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Counter-ing austerity: Remembering what art can do

A guest blogpost by artist and zine-maker Jean McEwan

‘How we fight back? Make art’

I wanted to share a significant moment of remembering I had at September’s Welfare Imaginaries event in Liverpool, sparked by listening to writer Kerry Hudson and artist Mark McGowan talk about their work in the day’s closing session.

Kerry read from her upcoming non-fiction book ‘LOWBORN: Growing Up, Getting Away and Returning to Britain’s Poorest Towns’, while performance artist Mark McGowan talked about his Artist Tax Driver persona and Daily News video blog where he films himself alone in his taxi between fares, talking about the news and issues of the day.

Kerry and Mark discussed their work as a means of enabling them to address and discuss inequality, poverty and injustice. Talking to and working with people with lived experiences of these issues is fundamental to what they both do in their respective practices.

Kerry explained how she preferred to avoid the word ‘memoir’ in discussing her book ‘Lowborn’, even though the book is about her own experiences. She described her intention in writing it as a desire ‘to change the narrative around poverty, change the demonisation of people living in poverty, change the concept that is is their fault and somehow they are perpetuating their own misery.’

In an interview announcing the publication of the book, she states that ‘to write a book like this, and begin to try and answer questions I’ve had since my youth, is truly something I never imagined might happen. Alongside my own story, Lowborn will also tell those of so many in the UK who are often overlooked, exploring subjects that I feel desperately need to be highlighted.’

In the introduction of LOWBORN, Kerry writes:

“This book is a result of what two decades later still disturb my peace. What happened in the towns I lived in? What happened to those communities?… If I was a child growing up there, or a teen, would there be hope? I decided to go back to Aberdeen to a clan where I was born of matriarchal fishwives and follow the itinerant staggering route of my first 17 years down the country. Aberdeen, Canterbury, North Lanarkshire, Sunderland, Great Yarmouth.. What was it like to be poor and working class there now? “

Kerry talked about meeting ‘supermarket cashiers, fishwives, ex miners, women at the bingo, grocers, betting shop workers, midwives teachers, folk drinking on park benches and working in kebab shops’ for the book. She talked powerfully about the experience of being poor and how it meant not having a voice – of not being listened to, being shut down, dismissed: ‘every day of your life you are told – you have nothing of value to offer, you are worth nothing to society’.

Chunky Mark posts his Daily News video blog on his YouTube channel which has 57k subscribers. He talked about the intentions and process behind the Artist Taxi Driver, describing it as a layered fine art practice, ‘an intervention into politics, into media.’ He said:

“As an artist, it’s a real privilege to talk to people, or to have a platform where you can put peoples voices. I’m listening to people, talking to people, that’s what I do all the time. The media use narratives as a tool for power – its horrific. What I try to do to counteract it, is have a way of explaining it, a way of talking about it. The Artist Taxi Driver tries to explain things in a very colloquial language. He’s very shouty but trying to explain things so people can understand. You tell other peoples’ stories, you tell your own stories, you interpret things – its powerful. The Artist Taxi Driver is looking at things every day. He looks at issues, tries to talk about things, talk about everyday peoples lives…...Explain it to people. You bought the roads. Your taxes paid for the roads, for the buses.Everyday, the simple things that affect our lives – all the scare mongering. It’s really simple things, things that everyone built – like the NHS – everyones invested in the NHS but they (The Tories) want it all. Their greed is insatiable.”

He finished by saying: “How do we fight back? How do you fight back? What do you do? What you do is make art”

In response to a question from the floor after the presentation asking what creativity can really do to change the current urgent situation we find ourselves in, Kerry responded by saying simply listening to people and telling their stories is a one of the most powerful things that can be done. Mark stated again the privilege is it to work with people.

These are words I really needed to hear. As an artist working with people, I often ask myself if the things I’m doing – how I’m spending my time and energies – are the right things? Is this enough? So many people in the UK right now are in desperate situations through benefit cuts, hunger, homelessness and are struggling just to survive on a daily basis. In desperate times like this, where urgent action is needed, where is it best to put one’s energy? What can art do now to make a real difference? There is not one simple answer to this. Maybe it’s a question to be asked and responded to everyday.

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Asking questions at Wur Bradford

Hearing Kerry and Mark’s words however reminded me that the most meaningful and transformative things I have experienced in working with people – particularly in the work I do with Wur Bradford (a grassroots arts project which works responsively with people, most often in public places in the city) – have been about listening, telling stories, and being together.

The most powerful moments have come not through outcomes of the ‘things’ that have been made (such as the artwork, banners, zines, poems – though these are valuable and beautiful things), but through the open sessions we’ve had in our stall in the city’s indoor Kirkgate Market, where anyone can come in, meet others, talk, share stories, be creative on their own terms.

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People making together at Wur Bradford art space in Kirkgate Market, Bradford

 

Making and holding spaces where real listening and connection with others can take place, across difference, especially in public places.  Where people feel valued, respected, heard and where kindness and empathy can happen. Where you don’t have to buy anything to sit down, where there’s no agenda or required outcome or output. Where people can share stories or worries or thoughts or ideas. Get support. Feel less alone. Where people from different backgrounds ages and cultures can meet, and friendship and solidarity can grow.

Listening to Kerry and Mark was a reminder that honouring those moments and encounters, and continuing to create spaces and conditions for these to happen, is important, urgent and necessary.

My thanks to them for reminding me of this.

 

 

About Jean: Jean McEwan is a visual artist and organiser and is founder of Wur Bradford grassroots arts project. Jean has been facilitating the zine-making sessions throughout the seminar series. You can read more about Wur Bradford here .

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