The area now known as the London Docklands extended eight miles downriver from Tower Bridge, its most western point, to the Royal Docks in the east, and was described by developers as the ‘largest piece of real estate in Europe’.
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 artists’ initial consultation with local groups had encountered a repeated request for a photographic record of the many campaigns taking place across the Docklands area. This became a central activity of the Poster Project, and an archive of their b/w negatives is still held by the artists. The colour transparencies are held by the Museum of London Docklands.
Initial redevelopment issues in the Docklands began at the western end of the designated land. The Royal Docks at most eastern extremities were left largely untouched throughout most of the eighties. However one major development for this area was put into motion. This was to be a new airport for London, whose runway would use the stretch of land between these docks, and surrounding areas for airport buildings and parking.
As with all these developments, local people had not been consulted. The area was renowned for its lack of amenities, jobs and transport, while most residents were squeezed into shabby tower blocks in urgent need of rebuilding. An airport would meet none of these needs, save a few jobs for ground staff and cleaners, and certainly not the kind of transportation so urgently required.
Silvertown residents, like others in Docklands, were highly organised – a necessity for survival in such challenging conditions. A key activist in this area was Connie Hunt, renowned for pouring hot soup over Winston Churchill, following unwelcome sexual advances when she was sent to wait on him as a young girl. On hearing of the Development Corporation’s plans for the airport, the activists of Silvertown created their own organisation, the People’s Plan Centre, which found premises in a local shop, staffed by volunteers.
They approached the Greater London Councils’ new Popular Planning Unit for support. This unit had employed some key political strategists on its staff, including Sheila Rowbotham and Hilary Wainwright (co-authors of the early social feminist book ‘Beyond the Fragments’). Hilary took on the Royal Docks case, joining the Joint Docklands Action group and Docklands Community Poster Project as collaborative partners. The DCPP designed posters, provided a shop sign and promotional board for the centre.
Members of the People’s Plan Centre carried out their own research and consultation, gained expert input and finally drew up a comprehensive document. This detailed how the same area of land could meet local needs including those of housing, childcare, the elderly, shopping facilities, transport, leisure and recreation, education and health. The Plan addressed the means through which this approach would create jobs and boost the economy while providing the local resources so urgently needed.
DCPP designer Sandra Buchanan designed the lengthy proposals into a visual and accessible illustrated , and LB Newham had it posted through every letterbox in the area. There was no comparison between the social benefits of the airport proposal and those of the People’s Plan. Silvertown residents were successful in achieving a public enquiry, which upheld their plan instead of that for the airport.
However the London Docklands Development Corporation London were answerable only to central government, a power that had been created by a special act of parliament by the Thatcher government. They did not have to take on the recommendations of the enquiry, and the airport went ahead.
The London Docklands Development Corporation (LDDC) was the second urban development corporation to be established by the Thatcher government following their return to power in 1979.
Posters produced by Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn in collaboration with the East London Trades Councils.
In 1978 the East London trades councils wished to disseminate information about health issues to the local population in light of the cuts being made to the National Health Service. They had a small amount of funding remaining from some recent campaigning, which they had originally intended to use for the production of leaflets. Dan Jones, who was also a local trades unionist and member of Tower Hamlets Trades Council had initially invited us to take part in the Bethnal Green Hospital campaign. As an artist in his own right he also understood the role of art in social change . Appreciating the commitment and political understanding that he felt we had shown in our work for the hospital, he proposed that the trades councils take the risk of developing a new, visual approach to the broader campaigning.
Dan instigated a small steering committee which including representatives from Newham Trades Council, Tower Hamlets Health Campaign and the health workers’ unions NALGO and NUPE, Jim Grayson of NALGO remaining a stalwart supporter of our work in the following decades. We worked with this group to determine a visual form most suited to its potential audience, and arrived at the idea of the ‘visual pamphlet’ – essentially a poster containing information that could be used in health venues. The steering group provided us with an important learning experience regarding the power of collaboration. The role of each member was to share their specialist knowledge – the health representatives did not attempt to make aesthetic judgements, and we, as artists, did not assume expertise in the issues. The visuals that emanated from these discussions were evaluated not so much on the basis of their appearance, but rather on their effectiveness to convey meaning. This approach to collaboration proved highly successful; both in the way it resulted in a ‘multiplication’ of skills and experience, and through the creative energy it generated. It completely contradicted the ‘design by committee’ criticism often directed at collectively produced artwork of the time. This approach was to provide the structural foundations for our subsequent art practice.
Eight different posters were produced over the two years of the East London Health Project. These were widely distributed within the health sector, and also intervened in the art world through inclusion in such exhibitions as Issue: Social Strategies by Women Artists in 1980, curated by Lucy Lippard for the Institute of Contemporary Arts in London.
In 1991 local experience of the Docklands redevelopment was taken into a global arena through a multimedia installation commissioned by the Agnes Etherington Gallery, Kingston, Ontario, as part of their exhibition and conference Fragmented Power: Art voices for 2000.
Loraine and Peter collaborated with Toronto based artists Carole Conde and Karl Beverage to produce Digital Highways, Local Narratives, an installation that looked at the local effects of the global transfer of capital through financial centres such as Canary Wharf, and the resulting de-industrialisation that had severe repercussions for the Canadian economy.
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.
Photo-text exhibition addressing development issues in two very different locations. Collaboration with Peter Dunn.
The search for ways to create meaningful cultural interventions outside of an art institutional context took Peter and I to visit artist Stuart Brisley, who was commencing an APG placement in the new town of Peterlee in County Durham. He showed us the results of an early artist residency there by Victor Pasmore, which had resulted in cuboid buildings and sculpted mounds of communal lawns. Brisley’s desire was to do something that could engage more meaningfully with the needs of the new inhabitants, recently displaced from their mining village communities. He thus offered us a model of an artist working from within a community outwards, with social engagement as the starting point.
We chose to compare the development of the imposed urban development of Peterlee with a very different model, that of Ruislip, a ribbon suburb of London where I had grown up. The aim was to expose the decision-making processes that underpinned each location, taking Brecht’s perspective on the making of history through the actions of the present day. Our methodology was to uncover these processes through interviews and interaction with local residents, then to feed this material back through an exhibition in public venues where discussion could take place.
The exhibition entitled The Present Day Creates History comprised image and text derived from personal interview, family photographs, press cuttings, and local archives. Displayed in libraries and other public venues, it highlighted the social and political contexts that had framed the different development of each town, and indicated choices for the future. Although discussions accompanied the exhibition, we felt that meaningful connection with the local residents had somehow failed to take place. This was despite the fact that the material was gathered from local sources, and even that one location was my own home-town where I had history and local knowledge. People wanted to know why we were doing it. We had answers, but I’m not sure that these actually addressed the questions, or that we really knew. The work had begun with a desire to support social change and an understanding that as artists we were well positioned to operate in ‘peripheral’ spaces and to facilitate dialogue and questioning unlikely to occur within institutions. However what did we think we were going to achieve in the minds of a handful of local residents who were puzzled as to why we were there at all? If we wanted to support social change did we not need to be less a drop in the ocean and more part of a groundswell? It was our first real lesson concerning collective action. The second lesson was offered by a campaign to save an East London hospital from closure.
A series of live, participatory performances at the Slade School of Art, London and Hochschule der Künste, Berlin. Collaboration with Peter Dunn.
The London Berlin performances were an early attempt by Loraine Leeson and Peter Dunn to explore the context in which art is enacted, taking place while Loraine was attending the Hochschule deer Künste in Berlin on a DAAD scholarship, and Peter was studying at the Slade School in London. The performances dealt with notions of private/public, process/product, self/other, individual versus collective decision making, and the contexts of art, culture, society and ideology within which these activities take place.
The first event took place with Peter alone in his studio in London and Loraine in a shared studio in Berlin. Messages were conveyed via telephone (this was a long time before the internet!) such that a drawing of a divided being carried out on paper by Peter was instantaneously turned into a large scale installation made out of earth by a group of participants working with Loraine in Berlin. Each participant was given a message relating to the context of art to debate with the group. They wrote their conclusions in their section of the earth square, and these were also telephoned back to the UK to complete the drawing there.
In the second performance, documentation of this event was returned to the Slade in London, where the earthen square was also marked out with the written conclusions formed in Berlin. Videotapes of both events were screened to a group of London students, who were then asked to modify them according to their own ideas. A new drawing documented these.
The final event took place at the Hochschule der Künste in Berlin, where the installation plus video documentation of all events was screened and the audience similarly asked to develop the ideas further. A new piece of work was also displayed based on the very isolating nature of German art education of that time.
A handmade book documents the events.