This Public Art exhibition heralded the social changes that people at the London’s Docklands back in 1970s were facing.
As a result of seeing the East London Health Project work, representatives of tenants and action groups in London’s Docklands, approached them in 1980 to “something similar” about the situation developing there. This resulted in the formal creation of the Docklands community poster in 1981 as Community Co-operative employing six people and visually represented the views of the tenants and action groups for almost a decade. During this time they created six 18ft x 12ft Photomural sites across docklands, showing a slowly animating sequence called “The Changing Picture of Docklands” a range of traveling exhibitions which became the Docklands Road Show, posters leaflets and pamphlets and a photo-archive of the campaigns and physical changes over the period. There were also two People’s Armada’s to the Parliament, involving over two thousand people in cultural and campaigning festivals on the river. This work received international recognition both in publications and exhibitions is now housed I the Museum of London in Docklands.
Docklands Poster project, 1981-1990
The Docklands Project was strategically done. It addressed the needs of its audience:
Mirroring a situation: The group of artists were mirroring with the artwork what it was happening in the Docklands at that time. Informing their audience- locals of the situation of the area.
Voice Representing: The voice of the people that lived in the Docklands by posting social commentary vignettes in large billboards.
Transparency: The artwork represented in the billboards was honest, self-explanatory, it was not open to free interpretations.
Site-Specific: Typically, the artists did take the location into account while planning and creating the artwork.
Zia Fernandez Ibarreche in conversation with Peter Dunn
Z - Hello Peter I have identify you as an innovative relation to curatorial process, can you talk to us about your Wapping Project?
P - Can I precede that with some earlier things? Because the reason I was extensively working outside galleries systems is a choice that came out when I was still at Article and I realised that I wanted to do work that was outside the gallery system, even though at the time when I was still a student I had a show at the Serpentine Gallery and at the Whitechapel Gallery. As well as being a MA student.
Z - Could you elaborate on those two projects because they sound very interesting.
P - Yes, the one at the Serpentine Gallery was called “Art for Whom” and it was curated by Richard Cork and it was mainly work by people who have been working outside the gallery system, although it included Conrad Atkinson who worked essentially inside the gallery system as well. But he was dealing with issues that were outside the gallery system, such as asbestos and so on. The reason I made the decision to work in that way was two faults really. One was that the kind of background I came from, from a kind of working class background in Liverpool living on a council estate and all of that. Those were the people that I knew and grew up with. The people within the kind of financial art world, in particular, were from a very different class and were very different people. I did not know them. I did not understand their culture. They were very different from me, on a purely personal level. Of course, on a political level as well. I had been reading a lot of stuff from Marxist background and looking at the economic base of art. It seemed to me that the gallery system was part of the economic base of art that I did not really want to have anything to do with. Again on two levels, political level but also on a personal level, it was selling work again to people I had no relationship to. I wanted to do work with people that I did have a relationship to; so I started to do work working with communities that were outside of an art context. I also looked at stuff like the Fluxus movement and others who had done stuff outside art context as well. They had located the work outside of an art context, but actually it only became comprehensible when it was returned back to the art context, as documentation. The people who were witness to these interventions, to all these different kind of activities outside of an art context, did not know what was going on. Something a bit weird going on, maybe interesting, maybe funny, maybe it just did not have any relationship to them. But it only became comprehensible when it was return to the art context and poured within that theoretical base. I wanted to do something different to that. I wanted to do something that was contextualized, outside of the art gallery, so that it was dealing with issues and concerns of people outside of the art gallery. And if I brought it into the art gallery it was a bit like Duchamp bringing the urinal and then turning it upside down. That is the way I was thinking. I had also been kind of peripherally involved with Joseph Beuys through one of my tutors at university when I did my BA, Caroline Tisdall, who was a very close collaborator with Joseph Beuys. I had written all the seminar articles about Joseph Beuys and she got me involve in doing research through the free university for Joseph Beuys. I went to Documenta and was part of all that and saw how Joseph Beuys was working. That was interesting in terms of curation because he took over a whole area of Documenta, which had been allocated to him, and put his honey pond around the outside while the activity inside was inviting lots of different groups who were working for social change. It was just workshop after workshop after workshop, different people doing presentations, different people doing talks, etc. What occurred to me about that is that there is still a definite hierarchical power within the art world. That is why Joseph Beuys was Joseph Beuys and everyone else came to see Joseph Beuys. If he was not present at one of these workshops the audience left by and large. But if he was there, he was a personality. They would stay and take part. It was quite interesting to see that and what was going on in the blackboards that were being used by the different people, including myself, as well as Beuys. I did one which is actually a critique of what was going on, at the time I was reading Gramsci and looking at the whole business of hegemony. The board that I used to describe the structure, the hierarchical structure and how I thought it worked within the free university itself, became re-sprayed and I believe is now in the Bern museum as a Joseph Beuys’s art work.
Z - Would you be able to do a drawing for me?
P - I cannot remember what it was that I did, because I was talking while I was doing it. I did not mind that in the sense that all the money that was being created for the sale of these boards was going towards the free university which is a project I supported. It is not a complaint but it is interesting to see how objects can be transformed and validated by who the author is in that context. I first of all I was offered the film and video fellowship in Bethnal Green and as part of that I was doing workshops and things like that at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood. But what happened is that the hospital was threatened with closure so I contacted some people who were involved in the campaign and ask them if they were interested in having a video because I had been founded to be there and I have video equipment and we could do it. So I started to make a video then there was need for posters, so I started to make posters and then out of that grew an exhibitions about the hospital closure which went in the foyer because the hospital went into occupation, they threw out the management and occupied it. There were three of the hospitals in occupation at that time Elisabeth Garret Anderson Hospital as well and the Middlesex, part of the Middlesex. I cannot remember all of them. We toured the exhibition around and we had workshops about what happens when they are threatening to close a hospital, information, real information about how they run down the services beforehand. One of the key things that you find out is the laundry is one of the first things to go. That is something that we discovered. Little things like that, so we could warn other hospitals with real information as the same time as making a visual exhibition which could also be used as part of the campaign.
Z - When was this?
P – 1978. As a result of doing that work I was invited by the Trades Council to do some work around heath issues. They had some money left over from another campaign and they wanted to do it around health issues in East London generally. They wanted to do a series of posters or visual pamphlets really to go into waiting rooms and places like that. Not just on the streets, something that could have a bit more in depth information, so we did a series of posters. I was working with Lorraine Leeson at the time, and we did a series of posters which were about multinational drug companies and things like that which are much more general rather than specific campaigning. They were photo montages, the photo montage thing had grown out of two things really. We had done a series of exhibitions before which had been images and text, separated image and text and some historical material. We discovered that people liked looking at the pictures and specially if they were all pictures, a lot of nostalgia in that and they just get drawn into the nostalgia and they would not read the text. We were thinking of ways of combining image and text and, of course, we looked at other people, John Heartfield in particular at that time but also other people working with image and text like Victor Burgin and lots of other people. We started to develop that kind of relationship between image and text. The idea then was to look at the context of this work. If you want to do something which is not instant like a poster on the streets but has more in-depth information then you can play with the images in a way which is slightly different, because you can draw people in by creating contradictions and intrigue and then they can read the small print and find out what is going on. It is a technique used in advertising, it is not new but it was a device that we thought was useful in terms of dealing with more in-depth information. When we were asked to get involved with London Docklands, which became a massive thing, we came up with the idea of doing billboards. When we were talking to the local people about what they wanted from these billboards, they said the they did not really want them up on the main road where passing motorist would see them flashing by, which was interesting. What we wanted was to galvanise the community, so we wanted these billboards to be in the community, and we wanted them to pride information for the community to help them develop the campaign. That was the first priority. The idea of having used that kind of techniques to draw people in was the way we approached doing this billboards. The first billboard was in Wapping and we discovered that for technical reasons we could not use colour. In those days colour was prohibitively expensive to print things in so the cheapest was to print them on document paper, black and white and paste them physically onto boards and mount the boards, and we built the billboard ourselves, the first one. Once we realised there were all these boards, we thought that we did not have to change them all at once. For each image we could take a few at the time, then we could start playing with the sequences and how we broke the image down and remade it so we could deal with the sequence over time which allowed us explore the issues in more depth than you could do in a single poster up on the street. We had what we called the predella underneath. In renaissance altar pieces you have the predella which tells you the story. We had one of those underneath as well so the whole sequence would be there, as you see one image big, you could see it in the context of all the other images that it preceded.
Z - It was in motion, you could follow the enquiry by the changing the posters on the billboard and if you had any news you could clear the subject. I understand. It was something that it was in motion. It was changing.
P – Yes, it was a kind of slow animation process. But again, as part of the campaign there were posters, leaflets, exhibitions. We started doing exhibitions around themes. Housing was one of the major things in Docklands at the time. Another theme was the history of campaigning in Docklands. This was important to give people living in Docklands a sense of their own history. The activist that we knew knew that history from being part of it and so did the trade unionist and so on. One in particular, Ted Jones, who was our Chair, had a steering group and this was important; a steering group who outnumbered the workers. They decided on what we should do, because they lived there and I lived there eventually, I still do in fact, but they understood the issues and they knew about them and what would happen is that we would discuss the issues in the steering group and decide what issues were key ones and how we should prioritise them. Then we would go away and do sketches and mock ups and so on and ask ourselves, is this communicating what we discussed? And they were not trained in visual work, and we were not trained in campaigning but we shared that information. It was a double education process really. We both learned a lot from each other. We had also been reading a lot of stuff about semiotics at the time, so it was grounded in theory as well as practice. What I was saying about Ted Jones, who was the chair of this committee, is that he had been a docker and lived and worked there all his life. He had been one of the key people when they were campaigning to get a school in the Isle of Dogs and declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence). They closed the bridges on the Isle of Dogs and had barriers there and issued passports to all the members and to people who lived or worked there, it was a publicity thing really.
Z - Creating awareness of the situation.
P - The Isle of Dogs is declaring its independence from the borough of Tower Hamlets and from London.
Z - It must have felt like that even geographically because it was so isolated.
P – Well, at that time you could only get on by boat and Ted Jones was the mastermind behind that really, he was a great guy. He has since died but he was a really amazing person to have in our committee because he knew everything about the history but he was also an avid reader about union history and all of these things. He was a very good season campaigner. It was people like that who really contributed to the material.
You asked about Wapping in particular. Whilst we were in the midst of doing all this campaign around Docklands, the issue was that the Thatcher government decided that it wanted to make UK PLC globalization ready. They were in contact with people like Reagan and all of this kind of international business people who were already ahead on globalization. They wanted to keep wages down and create an international network for the globalization that was coming through digital technologies. And the test bed for all this was Docklands, they decided. That is why they chose Docklands because it was a liminal space which used to be the old docks. They were going to bring all Sunrise industries and they were going to expand the City of London into Docklands through Canary Warf and various other things. It was part of deregulation of the city as well, the deregulation of the financial sector of which we have all known the results. That is where it all began and Docklands was certainly the test bed. They took all the power away from all the locally elected authorities and put it in the hands of the developing corporation appointed by them. It is unbelievable what they subsequently did to all the major cities later on when they learnt the lessons of how to do it and how to get away with it. All the metropolitan authorities which Labour controlled were all abolished including the GLC (Greater London Council). At the time Ken Livingstone was newly elected as the leader of the Greater London Council. They were a far more radical left Labour than the main stream Labour party and they were in total opposition to Thatcher, so they funded us and the Labour authorities who had been disfranchised also funded us. So for the first time ever we were getting paid proper wages. Those were the days, the Camelot days of the GLC. Not only we were funded properly to do this work full time, they funded the building of six billboards throughout Docklands. It started up with just two of us but we were able to up the numbers to six. We had a designer who concentrated on the leaflets, pamphlets and so on. We had two people who were part-time employed just changing the billboards and doing all the kind of technical stuff, one of which is Terry Smith who has now become an artist in his own right, I do not know if you have heard of him, and Sonny Boys actually worked for a while changing the billboards. Keith Piper was also there, he did not work on changing the billboards but we commissioned him to do one of the exhibitions for us because we did a series of exhibitions around various issues.
Z - If you can remember them, what were those issues?
P - I cannot remember what the subject matter was now. It was to do with the Isle of Dogs I remember and he made a sound piece, a visual and sound piece.
Z - Where did you exhibit it, within the community? Would you have had a particular building?
P - Originally we toured all the exhibitions round the communities as they became important. We would create a new one around the new issues and then once we had gathered all these exhibitions together we did a thing called the “Docklands Road Show” which we toured around all the towns that had been threatened with the similar kind of development to the Docklands. Importantly, we took the people from the tenant and action groups to talk to other tenant and action groups in those towns as well. It was a similar thing to the hospital. These are the warning signs, this is what to watch out for, do not get sucked up in this one because that will just use up your time and your energy and it will not get you anywhere. These are all the strategies that the developers and developing corporations have used to bypass, to distract the local community.
Z - Did have some legal advice at the time? Or was there something you could not do at all?
P - No legal, in the sense of having lawyers, but within Docklands the different associations that formed part of our steering group were for example the Joint Docklands Campaign which was a group of fully funded campaigners and researchers; the Docklands Forum which was set up originally by the London Boroughs as a research and consultation organisation because previously Docklands was going to be developed in consultation with these groups.
Z - So you had different groups
P - We had different groups. We did different kind of expertises. The Docklands Forum in particular comprised research; these were people who had PHDs in time planning, development and all of that kind of stuff. They have done the research, they new how many jobs has this created, what was promised and what was actually delivered because they had done the research and they were fully funded to do that by the GLC. Hillary Weinwright and Sheila Rowbotham who wrote “Beyond the Fragments”, a very famous book, were employed by the GLC in the popular planning unit and they came in to joint Docklands and they worked with us to produce and alternative plan for the Newham Docklands. We produced something that looked as a kind of Sunday supplement but was actually the alternative plans for the Royal Docks that had actually come out from the community. It was put through every household in Newham Docklands and it was given to all the people when there were plans for an airport in Newham Docklands as part of the enquiry. It was a government enquiry and the community were absent at this was part of their submission as well.
The developers were saying well Newham Docklands does not have an economic future and through public planning we can show, by doing things such as ship repair and so on with the dockers still there, that there could be an economic future. It was not the same economic future that had been in the past but it was an alternative economic future to the airport. The other interesting thing was that they said that there would never be any jets but the community had been in touch with various people and they had done their research and discovered that they were planning to introduce jets. They said no because it wa a lie but the enquiry believed it and of course now they are running jets out of there. Anyway, that is getting into other issues.
In terms of visuals strategies and art strategies it was similar to the Buoys idea in a sense, the actual thinking of the social fabric and the social networks being part of the artwork. What appears visually is really the tip of the iceberg, the practice as a totality is what is important. What feed those visual elements are the networks which have been created and it roots from there. A lot of that is visible in the total artwork.
Z - Big money moving in and we could say, I suppose, that the community have been the curators of that poster project.
P – Absolutely.
Z - And was that the first project of its kind in terms of putting artwork in billboards? Had it been done before? I know that it has been done subsequently by other artist.
P - To my knowledge it had not been known in Britain before. There might have been some other people working on billboards too.
Z - Jenny Holzer?
P - No her stuff was afterwards
Z – I am just trying to get the history correct. I remember sitting in the pub, round the corner from here, and you pulled out this picture from Barbara Kruger. We were all cooing over it. It was the first expression of Barbara Kruger but this is well after you got those billboards up. And you were already on your second or third phase.
P - That is right.
Z - I have different questions but it is interesting because you have already answered this questions. Did you do other type of work like fliers or magazines? Did you used any other media? You commented that you produced posters and photography with associated text. Would people read the text?
P - When we designed our exhibitions, for example, they were not just images and text. The images themselves were huge big collages in a way which contained images and text.
Z - Are those pieces archived somewhere within the Docklands?
P - Some of them are in the Museum of London Docklands and some of them are in my container in Trinity Buoy Warf.
Z - Are you still in Trinity Buoy Warf?
P - Yes I still have a container there, a storage container.
Z - Did the intervention needed to expand the project? When you did this intervention with the billboards you did comment that the media were interested and that it went global.
P - Yes, I mean in a number of levels, really. One was that the GLC, because they were funding us, were quite hot on getting press coverage, so we got press coverage, TV coverage and we also got coverage in our magazines.
Z – I am interested in that. Who was covering you at the time?
P - Funny enough, one of the first people to cover us was Fuse magazine in Canada because Caroll Conde and Karl Beveridge, who are photo montage artist, were friends of ours. We met them… I cannot remember how we met them first of all, some kind of conference or somewhere I suspect. They were doing some work with trade union using photo montage and so on. Very interesting works because they work in a different way. They came over and visited and they had an exhibition in London and they documented the putting up of the first billboard. We talked about the project and when they went back wrote it for Fuse magazine. Once it was in Fuse magazine, in Canada, various other people picked up on it. You know the way this things work. So we ended up going backwards and forwards to Canada for conferences and things like that. And that led to going in other magazines and having exhibitions there. The Docklands stuff went on tour in Canada.
We managed to get it reinstated very quickly when the Development Corporation demolished the billboard. The GLC was great in that because the panning authority was the Development Corporation but the district surveyor was employed by the GLC. The district surveyor went along and condemned what they’ve done to the billboard, and as he was independent although employed by the GLC. What they have done was cut through the metal and toppled the billboard over, the usual practice is that you take the bolts out take the wooden bits out and you leave the structure. They actually got a saw and saw it right from the bottom and then toppled it over so it was lying on the floor. When I went there and took pictures of this, there were kids playing on it and bits sticking out of it. It was dangerous and it was in a public place, so he condemned all that and then the GLC condemned it too and we got the funding to reinstate it. We immediately sent pictures to Art Monthly and stuff like that. We were constantly looking for publicity for the campaigners as much as anything. I’ve always had this thing and I am less vigilant now than I used to be, of saying ok we are working outside of the art gallery context but we must keep the debate about this kind of practice between the art world otherwise we just get marginalized. That was another reason for saying this is valid artwork. We fought really hard within the funding bodies to get that work accepted as art. The first time we went to the Greater London Art Council, as it was then called, they said that it was advertising and not real art. We and many other people have fought the battles around that, our practices are not just about aesthetics and so on.
Z - Is it worth asking who said that?
P - Marina Vaizey, the head of the panel at the time.
Z - It really reveals how far things have gone since then. You were really pushing the envelope for new ways of artistic expression, and how worthy. To separate the art world from other worlds is like insulating it. It is very interesting.
P - That is a very good point, in terms of context the art world at the time was very much at the height of high modernism. Now if you know about history, early modernism was very political, Barhouse all of that stuff was kind of politically inspired and motivated. Late modernism was very much about anything to do with society, politics in particular was a “no”. It was all about the aesthetics. Anything that is about politics, anything that is about social issues is a contaminant. That was the prevailing attitude. We and lots of other people, like Victor Burgin, John Stezaker, Cameron Work, were all contesting this view. How Foster (Hal Foster) ended up to be against the anti-aesthetics that article he wrote called the “Anti-aesthetics” he kind of theorized that because it was happening not only in Britain but it was happening internationally. It was a kind of reaction against that kind of purism, of high modernism. I mean those movements have always been there like Fluxus was one of those, surrealism was one of those. Whenever art gets too precious there are movements to puncture that, to try and change it and I suppose that was part of it. The political situation in Britain at the time was Thatcherism and the end of the Winter of Discontent. We had witnessed a Labour Government, with someone like Tony Ben who was quite radical as a minister for energy talking about nationalizing North Sea Oil and the international community puts a cap on the pound to stop him doing this and destabilise the British economy. It is unbelievable. They did in Chile and they have done it all over. They did it in Britain at that time. There were certain people on the left who were aware of this and knew it and recognized it and perceived it and we had the Thatcheride whole agenda about globalization as well going on. At that point there was a decision by certain artist not to stay on the fence on this and to come down from up the ivory tower. It was time to take sides and in a way the issues were more black and white. When I look back, one of the things that I have sieved is that in way things were too black and white. But on the other hand, it was necessary because polarisation had already occurred. You had to take sides, with the energy of youth and all of that. There were a lot of people of our generation that were doing that as well, in different ways. Victor Burgin was doing photomontage kind of things, image and text things. He ventured outside of the gallery and realised that he did not have a context outside the gallery. He did that poster campaign “What Does Possession Mean to You?” which was like what a drop. I called it at the time a drop in the ocean of Bourgeois perception. It had no context, no network to feed into. He recognised that, to his credit, and decided not to do that and to focus on the whole issue of representation, politician representation. He went on to producing a lot of great seminar work around those issues. There is people like Caroll Conde and Karl Beveridge in Canada, Martha Rosler in the States and various other people who were working on this arena. Lucy Lippard pulled together a group of people for a show at the ICA. Because it was about women artist mainly and because I was working with Lorraine Leeson, I was the only male artist at that exhibition that had people like Martha Rosler and Jenny Holzer.
Z - You are giving so many references that will be very helpful for the readers to understand the situation and about the people who were working like you with image and text and against just aesthetic. Another question was how the project was received. At the end of the day, the community loved it because it was a community decision. But what about everyone else that was not part of that?
You commented as well that you were doing all this moving exhibitions, like travelling exhibitions. Did the people ask you to send the artwork to their own councils? What councils were the areas in London that were suffering the same globalisation from the government?
P – The organisations, like the association of Wapping that was a confederation of all the different tenant groups in Wapping who sent a representative to the association of Wapping. Then the association of Wapping sent a representative to our steering group. We went to their meetings as well, so it had a very strong grass roots presence. For example, when we launched the first billboard there was a green in Wapping and we put a marquee up for two or three days and we had an exhibition inside. The people who lived in the area were just wondering in and out.
Z - That is wicked.
P - You to remember in a place like Wapping, one of the proposals was to drive the main road through the middle of the council estate and to make pedestrian the old high street because the warehouses were going to be sold as luxury flats. That was the proposal and everyone in Wapping was up in arms about this, quite naturally. They did things like block cars from going down the high street and make them drive through the route that they will have to take and back onto the main road again. All the roads were blocked up and all the cars were diverted.
In the process they were giving out leaflets saying how it was planned to destroy our community by cutting it in half and so on. They got a lot of publicity for that.
We produced the posters, we documented it and then produced and exhibition. When we were inside the tent opposite the billboard, they could see themselves. One of the amazing things about it was that people of all ages, the old ladies in particular: “You owe to be ashamed of yourselves” or “What would your mother say in a situation like this?”, “Oppressing us poor old ladies”. They really landed it on to these coppers. Same thing happened with the Wapping dispute, when there had a delegation from News International and they organised a procession, a big procession with banners and presented this petition formatted like a scroll and declaimed it on. It was written in calligraphy: “We the people of Wapping declare…” a series of demands of what News International should do. This massive demonstration was happening everyday in the middle of Wapping and local tolerance was tested. Some people in the demonstration when they needed a pee would go and pee in someone’s garden. There was a moment when it looked as if there might be tension because of that kind of thing but the community leaders pulled it all together and put this in a bigger context, they were going to side with the protesters rather than being concerned about someone just having a pee in their garden.
Z - Very good.
P - We were there documenting it, creating exhibitions around those events and that was important to them. Their houses were being threatened. Someone living in a Peabody block, a run down building from the thirties, decaying, cramped, a slum dwelling essentially, discovers that the land that had been zoned previously to re-house them will instead be used to build luxury flats. And they are stuck. What did they do? As soon as the bulldozers go away at night they go back onto that land and they start knocking down walls, they start taking components from the machinery, direct action. That is what they were doing.
Z - At the end of the day is not about re-housing. It is always the same. This person has been living for the last 20 years in a place, is has been part of a community, having a relationship with the community and the are breaking all this relationship that this person has built. That is the problem.
P - Interestingly there is a group now campaigning on the Carpenters Estate which is right in the middle of the Olympic Park, virtually right by the Olympic Stadium, because all the people in this Carpenters Estate tower blocks have been moved out the reason being that the military and the media are taking over these blocks, so they can have surveillance and film the Olympic Games. A very well kept secret, I do not know why they have made of it but the people are campaigning. They made a film and they showed it at the Docklands Museum the other day and asked if they could put their posters alongside our Docklands posters. It is happening again.
Z - They saw it in the archives and they felt related to your project. You were their inspiration. I would like to ask you about who inspired you at the time. You mentioned different references like your teachers and the other artist that with similar background or the people. Who inspired you in the past and who inspire you today?
P - I have mentioned most of the people. One of the things that interested me about John Heartfield was not just the fact that he produced photo montages but actually he was part of a network, his montages were produced as part of a magazine where they were published. It was part of a political movement it was not just him as an artist. I think that was an important thing to recognise. The things about Joseph Beuys that I described, the totality of the social sculpture as he described it, the totality of the practice and of course all of those debates that were going on about the politics of representation, about semiotics, about the whole structure of the art world and how it is financed, who it serves and in who is interest, what the economic base of the art word is, all of those debates were going on at the time in conferences, exhibitions and so on. It was all of those influences really. We were all feeding of each other. All of those who were interested in that area had to create a practice and a network not supported by agents. We happen to create an alternative infrastructure, we were looking for models, we were desperate for models so we were searching out and discussing how to do it.
Z - Have you got any hints and tips for artist and curators trying interventionist processes? If you look at our economic situation today, people might want to represent it. Have you got any tips? What did work for you? What do you think? Follow your belief and try to get behind an organisation that can give you support. What would your tips be for artist and curators?
P - I did a project relatively recently called “Global Time Square”, and I became aware of someone’s uncanny relationships back to the Docklands stuff because this project developed through consultation and working with various people. It was a big screen instead of a billboard, a big 8 metre screen with a projector so they could change the image on the screen, an electronic version of our billboards. Working with different groups, from young people right the way through all age range and from different cultural backgrounds, asking about how they would like their space to be transformed, working with them through workshop situations. If you say people what they want, they just express what they know of the top of their head which is usually very superficial. If you take people through a process of interrogating why you want it, what you want it for, etcetera, then that becomes a little bit firmer. Then you can say what the best way to communicate this to somebody else is and take them through that process. That is what you put in the big screen. The first one of this was in Gravesend and the big screen was at the bus terminal in the centre of town on the side of the Bingo hall and next door to the railway station, so people standing waiting for the bus could see it. The town council had plans to redevelop this space, so instead of waiting for the council plans and then people protesting, complaining or whatever, we said we get in first. This is the lesson we learnt from the people’s plan for the Royal Docks. We have our alternative plans but the plans will come from people who live and work here and we put them right up in the place where it is going to happen before the council put up their proposals. We were not faced with a hostile council however, because the council was in part funding it in its majority.
Z - How did you manage to do that?
P - We got it through Lottery money but the council had to put as much funding into it and they were part of the steering group as well, because we had a steering group. We said you have the power to take this ideas seriously, to look at them, to examine them and wherever possible to implement them. Every year as well as they being up on the billboard, an electronic billboard this time, there was an exhibition in the art place called Town Centric, which is a place run by the council. All the councils were invited and there was an exhibition of all this work, mainly the school stuff was exhibited in this place, although there were exhibitions of the eldest and various other people in other spaces. They build up to a prize for what they thought was the best and all the kids and young people involved got a certificate saying that they have taken part. The Mayor would shake hands with them. We did all that to get everyone on board, to recognise that this has value. As a process this has value because what we were arguing with the councillors is that these are your future citizens and this is getting them involved in citizenship. At the time that was the buzz word in schools and so on, “citizenship”. We used that in a similar model except updating it with new technologies.
In the second one that we did in Poplar, we updated it a bit more in the sense that it was interactive. Well, they were both interactive in the end. In Gravesend we had a strip well, like a tube, where you could drive a wheelchair if you needed to and there were hands on it and you could put your hand on the hands. The metal hands and had a sensor in it which the heat of your hand would activate and this way you could operate the screen and choose what you wanted to look at. By that time we had a whole catalogue of resources, of all this futures, it was called “Poplar Futures”. The other one was called “Future Town and Beyond”, so we had a resource of people’s futures, what they saw as being their futures. The people could select and look at different ones. Then we moved into another parts of the town, asking how you would like where you live to be changed and how would you like your school to be changed. That was a great one as well, slightly contentious in some instances. One school in Gravesend had a whole two day session where the teachers all sat and watched the presentations by the kids, of how they wanted their school to be transformed. I think new technologies offer two facts really. One is to actually extend and make this kind of networks more efficient, wider and broader. The other danger is that if done digitally, as with all social networking, it might exclude the physical and people can get alienated from their immediate environment. In the sense that people, specially with young people, can talk to people anywhere in the world that got similar interest but lose all contact with people who live next to them.
Z - What do you consider a great curatorial intervention? This could be done by the people or anything. I am not talking about any institution. What do you consider for an exhibition to be great? It could be that inspires people, creates awareness, etcetera.
P - I think the ones you could theorise about are more important than to talk about what I considered to be great curatorial intervention. When I was looking for ways of working one of those was “Art into Society and Society into Art” and it was an exhibition ironically curated by the guy who runs now the Royal Academy (Charles Saumarez Smith) and included Joseph Beuys, lots of other people like Klaus Staeck and Wolf Vostell, people from Germany and people from the UK. There was a big debate about the world of art and all of that was part of it. That was very crucial in terms of making me and people like me realise that there were other people doing this too, doing it very well and we could learn the lessons. The irony of that is that they guy who curate it went to dinner with all the artist and afterwards I was talking to this curator and I asked about what made him choose these artist. He said, I thought they were doing interesting work and it is kind of ground breaking but on further talking to him I realised that he actually did not believe in what they believed.
Z - How is that?
P - He said that in his opinion art can never change society, art can only reflect society. For these entire group of artist the whole raison d’être for their work was that they did is because they believed that art could intervene and make changes. So this guy did not share any of their beliefs but he chose them because he thought they were the next new thing, it was a fashion decision, a career move for him. He was virtually unknown at the time and now he is chief curator of the Royal Academy.
Z - That was his first kind of major exhibition,
P - This is controversial. This is going to create media interest. That is why he wanted put this on. It was his strategy basically to get known
Z - That is the level of cynicism within the art world which I have come up against all the time.
P - I was very shocked but never the less this was a very good thing to do.
Z - Absolutely because of those artist
P - It made you realized that there were artist in other countries doing the same thing and this was handpicked by this curator that knew about it because he looked at different resources or went to the Biennale or read the media. He knew about it.
Z - Which kind of leads to the question, does a curator need believe in order to do a good job?
P - Just believing in the project, it is like being a journalist. You think, you report the news regardless of your ideology and may be this means he did a good job meaning that he was fair with the subject.
Z - What I found distatesful about it is that he appeared publicly to be supportive of the project ideologically but he was a non believer on the subject. I find that opportunistic.
P – I will give you another example, the “Art for Whom” exhibition, which is one I was in curated by Richard Cork. At the time Cork did a similar thing although he believed in it as well. He chose a number of artists, including myself, because we were working outside of the art context and we were working with social issues, hence the tile “Art for Whom”. And he chose one of my images for the main poster which showed a whole bunch of people carrying a banner and superimposed on the banner was Art for Whom. What was interesting about that is that Richard Cork was a young critic, he was beginning to make his way as a critic, he had just started writing or rather running Studio International which was a very influential magazine at the time. All the articles were also by people who were working with social issues, feminism and all of those things that were all happening at the time and questioning the role of art and questioning high modernism and what it stood for. I was distinctively anti it. Two things happened. One, Richard Cork when we were writing the catalogue he said that he did not realised that all us were influenced by Marx. He did not know. He had not realised of that. We had to explain to him, that we were but we were not. We had to explain that we were actually pro-democracy not like Soviet Russia. We had to explain our politics to him but he was surprised by it. He had not realised that that was our impetus. That was a bit of a revelation for him and when he was attacked, the exhibition as a whole was attacked from the right Bernard Levin who was a critic for the Times at the time, a well-known critic wrote: “This is poisoning of the wells of art”. He was attacked for his curation of this exhibition from the right but he was also attacked from the left. The criticisms from the left were this is taking work out of context and putting it into a gallery and galleries are bourgeois. He found himself being attacked from both the right and the left. I do not think he had expected that and it shocked him a bit. The next thing that shocked him was the fact that Studio International was eventually closed down mainly because at the time all the galleries who advertised in it, like Worthington and all those, saw that the content was attacking their very own principles and they closed it down just by pulling all the advertising.
Z - So you have given me two examples of curators, one that did not believe in the content but thought that was a hot topic at the time and the other one who believed in the content but his practice completely failed. This is really good, very interesting.
P - Richard Cork is gone on to be a well-known critic and is kind of part of the establishment now. Those principles that he had about looking at art that was operating outside the gallery were abandoned when he realised that his bread and butter is in reviewing Monet and similar stuff.
Z -The V&A has curated an exhibition about post-modernism and your artwork has taken part in this exhibition, I mean within the context. The exhibition is very broad and talks about the beginnings of post-modern art and how that is narrowed down by the subject matter, money. Your artwork appears in this exhibition. What would you like to say about this?
P - A number of contradictions arose out of this exhibition. The impetus behind the exhibition, looking at the emersion of post-modernism and where it came from, I thought it was an interesting. That is why I agreed to allow the work to be used in that context.
Somebody at University of Westminster told me that he saw my piece at the exhibition. He said: “But post-modernist? Why is it post-modernist? It kind of looks similar to the John Heartfield type of approach and John Heartfield was part of modernism”. It was interesting that he said that because actually John Heartfield was not part of modernism. He has been placed there subsequently. It was part of the ideals of modernism in the sense that early modernism was about democratization of various practices and introducing photography into art and all of those things. He was subsequently placed there. His whole work with the photomontages was about being part of a context and that is the model we used.
The reason why our work is post-modernism is because that network and context, the totality of the practice which is like I was described earlier about the Beuysian notion of the social sculpture. The image itself is out of context in that sense because it was part of a sequence, the sequence is not displayed anywhere although they did say at one time that they were going to display the sequence, they did not. The isolated the work, and the reason they chose that image was because they wanted to represent that work because it was part of what was going on at the time but they stuck it together in a very superficial way with Andy Warhol’s picture of money and somebody else’s picture of money.
Z - Yes that Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei. No, that was Coca Cola.
P - Very superficially they said this works are all about money so let’s stick them all together. Because the work was on a large scale, they decided to put it in a large scale but the door came through what was effectively the centre of the work which was about the people being pushed into the abyss by the money and the text described that process and what that was about. So that was taken out, the core of the work was taken out and made into a doorway.
Z - The people who went through that doorway would represent people going down to the abyss, but obviously that is very difficult to interpret because if you have not seen the original piece of work you would not understand anything.
P - The original piece of work in its totality is in the catalogue.
Z - At the end of the day people who went to this exhibition will see some part of your piece instead of the whole piece. Who made this decision?
P – They will see it as a graphic to do with money rather than a political intervention.
Z - They would not cut out the Mona Lisa but they cut out your artwork. Interesting.
P - I was saying earlier that I think it is important to keep intervening in the art world to keep the debates going. I would say also that I do it less these days and this is one of the reasons, to be honest. I am completely cynical about how the art world operates and I have seen time and time again people coming along and being the new radical chic, which is the same as new Labour. It is a veneer which is about career moves rather than any genuine commitment. I have seen too much of that going on in the art world and I do not have pleasure being in it anymore. This people make my flesh creep.
Reflections on Peter Dunn curatorial practice
Peter talks to us about his artwork using image and text:
And they were photo montages, the photo montage thing had grown out of two things really, why photo montage? we’ve done a series of exhibitions before that which had been images and text , separate image and text and some of it was historical material and we discovered that people liked looking at the pictures and specially if they are all pictures, a lot of nostalgia in that and they just get drawn into the nostalgia and they wouldn’t read the text so we were thinking of ways of combining image and text and of course we looked at other People John Heartfield in particular at that time but other people working like Victor Burgin and lots of other people working in image and text, so we started to develop that kind of relationship between image and text, the idea then of saying ok let’s look at the context of this work, if you want to do something which is not instant like a poster on the streets, but has more in-depth information, then you can play with the images in a way which is slightly different, because you can draw people in by creating contradictions and intrigue and then they can read the small print and find out what was going on, is a technique used in advertising, is not new, but it was a device that we thought it was useful in terms of dealing with more in-depth information and when we were asked to get involved with London Docklands which became a massive thing, the idea of doing billboards, when we were thinking of doing billboards, when we were talking to the local people about what they wanted from these billboards.
Yeah it was a kind of slow animation process/ But again as part of the campaign there were posters, leaflets, exhibitions, we started doing exhibitions around themes, so housing was one of the major thing in Docklands at the time, another theme was the history of campaigning in Docklands, that was important because to give people living in Docklands a sense of their own history, the activist that we knew, knew that history from being part of it, the trade unionist and so on, those people one in particular Ted Jones who was our chair, we had a steering group and this is important, a steering group who outnumbered the workers, they decided on what we should do, because they lived there and I lived there eventually I still do in fact, but they understood the issues and they knew about them and what would happen is that we would discuss the issues in the steering group decide what issues were key, how we should prioritize them, and then we will go away and so sketches and mock ups and so on, and say ok is this communicating what we discussed? And they weren’t trained in visual work, and we weren’t trained in campaigning but we shared that information it was a double education process really, we both learned a lot from each other
Also we’ve been reading a lot of stuff about semiotics and so on at the time as well so it was grounded in theory as well as practice,
I was saying about Ted Jones who was the chair of this committee, he had been a “docker”, he lived and worked there all his life, he’d been one of the key people when they were campaigning to get a school in the isle of dogs declared UDI (Unilateral Declaration of Independence) they closed the bridges on the Isle of Dogs and had barriers there and issued passports to all the members and to people who lived or worked there, it was a publicity thing really.
Activist Art or Artivism:
Artivism developed in recent years while the anti-war and anti-globalization protests emerged and proliferated. In most of the cases activists attempt to push political agendas by the means of art, but the focus on raising social, environmental and technical awareness, has increased exponentially as people has started to lose faith in politics and the current socioeconomic system. Besides using traditional mediums like film and music to raise awareness or push for change, an artivist can also be involved in culture jamming, subverting, street art, spoken word, protesting and activism.