12.00  Art, Activism and its Artifacts: Community Arts and the Construction of Cultural Responses to De-industrialization in Scotland c.1970-1990

The community arts movement began in the early 1960s and played a significant role in urban life in Scotland throughout the 1970s and 1980s. In the postwar new towns and overspill housing estates, community arts initiatives were used to help create or articulate a shared sense of solidarity, identity, and history amongst newly uprooted communities. They could also constitute a form of grassroots activism, campaigning to bring about improvements to local services, amenities, and public spaces, particularly in the wake of changes wrought by de-industrialization. Art, drama, community darkrooms, newspapers, print workshops, and video equipment all provided people with the means to record their own histories or stage local campaigns and protests.  

Since the 1980s, the so-called “creative economy” has come to be seen as a key driver of post-industrial economic regeneration. Local histories, divested of their radical implications, have come to be treated as little more than useful “place branding” devices. Community arts, now firmly tied to government funding objectives and morally prescriptive social inclusion agendas, have played no small part in this process.  

This paper will look back to an early era during which the production of new cultural artifacts that celebrated, recorded, constructed, and performed local histories was not tied so closely to official, sanitized narratives. Community arts projects frequently took the industrial past, working-class culture, and the process and problems of deindustrialization as their subject matter. This paper will introduce the perspective of those most deeply affected by change to consider the ways these processes were interpreted, represented, and framed aesthetically by those who lived through them.  

Community arts practice was based firmly on the belief that taking part in the production of culture (including histories of “ordinary lives”) was an empowering act: this paper will also consider some of the small-scale ways in which projects set up to ameliorate the emotional effects of deindustrialization, such as low self-esteem, depression, or alienation may have impacted individuals and communities. It will pay particular attention to those projects set up as employment schemes or skills-training workshops—projects that could do little to stem the tide of growing unemployment, but that nevertheless attempted to improve the situation at a local level. Finally, it will consider both the ways these (largely ignored and little valued) cultural artifacts were used as campaign tools at the time, and the ways they have been repurposed in more recent years to draw attention to the some of the more problematic aspects of recent urban regeneration programs that ignore the complex legacies of Scotland’s industrial past.

Participant
Scottish Oral History Centre, University of Strathclyde

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