David Cross


 Towards the Proximity of Collective Action

David Cross

“I think that we should […] collectively discuss the possibility of cooperative ownership and control of the university. We produce it, we contribute to its value. To put it simply, without us, there is no university. We should have some say in the strategic directions that it is taking.”

I would like to share with you something of a personal journey, or perhaps a political journey, which concerns the way that my career as an artist and an academic is changing. I had a long and happy run, supported by taxpayers’ money, making critical projects in public, urban spaces. I was able to make critical engagements with spaces that were not designated to be sites of culture, and to bring cultural debates to them. That was a wonderful thing to do, really. I imagined at the time that it was a result of my own ability to impose my will on the world. But when the public funding was withdrawn and the commissions dried up, I realized that I was actually completely embedded in a particular social, political and economic moment.

I would like to to share with you my journey across the distance of institutional critique, towards the proximity of collective action. This has been a learning experience for me. It has been quite embarrassing to realize the limits of my powers and abilities — I’m not quite the hotshot that I once thought I was! Actually, anything I have achieved has been dependent on the society that surrounds me, which I had thought I could offer a critique towards. This realization has helped me come to see solidarity as a politicized form of empathy. As an academic I now recognize that I am deeply privileged. I can criticize neo-liberalism, without having to experience the violence or poverty that it causes. In the university, this University of the Arts London, my suffering is limited to a restless anxiety caused by the struggle between different values as higher education undergoes marketization.

One of the things that has guided me, has been meeting people outside of the institution, such as when I joined my colleague Sarah Temple and others from London College of Communication on a wonderful trip to the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth, Wales. The Public Interest Research Centre working there have developed the work of the psychologist Shalom Schwarz to show a range of values that support our beliefs and actions. I have redrawn their diagram into a colour wheel, like the one so familiar from art foundation studies.

Public Interest Research Centre Values Chart
Based on research by Rokeach, Schwartz et al, redrawn by David Cross, 2014

Their research has helped me to understand why I might feel conflict between my different roles. As an artist, for example, I value ‘stimulation’ and ‘self-direction’. As a citizen I support ‘universalism’ and ‘benevolence’, and I am increasingly drawn to the ideals of ‘inner harmony’, ‘world peace’, ‘friendship’ and ‘harmony with nature’. But as an academic, I am part of a system that values ‘achievement’, ‘power’, and ‘authority’, which I am not personally interested in. Although… ‘Prestige’? Certainly. ‘Ambition’? Absolutely! So although there are all sorts of positive values here, their positivity is deeply inflected in power structures. Aligning our positivity to particular social interests gives it a clearer position in the world.

In July 2015, Critical Practice organized a project here at Chelsea College of Arts, called #TransActing: A Market of Values, which was fantastic. This was an exuberant outburst of creative intelligence and positive sociability, and it was great to be a part of it. I wanted to contribute something ephemeral and performative to compliment the joyful atmosphere of the event.

David Cross Master of the Universe
For ‘Transacting: A Market of Values’, Chelsea College of Arts, London, July 2015

Photograph: Karel Doing

So I hired my graduation robe for the Master of Arts at the Royal College of Art, and had myself transformed into a zombie by a make-up artist. I wanted to pay homage to the Occupy movement, with its use of the zombie as the defining figure of contemporary capitalism. I stumbled around #TransActing, this market of values, in the tradition of the robed mystic of the marketplace dispensing predictions, maybe knowledge or even wisdom in return for payment. But I barely spoke, and asked for nothing. I was acting out the role of the lone researcher, pretending that I was a spectator rather than a participant in the positive exchanges going on around me. I was a caricature of myself, a professional academic, warning of ecological catastrophe and complaining about the destruction of value through the pursuit of money, but actually completely implicated in the commodification of my own cognitive and affective labor. I gave this brief piece a title: Master of the Universe. This refers to both the financiers who triggered the world financial crisis and perhaps to the masters of the university, who are struggling with the resulting funding cuts and failure brought by austerity under neoliberalism.

Another thing has shifted my sense of what I am doing as an artist, an academic and a citizen. The Individual and the Organization: The Artist Placement Group 1966-79, was an exhibition at the Raven Row Gallery in London in the Autumn of 2012. As part of the exhibition, Professor Neil Cummings asked me to facilitate one of the five themed discussion groups in the gallery. The aim was not to dwell on the history of the APG, the Artist Placement Group, but to bring it alive in the present. Having been strongly influenced by the Artist Placement Group in my collaborative practice of Cornford & Cross, I linked the APG themes of ‘placement’ and ‘education’. I thought the artist placement could be developed and applied today by artists interpreting their employment, in a university or arts school, as a placement in an organization. I thought it was a great idea, so I thought, ‘let’s try it — I’ll try it for myself’.

I didn’t have to wait long for an opportunity to engage as an artist on a placement. In February 2013, our very own Vice-Chancellor, Nigel Carrington, signed the People and Planet Green Education pledge, committing University of the Arts London to a clear position on sustainability. I have been engaged with sustainability for many years, it was in fact my original reason for going to art school back in 1986, so I have been following the twists and turns of the debate from that time. I took it upon myself in my new role as an artist on a placement to write to him to say this was a bold and admirable move and that it was good for the university to be engaging with sustainability. But I warned him; I said that we would need to act fast if we were to keep up with the leadership being shown by the students. As a researcher I maintain contact with students — they teach me, and keep me up to date with the most important and urgent issues. Rather than being embedded in the establishment, they are looking ahead with anxiety and wide-eyes as to what the future might bring. So in my interaction with the students, I feed off them and learn from the things they are doing, whereas I think that many people in senior management have had to let go of active contact with students to focus on contracts or corporate mission statements. As an artist on a placement, I have seen myself as a kind of conduit, connecting with the students to convey their concerns and aims to the people who make decisions about the university.

There is a bit of a problem at the University of the Arts. We do great work in our teaching and in our research, there are some very positive things happening with our estates and operations, but according to a survey that they themselves commissioned, there are some blockages with leadership and governance. I have pointed out that University of the Arts banks with the Royal Bank of Scotland. During the times of easy credit, the Royal Bank of Scotland made so many reckless loans, that in 2008 it had to be bailed out by the UK taxpayer. A Cabinet Office spokesperson said that the failure of RBS played an important role in the financial crisis of 2008-9, which, together with other macro-economic factors, triggered the worst recession in the United Kingdom since the Second World War.

I have been very interested in fossil fuels and their effect on the climate and landscape, on our society and economy for a long time now. Between 2005 and 2011, RBS financed coal mining and power companies to the tune of 9.4 billion pounds. RBS branded itself as, ‘The Oil and Gas Bank’, but its aggressive investment in fossil fuel goes further still to extreme projects like mountaintop removal for open-cast coal mines in the Appalachian Mountains in North America. RBS has also heavily invested in shale gas, hydraulic fracturing, or ‘fracking’ and it puts large sums of money into oil sands extraction in Alberta, Canada. In addition to the devastation that it causes to the landscape, extracting crude oil from the tar sands generates up to four times more carbon dioxide per unit of energy than traditional oil. Now, I am often told that it is not good to burden people with negative messages because they cause negative feelings. So to cheer you up, here is a photograph of what the landscape in Alberta looked like before the RBS-financed tar sands project.

Boreal forest, Alberta, Canada Jul 23, 2008
Photograph: BanktrackA full house in Seattle, WA
Photograph: 350.org

Another positive image of a different sort is this photo of Bill McKibben standing in front of a crowd of people in November 2012 when over two thousand people joined the campaign group 350.org in Seattle to kick off the Fossil Free divestment campaign.In Britain, the student organization People and Planet linked up with 350.org to launch a global campaign calling on educational institutions to divest, and also to invest their money into renewable energy. In 2012 the University of Oxford set up the Stranded Assets Research Programme, to consider what the fossil free divestment campaign might mean to the valuation of fossil fuels. They conclude that it is not going to hit all areas of fossil fuels evenly. Extreme fossils are the most vulnerable because finance might be withdrawn from them and you could lose your money if you are invested in fracking, for example, and the price of gas plunges as the result of the boom. Their main recommendation though, was to get out of coal. It is not transferable in the way that oil and gas are, and it is useless for transport, which is the backbone of neoliberalism and globalization. Coal is the fuel of the past, even though we are massively dependent on it. It’s plunging; the asset price of coal is going through the floor. So if your money is invested in coal, if your pension is invested in coal, if you have got savings invested in coal, you would do well to pull out, as fast as you can because it is going down.In January 2014, World Bank Group president Jim Yong Kim focused on fossil fuel divestment with a really pragmatic or prudential message. He said, “Be the first mover, use smart due diligence, rethink what fiduciary responsibility means in this changing world. It’s simple self-interest.” He said that every company, investor and bank that screens new and existing investments for climate risk is simply being pragmatic. I completely disagree. I think pragmatism is never simple; it is aligning one’s decision-making to existing power structures. The pragmatism we might feel protects our investment class is meshed in with a society that is constantly changing.In February 2014, Vice-Chancellor Nigel Carrington gave another presentation — this time for the Higher Education Funding Council for England — in which he showcased examples of work from the students and staff at University of the Arts London who had engaged with sustainability. I wrote to him again, telling him about the progress, the amazing speed and development of the campaign to divest from fossil fuels, and warning him, once again, about the reputational risks of UAL’s continuing relationship with the Royal Bank of Scotland. I proposed a series of initiatives that we might engage with. Instead of relying on funding from the diminishing reserves of public money, I proposed a series of encounters between academic staff and students, and our university’s providers of Energy, Insurance, and Banking services. With our Energy company we could discuss Power and Transformation. With our Insurance company we could explore attitudes to Risk and Hazard. And with our Bank, we should critically engage with Value and Exchange. If they will not engage with us in a clear and constructive vision of the future, I think we should switch to another bank.Meanwhile in April 2014, 191 students, senior academics and distinguished professors of the faculty at Harvard University, wrote an open letter calling on the President and Fellows of Harvard University to divest from fossil fuels. In the same month, April 2014, Archbishop Desmond Tutu likened the fossil fuel divestment campaign to the struggle against apartheid in the 1980s. In May, Stanford University in the United States divested its $18.7 billion endowment fund from coal. In June, our very own British Medical Association voted to divest from fossil fuels. In July, the Central Committee for the World Council of Churches, which represents 590 million people in 150 countries, endorsed divestment from fossil fuels. In September, Oxford City Council here in the UK divested. In the same month, Peter O’Neill, head of the Rockefeller family and great-great grandson of John D. Rockefeller, the founder of Standard Oil, announced that the Rockefeller family would withdraw their funds from fossil fuel investments. In September 2014 after just twelve months of campaigning, Glasgow University became the first academic institution in Europe to divest from the fossil fuel industry. I was gutted! It was almost two and a half years since I had said to Nigel Carrington that we could be the first university in Britain to divest —we are not heavily invested in fossil fuels. If we pull out it will be a marketing coup. I tried to lure him with the glory, the prestige, but he didn’t see it at the time, so now we are never going to be first. The selfish, ambitious, competitive, prestige-seeking part of me was forever defeated, and instead has to rely on universalism and benevolence towards the whole world to sustain the divestment campaign.

Anyway, in October 2014, almost a year ago today, Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, made what I thought was a surprising public declaration. He said that the vast majority of fossil fuels are unburnable. Now he said this as a pragmatic leader of financial institutions. We must make the transition because otherwise the costs of not tackling climate change are going to strip the guts out of our world economy, exposing us to multiple shocks Since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, we have become hooked on fossil fuels, but we cannot go on. Like the President of the World Bank, Mark Carney is arguing for a rapid, orderly transition to avoid collapse in the global markets.

But away from pragmatism once again and towards the ethical motive. In May 2015 the Vatican issued a declaration, which reads: ‘Human-induced climate change is a scientific reality. Its decisive mitigation is a moral and religious imperative for humanity’. In June 2015, the government of Norway announced that it would shift $890 billion from coal — and I had thought $18.7 billion divestment by Stanford was a massive success! This is producing a plunge in coal as an asset class. In July 2015, the Pope appointed Naomi Klein to his team. So there are surprises ahead, if a secular, Jewish, feminist can link up with an organization that has not got the greatest record on feminism or women’s rights. It is possible to come together, despite our differences, across the political and religious divide to say that this is more important. Here is an example of a partnership from across the divide that you might reasonably have thought could ever be breached. In August 2015 the Guardian reported that the US banking giant Citigroup says that the coal-mining sector is now running out of time. The value of listed coal mining companies monitored by City, shrank from $50 billion in 2012 (when I first contacted Nigel Carrington and advised him to get out of coal) and now in 2015 it’s down to $18 billion.

The thing is, the university’s superannuation scheme is tied up in coal and oil. We are massively exposed to these risks and the fund managers are not moving as fast as they should. They are saying, ‘look, we do not have to listen to your concerns just because it is your money. Our responsibility is to do right by you and get you a good return on your investment. You don’t know what is best for your own self-interest, so leave it with us’. But a recent judgment rules that fund managers’ fiduciary responsibility includes listening to people’s legitimate concerns about issues wider than simple financial return. But things are moving, and the campaign group Share Action, is doing a brilliant job applying pressure to the Universities Superannuation Scheme.

But, for me, the major development was when a group of dedicated students and staff came together to launch a campaign for University of the Arts London to divest from fossil fuel. They have launched an online petition, so signing up is a really easy thing to do.

As an artist on placement, I want to go further than divestment. What are we going to do with the money once we have divested it? We have to re-invest it and shift the money towards things you value. Why should you support weapons and oppressive regimes and open-cast coal mines? You wouldn’t want to work in one, you don’t want to suffer the consequences of the products they make. I would like to go further still, and suggest that UAL has a deep and positive value that it has barely begun to recognize. London can be a fantastic city to work in. But even for our graduates, even in the good times, it’s a really hard place. It’s extremely materialistic, competitive, and aggressive; with the housing bubble, it’s becoming almost intolerable. As we go further into the combined effects of climate change, economic instability through over-dependence on fossil fuels and extreme inequality, we could find ourselves in a shock city, which is not a good place to be.

So rather than just encouraging people to be resilient to those shocks, I would like to propose that we take steps to use our power collectively as an institution. We have the financial clout, the expertise and the good will to reduce those shocks and to resist the social forces which are imposing them. The shocks are not an act of nature; they are socio-political, economic, and cultural in nature. Students and staff at University of the Arts London produce economic and quantifiable value, around £230 million a year goes through the balance sheet of the University of the Arts. I believe though, that we create an enormous extra value that can not be quantified in monetary terms, although it is vital to the social and cultural life of the capital. I have been proposing for some time now that the University of the Arts London engages in open debate — open in its scope and open in its inclusivity — on whether, in the absence of state funding, we should become a social enterprise. In our pedagogy, our research and parts of our operations, we already have many of the values, practices and structures in place. Soon, as well as making clear our environmental and social mission, I think that we should also collectively discuss the possibility of cooperative ownership and control of the university. We produce it; we contribute to its value. Without us, there is no university. We should have some say in its strategic direction. UAL is borrowing something like £200 million to move the London College of Fashion to ‘Olympicopolis’ in Stratford. This is a big and bold gesture, but in an unstable and dynamic economy, what might be the consequences? Even major institutions go down sometimes. Are we all on board and is this a risk that we agree is worth taking?

So there are big questions that raise even bigger questions, like who is in charge, and do we even want a hierarchy? Or do we want to experiment with different models from the cooperative movement such as participatory budgeting and participatory decision-making? We all know how to work collectively and take decisions together, so why not turn that, like artists on placement, into an engagement with the institution that we are part of? This could take years of effort, but I think it would be worth it.



David Cross is an artist and educator whose research, practice and teaching have long been informed by a critical engagement with the relationship between visual culture and the contested ideal of ‘sustainable’ development. More recently, his focus has been on financial systems, fossil energy dependency and climate breakdown. He is now shifting towards promoting a cultural transition to a post-carbon society.