Access ≠ Democracy

When I began in community art, the photocopier was new technology. In the printshop where I was an apprentice, we couldn’t afford Letraset transfer sheets so we copied and enlarged typefaces from the catalogue and redrew them for screen-printed posters (as in the example below). Our minimal office work was done on a typewriter with carbon copies. Because we were young, and had few distractions, there was plenty of time to talk about community art’s evolving ideas, and especially about what cultural democracy meant. It was then that I first heard friends and peers talk about ‘putting the means of cultural production’ in the hands of everyone. I didn’t know much about Marxism then (or now) but the phrase resonated with me. It seemed to offer a clear purpose to the work of community art.

In the subsequent decades, we have experienced a technological revolution, driven by computer science, microchips, electronics and miniaturisation. The analogue world has become digital. The means of cultural production really have been put into the hands of billions of people, literally so in the case of smartphones. These desirable slabs of glass and metal give access to a world of creation and distribution undreamt of by community artists even in the 1980s. It takes minutes to give form to an idea and publish it online. A meme is not unlike the posters we once painstakingly printed, but with unimaginably greater potential reach and power. Today, everyone can be an artist, as we said.

But technology is not neutral. It is imagined and developed to serve human desires. The technological revolution coincided with and facilitated the economic and political changes that have come to be known as neoliberalism. Digitisation was led by private enterprise, facilitated by radical right-wing ideology. It created wealth by changing the nature of work, cutting costs and driving consumerism. The internet, once seen by idealists as a means to share knowledge and build understanding between people, became an enormous marketplace. And then, as its power became clearer, it became a place for selling ideas, for identifying and targeting minds, and manipulating beliefs. I say that without condescension: I am as vulnerable as anyone else to that process. It is all but impossible not to see reality through the filters of the media-political complex. That phrase is a deliberate echo of the military-industrial complex that President Eisenhower warned Americans about as he left office in 1961. Entangled together, they have placed extraordinary power and wealth in the hands of a few, to the great peril of the rest of us.

The digital revolution has brought the means of cultural production and distribution to the many, but even when we worked with typewriters and photocopiers, we knew that wasn’t enough. Cultural democracy was never about tools. It was about culture. Working with people for hours, even days, to produce a single poster was not just to teach them how to screen print. It was to explore ideas, helping them clarify what they wanted to say, and to do that in ways that understood the context of visual communication and the wider culture of which their message was part.

This process of talking, sharing, testing and understanding was the essence of co-creation and it was empowering not because someone had made their own poster but because they had taken time to think through the meaning of the creative act. There’s no value in having a tool unless you understand its nature and its uses—its culture.

A lot of rubbish is said about democracy today, mostly by people who want to exploit people’s faith in it to get their way. Democracy is not the right to vote every five years, or to say what you think on social media every five minutes. It’s a complex process of living together, acknowledging that others legitimately see the world differently. It’s sustained in civil society, in voluntary work, in schools and universities, in workplaces and business, in courts and in the structures of parliamentary life. It’s often difficult, frustrating and compromised. But it can also be the most rewarding way of learning about life and ourselves, and it is always better than the alternatives. The internet is not democratic. Smartphones are not democratic. They are tools that can support democracy, but only if there is also the means of cultural understanding and negotiation. That has always been community art’s territory, and its work is needed as much as ever.

The image above is a detail from this poster I made during the Falklands War. A couple of friends and I flyposted it one night in south London. There were two versions,: this, which my friends liked, and another with the words ‘BRING IN THE UN’ at the bottom, which I preferred. I’d read John Berger about Don McCullin’s Vietnam War photographs, and believed that art which spoke of wrongs needed to offer responses; today, I’m not so sure, about that, and many other things too.

‘How Many More?’ (Version 2) François Matarasso, screen print, 1982