‘It became necessary to learn because we made it so’

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMy first contact with community arts, in 1981, was as a member of the public. With the fearlessness of youth, I’d produced a piece of theatre about human rights to raise funds for Amnesty International. When social media was still a matter for science fiction, we needed posters to advertise the show. Somebody told me about a community printshop near me in South London and I turned up one morning to ask if they could print my poster. That was the first time I heard the line that would define for years my idea of community arts:

No, we can’t print it for you, but we can help you do it for yourself.’

The experience of working with Rob and Lulu on that poster was – to use a word much loved in the arts – transformative. Within a couple of months I had left theatre for community arts, learning how to help others make their own work. That happened differently in different organisations and different art forms (theatre is not screenprinting). The idea was also interpreted with varying degrees of fundamentalism. But most British community artists then believed that giving people access to skills and knowledge about art was akin to putting the means of cultural production into the hands of working people.

printing-is-easy-1That version of community art hit the buffers sometime in the mid 1980s. The reasons don’t matter here, but they are discussed in the book I’m not working on. For now, I’m interested in the question of passing on skills.

Four years after I made my own poster at the Greenwich Printshop, I was a sole worker in a rural town in the Midlands. Based in a community centre, I’d started a print workshop, but the project had quickly diversified into murals, video and especially theatre work, as I learned about the very different needs and interests of the community where I was now living.

That year, perhaps sensing that the time of the community printshop was passing, Greenwich Mural Workshop put on a retrospective exhibition, accompanied by a book. They visited and interviewed community artists across the country and about 30 projects are included in Printing Is Easy…? Community Printshops 1970-1986. Because the book collects those people’s own words, it’s a valuable snapshot of how community artists were thinking 20 years after the flash of inspiration that had started the movement. And one of the things that comes across is a feeling that they were wrong about that question of passing on skills.

Here is an extract from Andrew Howard’s 1986 reflection on the work of one of the earliest community arts groups, Islington Bus Company:

“It became necessary to learn because we made it so.

The mistake that Bus Co. made, along with others, was that in trying to demystify skills, it inadvertently abolished or at least greatly devalued them. Under this liberation it became possible for anyone to do anything, in theory at least. The last people to have recognised this would have been the working class themselves who in the execution of their daily lives are very quick to recognise and value skill. Skill is the ability to manipulate a given set of material or conceptual factors. It’s something you work hard at and it takes time to acquire. Most people recognise that and know there’s nothing magical about it. Most people might expect to learn how to wire a plug but would not feel devalued or disempowered by calling in an electrician to wire a house. People are disempowered when the decisions that affect them are made without their knowledge or consent. Only when skills are mystified and used in a way that is neither open nor accountable, does oppression occur.

Ironically, this ethic was itself, at best patronising and at worst a subtle form of oppression. People were coerced into executing tasks, for their own good (sic), that they would be unlikely to be able to carry out skilfully. The word coerce is used consciously, because it was always made clear that if the ethic were not accepted then the work would simply not be done.

At the same time it must be said that there were a great many tasks that people were encouraged to take on, that they may not normally have had the opportunity to do, where they did benefit and gain satisfaction and confidence.”

And here is Rick Walker, a printworker at Greenwich Mural Workshop and one of the editors of the book, who came to interview me in 1985, and collect some posters for the exhibition.

“Now I had to teach people how to print in two days! Of course it can’t be done. I tried at first to stick to the rules and I’m not joking when I say that I had people bursting into tears, quite unable to cope. I felt the same way myself. This seemed to me inconsistent with the aim of increasing community self-confidence. So gradually the rules were made more humane. […]

Our attitude now is that we’re all in favour of people having a go if they want to, and they have to help with the donkey work of printing itself. But camerawork, stencil making and, indeed, printing are highly skilled activities. There is no point in people taking hours or days learning them, and probably getting covered in ink in the process (like we all did starting out), unless they’re going to print regularly. […]

To me, the DIY system is wasteful of materials, unbearably slow and, in a number of ways, discriminatory and punitive. I cannot understand why it still has so many adherents.”

That idea of community art as empowering people by passing on skills has not disappeared, but it has become much more nuanced since the 1980s. The opportunities and demands of new technology have made (re)training a central preoccupation of government. Who is empowered by that change is an important question.

Today some community artists rightly see authorship as different from making. Multistory, itself the descendant of a 1970s community arts company, has been exploring how connecting artists with communities can lead to work that is true to both. A succession of commissions (including one I did with the amateur theatre makers of West Bromwich Operatic Society) has tested the meaning and boundaries of authorship. There are connections here too with the documentary practice that Amber established in the early 1970s.

I don’t know the answer, or the right way forward here. I understand and still believe in the empowering value of passing on skills and knowledge. It is precisely because I respect skill and value art that I’ve worked to enable more people to access them. But I also recognise that community artists often thought literally about it in the 1970s and 1980s. As Andrew Howard and Rick Walker saw in 1986, simplistic and rigid approaches can lead to perverse results, frustrating and disempowering the very people they try to serve. But these are important questions and artists working with people need to think about their own approach to them.

The quotes above are taken from Kenna, C., Medcalf, L. and Walker, R. (eds.) (1986) Printing Is Easy? Community Printshops 1970-1976,  London: Greenwich Mural Workshop, pp 26-29.

Many of the posters from that 1986 are now in the V&A Museum Collection, which holds hundreds of examples of community arts work from the period.

And here, in a spirit of honesty, is my own contribution to the book. Reading it again after 30 years, it sounds naïve and self-righteous. I’m sorry for the pompous tone, but I don’t really disagree with my younger self. I wrote it in 1985, the year of the Ethiopian famine and Live Aid, so my words about people being hungry were very specific. That year our project created a play about the politics of food. Fat Cats and Hot Dogs, developed with Stephen Lowe’s Meeting Ground theatre, was an ambitious and interesting piece of theatre, though not the most successful we did. Those things are not unconnected.

Fat Cats and Hot Dogs (1985)

Print work had largely stopped by then. As those I’ve included here show, the posters made at Hawtonville Arts Project were artistically simple and aimed only at publicising events. But, contrary to the experiences described above, making them was a sociable activity that people enjoyed. It was a new experience, but not an intimidating one with as much help available as was wanted. People learned skills, and in doing so, they learned all sorts of other things too.