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Regeneration: Good Deeds, Smallest Evils or Pacts with the Devil?

The series of Good Deeds workshops at the CASS are tackling the urgent need to investigate the morals and ideologies of regeneration

Art, architecture and culture manifest themselves in economic forms. Whether this inescapable reality is the forefront of their practitioners’ minds, creative work is implicitly embedded in the complex webs of public and private investment that set out to change public space under the controversial umbrella of regeneration. How public spaces are lived in, and what roles art and design play in determining this, is necessarily and increasingly a topic for self reflection, education and research by art, culture and design professionals.

As part of these processes it has become commonplace to brand culture, optimistically or cynically, as ‘useful’ in doing ‘good’ for a whole vague host of recipients (the local community, the local area, social issues, etc). The approach of artists who are enthusiastically trying to provide social services through their work is succinctly brought into question in Larne Abse Gogarty’s recent article, ‘Art & Gentrification’ ­for Art Monthly, which posits a ‘poverty of utilitarianism’ that becomes abstract and disengaged from its material conditions and effects, that isn’t ambitious enough in its will to abolish. Creative practitioners desire to navigate or reform existing institutions, using them to the best of their potential by swallowing the bitter pill of the ‘smallest evil’ in the name of achieving the greater good. In the process they rub against and push counter to critical standpoints that attempt to analyse (or tear apart) the political and social underpinnings of the status quo.


Artangel’s Heygate ‘Ziggurat’ project planned to dismantle one of the estate’s towers and reconstruct it into a sculptural pyramid

Without wanting to keep clean hands, there has to be a recognition that (thankfully cancelled) projects like Artangel’s Heygate Ziggurat are instruments of neoliberal revanchism in an onslaught of cuts, uneven investment, decanting, being unaffordable and creating division along lines including class and race rather than somehow neutrally awareness-raising ‘chances to reflect’, as Artangel justified the scheme.

Placemaking manifests itself as an inequitable and failing dream. The Scotsman Steps in central Edinburgh were refurbished, reclad and reopened in 2011. Martin Creed’s design saw each step clad in one of 104 different types of marble after the Fruitmarket Gallery approached Edinburgh Council with the idea in 2008. It was noted at the time that cleaning the steps was currently carried out by Edinburgh Council. The steps were washed down once every two days and swept daily. Since then, street cleaning budgets and staff wages have been cut by the Council (along with many other services and wages) and in November 2013 Fruitmarket put out an appeal for volunteers to help them on a morning of picking, scraping and rinsing them clean so Creed’s and their ‘beautiful steps could shine again!’ Their use as a public thoroughfare was lamented in the call out as an inevitable cause of their then unkempt state.

As policy and profit motive make housing, services and social space increasingly inaccessible, insecure and mean, capacities to gnaw at current discourse and relations need to be built and grown at every opportunity.

There is an urgent need to investigate the ideological dimensions of regeneration across disciplines in a rigorous and critical manner. Our series of public events, entitled ‘Good Deeds, Smallest Devils or Pacts with the Devil’, supported by the Cambridge Design and Research Studio and hosted at the Cass, aims to draw out some key positions to determine what gaps exist between intended results and the actual efficacies of current practice. We hope that the events’ presentations and debates will inspire and inform ongoing and future contestations over the instrumentalisation of artistic activity and the use of public realms.


Martin Creed’s Scotsman Steps, clad in 104 different types of marble


Good Deeds, Smallest Evils or Pacts with the Devil?

The third workshop in the Good Deeds series of public events hosted at the Cass will take place on the 8 April. Find out more and how book tickets here.

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