Friday, July 25, 2014

Liverpool Demonstration Calls for Solidarity with Palestinians

Demonstrators making their way to Marks & Spencer (photo: Palatino Linotype)
A noisy and spirited group of around one hundred and fifty demonstrators gathered in Liverpool city centre last night, to express solidarity with Gazans facing Israel's military onslaught (more photos here). This was the fourth anti-Israel/pro-Palestine demo in the city in two weeks, with another planned for this Saturday.

The protest began at 6pm outside BBC Radio Merseyside's studios. This location was chosen due to the Corporation's blatant pro-Israel stance, which echoes that of British imperialism. A few speakers made speeches over a megaphone, and many chants were taken up, often led by the children in attendance. The presence of so many young people was all the poignant given the huge amount of children slaughtered by the Israel regime, particularly during the current offensive. One woman tried to read out the names and ages of those taken over the last couple of weeks, but could only get so far as she trembled with rage and fought back tears.

This Securitas employee assaulted a child, amongst others
The demonstration then went on the move into the main shopping streets, stopping outside Schuh and TK Maxx, both of which were called out for stocking items manufactured by Caterpillar - a corporation strongly linked to the Israeli occupation. Pro-BDS chants filled the air, before the crowd moved on to Marks and Spencer, another business with deep and historic ties to Zionism.

Here, the protest surged en masse into the store itself, with shouts of 'While you're shopping, bombs are dropping' amongst many others. The security guard ludicrously attempted to hold back the human tide entering the premises, and when he failed to do so, began lashing out wildly at first large men, and then anyone, including one eleven year old child, whose shoulder was injured.

After a few minutes, the crowd flowed out as quickly as it had come in, and after a moment of gathering ourselves, we moved on, going almost full circle back to the Friends' Meeting House, where another pro-Palestine meeting was due to take place. As the noise bounced off the surrounding buildings, some passers-by briefly joined the march with fists raised, clearly delighted to see that such a demo was happening.

With talk of a Third Intifada beginning in Palestine overnight, and no let-up in Israel's genocidal campaign, many protesters are set to return to town tomorrow afternoon.

Wednesday, July 09, 2014

A Needle Walks Into A Hay Stack

Judith Hopf's underwhelming Flock of Sheep
Curated by Mai Abu ElDahab and Anthony Huberman
Old Trade Union, Community and Resource Centre, Hardman Street (5th July - 26th October 2014)

A Needle Walks Into a Hay Stack is the flagship show of this year's Liverpool Biennial. The publicity promises it is "about effecting larger questions facing contemporary life and art, from an intimate and tangible scale that’s within everyday reach", yet for the most part it falls far, far short of such a worthy claim. With a few notable exceptions, what's on display is the worst kind of ivory tower nonsense.

The sheer amount of art in this exhibition - situated as it is in a vast, sprawling building - makes the task of finding something worth viewing very much like the task of finding an elusive needle in the proverbial pile of animal fodder. Expect this to take at least two hours. There is far too much for anyone to reasonably describe, and to be honest, a very small proportion is worth the effort.

If I knew this stuff was produced by budding artists in their early teens, it would be one thing. It would show decent technical potential in many cases, though let down by a distinct lack of imagination. Even then, many of the pieces would look half-arsed, like a rushed piece of homework. But it wasn't produced by early teens. It was produced by adults who somehow manage to get taken seriously when they call themselves artists. To put it mildly, this exhibition seems unlikely to be a major word-of-mouth success.

It is no coincidence that the most impressive works on display were the most socially engaged. They were the pieces which genuinely did attempt to pose "larger questions facing contemporary life and art, from an intimate and tangible scale that’s within everyday reach". I particularly enjoyed Peter Wächtler's animated rat. We only saw the creature crawling out of bed each morning, and back into its bed at night. At the end of every day, it trips on a rug, causing a bowling ball to fall off a table and clunk it on the head. As this happens, Wächtler's narration intones many melancholy episodes from his life, punctuated by outbursts of anger at the crimes of the rich and powerful. Of course, Wächtler is the rat, and this is an insight into his own, very solitary, day-to-day struggles.

In very different way, Rana Hamadeh takes on a subject close to her heart - the ongoing Syrian civil war, and its links to Shia Muslim cultural heritage. This cacophonous work is deeply unsettling, but this is surely deliberate, as Hamadeh's play - Can You Pull in an Actor With a Fishhook or Tie Down His Tongue With a Rope? - is enacted over extremely loud speakers. The stage directions are also narrated, giving the whole thing an extremely artificial and mechanical feel. This reinforces her claim that religion is a "dramaturgical framework that underlies the entire politics of oppression" in the region.

A detail from Mick Jones' mural celebrating the 1981 People's March For Jobs
And for those who know the building - and even those who don't - Mick Jones' mural dedicated to the 1981 People's March For Jobs still dominates, from its lofty position in the inner dome. I can do no better than quote Angie Sammons of Liverpool Confidential, who wrote:
"Devon-born Jones's work still has all the resonance of 10,000 marching feet. The word resistance is painted nowhere, yet the mural fiercely punches it out. How fitting, then, that it has resolutely defied 28 years of neglect, its colours still far more vivid than New Labour's could ever be."
The same goes for the whole space. In its current dilapidated state, it is a living representation of the devastation Thatcher wrought on the working class of the city, and how trade unionism itself has decayed in the decades since then. Yet if new approaches were taken, there is so much potential here.

Friday, July 04, 2014

The Shameful Truth About Liverpool's FACT

FACT's carefully-cultivated 'lefty' image masks a brutal internal hierarchy
This article was written for Liverpool's 'Nerve' magazine.

When the Liverpool Echo revealed that the FACT - the heart of the city's 'Ropewalks' cultural quarter - had axed paid staff and replaced them with volunteers, it provoked a wave of revulsion at the charity's decidedly corporate-style practices. Social networking accounts associated with FACT were bombarded with critical comments, and three protests have even been held outside. But the story of FACT's mistreatment of workers goes far deeper than that. Since opening eleven years ago, it has gone from being an organisation which paid all workers, to one which is now entirely dependent on exploiting the desperation of a revolving door army of volunteers, whose free labour helps maintain the living standards of the paid staff almost entirely based on the top floor.

The eleven redundancies were made at a series of meetings with executive director Iona Horsburgh. Called in one by one, the front of house staff were presented with a two page document headed "Proposed model" - clearly intended for internal discussion amongst the higher ups. But at this stage it was not a proposal; it had been decided. It was non-negotiable. In the euphemistic words of the document: "The job title of Gallery Assistants would be discontinued".

The "proposed model" went on to specify that the volunteers will be recruited "on a show-by-show basis", meaning they will stay for only three months for what is described as "training and mentorship". On top of this, newly redundant workers were invited to apply for the 'events team'. According to an insider, FACT 'events' typically mean a few hours' pay at £7 an hour for a few individuals, maybe once a month. There is far from a guarantee that former paid staff will get preferential treatment, but likely there was an intention that this would soften the parting blow. It should also be noted that at least two of the volunteers quit as soon as they discovered they were replacing paid staff. Imitating the best traditions of strike-breaking employers, FACT had failed to inform them that they were being used to attack working conditions.

Following the Echo article, Nerve published a statement, announcing that "unless FACT reconsider their position with regards to these changes in working conditions, we can no longer work with them". FACT's press officer Jen Chapman then emailed Nerve to tell us that our statement was "fundamentally coming from the wrong place", but when pressed, only 'corrected' it by saying that "Our gallery assistants have always been on zero hours contracts and this is not new" (Nerve had not claimed otherwise).

After two weeks of being pressed by Nerve and other concerned parties, FACT finally released a promised "FACT Employment Factsheet" (pun presumably intended). But far from the unvarnished truth, the release merely contains waffle, and attempts to obscure the truth. Below much talk about being "committed to providing life-enhancing and enriching cultural experiences to a broad spectrum of people", it gets down to some figures. Yet there is distortion even here.

First, these numbers details the "previous FoH [front of house] structure", which FACT claim included 9 casual staff, 3 part time staff, 1 full time staff, and 1 volunteer". According to our source, the 9 casual staff were indeed made redundant, with those who had served less than two years receiving no payment. The 3 "part time staff" were under the impression that they were full time, and the listed full time staff member took voluntary redundancy.

Following this section, the "factsheet" goes on to describe the "current FoH structure". The first thing to be noticed is the drastically increased number of "volunteers" - an extra 70! There are 3 listed as "full time", but this includes "2 previously part-time members of staff". Considering those staff believed they were full time anyway, this does not account for many 'extra' full time hours. Two of these paid full time staff are now 'mediators' - essentially the immediate bosses of the volunteers.

The biggest deception comes when it refers to "5 casual staff who are continuing to work casual hours at FACT". Our insider reveals that these five are those signed up to the special events list, getting a few quid here and there. Whereas previously they were directly employed by FACT, they are now officially 'self-employed', and even less able to take care of their living costs than they were before. It goes on to list that "2 casual staff have been redeployed into other paid roles", glossing over the reality that one of these was only employed in this post til the end of April. Finally, it admits that "2 previous members of casual staff have chosen not to take any more hours", but even this puts the blame on the redundant staff, rather than the people upstairs who have "chosen" to offer far fewer paid hours, so that they can save money. At the time of this article, one more formerly employed worker had decided to stop working the events due to travel and lunch expenses making it not worth their time and effort. Furthermore, it was interfering with their Jobseeker's Allowance claim.

To summarise then, FACT's "test model" - as they described it in the Echo article - is now vastly more reliant on unpaid labour. There are currently 125 people working in the building, and 76 of them are not being paid for it - 60% of the total. For those who are being paid, 19 are working less than full time hours, and so will be unlikely to make ends meet on their FACT money alone. Those being paid are now overwhelmingly based on the top floor. Those on the bottom floor have little contact with these individuals, and even less idea what they actually get up to. One worker who had been at FACT declared it a "mystery". Clearly, at least some of these paid workers must be making decisions about firing paid workers and replacing them with 'volunteers' whose desperation for work experience can be exploited for 100% of the value of their labour.

I asked FACT's listed funders for a comment on the restructuring. All except two were unavailable for comment. This includes Nick Small, the Labour council's cabinet member for employment, who had spoken out against zero hour contracts in the Echo. Julian Pye of the British Council Film Team simply responded with a terse "Sorry, no we don't" [want to comment].

However, Allison Millar of Arts Council England struck a more concerned tone in her measured reply:  
"One of the goals within our mission of great art and culture for everyone is to ensure the leadership and workforce in the arts, museums and libraries are diverse and appropriately skilled. This is through a range of opportunities including the Creative Employment Programme which supports new apprenticeships, pre-apprenticeships and paid internships across the sector with over 1,500 created so far. We recognise that volunteering - and the opportunities that come with it - is an important part [emphasis added] of the arts and cultural ecology and we are in discussions with FACT about their particular situation and new volunteering scheme."
Clearly, when FACT relies on 60% of its workforce turning up unpaid every day in order to open, volunteering is far more than "an important part" of the FACT's "ecology". Volunteering is now as important to FACT as oxygen is to a human body - it simply could not function without it. 

But that statement was at the end of May. This week, the Arts Council announced that they would give FACT £3 million over three years, which is roughly equivalent to what they received in the previous spending round. This coincided with the building's facade getting a makeover. The "discussions" about the new volunteering scheme now appear to be over, and this intense exploitation has the Arts Council's seal of approval.

It is hard to see this charity as being anything more than just another business. It is not 'for profit', in the sense that it doesn't buy and sell commodities. Its only income is drawn from bodies such as the Arts Council, the local council, and other funders. But the power lies with those on the top floor, who run the institution in their own interests, and line their own pockets.

In this society, there is a problem with a certain lack of resources. But it isn't that there's not enough to go around, it's that it's in the wrong hands - those of the richest, who are parasitical on the rest of us. Their resources should be confiscated, and used for the benefit of all. Such a huge change would have to be organised on a large scale. But until that glorious day, what can be done in the here and now? 

Since publishing our first statement on this, Nerve have been asked 'What is the alternative?' Well, as a co-operative which started at about the same time that FACT opened, we are in a good position to answer. We've never had enough funding to run things as we'd like, but we've got by. None of us are paid these days, but that was a collective decision, and not one imposed by some remote, well-off boss. We are true volunteers - we give our time because we believe in what we are achieving together. Decisions about what happens in any given workplace should be democratically decided by all those who work there.

Public shame has not forced a rethink, so those making pretty big money at FACT clearly intend to preserve their place in the sun on the top deck. As ever and everywhere, the potential for real change comes from those toiling below.

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