Knowledge Commons #1

I’m currently working alongside the artists Kevin Carter and Simon Yuill on a project commissioned by SCAN called Digital Transformations which is based in three locations around Bournemouth and Poole: Kinson, West Howe and Townsend. The commission pitches me as a writer somewhere between the two; between Kevin’s Landscape-Portrait and Simon’s A New Kind of Commons

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Kevin Carter’s Landscape-Portrait is both a response in itself and a means for others to respond to the way that government census data is used, specifically in this case the way it is used to create postcode portraits (fictions, of a sort) about people and place that are designed to facilitate decision-making in business, policy and planning spheres.

Kevin has devised an interview which gently subverts the census questions used by the Office of National Statistics (ONS) to conduct the census in England and Wales and The General Register Office for Scotland (GROS). Kevin’s questions are  designed to prompt a more reflective and subjective approach. So instead of asking, as the census might, for the names and ages of everyone resident at a particular address, Landscape-Portrait asks ‘Who in my life do I value the most and why’, and ‘How do I get on living with the people in my house?’

Here is some blurb from the Landscape-Portrait site:

By comparing real life portraits with postcode stereotypes, this project asks if communities can really be reduced to such simple sets of data – data that is often used by public and private organisations to make important decisions about how our local environments and amenities are planned for and designed. Landscape/Portrait invites and encourages citizens to think about who they are, how they are and what they would like the places they live to be like.

There are two ways to participate. Users who have access to a home or work computer with web access and a webcam can record an interview online, by registering on the site, clicking the appropriate button and following the instructions. The alternative model, which is what has been happening in Bournemouth over the past couple of weeks, sees interviews being staged in targeted areas, in this case Kinson, West Howe and Townsend. After leaftleting to households and marketing through libraries and local authority adult learning services, the artist, SCAN personnel and friends made in the particular areas have been taking the Mediabus to various sites and events and recording interviews one-to-one, with results being posted in a matter of hours or days on to the project site.

This latter model has also been used in the north east of England but in theory the project is scaleable and anyone in a UK postcode area can participate by accessing the demographic portrait held about their area, and recording an interview.

Artist and video-maker Steve Lewis has been conducting and recording some of these one-to-one interviews around Bournemouth and Poole. While talking about the project to potential interviewees he has developed a nice, easy-to-relate-to shorthand for how these census-derived demographic profiles might impact on people’s everyday lives. They might, he says by way of an example, influence the decision on a car insurance quote. With a few clicks I found another example of the way such postcode portraits are used to identify and define catchments for new supermarkets. Scroll down to see this revealing note:

ACORN is the market-leading geo-demographic postcode classification that classifies the entire UK population into five categories, 17 groups and 56 types.

I wondered which of the five categories, seventeen groups and fifty-six types I might fall into, so used the Postcode Search function on Landscape-Portrait to look up the demographic portrait of the house I grew up in, to see what it says about me. The short text makes for strange reading:

These people are likely to take one main holiday a year, probably a packaged holiday to the Mediterranean or a camping or caravanning holiday in the UK. Watching TV is a popular leisure activity, as is going to the cinema and sometimes bingo. Doing the football pools, gardening and visiting the pub are also common. Tabloid newspapers are favoured reading, and many listen to Radio 2. This type [my emphasis] is found in Wolverhampton, Dudley, Darlington, Stoke, Rotherham and Mansfield.

Wow. ‘These people’? (Try it out for yourself on the Landscape-Portrait site.)

It is depressing how us-and-them it all is, and how apparently lacking in any kind of agency is ‘this type’ that is being described. But I also find it reassuring to see that this demographic portrait is also so obviously wrong. So where did it all go right for those of us who grew up in that quite pleasant street of semi-detached houses in a leafy little Surrey market town but didn’t turn into this reductive, passive and anachronistic caricature of patriarchal post-WWII working class life?

Talking to Kevin on my first project visit I said something like, ‘Thank Christ there was a big art school in the small town where I grew up.’ I posted this Youtube clip on Facebook a while ago, but I love Mercurytoons’ super-8 footage of Farnham animation students hanging out in The Coach, walking to college and gurning at the camera in one of the studios. This lot in the film weren’t my generation at what was then called the West Surrey College of Art and Design; I did the Foundation course there in 1982. Coincidentally though, I’m pretty sure that one of these dudes actually lived at our house during his first year at the college.

To be continued…

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Knowledge Commons #1 by Tony White is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 2.0 UK: England & Wales License.

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  1. Pingback: Knowledge Commons #3 « Piece of Paper Press

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