Cultural activism in the community: creative practice, activism and place-identities

Lead Research Organisation: University of the West of England
Department Name: Faculty of Environment and Technology


This study will extend existing scholarship about 'cultural activism' by shining light on the ways activist-led forms of creative practice can serve as a means of claiming space and building community identities. Its aim is to understand both the nature of these activities (e.g., processes and ways of organising); as well as the consequences for localities, including the implications for social cohesion, exclusion and conflict.

The concept of cultural activism has been used to describe a diverse range of creative practice such as culture jamming, subvertising, and rebel clowning intended to challenge 'dominant ways of seeing and constructing the world' (Routledge, 2010: 4). This form of activism is often associated with a politics of resistance; to global capitalism, to an authoritarian regime, to oppressive social and cultural norms. However, in addition to its uses as a form of resistance to global injustices, there is growing evidence to suggest that activist-led forms of creative practice can serve as a way to advance particular claims to space and build place-identities. This review will make a valuable contribution to this under-explored area of inquiry by establishing a foundation and conceptual framework for future research. This new line of enquiry will be based on a synthesis of literatures on cultural activism, community activism and creative practice, and place identities. Through this work, the study seeks to inform the future shape, focus and priorities of the connected communities programme.

The review will proceed through the following four activities:
Phase one - conducting the search: a short review process followed by an extensive search across a wide range of research databases (e.g., Web of Knowledge, the British Library).
Phase two - categorising and classifying the research: organisation of collected literature and classification of key themes, arguments, research methods, and theories.
Phase three - analysis and synthesis: a detailed interpretation of collected literature.
Phase four - writing the review: a draft, and then final research review.

This project also includes a significant component of collaborating activities. The review is informed by a participatory action research approach as community members have been key players in shaping the proposal. This engagement will continue through two key events: a dialogue café and public workshop/exhibition in the neighbourhood of Stokes Croft, Bristol, a centre of cultural activism in the UK. Academic outreach will proceed through presentation of major themes at a series of conferences and a symposium sponsored by the University of the West of England where international scholars will discuss the review and present research on cultural activism and 'place'.

The nine-month study will be managed by Dr Michael Buser who will conduct and write the bulk of the review. Dr. Buser is an early career researcher (receiving his PhD in 2010) with a background in community planning. Professor Jane Arthurs, a leading scholar in cultural studies whose work focuses on the politics of creative resistance, will perform an advisory and mentoring role. In her capacity as Director of Research for UWE's Faculty of Arts, Creative Industries and Education, Professor Arthurs will strengthen the project's ties to the Connected Communities Knowledge Hub located in the faculty's Digital Cultures Research Centre.

Planned Impact

In addition to academic beneficiaries, the review will benefit groups and individuals concerned with community development, politics and urban planning, activism, the arts and creative practice. This includes social enterprises, community activists and volunteers, and others in the third sector as well as local neighbourhood and community organisations. Public sector groups including planners, civil servants, politicians, and policy-makers will also find value in the review. For these users, benefits will include an improved understanding of: the relationships and opportunities of cultural activism, place and community identity; the role of creative practice as a mechanism as a means to advance social change; and the relationship between community-based cultural activism and the notions of cohesion, exclusion and conflict. Within the UK policy context of fiscal austerity and 'localism', there is a great opportunity to connect this review to national debates related to processes of decentralisation and increased expectations of voluntary action and community engagement. An improved understanding of the way communities use creative practice to strengthen place and place identity will have significant resonance with those policy-makers interested in social cohesion, urban development and place-making.

Specifically within the city of Bristol, engagement activities are included to debate and 'test' emerging concepts with artists, activists and community interests in the neighbourhood of Stokes Croft. The review programme is informed by a participatory action research approach and has already benefited from discussions and collaboration with activists and neighbourhood groups involved with creative practice. These stakeholders will find value in the review's insights about the relationship betwen cultural activism and place-making and the project's support for neighbourhood action (e.g., the dialogue cafe, workshop and exhibition). Moreover, this direct engagement with local partners will strengthen bonds between university and community interests and bring new ideas into contact with individuals and groups actively engaged in the use of creative practice towards social change.


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Title Urban Play Blocks 
Description The Bearpit Play Blocks The St. James Barton Roundabout - known colloquially as the Bearpit - is a 'sunken' roundabout at the edge of Stokes Croft bordering the main city centre shopping district. Pedestrians and cyclists looking to access the shopping area from the north generally must pass through the roundabout via ramps and tunnels which take them below grade to the interior portion of the roundabout. For some, the Bearpit has a reputation as an unpleasant area and is a site to avoid. In this part of the programme we explored ways to support people-centred place-making and creativity. Looking to engage people in Stokes Croft directly in our work, we set out twelve 'play blocks' for their use, comfort and enjoyment while visiting the Bearpit, a public space/roundabout at the edge of the neighbourhood. The blocks were designed and built by local artist Will Datson and were at the site for a couple of weeks in December (2012) and again in February (2013). We encouraged people to use the blocks in any way they felt appropriate and to speak to us about their experiences in the Bearpit. We also set up a Facebook page for pictures and comments. The intervention allowed us - as researchers and designers - to experience and encounter life in the Bearpit while having informal discussions about art, participation and politics in a complex and changing urban environment. 
Type Of Art Artefact (including digital) 
Year Produced 2012 
Impact The blocks were donated to the Bearpit Improvement Group and are regularly used by the traders and visitors on sunny days. They are now somewhat 'iconic' of the space. They have had a direct impact on how people experience this public space. In addition, the programme of engagement has led to strong university-community relationships. By working in this way, through creative practice in a real world environment, the researchers and artists were able to contribute to important issues facing local communities. 
Description This Connected Communities project (completed 2012) explored literature and debates surrounding creative activism and communities of place. The primary outputs were a scoping study and discussion paper, and an international seminar. The work outlined cultural activism as a set of activities which:
a) Challenge dominant constructions of the world;
b) Present alternative spatial arrangements or 'ways of being' in the city; and
c) Disrupt relationships between art, politics, participation and spectatorship.

The project included collaboration with groups in Stokes Croft (Bristol) where we spoke about the role of art and creativity in social and urban change. Working with local artists we installed temporary/unusual seating to challenge assumptions about a so-called 'derelict' site in the area (locally known as the 'Bearpit'). We used the seating as a playful way to have a dialogue with the local community and to celebrate the convivial aspects of being in urban public spaces.

The project report includes a series of recommendations for future research and engagement on the following themes:

Emotion, affect and sensuous solidarities:Passion, the embodied nature of activist practices, and strong affective experiences contribute to the strengthening of social bonds, solidarity and shared understandings about place.

DIY activism:Particularly in the context of fiscal crisis, Do- It-Yourself activism is often seen as part and parcel of 'good' neoliberal capitalism. In such a condition, the search for 'alternative imaginaries' often gives way to compromise or co-optation.

Communities and ephemerality :The radical and transformative potential of cultural activism is often situated in ephemeral 'moments' of disruption.

Participation and spectatorship: Cultural activist practices are often framed by expectations about audience behaviour which equate passivity with ignorance and active participation with emancipation. We argue for a more nuanced engagement with spectatorship and an exploration of other ways of learning and knowing.

Working across disciplines
The project explored the value and difficulty of working across disciplines. At our seminar, we noted divergences in language and vocabulary, outputs, values and epistemological framings.
Exploitation Route The primary non-academic beneficiaries of this review are public sector groups including politicians and policy makers; community groups and activists in the third sector; organizations engaged in social enterprise; and local activists and artists in Stokes Croft, Bristol who engaged with the review.

For the public sector, the review could inform policy-makers and politicians of the way creative practice and activist strategies are changing the nature of local places. Third sector organisations, social enterprise organisations and individuals and groups interested in local community development could benefit from a new understanding of the ways the notion of community can be mobilised to direct social action. The lessons of cultural activism in communities will be particularly valuable for those interested in the nature of engagement in local places, the role of resistance and conflict, and the implications of local activism for social cohesion. At the local level, community interests in Stokes Croft contributed to the development of this proposal's theme, the nature of proposed community involvement activities, and output. There are further opportunities to contribute to local activities by maintaining this relationship.
Sectors Creative Economy,Education,Environment,Government, Democracy and Justice,Other

Description The primary impact of this project has been developed locally. Over time, the project has contributed to the quality of life and creative output of the area. To focus briefly on this theme - during the original project local activists in Stokes Croft were involved in development of the project idea and subsequently with outreach aspects of the work. This has led to an ongoing collaborative relationship between UWE researchers and community interests based on real-world experiences and sharing of knowledge. What we are seeing is that the boundaries between neighbourhood, community and university are slowly being broken down. By way of example, researchers now regularly engage with community partners on urban planning and quality of life issues related to the neighbourhood. In addition, local activists have presented at the university and directed a number of student 'studio' projects in Stokes Croft. To date (Feb 2016), two major arts intervention projects have been conducted in the area (the first was directly associated with the grant while the second was a 'spin-off' and follow-up). These have involved the creation of lasting, physical legacies. The projects (discussed elsewhere) have contributed to an improved local environment by focusing energy on disused public space.
First Year Of Impact 2012
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Cultural

Description Connected Communities Showcase (London) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? Yes
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Other academic audiences (collaborators, peers etc.)
Results and Impact Over 300 people attended the seminar where we presented our research. We brought our main community engagement 'tool' (the play blocks) to the seminar (the play blocks were located near to the registration desk). We also provided information about our project (executive summary) and had tablets available for people to look at videos and interviews of our work and experiences.

this was predominantly academics and community partners involved in Connected Communities. Having a prominent space to display our work at the showcase was quite important. We made several contacts at the event and some of these have led to spin-off collaborations (e.g. grant development, networks, etc).
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2013