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Social Art as a Tool for Empowerment: Housing Deprivation and Citizen Initiatives for Change

Periodic Reporting for period 1 - HOUSREG (Social Art as a Tool for Empowerment: Housing Deprivation and Citizen Initiatives for Change)

Reporting period: 2016-08-01 to 2018-07-31

Over the past decade, worsening affordability, homelessness, social and housing polarisation and new forms of housing deprivation have been an increasing concern in Europe. In addition, the financialisation of land and housing, increasing dominance of rent, commodification and cuts in social wages have degraded the lives of millions of people. Artist have been called to perform social and cultural tasks in order to fill the gaps left by absent institutions of social care while themselves trying to survive un-affordable cities.

The relationship between art as a social practice and housing issues has still not been systemically covered in the academic field of research. Nevertheless, it is possible to identify two main tendencies of scholarly approaches: the approach that tends to uncritically celebrate potential of art to initiate positive social change by engaging citizens creatively in order to increase well-being and community feeling and the approach that tend to put social art down to mere symptom of power relations. First approach, coming mainly from social science, develops a non-critical perspective showing romantic image of art which is supposed to automatically have critical, political and change potential as soon as it starts to appear outside gallery or a museum space or as soon as it becomes “relational”. Other approaches coming from critical social theories tend to accuse and dismiss social art dealing with housing issues for involvement in “transnational art industry”, assisting gentrification or as tool for nullification of citizens’ resistance.

The aim of this research was to shape a methodology that will bridge the gaps. The intention is to point out to contradictions of art as social practice dealing with housing issues. This project opens the question of social art in today's social constellation, dealing with its functions and effects in the framework of anomalies in housing policies. The overarching objective of this project is to deliver a new methodology that will address Social Art and Housing.

In order to understand the role of artists and art in housing struggles today it is necessary to understand the relational circumstances that artists inhabit and embody, including the conditions in which they produce their art but also those in which they reproduce their lives. Addressing this need, the overarching objective of this project is to deliver a new methodology that will address social art and housing by map actors in the field of social art and housing networks, developing models of social art and housing networks and redefining the models through comparison of practices in Serbia and UK.
In order to define parameters of new theoretical approach comprehensive review of different network approaches has been conducted and it was triangulated with existing and newly gained knowledge about literature on art and housing both in Serbia and in the UK. It provided a more precise understanding of how network approach can be used in studding art practices and housing transformation in cities.

In the second phase of the project fellow conducted the field work. Main method of collecting data was ‘following the actors’ through semi-structured interviews and participant observation. During the first-year extensive interviews with 9 UK and 6 Serbian key artists and cultural workers have been conducted and recorded. In parallel 20 less formal conversations with community representatives, organizations in social art development sector, policy makers, philanthropic foundations, curators, housing institutions, grassroots actors and initiatives. Fellow was engaged in participant observation process by fallowing closely work of several groups and projects in Serbia and UK.

In order to create model of network mechanisms the fellow conducted in-depth analyses of art property guardianship phenomena on meta, mezzo and local level. It includes discussion of the structural conditions of the artists engaged in live-work property guardian schemes and their potentials to act at sites of struggle over the regeneration of council housing in London. Following this, the fellow mapped how this condition has been domesticated, on the level of urban space, by a mobilisation of networked actors. Finally, fellow has been looking at best practices of social art and housing by examine their specific structural place within restrictive networks. Fellow summarised the results in two case studies one from UK and one from Serbia.

In order to validate the new theoretical approach and to identify and analyse similarities and differences between contexts in UK and Serbia fellow conducted comparative case study. This work was focused on best practices of culture-led housing regenerations: Balfron Tower in London, UK and Sava Mala in Belgrade, Serbia. The approach engages three problems: anti-socialist urban transition on meta level, relationship towerds history on mezzo level and networks of mutual relations on the micro level. The results show significant differences regarding the involvement of art in housing regeneration.

Art and Housing Classroom was established gradually during two-year period. Once a month, the fellow organised internal meetings with artists, activists and institutional actors in order to discuss sociograms and situation in the field. In addition, two big public events were organised at LSBU: Winter Roundtable Series ‘Housing and Regeneration Struggle in South London’ in 2017 and the international conference ‘Art and Housing Struggles: between art and political organizing’ in 2018.
Material presented during the Art and Housing Classroom events are available Open Access and are shared on the web site of LSBU Research Centre for Digital Story Making.

The fellow presented elements of this research on 21 occasions (conferences/symposiums/invited lectures) in 8 different countries during her two-year fellowship.
During the project fellow took part in establishing a new field of research connecting art and housing by delivering a novel interdisciplinary approach bringing together actor-network mixed method analyses, critical urban theory and art theory to study art and housing.

During the project relationship between art and housing became a hot topic in London due to rapid urban changes. Fellow actively took part in discussions and creating platform for ongoing conversations between campaigners, policy makers and artists.

The research introduced less known work from East-European context in academic and artistic discussion and knowledge about poorly visible post-socialist cities. This intervention created long lasting network of international thinkers and practitioners ready to bridge East-West divide in knowledge production.