LIVERPOOL X: meditation on an invitation.

The publicity for this event on 20/21 November 2013, in the form of an emailed invitation to attend is printed in a small font in pale pink and green on a solid black background. I fear for my ink cartridge, wondering how many pages of ordinary print I have just used up in printing this out. So no points for awareness regarding either these avoidable costs to individuals, or the document’s readability score for those with a visual impairment or dyslexia, for example. The art, design and marketing team seem behind the times regarding such equality / access issues, which are very much about being in touch with the real world in 2013. I guess the black background is meant to make it feel ‘edgy’. I start to read the information on the first page, and my heart begins to sink in a way that is all too familiar.

“This is an event about practical creativity, entrepreneurialism and fun. It’s   about who we are, where we are going and how we express ourselves in a way that is different, authentic and inspiring.”

I wonder who the “we” is, being used to the idea that it is important not to use a generic and unspecified “we” when speaking, but to say who “we” are/means, as opposed to presuming to speak for others without permission.

  • The “we” here seems to have someone / some constituency / some overarching entity in mind: Liverpool residents, citizens, the general population?
  • Identity is foregrounded and it feels as if it is clear and unitary, as opposed to diverse, multiple, hybrid, even uncertain.
  • Identity seems to be linked to the assumption of a journey, a trajectory, mobility, which in the context of a shrinking economy, a battered public sector, social security famine and rising levels of severe poverty and hardship, represents privilege. Mobility has always been a sign of privilege, but since the economic crash and the advent of the Con Dem government, social, spatial and geographical mobility are fast becoming luxuries, not just privilege.
  • Then there is the emphasis on the desirability of being “different, authentic, inspiring” . . . . In the economic and political context touched on above, is this a discourse of excess and/or fantasy? Or again, privilege?

The invitation promises:

“It will involve 24 hours of exhibitions, performances, debates and   master classes (sic) from those who are making and re-inventing the city’s identity.” (Emphasis added.)

  • There is clearly a perceived problem with the city’s existing identity (image?) No doubt the evidence for this will be shared, explored, analysed and evaluated.
  • How is the city defined and understood here? As buildings, as a physical place, as social and cultural spaces? As architecture? Activities? As historical narrative? As a civic entity? Or as a tourist attraction, a money-making venture (business), a consumerist paradise, especially for visitors?
  • Sounds like a ‘rebranding’ process is deemed necessary. Who decided?
  • And how do we people / citizens / residents / workers / communities / voters fit into this? Are we part of the action (for change)? As pawns or players?

This invitation conjures élites in action: those already deemed excellent / important / superior, by the organisers of Liverpool X, presumably on the basis of previous performance and achievement.

But without denying their excellence, their expertise, my caution is that this puts into their hands something beyond their individual prowess or previous remit surely:  the “making and re-inventing (of) the city’s identity”. As if it is ethically, politically and culturally a legitimate task to outsource to hired hands: professionals / consultants. And, apparently, men.

 Once I had read the first page of the initial programme, including information about the introductory speaker, Paul DuNoyer, with a male Chair; followed by the first panel discussion: ‘Who are we and what makes us different?’ (3 male speakers and a male Chair), I read on with a feeling of increasing despondency:

  • The next panel discussion, focusing on the economy in response to the question: ‘What is Liverpool for?’ is all men (5 of them), chaired by a woman.
  • Next is a panel of 5, 4 of them male, with a male Chair.
  • Phillip Blond follows as a main speaker.
  • Panel discussion of 4 men, 1 woman, chaired by a man.
  • Another main speaker, Stephen Bayley.
  • Panel discussion, 2 women, 2 men, chaired by a man.
  • Panel discussion, all male and chaired by a man.
  • Film screening of a Terence Davies film.
  • Panel discussion: Rewind. 3 men.
  • Will Alsop, the architect, is billed as the final act.

So in 2013, Liverpool offers an event with 33 male speakers and 5 women (one a Chair). I suggest that the programming itself is evidence of the problem in this city, and the issues raised by this male dominance demand examination. At a point when local community, political and academic events have started to field more diverse panels of speakers (as opposed to the unrelenting routine of public meetings fronted by an all white, older male line-up), this team, largely drawn from the cultural sector and business, show how it’s business as usual: mates and best mates.

I am speechless and disheartened. It confirms all my protests over many years at more public events than I can count, about the issue of representation, diversity and gender balance. And in this respect it fully echoes the programming of public events, whether Policy Provocations or Science and Society, organised by the University of Liverpool, as well as the Roscoe Lectures, for example, also over many years. As one friend observed gloomily on seeing the programme: it’s getting worse, not better.

The programming suggests that women have next to nothing to offer to the city’s creative identity and process, and even fewer rights within it, whether as citizens or creative agents for change. It gives the impression that our place is not just at the margins, but inside and out of sight. Without power or influence in the public domain. And the male organisers did not notice and/or mind that this was what they were putting in place. Social, political and cultural dinosaurs, what circles do they move in?

So I will take time out to attend some of the sessions tomorrow, to listen to some of the 33 men and 5 women, in order to see just how ingrained inequalities are in Liverpool, how entrenched the divisions between women and men, and how distanced the arts and business are from Liverpool’s diverse communities and people’s real lives.

val walsh / 19 11 2013

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