Multistory is a small art organisation based in Sandwell, an urban borough west of Birmingham that was once a cradle of the industrial revolution. Today it is a multicultural patchwork of towns, hardworking and proud but which also has substantial economic and social problems. Multistory was established in 2006, but its core team, Emma Chetcuti and Caron Wright, has originally been members of Jubilee Arts, a company founded in 1974 during the first phase of community arts. Initially, they continued in that line with Multistory, engaging community groups in projects of local value. But they were finding it increasingly hard to reconcile funder’s demands with their own artistic, ethical and social ambitions and so, in 2009, they made a radical and risky break with the existing model.
Rather than employ a team of arts workers, Multistory began to commission artists, including some with no previous experience of participatory work. The aim would still be ‘to make art with, for and about the people’ of Sandwell, but in artistically ambitious ways that also made their experience resonate much more widely. Multistory refocused its work on photography and writing, because they were accessible and flexible. Word and image were also central to the intention of telling different, neglected and unheard stories. Thus began a series of documentary projects led by photographers such as Martin Parr, Mahtab Hussain, Corinne Noordenbos and Liz Hingley, and writers, including Margaret Drabble and Emma Purshouse. Many of these artists had not previously worked in a participatory way, and Multistory had to develop new approaches to support them and the people they would be working with.
‘It’s about relationships with people. We talk to the artist about the work they’re making here because, each time we’re inviting them to do something slightly different to what they normally do. Most of them have never made work that they’re showing back to the people who are in the work. It’s not in some fancy gallery 300 miles away. They’re looking them in the eye. They are meeting them again as equals. It’s about reciprocity. Sometimes, that is unspoken and sometimes it’s very tangible.’
The approach developed by Multistory since 2009 is experimental and innovative. It rethinks the idea of giving people access to the meansof artistic production because the artists commissioned were often creators unused to working with people except, perhaps, as subjects. In these commissions Multistory sought a different kind of authorship, in which the images made by the photographers came out of conversations sometimes developed over a long time. The portraits – and portraiture emerged as the primary form of photography – were in effect negotiated with the subjects. When, where and how they were made was no longer only in the photographer’s control. Each person receives a print of their own image, in a commitment to making work that would sell for high prices elsewhere part of the relationship.
A similar process was adopted with writers, like Susie Parr, who worked with allotment holders, and Margaret Drabble, who travelled around the Black Country by bus with a local poet, Emma Purshouse. Margaret and Emma spent rainy days at the hairdresser or in cafés, talking to people and sharing stories. From those conversations, they made a magazine of documentary and fictional writing calledBlack Country Women. The stories Margaret Drabble wrote for this are unique in her work because, as she said later, she would not have dared use the local voice without having got to know the people who inspired them. When I spoke to some of the women who had been involved in the project, they recognised themselves in the writing, not as individuals but in its truthfulness to their culture and identity. They spoke of feeling proud of how their experience was presented.
The approach has not always been successful. Some artists have found the process difficult and they have struggled to connect their practice satisfyingly with the kind of participation that is the reason for Multistory’s work.
‘It’s not a fixed or ready-made thing. Sometimes things work and sometimes they don’t. We’ve been learning where we want to assert the things we want out of the project. You can’t deny that the artist has power, but that has to be negotiated each time.’
But it has often produced challenging and original work. The portraits of Black Country people made by American photographer Bruce Gilden are unforgettable: large, close up faces that bring out the complex humanity of their subjects. But art galleries have been unwilling to show this uncompromising work, despite the appreciation of the people portrayed, and the images have been shown only in community settings. A long project with offenders by the South African master, David Goldblatt, has also produced powerful work that is particularly meaningful to the people involved. His portraits of offenders at the scene of the events that led to their conviction have been exhibited in prisons where they have been the subject of intense bit appreciative discussion.
In such work, Multistory walks a fine line between empowerment and exploitation, but it is a risk that needs to be taken if the aspiration for cultural inclusion is to be real. Susan Meiselas, who is known for her documentary work on human rights in Latin American, came several times to the Black Country between 2015 and 2017, working with women in refuge. Her slow and painstaking work took time to establish trust. She introduced writing and illustration workshops facilitated by local artists, Sarah Taylor Silverwood and Emma Purshouse.
When she eventually made photographs she had to avoid anything that could identify people or locations. Many show empty bedrooms, their occupants’ lives implicit in negative space. In the emergency room of one refuge, bare walls and floor and a stripped single bed await need. In another photograph of another room, the difference is that the bed has been slept in. The images are collected, with writing and collages from the workshops, in a book published by Multistory. It is moving read – but also important one at a time when funding for women’s refuges is being cut back. In it, Meiselas explains:
In each workshop we hoped to create a space where women could participate as little or as much as they were comfortable and willing to commit time for. […] We wanted to make something with and for those we had met who shared their stories, and for those who might need to hear them. We wanted to make visible what was given, to share what came from these women, through us, to link to others.
I’ve followed Multistory’s work closely for ten years, been involved in some of it, and observed its explorations, successes, reversals and revisions. Some of what Multistory has achieved seems to me as important as any art I know, although it follows its own distinctive rules. Some seems, for reasons I don’t always understand, somehow to miss the mark. But even when it doesn’t succeed, this participatory art is characterised by exceptional rigour, integrity and courage. The continuing vitality of community art and its renewal in changing times is dependent on the willingness of activists like the Multistory team to keep reaching beyond the boundaries.
‘It’s all the things that we’re talking about that are challenging. It’s other people’s stories, it’s their voices, wanting to show them as true and real as you can. People are moved by that, surprised and very happy, because they’ve never been asked before. But they’re also universal stories. It’s about revealing something that we can all empathise with and share, like making the best out of sometimes not having very much.’
Note I’ve worked with Multistory since 2009 on various projects as well as supporting their planning and reflection. Multistory also commissioned my book about amateur theatre, Where We Dream. Thanks to Emma Chetcuti, Caron Wright, Becky Sexton, Margaret Drabble, Emma Purshouse, Martin Parr and everyone involved with Multistory. In memory of David Goldblatt (1930-2018).