agencies and agendas. In other words, the concept of arts and creative industries as a complementary set of practices and mutually enhancing economies has become fragmented across a competing range of discourses and institutional settings.

The Howard years witnessed the ‘culture wars’ in which the modernizing cultural vision of Creative Nation ran into a conservative backlash. It was no coincidence that during this period the term ‘creative industries’ replaced ‘cultural industries’ and was then uncoupled from the arts and culture agenda. The creative industries were given a preponderantly economic rationale and integrated into the ‘knowledge economy’ and ‘innovation’ policy agendas. The newly elected 2007 Labor government treated the creative industries with some caution. Though perhaps inevitable given the political pendulum this was also made possible because the constituency for ‘art and culture’ – the sorts of people and institutions represented at 20:20 for example – felt directly threatened by the creative industries agenda.

The NCPD attempts to bring arts and creative industries back together as part of a wider vision to achieve a range of Australian cultural, social and economic objectives, and is therefore extremely important. But it seems to me that the ambiguities, tensions and conflicts around ‘arts and creative industries’, which lie beneath much of the political ebb and flow noted above, are by no means resolved – and these need to be addressed if we are to move forward.

The document uses an expanded notion of culture beyond the traditional arts: “downloading or uploading creative material, visiting museums and galleries, creating artworks, learning about indigenous culture, borrowing a book from a local library, listening to a rock band at a club, going to the movies or watching television”. It uses ‘creativity’ to link the intrinsic value of culture to social benefits – making us “ready to take on the challenges and opportunities of daily modern life” – and economic benefits – “the skills that that will drive our future as a creative, productive nation”. This fine as a general aspiration.

The problem is that though the term ‘arts and creative industries’ is used throughout to denote this expanded conception of culture it works through a division of labor - between the arts as crucial for culture, society and national identity and creative industries for employment, innovation, exports, GDP and so on. This division of labor between arts and creative industries has the direct consequence of ignoring the crucial cultural contribution of the ‘creative industries’. In the NCPD the older term ‘cultural industries’ is used to denote those ‘associated industries’ concerned to distribute or commercialize the ‘core arts’. In many respects however, it is the ‘creative industries’ – “film and television production, broadcasting, electronic games, architecture, design and fashion, publishing, media and advertising” – that are at the ‘core’ of our national cultural life. It is telling that the UK definition retained the ‘core arts’ as part and parcel of this creative industries sector rather than trying to divide them in two. The energy of Creative Nation lay both in its broadening of the concept of ‘art’ to embrace a wider culture and its acknowledgement of the economic and social contexts in which this culture operated. A modern democratic cultural policy must have an economic dimension and must address the complex and intermeshed realities of both publicly funded and commercial culture.

We cannot therefore separate government support for cultural ends (the arts) and for economic ends (creative industries) without doing severe damage to our national culture and its transnational connections. We cannot put all our ‘intrinsic’ cultural eggs in one basket (the arts) and leave our creative industries to the mercy of market forces. One of the consequences of doing this is that cultural policy reverts to an arts policy. This is not an argument against the importance of arts, or against the importance of public funding, but the ‘intrinsic value’ we accord to the arts cannot be bought at the expense of the remainder of our (non-publicly funded) cultural life. What is intrinsically valuable in the arts is also to be found in the creative industries; the long, often pre-industrial and certainly pre-digital, history of the traditional arts can blind us to the fact that they share many of the same technical skills and aesthetic, emotional, cultural and social energies as the creative industries. Indeed, to some extent we can say that they have – at least in the past – shared similar economic energies, though these have been organized differently. To divide the two cuts off the arts from contemporary energies, and hangs the creative industries out to dry in the winds of market forces. Both of these block their full contribution to national culture.

In reality no country, and certainly no country as small as Australia, allows its creative industries (as defined above) to be left purely to the market. This is because any ‘public value’ they might have (informational, democratic, cultural) would be quickly wiped out. So television, radio, film, book publishing, new media and so on receive government attention and funding precisely for their contribution to the public sphere and to cultural life of the nation. This is nowhere acknowledged. In the NCPD the ‘creative industries’ are discussed in purely commercial or economic terms. They employ people, they create wealth, they are one of our larger services sectors, they link to innovation, boost productivity and so on. These are important but we also need to ask how these industries are to be enhanced and developed not only as an economic sector but also as part of our national cultural policy.

Thus in the NCPD it is ‘arts education’ that seems to develop creativity and skills which go on to drive the creative industries and through that the economy as a whole. Here again ‘the arts’ gets the cultural depth, creative industries the business and vocational skills for industry. How are television, film, popular music, new media to be taught – not just the ‘skills’ but the grammar, the vocabulary, the critical cultural apparatus without which these creative sectors could not exist?

The NCPD flags a forthcoming creative industries strategy document, with a strong business development flavor. Economic and business development policies are crucial but we first have to ask what values – economic, social, cultural – we would like this sector to deliver. Relying on economic arguments for the creative industries, such as their contribution to employment and GDP, is a double-edged sword. What happens if they under-deliver? Already many of the core economic claims about the creative industries as a replacement industry have evaporated, followed quite closely by the extravagant claims for their growth potential. Do we drop them? The employment and GDP claims that have been attached to the creative industries also ignores the more qualitative issues that have become ever more pressing. What kind of employment do these provide, at what salary level and with what security? Who benefits from rapid growth – local producers or large global corporations? What do we do when those who produce cultural value in our urban centres are the ones who get moved out when real estate development moves in?

The messy reality of the creative industries lies in the fact that these industries are not purely commercial in motivation and that they operate in complex ecosystems in which making money and making meaning intermingle. These ecosystems consist of large corporations, some publicly funded, and a huge shoal of small and medium enterprises, micro-businesses, freelancers and (increasingly) volunteers and interns. In the NCPD there are only ‘artists’ and ‘industries’; it ignores the clusters and networks of creative activities which traverse the full range of social, cultural and economic outcomes. In doing so it sidesteps one of the most crucial issues in contemporary cultural policy. That is, how is public funding to be used outside the large scale cultural institutions in ways not restricted to the short-term grant-funding of individual artists. How is it to be used to enhance the creative ecosystem as a whole and to address the needs of individuals and enterprises operating across different markets and funding streams? This is a challenge the Australia Council must face head on – as recognized by many other national, regional and local arts agencies across the developed world. It needs to actively address this and not hunker in the bunker waiting for them to disappear.

This issue applies to arts funding agencies, but it also has to apply to the creative industries generally. Their public cultural value (in publishing, broadcasting, media and communications policy and so in) has traditionally been couched in terms of content – their contribution to national identity, citizen empowerment and education and so on. The policy tools usually involved content quotas, ownership restrictions and targeted public investment. The more recent agenda of the creative industries might have focused attention on a more diverse and dispersed range of micro-businesses operating in a much more complex and fluid culture – but at the same time it has been overwhelmingly concerned with economic growth and ‘innovation effects’. We need to ask what kinds of creative industries development we want to encourage. What kind of production and consumption cultures, what employment conditions, what levels of diversity and ease of entry, what degree of sustainability, what contribution to social cohesion and vitality. Simply invoking a ubiquitous and benign ‘creativity’ does not go far enough.

These questions are particularly acute in two areas, one absent from the document and one taken for granted throughout.

The NCPD is completely silent on the question of cities, something that cannot be justified by distinct Federal/ State/ City jurisdictions. Australia is one of the most densely urbanized countries on the planet, and the vast majority of its arts and creative industries are concentrated in its main cities (along with three quarters of its GDP). This is where arts and creative industries, education and cultural consumption, tourism, architecture and design services, large corporations, venerable arts institutions and hand-to-mouth micro-businesses are all concentrated. Cities are the memory banks and innovation engines of arts and creative industries. A national cultural policy cannot thereby ignore the crucial role of cities under the guise of its national remit . What kind of cities do we want and what is the role of culture within them? Are they to be exclusively about glitzy consumption, ‘international brands’, big arts institutions and those creative industries that can pay the high rents? How do we square the seemingly unshakeable imperative to drive development through the highest possible rent and tax returns with the need to develop local economies of cultural production which constantly lose out as a consequence. What new kind of public cultural sphere is being created in a digital era and how do we ensure its producers and consumers have access to its diverse spaces?

The second of those areas where these questions are pressing is that taken-for-granted claim that the arts and creative industries promote ‘innovation’. In a general sense one hopes that a flourishing of artistic and cultural activity would be indicative of, and feed back into, an economically thriving and socially cohesive nation or city. Peter Hall’s extensive historical review in Cities and Civilization suggests this is by no means always the case; nevertheless it's a hope that many of us (myself included) share. But what exactly does it mean to link the arts and creative industries to innovation? Their very nature certainly involves novelty (the next new thing!) – but that novelty works within a cultural or aesthetic system that may have very little to do with economics. James Joyce and Arnold Schoenberg were highly innovative but unlikely to float the post-industrial economy. Similarly, cultural products that are highly derivative can make a fortune (J.K Rowlings, for example). Some have suggested that this innovation lies more in the new business models – especially those opened up by new digital technologies and social networks – that arts and creative enterprises must develop to survive and thrive in a complex funding and market system. This innovation can contribute to the wider economic health of the arts and cultural sector, feeding in turn desirable cultural, economic and social benefits. Of course the two are linked. Shakespeare is unthinkable outside of a new public theatre, Dickens outside the serialized novel, The Beatles outside the 12” LP, The Wire outside subscriber television and so on. These innovative technologies and business models are crucial; but they should not lead us to overlook the wider dynamics that allow the whole sector, the whole ecosystem to flourish. A killer app business model is no consolation for, or guarantee against, a hollowed out arts and creative ecosystem.

There is however a stronger claim being made here, and I feel it is much more ambiguous in its effects on arts and cultural policy. This suggests that given the general shift from a manufacturing to service economy, and from functional to experiential goods, the particular skills once confined to the creative industries are now being used by a whole range of industries. This means designers, copywriters, digital film makers, musicians, graphic artists, even actors, are being employed outside the arts and creative industries proper. Indeed, it is further claimed that given the pervasiveness of ‘social media’ the particular ways in which we consume cultural products – through affect and identity, in reference to our own and our aspirational social networks, rather than through any functional analysis – has now become common across the economy as a whole. Creative industries are then much more essential to both the development and the take-up of new products and services, and hence should be built into our national innovation system.

This is part of a wider claim that the arts and creative industries generate a ‘creativity’ that is part and parcel of a new knowledge economy. Richard Florida’s ‘Creative Class’ involves a similar argument. However, there is no evidence that art, creative industries and other high-tech products and services industries actually co-locate (or ‘cluster’) – other than where they require a metropolitan base. They are all strongly represented in these metropolitan centres – take this away and the arts and creative industries and high-tech industries have no natural propensity to co-locate. These ‘creativities’ are very different from each other as are the industries within which they are employed. Second, though clearly ‘creatives’ are employed outside the creative industries proper many of these are doing ‘cultural jobs’ – they are in education, health and other public services – and the others are heavily over-represented in the field of design and marketing – which is hardly surprising. Of course we should explore the links between creative industries and other sectors, and how their particular skills can be used in other contexts. But to pursue a creative industries strategy primarily for its innovation-effects elsewhere would be detrimental to both the cultural dimension of the creative industries and the actual ground of their own economic and social sustainability.

Which brings us to the question: innovation for what – economic growth? Are the creative industries there only to provide a new spurt of new consumer products and services? The traditional objection to ‘culture’ being used for economic ends was not (just) that it should have some ‘pure’ intrinsic value. The idea of ‘culture’ emerged as a protest against, an attempt to set limits to, the endless accumulation drive of the economy. It tried to establish the human and social grounds on which the economy could be judged, evaluated and its proper boundaries set. The elitism, hypocrisy and failures of this attempt are part of the history of cultural policy – as are its successes in providing a public infrastructure and regulated market within which the arts and culture could be made accessible to an ever wider percentage of the population.

Creative Nation came out of a twenty year period in which Australian society, economy and culture were undergoing profound change. A cultural policy concerned just with the traditional arts no longer worked. The culture that most people consumed came from a complex mixed economy, an economy that was employing more people and growing in size. ‘Art’ no longer represented a realm outside everyday life but had become folded into this everyday life. The ‘imagined community’ of the nation became more fluid, more multiple, more global – as did the individual identities and aspirations within it. The energy of Creative Nation came from its recognition of this and its call for a new kind of cultural policy in response.

Twenty years on from Creative Nation the NCPD lacks any similar galvanizing vision. Art and culture are no longer outside the economy but deeply embedded within it. But this has not dissolved the tensions between culture and economics, just displaced them to the inside, as it were. Nobody denies the economic dimension but the questions being asked by those in and around the arts and creative industries – and given the age of the ‘prosumer’ this is a huge constituency – have moved beyond this. They concern the uncertainties and exploitations of creative labour; the sustainability of local production and consumption markets; the debilitating effects of global finance on urban real estate (both overheating and dereliction); the collapse in training and development budgets amongst large public and private corporations; the new international mobility of production in search of cheap labour and tax breaks. Above all those involved in the arts and creative industries are questioning the connection between what they do as creatives and the unsustainable model of economic growth which animates the creative industries agenda of governments, universities, TAFEs and many arts agencies. Founding a creative industries policy on their contribution to growth and innovation is no longer a forward-looking agenda. It is at best evasive and at worst regressive.

The arts and creative industries are embedded in the social and economic life of the nation. The questions a cultural policy must ask concern what kind of culture do we want and how might we best develop an arts and creative industries sector to deliver this. How they operate economically – in that complex mixed economy ecosystem – and how they can be supported and promoted is crucial. It is certainly legitimate to emphasize their economic contribution in terms of employment and wealth generation (through tax, tourism, exports and so on). But the reduction or annexation of their cultural importance to a wider agenda of economic growth and innovation is always going to be much more problematic. Culture cuts against this economic agenda – not because it is implacably opposed to ‘money’ or ‘the market’ or ‘capitalism’ but because it asserts a different value to that of economic value.

One of the most powerful claims for the cultural and creative industries over the last twenty years, the one that mobilised the youthful, sometimes iconoclastic enthusiasm surrounding this agenda, was that they represented a different sort of economy. One in which making money and making meaning could be combined; where rootedness in place and connectedness to a new global world would be possible; where work would have intrinsic value and art and culture made part of everyday life; where other values than those of the maximization of profit can have some weight. The annexation of this progressive cultural agenda by the growth and innovation lobby is at the root of the continued suspicion of the creative industries by cultural producers, policy makers and activists world wide. Unless the document registers these aspirations, rather than being at the cutting edge of cultural policy, as Creative Nation was, it will join the bedraggled and outdated list of ‘arts and creative industries’ strategies that are pumped out weekly across the globe.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Cultural indexes and city rankings....again

An article in The Australian by Stuart Cunningham and Jason Potts represents the sort of intervention that is less about extending our understanding of the issue at hand but about appearing to intervene. The content is less important than the fact of the intervention and the patina of expertise further added to the brand. The main point of the article is that their new research method shows culture is more expensive in rural areas than in cities; and that the National Broadband Network will address this. Lots of space is given to showing how better their methodology is than others, but when we come to the substantive account the whole thing looks decidedly wobbly.

The basket of ‘mainstream’ cultural consumer items is made up of:

“mass culture (blockbuster movie); family culture (library visit); interactive culture (cultural or music festival); home culture (music album, downloaded where possible); high culture (theatre); and cultural learning (piano lesson).”

‘Mass culture’ as term was creaking when early cultural studies began its sustained onslaught in the late 1950s: how is mass distinguished from or a sub-set of ‘mainstream’? What is ‘family culture’ and what evidence is there that families visit libraries as a group or that library visitors are characterized in this way? How is a cultural or music festival ‘interactive’ – and what is the difference between a cultural or a music festival? How is 'home culture' about a downloaded music album – rather than a book (bought ‘live’ or via Kindle) or a film or a picture. What on earth makes theater ‘high culture’ – and how is this different from reading James Joyce at home after having gone to the library (on your own). As for 'cultural learning' – I take it this means lessons given live rather than the constant learning by reading a book, watching a movie etc.

Why nit pick? Because these sorts of interventions claim the authority of statistically grounded fact and the ability to throw dispassionate light on particular issues. But at bottom they are advertisements for themselves, as expertise and as method, aimed not at elucidation but the generation of interest around the possibility of more ‘indicators’ which we can use to decide public policy. Yet as they admit, all they come up with is the obvious – that the need to travel to cultural facilities makes it far more expensive to consume culture in rural than in city areas. Therefore there is no cultural divide in terms of taste but merely in terms of affordability. So much for the bush-city divide. The solution is the NBN – which will bring digital culture to these areas.

But hang on; of the basket of ‘mainstream culture’ only one category involves downloads. So how will the NBN address this divide? By downloading films, books and maybe on-line piano lessons. That is, turning this basket of diverse cultural activities into 'home culture'. Now there is nothing wrong with that; indeed most city dwellers I suspect engage in home culture more than any other. But how is this bridging the cultural divide – which is marked by the availability of public, live facilities located (necessarily, mostly) in dense regions. Well it doesn’t. Not on this account. And, as a sort of afterthought, what has that got to do with the opaque account of a ‘population scaled index’, which somehow puts Byron Bay first and Alice Springs third in a national league table of ‘per capita cultural productivity or local cultural engagement’? The answer is nothing. But then it is not meant to; its purpose is to advertise its authority as such, that it actually knows what it is talking about.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

UNESCO Expert Group

The invitation for people to become 'experts' within this programme went out earlier this year. Thirty of us were chosen out of 640 applicants. The website for the programme following the first meeting in Rabat 21st-22nd March 2011 can be found at:

The programme is unusual and commendably risky - or at least experimental. Rather than giving money for projects it pays for technical assistance from experts - that's us - to help develop the 'governance' of culture. Perhaps we could also call it the soft infrastructure. Over 70 developing countries can benefit - they have to be 'developing' and to be signatories to the 2005 UNESCO convention on cultural diversity.

Some of the themes that came up (for me at least) at the meeting - apart from the operational technicalities which often cloud the big picture in these programmes - were the relationship of culture to economics, and the limits of the term 'technical' when dealing with cultural governance.

The first concerns how far culture should be presented (perhaps sold!) as part of economic development rather than a 'human rights' development goal in itself. Related to this was the extent to which culture and its impacts could or should be presented in economic impact terms; how far the pragmatic attempt to do this begins to undermine other values which we might give to culture. The wider background to this was how culture and economics sit together; to what extent have these become complementary bed-fellows, or do they retain the friction and the antagonism previously associated with the liberational promise of culture. Things have certainly changed since art and industry were two distinct worlds, far-away from each other. But to my mind the smooth mutual accommodation promoted by many of the proponents of the creative economy risks loosing much that is valuable in culture. Not just that it 'reduces' culture to economics (this is often true) but also that it leaves the idea of 'economy' untouched. 'Economy' and 'economics', rather than being challenged as a historical constructs become absolute terms - like culture - with fixed boundaries and definite meanings. In fact the growing power of this foregrounding of 'the economy' is only too clear in the way culture and economics are not 'mutually accommodating', rather the latter gaining dominance over the former. Adorno might have called this 'reconciliation under duress'.

The second relates to the idea of the 'technical': it implies that there is something called 'good governance' and with technical assistance this can be spread across the globe. This makes the programme sound more patronising than it is. It is very much a client-driven process and the experts are not briefcase wielding drones helicoptered in to tell the locals what to do. The experts I met were from a great range of countries and have vast amounts of experiences in working in developing countries. Far more than I have. Its just that at some point we might have to acknowledge that this is not simply 'technical assistance' nor can it be. In trying to promote the good governance of culture we are making a political statement which we might as well acknowledge upfront. Which means that we might not only face challenges in developing countries - but also challenges in developed countries. The governments of these latter have long abandoned some of the more radical demands on culture that are alive, well and vital in many developing countries. Hopefully the experts might come back with a useful message for the rather smug metropolitan global centres of the 'developed' world.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Creative Clusters in Russia and Siberia

I just returned from a one-week trip to Moscow and Krasnoyarsk, the latter an industrial city of one million situated on the trans-Siberian railway, last stop before Lake Baikal. I’ve been to Russia many times since 1999, mainly to St Petersburg where I was involved in a European funded project to set up a creative industries agency in the city. It failed, mainly because of the political, administrative and legal structures of the country, partly because of cultural resistance to the idea of creative industries (declaring yourself a not-for-profit artist meant you did not pay tax and were not subject to the predations of corrupt officials), and partly because I insisted on an agency rather than a space. I was looking at how a complex diverse sector might engage coherently with the economic development of the city, using an agency as a kind of cultural intermediary between two language groups in search of a shared agenda. They were looking for a space in which they might be protected from the brutalities of the business world - not delicate souls offended by dirty commerce (as anyone who knows the pushing and shoving required to secure everyday existence in Russia will tell you) but in search for a space of trust, autonomy, civility and culture within which they could work.

I, along with Kate Oakley and John Howkins, was giving a speech at a refurbished wine factory (Winzavod) in central Moscow. The space was one recognizable in any large city with an older industrial infrastructure anywhere in the world – from Truman Brewery, Beijing’s 798, Brisbane’s Powerhouse, Shanghai’s 1933, Marseilles La Friche, and a thousand others. It is physically and symbolically structured to channel the flow of the international art world through its spaces. This globalised (in the way the production of a computer, or car is global) ‘art world’ is made up of its command centres, its curators, gallery owners, agents, journalists, magazines, celebrities and academics, and now firmly symbiotic with the particular languages of city politicians, airline magazines, and Sunday travel supplements concerned to identify ‘buzz’.

These spaces are absolutely necessary to a city’s image, around which real estate, hotel developments and other high end commodity providers can coalesce. The Chinese government makes space for these places and (more or less) suspends its censor’s eye there. Russia too, suspends its visceral rejection of foreign bodies from its pure national space, and allows them to operate more or less freely. Does this testify to the power of art or its easy enlistment in the service of power?

Maybe both: as Benjamin wrote, ‘every document of art is at the same time a document of barbarism’. He was referring both to the necessary embeddedness of artistic production in barbarous social relations, and the way in which past art was held up in triumph to justify the current regime. Both these are at play here.

On the one hand these spaces are clearly marks of conspicuous consumption and clearly there to launder brutally acquired economic capital into cherry-on-the-cake cultural capital. Winzavod is run by the requisitely hyper-thin wife of a minor Russian Oligarch. Dining with them both in a state-of-the-art faux Italian rustic restaurant (a Nobokovian decadent aristocracy re-imagined through The Leopard) he revealed that he was an Ayn Rand devotee {assume this is not the children’s writer Ann Rand but Ayn Rand?} (each cell performs a separate and special function) and she that she was very nice. Winzavod’s rival is Garage – and old tram depot bought and kitted out by Ambramovitch for his wife, who also is apparently very nice. Football for the boys, art for the girls. There was an opening of ‘Slave city’ by a Dutch artist, and we saw him confidently swaggering through the gallery one step behind a camera, a microphone boom and a journalist. The exhibit was pointing to the inhuman city of the future, which merely completes the present state of affairs by recycling the bodies and body parts of its workers into a self-contained system. The first section, white plastic bodies in various states of dismemberment and disembowelment did recall Lyotard’s ‘inhuman’ – a representation of the ungraspable by thought. A shocking statement of the absolute alterity of the object, the thing, the other.

Yet people seemed to get over it, especially the oligarchess who though it was rather delightful. It seemed not to have occurred to her that slave city might have any relation to the world outside her walls. Actually, it is different. Russia is unique amongst developed nations in being more or less clear that it does not need its population. Apart from people to pump, dig and process raw materialism there is not much else that is required of them. In fact, this exhibition’s contention that the recycling of bodies merely completes the total domination of slave city is false. Russia has too many slaves to use efficiently and has little need of their bodies dismembered or otherwise.

On the other hand, in this space, behind these walls was a gentler, civil Russia of great sensitivity and optimism. Young people could wander around here in the cafes, using the free wi-fi, browsing the book stores. International artists and admin people gave off a sense of a free space in which the future could be outlined, some hope framed and fixed and held up. A parallel Russia in the magic garden of an oligarch.

We saw Krasnoyarsk on what everybody thought would be the last day of summer. It was autumnal and bright, the smoking factories looking pleasant here, like those on the horizon of Seurat’s Bathers. I doubt if it would look like that in winter. When the sludge starts. But set on the river it’s right in the heart of the Siberian Tigre – and the river flows north all the way to the Arctic. First stop, the Lenin museum, last of its kind built in late 1980s before the whole thing collapsed.

It has since become the city’s modern art gallery hosting the biennale that won a few awards from the Council of Europe and other worthies. It quickly became apparent that a 19th century wine factory had some things a hideous 1980s Lenin museum did not: workmanship, patina, functional space, testimony to a productive past. The paneled ceilings and gaudy chrome handrails made this one look like the sort of decorative mirror to be found in a 1980s bedroom.

But gradually it got more attractive. A labyrinthine structure, a sort of non-functional gangly-ness reminiscent of NASA’s lunar module, and the preserved presence of the original Lenin exhibits gave it a dimension not to be found anywhere in the regenerated art tourist landscape of the contemporary world. The biennale’s theme this year was ‘distance’, and there were multiple reflections on this. Upstairs a Korean woman artist jumped on video amongst the souvenirs from the museum – the only piece that brought lightness and humour to the whole thing. Another artist projected himself into the original museum’s miniature mock-up of Lenin’s study. Here, amongst the cabinets full of letters and photos we can find the truth of Benjamin’s aphorism: ‘there is nothing so distant as the most recent past’. It was one with the busts of soviet workers and dioramas of 19th century ‘capitalist society’ that still dotted the museum. I mentioned this quote to the director over lunch. But he seemed a bit put off by our refusal of vodka and was non-responsive. He did give me the requisite semi-jocular Lenin bust, and a wax candle in the shape of a light bulb. Communism equals soviets plus electricity I said, which finally raised a smile.

We also went into the forest.

Me bouldering in Siberia courtesy of an oligarch.

The administrators here do not know how to talk the language of art and culture. There is a concern with ‘creativity’ as a resource to be used to develop the city, and most say that education is to be the key to this. They all wanted to know what sort of education promotes creativity. What that creativity might be used for, and how it was to fit inside a system that was about the brutal exercise of power it was impossible to know. The specific knowledge of art as symbolic practice (not just artists but the apparatus within which it is sustained) was lacking; after talking about Manchester for ten minutes the vice-governor gave me a 40 minute speech on how they were doing more and better. Mainly by pointing to a one day festival in which people made floats and dressed up as cheer leaders and glittery soldiers.

Business linkage was evidenced by a coca-cola float. It is clear that nothing of any value will be forthcoming from these people. One might say that they have manufacturing and – ten minutes drive away – a mysterious closed city in which the space program is alive and well (‘it’s a city from the past, a young woman told me, all the buildings are the same and its spotlessly clean’, another kind of distance, another kind of magic garden). John Howkins (key publication, The World Guide To Satellites) got very excited about this. And certainly a city of eco-technology, linking hi-tech and design in the way Finland does, is a serious option. But you just know this will never happen. Equally, the old regional capital is falling down and no one lives there – but how to preserve its 400 year old wooden buildings? We talked of a retreat experience for the niche tourist – a quick river trip during a stop on the trans-Siberian. A few days in the silence of deep Siberia, with a warm hotel and copies of Pushkin and Dostoyevsky. But you know this will never happen.

Part of the problem is that the city has no money because it all goes to Moscow and (some of) it all comes back filtered through corrupt hands and with strings attached. Putin wants Siberia, not Siberians so why should he care? It’s easy to get gloomy as you see ideas pluming uselessly into the sky and big money is spent on hideous architecture (a new clock tower with electronic bells) and ‘high’ culture (ballet, opera, symphony orchestras).

In Moscow the parallel worlds are in protecting clusters, in cafes and arty restaurant/ bars (we saw one showing a film in the back room and full of the brightest young things); in Krasnoyarsk they are around the kitchen tables of private houses. But the youth are as globally aware as in Moscow and can only sit out the reign of the dinosaurs.

One young woman, widely traveled in the US and Europe, an economics graduate from one of Moscow’s top universities, has returned here – because of a patriotic duty. She believes the city and its people can and will change – but not yet. She is there to prepare the ground. Kate and I, long used to the abuses to which the pious simplicities of ‘creativity’ can give rise in the West, and the easy road whereby art and culture becomes an aestheticised consumption of the most exclusionary sort (the sort of critique, I should say, mostly dismissed as ‘elitism’ in the west) both tried to discriminate, to make a warning about the pitfalls of creativity – even that we might need a politics of creativity. This was lost in translation, as we laboured with consecutive translation in a language twice as long as English. My first powerpoint translated at length, I realised I had prepared a lecture of over 2 hours.

But it was not just that – it was something they did not want to hear. John Howkins is an open, intelligent and sensitive man with whose ideas on creativity I disagree (far too wide a definition to make sense). His paper was short, simple and eloquent – you need creativity and should value the quirky and the weird. This normally makes me want to run off and join a large bureaucracy; but here in the room it was doing something different. In a shift worthy of Chekov, the gloominess and fatalism was dispelled for a moment, and real meaning creativity flashed out across the audience. It was the principle of hope.