From Grierson to Podnosh – a history of Participation

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.

Steve Bell – The Birmingham Years

Steve Bell (left)

I have a tiny connection to Steve Bell (on the left above at this year’s Tory Conference in Birmingham, pic Star-one). I used to do some work with Jewellery Quarter based designer Brian Homer who has for many years pulled together the If… compilation books. I have a brief credit at the start of Chairman Blair’s Little Red Book (a Bell book co-authored with Brian) for some imaging work I did on it. I was setting the levels on some scanned artwork and Steve showed me the best settings. That’s it really, hardly a great Dave-meets-celeb story.

Steve is coming back to Brum next month, not to carry on my photoshop tutorial but for a talk at the Plus Design Expo. His time working in Birmingham in the 1970s is usually passed over (“taught art for a short time in Birmingham, but soon left” and see his wikipedia entry) but although I can’t pin down the exact dates he was actually here, he certainly left a decent footprint. Actually a bit of research not only fills in some gaps about Steve but also reminds us that Birmingham in the dank days of the 1970s and 80s had a really vibrant radical publishing scene which has some interesting lessons for the city’s emerging blogging culture.

Here’s what some brief research on Steve found – much of it sourced from the Derek Bishton papers archived on the brilliant Connecting Histories website:

  • Circa 1977 Contributed to Streetcomix produced at the Arts Lab in Gosta Green (along with Hunt Emerson and others)
  • Contributor to Birmingham Broadside 1977-79. A listings magazine that “had a more overtly political agenda, covering local union affairs, local politics, and the activities of the law, police, media….. [it] aimed to cover every area where ‘The Birmingham Post’ and the ‘Birmingham Evening Mail’ already provided an establishment viewpoint”. Steve produced a strip called ‘Maxwell the Mutuant:
  • Contributor to pilot edition of the Birmingham Equirer: “Pilot issue of newspaper launched by a co-operative of journalists as an alternative to the domination of newspapers in Birmingham by one company”
  • Worked with a co-operative of designers called ‘Sidelines’. The Bisthon archive mentions that he produced illustrations for a report into ‘The Problems of Owner-Occupation in Inner Birmingham’ for the Birmingham Community Development Project.
  • And of course since the early 1980s Brian Homer has been designing Steve’s book here in Birmingham: “We have been designing Guardian cartoonist Steve Bell’s books for 25 years, including two co-authored by Brian Homer. We work closely with Steve to realise each book – helping with editing, pagination and back board copy as well as making sure that we design the book to present the material in the best possible way.”

I suspect this is just a small part of the work Steve has done in Birmingham but if you’re seeing him at Plus then it’s worth keeping in mind that he’s part of what was an interesting time in Brum. A particularly interesting history is that of the deign agency Sidelines. It was organised as a co-operative that designed: “Newsletters; bulletins; annual reports; information leaflets; promotional material and occasional publications in the form of pamphlets and booklets designed and produced for community groups”. In its function it reminds me of the work at the recent Social Media Surgery in Birmingham. Here’s a fuller discussion, again from the Bisthon archive about Sidelines:

“The Sidelines design and publishing agency was conceived by Brian Homer as a ‘sideline’ to his editing work on the local paper ‘Birmingham Broadside’ in around 1977. Homer had become involved with producing design work for the Community Development Project in Birmingham, and for the Handsworth Law Centre, All Faiths for One Race (AFFOR) and other organisations, and when community groups began making requests to him to carry out design and production work for their publications, he went freelance from ‘Birmingham Broadside’. He separated himself from the magazine in 1978, having seen the potential for more work, and was joined on many of Sidelines original work projects by an informal network of artists, photographers and journalists, some of whom had previously worked on ‘Grapevine’ and ‘Birmingham Broadside’. They transferred the knowledge and expertise gained through this work to set up Sidelines as an alternative design and publishing agency that specialised in working for community groups, offering a professional service at affordable rates. In addition to community organisations, work was commissioned by trade union groups and produced material for May Day demonstrations, and also designed ‘Searchlight’, the international anti-fascist magazine. It began by designing for print publications, but later became involved with bigger projects.” 

It strikes me that there’s potential to reproduce a ‘Sidelines’ for the digital world. Don’t you think?