Cheryl Cole, Mark Duggan, Andrea Dunbar, hip-hop, social realism and yearning: What’s inside my book on council estate performance.

Social Housing in Performance: The English Council Estate on and off Stage is published next week. It explores the representation of English council estates on stage, screen, in the news media and in visual arts practices. It is the only book-length study to focus solely on analysing the representation of estates. Below is an overview of the book, which details in succinct summaries what you can find in each chapter. I’ve written these brief summaries to provide a quick gloss for those wondering whether the book, or parts of it, will be useful to them. I hope this post might both whet your appetite for the volume and help you find the bits of it most relevant to your own interests.

Introduction: The council estate, definitions and parameters

Here, I give a working definition of the term ‘council estate’ and offer a brief history of the evolution of the estate and its place in the British public imagination. I think through how ideas about estates intersect with discourses of class, race, crime, poverty and survival.

I develop a taxonomy of council estate performance, mapping out the different ways twenty-first century performance and performative practices have engaged with estate space.

I also map the theoretical territory in which the book intervenes, using Edward Soja’s ‘trialectics’ to explain my rationale for the use of three case study examples in each of the following chapters.

Key theorists include: Henri Lefebvre, Lisa McKenzie, Edward Soja

Key words: Crisis, council estate, complexity

Chapter 1: Quotidian performance of the council estate

In this chapter I explore what I call ‘quotidian performance’, looking at how the estate has been performed in the ‘everyday’. I examine poverty porn television, newspaper coverage and discuss the culture of what I call the ‘authentic real’, where the term authenticity is often used to infuse council estate representations with ‘truth’.

Developing Imogen Tyler’s method of ‘figuring’ I explore representations of three ‘real’ council estate residents across different media: Karen Matthews, Cheryl Cole and Mark Duggan. I look at the ways these figures authenticate ideas about estates and working class people.

I also argue that the council estate can be understood as a local articulation of the ‘global hood’, emerging from popular understandings of urban marginality in inner-city US neighbourhoods. I trace how influential hood forms such as hip-hop are adopted and appropriated on the English estate.

Key theorists include: Chris Richardson and Hans Skott-Myhre, Bev Skeggs , Imogen Tyler 

Key words: Class, race, ‘the real’

Chapter 2: Class and the council estate in mainstream theatre

In Chapter 2, I look at three productions performed in building-based, subsidised theatres: Out of Joint’s 2000 revival of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (performed in tandem with Robin Soans’s A State Affair), Simon Stephen’s Port, revived at the National Theatre in 2013 and Conrad Murray’s DenMarked (Battersea Arts Centre 2017).

The focus in this chapter is on class and its relationship with what I call ‘mainstream’ theatre forms. I argue that although class has, until recently, rarely been named in arts policy and theatre scholarship, class relations and their attendant power dynamics have played out through representations of estates and significantly influence the ways estates are produced and received in the public imagination. I critique social realism, arguing that the form often works to further ‘authenticate’ troubling representations.

Key theorists: Elaine Aston and Janine Reinalt, Paul Murphy, Raymond Williams

Key words: Realism, authenticity, rage

Chapter 3: Located on the estate

In this chapter I examine three site-specific works that took place on estates: SLICK, by the National Youth Theatre (2011) at Park Hill in Sheffield, Roger Hiorns’s installation Seizure at Harper Road in Southwark, London, later moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2008/2014-) and Fourthland’s ‘The Wedding to the Bread’ (2017) ceremony at the Wenlock Barn estate in Shoreditch, London.

I explore how these works are implicated in so-called artwashing, often becoming complicit in gentrification processes: but also their capacity to resist such processes. I examine ideas of utopia, beauty and mythmaking in light of these works.

Key theorists include: Jen Harvie, Grant Kester, James Thompson

Key words: Artwashing, site-specific, ambivalence

Chapter 4: Resident artists

Here, I explore how artists who are also estate residents have used the space of the estate to ‘speak back’ to dominant, negative representations of estates in one way or another. I discuss grime music, the Focus E15 campaign and look at three estate performances by resident artists based in East London. These performances (Jordan McKenzie’s Monsieur Poo-Pourri series, Fugitive Images’ film Estate: A Reverie and Jane English’s show 20b) take us through the process of estate regeneration: an artist still living on an estate in a rapidly changing neighbourhood, residents in the process of being removed from their homes and a resident trying to recreate her estate after its demolition.

I analyse these works by framing them as examples of broader ‘strategies’ – of subversion, yearning and nostalgia — that estate residents use to resist reductive ideas about their homes from the bounded estate location.

Key theorists include: David Harvey, bell hooks, Laura Oldfield Ford

Keywords: subversion, nostalgia, yearning

Conclusion: Three thoughts

I conclude  by offering three thoughts that draw out the main findings of the book, exploring the themes of authenticity, ambivalence and hope that recur throughout earlier chapters.

Key theorists include:  Paul Crowther, Mark Fisher, Chantal Mouffe

Key words: Capitalist realism, spatial ecology, hope

You can hear more about the book and my thoughts on estates, class at culture on this podcast, produced by the New Books Network, click here.

You can pre-order the book here, although before you click be warned it is very expensive. I explain why here. Perhaps you can order a copy for your local or institutional library. If you can’t afford a copy and don’t have access to a library but would like to read the book please email me.

Estate: A Reverie, Screening and Discussion

The University of Exeter Drama Department is hosting a free screening of Fugitive Images’ film Estate: A Reverie, please see below for details — and please share with friends and colleagues, especially those in the Devon area, who might be interested.

 

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Estate: A Reverie

A film directed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, produced by Fugitive Images

Screening and discussion with filmmaker

22nd July 2016

University of Exeter, Drama Department, Alexander Building, TS1

18.00 – 20.00

Samuel House, the final block in Hackney’s Haggerston estate was demolished in autumn 2014, exemplar of a nationwide, even international, shift in the character and fabric of the inner cities. Filmed over seven years, Estate, a Reverie reveals and celebrates the resilience of residents who are profoundly overlooked and stereotyped by media representations and wider social responses. The film asks how we might resist being framed exclusively through class, gender, ability or disability, and even through geography.

Please join us for a screening of the film, followed by a discussion between Fugitive Images’ David Roberts and the University of Exeter’s Katie Beswick, who is currently researching estate arts practices. Refreshments will be provided.

The event is free of charge, but please email k.beswick@exeter.ac.uk if you intend to attend.

Education and ‘Value’

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Since, approximately, the beginning of time, politicians, journalists and, if Guardian comments threads are anything to go by, members of the public, have been debating the ‘value’ of Higher Education, and, indeed, education more generally. This debate has grown ever more intense as university fees have increased to £9,000 per year for the average undergraduate, and as more and more students enrol on both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Much of the discourse on education and its ‘value’ revolves around ‘employability’– universities are increasingly measured, in both league tables and the public eye – by how well they prepare students to enter the labour market, and how much more money graduates earn than those without degrees.

As graduate wages fail to vastly outstrip those of non-graduates and growing numbers of students graduate with ‘good’ (2:1 or above) degrees, politicians, journalists and social commentators speculate – in various ways – that the education system is failing its students. Implicit (and often explicit) in their arguments is the assumption that the rigour and worth of formal learning and academic qualifications declines as the numbers of people achieving qualifications rises. There are too many of us getting degrees and – just like the A grade at A’level – that means they’ve become worthless.

But, although it’s nice to get a cash return on your investment, as anybody who has studied for the love rather than for the money knows, education is not like a diamond or a precious metal. Its value doesn’t lie in its scarcity. Education is more like a child or a lover – it’s ‘value’, should you wish to discuss it in such crass terms (and you surely wouldn’t, if you knew anything about its value at all) is in the way it enriches your life, and the lives of those around you.

Undoubtedly, I agree that ‘education’ is about more than formal, institutionalised learning. Such formal learning, however, importantly offers the time, space, expertise and resources where a particular kind of intellectual creativity can occur, and where students can engage with (and with any hope come to challenge) the thinkers, thoughts and traditions that have created the foundations of the subject they love. The opportunity to engage in formal education is ‘valuable’ for all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways, and we should be thinking about how we can open, rather than reduce, access to it.

In my discipline – drama, theatre and performance studies – there are on-going discussions about how we might demonstrate the value of what we do. The urgency with which we feel we must justify our existence has no doubt been compounded by the Coalition’s denigration of arts subjects in compulsory education. In a desperate scramble to prove our worth in ‘their’ language we supplement our well-worn arguments about the intrinsic value of beauty, the social benefits of arts practices, the positive impact of theatre on the self-esteem of participants and audiences. We point out that arts graduates fair particularly well in terms of graduate ’employability’ due to the ‘transferable skills’ offered by arts degrees, and we remind ‘them’ that in economic-speak arts make up 0.4 percent of GDP, with just 0.1 percent of investment.

I feel profoundly uncomfortable about this.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of talking numbers when it comes to education – whether in the arts, humanities or STEM subjects. Yes, how much we spend on education has to be considered in terms of wider concerns around public funding. But those of us working in the sector need to resist defining its worth in numerical or monetary terms. Education is too important. It is more than dollar signs. It needn’t be a scare resource to offer something valuable.

Race, Racism and ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’

Press image from OFF THE ENDZ  Credit: Johan Persson/ArenaPAL
Press image from OFF THE ENDZ
Credit: Johan Persson/ArenaPAL

One of my research interests is in the genre of drama that journalist Lindsay Johns has pejoratively termed ‘Theatre of the Ghetto‘. This genre, according to Johns, is primarily ‘about guns, drugs and council estates’ and regularly depicts black people (particularly men) as inhabitants of unsavoury or troubled home environments and as the perpetrators or victims of crime.

‘Theatre of the Ghetto’, I would add, usually adheres to the conventions of social realism – where working class spaces are depicted with a close attention to detail in the set design, costume and staging. Plays that might fit into this category include Random* (debbie tucker green 2008 Royal Court), Off the Endz (Bola Agbaje 2010 Royal Court), The Westbridge (Rachel De-lahay 2011 Royal Court) and Estate Walls (Arinze Kene 2011 Ovalhouse).

It is easy to see why Johns is dissatisfied with the state of contemporary black British theatre, which again and again presents stereotypes of young black men, which reinforce racist conceptions of black masculinity that already circulate in the dominant culture. In many of the post-show talks and Q&As that I have attended after theatre (and indeed film) of the ‘ghetto’ events the question asked by audience members is: ‘what can we do about our young black men?’ Audiences (both black and white) appear to receive these works as truthful reflections of the total state of the young black British community, and respond by seeking methods to ‘fix’ the youth.

I think audiences are asking the wrong question – what we should be asking, especially in this period where the rise of the far right throughout Europe threatens to create and entrench divisions between racial and religious groups, is: ‘what can we do about racism?’ What can we do about racism, which operates to demonise groups of the population and which is so pervasive that it works through cultural intuitions such as theatre to reinforce its dangerous message?

Accusing mainstream theatres of racism is ethically complex, not least because most of the plays that fit the ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ mould are written by black writers, often claiming to reflect the ‘reality’ of the life of the black British community. And, after all, what right does a white woman such as me have to tell these writers what kind of theatre they should and shouldn’t be making? (Another good question.)

But of course – as is hardly ever publically acknowledged, particularly at the Royal Court, which emphasises the primacy of the playwright – plays have more than one author. The producers, directors, set designers and centrally, the funders of theatre also contribute to the overall meaning created by productions, and importantly, decide what gets made, and how.

What can we do about a system where, as playwright Arinze Kene has argued, black British playwrights are coerced into writing ‘the same old shit’, in the knowledge that these are the stories theatres want to stage?

Happily, there does seem to be a fledgling move towards mainstream theatres asking questions about the stories they produce. Over the past couple of years I have come across two especially powerful productions that place racism at the centre of the story, questioning ‘norms’ of the theatre industry in different ways.

The first is Nathaniel Martello-White’s play Blackta (Young Vic 2012), which explores the place of the black actor in the contemporary theatre industry. Blackta calls attention to the pressures young black men feel to live up to stereotypes of extreme masculinity – ‘homophobic, misogynistic, tough’ – and examines how the acting industry exploits and reinforces conventional depictions of black men.

The second is Arinze Kene’s God’s Property (Soho 2013), which subverts conventional ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ narratives, which often position black men as recidivist criminals. At the end of the play, the mixed-race Chima who has served a long prison sentence for the murder of his white girlfriend, Poppy, is revealed not to have killed her at all – he has covered for Poppy’s father, who killed her accidently, trying to attack Chima after becoming enraged that his daughter was carrying a black man’s baby.

Both of these examples mark an important, I think, way in which the theatre industry is starting to interrogate its own practices. Although, depressingly, after a showing of God’s Property at the Albany in Deptford, audiences were still asking, ‘what should we do about our young black men?’ A question which conveniently shifts the gaze away from those in power, who might be able to actually do something about the social problems caused by racial and economic inequality.

*although the unconventional staging of this play (on a sparse stage, a single black actress plays all the characters) means it isn’t really ‘social realism’.

With thanks to Charlotte Bell at Queen Mary University, whose question on my paper at the Seeing Like a City symposium prompted this blog.

If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on realism and the ethics of representation you might like to read articles I have written (and co-written) on the subject: here and here.

Look at the E(s)tate We’re In

Estate 1

For the past five and half years, I have been undertaking research examining the representation of council estates (or social housing estates) across a number of divergent theatre practices (mainstream, applied and site-specific). In September 2013 I attended a fascinating event, run by artist Jordan McKenzie as part of the Live Art Development Agency’s DIY Series. This event, titled ‘Look at the E(s)tate We’re in’, was a gathering of artists, academics and activists whose work engaged with council estate sites. Below I have posted my review of this event, originally published on Interface.

‘Council estates are iconic sites of urban deprivation. In contemporary popular representations – on film, television and in the newspaper press – estates are often called upon to symbolise poverty, crime and struggle. Council estates are also regularly implicated in political rhetoric regarding the welfare state. For example, when the coalition government recently introduced the ‘spare bedroom tax’, a reduction in housing benefit for any claimants who were deemed to have a ‘spare bedroom’, they invoked the concept of the ‘shirker’ or ‘scrounger’ – the lazy, benefit dependant council estate resident that they had used to justify wider benefit cuts.

Because of the national interest in council estate sites, and because they are often presumed to house communities of social renters who are vulnerable and economically marginalised – despite the fact that, in reality, estates are home to a diverse range of residents including professionals, homeowners, artists and private renters – council estates have become fertile sites for socially engaged arts practices.

Look At The E(s)tate We’re In (LATEWI) was a three day mini summit for five artists whose work centres around socially engaged practice, funded by the Live Art Development Agency as part of their DIY series – where artists run unusual training and development workshops for other artists. I attended the summit for research purposes – I am currently undertaking a PhD that interrogates representations of the council estate. The event was hosted by Jordan McKenzie, an artist and estate resident who ran LUPA (Lock-Up Performance Art), a series of live art works staged in a garage on the Approach Estate in Bethnal Green, where he lives, and where the summit took place.

LATEWI sought to address the following questions: Does working locally and employing notions of localism in artistic processes provide an oppositional critique of globalisation or foster insular and conservative attitudes to artistic and social exchange? Is the notion of community important given the attacks on estates by the government or does it fail to represent the particular and autonomous nature of social relations? How do artists create ‘authentic’ relations in terms of social engagement without it seeming that an artist parachutes in to perform it and then leave again effectively reducing it to another artistic practice? What indeed do we mean by authentic in this context?

Over the three days attendees engaged in a series of micro-encounters. These included talks by prominent artists and academics concerned with participatory arts practices – such as Bobby Lloyd whose recent projects include ‘the drawing shed’, an arts organisation that uses mobile studios to create arts projects on two housing estates in E17, and Dr Nic Ridout who offered a provocation on the powers of spectatorship, arguing that participation might, sometimes, work as a substitute for taking part in political action. Artists were also invited to engage with estate residents, in a series of one-to-one meetings, where residents spoke about their own experiences of the estate and the surrounding area, and which might provoke stimulus for future collaborations.

The summit also allowed space for the attending artists to reflect on their own work and a chance to share and discuss practice. This fostered stimulating and memorable conversations, particularly around the notion of rights to representation and the ethics of socially engaged art. We asked whether and how arts practitioners should work with communities they are not part of, and speculated on the role of the social artist in a neoliberal economy – where artists are often employed by institutions on a short term basis, and expected to carry out social and political work that they are not necessarily trained for.

The scope and breadth of work discussed over the three days led us to consider whether council estate practice might be considered a category of socially engaged art in its own right. Although artistic engagements with council estates have happened since at least the mid twentieth century, we speculated that the proliferation of council estate art in the past ten years might mark a definable historical moment in socially engaged work.

LATEWI felt like the start of something, it was a timely and exciting event – a spark that might ignite future practices, collaborations and discourses. It was a useful space for reflection and creativity, and proved the worth of the DIY initiative in providing unique and stimulating spaces for artists to explore ideas in a way that offers potential for innovation.’