Anti-Fragile crop

I’m currently reading Nassim Nicholas Taleb‘s follow-up to Black SwanAnti-Fragile. Quite apart from being a brilliant, massively stimulating and (just occassionally) niggling read, it’s a book with real relevance to our practice here – one of the most obviously so since I read the William Gibson non-fiction collection Distrust That Particular Flavor and Lewis Hyde‘s Common as Air a year or so back . I suspect I’ll be reflecting on a few of my reactions here.

One of the most (I suspect) controversial observations Taleb makes is about the link between the spending a nation puts into higher education and that nation’s economic success. Most prosperous nations have a thriving university sector so there’s a direct causal relationship, right? Well, yes, but not necessarily in the way it’s generally read. Taleb claims that it’s the wealth that leads to better (or at any rate higher levels of) university education rather than the other way round. The usual narrative (education inevitably leads to wealth) is not only a logical fallacy – it’s a self-serving one spun out by a sector constantly looking to increase both state and private funding.

Now I can’t call this either way (although I have to say, Taleb makes a very strong case and I’m inclined to go with him). However, the observation has some resonance with what I’ve felt for a long time about arts funding. But first, a digression and a recollection.

I recall, some years ago, the then-Controller of the BBC Proms, Nicholas Kenyon (now the Director of London’s finest arts centre, The Barbican*) giving a speech (at the British Library, if memory serves) to launch that year’s Proms programme. He pointed out that different governments had, in recent years, very much rationalised arts funding as part of a wider politico-philosophical agenda. The Thatcher government saw the arts as a way to boost tourism and celebrate “heritage”; New Labour in turn had seen art as a way of fostering its own social engineering programme (my words, not his), that is, as a way of “driving diversity” and “regeneration”. Kenyon suggested that instead, perhaps governments (and for that matter philanthropists) might view the arts as worth funding in their own right. It’s simply something a decent, enlightened (lower case) society should do.

I completely agreed then and a decade on still do. What Taleb’s observations about education reminded me of is that not only is the argument for arts funding as a basis for economic regeneration unnecessary; it’s very probably wrong-headed too. Yes, economically thriving cities tend to have “thriving” arts scenes (and I put that in quotes because whether that art is any good is always a moot point), but again, don’t get what Taleb calls your “causal arrow” the wrong way round. Wealth attracts art, not necessarily the other way round.

But here’s a funny thing about investment… it comes in all shapes and sizes and can have benefits unforeseen (and of course the whole point about Taleb’s overarching thesis is that most things are). Last weekend, as I reported over on my blog, Sarah and I went to Cafe Oto in Dalston to see a the second night in a residency by the Japanese improvising guitarist Otomo Yoshihide.


The key word here is Dalston. For those of you unfamiliar with London geography, this is a North-Eastern inner suburb, and until recently was considered something of a schlepp to get to from pretty much anywhere else in the city. This was in fact untrue, as the ‘hood was well connected by buses, but most Londoners’ mental map of the city is based on the Tube, and that part of the city was well and truly off the Tube. This has all changed recently, of course, with the opening of the “Ginger Line” – actually the “Overground” – a network of lines around the entire city (some pre-existing, others entirely new) which are integrated with the Tube and, crucially – on the Tube map.

Dalton Junction is a spanking new station on a spanking new stretch of the network which runs from West Croydon in the deep south right up to Highbury. Cafe Oto is about, ooh, thirty seconds’ walk away. And certainly it was very busy on Saturday, (and it frequently sells out what are, after all, some pretty “fringe” musical events).

Now I am unable to prove beyond all doubt that the venue has benefitted enormously from the new line and station, but I do know that apparently poor Tube links were a problem for the now-defunct Ocean, just a mile or so away in Hackney. I’m not making any bold claims here, simply wondering: perhaps spending money on, say, transport infrastructure can have a more profound effect on the success of arts venues than direct investment in, well, art? One thing is for certain (and we’re back with Taleb here): the truth is almost certainly more complex than we think it is – and thoroughly unpredictable.

Oh, and we were home in West London in about 35 minutes. Ever so slightly deaf.


* And yes, a client, but I think our various blogs and tumblr make it clear that we really mean this, regardless; recent delights have include the blockbuster Duchamp show, Low, Geoffrey Farmer’s Surgeon and The Photographer installation and Strindberg’s Madame Julie.