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.