Members of Critical Practice have been meeting regularly in CCW Graduate School to cut, stitch, sew and assemble a unique Banner of Values. The banner began its construction as part of Critical Practice’s Differently Screening series, which is contributing to the cluster’s ongoing research into the production, performance and propagation of both value and values.
The first Differently Screening took place on 24 May 2014 at the Bread and Rosespub in North Clapham, where a Battersea and Wandsworth Trade Union banner hangs above the pool table. The pub is named after a poem written for the 1912 mill workers strike in Massachusetts where women demanded fair pay, or ‘bread’, but also the ‘roses’ of fair treatment and care as well, a protest that led to landmark labour reforms.
This acted as a productive site for our screening of The Women of Brukman, a documentary showing the struggle of a cooperative of predominantly female textile workers in Buenos Aires. During Argentina’s financial crisis, the owners of a suit business abandoned their factory, leaving machinists and others without pay. The women began to self-organise and in this process became aware of their meager salaries in relation to business’ profit for the first time. Despite police raids and the Brukman brothers returning, claiming their right to the factory, the textile workers persisted, forming the 18 de Diciembre cooperative that still runs the business to this day. It is an inspirational story, which has motivated other factories in the same commercial area of Buenos Aires to form similar cooperatives.
During the screening, to the click-cluncking sounds of the Brukman factory’s industrial sewing machines, participants set to work, selecting and cutting words to create the Banner of Values. Those present were invited to consider their personal values in relation to the film, and fabric letters emerged calling for ‘emapthy’, ‘severance’ and ‘security’. An initial discussion before the screening revealed how difficult it can be to talk about personal values in an unknown group. Terms such as ‘equality’ and ‘truth’ ring as too cliched, too trite, to a contemporary ear, having been appropriated by the language of commodification. Yet these words were taken up and reclaimed during the sewing process. The active screening seemed to lend itself to a non-prescriptive approach to spectatorship, with some avidly following the subtitles, some removing themselves from the screening area to concentrate on their stitching and others deciding to work together, voting on ‘collaboration’ as their value.
The screening and banner were devised and organised by CCW PhD students Amy McDonnell and Catherine Long. McDonnell’s own research investigates the space of the social in relation to artists group practices. She has carried out much of her research in Cuba, exploring reasons for forming artists’ collectives in a collectivised society. It has been beneficial to her curatorial research to explore the functioning of groups through shared activity. Sewing together seemed to produce a reflective, non-hierarchical space in which individuals are focused on the task at hand, making interaction less intense, more at ease, in which personal memories, confessions and teasing surface.
With one more sewing session and to go, as one Critical Practice member cannily realised, the banner only lacks ‘integrity’. Then it will be ready to parade.
There are two more screenings planned as part of the Differently Screening series which will take place in public space in the Autumn. In a continued commitment to seeking communities of values, the organisers will be thinking through ‘cycling and sustainability’ as well as ‘financial sustainability and artists’ payment’.