Since August 2012 I’ve been meeting up (and exchanging countless emails) with a group of women I’ve known for a very long time. We had reconvened after an interval of more than 30 years. The group is a collective called the Hackney Flashers, and we’ve just launched our website, hackneyflashers.com.
Collectives were everywhere in the 70s. Collectives of filmmakers, journalists, designers and illustrators, as well as theatre groups, print shops, and groups engaged in all kinds of campaigns (including the rights of children, claimants, the mentally ill). There were Co-ops too: publishers, magazines, health food shops and more. Co-ops and collectives were the offspring of the 60s, emerging from the upheavals of the anti-war movement, the civil rights movement in the US, the international ferment of the New Left. Many sprang up from the nascent women’s movement: the London Women’s Film Co-Op, the Sheffield Film Co-op, the See Red Women’s Workshop, Spare Rib magazine. In their forms and functioning they varied, but they shared a general principle of cooperation rather than competition, without hierarchy, without leaders, often aiming to share skills and expertise within their communities. Decisions were made either by consensus or majority vote. Of course there was debate – sometimes fierce – and disagreement. We took this for granted, just as we assumed that the space for such alternative modes of work and activism would continue to widen and influence many more areas of life.
I joined in 1976. By then the Flashers, for the most part photographers, had been in existence for two years and had produced an exhibition, Women and Work, that documented women’s role in the labour force in Hackney, a north-east London borough. In the early 70s there were still jobs that have since disappeared, mainly in factories making clothes and toys, as well as the jobs that women continue to do: as cleaners, hospital staff, dinner ladies and much else. The exhibition was in part commissioned by the Hackney Trades Council, to make up for the all too obvious shortfall in its planned celebration of ‘75 Years of Brotherhood’. Women and Work went on to do years of solid agitprop service at trade union conferences and Women’s Movement events.
Who’s Holding the Baby?
When I got involved the collective was beginning to think about its next project: how to explore the question of childcare provision when there was far less of it than there needed to be, which made it tricky to photograph; how do you delineate an absence, how do you clarify the structural difficulties of combining paid work with looking after children? The result, in 1978, was Who’s Holding the Baby?
The first exhibition had tinkered with photomontage, confronting stereotypes of women in magazines – whether impossibly idealised in ads for cosmetics or medicalised in those for antidepressants. Another montage highlighted the huge discrepancies between what machinists in the clothing trade were paid and what customers paid for the clothes (the target here was Simpson’s, whose factory on Stoke Newington High Street has now become a coffee shop and vintage outlet, just one of the many new faces Dalston has acquired in recent decades). Otherwise the exhibition followed the standard pairing of photographs and explanatory captions, with statistics to set women’s employment in context.
Who’s Holding the Baby? departed from this conventional visual approach. It juxtaposed and collaged images, used archive material and original cartoons, and even contributed to the graffitiscape, inscribing a Dalston wall with a spraycan protest that was then photographed and deployed in a photomontage. The core of the exhibition was a series of documentary pictures and interviews carried out over an 18-month period with parents and workers at the Market Nursery near London Fields. This was a community nursery, which meant that parents were involved in its management and played a part in day-to-day childcare there. Along with much discussion of the benefits of such an approach for children as well as adults, the interviews explored related issues such as jobs, incomes and housing.
This work produced a sequence of panels, designed for portability and touring, and left in other hands when the group dissolved. You can see most of them on the website of the Reina Sofía Museum in Madrid. They are part of its permanent collection and got there unbeknownst to us. Subsequently we’ve discovered that panels have strayed as far as Canada. When we looked on the internet, we found inaccurate second-hand accounts of our history. Multiple confusions had arisen in part because we only ever had a collective identity, never naming ourselves as individuals. It was time, we decided, to clear these up and one result is our website, a good while in the making due to the collective process. Its completion is thanks to the hard work and design talents of Angela Stapleford, the young academic researcher who had brought us news of our presence in the digital world and elsewhere.
Art and Agitprop
Repeatedly, we have found ourselves described as a feminist art collective. Perhaps this perception derives from our participation in the Hayward Gallery 1979 show, Three Perspectives on Photography, an invitation we accepted only after lengthy discussion. Our intention was not to make art, but effective agitprop. The artist we consciously turned to for inspiration was the German communist John Heartfield, who used photomontage to attack Nazi ideology in the 1930s. Some of us knew the work of Hannah Höch from the Hayward’s 1978 exhibition Dada and Surrealism Reviewed, and it wasn’t just cultural theorists who were reading Walter Benjamin’s Illuminations, which first came out in Britain in 1973.
Clarifying our history required a degree of detective work; we unearthed ancient diaries and files, and together corroborated individual memories of chronology. We felt that it mattered to set the record straight because our collective history offered one example among many from the diverse network of feminisms that was the Women’s Liberation Movement in the 1970s. Who’s Holding the Baby? may be a period piece, but it remains relevant at a time when childcare is more expensive than it has ever been, particularly in Britain, where it has become increasingly privatised.
What happened to collectives?
There are sundry reasons why collectives waned, but not all collectives are dead and buried. The Hackney Flashers was fairly short lived compared to many. The heroic Amber Collective in Newcastle must hold the record for creative endurance in the face of difficult odds. It began in 1968 and went on to play a central cultural role on Tyneside. It still runs a gallery and cinema and continues to develop film and photography projects that involve local communities. ‘Amber is a commitment rather than a job’, they say on their website, and this would apply to the general ethos of the collective as a place of work. Amber is one of many collectives which by their nature depended on public funding, and its gradual diminution or withdrawal is the reason so few have survived. In London the Greater London Council’s policy of supporting employment included grants or loans to co-ops, and these came to an end when the GLC was abolished by Thatcher’s fiat in 1986. In the Thatcherite climate, public funders displayed a growing aversion to collectives. Financially self-supporting groups like the Flashers were also affected by changing times, as well as the demands of changing lives.
More generally, it’s the profound differences between now and then that tell us why collectives have become thin on the ground, and indeed why those as young as we were in the 70s often don’t understand what is meant by the term.
Unlike them, we could get by on very little money, and though finding a place to live with meagre resources wasn’t always easy, there were other options such as squatting and short-life housing. People often chose to work part-time, so as to make room for politics or collective commitments. Before privatisation, fuel bills didn’t break small budgets, and likewise public transport, including trains, didn’t have to make a profit. What’s more, we didn’t have the pressure to buy so much stuff; a lot of the stuff that now creates such pressure didn’t even exist. It must be hard for the young to imagine a world without computers and the internet, without email and mobile phones and scores of ever mutating electronic devices. It’s staggering for us to look back on it.
But what these changes, some of them potentially wonderful, have come to mean in reality is a growing commodification of everyday life. To a degree that applies to all of us, whatever our generation. This is Thatcherism’s great triumph: it changed mortgages and loans from transactions to ‘products’, and it turned housing and heating and travelling even a short distance (no longer as passengers, but as customers) into a costly business which entailed more and more work, along with greater fear of losing it. And to cope with this pressure, along comes debt, debt made easy: a modern kind of enslavement, its grip allowing scant freedom for opposition or protest. Student years, like the rest of life, have become corroded. Even the Co-op Bank, the historical antithesis of the debt trap, fell prey to banking madness and is now in dire trouble.
Solidarity was a keyword of the 70s, not ‘making a difference’, as current parlance goes, or ‘giving something back’ – both paltry notions, however well meant, since they accommodate or express gratitude to a world of ravaging inequality.
There’s a lot to be learned from the past, but nostalgia’s no cure. Brecht said something about the ‘bad new days’ mattering more than the ‘good old days’. The question is how to take them on. Despite everything, there are hopeful signs. The resurgence of feminism, in varied shapes and forms, is real and encouraging. Young women want to know about the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. Spare Rib is in the process of being digitised by the British Library, there have been events and conferences on Second Wave ideas, alongside burgeoning blogs and highly visible journalism exploring sexism now, and there are women’s groups again. It may be that these separate manifestations will come together and find common cause with other movements for change. We need solidarity. Collectives, with their deep, half-forgotten roots in the utopian and anarchist movements of the 19th and early 20th centuries, could thrive again.