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Galleries Against Gaslighting: How can the UK art world respond to Grenfell?

The increased visibility of various forms of discrimination, populism, nationalism, state sanctioned cruelty and bureaucratic indifference, as practiced by world leaders including, but not limited to, Theresa May, Donald Trump, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Rodrigo Duterte, has led to an attitudinal shift in the art world.

Politics, hitherto confined to the relative hinterland of socially engaged art, has now become difficult to ignore. That is to say, the matter of where power is vested, how it is being wielded, and who or what is benefiting from this arrangement versus who is subjugated and dispossessed, has moved from the margins and to the twitter feeds, IRL conversations, and psychological concerns of the individuals, collectives and institutions that constitute the art world. The question is how best to respond?

In addition to the more widespread and perhaps traditional reflective responses of the symposium or the research based project, must now surely come the unreserved expression of solidarity and the dissemination of information that is empowering and informative for the communities and citizens that participate in, digest or realise the work that artists produce, institutions distribute, and critics of all stripes reflect on.

Why should this be done? The art world is one of the few professional spheres that has built up a vast network of contacts (through mailing lists, memberships, regular visitors, education groups, volunteers and specialist publications not as beholden to state agendas as broadsheets, tabloids, and large broadcast media corporations) that constitute a large proportion of the general public. In short, if there is anything that might resemble an unfiltered and uncompromised channel then it should be used.

While the recent UK general election was a missed opportunity for this strategy of solidarity and dissemination, all eyes and energies must now be on the disaster that many are identifying as corporate manslaughter; the fire that has engulfed and killed residents of Grenfell tower, and traumatized entire communities in the immediate vicinity of Latimer Road, West London and beyond. The fire, allegedly started by the explosion of a fridge, should have been contained and isolated in the single apartment in which it took place. However, due to what is being described as a perfect storm of architectural and structural negligence perpetrated by developers, the council of Kensington and Chelsea, and the current conservative government who ignored legislation to impose stricter building regulations, the tower bloc containing 128 apartments and at least 500 people, was almost entirely destroyed and left a charred, gutted shell that may still collapse.

As the agenda setting media regurgitate and repackage the same reports, coloured by the same cautions and empty gestures towards unbiased reporting, what is happening on the ground is disturbingly familiar to gaslighting. Anyone who has had any dealings with state bureaucracy knows that the strategy employed to exhaust citizens fighting for their rights is one of indifference, misinformation and endless deferment to so called decision makers. Here is what is happening on the ground that I have been able to observe:

The death toll is being downplayed. According to off-the-record sources from the police and fire services the death toll was around 160 people by the 20th floor of the block and rising.

The agenda setting media is being pressured to kick the stats into the long grass: the idea, according to unofficial sources, is to slowly trickle out the real numbers over a period of two weeks, in the hope that attention and outrage will have ‘died down’.

Provisions given to the council are not getting to people: A large amount if not all the clothes, food, and material resources are reportedly being held in storage by the council. The reason being the council do not know, and are avoiding, releasing an official tally of who has survived, although some tower residents and residents in surrounding areas have been housed in hotels.

People in temporary hotels are being moved from hotel to hotel: A strategy of displacement and disorientation seems to be being employed by government. Kids and families are stuck in hotel rooms and are stuck in information systems of unpredictability, which is increasing the trauma.

There is absolutely no support from the council: There is no provision for counselling, no information centres, and no official central representative walking around talking to people and taking note of their needs. What is needed is a 24hr emergency centre on site which will be the central point of focus, and additional hotel rooms that can act as temporary service centres need to be rented at the hotels where former residents are temporarily housed.

Where is Mayor Sadiq Khan?: London’s mayor is not here. People are calling this London’s Hurricane Katrina, but where is our Russel L. Honore? Sadiq Khan should set up a hub here to coordinate and corral councilors into doing the work that they are failing to do. He and his office need to be the ones guiding the police and the overall official effort. There is a huge gulf and vacuum in the shape of central responsibility and control. There are hundreds of people struggling to do the work that people are being paid to do and it is a total disgrace that they are not here.

Criminal prosecutions for the politicians, developers, and professional parties who are culpable for the spread of the fire: Developers knew that the materials used to beautify the tower block, so that it would appear ‘more pleasing’ externally, were completely substandard. Apparently the price difference between the fire resistant and flammable material was a mere £2 per square meter (around $4), totalling £5,000 for the entire block (a paltry sum considering the overall budget for refurbishment was £10 million). This impulse to cut corners is down to a bottom line of profit created by the massive restructuring and disappearance of social housing, and the essential handing over of social housing stock to the private sector; the Conservative’s strategy that has accelerated since the global financial crisis of 2008.

The above information needs to be put out to as many sources as possible. But for pressing demands that can be distributed easily and succinctly, voices of concerned parties are identifying two key areas:

Immigration amnesty for everyone affected/nobody to be deported. There are reports that residents may have had applications for full residency in process and have had their 20 years evidence of British residency burned in the fire; this must not be used as an opportunity to deport.

Full temporary and permanent housing in the borough for the residents of Grenfell Tower and surrounds. Anyone who needs to be moved should be able to stay in the area should they choose.

Make no mistake this fire is the result of a concerted strategy of willful neglect, mismanagement, bureaucratic indifference and cruelty.

Instead of the spectacular techsploitation of Richard Mosse, institutions in the UK art world can respond by using their resources for the dissemination of information (Twitter, Instagram and Facebook accounts with tens of thousands of followers, huge mailing lists, regular web visitors and so on), most pressingly to distribute the two points above. These are the messages that need to be circulated to counter misinformation and the media narrative that is beginning to be constructed by agenda setting portals.

The art world isn’t FIFA and nobody will fine galleries, magazines, and other intuitions for engaging in politics in this way. Of course it is not the only answer, but in the era of so-called ‘fake news’ the institutional position must surely not be agonizing over combating it. The answer must be doing something, by getting the information out there that people need by employing the two-step strategy of solidarity and dissemination. Galleries put their necks out to get behind Brexit, and thousands took to the streets to march for their rights and against the potential harm of friends, family and loved ones in the near future. Today at least 160 people are dead because our government, the Conservative party, doesn’t care about the poor. It has actually happened. Surely we must do all we can to ensure that they don’t get away with this.

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The post-war “War on Poverty” waged by liberal democracy has today been replaced by an all-out war on the precarious, the immigrant, and the poor, a condition that is spreading fast across the globe. While no one would argue that things were so very perfect prior to the return of ultra-deregulated capitalism after a brief forty-year respite (roughly between 1930 and 1980), most will agree that under social democracy there was greater economic equity and life security, and even the rhetoric around poverty and full-employment was more munificent back then. Those forced to remain at the bottom have also fought back against neoliberalism. Writing about the abandonment of inner city poor in Liverpool by both Tories and most of Labor in my recent book Delirium and Resistance: Activist Art and the Crisis of Capitalism: “successive neoliberal governments, nominally right- and left-wing, continued the policy and refused to address Granby’s plight, actively disinvesting in the neighborhood for decades. As the recently released papers of a former Thatcherite minister admitted with regard to the government’s official practice of inner-city abandonment, Toxteth represented a “tactical retreat, a combination of economic erosion and encouraged evacuation.”8 Locals fought back with the “weapons of the weak,” blocking bulldozers and planting vegetables in the rubble, though not always entirely successfully.”

And yet for me, the larger question raised by Morgan Quaintance in his important text demands that we ask just how much does the contemporary art world also benefit from these very same policies of neglect? Passively, perhaps, and indirectly, certainly, but isn’t it quite clear that high art simultaneously opposes neoliberalism and social injustice publicly, even as it depends upon the aggregated labor and imagination of a vast local and global underclass consisting of low-paid workers, students, interns and emerging “creatives,” as well as nearby and distant migrant laborers (think of the exploitation going on in the Saadiyat Island cultural zone, UAE). In general, it is these armies of systematically underemployed and totally un-employed whose very presence serves the present system as a dark disciplinary tool. Just one look at the Grenfell tower complex in flames is enough to remind us that modern life is a war zone where residents living in the green secure belts must work ever harder to remain were they are while actively unseeing the cruelty of what Giorgio Agamben famously phrased “bare life,” a raw state of existence that has greatly expanded over the past few decades. (In New York City where I live the poverty rate is almost half the population 44.2% in 2015). Tragedies like this briefly make that unseeing impossible.

Simultaneously, but also paradoxically, so-called “creative cities” including London and New York also depend upon the aggregate cultural labor of enterprising individuals and groups typically operating for economic and sometimes aesthetic reasons within these bare fringe spaces where such things as fire codes, sanitation, and other security fundamentals might be systematically overlooked by authorities. Consider the tragic Ghost Ship fire in Oakland California just a few months ago where some 36 Bay–area artists, musicians, and members of the LGBTQ community died in a building that had not been inspected in thirty years. Yet these same artistic producers helped fuel the region’s creative economy including its contemporary art scene.

The term I use for this new paradigm is our bare art world. And for this bare art world to really play a role in addressing Grenfell and other tragedies beyond material support (which is vital) it will need to come to terms with its participation in the ongoing disenfranchisement of an allegedly “surplus” population. This requires a deeper examination of the paradoxes set up by the modern “creative” cities that demand a steady supply of both menial and creative service providers whose own day-to-day existence is too often immersed in extreme living and working conditions that sadly come into public view when disasters such as Grenfell or the Ghost Ship take place, only to then flicker out of sight again.


‘Galleries Against Gaslighting: how can the UK art world respond to Grenfell?’

…By continuing to be as systemically white supremacist, classist, elitist, patriarchal and void of empathy as the people who allowed this negligence to happen to the building in wake of their plans for ‘regeneration’ aka demolition and displacement. #stillangry

Washington Post: London’s fire symptomatic of larger safety issues globally

**Government statistics show that the number of fire-safety inspections in England dropped by 25 percent from 2011 to 2016. Some 367 people died in fires across the U.K. last year, up 12 percent from two years earlier but still down from the 407 recorded in 2011.

That came as Conservative-led governments reduced funding for fire departments by 30 percent, cutting 10,000 firefighting jobs across the country, according to the Fire Brigades Union. The party has overseen seven years of austerity as it seeks to reduce Britain’s debts following the global financial crisis."