Stages in the Revolution was curated by Andrew Bonacina and Victoria Brooks (The Island), for the Whitstable Biennale 2012.
Whitstable’s metal-clad aggregate factory is an unexpected presence on the town’s popular shoreline, looming over the oyster sellers and beach huts for which Whitstable is better known. It is an incongruous industrial presence in the gentrified harbour area, establishing a reality at odds with the picture postcard image of a seaside town. The factory looms large in the narrative of modern British society, an ineluctable force signalling the wake of the Industrial Revolution falling into ruin on a new post-industrial landscape one hundred and fifty years later. At the heart of the factory, the image of its gathered community of workers has acted as an embodied mirror for the seismic shifts in labour, production and class politics over this period. In his 1886 essay A Factory As it Might Be, William Morris described his vision for an ideal factory which would combine work and leisure within the same environs, providing towns and cities with their social centres. Over one hundred years later Colin Ward’s riposte in The Factory We Never Had sets out our ‘failure to achieve the humanisation of work’. Ward emphasises Morris’ anticipation of the weakening of socialism through the growth of leisure in a contemporary consumer society, which by reducing the focus on work disperses the power of the workforce to act together.
In reality, Whitstable’s aggregate factory is manned by as few as five people at any one time and is a small part of the chain of production and distribution dispersed across the country and beyond. Yet its dominating presence in this small town has become a recurring metaphorical signpost in our programme for this year’s Biennale – as a place of labour transformed by new modes and forces of production, and a symbol of community that coalesces and dissolves like that convened by the Biennale itself. Its antagonistic presence in the harbour has also informed our thinking about the changing spaces of sociability so apparent in a town like Whitstable whose economy is reliant on an increasingly transient demographic, often at the expense of social and cultural spaces for the local community, and like many seafronts, caught in the push and pull between an industrial past and a present and future driven by consumer tourism.
Patrick Staff’s multi-part project A Factory As it Might Be (2012) borrows its title from Morris’ essay and unfolds around the factory and on the high street. By erecting three stages in vacant spaces around the aggregate plant, Staff uses the collision of industrial labour against the recent styling of the harbour as a place for leisure and entertainment as a proposition or invitation to Whitstable’s shifting communities (be I workers, local community groups, tourists or children) to occupy the overlooked spaces around the blacktop plant – to congregate, perform, protest or simply reclaim these spaces as their own. By establishing points of new focus and activity, Staff opens up the potential of these areas as sites of alternative engagement and productivity.
For centuries the local fishing grounds have been divided between private landlords and commoners – a negotiation that continues through the current enclosure of some of the remaining fishing commons by offshore wind-farms. Whitstable has a particularly topography of rights to local resources, where the beach and adjacent oyster beds, for example, have long been under private ownership. Historian Iain Boal’s walk Oysters and Commoners examines life on the foreshore with local residents and fishermen through the lens of the commons, asking how industry and the extraction of resources affect communities and public access. The framing of the peripatetic discussion in these terms can be seen as an elaboration of Boal’s claim that the ‘open air’ is often the only space left after private and state interest have carved up the landscape. In an echo of Staff’s call to re-inhabit contested spaces, Boal looks to new possibilities of contemporary commoning, arguing that ‘under modernity public space is a subordinate category, residual even, and confined to what is left over once land has been seized, commodified and parcelled into private lots.
In the early 1970s Gordon Matt-Clark embarked on his Fake Estates project in which his purchasing of small, unused strips of land in New York’s Queens and Staten Island boroughs revealed the intricacies of land ownership which turn the sky into an aggregate of private and public units of real estate; by notionally releasing these spaces from enclosure, Matt-Clark emphasised a disruptive potential for liminal spaces. Cara Tolmie’s engagement with architecture is typically one of performative confrontation, using the voice and movement to give form to an alternative rendering of space. Her films and performance are often the result of a simple curiosity about what happens when autonomous entities are brought into a state of confrontation. Tolmie’s project for the Biennale Aggregation, Swell Units (2012) sees the construction of a set in the harbour’s boatshed that was designed for a recent film work; a surreal interior partitioned into a three sections housing piles of aggregate, a fish tank and a table holding a number of tools. This environment will be used for two performances by a group of musicians and the artist who will together negotiate the context of these components being brought into proximity. Providing neither soundtrack nor narrative for this set, the performers enact a moment of sustained tension in which each constituent elements seeks to define itself against the other.Stage in the Revolution takes its name from Catherine Itzin’s germinal book in which she examines the rise of political theatre in 1970s Britain. By locating its origins in the late Sixties’ counterculture movement and specifically in the unprecedented activism of 1968, she attributes a ‘left-shift’ to the radicalisation of students of the post-war baby boom generation, for whom the coming into political consciousness ‘exploded the materialist myth’ for both the middle and working-classes. Resonating with both Morris and Ward, she states ‘perhaps the most important immediate historical heritage of 1968 was the history of the Labour movement after the Second World War and its failure to institute socialism. Jesse Jones’ theatrical production for the Biennale re-animates one of these pivotal countercultural moments, namely a landmark 1968 encounter group therapy session led by psychologist Carl Rogers which brought together a group of well-adjusted American citizens to examine the role of the ‘self’ in social dynamics. Existing now as the documentary film Journey into Self (1969), Jones’ theatrical re-enactment imbues the fabric of an historical event with a sense of performativity that opens it up to reinterpretation as seen through the lens of the social and political realities of the present moment. These realities will in turn be examined in a newly staged encounter group session convened by Jones and a Rogerian therapist at the close of the Biennale.
Jones’ theatrical articulation of the ‘momentary communities’ established within countercultural psychological is repositioned when viewed through the lens of a performance by Banner Theatre, who have been invited by Staff to present their current production Fighting the Cuts! As one of the longest-established community theatre companies in the UK, formed in 1973 by Charles Parker and Ewan McColl. Banner Theatre has been influenced as much by the non-hierarchical format of folk revival groups of the sixties as by the montage and structuralist techniques of Bertolt Brecht and Vsevolod Meyerhold. The performances focus on the vernacular voice of the working class, using ‘slides and film footage juxtaposed with taped interview material and songs alongside dance and movement’. Although their roots lie in trade unions, the company have developed connections with several networks of political activism throughout the past three decades and constantly find new audiences to create occasions for political dialogue. Fighting the Cuts by Banner’s ‘1st of May Band’ interweaves stories of resistance to the cuts, from student occupations in Leeds, Home Care and support workers in Edinburgh, HMRC activists in London, young people in Newcastle and NHS workers in Manchester.
Both theatre and cinema place sociality at the hart of the viewing experience and the rise of outdoor and temporary cinemas and the steady increase in cinema audiences since the 2008 economic crash has confounded predictions that individual viewing online and digital home media would overtake the communal experience of cinema. The Factory Cinema is an itinerant film programme of open-air screenings inhabiting Staff’s stages after sunset, offering the opportunity for both visitors to the Biennale and local residents to engage in a communal viewing experience. Focusing on films that open up discussions around the themes explores in Stage in the Revolution, the artists involved will present films alongside initiatives such as Cinenova, a volunteer-run distribution for women’s films and video, and Little Joe Film Club which focuses on the presentation of queer film, in order to reflect on and accommodate alternative institutional structures which protect and present radical social and political histories through cinema, archives and the arts.
Cinema’s contribution to collective cultural memory has long been a focus of artists’ projects and recent research by writers such as Maeve Connolly has investigated the prevalence of artists’ cinema structures and their relationship to sociality, including Jesse Jones’ 12 Angry Films (2006) in which the artist created a functioning drive-in cinema in Dublin’s dilapidated port with a ‘focus on cinema as a social form’. But social models are not always inclusive as communities define their own identities and terms of engagement. Gareth Moore’s ongoing project Children’s Films, co-commissioned by the Biennale, uses exclusionary principles in an affirmative way, creating a form of itinerant cinema to screen films made by artists exclusively for children. Through his references to the historical work Children’s Tapes (1974) by Terry Fox, as well as to the practices of the invited artists, Moore bypasses the usual levels of mediation by which children typically engage with the work of contemporary artists and seeks to create for them a space of autonomy and engagement. The screening of these films in various venues across the town including Sea Scouts hut, a Labour Club and a community centre calls to mind Colin Ward’s groundbreaking A Child In The City (1978) in which he brings together his interests in the ways in which children explore and are affected by the urban environment, and his belief in anarchy as a ‘mode of human organisation, rooted in the experience of everyday life’, rallying his belief in the importance of self-organised community spaces.
In his preface to Colin Ward’s collected writings Chris Wilbert reflects on Ward’s radicality, encouraging us to ‘attend seriously to the history and politics of such activities because they can facilitate autonomy, build new solidarities and like ‘seeds beneath the snow’ open new possibilities for living differently’. A desire to disrupt the status quo nestles somewhere in all the projects in Stages in the Revolution, each articulating different and often contradictory positions on communality, the occupation of public space and the relationship between theatre and social change. ‘Theatre’ wrote Vaclav Havel is a ‘fragment of life organised in a way meant to say something about life as a whole. The collective nature of a theatrical experience is no less important: theatre always presupposes the presence of a community – actors and audience – who experience it together’. Stages in the Revolution opens up moments in which this community might investigate the transformative possibilities of these shared experiences, however fleeting or undefined.
1. Colin Ward, The Factory We Never Had, in Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader, eds. Chris Wilbert & Davian F. White (London: AK Press, 2011), p.188
2. Iain Boal, Conflicts on the Common, interview with Antony Marcellini (Berkeley, 2008), p.4
3. Catherine Itzin, Stages in the Revolution: Political Theatre in Britain Since 1968, (London: Eyre Methuen, 1980), p.3
4. Ibid, p.6
5. Alan Filewood & David Watt, Workers’ Playtime: Theatre and the Labour Movement since 1970 (London: Currency Press, 2001), p.89
6. Mave Connolly, Temporality, Sociality, Publicness: Cinema as Art Project, in Afterall, (London: Spring 2012), pp. 5-15
7. Chris Wilbert, Autonomy, Solidarity, Possibility: the Colin Ward Reader, eds. Chris Wilbert & Damian F. White (London: AK Press, 2011), p.2
8. Vaclav Havel, Politics and Theatre, Project Syndicate: http://project-syndicate.org/commentary/politics-and-theatre