Yesterday I attended a seminar called ‘The Eastside Island: Creativity, Capital and Commons in Contemporary City Space’. Despite the rather long-winded title it was actually very interesting. The talk was about a patch of wasteland in Nottingham city centre known as the Island and how capitalism is trying to appropriate creativity in order to redefine the space.
David Bell, who delivered the talk and who is part of the Nottingham Wasteland Twinning project, began by talking about the history of the Island. The name is thought to come from the fact that the land was once a peninsula cut off on two sides by canals. In the early 19th century it was being used as grazing land, but by the middle of the century it had been developed, with factories, gas works, workers’ cottages and local amenities such as pubs and banks on the site. The land was eventually bought by the Boots company who it is thought produced ibuprofen there.
Today the site is a mix of smaller developments, overgrown grassland, and fly tipping. There are also two scaffolded and crumbling railway warehouses on the site. David Bell described it beautifully as the spectre of a more productive time in British capitalism. It brought to mind an equally beautiful quote, one that has always stuck in my mind though I’ve long forgotten where I read it – a ghost wilderness surrounds everything. The Island then is a haunted space. It was once grazing land that was then built on and it has now partly returned to scrub, though the only beings that graze it are people working their desire lines in to the land. The Island’s industrial past is also becoming a haunting presence as the railway warehouses slowly decay and all that is left of the Boots factory is a piece of public art.
But what does it mean to call the Island a wasteland? The space is still being used. People walk their dogs on it, some use it as a short cut to the railway, and others use it as a place to sit and get drunk. David Bell’s answer to the question he poses is that it is capitalism that sees the land as wasted. We have moved away from a production economy and because the Island can no longer be used for producing things it is classed as wasted space.
It is an interesting question and one that bought to mind the fact that wilderness was once thought by some to be wasted space because it couldn’t be used for agriculture. Now these spaces, such as the Scottish Highlands and the Lake District, form an important part of the economy through tourism and few would think of them as wastelands. It made me wonder what other spaces are considered used or wasted depending on your perspective. I suspect most places probably fall under this category. After all, one man’s treasure is another man’s trash.
David Bell described a number of attempts to develop the Island over the past 20 years, all of which have been unsuccessful. However, the land has recently been incorporated in to the Creative Quarter, which is the main project of the city council’s Nottingham Growth Plan. The Growth Plan will pump millions of pounds in to the area, which is currently home to independent retailers, small companies and artists. It is also home to a lot of low income families and ethnic minorities.
David Bell argued that this initiative is simply an attempt by capitalism to co-opt creativity. The Island is already used by artists, including Bruce Asbestos with his cryptic message. If capitalists are left to define creativity, will their definition incorporate these existing artists? What will their interpretation of the areas unique characteristics look like? One outcome David Bell suggested is that the project could further gentrify the area, driving up houses prices and squeezing out the area’s artists and low income occupants – the very people who have made the area what it is and have created the marketable aspects that have made it so appealing to potential investors over the years.
I was reminded of No Logo by Naomi Klein, in which she describes the process by which capitalism appropriates youth and underground culture precisely because it is untainted by capitalism. By doing so capitalism then transforms what it has appropriated in to something prosaic and uncool. In this sense marketing is a self-defeating exercise because as soon as it latches on to something it will slowly drain its host and be in need of a new one.
What will become of the Island is unclear. The Nottingham Wasteland Twinning project don’t have a specific vision for the area but have instead try to find out as much as possible about it and use it in new ways. For instance, they held a rounders match there in the summer using bats made from buddleia wood harvested on the wasteland and bibs dyed with buddleia and elderberries. It isn’t an activity that would appeal to everyone, but at least it is a transient activity that still allows others to use the space as they see fit.
I hope I’ll be able to visit the wasteland at some point and write about it on here and I’ll certainly be keeping an eye on the area to see what becomes of it.