I went to see the Participation exhibition at Vivid at the end July. The exhibition tells the story of the Film Workshop movement of the 1980s with a particular focus on the work of the Birmingham Film and Video Workshop. I planned a quick visit for 20 minutes but stayed for well over an hour. I was slightly overwhelmed by the experience to be honest. Not only because it brought back memories of some of my own early media experience which was spent on the fringes of the workshop movement, but also because I can see how the stuff we’re doing today with social media has the potential to be of the same level of significance.
Was it music scenes that work in cycles of ten years? Rock and Roll, first summer of love, punk, hip-hop, erm – kinda tails off after that. Well in alternative and independent media you could argue that we’ve got a 25 year cycle. From Grierson and the GPO film unit in the mid 1930s, to Robert Drew and his Direct Cinema colleagues in the late 50s, to the Film Workshops of the 1980s, to the current social media movement. The first two of these were about innovating with film-making technique to tell ‘truthful’ stories about real people (be they the postal workers in Night Mail or JFK in Primary). The Direct Cinema movement in particular agonised about how realism could be achieved and how much intervention the film-maker should have.
What the Participation exhibition shows us is that in order to achieve accurate portrayals of real people and give voice to those disenfranchised by mainstream media, the Workshop movement had started to hand the tools of production over to people themselves. The Jonnie Turpie directed Giro – Is This the Modern World? was produced with the young people who were its subjects. There’s a nice moment in the film where they turn to Jonnie who is operating the camera and tell him who they’d like to interview next (Jimmy Somerville as it happens). The clip looks a tad gimmicky but the sentiment is real – they called the shots.
I was a video trainee at a project called Handsworth Viewpoint in the late 1980s at the same time as the Birmingham Film and Video Workshop was still operating. We had little to do with it but our tutors, and in turn ourselves, were heavily influenced by the workshop way of working. From the moment we were taught how to white balance a video camera it felt like we were being given tools of dissension – not to be frittered away on shallow subject-matter but rather to be used to tackle dominant ideologies and tear down class structures. Sounds pious now I know but video’s ease of use and its directness felt that enabling. Ultimately we fell a bit short of changing the world but it was fun trying for a period there in the late 1980s.
So how does the participatory work within Social Media fit into this? Much the same surely. All these movements had at their heart a very small number of people. Perhaps the Workshop movement seemed more overtly political than anything around at the moment (where’s the women’s social media group, the gay & lesbian group, the black group etc. etc.?) but when I went to the social media surgery in Lozells last month it was ironically in the same building where Handsworth Viewpoint ended up before it came to an end in the mid 1990s. The desire that my tutors at Viewpoint had to show new media tools to citizens, to excite them, to help them understand why they are powerful, seems to also be at the heart of the social media mission. The Be Vocal site, put together by Nick Booth of Podnosh is telling the developing story in case you haven’t noticed. The workshops were around for a decade or more so it’s early days yet with the social media stuff. Give it time, trust me.
I’ve no doubt that in 25 years time we’ll be seeing whatever media revolution we happen to be in the midst of in the context of this one, and the ones before it. Social Media tools are no doubt useful for marketeers or politicians, as video and film were in their time, but the really good stuff will come from those using them to agitate, and to facilitate others to agitate for themselves.
The first part of Participation at Vivid is now finished but I believe it returns in the Autumn. The excellent essays in the programme by Roger Shannon and Paul Long don’t seem to be available online (unless I’m mistaken) which is a shame as are available on Vivid’ s website (PDF link) and both are worth a read.