Sound Affects: the implications of policy on culture

With the dust barely settling, Gareth Woollam looks at the implications of policy on culture…  

Listening to the Noise Debate at Static Gallery I realised the wall behind the invited panel hadn’t been painted. Neither has the floor. The building used to be a garage, they used to spray cars in the corner of the bottom space. It took years for the smell to go. An attitude has been applied to the fabric of the place. It seems to believe in the importance of the idea of palimpsest. Not built-for-purpose but adapted-for-use, it is a patchwork of decisions. There is a nuance in that attitude and it would seem there is a conscious decision to sit with the consequences of difference because there’s a genuine interest in what that might bring up.

This attitude has been applied to Static’s programme over the years and extends to the community of current occupants. The gallery has housed exhibitions, interventions and public works; has produced and commissioned a number of written projects, run a radio station; it is of the city but global in its outlook. Currently, artists, architects, designers, and a hairdressing salon all call it home. In the past it’s operated a tea bar, housed a noodle bar, and continues to be a performance space; and recently, a venue for live music. This hasn’t felt like a case of ways to make Static commercially viable, but an on-going experiment, with a belief in finding independence and autonomy from public subsidy. In any climate, it seems like a sensible model for a sustainable arts organisation.

There is no huge diversity of occupants at Static. Without the usual competing agendas, there aren’t the conflicts you might expect from city life. Instead, there is a willingness to allow a myriad of users and programmes to exist under one roof. There is a provocative aspect that can be found in a number of Static’s projects. Part of the critical dimension is a tendency to prod and poke at situations in the interest of seeing what that attitude generates. Some people willingly participate, others don’t want to play. Although it has been Static’s decision to cancel their live music events, the decision has been taken feeling that its position had become untenable. The idea that this provocative attitude would extend to a situation in which Static would cut off the revenue stream from its live music programme consequently putting people out of work is at very best misguided. Static’s attitude is not for everyone. It’s hard to quantify the success of the experiment and it’s difficult to pinpoint how the organisation contributes to its occupants, but it is a model that should extend beyond the gallery walls. It has value.

This kind of thinking appears a difficult attitude for local (or national) politics to adopt, there isn’t the time or patience for experimentation. It requires distinctions and dispensations, is long-term and would appear to be a risk; relying on building communities and the difficulties of balancing constituent elements, as opposed to falling into the diametric oppositions of us and them. It is sometimes easier to polarise the debate, to resort to wholesale and blanket measures, to dip into legislation and bring it to bear.

“It is sometimes easier to polarise the debate, to resort to wholesale and blanket measures”

There seems little in the way of appetite to tolerate the history of a place in an objective way, with attitudes more indicative of a commercial and political disdain for the history and fabric of the city. The policy seems to be: ‘we’ll do whatever it takes to make the city a safe, palatable, sanitised and comfortable space for you to feel happy to invest’. This isn’t particular to Liverpool, but in some ways we are trailblazing the approach. As writer Anna Minton suggests, we’ve seen ‘the spread of highly controlled ‘defensible’ environments, monitored by technology and designed in ways which prevent certain kinds of behaviours and encourage others, and which encourage certain kinds of people and discourage others. This is the template for British towns and cities today, with the aim of creating environments which make a profit and which feel safe.’ Key in Minton’s evidence for this developing blueprint is the example of Liverpool One.

Liverpool City Council measures such as the Cumulative Impact Policy (CIP) are being used to define and make ‘a statement of identity and intent about the kind of area we want’. The ‘we’ in that statement isn’t defined. The CIP is being used for new licensing applications but measures such as noise abatement orders can be used to effectively define and alter city zones retrospectively. It raises a number of questions: whose interests are being represented? And, by extension, who is defining and shaping the city, bringing to mind the following point: ‘There are only three basic questions we need to ask about any urban development: Who pays? Who profits? Who decides?’

Both sides of the argument surrounding Static’s cancelling of its live music programme can fall into the trap of polarising the debate. Recent comments in relation to this issue have centred on the idea that ‘town is town and people should expect noise or choose to live in the suburbs’;  but this doesn’t hold. Liverpool is a city effectively zoned. To live on Roscoe Street is to locate yourself in the middle of an anomaly; full of hustle and bustle and life, it feels very much alive. The edge of Liverpool’s Business District is littered with peaceful city-centre living opportunities. Take your choice from the Unity Building on Rumford Place, or the West Tower on Brook Street, the Beetham Towers, St.Paul’s Square, or anywhere on William Jessop Way. In each case these are new-build apartments, built to modern regulations, they are well insulated from any sound nuisance. Go to St.Paul’s Square after 7pm on any day of the week and you can hear a pin drop. These are quiet areas to live, a stones’ throw from the city centre. But, it’s disquieting, it feels dead. The idea that ‘town is town’ is a misnomer. The city is a patchwork of situations, planned or otherwise. What’s more, this is a situation which should be encouraged.

Guidance relating to noise nuisance defines it as ‘an unlawful interference with a person’s use or enjoyment of land or of some right over, or in connection, with it.’ It makes the point that ‘The process of determining what level of noise constitutes a nuisance can be quite subjective.’ This subjective aspect muddies the waters and must be a huge contributing factor in the frustration felt. If a community of hundreds enjoy live music, how can the objections of a minority go against those numbers when the basis for the objections remains undefined? Additionally, the guidance suggests that objections to sound are not limited to certain hours. Presumably if half a dozen residents objected to events at St.Lukes the same action would be taken?

“Are we to assume that if The Royal Standard had their funding cut, the council would step in to assist?”

Liverpool City Councillor Steve Munby’s comments in response to recent articles suggests a qualitative distinction at play. This reinforces the subjective dimension of what is deemed desirable and undesirable activity. Further, Munby makes the point that the Council have recently assisted Urban Strawberry Lunch with a rescue package following cuts to their public funding. Are we to assume that if, for example, The Royal Standard had their funding cut, the council would step in to assist? How far and to what groups does this assistance stretch? Just what, we wonder, forms the basis of these decisions?

Other responses to this issue seem to suggest a willingness to accept the transient, insecure nature of the arts community, in particular the music sector. It’s accepted that venues will come and go. ‘You’re grassroots, it goes with the territory that you must ‘suffer’, this is your lot. Physical spaces don’t matter because the talent will always find a space, right?’ But, on this scale? Was the closure of the old Picket the best thing that could have happened to them? Or has it required a huge will and a duplication of capital costs and effort to re-establish an organisation that does what it’s always done but is now safely tucked away in a cultural quarter which time forgot?

There is and will continue to be a need for a D.I.Y spirit creating new spaces, whatever the form, to deliver the arts to an audience. However, the sector seems to suffer from the developing theme of polarisation. You’re either a large built for purpose arts centre (if public subsidy has gone into a capital project creating a new arts venue, it becomes a very difficult proposition for funding to be withdrawn to such a degree that you are forced to close the space) or a temporary short-term space. Far more difficult to sustain are those spaces that lie somewhere between the two.

Who really cares about the mix of culture that contributes to Liverpool, or about maintaining a diversity of voices? If Ceri Hand Gallery feels they’d be best served leaving Liverpool, why does that matter? Does anyone want a situation where Liverpool is a stepping stone? The idea that a gallery can incubate here, developing a reputation through the talent and drive of those involved, only to move on should leave us cold. This scenario can be extended to individuals too, with increasing numbers asking ‘why should I stay?’ Furthermore, who is willing or able to safeguard a sustainable future for the arts in Liverpool, above and beyond the drive of the individual? Either you’re subject to market forces, or you’re publically subsidised and survive in dialogue with that agenda. Steve Munby dismissively characterised those at the Noise Debate, grouping the ivory tower academics with the homogenised hipsters before lumping together their contributions for simple disregard. The cultural community has a voice much less defined because it is not homogenous; because its commercial contribution is sometimes intangible, it seems we can be more easily dismissed as a nuisance or more serious, in need of treatment.

Gareth Woollam

Image courtesy The Royal Standard Gallery and Studios

Posted on 16/03/2012 by thedoublenegative