Prior to the global pandemic, memorials to racism around the United Kingdom were pulled from their plinths. Yet in the grips of the pandemic, many of us turned to creativity for pure survival. Yet, at the same time, the pandemic literally sucked the life out of public arts institutions, forcing long and possibly fatal closures and a rush to design digital routes back to the art.
The truth is public art can be polarizing because too many people have been locked out for too long. Major artists and cultural sponsors have the upper hand which can result in winner-takes-all, one-size-fits-all “blockbuster” programming. This leads to a disconnect between audiences, artists, and venues, leading to a feeling that, like politics, art is the preserve of a tiny elite of people. Recent events have catalyzed more solutions but there’s much more work to be done to involve more kinds of people in more kinds of art and creativity.
Our approach as an organization with 25 years of experience in producing digital community arts has been to reverse the power relations. We are quite literally turning our operations inside out in the search for new systems when working with others. In this way, we set out to reach beyond colonial artworld canons and the hierarchies that support them.
With the People’s Park Plinth, powered by CultureStake, we have converted the whole of Finsbury Park into a plinth for public digital art and asked everyone to choose the work they feel most belongs here. You could call it the 5th Plinth!
In 2019 we celebrated 150 years of Finsbury Park being the “people’s park” — a place where we can all do things together. This area has suffered years of austerity policies — including the wholesale closure of local community amenities vital to the wellbeing of its “superdiverse” people — leading, in 2011, to riots borne of rage and despair. The creeping privatization of the park itself has also been a source of fierce controversy for years. We believe it’s time to re-explore our public spaces as vast platforms not just for shared experiences but shared choices we make together about our needs and priorities.
We are a small gallery and can usually only afford to be open (both financially and weather-wise) on the weekends of the summer months. But now we’ve effectively turned ourselves into an open-air art gallery — or interactive digital sculpture park (or the Pokemon Go of art galleries as one of our visitors recently put it). And this helps because before the pandemic around 50% of our audience identified as people who had never before set foot in an art gallery — well, now they don’t even have to!
CultureStake is a complete first in the art world. It is a unique combination of a system (already popular in direct democracy and government) called Quadratic Voting (QV) and a technology that usually only makes the headlines when it’s helping make rich people richer: the blockchain.
But why these two highly technical tools? Well, QV creates what we’re calling an “economy of emotions” because the participants are not just making choices, they are showing how strongly they feel about the choices they make. It’s like a voting “power-up” where one can express a lot more than a yes/no response, revealing the issues that matter most in making one’s decision. Not only that, but in our tool, votes are weighted to favor those closest to the local issues. Putting this all on the blockchain protects it from being tampered with and, over time, allows us to grow a clearer data picture of what is important to people. Imagine if we knew more about why people voted for Brexit and if that data was in the public domain.
Artists can bring a unique aesthetic sense to questions of governance, considering the impacts of new technologies for people and their communities on the ground, not just the interests of tech behemoths and shady governments. Digital culture affects local and global communities simultaneously and we refer to the issues that unite these groups as “translocal” — manifesting both locally on the ground but being part of the same set of macro issues we all face internationally. Our hope is that the process of voting gives more a sense of agency, belonging, and connection in both the local and global cultural setting.
As we put it on our website, we want to:
- End elitism around the arts — by opening cultural decision making to wider groups and providing more agency to communities.
- Enable people to have a stake in what cultural activities get produced in their locality.
- Explore together as communities what cultural experiences we want to have in the places that matter to us.
We think art history lied when it said art is only made by a lone genius and bought by fat cats to line their pockets and walls (in that order) because creativity and radical imagination are not things individuals have but something collectives do. The People’s Park Plinth and CultureStake are part of our biggest effort yet to bring this about.