This piece was originally published on Contributoria — find out what that means and why it is posted here by reading this note.
This was the first of three* collaborative articles that I worked on for Contributoria under the pseudonym of Howard Wilkinson. And boy did we get in trouble.
Howard is a character that we invented on Paradise Circus. Howard is equal parts Alan Smithee and Grant Naylor — either a cover story for when nobody wants to own up to something, or a gestalt for when a number of us have collaborated on a piece. Jon Bounds and I had been working on an academic paper about our work on Paradise Circus and we saw the independence theme of the September issue as a perfect place to publish some of the work (whilst raising a few quid towards projects we wanted to run together). So again, this piece is sort of stealth-academia, dressed as journalism, though in this case the feature writing comes much closer to reporting on our actual research project. I’m really interested in this interface between academia and media so getting the chance to work like this twice in one month was really useful.
So how did we get in trouble? When we came to get paid, Contributoria realised that Howard was two of us and said we’d gone against the spirit of openness on the site. I think I can sort of take their point on this one. We had mentioned in the article that Howard was a group of people, but nobody had spotted it. Our bad. For a moment there there was a sense that we were going to get binned straight off but we were given a reprieve and some rules for how to conduct collaborative writing under your pseudonym in the future. I think we were the first co-authors, possibly the only ones, and so we’d caught people at Contributoria towers off guard — the nature of experimentation I guess.
For the benefit of doubt, this bit was co-authored by me and Jon Bounds and can also be found on Paradise Circus.
*sort of, two got published and the other one got binned by legal — more on that soon
Burn your house to the ground: why you need to kill your darlings to maintain your independence
I’m Howard. I’m part of a Birmingham miscellany called Paradise Circus – an ongoing love letter to a battered city. Paradise Circus writes, films, photographs, draws, makes and records things about Birmingham. I am, we are, Jon Bounds and Jon Hickman, Craig Hamilton and Danny Smith, and a number of other people who want to contribute to a conversation about what the city is, was, and could be. We weren’t always Paradise Circus and we used to be famous. We could have been contenders, but we threw it all away. You should too. And in this article, I’m going to tell you why.
Birmingham: it’s not shit
There was a website once, called Birmingham: it’s not shit. It started out as a few flash animations and a web forum, like the ones they used to have, and become a blog, which is sort of like an online diary. That was us, and that was me: Birmingham: it’s not shit. We call it B:iNS for short.
The site began in 2002 as a reaction to official discourses about Birmingham. Marketing Birmingham and Birmingham City Council, bidding to be the European Capital of Culture for 2008, wanted to sell an idea of Birmingham as a sort of preppy, trendy loft apartments and lattes kind of town. But my kind of town wasn’t and isn’t like that; Birmingham wasn’t all women laughing and eating salad in canalside bars. The local media went unquestioningly with this idea and we stepped up to push back at it. We wanted to tell a story about the other parts of Birmingham that real people cared about and could connect with.
Originally we were just Jon Bounds. Jon took his lead from sites like Popbitch and b3ta; pieces that played on a sort of Brummie race memory were layered with pop cultural references and internet memes and often took a satirical twist, knowingly subverting the traditional conventions of news writing. Jon gave B:iNS a self-deprecating personality and a tagline (‘mildly sarcastic since 2002’) which both set the tone for the work and spelled out our own take on the Birmingham mind-set.
B:iNS was a psychogeographic account of an unofficial Birmingham and it existed at the centre of a series of situationist moments through which alternative narratives could be constructed. Jon encouraged people to ride Birmingham’s famous 11 Bus route for 11 hours on the 11th day of the 11th month; B:iNS and the things in orbit around it existed to force those who engaged with it to disrupt the Spectacle of officially sanctioned daily life in Birmingham. Yes, by riding buses without going anywhere. That’s how it works.
But then something strange happened: B:iNS became successful at being successful. It became if not popular, then notorious, and if not well read, then at least celebrated. Proper grown ups, with titles like Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Creative Industries name checked it in public speeches. Lesser grown ups, like local politicians did too. Suddenly Jon Bounds, our founder, was a local media hero with his celebrity measured and weighed, assayed and registered as the 14th most powerful person in the West Midlands. As his influence didn’t extend a millimetre into Sandwell or other boroughs, he must have been even higher in the second city.
Burn your house to the ground
Strange things happen when you are co-opted to the mainstream.
People send you things, mostly press releases, not actual things, sadly. Your project becomes a channel, your community an audience, your work a target for indiscriminate marketing messages. There is a system, a well oiled machine, that exists to poorly match products to publics and to push messages indiscriminately through media outlets. Once you are in this machine you cannot get out of it. It becomes exhausting. We were drowning in stories, of offers to write us highly targeted blog posts (about jacuzzis, about travel, about anything) that would surely help boost our SEO rankings. We’d each of us sit down, at the end of a day, after doing our day jobs, to work at this project and we’d be hit by the firehose of PR opportunities. When you’re drowning in this stuff you can’t see your purpose anymore. It’s easier to close the computer then it is to work through the mail and get on with the project.
People invite you to things too. Silly PR things, but important things too in civic buildings with wine and with nibbles. What can you do when you’ve become so co-opted into the official city that you are ranked in terms of power and you’re invited to the sort of events to which you are supposed to provide a critical foil?
The Situationists have a term for this: recuperation. Recuperation is the process by which radical work is neutralised and becomes incorporated into the mainstream, bourgeois world. We’re going to look at this through their prism of their (Debord’s) Spectacle, because we (the Jon B weat the time) considered B:iNS to be a work after their theories.
B:iNS got lumped in with hyperlocal media which is a sort of clearing house for recuperated alternative media: all that difficult stuff about communities and about local democracy and accountability that community media groups have struggled with for years neatly repackaged and then reframed in terms of commercial viability, sustainability, and technology.
So we were exhausted by the spectacle, forced to conform to it, and then represented to ourselves as one of its objects.
We weren’t the only ones. Dorothy Kidd, one of those clever media theorists they have these days, gives a really clear account of this recuperation happening amongst community media groups in California. Kidd suggests that, more than just relocating alternativeness within something mainstream, the mainstream is recuperating alternatives through actually appropriating their language. BiNS got swamped, patronised with faint praise and made to reflect the mainstream. Some alternative media are sold false ideas of legitimacy: encouraged to chase grants and revenue streams which don’t have any longevity, these then have to bend their ideas to the funding. Some are swamped by the promotion of their activity to different interest groups which are not motivated to continue: Journalism students create tens of hyperlocals: all shortlived. ‘Civic good promoters’ create sites supposedly staffed by and sold as outlets to neighbourhood managers, these then disappear in local government reorganisation and cuts. In short, everything is nudged by the Stituationist’s Spectacle: memes are bred in the environment that soon infects and kills alternative voices.
We, perhaps uniquely, noticed it happening to us. So we got real. We got tough. It was time to kill our darling, it was time to burn down our own fucking house.
Burn your house to the ground
And that’s just what we did. We took the only damn thing we’d done that was good in this world and we threw it away. B:iNS was destroyed through an elaborate online performance only to be reborn as Paradise Circus – our ‘ongoing love letter to a battered city’ which seeks to challenge both the official and mainstream media record of Birmingham and the neutered and diminished nature of the city’s alternative public sphere.
Only through removing B:iNS altogether were we able to create a space for ourselves to work. We removed the noise, we uninvited ourselves from the official parties and we drew a line in the sand.
At the heart of it all is the Manifesto, a clear set of guiding principals that keep us true and tell the world who we are. The Manifesto says what goes in the work, and provides a framework for rejecting things that are of no use to the project. And being deliciously rude to those for would attempt to recuperate us.
If you are an independent media producer we urge you to always be clear about your project, to resist recuperation and never be afraid to set fire to the damn thing and just see what happens.
Paradise Circus – A Manifesto A Global City with a Local Miscellany
- Birmingham is not shit.
- That’s not to say everything that happens in it is not shit.
- Each has to decide what bits are and aren’t shit for themselves. We decide here, this is Paradise Circus.
- Birmingham is not shit but that doesn’t mean we have to churn your press release.
- Birmingham is not shit but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t send the press release about your band or your art happening to all the other really good blogs that might like it, like Created in Birmingham (which is not shit, a lot of the time). Just don’t send it here.
- Birmingham is not shit, is not shit. It’s also not a news source, hyperlocal blog or anything of that sort. It’s now Paradise Circus.
- We write, film, photograph, make and record things about Birmingham. That is all.
- You have the right to respond, we have the right to ignore you.
- We wish you nothing but love (if you’re not shit).