Art Networks






‘Art Networks’ is the third in a series of articles that have looked at the convergence of economic, political and cultural agendas in London and Europe in the late 1990s. Much of this activity has been a direct result of organisational and structural shifts occurring in the corporate sector, principally the shift from centralised hierarchical structures to flat, networked forms of organisation. In order to understand this process it is becoming increasingly necessary to look at how networks and ‘new’ economies are being formed, accessed and utilised, and where they converge, interact and disperse. As with all sectors linked to the new economy, the ‘crossing boundaries’ debate within culture has resulted in a polarisation of compliant and resistant networks. The J18 ‘Carnival against Capitalism’, the N30 protest in Seattle and preparations for May Day 2000, indicate that, in marked contrast to the increasingly compliant creative industries, networked coalitions are being mirrored more effectively in the protest and direct action movement.

In ‘Art Capital’ (Art Monthly, no. 213, Feb. 1998), the first text in this series, we identified the surge to merge culture with the economy as a key factor in London’s bid to consolidate its position as the European centre of the global financial services industry. Culture was part of the marketing mix that, within the context of the European Union (EU), kept London ahead of its competitors, particularly Frankfurt. This can be traced back to the UK’s exit from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992 and a range of economic initiatives aimed at attracting inward investment, or Foreign Direct Investment (FDI). During this period the UK accounted for 40 per cent of Japanese, US and Asian investment in the EU. Contrary to the media spectacle of ‘Cool Britannia’, it was the need to attract FDI, combined with the co-ordinates of a new economy based on knowledge and services, that underpinned London’s spectacular emergence as the ‘coolest city on the planet’ in the late 1990s.

These developments opened up the field in which artists were encouraged to operate and many took advantage of emerging cross-promotional opportunities to redefine and diversify their practice. As a result, identities based on terms such as artist, curator, critic and gallerist came under increasing pressure as the range of activities and professional services in these areas expanded. In retrospect, it was the cultural requirements of the new economy that resulted in the emergence of ‘culture brokers’ - intermediaries who sold services and traded knowledge and culture to a variety of clients outside the gallery system, from advertising companies and property developers to restaurateurs and upmarket retail outlets. Their bridging role to communities on the 'cutting edge' of culture provided the local knowledge, information and association vital to businesses pursuing ‘multi-local’ global strategies.

This theme was further developed in ‘Art Futures’ (Art Monthly, no. 223, Feb. 1999), a speculative text set in 2009 in which we posited the emergence of a hybrid professional, the ‘culturepreneur’, to exploit the new cross and inter-sectoral economies. In late 1998 there was growing evidence that companies were beginning to move away from sponsorship towards an integrated partnership or alliance strategy. This marked a further shift from the ‘something for nothing’ arm’s-length philanthropic model to the ‘something for something’ contract in which marketing departments perceived cultural (and often environmental) programming as an integral part of ethical marketing strategies (the so-called Total Role in Society). A signal event in this diversification was the UK-based Association of Business Sponsorship of the Arts (ABSA) rebranding itself as Art & Business. The culturepreneur was speculatively positioned to broker the economic alliances between public institutions, private corporations and the media. In short they became network ‘captains’ for what are, by definition, Third Way alliances.

Corporate restructuring

The debates that underpinned ‘Art Capital’ and ‘Art Futures’ can be directly linked to globalisation (the convergence of world economies) and the radical programme of corporate restructuring that has seen the emergence of flat and networked forms of organisation in place of centralised hierarchical structures. This restructuring has impacted on all sectors, with networked forms of organisation resulting in both a culture of convergence and new forms of resistance. In a recent interview in Everything Magazine (no. 3.1, 1999), a London-based curator claimed that „culture has expanded to such an extent in London that it seems to be losing focus ... it’s getting fractured to the point where it doesn’t make sense.“ In this and many other cases, culture does not make sense because many of the co-ordinates remain under-analysed in the art community. We need to look elsewhere to establish these co-ordinates and avoid confusing fracturing with convergence.

This also informs wider issues of national identity, corporate accountability, and democratic reform. The perimeters of the debate extend far beyond the art community and creative industries, to the business community, corporations, public institutions and the government - the sectors on the front-line of the British government’s drive to merge the public and private sectors and establish a Third Way. In many respects this is where the lead is coming from, where the key debates are taking place, and unprecedented structural change is occurring. It is not so much that culture is „getting fractured to the point where it doesn’t make sense“ but that culture can only begin to make sense with an understanding of the co-ordinates and structural shifts occurring in other sectors of the economy.

During the 1990s, corporate strategists argued that hierarchical structures were hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with the informational requirements of the emerging knowledge-based economy. The realisation that a company or individual could be valued principally on ‘intangible assets’ (e.g. intellectual capital and access to networks) brought about a revolution in the corporate sector. The INNFORM research programme (Financial Times, 29 November 1999) found widespread initiatives in almost all new forms of corporate organisation in the period 1992-1996. The underlying trend has been to develop flatter, more flexible and intelligent forms of organisation. Business analysts recognised that competitive advantage in knowledge-based economies was based on the speed at which a company could gather information, add value to it and redistribute it. This in turn, has put pressure on companies to break down inflexible and competitive departmental structures and initiate cross-departmental project teams (increasingly staffed by short-term or outsourced contract workers). As companies shed their physical structures, break down into strategic projects and form alliances it will become virtually impossible to identify a core. Indeed, we are witnessing the birth of an alliance culture that collapses the distinctions between companies, nation states, governments, private individuals - even the protest movement. This trend towards alliances and partnerships has also resulted in what has been variously described as 'virtual' or 'boundary-less' organisations. Virtual organisations exist only as concepts, with all operational tasks sub-contracted or outsourced, leaving the company to concentrate on ‘core’ activities (namely the culture and the brand) and managing networks. As companies loosen their physical structures through outsourcing, concerns have been raised about the danger that core activities will disappear leaving fragile shells of alliances or ‘hollow’ organisations.

The new alliance culture between the public and private sectors can be seen within the context of the UK government’s drive to establish a Third Way in which ‘public’ is no longer equated solely with ‘the state’, but with a combination of public/private agencies. Corporations, with the support of government agencies, are currently gauging the potential of knowledge economies and the extension of their networks into strategic alliances with other sectors, particularly the public sector. Public institutions have been slow to respond, but many are now in the process of overhauling hierarchical command and control structures to make themselves more compatible with corporate alliance programmes. The word is out, a decade later than in the private sector, that hierarchical departmental structures are not flexible enough to respond to a rapidly shifting and convergent culture. In many respects, these structures are particularly vulnerable, having been set up to establish and maintain (the illusion of) a dominant cultural discourse linked to a unifying institutionalised centre.

With the private sector leading the way, public institutions are undergoing an enforced ideological and structural transformation. As with their corporate counterparts and partners many cultural institutions now perceive their role as ‘hanging out with culture’, being part of it, interacting with it. The Institute of Contemporary Art, London (ICA), for example, in its drive to formalise informality, now provides what is essentially a convergence zone for corporate and creative networks to interact and overlap with one another and form 'weak' ties. Public institutions, and particularly cultural institutions, deliver a valuable social environment in which business, cultural and social networks can be publicly endorsed through the participation of establishment and government figures. Events such as charity auctions, exhibition openings, talk programmes, and award dinners act as a breeding ground for the kind of link-ups that spearhead a range of initiatives including the UK government’s agenda in the cultural and public sphere.

The drive for alliances and partnerships with the private sector could result in the birth of hollow institutions. When companies ‘collaborate’ with cultural institutions the host site and its employees function as an extension of the company for the duration of the contract becoming part of its operational network. In this respect there is increasing evidence that some company representatives perceive their input as liberating cultural institutions from the command and control practices of extant administrators and curators. The lack of transparency and debate in this area indicates that we may be at a preliminary stage of a handing over of our cultural and educational spaces to the corporate sector.

Terms such as ‘collaboration’ can be utilised to mask a variety of vested interests, but the recent shift in corporate terminology regarding arts funding (i.e. away from ‘sponsored by’ towards ‘co-production’, ‘in partnership with’, ‘in association with’ and ‘co-produced by’) is indicative of a new agenda based on alliances and an increased decision-making role in cultural programming. Art & Business have taken collaboration and alliances a step further, through the Professional Development Programme and Board Bank which has placed 1500 young executives on the boards of arts companies. The companies, it is claimed, gain from the decision-making and entrepreneurial skills of the executives, whilst the executives gain valuable experience in creative processes through working with artists. A further example of an alliance type project covered by this new lexicon is the ‘Fig-1’ website produced, according to its press release, „in association with Bloomberg ... with assistance from White Cube.“ It also carries the curiously inappropriate disclaimer „independent, non-profit [and] free from institutional and commercial obligations.“

Models of resistance

In order to engage with the new challenge of networked global businesses, government surveillance and counter intelligence, the protest movement has developed new forms of organisation that can disperse and re-form anywhere, at any time. Recent evidence suggests that effective strategies of resistance and critique are being developed within the knowledge economy in order to complement symbolic acts of direct action. The J18 protest in the City of London was one such complementary, a media specific protest. Corporate power no longer resides in the office blocks of the City of London). These strategies also take into account the fact that company networks and hollow organisations are connected to protest factions that represent dominant ‘counter discourses’ and provide the illusion of dialogue and dissent.

Corporate friendly counter discourses fall into at least three distinct categories: those that are linked to and harnessed by corporate networks and ethical marketing departments; those that create the illusion of resistance and dialogue, and finally; those that represent a pathos for a political past (a form of nostalgia and escape from a politicised present). A range of such corporate friendly ‘counter discourses’ have recently been rehearsed at the ICA, London (‘Crash’), Cubitt Street (‘Urban Islands’), Whitechapel Art Gallery (‘Live in Your Head’) and the RCA (Democracy!).

These developments reveal that there is no inside and outside in the new corporatised landscape, indeed anti-corporate dissent and protest factions are fast becoming key nodes in corporate networks. As all sectors loosen their physical structures, flatten out, form alliances and dispense with tangible centres, the inside/outside certainty that has characterised previous forms of protest and resistance is over. Cultural activists and agitators who once spoke of critical distance, now recognise that the problem lies in the forms and quality of access and connection.

With many culture brokers now acting as corporate-friendly conduits to a fabricated ‘outside’ and ‘marginal’ culture, it should come as no surprise that some find such metaphors difficult to dispense with. A recent Art Monthly editorial (no. 233, Feb. 2000), for example, stated that „it is hard to resist the lure of direct action, particularly for those of us frustrated by the inexorable process of commodification of even the most critical art practices, and by the marginal position occupied by art in our society as a whole.“ The point is that new forms of resistance are no longer predicated on the basis that they are outside or marginal - marginal to what? Without a centre or core there are no margins and operating inside or outside the system is no longer an option. In this sense the perennially troubling topographical metaphor of ‘inside’ and ‘outside’ has become increasingly untenable in a networked culture. Fittingly, a useful new metaphor comes from the world of digital systems. In a networked society individuals and groups are constantly alternating between on/off (0/1).

Demonstrations such as J18 represent new types of conflict and contestation. On the one hand you have a networked coalition of semi-autonomous groups and on the other, the hierarchical command and control structure of the City of London police force. Informal networks are also replacing older political groups based on formal rules and fixed organisational structures and chains of command. The emergence of a decentralised transnational network-based protest movement represents a significant threat to those sectors that are slow in shifting from local and centralised hierarchical bureaucracies to flat, networked organisations.

These developments are taking place against the backdrop of waning confidence and belief in the ability of governments to regulate the growing power of global corporations and their networks of influence, known as Non-Governmental Alliances (NGAs). For many commentators this has manifested itself, appropriately at the beginning of the new millennium, in a fundamental reassessment of values and serious reflection on lifestyle. This ‘hangover culture’ is dominated by notions of anti-materialism, guilt, introspection, and new resolutions; in short a shift from a ‘Me’ to an ‘Us’ culture. In this media friendly version of soft social marketing the battle lines are now being drawn between ‘Us’ and ‘Them’, with our only weapon as consumers being to boycott products. Such differentiation, however, is no longer feasible and boycotts presume real alternatives. With new forms of knowledge based resistance and the access it provides to global networks (courtesy of corporate restructuring) come new possibilities and scales of effect unimaginable in the 20th century.

© Anthony Davies and Simon Ford, 3 March 2000