Artist Residency for WERK / Bournville College

In Autumn 2013 I was invited by Claire Farrell of WERK to undertake a long-term artist residency as part of Longbridge Public Art Project, hosted by Bournville College. Here is a summary of the work I have undertaken during the first phase of this residency.

During the initial R&D period I became particularly interested in issues around gender and labour, and also the progressive politics of the Bournville Day Continuation Centre in their compulsory free schooling of the working class people who worked in the Cadbury factory.

In investigating these ideas with the people of Longbridge, and through further research in the archives, I have found myself fascinated by the rich and complex - and highly political - story of the area.

The Longbridge site documents over a century - almost 120 years - of attitudes towards labour and manufacturing, providing an ideal scenario to appraise the relationship between work and community. Uniquely, the manufacturing continues in the area to some degree with the current incarnation of the factory: MG Rover.

This regeneration project is a private development, which is economically driven. As such, the new Longbridge plan provides us with the opportunity to directly compare Victorian commercial strategies with contemporary ones.

My aim throughout this project is to approach this history candidly but playfully, and allow people to tell their stories in new ways, with the hope of developing methods to bring the essence of the area - which for many appears to have been lost - into greater focus and being for both the community and for those who are masterplanning their future.

 

Archives Research
My archives research was the starting point for my residency with LPAP. I spent time in the each of the three very different local archives, plus the remaining car factory:

Bournville College Archives - A bunch of roughly sorted boxes containing a mish-mash of different items… "If you find anything of interest let us know… we just kept what we thought might be valuable," said one of the marketing team upon my arrival. I was excited to be looking through an archive that had not been curated by an outside eye, who might have had very specific ideas on the meaning of 'valuable'. In-between boxes of reports and statistics were incredible accounts of the lives and morals of students of the Day Continuation Centre from the 1920s onwards.

Cadbury Archives - Quite the opposite of the stack of boxes brought up from the basement at the college, this is a designated and fully furnished archive, integrating a business library for the current Cadbury staff. I was offered a cup of hot chocolate upon arrival, and handed a large catalogue to request items from. Dedicated mainly to celebrating the success and history of the Cadbury brand - including a huge tome of workers reminiscences collected in 1929 - I did manage to find a little bit of factory counter-culture in the form of a small run of self-published communist magazines from the 1920s and '30s.

Bournville Village Trust - Devoted to the history of the 'model village' built by the Cadbury's to house its workers. The archivist was proud to show me the recently acquired designated room for this archive. Set in the quiet sanctuary of BVT HQ, the faces of the Cadbury line loom over you as you brush up on everything from the personal correspondence of Lord Cadbury - who takes in walks and games of cricket with the likes of Mr Rowntree - through to the political history of the Quakers and their famous business acumen.

What interested me about these archives was how interconnected the content was, yet how differently the stories were presented in each case. This interest was further cemented by comparing the banned Ken Loach documentary on the industrial strikes in England and the factory tour I was given at MG Rover. It seemed to me that there are many different ways of telling the story of Longbridge and Bournville, and my interest became in how to delineate these strands of history, and in doing so support a more united identity for this complex and intriguing... Town? Factory? Spectre? The first puzzle is, of course, what exactly is Longbridge?

This question underpins the inquiry of all the artists working on the project. The answer, along with the scale of the past, differs greatly depending on who you talk to… The developers of the area benefit from claiming a large geographical area for Longbridge, and a lower estimate of the amount of workers it previously employed, where the ex-workers are keen to communicate the enormity of what has been lost and see Longbridge as a fragmented factory community rather than a geographical area. But I am looking for a different angle than reminiscing an irreversible past or supporting an economic approach to regeneration…

If you begin talking about the factory, people have a lot to say. In particular, I have found people eager to recount the complex political and bureaucratic ins and outs of the final years of the factory proper. Although these experiences are of great interest and relevance, I found myself keen to support the ex-workers in articulating something else… namely the components that created the extremely strong sense of community. My hope with this is that I might be able to support the local people and developers in looking at the regeneration of the community from a different, less economic, angle.

I met with local story teller Graham Langley, who told me about his interest in a particular type of joke or story that would circulate the factory… something like a Longbridge meme. He also talked about his theory that Longbridge was so large it even had its own accent. I invited Graham to co-facilitate an event for the ex-workers to come and share their stories.

At this event, attended by a dozen ex-workers aged 40 to 80, what struck me was that despite the fact very few of them knew each other personally, they all talked like old friends. From stories across eras, to their humour and even their way of telling stories. As a group, they made sense. It felt more like a family reunion than a meet up of ex-colleagues.

 

Interview with Nigel Clark

Upon hearing about my ex-workers event through local poet Spoz, Dodgy's front man Nigel Clarke asked to be interviewed about his experiences of working at Longbridge. He talked about the relationship between the four years he spent working at Austin Rover and his journey to political and social awareness. And discussed how the advice of the 'old guys' at the factory spurred him to reject the lifestyle being sold to him, and follow his dreams. As a result of this, Dodgy rose to fame by capturing the mood of a generation.

This interview really brought out a different perspective on the factory. In a way, Nigel could be seen as reacting to what he experienced, kicking against it. Yet he spoke with a huge fondness for the place. It seemed that the community aspect was more important that the work per se, although of course that was the reason they were all there. This idea was also alluded to during the story telling event, where the ex-workers talked about how they did not miss the work, which was extremely hard and often dangerous, but how there was another, more important function that the factory served in relation to identity and sense of self.

So, my ongoing question with this residency is not how the jobs are replaced, but how the community is 'replaced'… and does the current economic model allow for communities to be developed in the same way as the factory community did?

 

Tablecloth
The tablecloth integrates images and texts from all of the archives, as well as contributions from fellow resident artist Rob Hewitt's research on the Longbridge Car Factory. The purpose of the tablecloth is to literally put the different histories of the area alongside each other, stimulate stories across the different local histories, and share my research in an informal and tactile way. The tablecloth was given to Community Developer Jenny Peevers to use at a series of Supper Clubs she held with a diverse range of people within the Longbridge area.
Student Writing
The student writing from the 1920s to 1950s, which I found in the old student magazines in the College archives, was particularly compelling. The students - all working class - were clearly encouraged to form and express their opinions on a wide range of social topics, and they did so with much wit and creative talent. I wanted to get current students' responses to this, and a contemporary take on issues that are just as pertinent for young people today: gender, relationships, beauty and morality.

Despite the archaic syntax of the writing, it was surprising to me how relevant the students found the archive material. They were amazed at the age of the texts, and I was pleased to witness them imagining the students who used the college almost 100 years ago. I feel that as well as giving the young people a platform to express and share their political views with their peers, this project also helped them to develop a more personal sense of the history of the college. 


Free Art Service for Local Shops
Technically Longbridge is a private development, which may explain why the local shops do not feature in the regeneration plans. Myself, Jenny Peevers (Community Developer) and Nikki Pugh (Artist) had a mutual interest in the local shops, who offer a unique mixture of products and services… from the home brewing suppliers to the specialist e-cigarette shop, the tool hire company (who requested a picture of an attractive women, saying, "My husband gets his big tools here" - see above) to the wedding dress shop.

Following an initial investigation by myself and Jenny, Nikki and I decided to offer our art services to the shops, doing a one-day-only free art offer. We wanted to talk about the shops relationship to the development and also what they felt art could do for them. This playful intervention served to engage people in discussion about art, their own stories, and allow their voice to feature in discussions around the regeneration project.

"We struck out down the Bristol Road and found a parade of shops that seem to have been passed by by all the regeneration efforts several hundred metres away and decided it would be nice to give them some attention.

"We went into several of the shops introducing our art service and offering to provide creative services, be it drawing, painting, sculpture, performance or socially-engaged interventions.

"Of the 8 shops we visited, we ended up being commissioned for art services from 3 of them, and we had such an interesting conversation with a woman in a 4th that we were moved to make an uncommissioned artwork for her.

"Perhaps our most successful commission was completed for Mandy in the convenience store. After a bit of a chat we discovered that she was quite frustrated at always having to direct customers towards the bread. Finding the milk often seems to be problematic too, but we really liked the signs she'd made for the fridges and so we decided to concentrate our efforts on bread wayfinding."

- Nikki Pugh [Full blog here