PANEL 3: COMMUNITY AND PLACES
I, #TransActing: A Market of Values
“How do we as artists, designers and educators re-think our personal and professional practice within this institutional setting and beyond to make it more resilient?”
Mea culpa, apologies. In keeping with the genre, permit me to begin with a few self-effacing remarks. The person giving this presentation may sign her name, but the story it tells is not hers alone. It is the tale of something bigger that could, and surely should, be shared with many others for they too were involved in my planning, funding, production and provided me support in other ways. As we focus on the concerns of ‘community’ and ‘places’, allow me to pitch myself in relation to these occupations. By this I mean that this presentation will prioritise my significance as a particular and co-extensive set of communities in a specific place, with these networks informing each other in an on-going feedback loop of learning. When it comes to content, I will share with you three transactions across which I aim to reveal myself, as well as something called #TransActing: A Market of Values. Differently put, this presentation issues not from a subject, but from an object that has simultaneously been dubbed a project, an artwork, a headache and a heartache. There is something else or some ‘ding’ else (to use Bruno Latour’s phrase). This is to emphasise my materiality, not so much as a concept but as a process of becoming.
First though, a few words on what a ‘transaction’ actually is, as this may help to convey my significance in #TransActing: A Market of Values. Often the stuff of buying and selling, we can understand transactions more inclusively as any exchange, or at least that is my sense of this social, material, political process. In its secondary sense, a transaction can also refer to a published report of a learned society and in this way, the learning that follows might count towards such an account, albeit a partial trade, for reasons that should already be clear. This I will further elaborate across three transactions in particular but first a few words about etymology.
It is notable that, according to etymonline.com one of the roots of the term ‘transaction’ is the late Latin noun of action from the past participle stem of transigere, meaning to ‘stab through; accomplish, perform, drive or carry through, come to a settlement’. I like to think of ‘driving through’ as in ‘driving through London’ – through our Shock City’ – we bear witness to its perpetual crisis, booming and busting all over the place. Our presence here signals our complicity in this place-making process. It is surely more than coincidence that those things that enclose construction sites are called ‘hoardings’, with the word hoarding also describes the act of accumulation as a behaviour to stave off scarcity. At its worst, place making not only hoards for private profit, but is a powerful spell that when cast creates amnesia. New districts in all parts of town suddenly come on to the market, purged of their yesteryear residents, stripped of their compromising past. These places are now open for business, shiny, new, regenerated.
As #TransActing: A Market of Values, I was transacted into being through a very different set of ethical convictions, which I want to talk about with reference to the first of three transactions that I will discuss in this account. Once upon a time, back in May 2010, a bespoke structure was built here at Chelsea College of Arts on the Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground. It teemed with a temporary community, one that assembled in public and in the spirit of being in public. They did this not to open the campus for business, in fact just the reverse, this network came together to challenge the paradigm of financialisation through privatisation by exercising the public sphere as a space of common interest: past, present and future.
Place-making in this project, which was called Parade, occurred through a process that might be described as ‘place-recollecting’, as the history of the Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground and the surrounding area was surfaced with a programme of discussions that nurtured an awareness of its orientation in time and space. This traced the development of our area from panoptic prison in the 19th century, to military hospital and research facility in the 20th, to the art and design school that stands here today celebrating ten years at this address. Many of you have heard me tell this story before, but I wonder why we do not all remember this more often and, for that matter, why we do not make more of our specific and situated place in the world, replete with its immediate history, location and resources, knowledge and otherwise, past and present, as we set about imagining other futures. While there are many ways that I could tap this complex transaction through history and archaeology, suffice to say that this legacy was integral in my own coming into being. Parade, in other words, with its particular community, location and lineage, anticipated how I, #TransActing: A Market of Values, would take shape. I was imagined and realised as a place of exchange, a one-to-one and many-to-many plaza, that for one day only on the 11th July 2015 on the Rootstein Hopkins Parade Ground, hosted artists, designers, curators, cultural producers, as well as economists and environmentalists, healthcare workers and others working beyond the world of art and design. They held stalls and here transacted knowledge with a milling crowd in a kind of interdisciplinary flea market-cum-trade fair. This knowledge engaged non-financial value and/or values, that are not usually valued in what McKenzie Wark has come to term ‘capitalism or something worse’. Care, trust, loyalty and belonging, it was wealth beyond capital that I, the Market of Values, was mandated to transact.
Whether or not there is truth to the old adage t ‘the best things in life are free’, living itself is not cheap, especially in London. My creation itself was generously supported by CCW and Arts Council England, but the real expenditure came from the community in kind that I assembled. ‘In kind’ is a category of value that involves payment in goods or services instead of money. It is also a category of income on funding applications, like the Arts Council’s. In the case of my own funding bid, there was £32,000 in money and £48,000 in in-kind support. But, in actuality, the latter amount was closer to £148,000, at least. Now, this is a conservative number. It gestures to all the in-kind support that was generally, and generously, given by so many, especially by Critical Practice Research Cluster. This group composed my heart, hands and head. Ten years old, this cluster of artists, designers, curators, academics and others, this group tethered to Chelsea, has composed a friendship network committed to collaborative, creative practice for the greater good.
This brings me to the second transaction that I will discuss in this account. A key learning for me that occurred during my becoming as #TransActing: A Market of Values relates to -kind support may as an informal economy of quid-pro-quo. However ‘kind’ here refers to more than equivalence. It also refers to ‘kindness’ as a foundation for the myriad micro, meso, macro, meta exchanges that brought me into being. Without the personal relationships that web together Critical Practice, without these ties that bond, I simply could not exist. As a kind of art school within an art school, Critical Practice is living proof that other approaches are possible, but their resilience may also be fragile. They require constant nurturing in the form of faith, hope and trust, not to mention a baseline of financial support. Without these bare necessities, the truth is, alternatives are simply unsustainable.
If the artistic question of our Year of Resilience is ‘how do you model a resilient process of change’, surely the existential one is, ‘what do you want from it?’ In response to these queries, Critical Practice proffers a community in kind, one that tends to the needs of all those involved. Politics begins when everyone and everything counts.
This brings me to my third transaction, the third learning that I hope will have some kind of legacy in the Year of Resilience. One of the great lessons from permaculture is to use what you have at hand, while doing so in an effective way that produces little or no waste. I learnt this lesson directly as the stalls of my market found form by giving new life to materials that were discarded on site at the College. Having raised the bespoke structure I mentioned earlier to explore ‘publicness’ five years before, Critical Practice was no stranger to working together to create models for a better world. With the help of Andreas Lang from the art and architecture collective ‘public works’, stall prototypes for my market were developed based on the open source system of Italian designer Enzo Mari. In the week leading up to 11th July 2015, my day in the sun, sixty plus stalls manifested thanks to the hard work of an enthusiastic crew. This was a huge accomplishment made possible in part by our user-friendly jig that meant that even those with limited building skills could roll up their sleeves and lend a hand. This construction was also made possible thanks to a commitment to reevaluating and repurposing wood that had been used in the 2015 BA degree show, which had been opened and closed in the weeks preceding my build.
What would otherwise have been discarded today enjoys a life-cycle continuous, with the stalls taking on new use and purpose. Some function as much-loved public furniture that continues to activate the Parade Ground, others have been distributed to maker spaces around London. As part of my material legacy, these functional souvenirs carry with them the traces of the community who built them. It is exciting to think that as a prototype I am already being taken up and re-purposed. Just last week I learned of another market formed by my example, it will be realised in Deptford, thanks to a collaboration between the grassroots activist group Assembly SE8, public works and the Deptford Neighbourhood Action Group. The Market will contest the area’s gentrification, responding to the question, ‘in this politically-charged context, how can we as artists, designers, curators and others re-think the market-place?’
To conclude, a question facing the Year of Resilience is, ‘How do we as artists, designers and educators re-think our personal and professional practices within this institutional setting and beyond to make them more resilient?’ In this short presentation related to my own becoming as #TransActing: A Market of Values, I have touched on three types of transactions. Each one has resulted in a distinct but coextensive community. The first is a community of location and lineage; the second, a community in kind and the third community is one of re-evaluation. The aim of my ‘it’ narrative has been to give voice to the material that composed #TransActing and highlight it as an exemplar of the potential there is to self-organise through community. If you take nothing else away from my story, let it be this: I, #TransActing: A Market of Values, am living proof that other worlds are possible when their becoming is prioritised and practiced as a shared pursuit.
Marsha Bradfield rides the hyphen as an archivist-artist-curator-director-educator-researcher-writer. This multi-barrelled practice is fired by the lived experience of authorship. Further to co-directing Pangaea Sculptors’ Centre and working with groups including Precarious Workers Brigade, Bradfield founded and directs Artfield Projects as a platform for (collaborative) practice-based research on economies and ecologies of cultural production.