Last week I attended the NESTA Rethinking Parks event here in London.
Abandon Normal Devices and Metal took the day by storm. Their projects were surprising, provocative and moving and have grown out of extended periods of experimentation with artists. This is the kind of work that points to future art forms and experiences for as yet unformed audiences. Both organisations are funded by Arts Council England as National Portfolio Organisations.
Also present were a number of companies and people offering new systems and approaches for place-based mobile donations and crowd funding for parks and culture. These are offered as an antidote to “austerity”, to provide alternatives to public funding. They appear to raise more money when they promise novelty but within established forms. They are also shown to have most success when they are able to harness a moment of emotional intensity. And so the fire at Battersea Arts Centre is described as a unique fundraising opportunity.
With the ever-present threat of cuts to public subsidies, the elements of the cultural ecology under most stress are, on the one hand, those that support the maintenance of valued public infrastructures like parks, and on the other, the kind of artistic experimentation that cannot be preceded by a business or marketing plan because it cannot yet be described or storified, and because the audience does not yet exist. If Tim Berners Lee had had to justify his invention of the hyperlink with a business case, or in terms of a “brilliant idea” for diverse audiences we would not have the world wide web.
Back in 2009 Marc Garrett and I wrote about Feral Trade Cafe an exhibition that was also a working cafe, by Kate Rich. It served edible goods, traded across social networks, and was visited by traditional arts audiences, alongside long distance truck drivers (delivering raw materials to our neighbouring warehouses) and local residents, including the growing community of artists and musicians in Haringey at the time. Rich’s artist-crafted database made visible the politics and social relations at play across the international network of distributors and couriers. “While the work is not a design, formula or practical, alternative business model (either for an artwork or a café) for mass adoption, it can be considered an ecological system for ‘mass diffusion of intellect'”  This last phrase came via Michel Bauwens at the P2P Foundation, who continues to promote commons culture in the network age as a way to engage people in different ways of sensing, operating and valuing the world.
Organisations and groups with the ability to nurture practices and outcomes that reach beyond established and (as yet) marketable forms, return great value to the public by offering joyfully grounded experiences that allow new ways of thinking, feeling (and so acting) to emerge for different kinds of people. In this way they generate diverse and lively ecologies of new ideas, occupations and values that are crucial to democratic, social and material renewal.
It works against the interests of arts, and cultural and social innovation to have to constantly be calling “Fire! Fire!” in order to sustain this work.