During the last decade there has been a significant, sustained attack on people’s right to housing, particularly in working class communities. These attacks must be considered alongside and in the context of the 2008 economic collapse, continuing capitalist crisis and savage cuts to local services and education
The art works presented here are the result of needs that emerge from within struggles: a need for affirming experiences and communicating issues affecting individuals and communities. The works are a way to share knowledge.
1 Affirmation and Communication
This work is made with people engaged in struggle, mainly around housing – without their input it would not exist . I make use of skills I have built up over the years. Some of the work is designed to allow for the expression of many people, for example the Brimstone House banner. Imagery often evolves out of dialogue.
When people are told that if they don’t take a flat hundreds of miles from where they live they will be making themselves ‘intentionally homeless’, and that would mean having their children taken into care, this is such an attack it can be difficult for a person to share. When we see hundreds of police officers used to evict a political occupation that is trying to save a housing estate ear marked for demolition in the midst of a massive need for housing, this reality, even though it has been experienced, can be difficult to share and make part of our collective awareness so that we can effectively organise against these things.
Affirmation has been an important purpose of the work, existing both in the work’s content, and in its context and method of production: where, how and with whom it is made.
The making of the banners is a collective process in various degrees and an activity whereby I can share skills which I have built up and learned over the years. The work is often made in the street during events designed to facilitate public engagement and speaking out – literally places where we hold the street for a period of time to create public spaces for discussion on our terms. Working with groups of people, such as Focus E15 and those fighting for housing in Southwark and Lambeth, has been an integral part of the process.
The banners can be produced by making a sketch, showing to the groups that they are made for, modifying the design if needed, after dialogue. The production of the actual banner can then take place in a studio. This was the case for Housing Banner for the Revolutionary Communist Group.
This method allows for concentrated work where a specific pictorial representation is needed outlining the different forces in the situation – in this case profit making through dispossession, the role of the law, and the fight back.
Another example of this method was the production of a banner for Focus E15 Mothers, who wanted to reference Sylvia Pankhurst and use the suffragette colours of purple green and white. During the production of this banner I was fortunate, with the Focus E15 Housing Campaign, to take part in a reading group about her life and it came up that she introduced the colour red into the suffragette colours to indicate the struggle for socialism, so we decided that this colour should be included on the banner, a good example of how dialogue and learning can inform this practice.
A development of this method was a banner made for the Fight For Aylesbury Campaign. The work was started on a wall in the estate.
Later, colours were built up and people were invited to add to it. This became a technique to invite people into conversation during regular street stalls to campaign to stop the demolition of the Aylesbury and on protest marches organised by the campaign.
Although the banners can be carried in the traditional way on protest marches, they can also be effective when used on street stalls where because of people’s awareness of issues such as housing, there is an immediate way for people to enter into and talk about and the work. And so I often structure the banners in such a way so that other people can add content to it.
An example of this is a banner featuring Brimstone House, which is supposed to be a place of temporary accommodation but has ended up being a place where people, including children, are left for years in cramped cell-like rooms. People added statements to the speech bubbles of people I had depicted in the building. In doing so they could describe both their own experiences and their thoughts about these experiences. The banner became a way for people to share their thoughts and experiences around housing with others. Over time, at the Focus E15 Housing Campaign stall, the painting was built up and took on a life of its own as people added to it, until the weight of the statements merited the banner being developed to reflect the seriousness of what people had revealed on it. So the work here was performing an educational role, certainly for me, and for passers by, and hopefully a call to action and affirmation of the truth of people’s experiences. The context of the campaign has meant that the sharing of experience can be acted upon.
2 Educate, Agitate, Organise!
Agency is the power to act and think; to be able to use that knowledge in our plans to act in the interests of fighting oppression in a capitalist society where culture is not designed to act in our interests.
How can image-making help in fostering an environment where people are empowered to act? The first consideration is how the work is seen and in what context. The word ‘banner’ is used here to describe a work that aims both for common visibility and use within the struggle itself, as a part of it. Obviously work can successfully do this through other forms, but for me the banner form was the most direct method. The simple banner form on material which can be rolled up after, is a way to take graphics, image-making and painting into the the street for multiple use. Other methods of political art-making include posters and projected images. What becomes the driving force is to take the art work into a new public arena, this has meant as well sculptures have become puppets and masks which can be used to explore what people are experiencing.
What is it images can do? Unlike written texts, images can present a set of relationships between things that can be seen and glanced over in a flash. Whilst different people access information in different ways, image making allows for the possibility of creating effects where the initial flash stays in the mind and can then be pondered over. This is the value of colour, shape and the imaginative combination of figures. Probably, the way the work functions on street stalls or in meetings is mostly on the level of affect, creating a mental and social space of interest and solidarity.
The image can also act as a ‘third thing’, mediating between the speaker/artist who is attempting to grasp and express a certain content, and the viewer/passer by whom they enter into dialogue with. The work which is between both of us can be a way of putting the things that are being questioned ‘on the table’ as it were. This dialogue may allow both of us to see things differently, as the specificity of the imagery provokes wider connection, interpretations and thoughts, for example around histories and events that might not otherwise be seen as being part of the immediate struggle.