At-HQ – Sharing some doubts about the creative industries and how these should be addressed by Cultural Studies

I have to admit that I have far more doubts and questions than certainties or answers about how the whole socio-economic paradigm opened by the creative industries should be addressed by cultural studies. The public discourse around the creative industries officially appeared in the UK in about 1996 and was heavily endorsed by New Labour related think tanks (such as DEMOS), to be later introduced by government as a model for economic development; now, twelve years later, academia has introduced the creative industries as a subject matter and this has opened many questions that I believe we should address. How are we going to relate to this economic paradigm? What kind of approaches are best suited to deal with the different conceptual issues raised? What kind of workers are we going to prepare? These are some doubts among others that need to be raised. Along the following lines I will try to address some of these questions, trying to reflect on my situation (and double condition) as both a researcher and worker in the field.

We must not forget that the whole creativity discourse was strongly associated with the neoliberalization of the economy, and it emerged as a solution to a number of economic problems raised by the industrial decline and restructuration by part of a conservative government. This was accompanied by an ever growing privatization of culture and its transformation into a leisure focused industry. The creative industries were born as a promise of economic development, as a tool for urban regeneration, as a means for social cohesion and as a sustainable economic model designed to be the basis of the city’s economies. The discourse was also deployed as a way to formalize a big workforce constituted by people collaborating with self-orgs, artists, graphic designers, activists, video game players and people involved in a number of non-profitable cultural activities.

Now, almost 12 years later some voices have been raised alerting us that the estimate growth figures launched by the DCMS were slightly more optimistic that what the facts have shown us. In the report published by the GLA named ‘London’s creative sector:2007 Update’ a different picture has emerged. The creative industries that were conceived to offer work opportunities to a workforce that had been made redundant by the industrial restructuration that took place in the 80’s, only were accomplished this mission on a steady level during the first years that the model was implemented. The study shows us how from the years 2001 to 2005 there was an important downturn in jobs in the creative sector. The initial estimates and targets were never met. The growth projections for the sector were widely overestimated and by no means have the creative industries taken the economic lead in the cities, which depend strongly on the financial, banking and touristic sectors. The year 2005 saw a raise in jobs created in the sector but the DCMS included in this survey creative people who work in non-creative industries (such as a musician teaching maths in a high school).

In a recent talk given by one of DEMOS’ founders, Geoff Mulgan (MIK, 2007), he made it clear that the economic future of the developed nations lied in the health and education sectors, leaving the creative industries way behind in the list of economic sectors. Also we see that with the introduction of schemes of social innovation and mass participation (Wikipedia, Youtube, etc.), society as a whole is starting to be conceived as a creative industry. Citizens are producing FREE contents for televisions, radio stations, magazines, newspapers, etc. This opens a big question that the sector needs to face, because, if society is outsourcing contents for the entertainment and creative sectors, what are cultural workers expected to produce? There is no doubt that with the strong critique to expertise and a growth of a DIY culture, creativity will be displaced from the hands of a few to the bodies of all the members of society.

With its natural delay academia is not only addressing the creative industries from a critical point of view, but has developed a number of courses aimed at generating creative workers ready to jump into the sector. The first question I think we should address concerns the role that the CCS has and how can it relate to the creative industries. Are we here to analyze, critique or to prepare a critical workforce ready to enter the creative sector? Being slightly more pessimistic I think that we could also consider if the sector really does need highly specialized intellectual theorists or if instead it demands people happy to cut and paste and network for long hours been paid low salaries. I believe that once this is clearly addressed, it becomes easier to understand the role that such a subject matter has in contemporary academia and the role that cultural studies can adopt in relation to the field.

To analyze critically the creative industries discourse, cultural studies stands in a perfect position and has a big number of tools and resources ready to be deployed. Its history as a discipline (and as a site for the critical analysis of culture) and its interdisciplinary nature seems to set out an extraordinary framework that can help us to understand the creative industries and their social and economic implications. This can be made from many perspectives; we can use many sociological works that have enquired into the labor conditions, gender roles and social implications of the sector in society. Philosophy has also many interesting insights to offer, starting from the Frankfurt School to more recent authors such as Paolo Virno or Maurizio Lazaratto, who have tried to define the aesthetic and moral dimensions attached to cultural work. Marxist cultural analysts have also reflected on the emerging values attributed to culture, its transformation into a commodity or how it is now envisaged as a resource ready to be exploited by urban planners, city developers, diplomatic agents, etc. The ever growing economic role of culture cannot be taken for granted, culture has entered the economy, but the economy has also culturalized itself. Even though, we must evaluate to what extent can these disciplines help to create a critical workforce ready to enter the sector. We must also ask ourselves if the creative enterprises are interested in hiring critical subjects, I am not that sure that there is a clear answer to this question.

One of the conclusions that I have reached with my work on the creative sector is that it comes to a point in which work and life merge to such a degree that they booth end up being the same. No longer can one distinguish when he or she is working or having fun, when she is networking or just having a chat. In most cases the creative career and the life of the worker end up being the same. This is the reason why I believe that we need to work on an approach able to combine a theoretical but also a practical dimension. This must lead towards a theory of work and life, aimed at addressing a life of work. I think that one of the challenges that the cultural studies is currently facing has to do with stopping to think about work, to instead start thinking through work. I have recently grown an interest on forms of analysis that seem to have become redundant but from which I believe there is still much to be learned from. Some of these include the militant polls carried out by the Operaist activists in Italy during the sixties and early seventies. One of the first activists to use this type of tools was Karl Marx who on 1881 carried out a poll for the Reveu Socialiste in France. These surveys do not aim to interview workers, but to trigger conversations with workers. They do not seek to find answers, but to pose questions that are negotiated between the interviewer and the worker on a collective act of reflection. Recently Antonio Conti from Posse Magazine put it this way “if we accept that the poll, understood as a linguistic work, as the construction of a place in which to talk, to recount and to exchange experiences, constitutes a place for the immediate construction of conscience and a site for communist organization, we see how it becomes a perfect instrument to intervene in contemporary issues, now that linguistic, relational and communicational work has become completely hegemonic”.

I believe that we should consider cultural projects as critical enterprises, and as such, every decision made, every step taken will have important consequences. But how far can academia not think about creative enterprises but think through them? To what degree can a cultural enterprise constitute a space for the production of knowledge and as a critical evaluation of itself? I believe we should consider these questions collectively. Some of the constitutive elements of a cultural project can be addressed and be used as tools for reflection. I believe that intellectual property should not be thought as a set of given laws or as a framework in which to develop work, but as an essential part of any project, it must be carefully thought as a possible space for critical speculation which will infer a specific set of qualities to any given work. We should stop analyzing IP as a subject matter but rethink our works through the porous and undetermined aspects that this legal framework offers. The economic sustainability of a project, its ecological impact, its social benefits or its life span are all questions that can be addressed critically, but also tools that can be used as a space for analytical speculation.

I am fully aware that cultural studies can help us to gain a deep understanding of culture, but this is the moment in which we must question ourselves about the extent to which these can help to think industrial matters. Can someone run a company with the knowledge obtained from an MA in cultural studies? Can this knowledge be compared to that provided by an MBA? I myself keep asking this question thinking about my work, I am really not sure that I am better equipped to run a company than someone trained in management, economics, law… I believe that after going through a MA in cultural studies I am in a better equipped to think about contents, or to have a better awareness of some socio-economic issues involved in cultural production. But I must fit my ability to create contents into the reality of the sector which is suffering a displacement: creative industries are no longer product or objects producers, they are becoming service providers. Concluding, I believe that we should focus on a direction in which cultural studies stop thinking about work, but start thinking through business models, energy consumption, work structures or labor relations, evaluating the impact that each of these decisions will have in the sector and how it will affect the rest of the world.