Society for Cultural Anthropology
Volunteered - Oral Presentation Session
The Barbican Arts Centre is run as a department of the City of London Corporation, one of the most powerful financial and political actors in the world. The Centre’s unique status binds it to a strictly apolitical mandate. This paper, the result of a year’s fieldwork, documents the efforts of Barbican workers to navigate the demands of their apolitics. It begins at the interface between the Corporation and the Centre, where the concept of ‘the political’ is produced through complex negotiations between high financiers, state bureaucrats, and their creative counterparts. I go on to show that the adoption of an apolitical stance differentially informs labour throughout the Centre, from the programming of artistic work to the technical management of public space. Through careful use of distancing acts and linguistic strategy, many workers realize their desire for meaningful civic engagement, though the possibility of ‘resistance’ seems more remote. I show how changes in wider social climates, particularly those related to Brexit and to the ecology of arts funding, have led to certain concerns becoming depoliticised whilst others grow more contentious. Finally, I ask what it means to honour these boundaries as a researcher, a task that requires acute sensitivity to the shades of irony and sincerity at play in ethnographic encounters. Anthropologists may find themselves acting as proxies for political tensions that can find no other voice, a position we must choose to embrace or suppress.