The Role of Arts in the Ongoing HS2 Protests
HS2, the transport industries biggest project yet. How is the promise of integrating the arts concealing a deeper threat, and how are protesters using art to fight against destruction?
by Kitty Atherton | 06 December 2020
H2O Protest Poster
In 2015 a projected £52 billion was the estimated cost for the High Speed Two project, connecting London to Birmingham. Latest figures estimate the project has cost over double this prediction. With costs ever rising, it is likely to become the most expensive railway on earth. The project will be completed in two phases, with phase one estimated to be completed between 2028 and 2031, and phase two due to be completed between 2035 and 2040. The question is, can our environment endure such prolonged and extensive building work? The answer is, ultimately, no. Forcing its way through 130 protected wildlife sites including 10 sites of special scientific interest, HS2 advertises itself as an attempt to aid the economic positions of the north in the immediate future, yet is it inhibiting scientific surveillance, and attempts to save our earth in centuries to come?
Whilst attempts have been made to assess lower-speed transport alternatives, allowing engineers to include more bends and less tunnels, avoiding the destruction of the natural landscape, we once again have to rely on the acts of protesters to inform the nation of the drastic effect HS2 is having as a result of its construction, and its forceable operation.
Those who champion the project, the likes of Lord Adonis and the multinational engineering companies, argues the project will create over 25,000 job opportunities. We are somewhat blindsided by the advertised ‘Art Approach’ that HS2 Ltd has put forward, which aims to ‘integrate art into HS2’, shaping the way it is experienced. The HS2 Independent Design Panel have suggested that the excavated material generated by construction could be used to create land art, an ‘Angel of the North-Style intervention’. My fears are undoubtedly actualised by this plan, which I believe future generations will oppose, and we will come to regard this monument in the same way as we do the statue of Edward Colston; with a sense of national shame, rather than pride. Furthermore, the design panel’s encouragement of ‘High-profile artists’ to give a public voice to the art programme, seems a thoughtless rejection of the independent local artists who could have been supported in this multi-billion-pound project.
Equally, there has been outcry from critics who argue that the hiring of a £35,000 art curator is a ‘waste of tax -payers money’, all in attempt to give HS2 the ‘right look’. It seems the incorporation of the arts within the project is volatile from whatever perspective you look at it. Outside of the direct incorporation of visual arts within the train link, political protests like those organised by Greenpeace have been fighting hard to raise opinion against it. If you happen to take the 168 bus, it’s likely you will pass the Extinction Rebellion camp, with banners encircling the tented area. Slogans screaming out to those who pass “WE ARE IN A RECESSION! A SIXTH MASS EXTINCTION! STOP HS2!”. Elizabeth Cairns, cofounder of Stopping HS2 Chilterns puts forward a valid point that ‘taxpayers will be left to foot the bill for [this] destruction’. It seems ridiculous, the concept of paying for the mass demolition of our environment. Felling century-old trees like the pear tree in Warwickshire, a landmark for national heritage sites; these irreversible actions seem to go unconsidered, and HS2 makes no case for giving back to the environment.
When HS2 is in operation, it will be a lower carbon alternative to travel, yet we cannot reverse the state of the land that’s being destroyed. The project will go ahead, but awareness can be still be raised. It is only through the protest banners that I became aware of the damaging and irreversible effects HS2 will have. Therefore, the integration of art in protests seems to be evermore impactful in raising the opinion of the majority. This is something we should not lose sight of. Whilst the project operates under the guise of ‘providing jobs for the masses’, it overlooks the effects it will have in the long term. Projects will always provide jobs, but it will equally make redundant, other divisions of labour, like those who seek to preserve the heritage sites, now non-existent. ‘No business case. No environmental case. No money to pay for it’ was the conclusion voiced by the campaigners of Stop HS2. It is the view I stand by.