Libraries are about books; everybody knows that. True enough – but what are books about? Over the past year, Multistory has been working with libraries in Sandwell to present film screenings and photography exhibitions. The films, by Martin Parr and commissioned by Multistory, open windows on worlds most people don’t know. In Mark Goes to Mongolia, we follow a West Bromwich pigeon fancier on a trip to trade birds with fellow enthusiasts in China. In Turkey and Tinsel, we travel by coach to Weston-Super-Mare with a group of Black Country people on a pre-Christmas jolly.
‘The films opened my eyes to how some of the older people really enjoy themselves ‘cos I don’t go out that often.’
The exhibitions include work from the four years Martin Parr has spent documenting life in the Black Country with Multistory. But they’ve also featured work by younger, local artists such as Mahtab Hussain, whose photographs portray the first Muslim generation who settled in Tipton in the 1950s and 1960s. The project was inspired by a nail-bomb attack near a local mosque and people’s responses to Hussain’s work spoke of their commitment to living together in a divisive time:
‘Very thought provoking. People should live and let live and treat others with the same respect they desire. I really like the book and its message.’
‘The people come over as being proud and tolerant. It was most informative.’
‘I think that people should have the respect to understand other religions.’
By taking this work into libraries, Multistory is making the most of their friendly reputation to share stories that are sometimes surprising, sometimes funny, sometimes even ‘a bit rude’, as one person put it – but always illuminating. Tea, biscuits and conversations turn screenings into events and this sharing of experience helps makes the artist’s work more meaningful to people who are not just its subject, but its purpose too.
Documenting ordinary lives is vital when the mainstream arts seem to have so little interest in them, except sometimes as material for polemic. But what matters even more is that this work is done with the people involved. They may not press the shutter or sit in the editing suite but the work is made in dialogue before, during and after. The artist is in control of their art but the people are in control of their response. Without mutual respect, trust even affection, nothing can be made. New understandings of authorship are being explored, and they are very different from those asserted by community artists in the 1970s. What hasn’t changed is the test of this work: people’s response to how they are portrayed:
‘It shows that Black Country people are still the salt of the earth, people who you can trust and enjoy a laugh with.’
‘The pigeon film was incredible. I have seen it before and I’ve come to see it again. When I grew up nearly every other garden had pigeons. It’s a rich man’s sport now.’
The implicit contract between artist and the people they are representing remains consistent with that imagined by Murray Martin in the early days:
At the end of the day the success or failure of a piece of work by Amber is the community you make it about looks at it and says “That’s right”.’
What are books about? Discovery – exactly like films, photographs and the local events where you meet artists and neighbours over a cup of tea. Showing films in libraries is just another way of telling stories by, about and with the people who use – and pay for –them.
With thanks to Multistory who published an earlier version of this piece on their website.