After the End of History

British Working Class Photography 1989–2024

Exhibition review by Lillian Wilkie

Debuting its tour at the Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry, After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024, has been curated by writer and photographer Johny Pitts, with the exhibition’s title wittily alluding to Francis Fukuyama’s famed essay The End of History, citing an unfulfilled anticipation of global stability. As Lillian Wilkie examines, Pitts navigates the sociocultural turn of neoliberalism and creates a space for multiple, even conflicting truths of working-class life, challenging the dominance of singular historical narratives and entrenched social hierarchies. 


Lillian Wilkie | Exhibition review | 30 Apr 2024

‘The end of history will be a very sad time,’ writes Francis Fukuyama in the final paragraph of “The End of History?”, an essay published in The National Interest in the summer of 1989, which was later expanded into the 1992 book The End of History and the Last Man. ‘In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’ He concludes: ‘Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.’

“It’s a bit tongue in cheek, the title,” Johny Pitts tells me on the opening day of After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024, an exhibition that surveys photographic representations of working-class life in Britain since the collapse of European communism, and the cultural and creative forces emergent under neoliberalism. The photographer and writer has curated the exhibition for Hayward Gallery Touring, a programme of exhibitions that tour galleries, museums and other publicly funded venues throughout Britain; After the End of History debuts at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum in Coventry before touring to Focal Point Gallery, Southend and Bonnington Gallery, Nottingham. Fukuyama’s thesis – that the triumph of liberal democracy as the dominant political and economic ideology after the fall of communism marked the end of humanity’s sociocultural and ideological evolution and a new era of geopolitical stability – has been much maligned, especially since 9/11, the rise of autocracies in China and Russia, and, notably, the crisis in living standards brought about by neoliberal capitalism. But through the lens of cultural theorists such as Mark Fisher and Natalie Olah, Pitts recognises the significance of this moment at the end of the 1980s: an optimistic, postmodern Britain on the cusp of the digital era. The title, tongue in cheek as it is, sets up the spirit of contradiction – that of a time after the “end of history” – which is one of two pillars defining the exhibition’s curatorial approach.

“I kept saying to the Hayward team that I want the show to be this big mess,” continues Pitts. “I think what I really meant was that I wanted it to be full of contradictions, like working-class life is. I didn’t want to reduce working-class people to avatars for some kind of moral or political point, which they so often are – sometimes for good reasons. I wanted to move beyond this tradition of middle-class people documenting working-class life, showing how tough it is. The reality of working-class life is way more ambivalent than that.” Starting from 1989, Pitts’ approach consciously departs from the socially-engaged, humanist documentary practices and worker photography collectives of the 1960s and 70s, and indeed the archetypal, paternalistic image of working-class people as largely white, male and soot-smeared. This, he believes, has shaped our expectations of what an exhibition of working-class photography might look like, something he seeks to upend. “I love that you’re going in and you think you’re going to see workers in pits and protests and stuff. And you don’t. You see Prince Naseem, and the glitches of the jungle scene.” Pitts is gesturing to two bodies of work just inside the entrance to the show. On the left, he has hung Trevor Smith’s kitschy studio portrait of the British-Yemeni boxer Naseem Hamed three times in a row (“I couldn’t decide which of the paper stocks I liked best, so in the end I chose all three. It gives it a Warhol element.”) On the opposite wall, Eddie Otchere’s saturated C-type prints of performers and ravers at jungle nights in mid-nineties London, with their sloppy borders and light leaks, are each a small essay in the sensorial correspondences between the darkroom and the nightclub. Pitts refers to these works as his “statement pieces”, setting the tone and intention for what is to come.

The exhibition features a diverse cohort of photographers, from art world approved names such as Hannah Starkey, Richard Billingham and Ewen Spencer, to new voices like Rene Matić, Serena Brown and Kavi Pujara. There are also what Pitts refers to as “jobbing” photographers: those working commercially, within communities, or outside of the gallery system, notably Trevor Smith and Josh Cole. Colour work abounds, leaping from deep brown walls featuring accents of day-glo yellow and typography referencing club flyer graphics. Music and clubbing emerge as crucial spaces for both the production of images and the construction of identities. Elaine Constantine’s pictures of dancers at Northern Soul nights at the 100 Club bear the energy, aggression and ecstasy of the dancefloor, depicting a tight-knit, highly coded scene forced further underground, united by a passion for rare cuts and all-nighters. The dancing bodies in Spencer’s photographs from Aya Napa in the glory days of UK garage are more self-conscious and aspirational, but no less libidinal. This was an unapologetically working-class subculture that sought the glamour of brand names and expensive liquor. “Spencer is not interested in what people want the working-class to look like, but what actually goes on,” Pitts explains. The histories of the Northern Soul, two-tone and ska scenes inform the work of Matić, whose practice navigates the complex intersections between West Indian and white working-class culture in Britain through photography and moving image: a self-defined genre they have coined “rudeness”, that promotes pleasure as a “mode of survival”.

From the dancefloor, the exhibition moves through contexts as diverse as the hotel, the hill farm, the council estate and the corner shop. The variety of photographic subjects and styles on display unavoidably raises the question of exactly what, at least within this exhibition’s rhetoric, makes a “working-class photographer”? A focus on “working-class” cultural expression after 1990 seems initially curious considering the end of the Cold War consolidated a new phase of neoliberalism that would ultimately leave workers further behind whilst simultaneously empowering them as consumers, reshaping the class structure entirely. Traditional taxonomies of upper, middle and working-class culture are now much more fragmentary and slippery, defined as much by social and cultural factors as well as occupation and education. A 2003 study on class by the BBC and six British universities found that the established three-tier model had disaggregated into seven class categories ranging from the “elite” to the “precariat”. Nonetheless, a key theme running through the selection is an interest in the circumstances and conditions in which photographic work is produced, and under what financial pressures. A number of the projects were produced within the context of the photographer’s day job, underscoring Pitts’ preoccupation with “art against-the-odds”. A vitrine, shaped to reference a bar or a DJ booth, houses photographs, ephemera and notes scribbled on napkins from Anna Magnowska’s bilateral working life as a café waitress and sexual health nurse, shapeshifting across social roles in Soho’s underbelly.

JA Mortram’s Small Town Inertia draws a sensitive portrait of marginalised lives in the Norfolk town of Dereham, shot whilst Mortram worked as a carer for his mother, experiencing the isolation and alienation of austerity Britain. Like Mortram, the works of the Merseyside-born photographer Chris Shaw force a lens on those who are largely rendered low-status or invisible. His Life as a Night Porter series presents the “social fantastic” of a London hotel’s twilight hours, confronting the often-unseen labours of those who live, work and play by night. These are just some of the projects in the exhibition that attempt to correct what Mortram identifies as an “imbalance of truth”, a contemporary response to the socially-engaged practices of the 1970s that argued for a “history from below”. Pitts is content for the working-class label to be contested. “I didn’t worry about it too much,” he says. “It’s a term that just really resonates with my own experience. It’s hard to say exactly what it is, but if you know it, you know,” suggesting a methodology based more on instinct than fixed criteria, in defiance of the hypotheses of sociologists and academics; more felt than understood. This attitude speaks to the second pillar structuring the exhibition: that of autobiography.

‘I found Josh Cole’s work after I was sacked from Debenhams, Meadowhall,’ recalls Pitts in one of the exhibition’s wall texts. Elsewhere: ‘When I think of Sam Blackwood’s photographs without looking at them, they are populated by people I know. It’s always a surprise, then, to look at them and remember that the images are unpopulated, such is the subtle, sculptural composition of ingredients and spaces many of us recognise.’ The wall texts that accompany each body of work contrast institutional authority with personal testimony, divided as they are into more conventional museological descriptions, followed by poignant reflections from Pitts (in a way that feels novel and, in the context of the museum, excitingly disruptive) that elucidate on connections between the images and formative moments from his own life. He grew up in between two Yemeni families who were related to Prince Naseem, and the boxer was idolised. “These photographs remind me of staying up way past my bedtime, eating my neighbour’s khubz and lahmeh, to watch our hero beat someone in America, and then thank Allah for the win before bragging in the mixture of broad Yorkshire and African-American ebonics that so represented our culture.” In this way, the curatorial methodology emerges as less socioeconomic or even art historical, but autobiographical. A boombox by the entrance plays his sister’s cassette tapes, recorded from 1990s pirate radio in Sheffield – something he resolves to feature at every exhibition he does, “to soften the gallery space a little”.

One is left with the sense that the end of history for Fukuyama was the beginning of a new history for Pitts, who returned in 1990 from a period of living in Japan as a child to his home in working-class Sheffield, to find that most of his family were no longer working in factories and steelworks, but now had retail jobs in the new Meadowhall Shopping Centre, itself built on the site of a former steelworks. Through the images selected, Pitts navigates the material legacies and spectres of this sociocultural turn, and create space for multiple, even conflicting truths. In this way, the exhibition materialises as a counter-institutional gesture; a potential corrective to the complicity of the museum and institution – and indeed photography – in the enshrining of social hierarchies and the privileging of history in the singular. As he writes in his 2020 book Afropean, on the convolutions of Black experience in Europe, it serves as “[an] effort to begin with the personal in order to arrive at the universal”. After the End of History shows us the ways that photography has complicated traditional understandings of working-class identity and experience, and presents a vision of working-class life that, like (for the most part) art itself, resists taxonomy, transcends whiteness and promotes contradiction. If you know, you know.  ♦

All images courtesy the artists, Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry, and Hayward Gallery Touring.

After the End of History: British Working Class Photography 1989–2024 begins its tour at Herbert Art Gallery & Museum, Coventry and runs until 16 June 2024. 


Lillian Wilkie is a writer, editor, publisher and lecturer based in London and East Sussex. Her practice and research focus on arts publishing and its communities, photography and contexts, and marginal fashion media. She is the Director of Chateau International, an imprint producing books, zines, editions and programming, and Co-Director of Bound Art Book Fair at Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester and INVENTORY Book Fair at Cromwell Place, London. She works in the book programme at Aperture. Her writing on photography, arts and publishing has appeared in titles including Modern Matter, Elephant, 1000 Words and C4 Journal. She lectures on photography and fashion media programmes at London College of Fashion and Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts London.

Images:

1-Serena Brown, Bollo Bridge, 2018.

2-Ewen Spencer, Necking, Twice as Nice, Ayia Napa, 2001.

3-Serena Brown, Clayponds, 2018.

4-Kavi Pujara, Maharana Pratap & PC Ravat, Marjorie Street, 2021.

5-Richard Billingham, Untitled, 1993.

6-Anna Magnowska, Eros, 2019.

7-Rob Clayton, Early “Bush” Transistor Radio, 1990-91.

8-Rob Clayton, Lin, Careers Advisor and Mother, Wilson House, 1990-91.

9>10-Sam Blackwood, Rat Palace, 2013-ongoing.

11-J A Mortram, Small Town Inertia.

 

1000 Words

Curator Conversations

#1 Duncan Wooldridge

Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator, and is the Course Director for the BA (Hons) Fine Art Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London. He is the curator of the exhibitions Anti-Photography (2011, Focal Point Gallery), John Hilliard: Not Black and White (2014, Richard Saltoun) and Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions (2019, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24). He is working on an exhibition around photographic abstraction in the contexts of mechanical and industrial production, for 2020-21.

What is it that attracts you to the exhibition form?

Exhibitions for me are like thinking made visible in space. They can be animating and generative, because you are constructing dialogues and arguments between works, where echoes and contrasts bring qualities and values into the foreground, as something you can see, sense and think through. I normally begin at that granular level – the conversation two works have with each other, before working up to the larger display. As an ensemble, groups of work construct trajectories, and show how connections are made and remade continuously. They’re inherently propositional, I think, though they remain to this day frequently used to claim a conventional historiography that says this is how it happened, especially when a single artist is shown, or when the material is historical in nature. I’m definitely seeking to propose a different history or narrative when I’m making an exhibition. That’s what draws me to it. I like to think of how the brain is sparked by the encounter of works seen together, and how the meaning of works change by the encounters they have.

As a result, when the process works as it can, the exhibition is much more than a line of objects. It becomes a dynamic four-dimensional encounter in which your concentration and senses shift gear and become more acute. It’s like Artaud’s conception of the theatre: some senses, contexts, or details are dramatically heightened, and others temporarily subside. Being inside an exhibition can be so focused, and so concentrated, that the world outside seems to be temporarily suspended. That’s not a negation, but a reset, from which something can be built: if it holds any subsequent weight or urgency, an exhibition will subtly continue into your other encounters thereafter. Our return to the world from inside the exhibition might allow us to see and feel that it can be remade and rethought.

I realised early on in my studies that I was equally interested in the works of other artists as I was interested in making things myself. I’ve always liked this as a balance, to be neither fully the maker, the I, nor fully subservient, the classical curator/carer, occupying the supposedly neutral third person role who disappears. I am an active interpreter of the work I bring into the exhibition, but I have neither full control over the meanings, nor am I absent from their construction. When I curated an exhibition of John Hilliard for Richard Saltoun Gallery in 2014 (John Hilliard: Not Black and White) and the parallel book we made with Ridinghouse, it was to cut through John’s practice and see it a specific way with him, to read his work with my eyes, and to compare what it meant from both of our perspectives. I’ve realised since that it’s still a relatively rare model, to have an active curator of an artist with a solo presentation – I found it very illuminating, with a friction that was productive. I’d like to work more with artists like this.

What does it mean to be a curator in an age of image and information excess?

I feels like this goes very much against the ongoing narrative, that of democratic photographies or the positivism about recording our lives and our sharing economies, but I feel that the curator is meant to be demanding. And I think they should demand more of images. Our image world is so passive: most of the language about agency and participation in our work and life is a rhetorical cover, a smoke screen, for how we produce information, and for the dominant economics of our time, which currently is finance capital and advertising. To cite Sherry Turkle, we are alone together. We are producing images and we are consuming them. We are not interacting through them, at least not as we might be.

The widespread adoption of the word curator – curators pants (trousers), curated lists, and a whole lot more, a long and growing comedic list – we really should understand as an attack on careful selection, an attack on deep engagement, and a negation of specialisation, rigorous knowledge and perhaps expertise. Its comedy masks it, but it is an attack. I am not going to argue that the curator is special (we have seen of course that curators can and do maintain bias and reproduce existing relations of being subject to power), but I would have to say that the trend for curating everything is the banalisation of what can and should be a slower process of thoughtful choice. We aren’t using ‘curating’ in all of these contexts as something passionately laboured or specialised, are we? Curated pants aren’t really the best, and curators coffee isn’t any more considered, not before, not during and not after.

This is where it is directly tied to our information and image excess, to more than a rant about capital: because, like the coffee or the other commodities, we’re all hurrying to make ever more images, we’re making more and looking at more, but we’re also looking with less detail, broadcasting with less filtering, and looking with less time or expectation. The curator used to see more art than most people, but today, I wouldn’t set that as a benchmark. The curator who only wants to scan the room, or know about the new work is accelerating the process, and doing the same thing. They’re participating in what Byung Chul-Han has called the Burnout Society. Instead, the question should be, who gives work the most time? I often say that I am only occasionally a curator, and I think in the current moment, few of us are curators very often: we’re rarely given the time, or take the time, to be. Colleagues working in public institutions, who have job roles as curators, spend the majority of their time in administration, in fundraising, in organisational tasks. Curating would be a fraction of their time right now. The temptation is for this to take less time, to be more decisive, and to go with the flow of endless production, but I think a curator who is really committed to this activity will instead slow things down, and take the time to develop understanding. Being a curator is something that anyone could do, but I’d want to propose that to curate, after its original meaning, to care, is to take images and artworks outside of that cycle, and to give them an attention over long durations.

What is the most invaluable skill required for a curator?

Patience, especially in the light of the last question.

In my experience, I can also say that I think the capacity to solve problems is a recurring skill you have to put to work. Logistically, if you don’t have an endless budget but you are ambitious, you’re going to face challenges about how to get works from distant locations to the site of your exhibition, and you’re going to have to make decisions about how the show changes as a result of its contexts. I think the biggest budget I ever had for collecting works was for the Anti-Photography show I curated at Focal Point Gallery in 2011, where we had the budget for one collection of works in Europe, though we had new works arriving from the West Coast of the US, and works from several European cities. I enjoy that kind of working things out. It’s about knowing which compromises are acceptable and which ones have a serious effect, about knowing what you can solve, and who you can work with to make things happen.

What was your route into curating?

I encountered the process of exhibition making really in Norwich at the Norwich Gallery, where I volunteered for a couple of years, working on the great East International exhibitions, and some of their other shows. I would volunteer in the summer and autumn during my studies. Lynda Morris was there and her exhibition programme had many great connections to conversations in the artworld. I think that was where I learnt to find inventive ways around making exhibitions happen: for East they would just drive a van into Europe to go and collect everything! I remember the detail and care in preparing spaces, for example repeatedly painting and sanding a wall for a Sol Lewitt wall drawing, calling artists and arranging the collection and return of their works; the politeness and friendliness, and the ways of doing things. Andrew Hunt was there at that time too as an Assistant Curator, and he was a great, encouraging voice: ultimately our good relationship led to my first major curatorial project. Around that time I studied Photography at the Royal College of Art, and that equipped me to have a critical voice, to feel that as an artist you could participate in the discourse – you could and should make exhibitions as an artist, you could and should write and produce criticism too. When I was studying there, I was working at the Serpentine Gallery, invigilating, working front of house and handling limited editions, and so all of those different inputs gave me a rounded idea of making exhibitions and what they involved. At the beginning of a show, you’d sometimes get a tour from the artist (though not always), but you would, every time, get a walkaround where you’d be shown what was fragile, what was dangerous, how things were made, which works had high insurance values, all of the practical hidden details. It was a hidden education.

As I said, Andy Hunt gave me the first opportunity to curate a major show. I was working in my Serpentine job when I saw him again one day. I remember he asked what I was working on, and I told him about a show I was planning, called Anti-Photography. I was applying for a curatorial open call that Hayward Gallery had made. I remember that he said ‘that sounds a lot like our programme’, and told me to get in touch if the open call didn’t happen. It didn’t, and I went back to him. I think a key thing at that point wasn’t that I was an artist or a curator, but that I had a strong investment in the work of other artists, that I was developing ideas, regardless of whether the opportunity was there or not.

What is the most memorable exhibition that you’ve visited?

I don’t know if I can narrow this down, but I’ll try. I would like to say Rei Naito’s work Matrix in Ryue Nishizawa’s Teshima Art Museum, the single best installation of a single artwork I’ve ever seen. But perhaps that’s not an exhibition – it’s a permanent environment. I think it would have to be the 20th century collection displays called The Making of Modern Art, at the Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven, which were specially curated by artist Goran Đorđević – Đorđević has however hidden himself under an alias of an institution of his own making, The Museum of American Art in Berlin (he is known as a ‘former artist’ who would make lectures as Walter Benjamin and making Piet Mondrian paintings with contemporary dates). Using a combination of works in the museum collection and copies, Đorđević quizzes and challenges the 20th century art museum, it’s construction of value, it’s definitions of art, and its appropriation of objects across historical and geographic contexts. Rather than just talking about it, this display actually does it, dares to put artworks in new circumstances to see what happens. Each room proposes a problem – how objects gain and lose and the name of art, how collections are formed, and how the cultural politics of the 20th century drive us towards certain relationships to culture. It ends in a proposed cultural reversal, where artworks from the western ‘canon’ are taking out of a white cube and placed into a room of controlled lighting and museum cabinets that are familiar to any viewer who has seen how artefacts are displayed in the Far East, in wall-lined vitrines and wooden display cases behind glass. This is only a proposition of course, but it reveals the commodity status of the artwork and the spaces it has depended upon. The museum commissioned the display and opened it in 2017, and it’s due to stay open until the beginning of 2021. I’ve been twice and will try and go again.

What constitutes curatorial responsibility in the context within which you work?

I think all cultural producers share a responsibility, I’d begin there. That responsibility begins fundamentally with looking at and thinking critically about the world, to work in response to that, to act to improve the world, not necessarily by making things which are political, but by thinking and understanding the ecologies in which we all operate, and provide models or gestures, perceptions and sensations that generate cultural progress before and sometimes against economic progress.

Isabelle Stengers has a great way of describing ecology when she describes it as thinking and acting par le milieu: a milieu, she reminds us, is something that can only be understood by a combination of the through and the around, and I think this describes what a curator should be doing whatever their subject or their context or their method. To think through and around is to think beyond oneself and to think of the context we and our cultural production belongs to. In my mind, I’ve linked Stengers par le milieu to Édouard Glissant’s mondialité, his modification of universality. In mondialité, you can’t remain at the abstract generalisation of universality – simply saying that it applies a priori to all, you have to see what it does in the world. It’s to try and think the world, but to also deal with the specifics, thought put into action. And so, for me, this connects us to thinking through and around, and to think about the exhibition and its consequence. We don’t talk about the consequence of an artwork or an exhibition often enough, we treat it like it just is or was. It’s not enough to go to an exhibition and leave again. What stays with us? What might it allow us to do? How do we react and in what way? Are we put on the defensive or made to feel overwhelmed, or enabled to think that we can have some kind of impact? What enables us to do this?

Deleuze and Guattari in their writing in Capitalism and Schizophrenia argued for the importance of what they called the micropolitical, even before we talked of micro-aggressions. Micropolitics is the politics contained in each and every action, the underlying politics of our interactions with each other. I think that especially relates to the present epoch, the age of self-interest and atomisation that characterised our society before we reached the coronavirus pandemic. It’s easy to say we are radical and forward thinking when public facing, or working into the macro-political realm. What, in our actions or in the consequences of what we produce, makes this manifest in each interaction? How do we work to support people or work to resist the logics of self-interest? Hopefully, on the other side, we might have learnt to think through and around.

What is the one myth that you would like to dispel around being a curator?

I think I’d like to dispel the notion that being a curator places you at the centre, that being a curator, or being an artist for that matter, puts you in the middle of the art or photography worlds. I think this is behind the fashion for curating everything. We appear to have a model that places creators and producers in the centre, which radiates out, which perhaps includes artists and curators, and then collectors and gallerists and critics and then students and audiences. I think we should be really critical of this model and its hierarchies. If you believe as a maker or producer that you are at the centre, then you are replicating an exclusive model of culture, based on outdated ideas of artistic production, propped up by money as something which limits access to many, and permits easy access to others. We must differentiate centrality from criticality, and privilege the idea of being both rigorous and generous over a desire to be the centre of attention. We should establish our own sets of values, and make them clear. Thankfully, there a number of people working within this culture who are both deeply knowledgeable and generous, and as a result, in some cases, those individuals become great connectors and facilitators. But you’d have to have your head in the sand to not see that there are plenty of people who direct everything, even indirectly, to themselves or their gain. They are maintaining the claim that culture circles around them, whether it structurally does or doesn’t. They’re both parts of the same problem.

What advice would you give to aspiring curators?

Jean Baudrillard wrote an exceptionally beautiful book that is lesser known than his writings on simulations and the conditions of Postmodernity. It’s called The Agony of Power. In it, he says that the biggest question of all is what you do with the power that you have, however small or big it is, however much it might come to be. So my advice is this: be generous. Be generous with your time, with your attention, with your labour and efforts, and with your own power to impact others. ♦

Further interviews in the Curator Conversations series can be read here.


Curator Conversations is part of a collaborative set of activities on photography curation and scholarship initiated by Tim Clark (1000 Words and The Institute of Photography, Falmouth University), Christopher Stewart (London College of Communication, University of the Arts London) and Esther Teichmann (Royal College of Art) that has included the symposium, Encounters: Photography and Curation, in 2018 and a ten week course, Photography and Curation, hosted by The Photographers’ Gallery, London in 2018-19.

Images:

1-Duncan Wooldridge

2-View of the exhibition Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24, 2019.

3-View of the exhibition Moving The Image: Photography and its Actions, Camberwell Space, as part of Peckham 24, 2019.