Mrs Thatcher moved into 10 Downing Street for the first time in May 1979, and six months later I moved into a second floor flat on Tulse Hill Estate – just across the road from Brockwell Park and fifteen minutes walk from Brixton.
During the next 25 years when I lived there, the area went through quite a few changes. Brixton had two sets of riots, which led to some ad hoc redevelopment. The cramped old Tescos near the railway closed down and a great big one got built on Acre Lane; Brixton Recreation Centre and the Fridge opened up, and both the Ritzy and Academy had makeovers. The petrol station at the corner of Rushcroft Road was demolished, replaced by a trendy furniture shop – also demolished – the site grassed over and turned into Windrush Square. The wrestler Prince Kumali moved on from running my local pub, the George Canning (which then kept changing its name) and the reggae and soul groups that used to play there got replaced by a succession of stand-up comedians. Brixton Art Gallery came and went and I switched careers from artist to arts administrator to accountant – a reverse-Gaugin, as they call it in the trade.
The quarter of a century summarized above is not meant to be comprehensive. It would be easy enough to expand, and someone else living in Brixton during the same period would inevitably prioritise thing differently. Memory, after all, is nothing if not selective. We deliberately try to forget unpleasant experiences although most recollections, happy or sad, eventually fade or somehow get misplaced in the neural filing system we keep in our heads. Then again, memories carry different relative values. Something trivial and immediately forgotten by one person can be the life-changing moment, treasured by someone else for the rest of their life. On a global scale, anyone who has ever kept a diary will know that if they look back to check what they wrote on the day when some event, like 9/11, shook the world, the likelihood is that there will be just as many lines written on the personal mundanities that affected them, as any awareness of the historical importance of the main story of the day.
The diary, as much as the newspaper, may contain the first draft of history but whether it is more faithful to events – more true – because it is immediate, unconsidered and unspun, is open to debate. History, however, written as it is by the victors, we expect to be biased and subject to the sins of commission and omission. And art history is just the same (particularly when it comes to the omissions bit) which is one reason for keeping an archive – to plug the gaps left in other people’s archives.
I used to keep the files of old posters, catalogues and paper cuttings relating to Brixton Art Gallery stuffed away in a drawer, planning one day to offer them to the Tate or V&A. Of course, I didn’t think they’d want them, and even if they did, I couldn’t really see the point of relocating a pile of papers from one unvisited cupboard to another, however prestigious the location. Then the web came along and the history of everything – past, present and future – changes forever.
Instead of a paper archive stuck in a file, in a cabinet, in a basement no-one visits, now it’s all out there for ever, readily available for researcher, browser or anyone else – just a couple of mouse clicks away from half the world.
Along with the structural changes that impacted on Brixton over the past twenty-five years other, less tangible, changes were taking place. Elvina, the designer who helped me create this barch (which I suppose is what a web-archive should be called) is too young ever to have ever visited Brixton Art Gallery. What struck her most about all the information relating to the Gallery – that I selected and scanned, and she downloaded and input – is just how much change there has been in the media of record and communication.
At Brixton in the 1980s we relied on manual typewriters, silkscreen posters, an office telephone, a stereo cassette player, a very early video camcorder and, most of all, the photocopier machine at the Teachers Centre in Acre Lane. If the medium is the message then the relative simplicity of our tools matched our own lack of sophistication, and complemented our idealism, and naïve enthusiasm. Entirely absent from our world were the commonplace essentials of today’s life – the personal computer, spreadsheets, emails, instant colour printers, ipods, digital cameras, mobile phones, multi-channel TV, computer games and 24-hour rolling news. Also missing was a whole world of marketing manipulation, branding, pr spin, self-promotion and bullshit that would characterise the generation of artists (and politicians) that followed us.
The most significant changes that occurred over the past quarter century, however, were sociological. As a straight, white male I’m probably not the most qualified person to comment on the impact of these changes on individual lives or the wider community and, frankly, I’d welcome a commentary here from others more directly affected. But, even in my relatively insulated position, I was aware that in the early 1980s women, gays, lesbians and swathes of people from ethnic minority communities were hugely under-represented in most sectors of society and very definitely in that conglomeration of interests that comprise the art world.
Ken Livingstone’s GLC made it clear through their funding policies that they wanted to see this prejudicial position challenged but, I think it’s fair to say, few of the grant-funded galleries at the time had much sympathy for these affirmative-action arts policies. The trustees and directors of these organisations much preferred to continue policies of promoting their own careers and the careers of their favoured coterie of artists. Their strategy was to pay lip service to the ideas of the funding bodies and then make the minimum tokenist gestures they felt they could get away with, while still clinging on to their grants.
Things were different at Brixton Art Gallery where the majority of the Collective actively supported the GLC initiatives. People who had been disempowered and denied a voice for so long had a lot to say and show, and most of us were interested in hearing and seeing it. To help this process along, the Collective favoured group shows, that allowed more people to exhibit. We also adopted a formal exhibitions policy such that each year there were two shows specifically for women artists plus a gay and lesbian artists show, and at least half of all the exhibitions each year were run by Black artists. As the basis for an exhibitions policy, it may sound prescriptive, and there were those at the time who made this criticism but, in retrospect, I think it worked surprisingly well. In any case, the results can be seen in the exhibitions in this archive and you can judge for yourself.
Nowadays, police join in Pride marches, there are openly gay MPs and lesbians kiss on prime-time TV soaps; Tracy Emin represented Britain at the Venice Biennale, this year’s Turner Prize has an all-woman shortlist; and Yinka Shonibare won the competition to place a sculpture on the empty plinth in Trafalgar Square. While it would be ridiculous to suggest that homophobia, misogyny and racism have all been banished for ever, it would be equally mistaken to deny that some things haven’t changed, at least a little bit, for the better. This liberalisation in society would doubtless have happened without any input from the Brixton Artists Collective. Nevertheless, looking back on what we did, I think we were on the side of the angels and feel proud that we made our contribution, however small.
Mrs Thatcher famously said that she thought that there was no such thing as society. Brixton Artists Collective was not alone in disagreeing – we knew it existed and we celebrated its existence – we thought it could be improved and we tried as best we could to improve it.