Ele Carpenter

Newcastle, UK



January 2006



Dear Union,


Re: Union

January 8th: I’m sitting at my computer staring at the grey mist drizzling past my window. It’s 2006 and I’m glad to be back to work after Christmas. I’ve been thinking about the latest political buzz word of ‘precarity’ and trying to find out what it actually means. But first my thoughts about the weekend:


The main questions in my mind after the Union were about how artists set up organisations which are parallel to the main art-economy, and form part of an informal economy. In the UK many artists-run organisations have developed into small commercial galleries. Even though they were formed with the intentions of commissioning temporary interventions in public space, facilitating public discourse about contemporary culture, and working across public and private sectors; they have quickly moved to be the new layer of commercial galleries. Whilst these spaces are often the most interesting of the white cubes, and serve as a fruitful stepping-stone for artists to climb the art-market ladder; I’m interested in projects attempting to develop a parallel economic and social structure, where the ‘artwork’ is the organisation. Ella Gibbs, Amy Plant and Skart seem to be negotiating this territory, along with Superflex in Denmark, and Kate Rich in the UK, and others.


There are issues of sustainability, status and institutionalisation which have to be negotiated to find the route between art and the immediate needs of culture. Working parallel to the art world means having one foot completely in another sphere. This is often described as collaboration, but I think this misses the point. It’s more of a parallel function, one that allows practitioners to work with creativity within culture, as well as the traditions of the art-world. For me, this is the point at which art becomes politicised.



I’m trying to find a story that that explains how the economic, political and cultural aspects of my life interrelate. I could talk about my computer, my love life, or my tax return. The combination would tell a tale of global communications, falling birth rates, lack of pensions and the so-called ‘precarity’ of freelance work. But I think this is a different sort of letter. So rather than go into personal detail – I thought I’d go ‘macro’ and do some research on inter-national statistics on poverty and culture.



A quick Google found the UN, UNESCO, Wikipedia and CIA websites. The UN site provides links directly to countries own data, and the statistics are extremely hard to compare - even after a lot of standardising there are differences in the classifications and methods of collecting data. Even so - these numbers get crunched into international statistics which the World Bank, IMF, Governments and the EU use to prioritise funding decisions.


Poverty and the CIA

I wanted a quick over-view comparison between countries to position the UK and the former Yugoslavian countries on a global scale. To my complete surprise the simplest cross referencing of data has been carried out by the American CIA World Fact book. The book also provides an intriguing ‘comparative area’ guide (comparative to America that is!).


According to the CIA the percentage of the population below the poverty line is:


Country                                   Below Poverty Line    Size in relation to USA:

Chad                                        80%     (2001 est)        Slightly more than 3 x California

Ghana                                     31.4%  (1992 est)

Serbia and Montenegro                       30%     (1999 est)        Slightly smaller than Kentucky

Albania                                    25%                             Slightly smaller than Maryland

Bosnia and Herzegovina          25%     (2004 est)        Slightly smaller than West Virginia

UK                                           17%     (2002 est)        Slightly smaller than Oregon

Bulgaria                                   13.4% (2004 est)

USA                                         12%     (2004 est)        *See below.

China                                       10%     (2001 est)        Slightly smaller than US

Belguim                                    4%       (1989 est)

Austria                                     3.9       (1999)

Slovenia                                   N/A      Not applicable


(CIA Factbook [online])


I’m interested in the perception of poverty in our own countries. I think it’s higher in the UK than a lot of people realise; and the USA rates are probably higher.


·      Are you surprised at the Poverty rate in your country?

·      Do you think it is an accurate reflection of the place where you live?

·      If not, what would you estimate?

·      Are there any other poverty rates that are not what you expected?


The definition of the Poverty Line varies, but it generally describes the minimum a person can live on in a particular country. The Wikipedia definition [23 Jan 2006] begins:


“The poverty line is the level of income below which one cannot afford to purchase all the resources one requires to live. People who have an income below the poverty line have no discretionary disposable income, by definition.”


UK Deprivation

The UK Government has compiled a Deprivation Index measuring deprivation for every local authority area in England. There are “seven Domains of deprivation: Income deprivation, Employment deprivation, Health deprivation and disability, Education, skills and training deprivation, Barriers to Housing and Services, Living environment deprivation and Crime.”  ‘A Glimpse of the results’ highlights a higher level of deprivation in the UK than recognised by the Poverty Line:

(Indices of Deprivation, 2004)


*United States of America – country or continent?

The comparative area for the US is described in the CIA Fact Book website as:


about half the size of Russia; about three-tenths the size of Africa; about half the size of South America (or slightly larger than Brazil); slightly larger than China; almost two and a half times the size of the European Union”

(CIA Factbook [online])


The CIA website compares countries to the size of US individual states. But America describes itself in terms of continents; no wonder George W. Bush thinks that Africa is a country!



Cultural Statistics

It’s true that the UNESCO indicators for culture are Annual Cinema Attendance, along with book publication and registered national library users. The stats for Cinema Attendance describe the annual attendance per inhabitant.


Country                                   Cinema Attendance                Library Users

USA                                         5.2                                           No data available

UK                                           2.38                                         66,000

Italy                                          1.82                                         591,598

Slovenia                                   0.99                                         11,279

Serbia and Montenegro                       0.46                                         295,388

Albania                                    no record                                 5,477

Bosnia & Herzegovina              No data                                                No data


(UNESCO Institute for Statistics: Country Profiles)


Using cinema as an indicator of cultural activity is quite strange to me. Most cinema’s in the UK screen predominantly American films. Surely this is not an indicator of culture but of disposable income. The Library User data would give a greater insight into personal reading and research, but the figures need to be worked out as a percentage of the population to be comparable. Book production is global, and is another economic, not cultural indicator.


The film industry in the States benefits from a highly unionised workforce, and is effectively a propaganda machine for America; epitomized by the recent TV adverts in England ‘You’ve seen the films – now visit the set’ inviting people to holiday in America. In cultural terms perhaps the cinema attendance figures more accurately represent the acceptance of American neo-liberal values than any level of regional traditional or innovative cultural complexity.


Serge Guilbaut’s book ‘How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art’ (1983) documents how 1940’s American foreign policy included culture in its mission to save the world from communism by exporting the ‘American Way of Life’. But it was important that cultural exports not be read as propaganda. They had to be seen as products of the free market.


“In 1946 Barney Baladan, head of Paramount Pictures, was quoted in the New York Times as saying, “a State Department sponsored informational film programme, such as now is being contemplated, would not be nearly as successful as one carried out privately by commercial interests”. And that, “We, the industry, recognise the need for informing people in foreign lands about the things that have made America a great country...and we are prepared to face a commercial loss in revenue if necessary”. (Serge Guilbaut, 1983).


Sixty years later the American film industry dominates global production and distribution and clearly hasn’t faced any loss in revenue.


What happens when we apply these questions to the visual arts? Where an international aesthetic embraces cultural diversity and social engagement, yet still evaluates them in terms of ‘block buster’ exhibitions.


When we talk about ‘culture’ we have to be careful not to fall into the politics of describing globalised culture in terms of national identity: accepting statistics which enable ‘bums on seats’ to be a recognised indicator; where the size of a country is compared to an American state. Perhaps the truest representation is the library user who is presented as an actual number, and not simply a statistic.


Hope to see you all soon,







CIA World Fact book [Online] Available at: http://www.cia.gov/cia/publications/factbook/geos/yi.html [23 Jan 2006]


Guilbaut, Serge. (1983). How New York Stole the idea of Modern Art: Abstract Expressionism, Freedom and the Cold War, University of Chicago Press p235 (note 134) & p136.


Indices of Deprivation, 2004 (ID 2004) [Online] Available at: http://www.odpm.gov.uk/index.asp?id=1128440 [23 Jan 2006]


UNESCO Institute for Statistics. Country Profiles. [Online] Available at: http://www.uis.unesco.org/ev_en.php?ID=6325_201&ID2=DO_TOPIC [23 Jan 2006]


Wikipedia [Online] Available at:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Poverty_line#Defining_poverty_lines [23 Jan 2006]