The gulf between theory and reality (We are not a creative city part 4)

Wow it has definitely been more than a week since my last crack at this – where did summer go?! As things started to ramp up to September I fell behind posting, and then I had a tragic wordpress incident as I was trying to post a while back that saw my words disappear into the ether :(  My bad!!

In his last post Ryan started by talking about architectural theory and moved on to challenge policy and its role in the kinds of healthy artistic products exemplified by A Tribe Called Red. I think that the connection between architecture and policy is an interesting one, and it’s timely for me.  As I get ready to head down to the International Symposium of Electronic Arts 2012 in New Mexico this weekend I’ve been catching back up on my architectural reading. In particular the book Space is the Machine by one of my favorite thinkers, Bill Hillier. His work was fundamental in the development of Space Syntax, a configurational theory and method of architecture and urbanism that is being advanced out of University College London’s Bartlett School of Architecture. Most recently it was used to advise the organizers of the Olympics on new streets and public spaces in London. The axial line “live-map” they made was actually the design on the floor of the Olympic stadium during the opening ceremonies.

In his work developing a general theory of space, he endeavors to ask what a theory is, and how they work, generally. What he comes up with is well suited to this conversation, because he differentiates between two kinds of theory – theories that are generative and those that are analytic. Artistic theory for example, Hillier deems generative because its goal is not to create a universal form of art, or to claim one practice above another. It uses abstract ideas to expand the possibilities of what that given practice can produce. Scientific theory, on the other hand, uses theory in an analytic mode by formalizing general, abstract ideas through which we understand and interpret the material world. They deal with how the world is, not how it might be.

This is a tension that is at the core of architecture, and maybe at the core of Ryan’s post. Policy work – like the kind that went into documents like the action plan for arts, heritage and culture – is for the most part analytic. From the City side, its systems renewal – working with the community to analyze all of the components of the cultural eco-system, determining what they are concretely in order to allocate the appropriate resources to them. At the same time, the internal systems were reviewed with respect to the way that culture interfaces with all of the City’s different branches.

In his post, Ryan asks how do we connect documents like the action plan to the kind of self-informed creative phenomena that A Tribe Called Red represent. Adjacent to that question is another one though: can an analytic mode also be generative? Let’s look at another example that illustrates a different a way to answer that.

This weekend was House of PainT, Ottawa’s annual favorite urban arts festival – but it wasn’t always all good. The story of its origins are pretty interesting. The area that the festival happens in underneath the Bronson street bridge was known as the House of Pain, and had been a home for graffiti artists, but the city was coming down on the artists for painting there. Some members of the Hiphop community got together and won a hard fought battle to have the space formally designated as a legal graffiti wall – the largest in Canada incidentally. To celebrate their victory, they had a little party under the bridge. Now 9 years later members of the group who won the fight to preserve the space, have grown the little party has into a 4-day festival and one of Ottawa’s most popular events. It brings the Hiphop community together, and is an outlet for the talent that is growing here. Beyond that it’s a great example of how artists not only made policy change, but they made the community feel the impact of the change that they’d made.

Not everything will go quite like it did for House of PainT or A Tribe Called Red, but in both cases it was action from members of the community and not city hall that made things happen. As we said before, the mode that the city operates in is largely analytic on the policy side. Where analytic theory becomes generative is in helping us create generative conditions for the phenomena we are analyzing once we know what they are, hopefully making it easier for the community to do the great work it regularly does. This is what happened with HoP. As new and challenging artists like ATCR emerge pushing boundaries, I disagree with Ryan when he infers that we can’t learn anything from studying what they’ve accomplished. On the contrary I think it is important to talk to them and to understand what they’ve found generative about Ottawa so far so that we might help to amplify that through policy.

In the end, I don’t think the relationship is as direct as it the question set it up to be, but that doesn’t mean that the indirect relationship isn’t strong. It’s important that the new and the emerging are part of what is analyzed on the policy side, but not because policy will make these things happen directly. By understanding how the community relates to the current conditions, documents like the action plan can hopefully facilitate the community in doing the amazing work that it does more easily.

Wish me luck down south!

Kwende Kefentse

Urbanist/DJ/Cultural Planner

Hiphop in the City/TIMEKODE/City of Ottawa

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2 Responses to “The gulf between theory and reality (We are not a creative city part 4)”

  1. Tony Martins says:

    Nice post, Kwende. There are dozens, scores, probably hundreds of grassroots success stories like Tribe Called Red and House of Pain that arose fully independent of any City cultural policy … and often in spite of City cultural policy. It’s great for the City to take stock of what’s happening with the Cultural Plan renewal process but let’s be realistic: the top-down approach to culture growth is tepid in comparison to the critical and much more fundamental grassroots development that happens sometimes literally at street level. If theory/policy can come closer together with action/grassroots, great, but in general most grassroots practitioners will tell you that the best course for thinkers and policy-makers is to simply get the hell out of the way and let stuff happen.

  2. Daniela Oey says:

    Hi, your explanations on generative and analytic theory are very good.

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