A long version of the edited account published elsewhere on this site - Exploding Cinema 1991 – 1997: culture and democracy.
In the Nineteen Eighties Tory triumphalism reigned over the defeat of The Proletariat. A subjugation that was astounding in its apparent totality considering the cultural bubble-up that had been effervescent in the Sixties and Seventies.
But the sixties 'liberation movements' continued beneath the elevated motorways of party politics. A new analysis of oppression required attention to such issues as race, gender, physical difference and age as well as the old Marxist chestnut of class. The ideology of 'equal opportunities' that this libertarian debate generated became unstoppable, pervading the institutional fabric of civil society. This 'political correctness' has been shot through with rigidities and manipulative practices but it has also achieved, throughout Britain at least, the most profound and widespread elaboration of our conception of social justice. Whilst Thatcher reigned supreme over the traditional Scargillian left this new ideology was eating away at the roots of rightwing bigotry.
On the other hand the states damage limitation strategy was to timidly embrace anti-racism, and women’s rights whilst using this new agenda to push class injustice off the political agenda. The vulnerability of class identities in this context are their fuzzy borders. It is pretty clear who is black and who is a woman, but who is working class? Class identity is about: a rich linguistic and cultural inheritance; psychological scars that seem to be transmitted through generations; a new intelligensia brought about by the escalating availability of higher education; myths of upward mobility woven into new working practices. All this complexity was effaced as the 'Working Class' was officially reduced to a minority underclass...
Identity politics is at best a historically temporary expedient. It has dangerous undertows which negate solidarity and set the working population into groups who feel victimised by one another. In other words it sometimes falls prey to the classic divide and rule strategy of the state.
This negation of class from the 'liberation' agenda was the big lie that faced me in the early Eighties. A lot of my performance work at the time was concerned with my own history; a second generation immigrant and white collar suburbanite who had scraped into art college and felt like an outsider everywhere.
Investigating your social history is not something you do in isolation - you need to get together with others with similar backgrounds to discover the commonalities and diversities that are the grounds of identity at any particular time and place - identity is not intrinsic, fixed or permanent. It is a dynamic social construction. I began to think in terms of working with other artists with similar interests.
I was aware that my delicate, tentative and often emphemeral art actions would disperse without trace if I did not take responsibility for documenting and archiving, as well as developing a theoretical justification. I first produced short photocopied reports or pamphlets after each action. Later I had the urge to put all these fragments together as a coherent statement of my overall intentions. I also particularly wanted to meet other artists who were interested in asserting their class identity in the medium of print. There were plenty of working class artists around but few wanted to be labelled as such or work in concert. The very fact of being a professional artist or college trained, seemed to be enough to nullify a claim to any more than a 'heritage' of being working class.
I had an earlier lucky experience which had demystified the production of books. In 1972 I'd walked into Unicorn Bookshop in Brighton with a sheaf of papers and asked the proprietor Bill Butler, an American poet and occultist, if he’d publish them as a book. Although he’d only brought out small volumes of poetry before, he agreed on the condition that I would get the book 'camera ready', obtain all copyright permissions, and deal with the local printer. He then tried to get me to sign away my copyright but I countered with my own contract which I had compiled from a local library copy of the Writers Yearbook. This led to the production of three volumes of Survival Scrapbooks; Shelter, Food and Energy, which were collages of mostly graphic information about our basic life supports. They were successful; sold thousands; were reprinted in the USA by Schocken Books; sold even more and led to a 37 radio and TV talk-show tour of Amerika. This intense experience made me conversant with every stage of book production and gave me the publishing bug.
In 1986 I had been invited to work at the Bonnington Square Festival for Peace in
Vauxhall, South London. I was pulling a small plywood house around the square asking the people who lived in the real houses for a contribution to my house and offering them a gift for their own. In one house I was introduced to Graham Harwood, on account of his assertive working class identity and local reputation as an artist. His brightly coloured paintings, which he had been unable to show in a gallery, were full of fierce energy. I encouraged him to participate in the festival by hanging two of his paintings out of the window, which he did. In the course of this I learnt that Graham was trained in graphics and so the production of books held few fears or mysteries for him. And as luck would have it he was keen to make a graphic novel from his drawings. This was the birth of Working Press. It took about a year to actually get the first two books out. My 'Collaborations' and Graham’s 'John, and other storys'(sic).
During that year the idea of a umbrella imprint under which working class artists could self-publish editions of 300 to 1000 books and share a joint catalogue and distributor evolved. I started asking every ‘working class artist’ I met if they would like to do a book. This seemed a positive process in itself as it validates the importance of people’s work. This process of encouragement is crucial to the forwarding of working class creativity.
It is usually difficult to find a distributor willing to take on a single self-publication. They prefer a well organised small press with several titles who they can have a business-like relationship with. So a joint imprint could bring the priceless advantage of distribution and storage. Bill Norris of Central Books was unusually level headed, encouraging and business like. We also had the not so business-like (at that time) but inspired AK, started in Stirling by Ramsey Kanaan, selling our books to a world-wide anarchist and radical market. In the USA we had a big distributor called Inland but they went bankrupt and cost us quite a bit of money in wasted export costs and lost copies. Other distributors are Marginal in Canada and Counter Productions in Camberwell who both have a nice trickle of sales through their yearly catalogues.
The other point of a collective imprint was to assert the often invisible contribution of working class people to visual culture and to highlight the kinds of things at least some working class people might say in this context.
The first two books were well received and got reviewed in a wide variety of alternative media as well as a few organs of the mainstream.
Parallel with the start of Working Press there was a discussion in underground circles of the predicament faced by oppositional cultural workers who used the label ‘artist’. It seemed to carry too much baggage with it, added to which was a certain working class attitude which said being an artist was not a proper job and that art was irredeemably the culture of the enemy.
Rejecting the label seemed poor strategy to me. I would prefer to subvert and change its meaning. Treating words, especially identity labels, as semanticaly fixed and invariable seems to kow-tow to another establishment myth - that of a correct formal language which could be pinned down with dictionaries and pomposity. However, comrades such as Stuart Home seemed to thrive on a somewhat heroic rejection of the Art label.
In 1988 Working Press generated quite a bit of heat and book projects began to turn up from all directions. Graham had already decided that the paperback format was too limiting and he would now produce a series of ‘If Comix’ the first of which, with its eerie ‘News Klan’ image on the cover appeared with dizzying speed. The second included other artists and the third and final one 'IF COMIX Mental', a Gulf War induced nightmare (with a free record), was Britains first computer generated comic. It was made with software code that Harwood had written himself. In spite of their innovative creativity the IF COMIX were difficult and brutal, and were never embraced by the world of popular comics.
As Graham became absorbed in the IF COMIX project he increasingly related to the anti-Art rhetoric and become impatient with the slow pace of WP: "Fine Art is a redundant medium which can only collude with injustice through its ability to make the ruling class feel civilised" (Harwood, WP Catalogue 1992).
Clifford Harper, the anarchist graphic artist, then became my main co-worker in keeping the WP ball rolling. He set out to revive the chapbook genre... 'The Unknown Deserter', nine drawings in the style of Franz Masarell the woodcut artist, was printed in an edition of 2000 but sold relatively few. The second, 'An Alphabet', beautifully printed in two colours on cream art paper, soon sold out. Clifford also designed the covers for my second book 'Class Myths and Culture'(1990) and Rick Turner's highly successful 'In Your Blood'(1990).
Rick Turner had been producing a unique personal rantzine called ‘Anti Clockwise’ which had got itself a reputation for its wild and creative polemics and situationist-eat-your-heart-out graphics. Rick was a mad Stockport County footie-fan and it didn't take much persuading for him to write what was the first book on football culture written by a fan: 'In Your Blood, Football culture in the late eighties and early nineties' sold over 2000 copies in the next two or three years. Selections from Rick's zine have been reprinted by Black Economy Books under the title 'Time is the Enemy, Pleasure is the Aim! The best of Anti Clock-wise' (1995).
Micheline Mason, who lived near me, organised The Integration Alliance a group of disabled people who argued that all-out integration was a human right. Micheline wrote and illustrated 'Nothing Special', which imagines an ideal day at school for a young person with a disability. The first edition of 1000 sold out and it went into a second printing of a further 1000 which has almost sold out. Sales where helped by the extensive campaigning activity of the Integration Alliance. This pioneering organisation has changed its name to 'The Alliance for Inclusive Education' and is now an influential body in the national fight against segregated education. Their journal 'Inclusion Now' is available for £1.00 from: Unit 2, 70 South Lambeth Road, Vauxhall, London SW8 1RL.
Jola Scicinska had been a leading light in another project that I had been active in initiating - Bigos, artists of Polish Origin. She was doing brilliant work subverting the Polish tradition of papercuts with her starkly beautiful imagery. She was working with the poet Maria Jastrzebska. Together they hatched a plan to create an interwoven set of poems and graphics which described their feelings as expatriate Poles as the Cold War thawed. In 1991 this was realised as 'Postcards from Poland, and other correspondences' a unique collaborative work which deserved more critical attention than it got.
Frank Reed had been a student whilst I had been doing a spell of teaching at Hull School of Architecture in the early eighties. Frank had a depth of vision which illuminated the social and historical ground from which architecture was produced. His book 'On Common Ground' was an unusual mixture of poetic allusion and historical research illustrated with his own somewhat homespun style of imagery.
I think this book was one that would have sold better if it had been given a professional design makeover. Books often need this finish to provide the authority that the contents deserve. It often resisted by self-publishers, who see it as superficial commercial gloss which, along with a colour cover, can put up the production cost by 50% or more. A conventional publisher always retains control over cover design. I must say that I didn't like several of the cover designs that people came up with. But people were paying for their own books - all they wanted from me was maximum encouragement. A free designer is not easy to find and the budget of many of the WP books was restricted to the bare cost of the offset-litho printing: So I wasn't in a position to impose a house style. The virtues of author autonomy and lack of editorial interference can have its downside in the commercial arena.
Alan de Souza had been a regular user of CopyArt near Kings Cross. This was an open access photocopy centre, workshop and meeting place which was a centre of radical art activity in London in the mid-eighties. Alan teamed up with Shaheen Merali, formed Panchayat, and got stuck into an intercontinental collaboration in which seven young South Asian artists from the sub-continent would exhibit and tour with seven South Asian artists from Britain. This was to be accompanied by a lavishly produced book of writings called 'Crossing Black Waters'. The title refers to 'the black oceans surrounding the Indian sub continent. To cross them was to break with tradition, to break one's caste - literally to become an outcast' (Publicity blurb). Produced in a format which fell into the category of 'catalogue' it was difficult to sell through bookshops in spite of the beautiful colour illustrations and lively polemical writings.
I have a generally low opinion of the artists catalogue as a genre. Too often it exists as an extravagant gesture designed only to bolster the prestige of the artist. The content is a minimal incantation of art historical references and most of the copies are either binned after the show or stored in an attic. 'Crossing Black Waters' on the other hand has historically important content which was undermined by its minor genre packaging.
Conrad Atkinson’s 'The State of the Art & The Art of the State', a lively thirty page polemic which had first been delivered as a lecture, had a similar problem. It should have been a pamphlet but ended up with an odd metallic ink cover which put the cover price up to £2.95. On top of this few bookshops have display space for pamphlets... At least we had an older artist with an international reputation on our list.
In 1990 Mathew Fuller was doing an international mail art project from Cardiff which exploited the cheapness of the photocopier for reproducing scurrilous flyposters. Black and white poster designs were collected from all around the world and advertised with short verbal descriptions in an 'Anti-copyright catalogue'. A selection from this extensive collection was put together as a book which got an Arts Council grant of £1750. By this time Working Press had amassed enough capital, partly through some of us not paying ourselves the income from the sales of our own books, to loan Flyposter Frenzy £1500 so we could publish a print run of 2000 (1992). With a cover price of only £5 we thought the book was going to be a smash hit, the money would come pouring in and the loan would be repaid in a year. In the event Flyposter Frenzy sold slowly. Our low key promotion, did not reach the market this book appealed to. Ramsay of AK blamed the pyschedelic cover design which made the title illegible. The demise of the network of independent radical bookshops in late eighties didn't help. It became increasingly difficult to get our books on the shelves of bookshops and with graphic books and comix it is essential to get them on display. Mathew had to wait five years before Flyposter Frenzy had paid back its loan and he could get his hands on any sales income.
Meanwhile Clifford had stood down, disappointed in the minimal public reaction to his beautifully crafted chapbooks. Mathew Fuller then moved to South London and made himself useful designing lists and giving support whenever it was needed.
Working Press was beginning to demonstrate the diversity of working class experience and expression but this diversity was a marketing nightmare. Every new title addressed a different audience in a new format. There was little chance of establishing a customer base or designing a recognisable house style - Two of the basic ground rules for surviving commercially as a small press.
On the other hand the standard of the books' contents was, perhaps surprisingly, consistently high. Self-publishing has often been derided as a place in which vanity and the lack of editorial judgement leads to low standards. In fact one of the mechanisms of oppression that mutes working class voices in the world of books and knowledge is the prescence of middle class publishers and their editors. The overal effect is that the cutting edge of working class thinking is burred. The content of our expression becomes filtered until all that is left is a harmless residue. Even this valuable residue becomes invisible amongst the mass of material that is churned out every year. Direct publishing under a shared, and explicitly working class, imprint should allow these hegemonic mechanisms to be short circuited.
Every book that got published deserves to be celebrated as making it through an arduous obstacle course. At least five of the books had serious headaches at the printers. It is also interesting to note some of the titles which we fought for but which didn’t make it into the public realm.
Jo Spence had planned a WP book with Terry Dennet, 'Class Shame, Therapy and Photography', before she died. Valerie Walkerdine had wanted to do a pop-up book using the silkscreening skills of John Gorman, but he also died and she emigrated to Australia. In fact John had also planned to make an anti-war children's book. They failed to get an Arts Council grant. Eddie Chambers' collected articles about the development of Black Art in Britain in the eighties are important documents and should have been published by WP. It later got published by INiVA. The same fate stymied Roland Miller's fantastic 'Zoetrope'. Gillian Dyson and Tim Brennan's 'The State Welfare Project' was in our catalogue from the first years but never appeared for reasons I never quite understood. Michelle Baharier's book 'To Be Myself', which was to go 'beyond Jewish stereotypes' was also listed in some early catalogues. Michelle continues to be a stalwart of Cooltan Arts and Brixton Poets. Another Cooltan artist, the vociferous Julia Tant, gets a lot of letters published in tabloid newspapers. I wanted her to do a book of these but after years of badgering I've accepted that perhaps she’s just not the self-publishing type. Some early drafts of Kath Moonan's 'Visualising the Invisible' caused a stir at our 1994 conference but the project was overtaken by her multi-media work.
Notice how many of these unrealised projects, many of them substantially ready to print, are by women. Here's Valerie Walkerdine on the historical context of this silence:
"..what is important here is the long history of the targeting of working class women in terms of strategies of prevention and control that were aimed actually at the normalisation of their children. It is through the child guidance clinics, the social work offices, that psychoanalysis gradually became incorporated into the practices of the regulation of these women, with the aim of monitoring their own regulation of their children....
This means that working class women are likely to understand the effectivity of oppression upon them in individualised terms and yet, at the same time, to have few resources on which to draw to understand the psychial effects of that oppression, itself experienced as an inadequacy or private pathology."
(from an unpublished m/s: ‘Working Class Women: Psychological and Social Aspects of survival’ by Valerie Walkerdine. For full text see the Working Press web-site)
In 1993 I got my own 'Conspiracy of Good Taste' out as a sober black hard-back in an edition of 500. I had been mainly supported in this prolonged historical research by Howard Slater who had himself produced a pamphlet on British working class male novelists from 1930 - 1950. (After deciding not to publish his major autodidact thesis, 'Tribunes and Plebs', a history of how left politics became divorced from working class culture.) Howard's research brought WP into the world of literature, and highlighted the lack of books by working class women. I had been inviting women to publish but the books which actually made it into print were mainly by men. I then decided to only put effort into books by women until the situation became more equal and specifically to follow up Howard's discovery of the apparently men-only world of working class novelists.
Right on cue, Merylyn Cherry, 'a housewife' from Letchworth who had just done her first degree as a mature student, sent her thesis, 'Towards Recognition of Working Class Women Writers', after finding Howard’s pamphlet. She had found eight women novelists from the thirties to the fifties. Realising the breakthrough that this thesis represented we, with financial help from John Gorman and Rick Turner, financed a pamphlet which was published in 1994. This then led to Merylyn meeting with Sarah Richardson and two other writers, Sammy Palfrey and Gail Chester, all of whom had strong ideas on working class women's writing. I had met all three of these women through The Federation of Worker Writers and Community Publishers (FWWCP or Fed) of which WP was a member. The four women met at a self-funded WP conference called 'Class, Identity & Culture' which was the culmination of a whole series of smaller meetings. This was held at Interchange in Camden in July 1994 attracting thirty six delegates from an accumulated list of about a hundred working class artists and writers. (Some of the papers given were published in a special edition of the FWWCP magazine: See, 'Federation' Vol.5 Spring 1995)
This meeting led to Sarah self-publishing 'Writing on the Line, 20th Century Working Class Women Writers' with the help of a WP loan, and no other funding, in 1996. Merylyn's thesis was included along with an annotated list of writers by Sarah, an essay on writing during The Miners Strike by Sammy Palfrey and an article on publishing by Gail Chester. Sarah's brother was a graphic designer and generously offered to do what is an excellent cover illustration.
The remainder of Merylyn's pamphlets were sent out, as a free 'promotion', to over 200 Heads of English in London Schools. We thought that publicity should be seen as a propaganda exercise in its own right and not justified simply in terms of sales.
The 1994 conference was in many ways the high point of WP networking. It was a good conference and there were sparks but the firestorm I hoped for was not ignited. It may be that the diversity of people who can come together under the umbrella identity of working class artist, writer or intellectual makes it quite hard for most people to sense a heartfelt Us. Inclusion exposes the defensive and frail nature of our local micro identities. Academics, avant guardists, self-educated writers all have their needs to carve out and protect cultural territory of their own.
My own energies were then diverted by two years hard labour with the Sharsted Street Self-build Housing Association to provide myself with a decent place to live after living in a run-down squat in St Agnes Place for years. Practically all my spare time was then absorbed with building.
Working Press could not provide long term support nor the status that many artists aspire to. It may also be that not many artists like reductive contexts, which seem to limit the range of their subjectivity. There was sometimes a mistaken notion that WP books should be recognisably working class. But paradoxically WP was intended to smash reductive or narrow images of what it was to be working class and in the end to dismantle the identity and the ideology that creates it. The point is not to colour in classist stereotypes but to dissolve them.
The other contact which bore female fruits was a correspondence with Katrina Howse of the Yellowgate Women's Peace Camp which was still active at Greenham Common. I wanted to see a book of Katrina's drawings interspersed with accounts of their direct actions. I had been excited and inspired by reading accounts of their activity and seeing Katrina's drawings in their occasional newsletter. However they already had more ambitious plans; to record their whole history since the last published account in 1984. I tended to recommend that people publish books of 112 pages or so as this is the minimum that gives a satisfactory spine width (essential to attract bookshops) along with the lowest possible print cost. As Beth Junor put their material together she found it difficult to leave much out, so the book increased in size until it was over three hundred pages! The price was held at £8.95, so for an unfunded self publication it was ridiculously cheap. With the help of the international Yellowgate network, 'Greenham Common Women's Peace Camp: A History of Non-Violent Resistance 1984 - 1995', sold out after just two years.
Beth Junor writes: "I began working on our book in 1990 and over the years we approached 'mainstream' publishers about it... But no-one wanted to take it on; the book was a recorded witness to too many abuses of power right from the highest levels of government to the local district council.
It was only through your interest in Yellow Gate's work that the book was eventually published. The record of our experiences now sits in Libraries and homes throughout the world..."
These two books were the first WP books that had full colour covers. Again a commercial standard demanded by bookshops which is difficult to economically achieve in small editions with an affordable cover price.
Sarah Richardsons partner, Richard McKeever had helped 'desk top' design 'Writing on the Line'. Richard then offered to learn how to create a WP web-site which he built-up over the next year. From this web site you could down-load our pamphlets and many other materials without charge. The web-site allows us to begin to network globally in a way that was not possible before.
I had been thinking for some time about starting to use the potential of digital media for publishing. It seemed to offer certain advantages; cheap colour, low reproduction costs, flexible updating. My subsequent retraining, in the form of an MA, led me on the one hand into doing digital video and on the other I rejected 'multi-media' with its fatuous inter-activity and felt drawn to return to more basic research, writing and pamphleteering.
In 1995, for the first time, a Working Press project got a large Arts Council grant. This was Alison Marchant's 'Living Room'. Alison had been planning to do a book since the first years of Working Press. Unfortunately the project was delayed for over a year by a series of problems. Project costs escalated beyond the budget causing a series of crises. We persisted through adversity and with the help of an complex Arts Council rescue grant of £500 facilitated by Tim Eastop, and a donation of £200 from WP, the book finally appeared. It records the re-development of an East London housing estate in the residents own words, accompanied by a profusion of photographs. There is also an essay on 'being working class and being an artist'. This beautiful1 40 page hardback with dust-jacket retailed for just £10.
The grant allowed us to do a widespread promotion by direct mail using a full colour A5 card. Targeted direct mail is effective but I now wonder if it was not taking the place of an earlier more charismatic group energy which was less structured but perhaps more effective.
It is perhaps rarer than I would like to think to find people who are capable of self-publishing. It is difficult enough to get all the energy, skills, resources, funding and material together to get a book printed but the real killer is that when the book is printed the often uphill task of selling it still lays ahead. I reckon that once you have followed the obvious strategies that a particular title implies in terms of markets then its all down to a simple equation of energy. Put in a lot of intelligent confident energy and the books will shift - sit back and wait and things will rarely happen. Understandably it is difficult for most authors to promote their own books unless they have their own networks to tap into: Rick Turner was reviewed in the many football zines; Yellowgate had their world-wide network of peace activists. Working Press, with no revenue funding and a shoe string income, can only do the most general promotion which typically consists of handing out a simple one sheet list to all and sundry. Particular titles often did not get the promotion they deserved and this was an weakness of Working Press as an alternative model of publishing.
Every open collective group I have experienced has an initial period in which it flourishes. It then retreats into a relatively small group of long-term friends, becomes bureaucratised or atomises. This lesson doesn’t seem to have been a deterrent. I’m still drawn to that collective efflorescent quaquaversal moment again and again. The creative chaos of social flux where, for a golden moment, anything seems possible.
The trouble is - those golden moments are all too rare. It is difficult to pick up a bright new becoming as the previous group wilts. We hang onto old projects as they perish in our hands.
They may only come once in a lifetime with that turbulent but magical and formative energy. Their debris is then is all to often left dragging from the psychic ankles of increasingly weary middle-aged communards.
Perhaps the demise is not the problem. We just need more anti-nodes of social flux, to be as convenient as corner shops. But that won’t happen, because these moments of social inclusion are all too often left unrecorded, unstudied and unpublished. They do not rise to the status of knowledge - if knowledge defines the world we can recognise. They are the aporia which negatively construct our false consciousness. They are the absences that make the 'truths' of fiscal shenanigans seem so real. They do not become part of 'the known world' and so leave no substantial record. And worse, the very terms and mechanisms of western knowledge, cooked up as they were in cauldron of the Enlightenment and dried before the furnace of Imperialism, are antithetic to inclusion and social flux; to the collective thought process; to meme play; to the peaceful resolution of conflict; to the subjectivities of difference.
Historians at Goldsmiths College who recently rejected a PhD proposal to research an 'underground' film collective said at the interview that they thought that this choice of subject was about as important as studying 'a local Aspidistra Society' - to them it was the nadir of aesthetic worthlessness. So these reactionary attitudes are still active even in academies with a progressive reputation.
Of the ten open cultural collectives that have been part of my life so far at least four are now widely agreed to have been culturally significant and yet none have yet been adequately studied or published. There is work to be done.
After 1997 Working Press continued. I stepped down and WP was guided in new directions by Richard McKeever.
An earlier version of this article was published in El Djarida no.14. (Oslo, April, 1998). El Djarida is a gorgeous occasional artzine produced in the Nineties by the artist Guttorm Nordo, (Mandallsgate 5, OSLO N-0190, Norway) assisted by artist editors in Bucarest, Hambourg, London, New York, Paris and Vienna. Price per copy: 4 USD, prepaid to Nordo, norwegian postal bank account no. 0536 42 19 069.