Archive image of arts activity at South Square, Bradford

We’ll Start All Over Again: Embedded Arts Practice and the Post-industrial North

South Square Titanic Party, 1984

Take a look around you at the world we’ve come to know

Does it seem to be much more than a crazy circus show

But maybe from the madness something beautiful will grow

In a brave new world

– Artilleryman, Jeff Wayne’s musical version of The War of the Worlds

Antonio Gramsci wrote in his Prison Notebooks (1929-1935) that ‘the crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear’. As we emerge dazed and blinking into the unfolding post-pandemic landscape it is becoming clear how little is novel about our new normal(s) and the extent to which the crisis has compounded and exacerbated pre-existing fissures and inequalities. This is especially clear in the post-industrial towns and cities of the Northern England, that were already ‘left behind’ in the neoliberal narratives of endless (economic) growth and development. Look around the empty-shop strewn streets of Bradford, Huddersfield or even parts of well-to-do Sheffield and it’s difficult to imagine that they will ever truly ‘recover’ to become the hives of consumption, leisure and culture they once were.

Graphic of a pink geometric sculpture in a Bradford cityscape
Andy Abbott, ‘The Bradford Thing’, 2015

Are The Seeds of Another (Art)world Embedded in the Post-industrial North?

Taking a glass half-full perspective, this bleak picture of places beyond repair necessitates a long-overdue rethink about what we do with our ‘minor’ cities and towns and the role for art and artists in facilitating the birth of the new. As Dr Susan Jones put it so well in her recent article for Corridor8, ‘Place-specific activists and interest groups in arts and culture spheres perceive the pandemic’s exceptional circumstances as opportunity to imagine a radically different, fairer, inclusive arts ecology’.

From the multiply deprived, overlooked and under-resourced wilds of our post-industrial towns, we can imagine building or growing a brighter future. What groundwork is required and what tools do we have at our disposal to aid the emergence of this other (art)world? What lies in the shadows, or underground? Whether or not you believe that necessity is the mother of invention or that innovation thrives in the face of adversity, Northern towns seem to test and often prove their veracity.

Bradford was a major city in the Industrial Revolution and one-time ‘wool capital’ of the world. It has its problems, many of which are overplayed in the mainstream press, which tends to focus on racial tensions, economic deprivation and serial killers, often painting Bradford as the down-on-its-luck poor cousin to its more economically successful neighbour, Leeds. The neoliberal dream of post-industrial regeneration has proven to be an empty promise here, time and time again. Beneath the surface of a minor city with not much going on, however, is a plethora of underground, difficult to define, heterogeneous, unknowable and sometimes intangible activity emerging from the gaps and cracks created by the uneven development of capitalism. 

Bradford has a long legacy of fostering grassroots cultural forms that blur art and the social. The lack of infrastructure and resources has meant that a collective and open Do-It-Yourself approach has been pragmatic, whilst cheap and plentiful space in which to experiment abounds. The waves of migration prompted by industry’s need for trade and cheap labour have made Bradford a place known for welcoming new communities, offering endless opportunities for cross cultural exchange and collaboration. 

a wall with timeline and pasted materials
Timeline as part of ‘Subveillance: 50 years of the University of Bradford from below’, curated by Helen Kaplinsky at Gallery II, University of Bradford, 2016. Image: Andy Abbott.

Looking back at the last fifty years we find the birth of street theatre and public ‘happenings’ through figures like Albert Hunt, Jeff Nutall, Sue Gill and John Fox of The Welfare State International; plays produced in collaboration with computer scientists whose endings were dictated by the audience; the formation of claimants unions and ‘Dole-Q-Discos’ that led to the establishment of the 1in12 Club (the UK’s longest running autonomous social centre still operating ‘knee deep in shit’ today); mass sit downs and creative protests against the National Front; pioneering community filmmaking projects co-produced with unemployed Black youth; artist-led community centres in working-class heritage spaces; LGBT, Asian youth and women’s movements; peace museums; warehouse parties leading to city-wide, people-led festivals and melas, and the boom of the UK hardcore punk and Asian Underground music scenes.

Much of this activity did, and still does, operate beneath the radar. It is fleeting, often presented without fanfare to an audience of participants rather than spectators, and generally undocumented. Records are absent from any official archives, with only memories of those who took part, and a few cardboard boxes and rolls of posters in an attic or garage as testament to these magical and transformative moments. American artist, activist and writer Gregory Sholette has termed this informal art activity as creative or cultural Dark Matter. He writes:

Like its astronomical cousin, creative dark matter also makes up the bulk of the artistic activity produced in our post-industrial society. However, this type of dark matter is invisible primarily to those who lay claim to the management and interpretation of culture—the critics, art historians, collectors, dealers, museums, curators, and arts administrators. It includes makeshift, amateur, informal, unofficial, autonomous, activist, non-institutional, self-organized practices—all work made and circulated in the shadows of the formal art world, some of which might be said to emulate cultural dark matter by rejecting art world demands of visibility, and much of which has no choice but to be invisible.[1]

Today there exists a plethora of individuals, arts organisations and institutions in Bradford that build on these precedents, ranging from informal collectives through to established charities and Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations: Wur Bradford, South Square Centre, Kala Sangam, The Brick Box, Mind The Gap, Theatre in The Mill, Commonwealth Theatre and many more. I was able to explore and contribute to this milieu of art, community engagement and informal and self-organised culture through a fellowship at University of Bradford between 2011 and 2017, including piloting a Centre for Socially Applied Arts (for more on the Centre read my in-conversation with Corridor8 editor Lara Eggleton here).

If the tools and tactics for birthing new worlds can be found in the creative dark matter of our marginal cities, is now the moment for the North to answer the call for brave new ways forward out of our post-pandemic, late capitalist mire?

What I found especially compelling was the world-building potential of this underground, indefinable and spontaneous activity; that the new forms of collaboration and collectivism experimented with in self-organised culture could, and sometimes did, cross over into the creation of counter-institutions, alternative infrastructure and the formation of new commons. Of course, Bradford is not the only Northern city with a claim to pioneering and progressive, socially-oriented arts practice. We see the same in Burnley, Rochdale, St Helens, Salford, Gateshead, Hull, Castleford etcetera. If the tools and tactics for birthing new worlds can be found in the creative dark matter of our marginal cities, is now the moment for the North to answer the call for brave new ways forward out of our post-pandemic, late capitalist mire?

Can (and should) art fix our fractured Northern cities?

An indicator that there is faith in the ability of arts and culture to turn around the fortune of the North’s ailing towns, cities and districts is the fervour for winning European and UK City of Culture titles. This proved a successful fix for cities like Glasgow in 1990, Liverpool in 2008 and Hull in 2017, that all saw their economies and profiles boosted by the award and accompanying investment. Today the list of places entering the race to be crowned a cultural capital reads like a visitor’s guide to the postindustrial North: Leeds, Sheffield, Wakefield, Lancashire, County Durham, and, not least, Bradford.

It has become clear through the UK City of Culture’s previous winners that the award is granted based on potential for, rather than an already existing, cultural offer. Those towns, cities and districts that wish to be in with a chance of winning the title, and the money that comes with it, need to strike a careful balance in their bids between need for, and ability to make good on, the investment. Furthermore there is pressure to highlight the distinctiveness – or in the corporate language of such competitions, the ‘Unique Selling Points’ – of the place so as to stand out from the crowd of underappreciated hopefuls.

projected text on civic buillding in Bradford, sun setting
Bradford 2025 ‘This is Our Time’. Image:

The team leading Bradford’s bid to become UK City of Culture 2025 believe that now is the time for Bradford to ‘happen to the world’ through an ‘alignment of stars’ that includes the requisite infrastructure, political will in the district, and the fact that Bradford’s progressively open definition of culture is something the wider world is beginning to appreciate and catch on to. ‘It’s time for people to see what we’ve been doing; the artworks and the way we engage with culture and the music that we have here is being thought of more highly’, programme and community co-ordinator May McQuade told me.

A winning bid would have soft and hard benefits to a city that needs a moral and fiscal boost, as director Richard Shaw explains:

The practical benefits are that the bid can bring in new resources; it can bring in cash. The existence of the bid has brought in ten times more than is put in, so that’s £5.1million of added investment to date, and that number grows every day. What funders see when a city goes for City of Culture is a new found confidence; that they are being ambitious and expansive in their work … it gives people a degree of confidence. A city of culture bid is a piece of convening power – it gives a sense that anything is possible. And nowhere more is it in grasp than in Bradford.

Culture, in this sense, is a key to unlocking the funds and recognition that would help Bradford ‘level up’ with its peers in the North and South. Whilst Bradford certainly needs a cash injection, the rationale underpinning these benefits sits wholly within a neoliberal logic of economic growth and increased civic pride – of repair and recovery rather than of radical renewal. Even putting aside the many justified critiques of this approach to regeneration through culture (the privileging of marketable artforms, the inevitable co-optation and dilution of ‘authentic’ culture, the accompanying displacement by gentrification, the erosion of solidarity through manufactured competition and so on), we might still ask whether putting energy and resources into seeking validation and recognition on terms like ‘City of Culture’ is missing an opportunity to shift the frame completely.  Can we go further still and be more ambitious when it comes to ‘changing the narrative’? Should we redirect the effort involved in catching up into forging a new path?

Embedded Arts Practice – a pathway out of crises

In order to break with and go beyond neoliberal definitions of the benefits of culture, it is helpful to understand artistic activity as sites or laboratories for experimenting with new ways of being and acting together in the world. This is especially true of the ‘creative dark matter’ or the informal and hidden, often self-organised, activity that abounds in the cracks, shadows and margins of ‘official culture’.

A group of people gathered inside a bakery. One person is at the till, behind them are metal shelves containing loaves of bread.
Jeanne van Heeswijk, Homebaked Bakery, 2012. Image:

Feminist economic geographers JK Gibson-Graham and artists including Jeanne van Heeswijk and Kathrin Böhm use artistic/action research methods to map and understand the complexities of the fields in which they intervene as practitioners. Heeswijk uses techniques of ‘deep listening’ to understand the ‘emotional state’ of the places and communities she has been invited, or has decided herself, to work with. This is a first stage in beginning to identify potential connections and ‘fields of interaction’ that may lead to practical projects such as the creation of Homebaked (2010-ongoing), a co-operatively run Bakery in Anfield, Liverpool that helped prevent the displacement of residents in a Housing Market Renewal scheme.

Similarly, Kathrin Böhm and Gibson-Graham use a model of ‘icebergian economies’ to look beneath the surface and understand the diverse economies of a place as the foundation for longer-term projects that create alternative businesses and social enterprises, such as Böhm’s ‘Company Drinks’ (2014 – ongoing). In such cases the outcome of the creative process ‘as art’ is not clear, or not important, as it embeds itself back into the communities and places from which it emerged, blurring art and the everyday.

An artist's diagram explaining company drinks
Company Drinks explained, drawing by Kathrin Böhm, 2018. Image:

More recently, I have been able to survey and explore in more depth the specificities of such locally-situated practices through my invitation to curate a series of artist residencies for Cittadellarte Fondazione-Pistoletto in Biella, a post-industrial former textiles town in Northern Italy. To date, over seventy residents and thirty guests from across the world have come together (virtually and where possible in presence) to share their experiences of doing embedded arts practice in their post-pandemic contexts, with a focus on the groundwork required to sustain such durational and long-term interventions (read more about the UNIDEE 2020 residency programmes here). 

The shared approach of embedded and situated practices is a commitment to the idea that the tools, knowledge, skills and resources that are necessary to create new realities can often be found in the place or community into which an ‘intervention’ has been deemed necessary. Looking closer, listening more attentively, collaborating differently and subtly shifting perspective can reveal solutions to longstanding challenges previously thought of as insurmountable. The artist or researcher often plays the role of initiator, facilitator or catalyst rather than creator, fixer or problem-solver: a midwife to the ‘birth of the new’ that was already underway. Paul O’Neill makes a similar observation about the durational public art projects gathered in his book Locating the Producers (2011):

Another key aspect of all the projects under discussion is that they began with an individual’s commitment to resisting a problem solving or instrumental approach. Instead, there appears to be a prevalent belief in the need for public art to engage with its most immediate public constituencies through hospitality and the development of relationships built on trust, before decisions are made as to how to proceed.

This latter point on building trust as a foundation for artistic activity is common to many of the ‘embedded arts organisations’ that I have worked with, including South Square Centre in Bradford, In-Situ in East Lancashire, and East Leeds Project in Gipton, Leeds. A significant portion of the work these artist-led initiatives do is dedicated to the maintenance and development of relationships with local residents, communities, partners and organisations. This provides a foundation for artists to be able to make interventions and projects that ‘rupture’ and bring something new and exciting to the area, whilst being meaningful and relevant to the local context. Their position as trusted member(s) of the community in the area in which they are based is essential to cutting across the binary pairings of pragmatic/utopian, concrete/representational, and ameliorative/critical that is at the heart of many criticisms of socially engaged or ‘useful art’, offering a third way between being a responsive service provider and the creator of new realities.

A group of people conversing in a circle, in a city square
In-Situ and Building Bridges (working together under Talking Society and Talkaoke with The People Speak), Nelson 2019.

It should be noted that the practice or labour involved in creating this groundwork for embedded arts practice is often invisible or at least difficult to recognise as ‘art practice’. It chiefly comprises emotional labour (talking to people, keeping a door open to anyone that would like to come in and learn about what you do, being ‘present’ and visible in the community), maintenance (of both buildings and social relations and partnerships), and administrative work (planning, budgeting, fundraising etc.). Add to this the fact that many organisations want to keep to a ‘human’ scale that is approachable for their audiences, and that much of the work that they commission and do is process- rather than outcome-oriented, and we are left with a question of how these organisations, so essential to the building of new more sustainable worlds, can themselves be resourced and sustained?

Sustaining Embedded Practice in a Post-pandemic Future

It seems in the current UK climate of ever decreasing or restricted public funds for the arts with ever increasing expectations for specific outcomes dictated by government, local authority, the Arts Council or other agendas, that an over reliance on public funding is a risk if not a trap for the independence and autonomy of organisations and artists looking to do things differently. Whilst Arts Council England has added in its last round a handful of socially engaged arts organisations (Heart of Glass and In-Situ among them) and is talking the language of inclusion and community co-creation in its ‘Let’s Create’ strategy, its definitions unavoidably standardise the form this takes, how it is delivered and how the impact is evaluated. At the same time, local government cuts such as those affecting Bradford force the hand of informal and smaller scale initiatives to ‘institute or die’.

an outdoor installation for Gipton Gala
‘What Makes Gipton? an interactive project for the Gipton Gala’, 2019, by Andy Abbott. Photo: Jules Lister, courtesy the East Leeds Project.

Similarly, there are glimmers of hope related to the aforementioned City of Culture bid where Richard Shaw was keen to assure me that there is an ‘active debate about what large scale mega-events mean post Covid’: ‘Pre Covid people had a license to do bigger stuff. The debate that’s going on now is that that’s not good enough anymore – it doesn’t feel authentic. It needs to find a connection and be relevant to place’. He also explained that the opening up of the selection panel for City of Culture to the public,  will allow for more say in the process from those that will be effected. As practice tends to be a few steps ahead of funders, this trend may result in less focus on spectacle and a recognition (and funding) of the invisible, unglamorous and ultimately non-photogenic artistic labour of embedded practice in the future.

Until then, it is perhaps a double-edged sword that artists and arts organisations engaged in embedded practice – especially those in the cash-poor post-industrial towns and cities of the North – are so well trained in the skill of creating something from nothing, pooling resources, and identifying and creating alternative economies based on mutual aid and collaboration. O’Neill notes in his introduction to Locating the Producers that ‘the sustainability of [durational public art] projects necessarily relies upon the circulation of social capital and in turn, on a form of gift economy’.[2] In this sense the ‘resilience’ of artists and artist-led organisations is exploitable (a theme explored in detail in Corridor8/YVAN’s Resilience is Futile publication) but at the same time embodies and demonstrates a human desire to create, connect and ‘progress’ even when the profit motive – a cornerstone of neoliberal capitalist subjectivity – is removed. Indeed, one can look at the eighteen months of lockdowns and furloughs prompted by the pandemic as a large-scale experiment in what humans might do in a ‘postwork’ or ‘postcapitalist’ society. It is no coincidence that conversations about Universal Basic Income (or Universal Basic Services) – for some theorists and artists a necessary political solution to moving beyond our current states of crisis (as outlined by UBI Lab Network) – have caught mainstream attention during this period.   

To end, it is worth reminding ourselves that those looking to effect change are always working within, against and beyond given structures. Artists with embedded practices, and the organisations that support them, will continue to find the cracks in which to create the new in the shell of the old. Our fractured Northern towns and cities, cheap and knackered as they are, present many spaces and opportunities for this informal (under)world building. With growing inequality, and more people being priced out of the major cities and into the margins, there will be a critical mass of artists and cultural workers working from where they are, embedded, building their new worlds underground; a self-organised commons ready and waiting for when the sky falls down to let the brave new world out. Perhaps for Bradford and its post-industrial peers, this really is our time.

Andy Abbott is an artist, writer, curator and arts organiser who lives in Halifax, West Yorkshire, UK.

[1] Gregory Sholette, Dark Matter: Art and Politics in an Age of Enterprise Culture. Pluto Press, London. 2011.

[2] Locating the Producers: Durational Approaches to Public Art, Paul O’Neill and Claire Doherty (eds.), Valiz, 2011.

Published 11.08.2021 by Lara Eggleton in Features

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