Since the earliest times, artists have drawn inspiration from the past when creating works of art. Recently, however, a key trend in contemporary art has been for artists and other visual arts practitioners to utilise forms of research and narrative creation that have more conventionally been considered the domain of the historian. This seems especially apparent amongst visual arts practitioners whose work is grounded in close engagement and collaboration with communities.
Despite having become a prominent component of many artists’ practice and numerous cultural organisation’s programmes, there has been relatively little explicit discussion of contemporary visual art as a means of creating and sharing history. I consider it vitally important to understand how the past is understood, utilised and recreated in everyday life and discourse. To better understand why and how contemporary arts practitioners are turning to the past, I recently spoke with a number of artists and other creatives making work in the English Midlands.
What I discovered is that, in the hands of contemporary artists, the raw materials of the past – whether in formal archives, people’s memories, or the realms of myth and anecdote – can be turned into works of art which collapse past into present, make shared ties visible and facilitate us questioning our assumptions about what is and is not valuable.
I began by talking to Boseda Olawoye, a Curator and Engagement Producer based in Nottingham. She explained to me that for many years she had worked as an engagement producer in the contemporary arts sector, and undertook her first explicitly heritage-focused project in 2014-15, with Nottingham-based creative space Backlit. The project’s impetus came from Backlit’s Director “who was very interested in the history of their building and had done lots of research on it”. This led to Samuel Morley, the nineteenth-century textile manufacturer who had owned the space at one time. The Director “had collected lots of memorabilia associated with Samiel Morley”, leading him to apply for a Heritage Lottery grant to further this.
Olawoye mentioned financial incentives – such as the money available from the National Lottery Heritage, and the fact that they “provide quite big grants” – as one reason why arts organisations and artists have begun working on historical topics. This is understandable given the pressures that more conventional contemporary arts funding has been under since austerity was implemented following the 2007-8 Financial Crisis. This saw Arts Council England (ACE) budget cut by almost 30% in the first two years of the Conservative-LibDem government. Local authority funding cuts have been spread over a longer timeframe, making them more insidious. But as the largest funder of public arts and culture in the UK traditionally, council cuts have had a significant impact on the sector. The Museums Association estimated in 2019 that total local government spending on culture and leisure has fallen by 40% since 2009-10.
Economic considerations aside, Olawoye’s experience indicates that there are numerous positive reasons why arts organisations are turning to projects inspired by the past. She described the ability of historical narratives to grab volunteers and communities she has worked with in Nottingham and elsewhere – like Lincoln’s interest. When working on the Samuel Morley project with Backlit, some of the volunteers became so engrossed in the work that they formed a group called ‘The Morley Union’ to continue researching together, independently after the project had finished.
How best to undertake primary research is a challenge when conducting projects of this kind. Olawoye described how when undertaking the This is Us project in Lincoln’s Sincil Bank area she ended up undertaking a lot of the archival research herself, rather than co-producing that aspect of the project with community volunteers. She described how both the necessary measures put in place to conserve archival material, their tendency to be somewhat inaccessible, and the arcane nature of archival visits and practice militate against broader involvement at that stage being practical.
Where volunteers can readily get involved is with the process of producing visual arts and other creative outputs inspired by the stories uncovered during the project. Olawoye described choosing practitioners who can lead “photo walks and creative writing sessions… Which are always really popular”, as well as artists whose practice involves crafting and public events to develop these aspects of projects with volunteers. Working on the Sincil Bank project and producing a film she discovered that “one of the women [volunteers] was a natural, just amazing, really, really great at interviewing” despite not having prior experience. In Olawoye’s words, creative and contemporary arts-focused community history projects can “really get excitement going. You always have people come up to you asking what is going on and whether there is going to be more.”
Keen to hone in on the primary research aspect of creating contemporary art from the past, I also spoke with Birmingham based artist duo General Public (Chris Poolman and Elizabeth Rowe). They told me their practice involves “devising large scale public art projects that incorporate elements of fiction, myth-making, local history re-invention and heritage rebooting.” While they “have always used archival research”, they decided to adopt a more consistent methodology and approach during 2016-17 when the Arts Council England’s Strategic Touring Fund gave them a grant to develop The Hop Project.
The Hop Project deliberately did not “seek to present a factual, social history of hops.” Instead, it used archival materials held by Herefordshire Museum Service and Bromyard Local History Society as a way into thinking about the manner in which prior to the 1960s people from the West Midlands conurbation used to temporarily migrate in summer to Herefordshire and Worcestershire to pick hops for brewing. This allowed them to riff on the concept of “hopping” and jump conceptually between time periods and issues to explore perennially critical issues like labour migration, mechanisation, workers’ rights, rural-urban relations and our perceptions of the countryside versus the reality. Work created for the exhibition toured to both rural and urban venues across the West Midlands and included “watercolours inspired by inner city graffiti, and quilted beer label designs for fictional feminist ales.”
Recently General Public have honed this approach further, crowdsourcing material from personal archives, and participants in oral histories, from amongst those with memories of a particular time period, area, or social scene. Whilst the onset of COVID-19 stymied aspects of their plans, General Public’s Let Us Play Project focused on the development of children’s adventure play in Birmingham. Through blending archival material with oral histories they created exhibitions, highlighting the importance of play for children’s development and provoking questions about how the development of community adventure playgrounds in previous decades can inspire change today.
General Public’s current Birmingham Allotments project extended this further. They shared an anecdote with me about an allotment secretary in north Birmingham who recalled “having to caution someone about how they were using their plot” only for them to arrive the next day and find “a plasticine charm nailed to their shed door.” Rich everyday stories like this – with a mythic, urban legend type quality to them – are potent fuel for artists like General Public whose practice is based upon gathering, interpreting and re-presenting these stories. Given the level of well-informed supposition usually underlying historian’s work and historical thinking, it is no wonder General Public have found utilising approaches, material and methodology more typically associated with the creation of history fruitful tools for producing contemporary art.
Similar thinking about how to approach everyday life, personal experience and political questions underlies the Women, Work & Wednesbury project undertaken by artist Sophie Huckfield as part of Wednesbury High Street Stories. This project, produced in early 2021 by Multistory, was part of the cultural programme that is a strand of the town’s Historic England-funded High Street Action Zone. Responding to the topic of Wednesbury’s manufacturing heritage, Huckfield developed a project which explored the history of women’s labour in the town from the industrial revolution up to the present day.
Creating a zine was the means of exploring this topic for Huckfield; a format she explains that “emerged from the context of Wednesbury” because “a high proportion of the town does not have access to an internet connection.” Creating a physical publication – despite the project taking place amidst the third COVID-19 lockdown – gave residents a tactile and accessible way to connect with their town’s past and present.
COVID-19 restrictions constricted Huckfield’s ability to undertake research informing the zine. She has explained in an essay for Social Works that she “choose to refrain from using online video platforms”, instead connecting with participants “through multiple phone calls and emails” and seeking to “focus on building meaningful engagements, based around a smaller number of participants.” In addition to this method of collecting oral histories and personal testimonies, Huckfield was also forced by the pandemic to turn to “images shared with me by participants or from online archives and open-access history resources which local residents had compiled independently.” She told me that – as is often the case when researching gender and labour history – “it was difficult to find direct references to Wednesbury women’s working histories… So, it required a lot of time sifting through information” to be able to weave the story that she wanted to tell.
“My practice more broadly builds upon historical source material, reinterpreting and deconstructing histories, stories and metaphors. The stories we are told today are often based upon historical narratives and precedents, and this shapes how we perceive the world. History is not just about looking backwards – it is about learning from and harnessing past knowledge to invoke ‘new precedents’ to fit the contemporary and future moment.” – Sophie Huckfield
In many ways this process of conducting research to construct a zine through conversations with women in Wednesbury, buttressed and augmented by existing local historical resources and publicly available resources, fed neatly and effectively into what Huckfield was looking to achieve. She explains to me that “history is not just about looking backwards” – it can be “about learning from and harnessing past knowledge to invoke ‘new precedents’ to fit the contemporary and future moment.” Something which she takes to mean “it is important that tangential histories and local history in particular – which is intersectional – is given a platform so we can critically engage with it.” In this way, considering Holly Pester’s insight about how pivotal “anecdote” is to the construction of feminist histories, as well as the histories of other traditionally marginalised groups, it seems that engaging in research to create a zine exploring women’s historical labour in this fashion is highly effective and appropriate.
Taken together, these interviews show that whilst economic imperatives in the form of changes to the kinds of grant funding available for doing contemporary art has definitely provided a spur to those working in the visual arts working more with the past and historical material, it is far from the only reason for this turn. Rather, using the past in a creative fashion to craft histories in this way enables artists to utilise their skills in such a way as to bring myth, metaphor, and anecdote back into how we think about the past. These are the ways in which people naturally come to understand and interpret what came before them, why things are the way that they are, and what their place is in the world. What is vital about contemporary visual arts interpretation of what has gone before is that the approach they take to creating history makes this very clear: enabling participants, viewers, and readers to see both past and present afresh.
Josh Allen is a writer and contemporary historian based in Birmingham who works in communications and project management primarily in the higher education, heritage and arts sectors. He studied history at the University of York and graduated with an MA in Modern British Studies from the University of Birmingham in 2017. He was part of the team that devised and delivered the Activist Selly Oak Project, and tweets @JoshPAllen.