H is for Hostile Environemnt
The Hostile Environment threatens every element of the creative ecosystem

By artist Edwin Mingard
Tuesday 3 May 2022

As a UK-based artist, art and culture from overseas has affected every aspect of my life in a positive way. Even those who hold anti-migration views acknowledge the benefits that experiencing different cultures have for all of us: this debate has been won, except on the furthest fringes of the political right. Instead of talking about cultural diversity, I want to focus instead on the benefit that migration – closely interlinked, but a different concept – brings to the arts. Doing this will make it easier to understand the catastrophic effect that the Hostile Environment has had on the discipline I love. 

Culture cannot truly be understood from a distance. This is the case even when consuming it, but even more so when making it. It is one thing to watch and learn from East Asian cinema or Latin American music – it is quite another to be taught by a director from Seoul or to play with a Cumbia artist from Rio. The opportunities for learning that are there in the granular detail of someone else’s experience, or the new things you’ll both discover by spending time – real time – in the same place, cannot be synthesised any other way. Cultural cross-pollination cannot be achieved through awayday symposiums, or online, or an artist doing a residency abroad. It is achieved in person, over a sustained period. It happens through living together. Through chance encounters; the sharing of resources; seeing each other at our best and worst; growing up together; having fun; navigating difficulties together. 

The reality is that the most exciting cultural manifestations come from different perspectives and traditions colliding, interweaving, synthesising something new. The very cultural activities that the UK is known for overseas are themselves the products of cross-cultural influences. The UK’s most successful ever film about football, our national game, is Bend It Like Beckham, which is simultaneously an exploration of UK/South Asian female identity. Grime and its offshoots are perhaps our greatest current music export, and if you can name one grime artist it is probably Stormzy, whose work is profoundly influenced by growing up in a Ghanaian household in a poor, and extremely diverse, borough in London. I pick these examples because they are so widely known; behind them stand thousands of others, from award-winning plays to YouTube accounts with millions of subscribers to celebrated dance groups to… you name it. 

Another key ingredient in this cross-cultural pollination is that no-one arrives as a fully formed and successful artist. How many of our greatest cultural exports were developed by someone whilst claiming benefits, or working a minimum-wage job for years and making art on the side? And this extends way beyond the people we consider ‘artists’ pure and simple: as an artist your first show will most likely be curated by a friend who’s also scraping by, perhaps in a gallery or music venue set up (and definitely staffed) by people who have devoted their lives to the arts but may never see a steady paycheque from it, let alone an employment contract. The arts would be nothing without this. 

The Hostile Environment threatens every element of the creative ecosystem I’ve described. It is built upon an assumption, held by its architects, that the only migrants the UK wants or needs are those with high net worth or high incomes. A wealthy artist from Europe or North America will be able to make the UK their home with little difficulty. If they’re poor, they’ll be able to enter but probably not stay (their visa will explicitly state this, carrying restrictions about the kind of work they can do; or stating that they have to hold private healthcare; or that they’re not eligible for any kind of state funding; or all of the above). If they’re from a country in the Global South, they’ll have difficulty getting a visa to even enter. For years, the Home Office operated a secret system that automatically recommended that visa applications from lower-income (and non-white-majority) countries should be rejected out of hand. The unjust distribution of wealth across the world means that this maps, in an imprecise but ‘sticky’ way, onto race: wealthy migrants are more likely to be white migrants. So even though policies don’t explicitly reference race, they are racist in practice. 

If you’re reading this and thinking it sounds a bit extreme, or doesn’t map onto the UK that you know, there is a simple reason: things that are happening now will be felt by us all years down the line. Currently, as an artist working in the UK, I have access to a huge breadth of experiences, collaborators, links across the globe, right here in the UK. It’s hands-down one of our greatest national assets. But the days of someone from the Global South moving here for a low-paid job have been over for years now: significant wealth or the asylum system are the only real options if you want to make it to Britain. Those in the UK who have global South heritage but aren’t wealthy, are more and more likely to be second- or third-generation. My own family’s migrant heritage, from Cypriot peasants to London, simply wouldn’t be possible now. Post-Brexit, the days of a young artist even moving from Europe with a dream to make it – to perhaps work in a cafe whilst studying or making their own work – are now over too. So the only routes in are wealth/high income or the asylum system, and the government is hell-bent on dismantling the latter. 

We’re feeling the edges of this already, coming out of the pandemic. But the real worry is what will be happening in ten years’ time? When there aren’t generations of young people from diverse backgrounds growing up together in the UK. When our diversity is limited to cultural heritage perhaps several generations removed, not a living thing that we’re exploring together, in all its messy and complicated beauty. When opportunities to experience diverse cultures are for the rich, who travel freely, not for working class kids to encounter in school or on the estate. In the struggle to get richer we’ll have become poorer. And what was malignly intended as a Hostile Environment for some of us, will be a sterile environment for all of us. 

H Is For Hostile Environment, a collaborative film led by artist Edwin Mingard and Dr Keren Weitzberg, is screening at the Rio Cinema in Dalston, Wednesday 11th May at 5.30 p.m.

Tickets are pay-what-you-can and can be booked here.

Edwin Mingard is a socially-engaged visual artist. He works principally with moving image, making standalone artists’ film and installations. His work often takes on mainstream and accessible forms – documentary, music video, glossy magazine – so as to move beyond a traditional gallery audience.

Edwin studied philosophy at the LSE, and is a Fellow of Teesside University’s Digital Cities programme. His work has been commissioned by the BFI, RSA, Northern Film+Media, the Wellcome Trust, Film London and many other bodies, including academic institutions, public and independent arts organisations and festivals.