WORKING CLASS COMMUNITY
A space for working-class identity to exist within Universities.
An audio reading of this presentation is available here:
This project will serve the purpose of researching into creating a community for working-class people in such institutions as the University of Brighton. During this time, the research and conversations will function online, with the intention that it will transition and develop into a physical community when we return to 'normality', this project being born out of the Spring 2020 lock down.
I am initially going to gauge interest and opinions through my social media, as I believe this platform is the most effective while physical contact is not an option. Throughout the project, I want to look into ways to involve those outside of my social media reach, such as students outside of my own subject area.
The intention of this project is to develop ideas surrounding the creation of a space for those often marginalised within higher education in the future, to share experiences and support, and potentially even break down the stigmatised view of the working-class. It is also intended as a way to explore the concept of post-studio practice and using community as an art form exterior to the art world, as explored by the Artist Placement Group, and creating social connections that go beyond physical art pieces, as encompassed in Nicolas Bourriaud's 'Relational Aesthetics', which will further my own practice outside of the project of Performance Art and other community based projects.
WHAT IS THE 'WORKING-CLASS IDENTITY'?
The term working-class is often used to describe those on the lower side of the economic scale, often characterised by working manual jobs, for usually a low pay. The term also comes with many weighted stereotypes, such as a particular accent, not being well spoken, attributed to a low level of education. These stereotypes can create a jarring effect when you have a working-class identity, but don't necessarily fit in with peoples perception of a 'working-class person.'
My working-class identity stems from my upbringing. The majority of my childhood was spent in council houses or temporary housing, I am the first in my family to attend University, and my family were all on low income work while I was growing up. I had my first job at 14, was in regular work by 16, and was encouraged to stay in low income work rather than going into higher education.
While getting into University may have been more difficult for me than someone who had a 'middle-class' upbringing, I also take pride in having a somewhat 'dual identity.' Throughout my University experience thus far, I have discovered that others have had a similar journey to me. However, because parts of our identity are often suppressed to succeed in middle-class institutions, fellow working-class students often are not aware of each other, and therefore can't express their identities freely.
I want to create a space to express those identities, to look at the intersectionality within the working class, as well as research into past examples of working-class identity and those that have worked for working-class pride.
HISTORY OF WORKING CLASS COMMUNITIES
While I believe the project I am working on is important, I am also aware that it is not a new concept. Working-class people, as well as many other minorities, have created community, both formal and informal for a long time. Working-class formal communities largely began with the introduction of trade unions. The progression of industrialisation in the 18th century led to the demand for rights for working people, where it was evident that business owners treated manual labourers as commodities rather than human beings. The 19th century saw the evolution of the previous centuries smaller groups into organised unions, climaxing in the formation of the Labour Party in 1906, and though disdain toward unionism continued, the working-class finally had representation within politics.
Though this history formed working-class identity, I want to ensure that this project isn't, at least initially, about political alliances, but rather a celebration of identity. This type of celebration can be found in the less organised working-class communities, such as neighbourhood solidarity. Places that used to be labelled as "slums" or "disorganised" areas became "communities" and "neighbourhoods" in the mid 20th century. This continues into today, where working-class communities continue to evade their stereotypes to promote camaraderie, especially in times of difficulty.
ARTIST PLACEMENT GROUP
The APG was founded in 1966 by Barbara Steveni and John Latham, based on the belief that "artists are a human resource underused by society." The concept behind APG was that artists could shed a different perspective on the situations they were in, including non-art based organisations. Members of the group were 'placed' within organisations, such as Latham being placed in the Scottish Office in Edinburgh, having a consequential influence over industrial and political decisions.
The Artist Placement Group has had an influence over this project due to the nature of being an artist within an institution, and using my position as an artist to see where I believe this institution is lacking in representation. The Working Class Community I am aiming to develop will not explicitly be a group of artists, the intention being that students from many different courses could take part, but I will use my experiences as an artist to inform the ways in which the community would function, and, in turn, use the experience gained within the community to inform my practice.
During this time (the lock-down of Spring 2020), I have been looking to many already established communities for inspiration on how a community can exist within current perimeters.
A community that I am one of the Creative Directors of, QUILT, are hosting a project entitled 'Postal Musings', in which members send each other objects or creations from their week in quarantine to another (anonymous) member. This process simulates the physicality of being close to one another, one that virtual communication lacks, and that everyone, but especially creatives, are craving during this time. The project is not disingenuous in trying to create the feeling of being together, as some would say is the case when using video calls, but has adapted in full to the situation, instead using traditional methods of communication. However, Social Media is also being utilised to keep members updated, with weekly "take-overs" being hosted by the founders on the Instagram (mine takes place on the 23rd May 2020.)
The Wing is "a growing community of women across the country and globe, gathering together to work, connect, and thrive."
The Wing’s mission is the professional, civic, social, and economic advancement of women through community.
Though this community usually functions in a physical place, having locations for meetings, activism and community across the world, during the current pandemic they have adapted. According to their website, they are currently hosting a "digital community for virtual gatherings, supportive friends, inspiring programming." They are also reaching people through their Social Media, such as Instagram, sharing daily content to keep their following involved in the community.
LOGO AND POSTER DESIGN
Something I notice is evident across the contemporary communities I have looked into is both their use of social media and their use of graphics while advertising themselves. In order to 'legitimise' the community I am developing, I have designed a logo that encompasses both the working-class and student elements of the community. I chose the "hammer and pick", originally a symbol of mining but that has evolved to be symbolic of the working class, along with the square academic cap to symbolise university students. From there, I have also designed a poster to be distributed across my social media to gain traction and attempting to create conversations from those that reach out to me because of it.
The text reads:
"Following on from research I have been conducting, I’m going to be setting up
A WORKING-CLASS COMMUNITY
A space for working-class students and those interested in our issues to congregate, discuss and collaborate!
If you are a student within the University of Brighton and would like to get
involved Direct Message me on here or email me:
The advertisement gained a lot of excitement, with people saying that it was a concept they had also been considering, sharing articles and saying it was the sort of community they had been looking for. Many people also began conversing between themselves and relating experiences in response to the poster, which essentially works into the intention of my project. I decided to conduct more research into how this community could theoretically function, so constructed a few questions I wanted to ask people.
SOCIAL MEDIA POLL
I created a 'poll' on my social media to gain insight into what people think of the concept of a Working Class Community. The questions were as follows:
1. Do you believe you can be a university student (getting a higher education, something defining of the middle- class) and still have a working- class identity?
2. Are you a University student that considers themselves of the working-class? (working-class also encompasses the ‘lower’ and ‘under’ classes.)
3. Do you believe there should be more spaces within the university for working-class students, such as societies etc?
4. If there was such a space, would you participate in a ‘working-class community’ within the university?
As can be seen in the above results, 100% of people surveyed believe that you can be working-class and be studying for a higher education, attesting to the idea that the stereotypes we place upon the working-class are outdated. The results of the questionnaire show that a majority of people believe these spaces should exist, some even answering that they would get involved. However, I was especially intrigued in the 'No' responses, as I believe the reasoning behind these answers could be influential to how I proceed with the community.
After the results came in I decided to follow up on those who answered all of the questionnaire and were students of the University of Brighton, so constructed a few questions to ask people on-to-one, depending on the combination of responses they gave to the original poll.
Here are some excerpts from the conversations I had with people that answered 'YES' to every question:
Me: "I’m interested in how you think you can maintain a working-class identity while partaking in what is in some ways a middle-class right of passage, going to university and getting a higher education?
Also, if a working-class community were to be available for students, do you think it should be formal, such as how LGBTQ+ people have a society recognised by the university with membership etc, or more informal, such as a communal space where people meet to have conversations and share experiences, but that is still separate from university involvement?"
Student A: “Retaining your working class identity isn't a conscious effort.”
“(We) lose signifiers of (working-class) identity as a form of assimilation.”
“My background means that I won't survive on an arts degree.”
“Formality to an organisation dedicated to working class people is paramount for class equality, no formality is no recognition.”
Student B: “(We are) partaking in a middle class institute which forces us to adopt rhetoric.”
“Forced budgeting due to low income still stays with us even when presented with a large sum of student loan.”
“We are conditioned to maintain our identity, even without our knowing so. Appreciation of the littlest things, budgeting our shopping and meals, striving for as much contact time with tutors.”
“I think considering a 'safe space' environment would be much more effective, allowing for people from many different backgrounds to come and go.”
“As (a) student artist from a working class background, I have adopted ways of creating art that are cheap too... less formalist materials, and more use of my body and soul!”
Student C: “I think I consider myself working class because I come from a single parent household and the government have put me in that category loan wise.”
“I suppose I don’t exactly maintain this identity, it feels as if I have no choice in the matter.”
“It would be nice to have an open communal space to talk about what that separation feels like …perhaps creating a space where (non-working class people) are exposed to it will open their minds to what it’s like and how grateful they should be for being born into a family of a particular class.”
I was also interested in those that said that they would want to participate in a working-class community, despite themselves not identifying as working-class:
Me: "I was interested in your response and to get your opinion as someone who wouldn’t say they were working class. I can see you said, despite not identifying as working class, that you would still be interested in participating with a working class community- why is this?"
Student D: “I would never say I was working class (my parents house is very middle class and they shop at Waitrose) but I always felt way more connected to working class people.”
Student E: "(I want to) use my experience to enable others to have what I had.”
“I believe that higher education is also something that everyone should be entitled to and it should be free, through community action.”
There were those that supported the idea of a working-class community, but that wouldn't get involved themselves, and that coincidentally also didn't identify as working-class themselves:
Me: "I was wondering about why you wouldn’t participate in a Working-Class community? I noticed that you put that you wouldn’t identify as being working class, but that you still think there should be these spaces, do you therefore think that these spaces should be for people that identify as working class exclusively?"
Student F: “I wouldn’t participate in this community because I’m aware of my privileges and I just feel like I wouldn’t belong.”
“It is not my voice that should be heard.”
Student G: “Everyone deserves to have spaces... if working class people aren’t getting the same treatment as others who are paying the same fees for uni.”
“I don’t see why I would go out of my way to participate in a working class space.”
Most surprising to me, was those who said they did identify as working-class, but that didn't support the idea of a community for us:
Me: "I was interested in you as someone who identifies as working class believing that there shouldn’t be spaces for working class people and that if there was, you wouldn’t participate- why is this?"
Student H: “Privilege disappears once (friends from different backgrounds are) together.”
“I don’t like the thought of separate environments for people less or more fortunate than others because I think it would really separate people into different class groups.”
Student I: “I believe this would encourage us to reintroduce the separation of class, and there should be equal and equitable opportunities for anyone regardless of class.”
Student J: “I don’t know many, if any students who are financially stable. If anything I would say some students are the best example of the working class.”
“I think if a working class community were to be available, it would just segregate people even more and put people under an unnecessary label.”
And those that didn't support the idea of a working-class community, although not identifying as working-class:
Me: "I was interested in the fact that you agree you can have a working class identity with university, but that you don’t think there should be a space or community for these people. As someone who doesn’t identify as working class yourself, why don’t you think these spaces are necessary?"
Student K: “Having zones where only a certain demographic is allowed entry feels a bit like segregation.”
“But that also raises a problem about who (would) get to join the group. You could identify as working class but someone else might feel as though your family earns too much/works the wrong jobs etc.”
REFLECTION ON FEEDBACK
While I found the positive feedback to my project gratifying, and it definitely encouraged me to stay on track with the community set up, I also felt it important to reflect on those that didn't support the idea, and the reasons why. As highlighted in the quotes above, I can discern that the people that voted against a society forming, such as Students H, I, J and K said their reasoning was largely over worries of separation and segregation between classes. While I understand the concerns, I believe that having a society alone won't cause this separation, but perhaps the way in which this society functions might. I also feel strongly that this concern doesn't work both ways; there is no concern over working-class people feeling alienated and separated within institutions such as a university and its communities, nor concerns over other 'minorities', such as the LGBTQ+ society, causing segregation. Therefor, while I am going to proceed with the community being set up, I will be conscious of it being a space for everyone concerned with working-class issues, and that 'proving' your identity as a working-class person will not be a factor. One benefit to this exercise was that I found that, despite not having set up a community yet, I feel I have already created a sense of community just by 'communicating' with a diverse group of people, and discussing working-class issues, no matter what people believed in themselves. In many ways, this sense of feeling was the community itself.
Though this project had some challenges, especially in adapting to the limitations brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, I believe it was successful in many of the things it sought out to achieve, or at the very least set up the basis for future developments. I have gained a lot of experience in the ethics side of creating this project, having adapted some of the content and aims to comply with ethical standards within BREAM (Brighton Research Ethics Application Manager), which taught me a lot about the procedural side of creating a project like this. The concept of the project was to bring people together, to explore our identities and share experiences, and I have achieve this aspect of what I set out, through conversing on-to-one conversations with other students. I would like to develop this project further by formalising it, continuing my conversations about class identity with people, but perhaps evolving it into a formal concept, as from my conversations I gathered that people believe this structure creates the most effective impact. I believe this project has also influenced my own practice, in that through conversations with others, we can create a greater understanding of ourselves, and this is an aspect I will continue to implement when developing other artistic practices. I also believe that it is beneficial to dwell on the experience of creating a community basis fully virtually, with no physical contact. Adapting to these limitations is perhaps the best example I can conceive of to illustrate post studio practice, whereby even exterior to our 'post-studio year' we have been forced to adapt, and yet the results are still very much in line with my initial goal. Community can be created, even when we cannot see each other, even between just two people; community can exist simply as a conversation. This has prompted me to continue creating community throughout day to day life.
"Working-Class Definition", Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/working-class
"Lower-Class Definition", Cambridge Dictionary. https://dictionary.cambridge.org/dictionary/english/lower-class
"Trade Union Definition/ History", Britannica Encyclopaedia. https://www.britannica.com/topic/trade-union
"Traditional Working-Class Neighbourhoods: An Inquiry into the Emergence of a Sociological Model in the 1950s and 1960s"- Christian Topalov
"Artist Placement Group", TATE. https://www.tate.org.uk/art/art-terms/a/artist-placement-group
The Wing Information. https://www.the-wing.com
Artist Placement Group Logo- https://www.e-flux.com/announcements/33678/the-individual-and-the-organisation-artist-placement-group/
QUILT Logo- Luca Johnson
All Other Illustrations- KAIJA & Jack Hubbard
Audio Reading- KAIJA & Jack Hubbard