ESACH Blog | The fallacy of revitalization: subversive creativity, consumption, and the contestation of heritage spaces

In arts and culture oriented urban development, creative industries and the spaces they occupy are evaluated based on their profitability, commercial potential, and economic impact on surrounding areas in the form of spin-off developments regardless of usage and actual creative production. These spaces —often historical— are seen as “wasted” if they are unmarketable and for which no investment or profitable use can be found (SenStadt, 2007, as cited in Colomb, 2012). The 13th century Dominican church in Maastricht in the Netherlands, whose temporary uses since its deconsecration in 1794 varied from examination hall in the 1960s to concert venue in the 1990s, was used as a bicycle shed before its remodelling by a bookstore chain in 2007 [figures 1, 2]. The transformation was publicized as a successful repurposing of a historical space “badly neglected for over 200 years” (Moran, 2017). Users of creative spaces fall on a spectrum between an extralegal marginal “creative underclass” and a formalized “creative elite.” The valorizing power of the first and the cultural capital they produce often attract the second which are then instrumentalized to “revitalize” physically decaying historic downtowns by essentially replacing the first. Subversive art as a geography of gentrification is an emerging discussion within the broader discourse of arts-led gentrification. My research, of which this article is a component, attempts to plug into this dialogue by unravelling the multi-layered convolutions of heritage, capital, art, and dissidence, and analyzing their implications on the social and built environments through looking at the intersections between adaptive reuse, creative industries, and arts-led redevelopment.

Written by: Ahmed Morsi.

Figure 1: Concert at the Dominican church in Maastricht in the early 1990s. Source: Mark Ahsmann, c. early 1990s
Figure 2: The Dominican church after its transformation into a bookstore. Source: Sergé Technau, 2009

Two creative milieux

The regularization of artistic and creative activity as opposed to the former experimental informal use of space has revealed some of the cracks and tensions within the often simplistically grouped communities of artists and creatives. Ironically, marginal cultural spaces are considered a source of innovation and unconventionality; inspiring and actually forming the basis of creative practices which, in turn, inform mainstream consumerism. While some of them struggle to exist in the face of real estate speculation and local government hostility, their mere existence becomes a spectacle in itself and automatically an opportunity to be instrumentalized. In fact the unswayable anti-establishment views of the people that occupy them and the risk of being associated with the often unorthodox content they produce leaves developers unwilling to work directly with them and city governments apprehensive of their extralegal status, making them vulnerable to eviction for the valuable sites they occupy which they themselves almost single-handedly and unwittingly valorized. Moreover, this cultivated cultural capital is often compounded with stratified heritage value. The inherent gravitation of marginal creative milia with subversive overtones towards dilapidated historical spaces accordingly results in the perfect marriage between cultural capital and heritage value; providing ideal breeding grounds for real estate investment. Adaptive reuse, a historically progressive movement against fossilized concepts of heritage conservation thus becomes a tool in the transformation of the classical narrative of heritage-making being a practice shaped by colonialism and nationalism into one shaped by neoliberal urban development.

A vivid example of these dynamics is the Tacheles building in Berlin, which was occupied by an artist community shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. For over a decade, the building —originally planned for demolition— housed artists’ studios, workshops, a cinema, and a dance club; eventually entirely reinvigorating the previously derelict area within Mitte [figure 3]. So much so, that the building actually acquired protected historical site status for its cultural value (Jones, 2012; Kulish, 2019). As of today, the artists have moved elsewhere, the site sold to a New York City firm, and Herzog and de Meuron commissioned to design a luxury residential, commercial, and cultural intervention for the entire complex (Am Tacheles, n.d.; Neuendorf, 2015) (figure 4). Many similar case studies demonstrate how the creative underclass lay the groundwork which then attracts the creative elite for its “bohemian aura” and then both are exploited to attract wealthy residents and large corporations. This process can be summarized into a pattern of transformation of “liminal landscapes” (Gornostaeva & Campbell, 2012) into gentrified arts districts and then into consumption landscapes. Sandler (2011) calls it “the fine art of gentrification.” Drake (2016) describes the 1990s as the decade of the re-emergence of art squats and the 2000s seeing the fetishization and monetization of creativity (Raunig et al., 2011).

Figure 3: Kunsthaus Tacheles, Berlin. Source: Ex-Smith, August 2004
Figure 4: Am Tacheles redevelopment project rendering by Herzog & de Meuron. Source: bloomimagess, n.d., non binding visualization

The historic Viennoise hotel in Cairo presents itself as a textbook arts-and-culture-facilitated niche gentrification project that started with a decaying historic-hotel-turned-art-space and ended up becoming the exclusive headquarters of an investment company with future plans for a boutique hotel on one of its floors and a rooftop restaurant and bar (Mantiqti, 2018). Additionally, the Viennoise provides a case where private developers were themselves attracted by cultural capital that would later be orchestrated rather than manufactured to keep the space alive and attract tenants. The existing artistic use of the building by its previous owners for over a decade meant it was already on the radar within Downtown’s creative cohort, thus facilitating any valorization that might be necessary by its new owners. In the few years after the 2011 Egyptian revolution, the building’s new owners regularly engaged with subversive creative players as exemplified in the Horreya/Kharya exhibition held in 2013 and curated by prominent figures in the revolutionary graffiti scene. Conceived as a “Museum to the Revolution,” the exhibition included artistic representations of tear gas canisters and anti-regime graffiti among other figurative depictions of revolt [figure 5]. The same building would, six years later, be paraded in a promotional video circulating on social media platforms about its rehabilitation and reintroduction as the headquarters of a private investment company [figure 6].

Figure 5: Prominent revolutionary graffiti artists interviewed at the Horreya/Kharya exhibition at the Viennoise in 2013. Source: TVmedrar, 2014
Figure 6:  Investment company CEO inspecting outcome of Viennoise renovation works in promotional video in 2019. Source: MO4 Network, 2019

Revival? Of what?

It is in this context should the intent of heavily marketed projects with tenacious usage of euphemisms like revitalization, revival, and regeneration be scrutinized for their preconditioned commodification of artistic and cultural practices (Tosics, 2019). Newcomer generations of creative youth are oftentimes unaware of the previous existence of artistic and cultural activity in these newly popular areas due to the uneven circulation of images in tight relation to both stigma and outreach. It is unsurprising that many young creatives that frequent downtown Cairo today are completely unaware of the short-lived creative activism during and after the 2011 uprising that saw an unprecedented creative subversive use of space. Thus, while —as per Florida’s insistence— creative youth from less privileged backgrounds can also profit from the “Creative Age,” it is only feasible through mingling with the creative elite (Bontje & Musterd, 2009). Chatterton’s (2000) contention that unless progress is made towards eliminating inequalities with regards to wealth and power, the creative city agenda and all of its social-mixing claims will remain elite-led therefore still stands true.

About the author

Ahmed Morsi is an architect and artist whose interests lie in subversive forms of creativity and their effect on the built and social environments. His research explores the convolutions of heritage, capital, art, dissidence, and securitization in post-2011 Cairo. He has been involved in a number of adaptive reuse and remodelling projects between Cairo and Alexandria.