Activist Art in Working-Class Communities

The impacts of government sell-offs of public housing on working-class communities are highlighted in new documentary film released in the UK. Dispossession: The Great Social Housing Swindle (2017), features experts and politicians, but at its heart are the working-class people affected by forced evictions and the loss of communities. The filmmaker, Paul Sng, is committed to telling working-class stories. His previous feature documentary, Sleaford Mods – Invisible Britain (2015) follows a British punk band, The Sleaford Mods, on a tour of some of the working-class areas of Britain hit hard by the Tory government’s austerity agenda. Dispossession has been screened across Britain and has received positive reviews. This important exposé of the housing crisis in Britain (or what is referred to in the film as a ‘tragedy’) highlights the very real and tangible effects of reductions in public housing. I’ve written before about the importance of public housing, including the positive aspects of these communities. Watching the continued sell-offs, demolitions, and forced relocations of public housing tenants is heartbreaking – and, for someone who grew up in a public housing community, personal.

Paul Sng’s film makes a significant contribution because it highlights working-class life and demonstrates the value of public housing, which is ignored or denied by those responsible for the sell-offs. The sale of public housing has been described as social cleansing, but it also benefits developers. Once public housing tenants are moved out, the estates are often redeveloped for wealthy private buyers whose presence changes the fabric of the community. Many of the homes in the private developments have been bought by investors who then charge high rents for the properties – at rates beyond reach of the original tenants. Public housing estates were never intended for wealthy people. They were built to provide working-class people with the dignity of life that comes with housing security.

With the new wealthy owners and tenants comes gentrification. Neighbourhoods change as working-class residents are priced out. The small number of original tenants rehoused by councils in the local area watch as their old estates are handed over to wealthy people. The infrastructure of the old community makes way for these new residents. Old pubs close, community centres shut down. Laundrettes (laundromats) disappear; popular cafes (caffs as they used to be known in London – serving cheap but home cooked food) turn into expensive coffee shops. And ‘art’ begins to appear.

I am a big fan of art, always have been. My auto-didactic working-class father introduced me to the world of art as a young child, and I’ve always been aware of its classed dimensions. While many people have been excluded from the official art world, isn’t it a positive to be able to find art in working-class communities? Surely the appearance of street art democratises art, making it free and accessible? Technically, yes, and artists have often lived in low-rent areas, and they can benefit a neighbourhood. But art is also a sign of gentrification. It tends to appear along with rising rents, contributing to a ‘cool’ and ‘arty’ vibe. Small boutique galleries open in the closed-down businesses that used to serve the working-class community. Too often, the creative arts are dominated by middle-class people, and the art presented in the small galleries and even street art projects commissioned by councils and companies is not likely to be created by working-class artists. Art galleries filled with the work of middle-class artists attract other middle-class people, shifting the local demographic as it becomes more affluent and whiter.

If working-class people object when boutique galleries replace the old barber shop or corner store, or if they don’t celebrate street art installations, they may be accused of misunderstanding art or not appreciating its value. Many working-class people love art, but not when it represents gentrification or the covering up of corporate interests taking over public spaces. They understand that private companies often sponsor art to ‘improve’ the look of a neighbourhood and boost local property prices. Developers use the presence of art to sell the neighbourhood to investors. This process has been called ‘artwashing’.  When public housing is sold and redeveloped, new privately owned spaces (theoretically for public use) often include street art. But who is it now for? The original working-class residents, or the new middle-class owners and renters? Even Richard Florida (who famously championed so-called ‘creative cities’) has admitted that artists contribute to gentrification.

But working-class people have used art to protest against social cleansing and to assert their presence in neighbourhoods earmarked for redevelopment. In Sydney, Australia, residents of two public housing towers in inner-city Waterloo, both scheduled for demolition, recently collaborated on an art installation called ‘We Live Here 2017’. Volunteers helped residents place colourful LED lights in their windows and light the blocks up at night to show that the towers contain people and homes. This is art as protest rather than art as serving corporate interests.

Paul Sng’s film and the installation on the Sydney estate demonstrate how art is being used to tell working-class stories that highlight the impacts of social cleansing. These projects show how the sale of public housing by conservative governments in Britain and Australia is an assault on working-class people. Through film and art, they show the value of working-class experiences and insist that working-class stories must be told.

Sarah Attfield

This entry was posted in Class and the Media, Contributors, Issues, Sarah Attfield, Working-Class Culture and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Activist Art in Working-Class Communities

  1. Pingback: Working-Class Art by Working-Class Artists | John Oliver Mason

  2. pavesich7 says:

    Great write-up, Sarah. From what I’ve seen, I’d say that art plays an under-examined role in the processes of gentrification and displacement (residential, cultural, political). I know of a few instances in which D.C. funded local artists, ones with credibility in a particular community, to paint murals in those same communities, even as the same community was struggling with aspects of gentrification, too. Sometimes, we end up seeing different artists and their work essentially playing out the struggle in the neighborhood through their murals, graffiti, tags, and gallery work. Thanks for your work!


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