Dear Anonymous Director Of Big Property Development Corporation
DATE: June 2008
In an anonymous letter from an artist to a developer, the correspondent outlines the conflicts and frustrations experienced during their public art commission and asks why the project has remained unfinished.
Dear Anonymous Director of Big Property Development Corporation,
I trust that business is going well and profits are soaring. Please let me introduce myself. My name is Anonymous Public Environmental Artist and I am based in London. I don’t make paintings or sculptures that sit in galleries because my belief is that art, like everything else, is connected to the everyday. I prefer to use my imagination to initiate and create systems or prototypes outside of the norms and agendas presented by politicians and corporations, rather than to sell things and make lots of money. You may be surprised to learn that a few years ago I was invited to make an artistic intervention in one of your business park development sites (oops sorry, its called ‘Flexible Business Space’ these days).
The project was challenging, full of complications and ultimately rather painful. After several years of hard work (a somewhat disproportionate length of time in relation to the project’s £10,000 drop in your £250 million annual ocean) the desired outcome, surprisingly, remains unrealised. I forget exactly when, but at some frustrating point during the commission I started to feel that a residency in your office, rather than on site, might have borne more fruits, however, my requests for a meeting at boardroom level were blocked by your employees. The project has now reached an impasse so I am taking the opportunity to write to you in person. I can’t deny that there were a lot of laughs along the way, enjoyable moments, important connections made and thoughts generated and I appreciate that my presence, although annoying at times, brought some magic and alternative notions into the midst. Concrete, tangible outcomes have never been the axis around which my practice revolves but where is the dialogue regarding the ‘resolution’ of all that work invested by myself and others? I am very curious to hear your responses to the story of my commission…
I say that the project was “surprisingly” unrealised because: A: It fits the brief that was approved and issued to me by your company. B: It fits the announcements made in your annually reviewed and glossily produced corporate social responsibility reports, which I have scrutinised over the years.
The brief then, was to propose an intervention, which would encourage the local public to use the more accessible spaces included in your company’s masterplan for a private business park on the overgrown fringes of Anonymousville. The designs were drawn up, planning permission was granted for them and the machines were poised ready to transform the land into a highly manicured, digital vision of corporate-ness. And here was the first contradiction to the brief: organising the land with reference to Canary Wharf was doing nothing but alienating established locals from its presence. On top of that, plans for how that land was to be used were geared either towards entertaining the tenants at lunchtime (with a giant chess set) or making more money (hiring it out for the launch of the next Audi).
I have to admit that from the start I was hesitant to take on a commission offered by a large profit-making corporation – we are worlds apart in our philosophies – but because the brief demonstrated a sense of responsibility to the neighbouring area and its inhabitants I had some hope. Perhaps your team, who signed off my brief, genuinely hoped that I would do something that they felt they weren’t so good at. So with all these hopeful feelings around, I embarked on the challenge.
After some very thorough research I came up with a proposal to create a mechanism for willing residents of Anonymousville to be involved in the design and use of those spaces. After all I had learned about the development and the locality, it was the only idea I felt comfortable with. It was also exactly the kind of thing your company was asking me for, yet I remember thinking that this idea would probably be rejected. During my discussions with your employees, contradictions towards the brief were revealed more and more and I was generally steered towards some very concrete ideas, often involving water features. But after attaching some heavy parameters, my proposal for a community-focused project was approved. Although I felt slightly cooped up by those parametres, the Trojan Horse was in! And the hopeful rays that I, and my team of locals, might influence something continued to glow.
The lengthy process that followed became a negotiating space in which I was constantly testing your company’s commitment to the original brief. Your people would never say: “No – that’s not what we want. I’m sorry but our services don’t include consideration of the existing residents, we just need to appeal to potential clients, get the construction up, smoothly and efficiently and get the buildings let as soon as possible so we can make our money back!” Instead, I felt that the open agenda of the project was being manipulated by your employees to suit the corporate strategy, when my intention behind it was to create a window from which to learn from local expertise.
Perhaps it was difficult to simply reject this project because you wouldn’t have wanted to look like the ‘bad guys’ – the big bad developers who weren’t willing to accommodate local people and their ideas in any way. But wouldn’t the project have shined out of the pages of your corporate social responsibility report if you had been brave enough to do it?
Your Corporate Social Responsibility manifesto states: “To continue to succeed and grow in the future, we need to adapt and change; thinking innovatively about our business, our culture and the way we reward our people. Our values articulate our behaviour, both as people and as a company.”
I think we both agree that mono-cultures are bad. I understand that your company has recently re-branded its business park concept as ‘Flexible Business Space’, meaning that your new developments can support a range of businesses including nurseries and hotels. The outcome I hoped to achieve took this way of thinking just a little bit further and would have ensured that the particular piece of land attracted a lively flow of different people maintaining an interesting cultural ecology.
Your Corporate Social Responsibility manifesto also states: “…corporate responsibility is fundamental to the way in which we do business. This means we are continuously trying to achieve the highest possible safety standards, treat our employees, our suppliers and the communities where we operate as long-term partners whilst considering the sustainability impacts of what we do.”
The open nature of my project was taken by many of the neighbouring residents as a listening pair of ears. From all the complaints I heard, I have to say I wasn’t very impressed by the way in which your company handled relations with them. Information was certainly not flowing freely and accessibly from your side. My project was the only initiative that aimed to involve the community in the development. If it had been realised fully, a significant ‘bridge’ would have been constructed between the site and the surrounding area. One which was designed to be sustainable and really did treat willing local people as long-term partners.
One of your aims is: “To remain actively engaged in the communities in which we operate, and contribute to community vitality through employee’s time as well as financial contributions.”
This is the problem. These acts of generosity are totally disconnected from what you are actually doing. It’s easy to hand out cash to the local school project, or Guide Dogs for the Blind, but you are not actively engaging with anyone unless you are willing to enter into a dialogue with them, listen to their suggestions and points of view and take them on board. Perhaps this is because ultimately you are catering for people with money to spend and most of the locals of Anonymousville do not fall into that bracket.
I hate to be cynical, but all this rhetoric does seem rather tokenistic. I remember, on raising the issue of lack of biodiversity within the landscaping, being told that this wasn’t an ecological development because your company had already done one of those in a different town. Your CRS goals state that as long as you can win a green award for one new building project at year, that’s enough. Out of how many developments?
I appreciate that you are operating in a very competitive system, your shareholders need to feel secure and your remit is not to provide public services. So are you are under pressure, for the sake of public relations, to make these kind but unimaginative gestures? Doesn’t your company want to take a leading role in the CRS movement, be a model to other corporations? This can only happen if you make some of those glossy printed statements an integral part of what you actually do and if they are reflected in your actions. It might just be possible to act on those principals and make profits at the same time if some of the charitable giving was turned into funding new initiatives which really do involve local stakeholders in the large areas of land you own – like the one I proposed.
I don’t need a Corporate Social Responsibility Report not just because I am not a corporation but because I have an instinctive approach to acting responsibly that informs every step of my work.
You talk about communities a lot. I would be interested to know what you think a community is. I think there is no such thing as community without communication. As educationalist John Dewey once put it: “Communication is the process of sharing experience until it becomes a social possession. This is what generates ‘social consciousness’ or ‘general will’ and creates the ability to act on collective goals.” (Democracy & Education 1916).
The communities that you talk about perhaps don’t always share the same goals as your corporation and perhaps you would rather not know about them, but I did believe that if our society at large is ever going to improve it is important that we try to speak across our different languages. Big corporations are in a very powerful position after all.
This is the challenge that I was keen to embrace throughout my commission. That perhaps if we all started talking to each other…people from different fields, on different wavelengths, with different goals…we might be able to start understanding those different languages and begin to create something collective out of it.
This is why the lack of communication around why the project was not fully supported is such a disappointment. It has left me with the feeling that positive change must come from outside of the system in which you operate and that I, and others like me, will be more able to actually put things into practice within spaces and terms that we can create and define ourselves. Perhaps this is ultimately more satisfying and effective than sending in a Trojan Horse to try and influence from within.
It’s a shame, and this letter is a last attempt to get some dialogue going again. Directing a huge successful property corporation like yours must be a major task and I realise that you are very busy, but I would very much appreciate a response to my concerns. Or an artist residency in your office for an hour or two.
Anonymous Public Environmental Artist
(An authored version of this letter has been sent to the developer in question).