Spaces of Creativity

A starting point for the Get Creative campaign is the idea that creativity does not only happen within arts organisations. As examples on the Get Creative website illustrate, creativity can take place at home, in village halls, in the woods, or alongside a football pitch. Nonetheless, as part of the process of celebrating and promoting ‘everyday’ creativity across the UK, the campaign has invited organisations of all sizes and types to sign up as Get Creative ‘Champions’. (See, also, blog post Week 5.) By putting on an event under the Get Creative banner, organisations can offer opportunities for participants to develop their own creativity.

In this way, the campaign implicitly draws attention to the fact that whilst creativity takes place in all different kinds of location, arts organisations can have an important role to play in providing platforms from which ‘extra institutional’ creative practices can develop. As part of our role as evaluators of the campaign we will be investigating the different strategies Get Creative Champions have adopted in doing this: a process through which we hope to reflect on what lessons can be learned for similar initiatives in the future.

But by paying attention to these strategies – and, importantly, by working with organisations and individuals outside of the campaign as well as with Champions – we also aim to open up a broader set of questions concerning ‘spaces of creativity’. By taking as a starting point the idea that we are all creative, that creative activity can take place outside of the (real and virtual) walls of institutionalised art – and seeking to both highlight and promote creativity outside of those institutional walls – the Get Creative campaign raises a series of sociological questions regarding the locations of creativity.

  • Where does creativity take place?
  • What (organisational and broader social) conditions motivate, enable and/or constrain creativity?
  • Which ‘spaces of creativity’ are recognised as such, which are overlooked, and why?

Important reflections on these questions are offered in a recent volume – Vernacular Spaces of Creativity: Rethinking the Cultural Economy (2009) – which makes a number of helpful challenges to how policymakers have in recent years thought about the location of creativity. In their introduction to the volume – which is published as part of the ‘Routledge Studies in Human Geography’ series – Edensor et al. challenge the vision of ‘creative quarters’ and ‘creative clusters’ that they identify as a prominent feature of cultural policymaking in recent years. With Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) as its most prominent articulation, this is a vision of “cultural led urban regeneration” that employs and promotes, they suggest, an extremely limited way of thinking about the location(s) of creativity.

They argue that the ‘creative cities’ approach to cultural policy adopts a very particular framing of post-industrial economies that overlooks and excludes many sites, processes and agents of creativity. Florida’s ‘cultural class’ is comprised of urban professionals – cultural workers engaged in very a limited range of occupations – and the ‘cultural clusters’ or ‘cultural quarters’ they occupy are typically only very restricted areas of urban centres. Many of the chapters that follow proceed to draw attention to overlooked creative locations: sites and spaces that are typically excluded from cultural policy discourse and from the attention of cultural policymakers. These overlooked spaces vary in scale and type, including everything from unglamorous sites of ‘everyday’ creativity – such as a recycling plant in Birmingham that now provides a ‘retirement home’ for garden gnomes – to vast, unheralded areas of the built environment, such as the sprawling suburbs of North American cities.

The volume helps illustrate the great varieties of sociality to be found in different spaces of creativity – the diversity of ways in which people are creative together. Importantly, the chapters thereby also indicate that different accounts of value are often at stake in the creation of spaces of creativity. To take just one example, in her chapter on the ‘Mess Hall’ project in Chicago, Ava Blomberg explores how it has been possible to establish conditions in which a diversity of creative projects can take place outside of monetary exchange.

Mess Hall opened in an unoccupied retail space in the Rogers Park area of Chicago in 2003. The owner of the building generously made the space available to an art collective for a nominal $1 rent, and an economy of ‘generosity’ – and non-monetary exchange – is central to how Mess Hall operates. No money is used, as the organisers seek to create a space outside of ‘pay-to-play’ norms. The organisers have also sought to create as “thin” an organisation as possible, with minimal bureaucracy and hierarchy. There are very simple governance arrangements, with a number of “keyholders” who help run the building, and the intention that projects and events can be developed within Mess Hall by anyone who would like to. There is little if any process of ‘approval’.

The aim is that through operating outside of monetary exchanges – and instead creating a “thin” institution and a space of “conviviality” – “thick” and unexpected social interactions can take place. As Blomberg indicates, by creating this convivial space Mess Hall seeks to cultivate a set of values: challenging neo-liberal tendencies towards individualism, the monetization of most exchanges and judgments of value, and the corrosion of the idea (and possibility) of ‘public goods’. Mess Hall seeks to practice and promote:

a reorientation towards social activities – from gathering to eat, to collaborating on projects. We do not sell anything; we give things (and non-things) away. MH shows that generosity can be generative and dynamic. We learn, we share, we listen, we argue, we create, we think, we experiment. These unquantifiably valuable activities lack sufficiently open and accessible space to flourish outside our homes. They may not pay the rent, but they nonetheless constitute a vital part of human communities, and can be thought of as a public good.

For Blomberg, Mess Hall is an example of a “possibility space”, “a socio-spatial commons”. These are “places where people can meet, linger and ‘be together’.” By opening this kind of space the organisers of Mess Hall are seeking to increase possibilities for creativity through a set of organisational conditions: fostering opportunities for people to develop their own projects, and to spend time together in their own neighbourhoods, “creating environments where people can develop creative capacities where they live.”

For the organisers of Mess Hall, what is at stake here is in part the reinstatement of “unpredictability” within urban spaces, where they feel it has been “planned out of existence”. As Blomberg explains, the model of Mess Hall serves as a challenge to prevalent discourses of the creative city and the creative class. It stands as an example by which to:

expand the discourse on creativity and the city. […] It suggests a role for non-economic neighbourhood spaces – somewhere between work, home, and commercial life – wherein new social bonds, forms of politics, and ventures of all sorts can be cultivated.

The example of Mess Hall illustrates that paying attention to where creativity takes place raises a series of sociological issues of recognition, sociality, economics and value that are intertwined. This takes us considerably beyond any more-or-less pragmatic, apolitical consideration of what conditions are most conducive to being creative?

The task of answering the question where does creativity take place? is inseparable from the challenge of identifying the processes by which creativity is recognised as such. Investigating processes of recognition is therefore an important part of the ‘sociology of cultural creativity’* that the Get Creative Research Project is developing. But as the case of Mess Hall shows, paying attention to where creativity takes place also requires us to ask:

  • What ways of being together (or not being together) are taking place through any particular example of creativity?
  • What is at stake – what values are being generated, expressed, communicated, enacted and/or contested – through any particular example of creativity?

Spaces of creativity – the sites, settings, architectures, geographies and psycho-geographies of creativity – are intertwined with (and mutually co-productive of) the socialities and values being practiced, developed and explored there. During the course of the Get Creative Research Project we will be attending to the range and diversity of spaces in which cultural creativity currently takes place in the UK. By investigating this variety of creative spaces we will be doing more than identifying examples of ‘good practice’, important as that will be. We will, in addition, thereby address the broader sociological questions underlying this research project – by documenting the varieties of sociality and value in play and at stake in cultural creativity.

* (We employ the phrase ‘cultural creativity’ to distinguish creativity in the context of ‘the arts’ from the full range of examples of ‘creativity’ that might found in any number of domains: from creativity in business, to creativity in motorcycle repair, to creativity in conversation. On the other hand, whilst delimiting our object of study – cultural creativity – in this way, we are explicitly concerned to open up the domain of ‘the arts’ and to investigate the processes by which the borders and boundaries of ‘the arts’ are recognized and operationalized.)

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One Response to Spaces of Creativity

  1. Pingback: Towards a Community of ‘Amateur Creativity’ Research? | Get Creative Research

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