Full interview cited in the article “Politika: Art & Local Power in Manchester, UK”
INTERVIEWED ON 19 September 2014 BY Felicity Clarke
TRANSCRIBED ON 22 September 2014 BY Felicity Clarke
Barney Francis is a co-founder and director of Upper Space, organizers of the Politika exhibition & events programme.
Felicity: Can you just tell us first your full name?
Barney: Barney Francis
Felicity: And you are from Upper Space, that’s right? Can you explain what that is?
Barney: Upper Space is a not for profit platform for socially engaged artists really to create different types of projects, mainly in public space, which deal with social and environmental justice issues.
Felicity: What’s been your role on this project?
Barney: Bit of everything really. We don’t really have core paid staff so everyone is fairly flexible with what they have to do, so it’s ranged from administration and budgets to curation and renovation as well as exhibition space and work.
Felicity: How did the idea for Politika first come about?
Barney: The initial idea for Politika was last March, 2O13, mainly just as an extension of the type of art we do but also tying it into grassroots community activism, contemporary art context as well, so the title Politika is obviously about the affairs of the city, going back to origins of the etymology of politics, so this is about artists and creative practice which engages with the affairs of the city, the right to the city, who gets to say what, when and what public space. Deeper than that are the mechanisms and infrastructure and decision-making that goes on within communities and cities.. I’ve forgotten my train of thought..
Felicity: Art and who has the right to make the city?
Barney: Yeah, it’s the right to the city, you know. The city is supposed to be the place where democracy happens, through history to the present day, it’s about how it maximises exchanges between different people, public space is a key part of this exhibition and the artists who’ve chosen to take part.. I just got that message from Joe… haha.. so it’s about the right to the city and having agency over the way communities are shaped and the underlying values that underpin the types of decisions that are made within capitalist societies so looking at alternative visions for how things can be for citizens that is truly democratic, so we’ve got local campaigners involved from the estates in Ancoats, which is a very deprived area in certain areas, and there’s a strange mish mash with the regeneration that’s happened that’s brought a lot of disconnections between residents.
Felicity: You were telling us about the local engagement of the community in Ancoats?
Barney: Sure man, yeah, one of the things we’re trying to address with this exhibition is the inherent flaws of most contemporary art exhibitions where there’s a disconnect between presentation of community actvisim in an arts context and actual grassroots structures that actually manifest social change. We try not to just comment on social situations or raise awareness and then that cultural capital is produced somewhere else out of context. It’s about Ancoats, about local residents, and one of the main themes are about direct engagement with local community leaders and merging the arts, the social and the political. Trying to manifest that and not just reference it, which is quite cool, and it’s a bit of a seperate point but it ties into this exhibition space is something that we see as a form of social sculpture, it’s not just a relational act, it’s a physical manifestation of social sculpture. It’s a permanent space that can be used for community events.
Felicity: The social sculpture..
Barney: Yeah, trying to develop that conceptual art theory into something that manifests concrete change, so using different structures and mechanisms to do that and that means working with partner organizations and community members and volunteers and people who are engaged socially and want to try to do something cultural in an area. But I think there’s great scope for that to go into communities that need spaces where there’s a hive and a nucleus to get people critically engaged in social and political activism and to be talking about the issues and the subjects in their locality, so facilitating their engagement not just telling. You know what I mean? Walking with others in the same way the zapatistas did, we do it together. Do you know what I mean? I think that’s a different thing we’re trying to accomplish and this is just a starting point for that, a solid concrete version of that, this is the initial flashpoint for further conversations and further ideas to be generated. This is the first stage of that.
Felicity: I’ll let you get back, but I’ve got one last question. The exhibition is launching on a day and in a week that has been very important in British political history. Regarding the Scottish independence and the debates that it’s inspired over possible devolution of power and the questions that are being asked about the issues that you’re talking about in the exhibition of local power and self-determination and participation. Going forward from this day and this week, what are your hopes or views on where we might be able to go from here in this country?
Barney: Er. Big question. Unfortunately in the UK the systems of governance and the mechanism that are used by the elected minority to govern UK they’re very embedded and they’re very advanced. To sidestep into being able to devolve power from the centralized hubs like Westminster is difficult, but we’re already seeing pockets of self-determined resistant-based communities all over the UK with the Transition Town movement, local councils as well are also fighting for greater control. Yorkshire, they’ve suggested independence, which is the bordering county from Manchester. There’s…
Felicity: There’s been talk about Manchester.
Barney: There has indeed yeah. I think these types of conversations and critical analyses are so long overdue because the systems that we’re governed by are so dominant be in the name of capitalism or consumerism are so incredibly inept in dealing with the reality of our times and the systematic injustices that are apparent in almost all sectors of those systems only going to be exacerbated. So the more we can bring people together and the more we can facilitate community engagement in decisions that have such a massive impacts over their livelihoods and their labour, that is something that I hope generates the answers we need.