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Damien Hirst’s new town adds a cultural twist to planned utopias

Damien Hirst’s statue of a naked, pregnant woman towers over Ilfracombe. Ben Birchall/PA

A development of 750 new homes in the small town of Ilfracombe on England’s north Devon coast has been approved by the local council. The news would be unremarkable if it weren’t for the identity of the project’s backer – the artist Damien Hirst.

One wonders if the “artist’s impressions” of the prosaically titled Southern Extension are by the man himself. I suspect not. The new-town’s name is matched by a series of rather sparse, equally prosaic sketch-renders of predictable developer mass housing. The only hint we get at an artist’s vision behind Southern Extension is a statement from the architect: Hirst, we are told, has a “horror of ‘anonymous, lifeless buildings’ and wants ‘the kind of homes he would want to live in’”, and is intent on developing a thoroughly sustainable, wind and solar powered-eco town.

New towns are nothing new. And neither are housing developments led by social and cultural visionaries, and industrialists. From the model villages of mustard-magnates in the early 19th century (Trowse, in Norfolk, was expanded by the Coleman family in 1805); Titus Salt’s Saltaire in Yorkshire (built by the industrialist to replace slum conditions for workers at his mills in 1851); to Tomáš Baťa’s shoe company town in Essex (effectively a communist enclave in south-eastern England, built in 1933), and Prince Charles’ Poundbury (built from 1993 onwards, on the Prince’s Duchy of Cornwall land in Dorset), industrial (and agricultural) endeavour, social ambitions and architectural desires have been the drivers behind the building of villages and towns with utopian aspirations.

What is new, however, is the involvement of artists as the force behind these future imaginings. Southern Extension is to be partially built on land owned by Hirst, adjacent to one of his residencies in the north Devon town, with the development backed by the artist.

In the model villages of old, wealthy, socially minded industrialists wished to provide accommodation for their workers that bettered the social ills that they saw. They established communities around the mills, factories and fields that needed supplies of well-rested, well-fed and reasonably happy workers to generate their wealth. But while they were indeed socially minded, they were very much industrial capitalists at heart. These villages and towns were industrial utopias – work and production were at the core of their ambitions, as well as social well-being.

In 21st century Britain, we no longer work in the traditional industries. Model towns and villages are not built by the Salts and Baťas of our day. But what we most certainly do have is a culture industry. And any artist worth their salt (and certainly those like Hirst) are adept business people. They are entrepreneurs, and within the culture industry, they can be seen as the industrialists of our time.

But today’s culture industry is markedly different from the industries of the past: the primary commodity is cultural capital, and the most important producers in the chain are not the artists, or even the artist’s assistant’s who produce the works, but the consumers who give the art its value in the first place. The consumer, by endowing the objects of art (and their prints, and coffee-mugs, and dot-painted bins that are associated with Hirst’s art) with cultural capital, produces the value of the art in itself.

Hirst already has a strong, and controversial, presence in Ilfracombe. He has established a gallery, a restaurant, a café and plans for further businesses in the area. Verity, a 20m tall statue created by Hirst of a naked pregnant woman, looks out over the town’s harbour. So why would an artist build a new town next to his adopted home-town, and use his own capital to drive the development? We can look to the prosaic, un-visionary “artist’s impressions” of Hirstville for our answer.

Nothing to see here? North Devon Journal

These drawings belie the bottom-line economics at the heart of Hirst’s drive to develop this corner of England. For an artist who operates on shock value, there is little shocking (expect perhaps for the lack of shock) in this vision of a future English town. The imaginings and associated descriptions (“sustainable”, “eco” and the like) and the sparseness of the drawings allow the local council to pass the planning application without undue concern: this town is much like that of any new development – unthreatening, free of any substantial critical vision, and capable of being delivered at high margins, turning a tidy profit for the artist-cum-developer.

Where Hirst’s first stroke of genius comes into play, however, is simply through his own involvement. The Hirst brand will convert this town into more than housing: it will attain cultural capital though association and consumption (and not, judging by the “artist’s impressions”, through any form of design), and therefore command higher prices for the real estate. Economically, the development almost can’t fail to be a success for Hirst – for who wouldn’t want to live in a house that shared the magic of the man who put a shark in a tank of formaldehyde?

Your new neighbour has some odd tastes. Fiona Hanson/PA

But perhaps we can also see faint echoes of the model-village aspirations of yore? For the important point to notice here is the association between the Hirst-ville development and Ilfracombe – or Hirst-on-Sea as it’s become known by some. Like the industrialists of the 19th and 20th centuries, the model village of Southern Extension will provide a steady stream of productive employees in the culture industry, ready to work hard by eating, drinking and buying in the cafes, restaurants, and art galleries of Hirst-on-Sea: the hard graft of productive consumption.

And what better way to secure both your future workforce and consumer base, than by creating the brand convergence between the home (the Hirst-house) and the place of work and play (the Hirst-café/restaurant/gallery)?

With several thousand new residents housed in the latest eco-homes, and imbued with the cultural capital of The World’s Most Famous Living Artist, the business interests (the culture factories) of Hirst’s Ilfracombe are almost guaranteed to remain productive for many years to come, through the dedicated service of those “creatives” to whom the development will no doubt be marketed.

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