Richard White

explorations in place and time

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On neoliberalism and the arts: thoughts walking in four gardens

(thoughts and notes from July 2016 visit to Los Angeles exploring Heritage Management with Bath Spa University and Claremont Graduate University post grad students)

LA station4The PepsiCo Foundation garden for healthy eating:

In the heart of restored down town Los Angeles, where the authorities reach out for legitimacy in the City’s Spanish/Mexican heritage, obese citizens waddle to lunch. In the square above the city’s vast cathedral train station built as part of the great interwar public works programme, the homeless gather. A bandstand shades ragged sad old men, bearded, dead eyed. A stall sells Mexican trinkets, skull candles, stuffed donkeys, florescent days of the dead. This square, once the only permitted space for free speech in the city, is silent, the old men don’t even ask for small change.

We meet at La Plaza de Cultura y Artes, a repurposed commercial building restored with city support, where John Echeveste, President and CEO of La Plaza, informs us, with no trace of irony, that Pepsico funds its kitchen garden as part of its healthy eating programme. Laura Zucker, Executive Director of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission, describes a funding regime that forces Echeveste and colleagues into the arms of the corporates.

La Plaza offer a solidarity and community building story of the Latino presence all the way through to C20th sporting heroes. A story told with a sensibility to the different working class ethnic and cultural communities of LA, but extraordinarily thin on indigenous peoples and muted on the ruling white elite.

Zucker extolls the virtues of individual ‘giving’, building on audience/visitor altruism beyond ticket sales, and corporate and individual tax avoidance by ‘giving’ to the heritage sector. This, she argues, is a powerful incentive to build and consolidate the core audience. In the US, according to Zucker, lean, hungry artists and curators have their eyes on generating income and don’t get bloated on state aid.

Freeway driveThe Getty Villa (oil) Garden:

Under a yellow haze across the sprawling city where the public transport network was ripped up for oil and automobiles. Getty oil. We move slowly in the traffic. More roadside homeless, people made zombie in the heat and our air-conditioned view. Under the freeway bridges and in the dry river plain others make their homes in shanty constructions I last saw in Khartoum.


Getty Villa gardenWe arrive to a full scale replica of a Roman villa in a ravine overlooking the sea. Just as the city centre restoration reaches into Latino heritage, here the elite make claims on European classicism, to the slave societies of Greece and Rome, for their legitimacy. The contents on display better reflect the English aristocracy’s Grand Tour looting of Europe.

The fountains are dry and the reflecting pools empty: climate change and oil is not on the agenda. Claire Lyons, Senior Curator of Antiquities informs us that Getty funds helped village people in the south of France save the remains of an ancient Roman villa. No irony in the display, on a wall, in the Getty Villa, of the huge mozaics found there. 10,000 miles away.

Getty Villa walls 2Walking out into the Californian heat, I was angry and felt robbed. Objects ripped out of context, displayed in a context more imagined than real, itself decontextualized, only brand Getty provides coherence. Even the LA students were testing the K word, kitsch. Objects so revered that even the replica walls containing them had warnings not to touch.




St Monica tsunami sign

Out past the silent parched pools, no longer blue sky reflecting, we head for the beach rejoicing in our shared garbled heritage: movies, rock and roll and resistance. At the western end of Route 66 we swim in the strong, weighty swell of the Pacific and on the pier a muscle man and woman preen and selfie.

A tsunami escape route is, at least, signed.





The Watts Towers community garden:

Watts Towers insta
A journey deep into the city. For me it began long ago with soul, funk and rnb I was teenage imprinted with the WattStaxx LP cover, later the film and its opening sequence: Watts Towers. Uprisings, gangland wars in the distant big city but always I could locate it in the music and the towers. Discovering that we were to meet Rosie Lee Hooks, Director of the Watts Towers Arts Center, a singer with Sweet Honey in the Rock connected it all up. A pilgrimage for me.

Again travelling in the slow flow concrete maze, the unredeemed promise of individualism, speed and the motorcar, where the threat of climate change hides in plain view. Trams once ran right past the Watts Towers, a glorious construction built to be seen by commuters.  Neighbour disputes, art wars, gangland wars and the fires of uprisings have raged all around, but still the towers stand. Even in their origin myth, breaking the cables and crane sent to test them, the towers stand firm. A cultural magnetism attracts stories to the towers, from the story that one day Simon Rodia, just stopped, gave the keys to his neighbour and walked away from his life’s work, to the story that here the legendary Crips and Bloods gangs of LA made peace brokered by a Muslim imam.

Jazz hums in the decorated rungs and flying wire buttresses of the structures. Don Cherry. Charles Mingus.

This place is in the world, connected to contemporary issues; a formally recognised and City supported Historic Cultural Watts Towers signMonument. ‘We will not be privatised’ says Ms Hooks. A powerful and moving exhibition, Black Lives Matter, in the arts centre makes the psycho geographical connections. Here racial identity is asserted, an unassailable and absolute righteous confidence, African American pride from Black Power to Black Lives Matter… You got us here white European slavers, deal with it. Not so far from the historic international working class assertion that we produced the wealth and have a right to a fair share of it.

Out of the centre walking in blue bright dry heat, to a model drought resistant community kitchen garden. A passionate woman asks us to take her regards back to Kew Gardens. Rescued turtles splash in a mosaic lined enclosure and in a tarpaulin shaded workshop the mosaic work continues. The land had been squatted when the City wanted to build a skateboard park there.


Watts Towers suculents

Walking in the garden I wondered if this emphasis on racial identity was all about the insecurity of the immigrant communities of the US, a society founded on slavery and established on land taken from the indigenous peoples. Otherness defined by skin colour and racial appearance. Wounds so deep and reconciliation barely begun, the secular internationalism that could unite and heal still in post McCarthy tatters. When divisions are racialised and the colour of your skin means something about power and history then white silence is complicity. I had walked a long way from the PepsiCo Foundation Garden.


Japanese American National Museum

To the shiny towers and policed privatised spaces of the city. A powerful exhibition on the history of the Japanese American community. A story of pre WW2 hope and assimilation, then patriotism betrayed post Pearl Harbour by the internment in concentration camps of the entire Japanese community. Released in 1945 with 25$ and a bus ticket they returned to find homes and possession trashed. Visual echoes of the Holocaust and an attempt to attend to wider connections.  The glass walls of the building are etched with names not of the Nagasaki and Hiroshima dead, but the names of donors. Outreach activities recorded by the number of sponsored bus journeys.

From Bergamot Station to San Gabriel Mission garden

San Gab orange treesAt Bergamot alongside a long silenced railway depot returning to life, artists occupy abandoned industrial sheds, a repurposing entrepreneur inspires at first. At San Gabriel on the other side of town we are refreshed; working, howling, rattling, rumbling, trains from the port comes almost to the garden of the old mission house, ringing bells and blowing horns raising ancient spirits. A gloriously garbled, real oranges growing on real trees, multi-layered handwritten and mythical heritage yet to succumb to the spectacle. But wait, back at Bergamot was it artists working in those empty factory sheds or dealers in exhibition spaces selling stuff? We didn’t look like buyers so with a passing name drop we are ignored. Once again it is commodity speaking, art as commodity, history as commodity or at least set dressing, layers of heritage that don’t seem to be allowed to speak until it can be given a financial value.


Heritage, arts and funding, Ms Zucker reprised:

Of the museum/galleries visited the only one actively seeking to generate resonances on the key issues of our times: internationalism, human rights and climate change, was the Watts Towers Arts Centre. It was the only one to be fiercely defending its state funded status, independence and wider cultural value. Where is innovation, we challenged Zucker at the start of the week, what if you are poor and don’t have rich contacts and what about the collective needs of the nation and humanity? The all American crowdfunding myth was rolled out, the market will find a way. It seemed to me that the US charitable giving philanthropy so beloved of neo-liberal elements in the UK at best simply replicates existing inequalities. There is no real incentive to innovate or addresses bigger, wider issues as long as the core audience and corporate funders are satisfied. It is a system that has no real strategy other than the market and very limited democratic accountability.

The minority ethnic community museums we visited showed strong and resilient communities recognising the need and value for community solidarity and the importance of telling the stories, especially the stories of origin, struggle and collective action. My concern is that the tax incentive driven funding regime was pushing those museums apart and reinforcing division. A US student expressed the view that these museums were addressing all of us, reaching out for advocates to take the information and share it. The museums had significant stories to tell, of value to us all, it needs more than visitor inspired advocacy, culture and heritage need the democratic and accountable support of the state.

Historic Space

“We don’t use the word heritage here”, Prof Goode told us, this term is now occupied by white racists in the south.

The referendum on the European Union has emboldened the racists and fascists, this US neo liberal tax dollars incentivised philanthropy model for the arts and culture has nothing to offer for the healing and reconciliation needed.


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The Finest View in Europe.

“The road from the little village of Bath to the Fountain of the Medicinal Spring, is most horribly romantic, and partakes very much of those anticipations of the sublime of Nature, which, in his progress through particular vallies, the traveller cannot fail to have frequently experienced. The narrowness of the path, and the precipices upon one side, are to strangers somewhat alarming; but the beautiful scenery with which the journey is rewarded, affords some consolation.”

(Beckford W:  A descriptive account of the Island of Jamaica)

Join me on foot or online Saturday 28 May

Saturday, May 28 Bath School of Art and Design Sion Hill, Lansdown   BA1 5SF

Open the conversation. Meet at reception 11.00. Approx 3 mile walk. Return approx 13.00.

ud stepped logo small versionin conversation

Opening and closing on foot. Walk and talk. Listen. Sense. Consider the views.

A free and open conversation in which artists, writers, thinkers and anyone else who wants to join in can engage with themes that correspond with the best of our aspirations and the worst of our nightmares.

11.00 Open the conversation, stretch minds and legs on a networked walk to

The Finest View in Europe (but it may cost you to get in! Please fill in the contact form if you are coming and we can get a group discount)

Out of the enchanted city, over the fields, up the hill and back again down the road. Disenchanted.


1330 for 1400 – 1700   Lecture Theatre

Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe

Guest speakers include:

  • Kate Rigby, the newly appointed Professor of Environmental Humanities at Bath Spa University and author of Changing the Climate: Utopia, Dystopia and Catastrophe;
  • Linda Williams, a specialist on human-animal relations, climate change and mass species extinction; and
  • Rachel Withers, writer and critic, focussing on art and ideas.

17.00 Wayfaring in the Enchanted City

The conversation continues in the café, online and on foot walking through the heart of utopian Bath, approx 19.00 arriving at “Bath’s Artisan Quarter” for exhibitions and the utopian/dystopian pub, The Bell, in Walcot Street.

In the two walks opening and closing the day I hope you will join us, share thoughts and generate resonances on utopian/dystopian aspects of the city. Follow and contribute @walknowlive and #walknow #utopiadystopiaSomerly Beckford book title

more from this book by William Beckford of Somerly (our man’s cousin) here:

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Walking not Drowning…

Walking not Drowning …Some thoughts to walk with considering the purity of spring water…..

In the days of the Atlantic trade a significant proportion of people enslaved in West Africa did not survive the journey. Thrown overboard like fruit gone rotten, forced overboard for resisting, abandoned at sea in insurance scams. The heritage is a watery one, relics perhaps as bleached bones at the bottom of the ocean. On the plantations enslaved people built irrigation canals,  and with the wealth generated  back in England the beneficiaries employed labourers to construct country mansions and reconstruct the landscape.

Its in the water: memories, traditions, sounds, enchantments. The hotsprings were the draw for Bath, slaves built and serviced the first city here. Coldwater springs fed the streams that drove the mills and the second city grew. The River Avon harnessed for  hammering, shuttling, crushing, rolling mills, the energy that shaped the metal and powered the factories. The once tidal river became the Navigation, put the labour of enslaved people at a distance and the flow of wealth fed the enchanted city.
May Day Walk notes unedited
Thundering bridge where for years there were warning signs: men working below. The signs always troubled me. No one there as we walked through liminal Avonmouth. The river slow off  to the estuary almost more mud than water.

bridge view rail

We walked thinking about the river and what it carried  and more and more I am thinking of the memory it holds. A legacy that is with us and part of us. From the heady heights the road roared, bars restrained us and coaches teased us. The lure of speed in its deadly spate, great chunks of metal roaring past us. The past roaring at us from behind bars looking down to the river.

Smoothing down and out of that epic adrenaline enchantment to more overgrown tracks we walked into Pill. Here as promised a ghost crossing to the Lamplighters. The river drifted by its run slowing as the tide turned. An indifference.
Avon ghost crossing Pill to ShLamplighters
Down this river went the brass and cloth from mills at Keynsham, Saltford and Bath; guns, gunpowder and more from Bristol. Where were the shackles made? Boats built, repaired, cleaned, loaded unloaded along this river. Here. We tried to imagine them going by. Boats returning feeding the european addictions, sugar, tobacco, rum:  wealth on one form or another.

We spirited up a galleon decked with flags first down river then motoring up where strong men would have heaved. A pirate ship, a heritage spectacle not even harnessed to the wind, an enchantment of adventure and enterprise appeared on cue.
Cabot boat Matthew wide
So we walked on into the wreckage of neoliberalism. A contemporary epic narrative of adventure freedom and enterprise decides who deserves, seizes ownership of shared assets and re-writes the story of collective mutual support. Those deemed undeserving are abandoned. Thrown overboard. Assets are repurposed. The legacy of slaveownership runs deep.

At last arriving at Bristol old wharves, great red brick boxes, the bonded warehouses in which I once imagined the merchants counting their gold by candlelight, loomed through the gorge. Under Leigh Woods, graffitti walls for years emblazoned with Hendrix Lives. Deeper and out of site another palladian mansion stands triumphant the origin of its wealthy statement barely challenged.

graffitti locked in

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a disenchanted May Day walk out and over the Avon

Sense-ing the legacies of slavery and slaveownership
Join me recceing a section of the River Avon up from Avonmouth to Bristol Temple Meads  Sunday 1 May.
Meet at Avonmouth train station at 10.00.
Its about 10 miles up the gorge, towards Bristol, under the Clifton suspension bridge… an all day walk.
Should be spectacular but maybe not for those who suffer from vertigo as the walk begins crossing the Avonmouth bridge!

Its always good on these things to travel with companions on foot and/or online. On this walk I am beginning to think about how this would work as a return journey to Bath…what came up the river as legacies of slavery and slaveownership.

Lots of ideas bubbling away from the rotting worm eaten boats that had to be clad with copper to ward off the Caribbean worms, the sweet stuff and tobbacco leaves to fuel the addictions and all kinds of wealth. Eels? Ill gotten gains, ideas of justice and human rights.

How will this be expressed in what we make of what we see? Do join me, share what you know and we’ll start to find out…
twitter @walknowlive

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notes from a days wayfaring down the river Avon from Bath to Bristol

Along the tow path from Bath to Bristol, setting out with a thought intention or purpose of sensing the legacies of slavery and slave ownership on the river.  At first confronted by my childhood and a tricky entrance.
Bath entrance Albion
My chosen path along the river was closed for the reconstruction of the Destructor bridge.  It carries a crossing between the Argos warehouse carpark and the council depot; home to the city dustbin trucks and recycling centre. Already a queue of cars engines running waiting for the gates to open and there to leave their magnolia cuttings in exchange for duty done Bath green smug satisfaction. The old bridge was a ramshackle rattling military seemingly temporary construction leading to gasworks and once derelict industrial heartlands of the city. New sleek swift money buildings rise context free from these sites. New anonymous des res needs new shiny bridge;  across the other side of the grey river I could see it shrink wrapped waiting to be slid into place. Will such a bridge earn its predecessor’s powerful name?

Between two myths of England I tried to find the entrance, and found an enchantment.  St George was Turkish if those stories are to be believed and Albion connects back to a notion of Englishness from before the Peasants Revolt. And the plaque we got planted in Swindon. In the days of Thatcher’s Poll Tax, a council intent on making its mark named a civic building Wat Tyler House. We chose the words of Tyler’s comrade, John Ball:
“Nothing will go well in Albion until all things are held in common”
A phrase once heard in a small US town: Albion, Michigan.

Chasing such obscured appropriations the entrance did not reveal itself. Disenchanted. A wall with discontinuities compounded by mythology.  I continued at a distance from the river along the Upper Bristol Road where a bouncy castle caught my eye. Contained behind railing spears and named Treasure Island. Awash with thoughts of pirates, galleons, maps I remembered the well loved story and its scary telling.The parrot, Robert Newton’s iconic ooaarjimlad performance. And the menace deep inside it, the Black Spot. I walked on, now on the tow path towards the waters weir roar and the story or more its context haunted me…was this a legacy of the Atlantic trade, the more I thought about it I couldn’t find a black face in the telling. Does Treasure Island warrant a re-telling for new times. Is the bouncy castle its metaphorical presence, what would Treasure Island disenchanted say.

Treasure Island

Riffing on islands walking along the river towpath. A newly discovered name for the island on the other side of the lock where great clattering wool mills once stood. Dutch Island. Now the bus depot. Hard flat tarmac behind old walls enchantment but no romance, sealed in stories of those who worked there and where the products of their labours were sold. No bouncy castle on Dutch Island. My thoughts moved on as I walked deeper, beyond sadness that the Dolphin our summer pub by the lock by the small humpback bridge the millworkers crossed, is permanently closed.
Haile Sellassie was here1
I followed the path once taken by Haile Sellassie in exile. In my modern eyes photos show him with pride, dignity and melancholy, like a lion of Longleat but with a human intelligence and self awareness. In his imagined steps I thought of the spirit of empire he appealed to and the metallic brutal modernity he was caught up in. The romance of the exile that connects to the Caribbean back and forth over the Atlantic, a network of intent and consequences with Britain at its core. The mesh.

It was a long days walk and for the most part I journeyed alone, slipping in and out of the enchantments offered. Strange portals opened and closed, embankment clearing on the old Great Western Railway appeared to show a gateway..but perhaps simply revealing the construction technique. Hard work forgotten. I looked for the memorial tree before Saltford, it had been felled. I found another.
plastic crap7
Almost keeping pace with the flow. The river now as leisure: rowing, walking, sailing, fishing. Where before it had been work, food, fuel and communication. I looked for the old fords and imagined the river shallow and wide. Freshford. Bathford. Saltford. Swineford. I saw plastic in the flood blasted trees, caught like flowers, closer shredded in the thorns, no natural disaster here just chuck away plastic normality accepts the mess and continues to reproduce it. How did we get to a place like this I thought as we looked across the river to the former chocolate factory emerging from its plastic wrappings as luxury housing. A hundred yards down river from a brass mill where the currency of slavery was made. Who picked the cacao, how did it get to Keynsham. What went down this river what came back up….
Cadbury's behind trees2
Two of us now walking and wondering if there had been an Avon Bore like the one on the Severn, a great wave moving powerfully up the river. Into the gorge and under the bridge. Passing the last weir where the river was first tamed we were on the edge of the city. Coal mines, smelters and furnace remains, once the stinky east end of Bristol, poisoned lands forgotten, reclaimed, landscaped. Heritaged. A great green tube embedded in the cliffs carrying effluence from today’s city, lycra cyclists whizz past and the bins overflow with responsibly bagged dog shit. The gateways of Bristol opened and closed: so much to think about so much to carry so much to care. To take into care.
Bristol Avon harbour feeder3
and the river kept on going …. in its man made shredded plastic lined and muddy cut scar, flowing out to the sea.

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Year of walking early observations

I am about half way through this year of walking, essentially a series of monthly recces for future projects and walking though of ideas. This is what I have learned and what I have observed:

  • An informal collaborative social network approach seems to work….list of 20 walkers to date
  • Social media is no replacement for old style participatory arts development…need to take this further and bring in wider networks
  • Walking tours are popular..making the transition to something collaborative is a challenge, people expect to be led on walking tour
  • Story/narrative is vital , a clear storyline reinforces the narrative structure of the walk itself and thus gives a walk coherence. Cf HonouringEsther
  • Sound, both oral testimony and other voices and music help generate depth and engagement for walkers and online
  • Walking and social media is not something many feel comfortable with…I can walk and type only twisted my ankle once.
  • Live online active participation is rare but the number of people engaged especially in the almost live facebook updates is considerable acrtoss a range of projects
  • Length of walk, in time, as well as time to build relationships amongst wlakers on foot, enables an audience and audience online participation to build
  • Length of walk in distance builds respect, those meeting walkers or following online recognise that an effort has been made
  • Staged, themed stopping points for talk/ drawing/ capture of sound and images/gathering thoughts produce timed clustering of live postings, the audience knows when to check in, walkers, especially those new to social media feel some sense of solidarity.

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Going down the river

First steps today exploring a bigger project developing the work on Bath’s Last Legal Slaveowners and getting into larger legacy of slavery.Bath start

Those boats did not set off to West Africa empty. They carried goods some of which must have been made and transported down the River Avon to Bristol. River energy used in the manufacturing process as well as its flow harnessed for transportation.

Brass. Brass goods. Cloth. What else?

What else went down river to Bristol and on to West Africa to be traded for human beings?
Saltford lock1
Thinking of the people who worked in those mills in the cold wet banging deafening stone built brass mills where the water turned hammers beating the metal into bowls, incessant trundling of stone rollers, roar of the furnace  and in the cloth mill the nimble fingered children and women on the clattering looms. This was a valley of working noise and smoke.

The coal mines are long gone, the scars in the hillside landscaped away. The mills survive as street or house names romantically converted. Mill owners long gone to big houses or next speculation bankruptcy. Salford Brass Mill water wheel occasionally turns as evidence of work once. The product of the labour less well documented.

Twerton Mills bridgeIs my history all messed up or could it be that the products made by the sweat and labour of Wiltshire and Somerset men and women was used to trade for their enslaved brother and sisters along the coast of Africa. What kind of legacy does that give us?

Bath River alley