“People can get involved.” Kenn Taylor on culture, regeneration and money.

July 14, 2013 in Blog

In November 2012 we published Kenn Taylor’s fantastic story Culture about a Liverpool man who attacks a piece of public art with a scaffolding pole.

Lots of the issues it raises frame the Wondrous Place production, and we wanted to look back and ask more about the story. Kenn very kindly agreed to an interview by email.

Culture is a cracking story, so have a read of it first here and then come back to the interview.

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Andrew Wilson: I like everything about this story, and one thing that I’ve noticed is that I’m really on the side of the main character, and I’m right behind him when he hammers the sculpture. It’s not some sort of mitigating circumstances thing, where I’m thinking, “well, he’s had a rough day”. I really want him to do it, and the title of the sculpture as the last line just confirms that. Why am I feeling like that?

Kenn Taylor: I’m on his side totally as well. I wasn’t sure I wanted this published for a long time, I don’t want it to be seen as a criticism of public art, contemporary art, the Arts Council or anything like that in general, as I like a lot of it myself. To me it was a more specific critique of the ‘dropping in’ of ‘international culture’ to deprived areas in the hope of ‘regeneration’. It was also perhaps a critique of the emptiness and vapidness of some contemporary art and the idea that because it is defined as art by someone, we have to respect it, and if we don’t it’s because we don’t understand it or give it a chance. That’s why I had the main character spend so long examining it, he gave it a chance and it offered nothing to him, so, given the life he was leading and how this thing had been placed, likely at great expense, in his community, he chose to destroy it.

Liverpool obviously experienced elements of this during it’s year as Capital of Culture, though in doing so I think a lot of people realised, including some of the powers that be, that is a bad model of public culture and I think we have seen much better delivery of cultural services in the city over the last few years, even though the cuts have really hurt.

While I don’t advocate vandalism of art, I can see sometimes why people do it. A good piece of public art gets taken in by the local community. Witness ‘Another Place’ by Anthony Gormely in Crosby, Merseyside. Local people, in general, love it, and Gormley seems happy for people to graffiti them and put woolly hats and other similar things on them so it’s not sitting their in rarefied isolation and makes it even more popular. People can get involved.

As for why I think you’re on his side, I did of course deliberately create an ‘imaginary’ piece of art to try and condense all the pretentious vapid crap masquerading as art that I have seen over the years into one piece, so maybe I made it easy to hate the artwork and like what he was doing to it?

AW: You created a fantastic imaginary artwork – I didn’t think for a second that wasn’t real! I assumed the smashing up was fictional, or fictionalised, but not the artwork. I don’t think that makes any difference to the story though, I want him to smash it, real or not!

I’m interested in what you’ve said about the change in approach to public culture that happened from the Capital of Culture year onwards, and I’d like to ask you about looking forwards from where we are now.

It seems likely that the days of big, top down, expensive arts and culture initiatives are now gone for the foreseeable future. What do you think local authorities could do to support sustainable, resilient grass roots artistic scenes. Is there a recipe, or a few basic ingredients, for an artistic scene that can flourish without huge amounts of money?

KT: Haha, thanks. Well I have been witness to a lot of public art over the years of widely varying standards so I guess I distilled all the bad stuff into one piece.

“It seems likely that the days of big, top down, expensive arts and culture initiatives are now gone for the foreseeable future.” – Well, yes and no. I think the way “big and expensive” culture is done has changed. There is a lot more thought given to value-for-money, audience and local participation. Witness the Sea Odyssey event last year in Liverpool which had a lot more emphasis placed on participation and including deprived neighbourhoods. Nevertheless it also was intended to bring in tourists and provide good place marketing, which it did very successfully. Liverpool is looking at doing similar things again in future and Manchester has expressed admiration and is looking into doing similar things. And that was something that cost several million for a few days of event. But local people and tourists alike were impressed, and even the critics by and large.

The Mayor of Liverpool was saying last week that culture brings in more money to the city than football and The Beatles now, traditionally the core of our tourist industry. And although overall the city has cuts arts funding as it has had to do with everything else, it is still giving a significant amount and is committed to doing so in future. We have a new central library opening next month, a new theatre next year and plans in the pipeline for a new museum looking at migration. But unlike other initiatives in other places in the past, the value and demand case for these is firmly in place. I think it’s interesting that some cities have nailed their colours to the mast in terms of culture, like Liverpool and Manchester, because they know it plays such a big part long term plans for the cities, while others, such as Newcastle, appear to be intent on cutting. To me one of the most important outcomes from Capital of Culture for Liverpool, aside from increased national and international respect, was that the city’s leaders cannot now be seen not to be supporting culture.

It’s a very good question. If you’re asking what local authorities can do, a few things I think. Listen is the most important. The grassroots scene can have many great ideas and get on with them with little or no money, creating initiatives, animating spaces, and local authorities need to be open to that but, as bureaucratic as they are, they often struggle to work with the creative community. Liverpool has learned a lot in terms of this, and you can look at things such as the Urban Strawberry Lunch takeover of the ‘bombed-out’ St Luke’s Church as a good example of this, but can always do more. The other aspect is creating space. Providing units and buildings at low rates for artists etc to animate is a great, and cost-effective, way to support a creative scene. I do think the grassroots needs to get on with itself regardless, that’s why it’s the grassroots, but if local authorities lend an ear they will find that that can get a lot of the monetary/marketing benefits they are often after through culture without spending a lot of cash. Where I think it’s important for local authorities to continue to spend is supporting the ‘core’ cultural institutions in different cities which provide a hub for the grassroots to operate around and social/educational projects to ensure local people and particularly the disadvantaged get access to culture.

AW: Thank you!

Kenn Taylor is a Liverpool based arts project manager and writer with a particular interest in community, culture and the urban enviroment. For much more information about Kenn’s fiction writing, journalism and numerous community arts projects visit his site. A separate site, Urban Transition, is dedicated to Kenn’s work around culture, cities and regeneration.