Date: 29 September 2011
Location: Studio, St. Paul’s House, 125 Deptford High Street. London SE8
Guests: Loraine Leeson, Sonia Boyce, Stephen Lobb, Flick Allen, Leila Galloway, Shirley Cameron and Roland Miller
Food: Thai salads and muffins supplied by Happy Kitchen
This was the first 1984 dinner, held on 29 September 2011. With the help of Flick Allen and Leila Galloway, I compiled a long list of people I wanted to talk to about this period and then reduced it to a shorter list for the dinner. I invited six guests to my studio building on Deptford High Street, London to discuss art and politics. My guests were Loraine Leeson, Sonia Boyce, Stephen Lobb, Flick Allen, Leila Galloway, Shirley Cameron and Roland Miller, all artists actively working in the UK now and in 1984.
The extracts cover different topics prompted by a menu of questions I emailed to the guests in advance. These included questions about the frictions and conflicts that existed at the time among artists, the institutional support structures and funding they tapped into, how they made a living and what they think of the context now in relation to 1984.
Unsurprisingly the conversation was fluid and moved beyond my menu of suggested topics. It could have continued for hours longer. Towards the end of the meal, for example, the guests realised they had not yet discussed the hugely influential topic of technology or the important shifts in disability arts at the time through activist self-help groups, pointing out that a lot of this work was happening at the Albany Theatre, just round the corner from where we were sat.
Read the contextual notes for more information about London in 1984.
Listen to the London Dinner
Total running time: 1:31:38
- Flicking back through old diaries (6:46) Listen In 1984 Shirley Cameron was making stage sets for Moving Parts, a touring theatre collective. She talks about their performances and the ‘experimentation and idealism’ that was around at the time. She was also part of the collective Sister Seven (with Evelyn Silver, Mar Michaels, Liz Hubbard, Gillan Allnutt and Monica Ross). The dinner guests talk about how they thought they could change the world, that it felt like ‘being on the crest of the wave’ and that while there was still the threat of nuclear war, it was a ‘vibrant time’. In 1984 Roland Miller was artist in residence in a community centre in Sheffield (funded by Sheffield Council), working with young unemployed people. They all went to the GLC Jobs For A Change music festival on the South Bank in London. Shirley, Roland and the young people also took a bus to Glastonbury Festival that year. Unfortunately the sound recordings of Roland talking about this period are not clear, but he talked about working with young people to make improvised performances by using their bodies and minds to react to the situations they found themselves in, making their minds up on the stop, interacting with the architecture and spaces around them. While this approach was connected to theatre, it wasn’t about acting a part that someone else had written out, or repeating performances.
- Community festival as political rally (6:39) Listen By 1984 Loraine Leeson was 3 years into the Docklands Community Poster Project, to support local campaigning against the development of the Docklands. That year, Lorraine was also teaching 2 days a week at the University of Leeds and went on a trip to Calgary, Canada, with Peter Dunn to do health posters with health workers. In this audio extract Lorraine talks about her work with Peter Dunn and others on the ten-year Docklands Community Poster Project and how everything she does now is rooted in what she learnt then. She reflects on their funding from the Greater London Council, the project’s relation to the Joint Docklands Action Group (how they were like the cultural arm of the campaign) and about the first Armada to Parliament in 1984 to lobby politicians (a ‘cross between a community festival and political rally’).
- Genuine bottom up initiatives (3:35) Listen 1984 was the year the Tower Hamlets Women’s Art Forum was founded (by Shirley Read, Sally Williams and others). Loraine remembers how that year the Forum made a proposal to then director Nicolas Serota at the Whitechapel Art Gallery, which was turned down because there had already been exhibitions of women art. Loraine and Flick also talk about how radical the Tower Hamlets Arts Committee was at the time and how as a local authority they used to collect art (Vivian Lovell and Sally Williams were arts officer there in the 1980s). Loraine and Flick go on to discuss how the funding process supported ‘genuine bottom up initiatives’ compared to how policy-driven funding is now.
- The miners’ strike (13:54) Listen Sonia Boyce talks about how the miners’ strike made the biggest impression on her at this time and was the reason she joined the Workers Revolutionary Party, travelling to support picket lines around the country. She also talks about what was happening at the time in terms of Black artists, such as the survey show Into the Open at Mappin Art Gallery in Sheffield, which she was part of. She talks about how her career has mostly been supported by public funding and that around this time she was on a lot of committees, such as the Greater London Arts Association. In 1984, at the age of just 22, Sonia was approached by Joanna Drew to be on the Arts Council’s purchasing panel. The group go on to discuss how at this time, they made a lot of use of community arts/artist run facilities in London, which were often funded by the GLC, such as CopyArt (which was then on Battle Bridge Road, Kings Cross), often used ‘to experiment with what the photocopier could do’. Shirley and Flick (who in 1984 was a post-graduate student at the Slade then an artist in residence at Durham Cathedral) also discuss the influence of the miners strike on their work.
- Art college experiences (10:24) Listen In this audio extract the guests reflect on their experiences of teaching or studying at art college during this period. Leila Galloway was a student in her second year in Manchester in 1984 where ‘Greenberg was God’! They reflect on their common experiences of the lack of women teaching in art colleges at the time. Roland talks about how there was also a growing sense that you should be able to sell the work you made and that this was becoming a normalised mark of success. He explains why he started making performance work that he purposefully couldn’t sell. Shirley talks about the introduction of courses to ‘smarten yourself up as an artist’ and the fact that post-college survival often involved signing on and living in squats, which is not so easy for students now. Sonia goes on to talk about how students making ‘political art’ during her BA at Stourbridge were dealt with.
- Tyranny of feminism (4:33) Listen The group talk about their experiences of feminist debates at the time and feelings of exclusion and defensiveness. They also remark on the issue of representing the female body in art.
- Tyranny of structurelessness (4:10) Listen They went on to reflect on the difficulties of working collectively, which was thought by some as the ideal at the time, but that this often was done naively and optimistically without knowledge of organisation. They mention the influential pamphlet ‘The Tyranny of Structurelessness’ by Jo Freeman (1972) and the novel, ‘Murder in the Collective’ by Barbara Wilson (1984). Shirley also reminds us of the harmonious experiences she had of working in collectives such as Sister Seven and Moving Parts.
- Tyranny of theory (1:42) Listen The group discuss a ‘tyranny of theory’ that some of them sensed at the time. There was an onslaught of theory which you were expected to have a certain level of understanding of.
- Artists at the tipping point (5:36) Listen Talk turns to how today it feels like we are at a tipping point, politically, economically and environmentally. What is the role of the political artist, when their purse strings are being tightened and controlled? They talk about how in the 1980s whole programmes could get funding. Now, you have to try to get lots of smaller amounts of project funding to make something happen. Flick talks about her decision to not fight for jobs or funding anymore, rather she wants to live off her state pension and focus on the work she wants to produce.
- Don’t mention the ‘C’ word (7:31) Listen Steven Lobb, co-founder of Greenwich Mural Workshop (with Carol Kenna in 1975) talks about while there was an aversion at the time to ‘selling’ work, what they were doing was selling services and managing to make a living at the time. He talks about the idealism and the sense that they were part of something bigger. They thought they were going to change the world. Sonia talks about the sense that much of the work that was made through the 1960s-80s has been made provincial by the establishment, in order to pull the rug from it. Loraine reflects on how by the 1990s she refused to refer to community art in relation to her work as by then it meant you were just a bad mural artist! Stephen also brings up the question of ‘empowerment’. He reflects on this dilemma for artists of the future, do artists see it as their role to make everyone aware of the technologies of production, or is it enough that they work with people to carry their message forward? This position was counter-posed by Loraine, who ‘didn’t do the enabling thing’, rather she saw her role as developing work in collaboration but that everyone uses his or her best skills.
- A sort of power! (8:41) Listen In this section, the guests discuss, among other things, their idealism about being able to change the world. This came through the way they worked together, interacted and supported each other. They discuss some of the obstacles to effecting change, such as the way they underestimated the power of the right (and the way the right had been studying these ideals so as to dismantle them), and that while there was a groundswell of bringing people together, the sustainability of these movements was not considered at the time. While many of the projects they were working on were funded, there was also financial insecurity for most of these groups and individuals which meant it was hard to continue working in these ways. While there was a sense that things could still change, there was a bigger force at play – the right wing government did not go away (Thatcher was re-elected in 1983 and was to be re-elected again in 1987). The guests reflected on the political lessons they learnt during this period. Loraine speaks about her work on the Docklands campaign. While there was a sense that ‘demos were becoming festivals’ (i.e. depoliticised entertainment), festivals could also become political rallies (e.g. the Peoples Armada to Parliament).
- Preparing the next generation (11:24) Listen The guests go on to discuss how today “artists are now being infantilised by the commissioning process”. Leila mentions how, because of the increasing commercialism of culture and education that students do not experience the same sense of ‘freedom’ that students had then. Flick states how inspiring it is to consider where we are now in relation to that earlier history and Sonia suggests that the shift in art criticism away from the object towards social relations and the context of making, has come out of the legacies of the practices they are talked about around the table. Both Stephen and Flick have returned to their watercolours and started painting again. But while their methods may have changed, their ideals and principles remain the same. Loraine remarks that while the projects she does now work differently, she has not given up on changing the world, and that her work often takes the position of preparing the next generation to change the world.
- Being paid to change the world (3:19) Listen The artists discuss how they did not feel the need to bite the hand that fed them (the GLC), as they were on the same side: “we believed what were doing was ‘good’”. Loraine, for example talks about how she thinks she should be paid to change the world (“it’s cost effective”), but not, with “the most ridiculous strings attached”. The group talk about the wealth of experience and political intelligence and astuteness of Tony Banks (Labour councillor and former chair of the GLC at the time), compared to the sense that those in power today lack experience and are “imposing suffering and damage on the cultural sector”. The increasing focus on managerial and administrative aspects, has meant that Sonia, for example, has stopped being involved with the Arts Council – when they stopped talking about art, she says, “the rot had set”.
- Travel hopefully (3:35) Listen In this final audio extract some of the guests respond to my question about what they predict for 2019. They talk about tenacity and ‘travelling hopefully’, sticking it out, holding on, keeping going and working till they fall over.