The Present Day Creates History 1976-77

Photo-text exhibition addressing development issues in two very different locations. Collaboration with Peter Dunn.

Peterlee and Ruislip Exhib Cards

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.