Astroturf and artificial reefs

On the sometimes-fungibility of status and cash in the realm of cultural cachet

January 13, 2016 — July 3, 2022

collective knowledge
incentive mechanisms
making things
the rather superior sort of city

“Artificial reefs”, because Miriam Lyons noted the parallel between building artificial ocean habitats to attract biodiversity, and the construction of artificially-hip neighbourhoods to attract dotcom startups.

1 Hip urban art movements and diseconomies of scale in hipness

Figure 1: Ima open a can of artisanal on you.

Quick notes: after an idea I had from James Fallow’s Long Now talk and Luis Bettencourt, and some snide asides by acb, loosely along the ideas of whether the gentrification experienced by Sydney, and San Francisco, and Berlin, and London, is the usual old story, or something new.

I’m going to argue that it’s new, in the sense that the gentrification process is now global and correlated; this changes certain things about the timing and scale of the problem. Formerly, the melting pot of a global city was the best place to build new art movements. Certain things about bigger cities lead to more interesting culture. More audiences support more types of art, more weird movements, more diverse backgrounds from the diverse migrants arriving there, bringing more perspectives and ideas… Bigger, presumably, is better, in such matters.

These days, a global city uses the cachet it acquired from local art movements long dead to attract new creatives from around the globe, (paging Richard Florida) and the slow turbid current of gossip about such things can keep that post-mortal process of attraction long after the incoming rich scions have crowded out the critical mass of the non-rich who might also be a necessary part to have made the place interesting, and further, until those rich scions have gotten older, grumpier and closed all the hip venues with their noise complaints. So, when the next contingent of wanderjahr hopefuls arrives, they wonder what all the fuss was about, or partake of the tour-guide-recommended ossified scripted enactment of what ossified ritual would have been edgy a decade or two earlier.

I’m wondering if this reflects a diseconomy of the global scale at which such hip metropolises operate. How BIG a melting pot do you need for your edgy art movement to flourish, after all? When Picasso came to Paris in 1900, the région parisienne was estimated at 4 million; Now it’s somewhere more than 12 million. Do the extra 8 million… help? 4 million is a second-tier metropolis these days, and indeed, much smaller cities have founded movements. Vienna was sweating artistic and philosophical movements when it had half that population in the 19th century.

Because art movements are not like high finance, where you can go on getting bigger forever; They are typically bespoke, growth-limited. The impressionists can only fill so many canvasses per bottle of absinthe, and only drink so many bottle of absinthe per day. Three chord punk bands can only play to so many revellers in their cellar venue. The attraction of these scenes is in part their exclusivity, and that by definition is diluted when it gets too big. This stuff ain’t the same as financial industry booms as in Zürich or London or New York, or tech startups in San Francisco or Shenzen, where more leads-to-more. Rather, these are ventures that are crowded out by the dark satanic mills.

Hypothesis: The hipness things will shift away from the hyped-to-death San Franciscos and Londons and seep into places where it can afford to take place.

Possible counter arguments to this could be, e.g. ones about audience size — more art can flourish where there are more rich kids subsidizing it by engaging in conspicuous consumption. Or, say, about the importance of things that seem to have no upper end of improvement with scale, such as universities and finance. The biggest of these bigger-is-better things issue of co-ordination. If you want to make sure that you and a critical mass of fellow aspirational revolutionary artists that you have not met yet and do not know will be likely to meet in the same place to make wonderful new things happen in the world, how do you do that? You’ve heard that everyone is gravitating to London/Berlin/Paris/Istanbul/Rio di Janeiro/… so you head there like all the rest. At first this is brilliant. Then, 10 million hopefuls later, this is counter-productive, because the market is flooded, the diseconomies of scale outweigh the economies, and everyone is heading to a desolate wasteland of investment properties and trust-fund-kids, because an army of “lifestyle property developments” are hyping the hipness long after it has ceased to exist. It might take a long time for the outsiders, who are not yet linchpins in thriving underground scenes, to work out the scene which looked so natural and vibrant from afar is, when you get up close, taxidermy.

The problem is that even if you agree with this model, you still have a lot of second-tier metropolises to choose between — a lot more than there are first-tier megalopolises. And if everyone chooses different smaller cities, they still never meet. Your Schiele never meets your Klimt and your Stein never meets your Picasso, and so on. According to this random website as of 2016-01-01 there are 526 urban agglomerations worldwide with more than 1 million people.

Is this a problem? Is that diffusing effort too much? Do we need to get specific: time to start some new rumours about the rising hotspots of creative endeavour. Surabaya? Sofia? Chiang Mai? Cagliari? Wollongong? Santa Fe? Or chop off the least hospitable 26 cities and start 500 new art movements?

To discuss: how this plays out outside the developed world — I think the throttling of Bandung by Jakarta in Indonesia could represent a related dynamic. But later.

At this point we should cross-reference find out how innovation and geography relate from the innovation perspective, no?

2 Place and innovation

Here is a quirky paper: Brian Castellani and Rajeev Rajaram, How large must a population be to accomplish great things? examine the roles of diversity and institutions in creative cities, with case studies spanning 15th Century Florence, 19th Century Paris, 21st Century San Francisco etc.

3 Manufacturing cool

Under construction.

acb on cultural gentrification paints a picture of the indy hype cycle economics:

It used to be that cultural capital and economic capital were separate spheres, and absolutely not interconvertible. There were no cool rich kids, or those who were hid their economic capital. (The word “cool”, in fact, originated with socially and politically disenfranchised African-Americans; in its original meaning, the word didn’t mean chic, fashionable or at the top of the status hierarchy, but referred to an unflappability, an unwillingness to let the constant low-level (and not so low-level) insults and aggressions of an institutionally racist and classist system be seen to get you down; as such, it was, by definition, the riches of the poor, the exclusive capital of those excluded from capital.)

[…] with the dismantling of free education, the rise in income inequality, and the gentrification of “cool” areas full of the young and creative, […] soon it was a good thing that having economic and social capital didn’t bar one from cultural capital, because having a trust fund was increasingly a prerequisite. If Mater and Pater bought you a flat near London Fields for your 18th birthday, and if you had a reserve of money to spend while you “found yourself”, and the likelihood of being able to land an internship on a career track in the media once your Southern-fried-hog-jowls-in-katsu-curry food truck failed or you got bored of playing festivals with your respectably rated bass-guitar-and-Microkorg duo, then you had the freedom to explore and develop, and that development could take a number of forms; travelling the world’s thrift shops, picking up cool records and playing them at your DJ night, spending the time you don’t need to work for money getting good at playing an instrument (and recent UK research shows that people in wealthier areas tend to have better musical aptitude), or just growing a really lush beard. With the rolling back of the welfare state and the “race to the bottom” in wages, these quests for self-actualisation are once again the preserve of the gentry; it’s rather hard to develop your creative voice when you’re on zero-hour contracts, and spend all your time either working in shitty jobs, looking for work, or commuting from where you can afford to live. And so economic capital has colonised cultural capital, and what passes for “cool” now belongs to those with money.

Willa Paskin on Selling out:

to sell out is to betray your principles, your art, your community, yourself, for some kind of financial or commercial game… In this episode, we’re going to be looking at the idea of selling out and how it went from the defining principle of [a] generation to whatever it is now.

Is it selling out if you monetize your art? This was a question of my youth that is not remotely relevant to the way I face the world today.

Martin Herbert, What Does Rich-Kid Art Look Like?

See also misrule

4 High status low wage

5 Incoming

Notes towards understanding our understanding of our built environment and its interestingness.

  • Zwischennutzungen
  • Dan Hill
  • Jane Jacobs 1 and 2
  • Herbert Simon
  • Henri Lefebvre
  • David Harvey (Mr “Right to the city”)
  • Richard Florida (Mr “Creative Classes”)
  • Kalle Lasn (Mr Adbusters)
  • Jan Chipchase (Mr I-got-paid-to-wander-round-the-tropics-looking-at-mobile-phones)
  • Le Corbusier
  • Marcus Westbury (Mr Creating Cities)