This is a transcript of my keynote at the British Textile Biennial which took place on 1st November 2019. I performed the keynote to a film. I’ve included some of the videos featured. The Doves’ songs were played in full, the others only extracts. I’ve also included an audio recording that you can listen to here. It includes the question and answer session which followed my keynote.
Selvedge: a tightly woven edge of fabric which is strong and holds the rest of the material together. Rough and ready, but it serves an incredibly important purpose…
This talk is about self-organising, disobedience and working-class cultures and understanding that freedom means saying no to power.
The UK is full of Black and White Towns – all over. Too many perhaps? And sometimes we have to get out of Black and White Towns and satellite towns. But we should always remember to return. This is not about leaving forever, but we must look outside of our lives sometimes.
And, so, I come from Jarrow, a black and white town near Newcastle. A town that in 1936 was murdered. A town where we marched for jobs. We had no jobs. Different industries, lots of similarities all around the UK. We marched and marched to London and we came back with nothing other than bruises from a beating by riot police. We remember this.
And so, when I was 16 – a working-class boy – I left school and got a job as a garment technologist and fabric designer and this is where I learnt my art. I became a manager – a senior manager in a large company. I made money. I spent it on a big house. I spent it on drugs. I spent it on raves. I spent it on putting on raves. I met druids and witches and writers and poets and dancers and video artists. I became a DJ, all the time still a manager, all the time taking drugs. In the end, I worked in Lancashire and Yorkshire a lot, and one of the things I spent my time doing later in my life was systematically dismantling the textile industry in the UK and moving it offshore. This is sometimes what happens.
Now I talk and my art is about working with communities. You see, I understand both sides of the coin, and I am not proud of much of what I have done in the past because working in this way meant that I was part of the system of neoliberal capitalism, and what that has systematically done is destroyed working-class lives.
When I was a child, I remember juvenile jazz bands – my local jazz band was the Kilties in Jarrow – everyone was a member. People who could afford uniforms paid for them, but they also paid a bit more for those that couldn’t, so that people on council estates had uniforms. We bulk-bought the fabric. Local mothers made uniforms so that everyone had the same. We practised in community centres, in church halls, in youth clubs.
Where are all of the community centres today? Where have they gone? Where are the youth clubs? Where are our libraries? Where are our sports clubs and huts? Where have they all gone?
You see, these are part of working-class cultures – the bands, the DJs (I started as a bedroom DJ). We self-organised, we did stuff ourselves. Jazz bands and carnivals are a part of self-organisation: we didn’t get any funding, we didn’t get any support, but the local businesses supported us. Do they do that now in the same way? I’m not so sure.
You see, Jarrow in Tyneside is a post-industrial town, and, for me, Detroit Techno was the sound – a deafening sound, the sound of industry, the sound of decline… The last ship launches… Like Jarrow and Detroit and the mill towns of Lancashire, these jobs held our fabric, our society and communities together.
This is about our working-class cultures. Dancehalls set up in people’s houses. You see, these forms of dancing were things that dads and mums worked for. They worked so that their kids could have cultures – their cultures. We made our own dances. We made our own music. Our lives resounded to the sound of shipyards and coal mines and looms and car plants.
But by seeing other cultures outside of these and merging what I knew from my home… The pub, the barber shop, all these things are cultural activities. I realised by finding out about Detroit and totally different cultures that, yes, they were different, but there was something the same, something that held us together, all across the globe. And, for me, this was an incredibly important part of growing up and understanding.
We did things together. We were supportive of each other. We did things for mutual benefit, not self-interest. Today, there is too much self-interest.
You see, people see our ways of life – working-class ways of life – too often as crass, uncivilised, uncultured: in need of some cultural attention. Fly in the artists. Everything will be ok. People were ok. We made our own culture.
You see, when we organise across cultures, across all of our cultures, across class, across ourselves as individuals, when we organise collectively, we become a threat to power. We become a threat to the establishment. They do not expect us to stand together. They belittle our actions and the things that make us human beings far too frequently.
And when we organise, we can make a big difference. The Reggae movement is just one example. Punk, rave, the list goes on and on. All too often, though, appropriated or taken within the system.
Does our art world today far too frequently try and take these things as being part of an establishment art?
Is it time to eat the rich?
This is not necessarily the fault of Thatcher. New Labour did immeasurable damage to UK working-class cultures.
It’s grim up North!
The establishment, you see, has always despised and exploited working-class cultures.
The establishment has always despised our cultures…
But the North has never been grim. It does not need to rise again. The North is something that exists in all our imaginations and is separate to our Souths.
So, for me, I’m interested in neoliberalism and how it affects our everyday lives. The arts and culture that exists today as “art and culture” in the UK is neoliberal. It is not reflective of working-class people often enough. It reduces everyday lives – our everyday life – into numbers, business, money. It divides us. It turns us against ourselves.
And socially engaged art, Creative People and Places and other such state-induced “innovations” leads us into a world where we are, perhaps, exploited, and perhaps, where we exploit ourselves: where we become “placemakers” and “micro-enterprises” and perhaps the “future of the UK economy”. This is conservative social practice. This is conservative practice. That does not mean with a capital “C”, but a small “c”. Conservative social practice reinforces status quos and the establishment.
And yet we are threatening when we come together. When we organise. When we self-organise. When we cooperate – not collaborate. When we cooperate with ourselves.
So, for me, I’m interested in thinking about the great histories of cooperativism. Just think, all around, the mill towns around here – some of the first cooperatives were set up. They may have “failed” but that does not mean we cannot learn from them. They offer a way of us coming together: being still part of a capitalist system but instead of private ownership and self-interest and personal gain, we have collective ownership, we have collective interests, and we have the self-realisation of working-class people.
You see, things like this, things like our cultures, need to be disobedient. Obedient to ourselves; disobedient to those who tell us they know what’s best for us. They do not know what is best for us. We know what’s best for us.
Too often we have lost this. Just look at the great poets from all around Lancashire. Look at Ethel Carnie. Look at what they wrote over one hundred years ago. Who would dare to write such things now as being part of the “arts and culture” – the world that we live in today?
You see, what we consider art and culture is just one cultural practice. Culture is everyday. Culture is ordinary (in the words of Raymond Williams). Culture exists everywhere, in everyone, all of the time. We are all creative. But we do not need to call ourselves artists. That is our choice.
But nonetheless, today’s world ignores far too many cultural practices. Today, would jazz bands be seen as being a cultural practice? Sport, religion, all forms of community activity, going to the pub, watching football, making banners, marching – all of which are important cultural practices. Yet today one is privileged above all others. And that is a very, very narrow version of what art and culture is. It does not represent our everyday lives. It does not represent our everyday lives.
We need to think about cultural democracies. We need to think about demanding the impossible. That “impossible” is possible. It’s threatening. Very threatening.
You see, we need to understand that our culture is political. All cultural practices are political. Our everyday lives are political. Just look at the world we live in today.
We need to think about radical political change as part of cultural change and as part of a cultural practice that we, ourselves, can feel a part of.
Because the freedom that we have is the freedom to say “No” to power, and to create our own power, and to empower ourselves. Art and culture can play a part in that, but only one part. We have our own histories and heritages that we can build on and make for a better future. We must remember that we can organise – we can be self-organising – and that we can decide on our own futures, not just within culture but within other areas of our everyday lives.
We must say NO to power.
We must be disobedient.
We must bite the hand that feeds us.
We must feed ourselves and share that feeling and sense of community with each other.
This is a radical change… But it’s a necessary change. It’s a change that will allow us to find ourselves again and not be done to by others; not colonised by pioneers.
And, as artists, we far too frequently perform the job of the state and its own interests: that of business, money and false ideas of “wellbeing”…
I’m proud of my rave days.
I’m proud of getting out of my black and white town.
But I always go back there and I always remember where I came from.
We must seize the time, because the time is now!
It is now or never.
We are our futures.
We must understand the importance of reconnecting with class-based politics.
Now is the time. There has never been a time more important than now.
And we must use our cultures and our cultural practices and understand in all of our cultures the importance of reconnecting ourselves to our everyday lives, to each other, with all of our communities, because without that we will not be able to build a better future!
The time is now.
We must remember that, in order to say NO to power – and we must say NO to power – we must feel confident saying NO to power. Those in power must respect us when we say NO to them, because that’s democracy.
Because disobedience, self-organising and working-class cultures are a really important part of the freedom to say NO to power.