Why it's time to create more by building less
Lewis Biggs believes that in the area of creative contemporary arts, we need to ditch our obsession with buildings and instead focus on people and events.
Whatever tomorrow’s Emergency Budget brings, it’s going to challenge us to change the way we do things now. Change is usually painful, but I’d rather live with it over the next decade if it means avoiding the complete meltdown of the UK economy which seems inevitable if we don’t act.
Our northern hemisphere stranglehold on the global economy during the second half of the last century allowed us to develop wholly unsustainable habits – such as eating too much of the wrong things, and wasting more. Food producers, the supermarkets and government all agree now that consumer food habits will have to change in the face of global shortages. (That’s a new idea in our consumer idyll – ‘you don’t have choice!’)
We need to take a hard look at how, and why, we do what we do in one bit of cultural consumption – contemporary creative arts – that’s not so different from food. But the rethinking has to be about redeployment, not ‘disinvestment’: the creativity of our future economy depends on continuing private and government investment in the arts.
I’m against investing in buildings because usually these are about branding, and branding is an instrument of consumerism that’s antithetical to creativity.
I want to focus on one of our unsustainable habits, which is investing in buildings for the creative arts when we should be investing in people and activity. I’m against investing in buildings because usually these are about branding, and branding is an instrument of consumerism that’s antithetical to creativity. Everyone’s creative and everyone’s a consumer, but we damage ourselves badly if we confuse creativity with passive consumerism.
Art museums, opera and classical music, and all of the arts that have fixed forms and fixed needs and a largely fixed audience are not, by my definition, creative. (Sports are performed culture, but most sports demand skill without creativity). These activities have found their permanent forms and they’re not evolving any more. It’s great that we have them, that they’re so strong in this country, that they contribute hugely to the GNP through tourism, and that they find the means to assert themselves in the wider mix of social consumption. It’s normal and imperative that they develop strong brands and inhabit buildings with a powerful presence that express that brand.
So why not for the creative contemporary arts? Branding is the expression of habit, the simultaneous articulation and satisfaction of a long-nurtured expectation. It’s the opposite of creativity, if by that we mean the creation of surprising or challenging new forms of culture that engage with new needs, or with old needs in radical ways. Branding is actually destructive of the creative experience because it’s a process that aims to replace a thoughtful response by an impulsive one. It’s the expression of our trust in, and identification with, the product and its producer. It works through familiarity, through feel-good – the opposite of the edginess, shock and surprise of genuine, disconcerting creative experience.
But the perceived need by creative arts organisations for purposed buildings, however obviously unsustainable – take The Public in West Bromwich as an example – is precisely about branding. This desire of organisations to build is formidable – a bit like the desire for chocolate – so if habits are to change there has to be something to replace it that’s just as desirable, but healthier.
Buildings are of course a ‘home’ – a basic human need as well as the foundation of hospitality, the locus of gift-giving (integral to most forms of cultural exchange). But nomadic peoples are famous for their hospitality despite their lack of bricks and mortar.
When Peter Brook was at his most creative as a theatre director, he developed and performed his productions in makeshift buildings such as Tramway in Glasgow. The Scottish National Theatre has been highly successful without its own theatre in the past few years. If they can really no longer hire or squat other people’s underused buildings, creative arts organisations should make a virtue of challenging the architectural profession by commissioning cheap, flexible, sustainable buildings, or temporary ones, or even portable ones.
As well as symbolising ‘home’, buildings that are ‘artworks’ in themselves symbolise the creativity that organisations want to communicate. Conjure up that image; you can put it on your letterhead. But brand-related buildings (the over-used ‘iconic’) tend to be very expensive to build with running costs much greater than those of more conventional ones. The Dome when empty in the mid-decade reputedly cost a million pounds a month to maintain.
In short, iconic architecture is a builder’s bucket of concrete around the feet of creativity.
Images: Liverpool Biennial commissions Turning The Place Over by Richard Wilson (picture by Alex Wolkowicz) and Rockscape by Atelier Bow-Wow (picture by A Database); Lewis Biggs (picture by Elisabeth Scheder-Bieschin)
Lewis Biggs is artistic director of Liverpool Biennial, which commissions art in non-gallery sites across the city region. Its temporary office is in a formerly disused, beautifully converted light industrial building.