Exhibition, posters and the video Emergency were produced by Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn to support of the campaign to save Bethnal Green Hospital from closure.
The seventies in Britain saw the first wave of cutbacks in the National Health Service, carried out initially by the Tories, then continued through the 1974 Labour government. As part of this policy, many small hospitals were closed. The Bethnal Green Hospital in East London served the local population as a community hospital valued for its continuity of care and accessibility to local residents. It was still working to capacity and once its facilities became withdrawn, patients would have nowhere to go except to extend already over-long waiting lists in other hospitals. In 1977, following orders for closure, its staff decided to ‘occupy’ the hospital while a campaign was mounted to safeguard its future. The only people to move out of the hospital were therefore the administrators. Doctors, nurses and other staff continued to perform their duties, GP’s continued to refer patients, people continued to attend the casualty department and ambulance drivers continued to respond to emergency calls. While patients remained at the hospital, the health authority had a duty to pay staff salaries – and so the occupation took effect.
We had recently taken up a Greater London Arts fellowship with a remit to set up and run film and video workshops in that area. Dan Jones, a local social worker, artist and member of the Bethnal Green Hospital campaign committee, approached us with the offer of the hospital as a ‘workshop location’, hoping for a video production that could be used by the campaign. This provided an opportunity to use our practice as a means of supporting issues of relevance to local people.
Initially we attempted to produce a campaign video through the workshops. It soon became apparent however that process and product diverged in both intention and outcome. In a workshop context non-specialists needed to learn at their own pace. However, a campaign video needs to be rapidly produced and, to be effective, it also has to work aesthetically. We soon found ourselves editing out camera shake and other results of inexpert involvement, feeling torn between providing positive learning experiences for participants, and the result that was needed. Eventually a reasonable outcome was produced in the form of the documentary Emergency. At the same time we resolved to find a better working process.
Campaigning posters were then requested, though this time we found a more satisfactory way of working directly with members of the campaign committee, producing the work ourselves but with referral to campaign members regarding the meanings to be conveyed.
During the months of making the video and posters we became increasingly involved in the campaign itself, and had taken to photographically documenting events. It gradually became apparent that there was a need for a more in-depth explanation of the issues for people entering the hospital. Drawing on our accumulated photographic documentation and working closely with campaign committee members, an exhibition was devised. Its function was to place the specific campaign within its wider social and political context, and to communicate this complex information in an accessible way though visually powerful way. Referring to the work of artists such as John Heartfield and the Russian Constructivists , particularly Alexander Rodchenko, who we felt had in other times and places produced work with similar intention, we started to develop our use of photomontage into an artistic and political tool.
While the exhibition fulfilled its purpose in the hospital, another function emerged. Art critic Richard Cork had at the time been asked to curate an exhibition for the Serpentine Gallery in London. Entitled Art for Whom? it was to reflect a growing interest in the potential ‘audience’ for art beyond the gallery going public. Other artists exhibiting included Conrad Atkinson, Islington Schools Environmental Project, Public Art Workshop and Stephen Willats, jointly demonstrating that art was indeed a medium that could deal effectively with issues affecting the lives of ordinary people.