The photo-murals were developed in response to the request from community representatives for large posters to represent the key issues affecting the redevelopment of the Docklands.
The Docklands Community Poster Project steering group considered carefully who the main audience for these posters should be. Were they to be directed towards the developers, or to explain the issues to outsiders? Or were they to be primarily for the Docklands communities themselves? It was decided that the latter group were the most important. Most people were unaware of what was going on, and only knew the miles of corrugated iron now surrounding what was left of the docks, and that they had been left stranded in poor housing with few facilities.
The siting of the photo-murals was also important. Commercial billboards, aimed at communicating a simple brand name, tend to be situated in locations where they can best attract the attention of passing motorists. Since the Poster Project’s information was aimed at local people, it was decided that the organisation should construct them on sites where they could be seen over time by passing pedestrians. To this end, the organisation decided to build their own billboard structures, and the first one was subsequently constructed opposite a health centre on Wapping Lane. When further funding came through from the Greater London Council, seven more photo-mural sites were built in and around the Docklands area. Some were temporary, however at any one time six sites were in operation.
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The images themselves were developed with the multiple photo-mural sites in mind. They were designed to change gradually through replacement of individual sections, to develop a narrative rather like a slow motion animation. In practical terms this meant the images could be transferred from one site to another, enabling the story of Docklands to unfold through time and space. Inspiration for the format of the photo-murals came from Chinese wall posters, which had brought information to the people during the Cultural Revolution. The name ‘photo-mural’ was coined by art critic Richard Cork when searching for words to describe this aspect of the work. Messages to be conveyed by the photo-murals came out of the discussions of the Docklands Community Poster Project steering group. The latter was comprised of representatives from the tenants and action groups in the Docklands area, who met once a month to feed back on current issues of the campaigning and identify where action was needed. This group decided on the siting of the photo-murals and issues for communication.
Loraine and Peter then worked on the representation of these themes, bringing imagery back to the group for further discussion of its meaning, though the visual representation was entirely the remit the artists. In this way the Docklands Community Poster Project was able to build on the model of the steering group model developed for the East London Health Project, which allowed each member of the collaborative team to use their best skills and avoided a ‘lowest common denominator’ approach. This process of decision making enabled a multiplication of skills and experience and provided a hub of creative energy that sustained the project for its ten year duration.
First photo-mural sequence
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This dealt with the issue at the forefront of everyone’s mind. What is going on behind our backs? Years of consultation by the Labour led boroughs had been rejected by the newly appointed London Docklands Development Corporation in favour of the practical enactment of Thatcherist policy. This photo-mural sequence followed the nature and concerns of the campaigning. It began with a question, then considered the scenario that people could see being enacted around them. “Big Money is moving in and is pushing out local people,” explained one activist at a public meeting, so naming the next image of the sequence. The artists attended the meetings of every campaigning group during that period to familiarise themselves with the issues. At these events activists were often heard to express their ideas through visual metaphor, and these became the inspiration for the imagery.
Representations also changed to follow the development of ideas. For example, although fear of being thrown ‘on the scrap heap’ was clearly expressed, local response to the image depicting this was indignant. The ‘scrap heap’ was seen as the developers’ design on Docklands, not where the communities saw themselves. The image sequence unfolded to reveal that this scenario truly was a ‘design’ and not a reality. The nature of the campaigning itself was transforming, and found new strength in a pro-active approach. As the then chair of the Association of Wapping Organisations proclaimed,
There has been a lot of talk about land, land for this, land for that. But Docklands is not about land, it’s about people. And the birthright of the people is being sold off. Although the people have never owned the land, they’ve lived on it, worked on it, died on it. It is their heritage – it should be their future.
The final image in the sequence was a portrait of all those concerned in the campaigning, while also documenting recent events. Using the device of history painting, it foregrounded the central characters against the landscape within which this drama was being enacted, and reflected the new strength through solidarity that was being developed by the campaigning communities.
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Of all the issues affecting those living in the Docklands, housing was the most fundamental to people’s lives, and the steering group felt it warranted a photo-mural sequence of its own. However it was difficult to portray the current housing conditions of the area without a context explaining the historical events that formed them. It was decided therefore that housing and history should be combined. This led to an immediate difficulty of representation. Whereas visual material for current issues was readily available from the project’s own archives, historical material was embedded with the ideology of the context which led to its recording. For example, most photos of the housing of the area had been taken to promote reform – to bring better conditions to the poor and destitute. However those depicted as victims in the photographs were none less than the forerunners of the resilient and highly organised East Londoners of the present, the very people who had fought against the odds, forging those qualities of community cohesion of which East London is today so proud.
Loraine and Peter used two main visual strategies to address these issues. The first was the use of drawing as a counterpoint to photography. Peter had first applied his skills in this to deal with some of the complex issues surrounding the ‘scrap heap’ image. The drawn imagery was able to convey a reality that remained invisible in the photography of the earlier period. The engravings of Gustav Dore’s London: a Pilgrimage provided technique and inspiration. Photographic montage and drawing were combined using black and white and sepia to reveal layers of reality, and to bring together documented and undocumented activity in one image.
The second strategy concerned use of text. The artists had learned to keep text to a minimum in such work, understanding that imagery was both more readily assimilated and capable of holding more layers of meaning than words. Some text was usually necessary to ground the images however, and needed careful construction. Loraine developed a caption that acknowledged the role of East Londoners in not only surviving, but also in changing their lot – a hallmark of both their past and present struggles, ’The people of Docklands have always had to fight to make the best of appalling conditions – and to change them.’
The photo-murals imagery was produced in the eighties, prior to the widespread availability of the personal computer. Full colour imagery could only be achieved on a large scale at that time through a three-colour litho printing process, as used in the production of advertising billboard posters. However this necessitated large print runs in order to be cost effective. Loraine and Peter came up with their own solution. They hand-montaged A1 artwork, using black and white photographs, which was then professionally re-photographed in sections using a large format camera. The sections related to the size and number of plywood boards that could be carried up ladders on site to be individually screwed to the photo-mural backing boards. A 10” x 8” negative was made for each section, and from these the final 18’ x 12’ image reproduced in 3’ x 4’ sections. The enlargements were pasted onto panels of marine plywood, hand coloured, and coated with yacht varnish.
Each of these processes went through many stages of trial and error before problems of warping, colour fading and varnish discolouration were solved. The worst technical problem occurred when the first photo-mural was found demolished, presumably by an unhappy London Docklands Development Corporation. This was a moment when the strong local representation on the steering group really came into its own, and much correspondence ensued in and out of the press. The demolition was seen as not just the destruction of an artwork, but of one of the only outlets for public opinion, denied by the non-democratic, government appointed Development Corporation. The Wapping photo-mural was not only re-built, but eventually seven more constructed on sites in and around the Docklands. Insert image of demolished hoarding…