‘The Knowledge Quarter’ – resistance to capture and divestment from capital

24 Jan 2019 james
The main atrium of Central St Martins College of Art & Design

In the Autumn I attended an utterly inspiring Shake! & Stuart Hall Foundation event – the launch of the Black Cultural Activism Map. It was held at the Platform theatre space in the Central Saint Martin’s art school – CSM – part of University of the Arts London. This new premises is a vast warehouse of the arts, opened in 2011 inside the former Kings Cross Station ‘Granary Building’, a mid 19th Century storehouse for London’s grain. As I sat in the theatre’s foyer waiting for the audience to arrive with colleagues Vivian and Lilian, we ruminated together on this imposing corporate building, with its studios, teaching rooms, theatre and gallery.

Several of us had struggled to find the right entrance and were exasperated by the high security everywhere. We asked each other: “What is this place? It feels more like a penitentiary than an art college!” We reflected on how the cavernous entrance halls with their ping-pong tables and high-up walkways reminded us of the jails in American movies. We stared in disbelief at the plastic wristbands we had to wear in order to be allowed through the glass crash barriers, a portal that is staffed even on a sleepy Saturday afternoon by a full time security guard.

This building is such a far cry from the mildly chaotic liberty that was experienced in British art schools from the 1960s up until the 1990s. How on earth could the rebellious spirit that fostered the likes of John Latham’s ‘Spit & Chew: Art and Culture’ performance at St Martin’s, or the occupation at Hornsey College of Art in 1968, or the spirit of Punk in the mid ‘70s come out of these factory halls?

The core of CSM is the Central School of Arts & Crafts, established in 1896 with public funds by the London County Council, under the leadership of William Lethaby, close follower of William Morris the revolutionary communist. Arguably, the art colleges of this city have been turned into boot camps for capital, churning out recruits to the armies of the Art Market. “Knuckle down artist, and focus on marketing yourself !”It feels as though the rebellious soul of the art schools from the 1950s onwards has been drummed out of here, wiped away from its squeaky clean surfaces.

As we sat in the foyer one of the staff came by, and clearly speaking off the record, expressed his amazement at how difficult it was to find your way around Central St Martin’s and indeed the whole Kings Cross Development. “The Everyman Cinema across the road isn’t allowed to have a proper sign! Neither is the Aga Khan Islamic Centre just here, which was opened by Prince Charles”. We asked why that is, he replied “That’s the way ‘Argent’ wants it.” “Who’s Argent?”, we asked. “The developers’, he replies.

Kings Cross development by Argent – with the front of Central St Martins College of Art & Design

So who is this ”Argent’? What is their history? And therefore ours?

They are the developers behind the massive Kings Cross site that is being created as an entirely new ‘city within a city’. It is evolving in the way that Canary Wharf did, only this will not be the new Financial Hub but the new Big Data Hub, as Google builds it’s first non-US base here with 650,000 sq feet of offices, nuzzling up to other residents such as Facebook. This is the new so-called ‘Knowledge Quarter’ clustered around existing international institutions: The British Museum, The British Library, The Wellcome Trust, the Francis Crick Institute and The Guardian.

Time and again London spawns these epicentres. In the 1950s and 60s there was one of Oil & Culture on the South Bank (around the Shell Centre and the Royal Festival Hall). In the 1990s & 2000s there was one around Finance & Culture in the Docklands (around Canary Wharf and the O2 Millennium Dome). Now a new one is arising of Capital & Data (around Kings Cross and Bloomsbury). Each of these ‘epicentres’ builds on the imperial role of London – an empire of oil, an empire of finance, an empire of data. These epicentres not only create colonised states around the world but they marginalise whole swathes of the people of this city and this country.

The ‘Knowledge Quarter’ declares that the knowledge that it owns is ‘knowledge’ and that other ways of knowing, other experiences, are not ‘knowledge’. During the event in the Platform theatre, the launch of the Black Cultural Activism Map, we watched Dehlia Snoussi’s short film. So intimate in its exploration of the streets of West London it asserts a different way of knowing, a different set of understandings, from the ‘mainstream knowledge’. Here is knowledge, understanding, pitted against power. An assertion that our history, that our experience, is ‘knowledge’ – knowledge that can act as our guide.

Who really is this Argent that gets wealthy from selling real estate to these great manufactories of mainstream culture, these production lines of ‘knowledge’? It is a private equity company, an LLD, privately owned and so not open to the kinds of scrutiny to which civil society campaigners have subjected PLCs, (companies listed publicly on the London Stock Exchange) since the 1970s. This is a company who was a joint-partner in the development of Manchester Airport (place of an anti-airport campaign in the late 1990s), the Ffos-y-Fran opencast coal mine in South Wales for twenty years until 2016 (location of a powerful Keep it in Ground action in 2016) and is now embroiled in battles over massive housing schemes in the London Borough of Haringey. And the ownership of Argent? This is private information, but there’s little doubt that it is fuelled by capital from overseas, capital that does not pay its taxes in the UK.

Action at Foss-y- Fran by Reclaim Power – May 2016

But there is resistance to capital even within the halls of CSM. Soon after the afternoon in the theatre, I met with David Cross, artist, teacher at University of the Arts and long since part of the wider Platform family. Since the mid 1990s David has explored ecology and social justice, and especially the conundrum of ‘sustainable development’, through his art and his teaching practice. And for the better part of a decade he has pressured the executives of UAL – who ultimately oversee the running of Central St Martin’s – to divest from fossil fuels and switch away from the use of the Royal Bank of Scotland, for so long so deeply imbedded in financing oil and gas projects.

He has met stubborn opposition. The university had declared its commitment to ‘sustainability’, but when he proposed that their actions should align with their declarations:

There was total silence – they just looked at me, astonished, as if to ask: “How could you, an academic, tell us how to run our university?”

As David explains further: “I realised that we had a fault line running through the university: between its public declarations and its actual material operations. And this fault line follows a division that is structured into the university: academics and students practise creative and critical thought, self-reflectively testing their assumptions and refining ideas, open and exposed to the scrutiny of their peers. But the people who now run the university as a business – estates and operations, financial managers, executives, consultants and so on – are not exposed to such scrutiny. They don’t have to explain themselves to a sceptical audience. They take their decisions more or less in private and announce them in briefings to the staff and students, who find that the university has been put in hundreds of millions of pounds of debt to an ecocidal bank, while wanting to believe that the university cares about sustainability.”

However, undeterred, David maintained pressure on the issue which was picked up by the student body. Linking with the Divest Fossil Fuels movement a ‘UAL: Fossil Free’ petition was launched and five student activists staged a ‘die-in’. They lay down in the very halls that we had later gazed upon with such dismay.


Action by Divest UAL in the main atrium of Central St Martins College of Art & Design – autumn 2015

It was a striking display of vulnerability in the heart of the CSM. A moment of resistance, a moment of history, so quickly erased. A piece ‘our knowledge’ that needs to be held onto, an action that is heir to Latham’s ‘Spit & Chew: Art and Culture’ and the Hornsey occupation.

And things began to move. Surprisingly quickly UAL shifted towards divestment. In November 2015 Nigel Carrington, Vice-Chancellor of UAL, announced: “UAL’s commitment not to invest in fossil fuel helps our strategy to put sustainability at the heart of everything we do. We hope it will be welcomed by our staff and students.” However the divestment of the university’s endowment fund, is only a small step and there is still a long way to go before all of UAL’s finances are fossil free.

It seems that this fault line that David observed, not only runs between the academic staff and the executive staff, but also between the valiant work of the Divestment movement and the forces that shape the city in which we live. At what point will there arise a demand that a public institution such as CSM breaks free from private capital concerns such as Argent? At what point do these companies get held up to scrutiny? At what point does this art school come to stand on publicly owned land – just as its forbear, Central School of Arts & Crafts, did when it was first established?

With thanks to David Cross.


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