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3rd June, 2016

Intrinsically Instrumental: Ten Years of The Culture Capital Exchange

Pete Mitchell, TCCE Researcher in Residence 2014-15

In 2014 I was lucky enough to secure a position as Creativeworks London researcher-in-residence at The Culture Capital Exchange. My brief was, essentially, to write a reflective history of the organisation as it approached its tenth anniversary; to do the kind of critical stock-taking that the people who run the organisation would have loved to do themselves, had they not been too busy making things happen.

And so I spent a happy few weeks dropping into the office high above Somerset House Courtyard, reading through ten years of meetings, conferences, panels, multimedia events, open views, networking fora and festivals; seminars for media training, career progression, culture industry skills and intellectual property; events in universities, theatres, hospitals, galleries, cinemas, music halls, conservatoires and streets. Around me, as I trawled through the online archive, TCCE’s business went on: Evelyn, Suzie, Sally, Neha and George making phone-calls, rattling out endless emails, pacing the tiny floor of their eyrie as they thought and argued and plotted. Every so often I’d go through to the kitchen and be subjected to a convivial grilling by Evelyn, always coming back to some version of the same question: “what are we doing?”

As I, very much an outsider, came to see it, TCCE had spent a decade making something quite abnormal become normal, being instrumental in the change by which collaboration across the university walls became essential practice for academics and arts practitioners.

As I, very much an outsider, came to see it, TCCE had spent a decade making something quite abnormal become normal, being instrumental in the change by which collaboration across the university walls became essential practice for academics and arts practitioners.

Like all historical shifts, this one had a kind of inevitability about it: if TCCE hadn’t existed, I kept saying, you’d have had to invent it. I was writing four years into a Coalition government. It seemed that certain assumed contracts about where art, education and academic research came from, and what and who they were for, were dissolving. A few years earlier I’d watched schoolkids and students, furious that their Education Maintenance Allowance had been taken away and their chances of accessing culture and education drastically reduced, fighting off lines of riot police with polystyrene slabs painted as outsize copies of Fanon, Orwell, Marx and Foucault. Pontificate as we might over the decline of the universitas and the problem of selling the humanities to ever-less-indulgent governments, these young people wanted access to what we had badly enough to bleed for it. While we agonised decorously over how to articulate the age-old distinction between intrinsic and instrumental value, a generation was learning that those two concepts don’t seem so far apart when a giant copy of Nineteen Eighty-Four is, quite literally, the last best thing you have to interpose between your skull and a policeman’s baton.

It was always like that, though. I work in the history of imperial government: the powerful white men whose letters I spend all day reading construed their education in Seneca and Plato as essential to their being able to steal half the world; they instinctively understood that culture can itself can be the stick that cracks skulls. The idea that universities and the wider culture are separate spheres, peering over the academy walls at each other in mutual puzzlement and mistrust, is quite a recent fiction, and an ever more useless one at a time when higher education drives an increasingly generous slice of the economy.

The past ten years’ sense of crisis, if nothing else, has at least forced both parties to begin to tear down that wall, and opened the minds of academics and policy-makers to the kinds of sly and lateral interventions that the TCCE and organisations like it have begun to make. What TCCE understands instinctively, I think, is that collaborative working not only gives both sides, the artist and the academic, the relative safety of new funding models and increased visibility, but makes the value of both parties’ contribution to society – both intrinsic and instrumental – palpable in ways it may not have been before.

Academics understand, now, that working extramurally is not so much a necessary outlet for the work they do in the library and seminar room as an intrinsic part how that work gets done; practitioners in the arts know that universities can offer them not only the security of money or space (and certainly not the indulgence of traditional patronage) but new material, new insight and new ways of doing what they do. The exchanges, far from being linear and unidirectional, can be richly capillary: the lines between research and practice can be blurred without compromising the rigour of the one or the integrity of the other. The benefits, meanwhile, radiate outwards from an academy that’s rediscovering its public mission and a culture sector that’s stronger, more secure, more connected and more confident in articulating its worth.

What TCCE knows, too, is that forging these kinds of connections takes enormous amounts of energy and grit. It takes the careful cultivation of networks and creative ecologies, the opening of spaces in which people can meet and break bread and learn to speak each others’ languages. And for that to happen, we need organisations like TCCE, and people like the people who work there: pushy in the right places, conciliatory when it’s needed; alternately urbane and awkward, as occasion demands; convivial, cheeky, wily and generous.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Organisations that effect structural change often create the conditions of their own obsolescence, but TCCE has proved itself remarkably adaptable thus far. As long as London has its rich creative ecology, TCCE and organisations like it will be pioneering new ways of working, new connections and new engagements.

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