Exploring Critical Themes (Essay)

View of Union Street, (Image Aberdeen HQ)
Aberdeen vs Creativity  

           Following the lecture delivered by Hilary Nicoll in late November 2017 I am going to contrast the broad framework of Creative City ideas with the City of Aberdeen’s approach to developing culture, placing it within the context of the Scottish Government’s policies on Culture and my own experiences as a Scottish Citizen and Creative Practitioner.

The Creative City at it’s heart is a business model that has, by virtue of being endorsed by large policy-making organisations such as UNESCO, gained a very strong foothold within current Urban Planning thinking. Brought to prominence by Charles Landry and his company COMEDIA “The Creative City notion is… Vision documents; sector strategies; cultural policies and market research.” (Comedia Archives, 2014). The ideas behind the concept of a Creative City, first thought of by David Yencken, sits alongside similar philosophies and ideas for regeneration and growth by Richard Florida, Jane Jacobs, Graeme Evans and Susan Carmichael. “The "Creative City" notion developed by Charles Landry and the COMEDIA team from the early 1990's onwards … posits that a city should … strive to be the best and most imaginative city for the world... It gives city-making an ethical foundation.” (Comedia Archives, 2014). 

DIY-Creative Community: The Forest, Edinburgh
(photo: The Vegan Cookie Fairy)
My work is based on seeing things as a whole, looking at the interconnectivity of the world, the psyche and everything in-between as a great big network. I have a holistic or Gesamkunstwerk approach to making. With a philosophy borrowed from Betty Danon “Art as Life / Life as Art” my practice seems on one hand completely the antithesis of the Creative City as a marketing and planning tool, while at the same time, should benefit greatly from the more open-minded thinking it appears to encourage. I am interested in the creation of organisations and alternative businesses models. I have worked for many years within Edinburgh, a city with an incredible alternative art scene possessing a strong DIY ethic. It is frustrating for me to see that DIY element is not evident in Aberdeen. Within the centre, especially, Aberdeen lacks visible alternatives to commercial and mainstream culture. 

“… we must see everything in context.” (Hyslop, 2017) and in order to look at the wider context, I want to touch on the economic and social drivers being laid out by the Scottish Government and the current economic and political climate that the Creative Cities idea finds itself in within Scotland. 

For many decades we have been becoming more and more of a Service Industry-driven economy. In 2013 in the New Statesman Skidelsky wrote “… manufacturing in this country accounts for just 11 per cent of GDP, employs only 8 per cent of the workforce and sells 2 per cent of the world’s manufacturing exports … the sector’s workforce halved from 4.5 million to 2.5 million between 1997 and 2010.”. The financial and business services were touted as our new industries until the financial crash of 2008, and as a whole, the UK Government is in £1.6trillion of debt (Spence, 2016). More locally, the Scottish Government operates with a 10% deficit on it’s annual budget. It takes little to imagine the urgency with which both the changing economic landscape within this country and the looming threat of leaving the Single Market, means the Scottish Government must implement strategies of resilience against a completely unknown economic future. (Many of the policies discussed here pre-date Brexit but it must be pointed out, that Aberdeen is forecast to be the worst hit city, and so it is relevant to point out that fact (Hunt, 2017)).

In order to achieve this resilience “Governments … need to promote a balanced economy.” (Skidelsky, 2013). Support for a balanced portfolio of income for the Scottish Government is covered by their approach within the Cultural Policy and Economic Policy documents: “A diverse business base - by firm size, industry, geography and ownership - can improve the long-term resilience of an economy. It complements a targeted strategy to excel in a number of niche sectors where we have a comparative advantage.” (Scottish Government, 2015). Very soon Scotland will be cut off from the support and trade opportunities that being part of the EU gave us. The Scottish Government’s “… Economic Strategy identifies creative industries as a growth sector where Scotland can build on existing advantages to increase productivity and growth.” (Scottish Government, 2017). With the right support the Creative Industries could well be a viable option to help close the 10% deficit in our budget, so that perhaps as an independent country we would be eligible to rejoin the EU in the future. Being part of the EU and the Single Market is important to me as an Artist, so that I can enjoy free movement across borders, sell my work or accept commissions and residencies abroad without costly Visa procedures or potentially crippling exchange rates. 

It is possible that this new Cultural Policy of Creative Cities going to fall victim to the same fate that previous interventions by the UK Government within the manufacturing and trades have, when “… long-term aims were repeatedly sacrificed to short-term financial exigencies, projects were taken up and abandoned when they became too costly, fashions in thinking shifted...” (Skidelsky, 2013).  However, it would seem as though both the Scottish Government and Aberdeen are attempting to avoid this by deliberately planning on longer-term basis. In particular Aberdeen’s Local Development Plan: 2017 states “Our aim is for Aberdeen in 2035 to be a sustainable city at the heart of a vibrant and inclusive city region.” 

Aberdeen City Council’s focus on inclusivity sits well within a countrywide context, as “The Scottish Government wants to see a culturally cosmopolitan Scotland,”. However, the Scottish Government push this further, stating that they want Scotland to be a place that is  “…capable of attracting and retaining gifted people, where our creative community is supported and their contribution to the economy is maximised.” (Scottish Government, 2011). This approach of “joined-up” thinking, covers both the global and the humanistic sides of the Creative Cities coin. The Culture Secretary Fiona Hyslop is invested in the positives of the Creative Industries, stating that the aim of the Cultural Strategy for Scotland “… is not a state view on culture, its intention is to liberate and support, not to define and limit.” (2017). This, as I will discuss, does not seem to be a sentiment shared by City of Aberdeen Council. A focus on supporting emerging artists without heavy-handed intervention certainly would be of benefit to me, but to retain me within the City of Aberdeen, where I am currently based and attempting to grow my practice, several improvements would have to be made.

Ambrose, writing about Aberdeen in the wake of the dramatic fall in the price of oil in The Times in 2016 says “Dips are to be expected of a city so deeply dependent on the fluctuating price of oil, but the latest downturn is unlike anything its 195,000 residents have seen before.” (Ambrose, 2016). In this case, it is in the citys’ own interest to seek alternative methods of income, and with the Scottish Government focusing increasingly on the Creative Sector, could Aberdeen viably position itself as a new cultural hub? Defined as a Creative City Aberdeen could stand to “…enhance tourism, profile and business… [but] the legacy …  goes well beyond those market concerns. It’s not only about new infrastructure, urban regenerations and redistributions, it’s about creating a socially relevant, resilient, sustainable and equitable future-proofed culture.” (Engberg, 2017). 

Seeing the Creative Sector raise productivity and the morale of the people within Aberdeen seems like a fantastic prospect. But, the approach Aberdeen is stubbornly adopting looks more like upside down Maslow’s Hierarchy of Need than anything else: a creative city/place will bring prestige, business relationships and partnerships, which will lead to security and safety economically and mean we can afford food, water, warmth and rest. Maslow’s theory posited that creativity comes after the satisfaction of other needs: physiological, safety, esteem and belongingness. It is my strong belief that the role of the Government, local and national, is to provide as the very basics: the physiological and safety aspects of human need. 

As a city that is attempting to shape itself into an attractive and creative hub, Aberdeen’s attempts are not wholly promising. It’s bid for UK City of Culture was knocked back with a description of “…the artistic and cultural expertise in the city as "limited".” (BBC, 2013). Aberdeen seems intent on scrapping local cultural projects and chasing financially inadvisable “flagship projects” with big names attached as demonstrated in the handling of the redevelopment of Union Terrace Gardens (Shepherd, 2012).

Promotional from SPECTRA Festival of Light 2018
(Image: SPECTRA twitter feed)
Since 2013 Aberdeen has been working to grow it’s Cultural offer through festivals such as SPECTRA and most recently NuArt Aberdeen. The reality is, though, that SPECTRA (and other) festivals are run and managed by Curated Place, a production company based in Manchester which tours many of the same artworks from city to city. Additionally, NuArt is a festival important from Norway, leaving Aberdeen Council open to being accused of “Buying in” Art. It is valid to argue that “… Cultural events without the inclusion of local voices risk socially and spatially dividing various parts of the city, while alienating residents whose stories impact daily life and culture from participating in a city’s image creation.” (Bayraktar, Uslay, 2016). This is especially pertinent as Aberdeen City Council voted earlier this year to withdraw funding from local festival AIYF (BBC News, 2017) and the fablab MAKE Aberdeen have just announced they will close in March 2018 because their “city centre location will no longer be available for MAKE to use” (MAKE Aberdeen, 2017). Meanwhile, “A total of £100,000 has been made available each year for the next three years to support events including, the NuArt Aberdeen Festival, the pro cycling Tour Series and the Great Aberdeen Run.” (NuArt, 2017). By employing outside companies to create festivals, Aberdeen is not nurturing the makers or creators currently within Aberdeen, thereby not broadening the portfolio of local businesses, contravening and undermining any efforts it could claim it is undertaking towards being a Creative City. 

The Creative Cities doctrine aims to teach cities to “… create the pre-conditions for decision makers at all levels to think, plan and act with imagination and in an integrated way… How do we identify, harness, promote and sustain the creative, cultural resources that are present in every human settlement if we look deeply enough.” (Comedia, 2014.). This idea seems to be supported in Aberdeen City Council’s approach in using creativity as a tool to regenerate Urban Spaces. Inspired by the NuArt festival, the council has supported the formation a group within Torry called VictoriArt Road. This group essentially aims to help the people of Torry help themselves by encouraging them to take responsibility and pride in their area (VictoriArt, 2017) an approach supported in Bianchini and Landry’s The Creative City : “… a road or telecom network on its own will not create the kinds of innovative milieux that encourage people to interact and participate … this depends on the capacity to build partnerships … establishing a sense of place and mutual responsibilities in communities and neighbour- hoods.” (Bianchini, Landry, 1995). Through the collective art-making and decision making situations that VictoriArt Road engenders, the council is attempting to foster this positive interaction within the community. However, I argue that while Aberdeen City Council would appear to be attempting to help the residents of Torry, bringing them together through the VictoriArt Road project and commissioning murals, giving them an opportunity to experience an “innovative millieux”  – there still needs to be that road or telecom network in place.

Mural at local Primary School
sponsored through VictoriArt Road project
(Image: fresh paint.com)

Despite the attempts within Torry to support a creative group, the aim of which is that is will continue on once the council pulls back, as far as I can see – especially as far as the closure of MAKE goes - Aberdeen’s city planning leaves no boiling pot for a culture to grow from naturally and organically. There should not be a necessity for intervention at any level from governmental organisations. The best thing that a city can do is “.. create places where people can cross paths. Artists don’t work in factories… dynamic successful cities have been good at creating those places…it’s about this informal mixing, it’s about the ways in which paths cross, it’s about the ways in which people are able to interchange their activities…” (Pratt, 2015).

What is there, ultimately, out there which is beneficial for me within Aberdeen currently? Peacock Visual Arts offers a fantastic printmaking resource that before commencing studies at Gray’s I did use to produce work. However, without resorting to teaching or other forms of support-work to subsidise my artistic practice, there does not seem to be a strong effort to nurture or retain creative talent within the city. Organisations that are championed as open are generally focused on children, schools, education or workshops. The entry-level to these festivals is to volunteer as an information assistant, while the Artists and works are shipped in from elsewhere, leaving no scope for experimentation or local artist support. 

As is pointed out within the RGU Strategy, the reasons people find certain cities attractive is that “…they are typically inhabited; there is life in the city centre and levels of amenity and urban quality that attract and sustain communities. Equally they are walkable, with good connectivity between key places, and conveying the primacy of the pedestrian over the car. They also exhibit multiplicity of use, whereby at different times of the day the life of the street or square changes attracting different visitor groups for work and leisure.” (Cockburn et all., 2014). Aberdeen does not currently possess these qualities, nor does it seem there is a desire to address the fundamentals of urban planning that would begin to grow a pleasant, open and a creative city. 
It is my experience that as a creative and a citizen, in comparison to my hometown of Edinburgh, Aberdeen is an incredibly hostile environment. The city planning is at odds with my usual mode of living, doing and getting about. Out-with Gray’s School of Art there is neither the support network nor the multiplicity of open and accessible spaces to create and experiment in. As a pedestrian and a cyclist it is a city that is difficult to navigate and access, presenting little encouragement to get out and explore on foot. If the city is to truly support creativity it needs to work on the basics. As is pointed out very eloquently within Creating a new north: RGU lays out cultural vision for Aberdeen (2014) – Aberdeen needs better integrated transport infrastructure and more inviting public spaces. It is my opinion that the provision of these will then provide the conditions for cultural activity to grow organically (a culture that will be endemic and native to Aberdeen) and providing the very reasons that creative people want to stay in places, and the reasons people go to see unique cultural cities. 

Essay written in response to question set by Prof. Jon Blackwood: “Choose ONE of the lectures presented in the course this term and critically evaluate the ideas presented, in relationship to your own developing work.” Lecture chosen: Guest Lecture with Hilary Nicoll- The Creative City, Place and Aberdeen delivered Monday 20th November.

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