Speaking of community art

Someone recently suggested to me that I should speak of ‘Art in the Community’ because community art seemed to be a genre, like Pop Art. It was an interesting observation and I’m always glad to be reminded how differently ideas can be interpreted. Still, there are clear reasons why I continue to describe my work as community art after 35 years. One of them is that community art is a theory, not a genre or even a practice. It is rooted in Article 27 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which begins:

Everyone has the right freely to participate in the cultural life of the community [and] to enjoy the arts

Community art sees that right as reaching beyond the idea of giving people access to art, which might be what art in the community offers. Desirable as that may be, it’s not enough, since it leaves us as largely passive spectators rather than agents ‘in the cultural life of the community’.  Community art, as first imagined in the 1960s and 1970s, takes Article 27 to mean that everyone should have access to the means of cultural production as well as consumption. Recognising that is not the case, community artists work so that more people do have the resources, training, knowledge and means to create their own artistic work on their own terms.

Why does that matter? What’s so important about being able to create your own art? Because art is a way of making sense of existence, of defining, expressing and values. Art enables us to represent ourselves in the world, in all sorts of ways that go beyond speech. And if we cannot represent ourselves, we are at the mercy of other people’s representation of us. Imagine a world where women’s experience was represented mainly in the creative production of men. Actually, that’s most of Western art history…

You can download an essay setting out that theory more fully by clicking on this link.

Community art is a rights-based theory about art’s place in the world. You cannot recognise community art by looking at it because it is not expressed in form or aesthetics: that’s why it is not a genre. It is a way of working – the enacting of a framework of ideas and values. Even then, it’s easily confused with participatory art, socially-engaged practice relational aesthetics, dialogic practice, new genre public art, community cultural development and the many other practices that have emerged since the 1960s, mostly as more or less conscious offshoots from, or reactions, to community art.

But community art, the original spark, remains clear and meaningful to me. Its practice is fascinating, inspiring and creative, and the need for it is as great as ever.

So thanks for raising the question: I welcome the chance to think and talk about this restless art. If you too see things differently, please use the comments space below to share your perspective.

 

3 – Nearly building a Fun Palace in West Bromwich

‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders.

There has been at least one serious attempt to give physical reality to Joan Littlewood’s vision: The Public, in Sandwell. This huge, multi-disciplinary and interactive community arts centre was imagined by Jubilee Arts, who had been working in this part of the post-industrial West Midlands since 1974. The new building was conceived as an affirmation of community art as a cultural field that deserved equal respect with any other. It was to be a cornerstone for regeneration in West Bromwich town centre and a place for local people to develop and share their creativity. Like Joan Littlewood, Jubilee set out to say that this place and these people deserve the same as anyone else: the best.

Designed by Will Alsop, The Public opened in 2008, but by then problems had already forced changes of design, vision and operation. It struggled to gain the wholehearted backing of Arts Council England, which provided only project funding after 2009. But The Public did win strong local support – in a town with no other arts facilities, the centre attracted tens of thousands to exhibitions, theatre and comedy shows, tea dances, workshops and events. In 2013 Sandwell Council withdrew its funding and closure became inevitable; but, during its last 12 months, The Public had welcomed more than 450,000 visitors.

For many people – especially those who never visited it – The Public is just a symbol of how National Lottery funding can be wasted on useless cultural projects. It’s true that many mistakes were made during the project’s conception, construction and operation. Hubris, inexperience, fear and politics all played their part and the consequences should not be minimised. Many people were hurt by the project’s ultimate failure.

Does that mean it should not have been attempted? Does it mean that the vision was unachievable? The art world, usually so quick to defend its ‘right to fail’, said little about a project it neither understood nor liked. For me, and despite the mistakes and the failures, The Public was a brave attempt to make Joan Littlewood and Cedric Price’s vision real by creating  a permanent Fun Palace in one of the poorest boroughs in Britain. The idea of opening a first class arts space in such an area was already challenging: doing it in a way that valued all kinds of creativity was  too much. So, like Littlewood and Price before them, the Jubilee Arts team struggled to make their vision clear to the planners and funders. Graham Peet, who worked on the project from start to finish, writes on a legacy website:

‘But what is it for?’ was a question often asked by funders. In the end that question stopped being asked. It had become obvious to hundreds of thousands of visitors what it was for. It was about making West Bromwich a better place to live.

The people of West Bromwich did not have the same difficulty. I visited the project several times during its troubled life and though the problems were plain enough, I thought that, with time and support, The Public could succeed. What always impressed me was seeing place full of local people discovering and enjoying art. These were very different visitors than those I might see in a conventional art gallery – local people, curious and open-minded, appreciative of what the strange pink building could offer them. They came not despite but because of the mix of art and activity that made The Public so incomprehensible to the art world. Work by Tracey Emin, Allan Ahlberg, Martin Parr, Shazia Mirza, Jeremy Deller, John Akomfrah, Jenny Eclair and countless others rubbed shoulders with that of young artists, amateur and craft groups, students and school children. And that made perfect sense to the people of West Bromwich.

‘My roots are in West Brom I just loved all of the photographs as they captured every aspect of the wonderful, warm hearted Black Country people. Thank you. I shall revisit the Public again and again’

(Comment left by a visitor to Martin Parr’s exhibition)

It didn’t quite work, yet – but it was on its way to working. Its closure was a sad moment for many people, including me. It also seemed to underline how difficult it is to do something actually different. We’re told nowadays to ‘Think outside the box’ – such a cliché – but try to think creatively, though, really leave existing assumptions, and you’ll soon find the boundaries.

Joan Littlewood would have understood The Public, I think. She would have recognised too the difficulty of getting the powerful to accept such a different idea. Was it worth the cost?

…Part 4 tomorrow

More information

  • The Public Story, a website by Graham Peet and Linda Saunders, with whose permission the second block of photographs is included.

1 – Failing to build The Fun Palace

On 1 & 2 October 2016, almost 300 temporary Fun Palaces were created in Britain, Ireland, France, Norway, Australia and New Zealand, all inspired by the vision of Joan Littlewood. Since 2013, this movement has come from an idea by Stella Duffy, picked up by tens, then hundreds and now thousands of other people. Both the original vision and its subsequent expression are at the heart of what participatory art is about, so each day this week, I’ll post about Fun Palaces, then and now, and what could be learned from the experience of trying to make them happen.  

farnham-fun-palace

Part One – The Original Fun Palace

For years in the 1960s and 1970s the theatre director Joan Littlewood pursued a vision of a place where working people, like herself, could get involved in art, science, discovery, learning, pleasure…

‘Choose what you want to do – or watch someone else doing it. Learn how to handle tools, paint, babies, machinery, or just listen to your favourite tune. Dance, talk or be lifted up to where you can see how other people make things work. Sit out over space with a drink and tune in to what’s happening elsewhere in the city. Try starting a riot or beginning a painting – or just lie back and stare at the sky.’

Littlewood wanted everyone to benefit from the social change happening around her and to have the opportunities to fulfil their potential. She drew on an ideal of the university and its capacity for self-development. New ones were then being built in Essex, Norwich, York, Sussex and Warwick to facilitate social mobility, though her description actually sounds more like the radical learning spaces that briefly flared during the student sit-ins of 1968 at Hornsey College of Art and elsewhere.

But she drew also on all sorts of other radical ideas and folk memories that were bubbling up at the time: socialism, her own theatre work, the pleasure garden, adventure playgrounds, mechanics’ institutes, community art and who knows what else. Littlewood called it The Fun Palace, apparently in response to Jennie Lee’s (Britain’s first arts minister) assertion that ‘What people want now is fun’. The phrase caught on, but it also caused difficulties. It was hard to explain, and it made some people think that this was all an indulgence – the fantasy of unworldly artists.  As her friend and biographer, Peter Rankin, writes:

‘Joan, just by talking, could create the Palace before your eyes but soon she would be talking to people who would go away thinking: ‘What was all that about?’; and those were the people who would be giving planning permission and providing money.’

It didn’t help that Joan Littlewood could be very difficult to work with. For all her commitment to the collective, she was not a team player. Still, she battled for her idea. With the visionary architect Cedric Price and the support of friends and colleagues, she campaigned for her Fun Palace for years, drawing up plans, raising funds, identifying sites, attending council meetings, persuading, arguing, coaxing…  in vain. There were temporary versions: a playground made on a bomb site, a colonised industrial building on Martin Street or Bubble City in the City of London Festival each explored aspects of the idea, but Joan Littlewood’s Fun Palace was never built.

Which might have been a good thing.

… Part 2 tomorrow

References

Remembering Craigmillar Festival Society

‘Art was always used at Craigmillar as a frontline activity, as a language of regeneration: it was about fighting talk, where the people of Craigmillar would not take no for an answer.’

Craigmillar Festival Society was one of the pioneering community arts organisations in Britain. It was particularly important in being created and controlled by local people. This short documentary, made by Plum Films in 2004, captures something of the creativity, passion and vision of the people involved. It is an inspiring glimpse into another time.

These people’s work – and their view of community, activism, art and themselves – is worth reflecting on today. It challenges many well-established assumptions about how and why participatory arts is now done.

Fifty years on, you wonder what we have learned – and what we have forgotten.

Murals, craft and community art in the 1980s

My early steps in community art

In 1982, I got a job as a community arts worker on a council estate in Newark-on-Trent. My only qualification was a year’s apprenticeship at Greenwich Mural Workshop (thank you, Gulbenkian Foundation, for that investment). At Greenwich, I’d been trained in running a community printshop and painting murals, as well as learning about community art. So, of course, I set up a community printshop and began work on some mural projects.

Screenprinting was fast and fun. With a little help, people who’d not made a picture since leaving school could produce a stack of colourful prints in a couple of sessions. But, even in the new community centre where I was based, there wasn’t the need for posters there had been in London, where they spread ideas and fashion as well as publicising  events. Most people enjoyed the experience once but didn’t want to make any more of it.

It was much harder to get people involved in the mural work. The first, in a primary school playground, was simple enough – two dragons facing off over a pile of gold. The image came from the idea that their scales could be applied by small children using sponges rather than paintbrushes. It worked all right, in the days before the SATs tests and the national curriculum, with teachers happy to send out four or five kids at a time to do some painting for an hour.

The next two murals were indoors, small and simple: I came up with a design that could be painted without much skill. A clown on the wall of a youth club was completed in a day by teenagers, a Fernand Léger-inspired work scene  was done in a training centre, but it was painting by numbers and without artistic merit.

The Appletongate Mural

The most ambitious project was begun in 1983, when I was asked for a mural on the gable wall of building on Appletongate, in the town centre. The work was far beyond my abilities as a painter, so I brought in two local artists. Nadia Nagual (who’d worked with me on the dragons) and Bill Ming. The next 18 months were a struggle to secure funds to pay them while we worked on designs and a public consultation, with the help of the local paper.

We applied to the Mural Funds administered by the Royal Academy with the confidence and naivety of youth, and a gentleman came up from London to meet us and view the site; the decision was negative. We did get some Arts Council funds but couldn’t pay for scaffolding. Then Heather, the brilliant local woman who worked with me part-time (nominally as a administrator but really as a fixer), persuaded a couple of local companies to install it for nothing. Finally the project could happen: Bill, Nadia and I spent most of that spring and summer with our faces to the wall.

And that’s what convinced me there were better ways of doing community art. In the project’s 1985 Annual Report, I wrote:

The work was a sort of hybrid between public art and community art: most of Bill and Nadia’s wages came from an ACGB Art in Public Places grant – more usually spent on shopping precincts sculpture. We did get a few of the more adventurous people climbing the scaffolding, braving both the height, and the wet, to paint; some ten children painted areas they could reach from the first stage of scaffolding.

It wasn’t just the scale of the mural, which took months of drawing and painting. It wasn’t even the challenge of having people working on boards fifty feet above the ground. The problem was the skill needed to paint the work. The design has been chosen from four alternatives printed in the local press, but it was our ideas. It was inevitably rather anodyne, given its position in a historic market town, though the inclusion of a non-white figure drew a certain amount of comment at the time. And when it came to the work itself, we were back to painting by numbers, asking the few people who were willing to take part to fill in flat colour. The final mural was indeed ‘much appreciated’ as I subsequently wrote in the Annual Report. It just wasn’t community art.

By then, however, my work on the estate had changed a lot. The screenprinting equipment had been mothballed and that same year we did two community plays, a Welfare State inspired fireshow, a video film with a primary school and shadow puppets with a disability group. We also published a monthly newsletter, ran a creative writing group and had Open Thursdays at the community centre for retired people – and there was more.

By working with other artists – theatre companies, photographers, puppeteers, musicians – the limits of my own skills ceased to matter and people could do whatever creative work they were interested in. Much later, I saw that I’d become a kind of creative producer. Appletongate was the last mural I worked on.

Visual art and community art

These memories – and the excavation of old photographs –  were prompted by seeing the Appletongate mural again, 30 years after it was completed. It’s partly hidden by trees now, and a big section was lost when roadworks caused the render to fall. But there is not a mark on it, and it’s not much faded, which says a lot for the acrylic paint we used.

Visual art has travelled far since 1985. New technology has enabled artists to respond to profound socio-political change with equally novel methods. The performative and interactive possibilities of visual art have become central to many artists’ practice – often with the label ‘participatory’. The theories that made printmaking and murals attractive to early community artists – including their supposed resistance to commodification – have become less relevant as the same technologies have widened access to the means of artistic production and distribution. They’ve also become less credible, at least to many artists, with the rise of the creative industries and the market culture. Nowadays, people will chip a Banksy off the wall to get it in an auction.

Some of these changes have made it easier to use visual art in participatory, if not quite community arts, practice. But the underlying challenge remains: it takes knowledge, time, skill and experience to create good visual art. Those qualities, which might be summed up as ‘craft’, may now be undervalued but that’s a mistake. They confer power, even if technology can bring visual expression closer to our reach.

One of community art’s best strategies for overcoming a weakness in craft is collective creation. A group of people can produce extraordinary work because they each bring something to the process, especially if they include some trained and experienced artists. It was perhaps always easier to do that in the performing arts, which are naturally collective encounters, and many visual artists – like John Fox and Sue Gill of Welfare State – gravitated in that direction.

But the visual is fundamental to human experience and communication. We need imaginative artists to reinvigorate it in community and participatory art practice, especially at a time when our eyes are saturated with the imagery produced by merely commercial interests.

This is what we look like after 30 years. To see Bill’s recent work, click here: Against The Tide.

Thank you, Kwikfit and Henderson’s scaffolders, and Dacrylate,Johnstone’s, Earnshaws and Mebon, paint-makers, wherever you are now, and ACGB for £1400.

1984 Murals discussion - 2
My flyer for an evening discussion about the problems of painting murals

English visionaries: John Fox, Sue Gill and Welfare State

Winternest

A few weeks ago, I spent a day with John Fox and Sue Gill at their home on Morecambe Bay. It was one of those lovely February days where the damp of winter seems forgotten in the bright air, not spring yet, but the promise of it. The winter sunlight changed direction as the tide went out; the bay shifted shape and colour before my eyes. On the foreshore, the traces of John and Sue’s most recent artwork, Wildernest, were returning wisely to the land from which they had come.

In 1968, John and Sue, with other friends, founded a theatre, art and performance company they called Welfare State. Over the next 40 years  it would grow organically to become one of the most influential artistic forces in community art –  and in British theatre. Many of the people who worked with Welfare State, whether for a few weeks or for years, went on to form other companies. They took with them ideas about aesthetics, politics and participation that continue to resonate and evolve.  And through a seminal history/handbook, Engineers of the Imagination, people in distant places (including me) were inspired to create things they’d never have dreamed of otherwise.

Welfare State’s final show, Longline, was in Ulverston in 2006. Scores of local people performed a carnival opera that celebrated the strange and ancient landscape of Morecambe Bay with the company’s unique blend of music, puppets, poetry and spectacle. It was a fitting closure to an adventure whose ripples still spread.

Now that the company, like the art it created, is passing into history, its unique contribution to the language of community art is becoming easier to see. Two things strike me now as being particularly valuable, though others could be mentioned.

The first was the reckless bravery, a willingness to try something just for the joy of it, to stand up and not mind falling down. As John remembers, in the early days ‘we couldn’t play our instruments. We made noises on saxophones, banged oil drums and got an audience. I think we had an urge to show off.’ Sue adds: ‘Also, once people got the curiosity about working in different media – fire over here, ice over there or some kind of installation – we shamelessly used an invitation or a gig to research, for the first time, something that we had absolutely no idea how to do.’ That freedom to experiment existed in the early days of community art because there were not yet any fixed ideas about what was correct or how things should be done. Today, such space is rare in Britain, where risk assessments have to be filed before every workshop. It does seem to exist though elsewhere in Europe, where community art is more recent and, for reasons good and bad, artists have more freedom of action.

But that creative bravery wouldn’t have gone far without an aesthetic imagination, itself rooted in strongly held values. Welfare State created a distinctive visual and theatrical language, partly shaped by its use of found, recycled and cheap materials. Its artists created a wild beauty out of necessity, reconnecting communities with ancient rituals through fire, music and imagery. Today, I’m struck by its connection with the singular English  imagination of visionaries like Blake, Palmer, Spencer, Bawden or Ravilious –  unruly, exuberant and bursting with life. It is the antithesis of the rationalist and utilitarian that often dominates English culture. Non-realist or supra-realist, it glories in excess and fizzes with outrage or righteous anger, like Dickens and Hogarth, Lawrence and the Who. It falls flat on its face and picks itself up with a savage grin, laughing at everything and itself. Perhaps because it challenges my own instinctive caution, I love that wild art and feel the need of it today more than ever.

John Fox at Bradford - 1

But my conversation with John and Sue was never nostalgic. We talked more about the work they are doing now and the role of the artist in a threatened and threatening world. Their passionate commitment to a creative life and the values that have shaped theirs was evidently undimmed.

A few weeks later, I heard John speak at a conference celebrating the work of Albert Hunt, who’d  given him his first job at Bradford School of Art. He paid tribute to another influential visionary in the early life of British community art and read from 40 year old texts by Hunt that seemed as fresh as ever. He told the story of Welfare State, which some of the students present heard for the first time, but his gaze was always forward – surely one of the most reliable tests of an artist’s worth – and he closed with a passionate manifesto for the artist’s role today as:

 ‘… facilitator and fixer, celebrant and stage manager, a visionary linking the past and the future, a poetic diviner, a shamanic lasso, a trickster mongrel, revelator of layers of perception and the holder of what used to be called spiritual energy. Equally of course this kind of artist would also acknowledge the artist in us all and offer testament to the innate creativity recurring in every generation and every community where the intuitive is given freedom to participate and collaborate. Where re-generation is of the soul and not of economics. Where a holistic way of being is given credence and where making art is a daily experience for everyone.’

What was exciting about community art in 1968 is exciting about it today. It’s simply how that humanist vision of shared creative life is explored in endlessly different ways by people passionately committed to another way of living.

The place of storytelling in participatory art

Is participatory art essentially about artists creating work from the raw material of other people’s life experience? That seems to be the view of some artists I’ve met recently. Their projects begin by identifying a neighbourhood or community seen to be in some kid of difficulty. A process of ‘research’ leads to collecting the stories, memories or experiences of the people who participate, to be retold in theatre, installation, or some other form to those who shared it, or to a wider audience.

Telling unheard stories is not a new practice. It was often the essence of community plays, a form once more popular than it is now. It has been at the centre of much community arts work, such as Amber Collective’s, and my own work: 25 years ago, I worked on a project that enabled people with mental health problems to create work about their lives, when a change in policy saw the hospital in which they were living close.* A belief in helping marginalised people use art for self-representation was at the heart of the community art movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Fireplace (Sydney Bowler)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Today, artists seem much readier to tell people’s stories on their behalf. I have seen some extraordinary work result from this, but I also wonder whether the gain in artistic virtuosity may be at the expense of other kinds of quality.

Stories are how we make sense of our lives. They are both private and public, and it matters what we share, with whom, how and why. Our stories are never objective, even if we believe them absolutely. They shape our relationships and behaviour. Sometimes, they are keys that unlock rights or access services. Stories are central to art and art is central to how we create our stories.

No wonder artists invite people to share their stories in a participatory art project. No wonder too that doing so raises complex ethical, artistic and philosophical questions. What consent is sought and given? What promises are made or implied?  Do both sides have a common understanding of what they are doing? If it is in the nature of art to produce unanticipated results, what guarantees can an artist give about how a person’s story might be used or received? Similar ethical dilemmas arise in other fields, such as documentary filmmaking or academic research, but I wonder if participatory arts has yet developed a comparable reflection on them.

Refreshment Room (Aiden Hammer)
Fireplace (Photo: Sydney Bowler)

Then there is the question of how a story becomes art. Is it simply in the act of public presentation? Hardly, or the life stories continually retailed in the media would be art. Is it in the use of artistic techniques to retell it? Perhaps it is in being retold by an artist? But then who is an artist? Many community artists base their work in the idea that anyone can be an artist – which raises further questions, for another day – so how does a story change if it is told by a hired interpreter rather than the person whose experience it retells?

Is telling a story enough? Some artists take the view that it is, that the artwork is sufficient in itself and that their task is to reflect their lives to those who participated. Others argue that mirroring past or present realities should be a step towards debate about what might change. This is not just about politics or theory. It is also about art and whether what is created in a participatory process is rich and profound enough to stand without the context that produced it.

And finally, are stories essential to participatory art? Personally, I don’t think so. Art does not have to be narrative. Nor does it have to be rooted in lived experience. Participatory and community art has a far wider range of resources and languages to draw on than life stories, valuable as they are . Rituals, metaphors and symbols; inarticulate feelings, fears and dreams; private imaginations and public images; shared creation, shared memory – the possibilities are almost endless. I have many uncertainties about how and why artists use other people’s stories to make art but I’ve no doubt that it should only ever be one of the ways in which participatory art is created.

Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
Knife, fork and typewriter (Photo Simon Piercey)
  •  The photographs illustrating this post were made by participants in that project, working with the late Ross Boyd, a fine photographer and teacher . They were published in 1990 and 1991 in two books and toured the UK in an exhibition called ‘Looking Back, Looking Forward’.

Slipping into history

‘The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.’

L.P. Hartley, The Go Between (1953)

Part of what interested me, in the years I’ve been thinking about this project, was the history of community arts. I felt that the story of community arts in Britain – particularly the first 25 years – was neglected when people talked about socially engaged art and the pioneers, with all their knowledge, are ageing now. I evoked some of that in a long essay, All in This Together, that compared community arts as it was when I’d become involved with today’s much larger (but also much looser) field of participatory art.

But two things have changed my perspective on that. First, others have begun to document, archive and write about that first generation of community arts in the UK. Academics, artist-researchers and community artists have begun using the Internet as place to organise and make available their knowledge of the past. People were already talking about the need to tell their own history at community arts conferences in the late 1970s. It’s finally happening.

And people are meeting and debating this legacy, as in the recent conference Community Arts? Learning from the Legacy of Artists’ Social Initiatives. I’ve just read the interesting report on it by Emma Sumner and now I’m wondering about the influence of a historical perspective. The recent past is a strange place, simultaneously close and remote. It’s hard to see it clearly or assess it fairly. For those involved, it is natural to tell their stories, particularly when they involve life-defining struggles. But what the next generation needs is an understanding of the contexts, ideologies, forces and values involved in those struggles – because that might help today’s artists make choices about today’s opportunities.

And that is the other reason why the historical aspect of community arts, while still relevant to this project, has become less important to me. What seems really urgent is how artists can do valid work with people that makes a difference at a time of danger, upheaval and fragility History matters if we can learn from it and do our work better. Otherwise, I prefer to leave it to the historians. Let’s talk about the next project.

Community Art Exhibition Poster (1986) - a part of my history
Community Art Exhibition Poster (1986) – a part of my history

‘Integrate life and work and friendship’

Integrate life and work and friendship. Don’t tie yourself to institutions. Live cheaply and you’ll remain free. And then, do whatever it is that gets you up in the morning.

Those words come from an early manifesto written by Amber Collective in 1968. Guided by those principles, Amber has gone on to produce a remarkable body of film and photography work that celebrates working people’s lives and culture. Based in North East England, the group has recorded the final years of industrial society on Tyneside and the emergence of its complex, fragmented successor. Not all their work is obviously ‘participatory’ but the group’s values and commitment, undiminished after nearly 50 years, are a beacon of socially engaged arts practice and deserve to be much better known.

You can read about them here as the first Case Study goes online, or download a PDF version by clicking on the link below:

Launch, Amber, 1974

An unspoken contract

‘For me It’s an inquiry into an aspect of life that I don’t know about [that] I’m curious about it. I’m interested in looking at my own prejudices – that’s why it’s about yourself in a way.  But it’s also attempting to reflect and record on behalf of a culture something which is important to them and accurate for them, so that a dialogue can take place. What that  means, really, is that you have to engage with those communities or those individuals and say things about their lives which you believe to be accurate and ultimately they believe to be accurate, however difficult those statements are. 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”.’

Murray Martin worked in NE England from 1969 until his death in 2007, making films with and about working people. A founder member of Amber Film and Photography Collective he did much to establish the group’s principles and working methods. These words – slightly edited here for ease of reading – are taken from an interview he gave in 2004, parts of which feature in The Pursuit of Happiness, a film made by Amber to celebrate Martin’s life, work and values.