Just over a week ago I had the unexpected pleasure of visiting Everyday Austerity: An Exhibition of Everyday Life in Austerity, a collaboration between Dr Sarah Marie Hall of the University of Manchester and Stef Bradley the zine maker, which was drawn from research compiled by Dr Hall on the subject of family life and austerity.
This was a beautifully executed, simple but effective, exhibition that was both smart and thought provoking, but never, ever miserable.
People think of austerity in simplistic shades of sepia and grey, and in doing so, they miss the complex, technicolour reality of it: It was how the six families were represented that was the really refreshing thing.
Each section of the exhibition made use of written introductions to the families, their own particular situations, and how austerity had affected them. These were set alongside a carefully arranged display box of visual representations – photographs, carrots from an allotment, a recipe for a bulk batch of veggie chilli, a book on how to cope financially in times of austerity, which was due to be flogged on eBay along with old children’s toys to raise funds… There were lists of worries, lists of things to buy that could be afforded that week… and these visual items were equally as powerful, as thoughtfully placed, as evocative, as the notes, and sections of the interviews, which could be listened to on iPod mini’s.
The interviews themselves were frank, honest, candid and refreshing in their neutrality. There was no steering of interviewees towards a particular narrative, no aggressive questioning, because this is research, not journalistic vox pops, and it was part of the patchwork of field work, a long story, not a short, knee jerk story impulsively yanked from the unsuspecting.
We were asked to answer questions regarding our own views of austerity before, during and after viewing the exhibition, the idea being to measure if people’s views changed, and if so, how. While my own views hadn’t shifted too much, what the exhibition brought home to me was the amount of creativity and ingenuity being brought to bear on the unyielding sanctions and limitations of austerity by those most affected by them. Oh, not in a Blitz Spirit ‘Let’s all pull together’ kind of way, more in a ‘Batten down the hatches, lets work through this bastard’ kind of way.
What this work does is provide a multi faceted, complex picture of austerity in the UK. It is not Benefits Street, but nor is it Das Kapital, it is – in many ways – refreshingly neutral. Which, as a position, is needed.
There are plans to create a zine from the exhibition, using the research, which might seem an odd concept but, in the context of the seismic shifts of perspective zine making has undergone these past ten years or so, with writers and creators increasingly focusing on areas such as psycho-geography, on cities and the writers relationship with the city in which they live, it perhaps isn’t so surprising to find a zine concerned with austerity.
Daniel Defoe’s A Journal Of The Plague Year, George Orwell’s Down And Out In Paris And London… Why not a documentation of the realities of austerity? State of the nation, or kitchen sink, dramas are no longer written. There will be no Love on the dole, or The Manchester Man, nor even no Ruined City, but Everyday Austerity: The Zine will fulfill a similar role. It won’t be done for entertainment, nor will it be done for titillation, or voyeurism, but for knowledge, for education, for remembering, for empathy and understanding.