FUK2022: an interview with Migrants in Culture

We decided to talk to Migrants in Culture after seeing their open letter about Festival UK 2022 (which you can sign here), asking for the Festival to be cancelled and funds ring-fenced and diverted to Arts Council, Creative Scotland, Arts Council of Wales and Arts Council of Northern Ireland to work with Equity, PCS, United Voices of the World and other unions to support short-term and long-term recovery and support for protecting jobs, providing Basic Income for artists and changing the top down NGO culture of the arts. We wanted to ask them more about Festival UK 2022, why it’s a bad idea, why it’s happening, where the money is from and what we can do to challenge it.

 

How did the Brexit Festival first come about and how did it become ‘FUK2022’?

 

Rosalie

So we think that this is the brainchild of Theresa May, in 2018 when she was still Prime Minister, that would tie in with an idea of the Festival of Britain which happened after the war, 1951, when the Southbank was built and there was excitement around - I guess the weird colonial hangover of “who the fuck are we now we've kind of won the war?”. I think she called it the Festival of Great Britain and Northern Ireland initially, and then people like Jacob Rees-Mogg began calling it a Festival of Brexit. And at the time there was an outcry because that whole Remainer/Leaver thing was a much stronger discussion in the media still. And then everybody forgot about it again because there's other stuff happening, like elections etc.

 

Diana

Theresa May explicitly connected it to the 1851 Great Exhibition, no colonial relations there, and then the 1951 Festival of Britain. The idea was to celebrate the nation's great achievements, but obviously it was due to begin four months before the next general election at that time. And then it kind of popped back along with Martin Green, who was the head of ceremonies for the Olympics in 2012. And then it became connected to the Commonwealth Games of 2022. And connected to DCMS. It’a a little bit unclear to us despite many attempts to get exactly what the setup is, and who reports to who, and what the kind of financial accountability of this is. Obviously they found Theresa May's Magic Money Tree, and the Magic Money Tree produced about £120 million magic money which is now committed to this festival. The BBC is also a partner in it, and it coincides with The Platinum Jubilee and a new bank holiday - some sort of royal whatever.

 

Rosalie

Over the summer we've been trying to find out what is actually going to happen. What does Martin Green actually earn for this? How is the decision-making process going to work? Is it once again one white man’s imagination ruling what this thing could be? Or is he like “no, we're consulting with people” - okay, what kind of consultation? What does that mean? This is the kind of thing that Martin Green does really, really successfully. Even people that have their head screwed on usually get tears in their eyes when they talk about the Olympics, it's the last zombie moment of this Labour multiculturalism of “look at the arts, bringing everybody together”, Mo Farah, you know, and then it all came crashing down. It's a very specific point of narrative. And a lot of the organizations that we have now that are super toxic and socially engaged, like Create, all came out of that Olympics moment. They all come out of that Martin Green thinking of “culture is great, creativity is amazing, it brings people together”... that sense of belonging sort of culture, which is really gentrifying in its mindset - and it's very privatizing in its mindset as well.

 

Diana

I think it was next to the narratives that were starting to take shape on healing, national healing, which is in itself a very particular way of talking about this. And Martin Green published an article in The Guardian, at the beginning of the year, of “we're going to prove the cynics wrong. This will bring everything together”. From the beginning of his tenure it was this perfectly curated divisive culture of “if you're against this festival, or if you want to be accountable towards this money, it's because you're not interested in joy and unity”. And national unity, which I think has also been one of the reasons it's been quite difficult to get organizational commitments to add pressure, at least on the accountability and structures of the festival, because it's so wrapped into much, much bigger questions around national unity at this very particular moment in time. 

 

Rosalie

Yeah. And the cultural sector is completely on its knees, you know, in terms of like - there's more money around than they all admit, but like... not really, in effect. Obviously there's so many narratives against this festival. On the one hand it’s like, why should you spend any money on culture? You know, culture is a waste of our tax money, and that sort of thing - the more right wing argument against it. But then also we have the argument - why are we doing a festival to celebrate ‘Nationalist’ creativity? 

 

Diana

It definitely feels like a reorientation away from discussions about what cultural recovery is, who should be getting that money, who it serves and who it leaves out. There's been a lot of resistance to speaking explicitly to that. 

 

Rosalie

Over the summer we had loads of meetings about our angle on this. Like, how can we oppose it in a productive way so it wasn't going to be this Remainer whingefest - I say that as somebody who campaigned for Remain. Then they changed their timelines because there were controversies around the Commonwealth Games, such as it having only one person of color on the board, and that was called out by racial justice and social justice groups in Birmingham so Martin Green resigned from the Commonwealth board as well. Obviously the pandemic might have messed some of their plans up as well. And then they released this website and this identity that we all know now. They released their open call. So we then quite quickly wrote that statement and released it and then the open letter process came after, just to keep this on the agenda as well. I'm deeply fascinated by it as a representation of how fucked up everything is. For example, when they launched the open call - I don't know if it's still on their website, but the about page named all the advisors in kind of the same framing as the people who are actually working there. So it looks like a super diverse team when it isn’t. And they only recently got a Twitter account. So they paid all of these advisors tiny amounts of money to go out and bat for them, and that was when the first Twitter storms happened. And then they've done it as an R&D process which means that loads of institutions can say, “oh it's just ideas money, you know, we're just using it” - this whole dream of the art worker, that they take the money, then they subvert it, which is like... I don't know, somebody needs to give us all therapies so we can let go of that! So they were really, really smart at detoxifying that money in a way so that it's very easy to take it - and you have to give him that, that's really not an easy thing to do. In the way that there isn't a lot of counter-narrative about it, there’s cases like Josie Long being like, “oh, what that fuck is this, the Brexit Festival?”. Like not even noticing what she was signing up to. They've been very good with that.

 

Diana

And a very smart structuring of what that process is, so that it is totally understandable why many people on that Advisory Committee thought that it was a dialogical relationship where you can feedback and input. And I mean we can't comment on that, because we're not on the inside. But there's a lot of signs that show the opposite. Funnily enough, given their narrative of “we're against cynics”, it's a really cynical move. And to wrap these quite performative representations of diversity into the structure. Rosalie mentioned the about page earlier, and obviously they are taking the same approach in the commissioning. And because of this umbrella of culture, art and sports that it's connected to, which feels very in-line with the general government approach to delineating the arts and its place. It feels like it makes a very complete package. And add to that the quite successful erasure of nationalist discourses, which are subtly racist at a time when there's a bully in the Home Office and the EHRC report on the hostile environment has deemed it quite explicitly illegal - which is not the first report! And plus all the discussions around the absence of coloniality. And I think they've managed to really distance it from some of those discussions, even though the word nationalism should be tethered to it.

 

Maz

It seems like the festival has almost taken the aesthetic of the liberal Remain campaign. Some of the stuff about openness, the idea of excellence, like the centrist wing of the remain campaign saying but these migrants are doctors and such. And exceptional artistic work which was, I guess, one of the reasons that the arts industry as a whole, correct me if I'm wrong, was pretty Remain because it was about being part of this European culture.

 

Hava 

Which is coded as white.

 

Maz

I'm interested to see what you think of how we've got here, from the ‘Arts Industry’ taking its one moral stance, that I can remember a least in my lifetime, in favour of Remain, and now a lot of that aesthetic value has been absorbed by this festival. I'm wondering what that means for the industry, whether it was surprising to you that it switched sides like that.

 

Rosalie

And he's [Martin Green] a Remainer as well. I watched a talk by him where he says Brexit is one of our biggest mistakes. It's also a thing because of this combination with STEM, that's also the aesthetic of like a young, upstart tech company. You know, there's very little substance actually - you wouldn't get an Arts Council project grant on the substance that they put into that website. “We want optimism and originality” and you're just like, what? There isn't a lot of legitimacy, and there's obviously no accountability in that process. And that's also what makes it so neoliberal, or like liberal in general, when you look at the open call there's a language of diversity and inclusion in that you have to put a team together. And you need to have somebody who's marginalized in that team. And that's really great, because that means we're like, you know, ‘helping people’. It's very white saviour, I guess. And so you're not really asking, “okay, why are some people not in the arts? Why would you see them as marginal?”. It's not really going to any of the roots of this problem. Then when you look at the super quick turnaround timeline that people had to apply for this, and the experience they needed with massive budgets, then you have the same people getting that money again because it's a question of logistics. So in that sense it's very conservative as well, because it's very much about the trusted actors, the usual suspects, the big players, and then we're sprinkling a few bits of otherness onto that so that we can fit the whole narrative. What makes me laugh is what Martin Green said about bringing together, “a sheep farmer from Wales, and a scientist from London, and they're all coming together, they're making this amazing thing happen!”. It’s like, what world do you live in? It's very New Labour, like, “ooh, we found 12 asylum seekers, and we're gonna do 15 workshops with them!”. And it's very outcome focused, reducing people to their identities in a really flattening way just so it sounds like a great press story. And he's very good at spinning that story. I guess that's what he's done in Hull, as well, with the City of Culture

 

Diana

That's also because it's a very particular strategy to depoliticize something in a hyper political way. But it's also drawing on and performing this kind of liberal aesthetic, this almost post-nation narrative. I think it's equally toxic. Given that we now also have evidence of government intervention in cultural funding anyway, it doesn't surprise me that it draws all of these different strands together. And it draws from political campaigning, you know, constructing or reconstructing a kind of national identity which is in itself dangerous and complex, and literally whitewashes everything with some cool aesthetics. Google products from the 90s.

 

Rosalie

Also David Cameron’s Big Society. And that's when we get angry, because this would be an amazing opportunity to talk about the hostile environment and... what do we do? Do we just want to leave that discussion to politicians, and what are we going to do with this weird idea of the apolitical magic of art and creativity - it always makes my hair stand up a little bit. It's this idea of optimism and originality as well which - originality should not be a value in art whatsoever. 

 

Maz

Yeah, it's not real.

 

Rosalie

It's just a bit funny. I guess people are so desperate to have any kind of cash at the moment, and that’s his thing also - he's like “well, artists just want to make Work, that's all they want to do and that's what we're doing. We're giving them money”. And I know that internally within meetings there have been loads of calls to repurpose that money. There was a big campaign by... I think the music industry previously, to say, “hey, that money needs to go to venues now”. It needs to go to existing infrastructure, rather than this festivalism of pouring money into very temporary infrastructure that then doesn't actually really go anywhere and hasn't really got a legacy, even though they always pretend that it has. And now they’ve added another £29 million or something.

 

Diana

This came at the same time as the public spending review. 

 

Maz

It seems like it's really following this project based model to its logical conclusion, like even the government's a freelancer now! 

 

It is very much like the City of Culture, CPP, Borough of Culture funds: usually administered by a creative enterprise from outside, it seems you can't actually just give people money to make art. Very similar to the FUK2022, there’ll be an open call: “hey, come and share your ideas grassroots collectives, the deadline is tomorrow!”. And you need, like, a partnership with Amazon Prime. But because at face value there's a very simple application, it seems like you could get something, which keeps people in this vicious cycle of applications and rejections. When it's really only a simple application because they already know who they’re going to pick and it’s their mates. Also like the Olympics, it’s all run off the back of volunteers, they don’t pay any local people for their input but they need that input as a condition of the project so they’re constantly, quite unsuccessfully, scalping for volunteers whom they then exploit. I’m wondering if that will come up in FUK2022’s future, this reliance on volunteers.

 

Hava

Again, what's so breathtaking to me about FUK 2022 is that it’s this now well-practiced model of gentrification beyond artwashing, because now art actually doesn't need to be created. So the art industry has been primed to accept a country-wide gentrification project that is built towards flattening things, removing problematics, making everything deeply neoliberal and deeply nationalist as well. 

 

Maz

They’re literally gentrifying Brexit! I was thinking this because like, obviously, the image of Brexit that was purposefully cultivated was of some white working class guy in a traditional blue collar field who's racist. And then, as it turned out, it was actually more white middle class people who were the pro-Brexit voting block - similar in a way to narratives around Trump. So like, now we need to rehabilitate the image of Brexit into what’s actually probably always been more accurate as to what it is, which like any nationalist populist movement is middle class or at least petit bourgeois - the class demographic who are also more likely (and welcome) to engage with the formal ‘Arts’ sector than the poor and working class.

 

Rosalie

And it’s about normalizing business culture partnerships. That's how culture is being made. Culture is creativity. Art is like the creative sector. It's a creative industry, you know, it's very UAL-esque. Also with the way you didn't pitch for the festival with a proposal, you pitch with a team of people. But then there's nothing, when you read the open call, that’s about how you’re going to facilitate that - how are you going to make sure that's a safe space for people to be. There's no understanding of what it actually means to collaborate with people and to work together with loads of conflicts. It's a gentrified idea of collaboration as well, where people just come together and then through the magic spirit of art they will get it and it's beautiful. 

 

Diana

That's also where it's really dangerous, this gentrification of the art sector; like what happened to the higher education sector with universities. It’s importing this private model within this presumably public model, and then seeing what happens until you have whatever we have now. It feels very connected. And explicitly connected to political agendas because also this narrative of culture wars has been shaped around it, which is hugely problematic. And it's giving the sense of “well, if you want to be bummed out and sit in the corner then you're gonna just do your thing, for us people who are committed to arts and culture we’ll be here regenerating this political moment for this sovereign nation”.  I think that feels really sneaky, but also very deliberate, and also why it's difficult sometimes to have conversations about it. Because when you have these presumably paraquestions of “oh, it's nationalistic, in what ways?”, or “it's explicitly neoliberal, in what ways?”, they all seem very wrapped into the same conversation. It’s very successful. It's a bit like some kind of super anti-intellectual, apparently depoliticized, highly political public conversations. A giant PR exercise. 

 

Rosalie

It's really infantilizing dissent as well, casting themselves as the mature adults in the room who just want to do something good with that money. And you're like the angry teenager, when you actually just know what the hostile environment does! And how can you say that Britain is open when you’re gonna try to deport fifty more people? I’m thinking why would he [Martin Green] take on that job? And I think it's probably a massive challenge. Maybe gentrifying Brexit is, like, the coolest thing you could do. You know, it's that sort of thing that I really struggle with in the arts at the moment when people go like “well, you know, it’s property development money, but there isn't any other money around. So we better try and make it as best as we can with the money”. We’re in this hostage situation where we're trying to make it work. And it's the same at universities, you're a lecturer and you know, it's shit and its structurally fucked, but you're like “okay, I'm going to try it”, and you do so much more emotional labor to try and mitigate, to be that soft thing in the hard world. And that burns us out as well. So it's part of that cycle for me as well, it's kind of like the mega structure to all of these things that are probably, in five years time, going to feel much more normal to people. An artist would work with the government and big business to create another Angel of the North. 

 

Maz

An Angel of the North that’s got the Morrison's baguette on it from the start. 

 

Hava

And I feel like you touched on this a little bit, but it's so hard to be clear about the history of how we've arrived at this point, I think that's what makes it so hard for people to argue against is that the history has been completely pushed to the side.

 

There was a LADA publication in I think 2011, which said, “take the money and run, question mark”. And then last year, there was an event which said “take the money and run, full stop”. That's very telling.

 

Diana

I mean, that's it there right?

 

Rosalie

End of discussion.

 

Diana

I think where the discourse has been so successful is we're at a point where even asking for a redistribution of that fund feels somehow a radical ask. Even though we're having discussions about what cultural recovery looks like, the government is not fully committed to what it has promised, which is piecemeal already. And then under the banner of unification the festival has created this total positioning where it is an in-or-out thing. Like, if you don't want to engage with this money then you're denying the cultural sector money, which is not true because it's not cultural sector money. But also you are explicitly not contributing to a culture of solidarity, right? Because unification has overtaken solidarity. And so who knows what we mean by solidarity in this context. I mean, we do know what we mean by solidarity. But I think that feels like a very particular strategy of conflating all of these things together until we no longer exactly know what we're talking about. And then it becomes a super simplistic discussion of like “what, but we all need the money so why are you being principled when actually, it's not about principles?”. Like this is not a problem of principle? 

 

Hava

And it creates a discourse where people like migrants who are trying to like get safe places to settle aren’t even in the discussion, the discussion is kept at a relative level of privilege that’s astoundingly high.

 

Maz

There’s this whole thing of “me getting paid is radical”, or, like, you know, that paying people is radical when it should just be a baseline. And then it’s turned into, how dare you criticise me for getting paid? 

 

Rosalie

But I also think that that line of questioning can be a massive distraction because that sets us up against each other. So the statement is not about shaming people for taking that money, because that is just a complete waste of energy to go into. I think there's a weird purity context that is not helping anybody. What would be better to spend time and energy on is thinking about “okay, how is that little amount of money for people so big that they basically cannot live their values?”. Because they need that money? So what does that mean? And how do we tackle that collectively? And this for me kind of the more interesting question because then you’re not going round in circles of being like yeah, they don't need to take that money on Twitter or wherever. But what does Martin Green actually earn? What does that actually mean structurally like why is there no transparency around that? 

 

What’s relevant is that we don't have an organised culture sector. And we don't have a collective voice. And we don't have unions strong enough to say what the actual fuck is happening here. That's the problem for me, and that's what I would like people to talk about, because then it really moves it on from the idea that if you’ve taken the money you can’t speak on it. That's part of the silencing discourse that these organisations are very good at - throwing money at people that were really good and critical. You know, there's David Olusoga who's in there - there's people in there that are really good.

 

Diana

It's created a culture of dependence. It's not about individual decisions. You've got a decimated culture sector post-COVID, and post however many years of Tory rule, but also you have government-level intervention. You've got no structures for cooperatives or any other mode of distributing money. And I think this culture of dependence is really key, because that is what's created. And so of course, it's very difficult to kind of extricate yourself. And they're not cultures of solidarity. They’re cultures of dependence. 

 

Rosalie

I'm not saying like, don't talk to people and don't criticize people, it’s more - how can we all enable each other to live and to work according to those values that we seem to hold? And we're not helping each other enough with that. 

 

Diana

I think the key thing is that it's not just about the specifics of this, it's also about shifting the conversation and trying to make visible all the different processes that are entangled in this monster. And we always talk about thinking about what a cultural sector recovery or complete revisioning would be - if those who are marginalized in the center would actually articulate that as opposed to constantly being on advisory boards and on the peripheries. So we've got a document called the Cultural Sector of Recovery for Migrants where we articulate some of that. Don't put migrants on your advisory board, get migrants to make the decisions as a kind of example of the shift in logic and... unionize. Think cooperatively and coalitionally as opposed to representationally.

 

Rosalie

It’s also about shifting their attention towards things like the hostile environment. It's so around us, and it's so everywhere, but it's so invisible if you feel you're not directly affected by it because you have a secure status or you have a passport. I think people can get involved with things and it doesn’t need to be in the culture sector. When Joon Lynn brought us together, working with Migrants Organise, we were thinking “how can we make that new culture together? And what is it that artists are useful for in that process?”. That might not be making an artwork about migration as an issue from an outside perspective - please don't ever, ever, anybody do that - but it might be that as artists you're very good at taking visual notes. Or as a researcher you're very good at writing that policy document that somebody who's a director can understand because you know how to translate it into their language. There's loads of those different modes that we as creative whatevers can be part of in those processes, without it having to turn into what people would see as art. And that’s where I think the energy goes, in a way that isn't so visible often, but that it's really changing a lot of stuff.

 

I think what we're really good at in this sector is shifting attention. And that's what we're trying to do with the open letter or with the advocacy document, or with all the other stuff. Just being like “well, here's another way of looking at it”.

 

Diana

We have to speak openly about these things, even if it doesn't demolish them. Because I think that this wrapping of all the discourses together is a very deliberate and very public active political intervention that will resonate beyond how the cultural sector works. Like, it's bigger than that, I think.

 

Rosalie

This is the other thing. Now this is very much within the arts, but once these commissions are out... the ambition for these commissions, as far as I understand, is to be really nationwide, big things. So then there's another moment where more people will engage with it. And how is that going to change their understanding of what they expect from art or culture? There's going to be so many moments along the way where we can have… we can kind of get in, I guess. I'm interested to see what happens with the whole advisory board when they are free of their contracts and what they're gonna, like, say. There's so much of this work that doesn't translate well on social media and other platforms of publicness that we have left. I wish an open letter wasn't our only weapon right now, because transformation doesn't happen by shouting at Martin Green

 

TLDR: FUK2022 is a good crystallization of everything dodgy about the Arts at the moment, we need to look at the motives behind things (follow the money!) and have a systemic rather than individualistic critique. Let’s look at the wider impact of events like this, beyond just brexit = bad, and examine carefully how we ended up with this model of Arts production and - crucially - that is not the only way. 

 

It’s hard to counter politically unsavoury Art washing exercises because the Arts is largely unionised. We need massive collective action to make change. Individual refusal, and on the flipside blaming individuals, is ineffective. Let’s demand more than just the restoration of deeply hierarchical bureaucratic unaccountable Arts institutions, or atomised project funding, and create a culture of solidarity.