Outdoor Ghost Lab at the Utopia Festival, Somerset House, London, 2016
Saturday, 21 October 2017 08:30

Social haunting in the Brexit coalfields

Published in Education

Dr Geoff Bright introduces a fascinating arts-based educational project, concerned with remembering, re-imagining and re-enacting alternative community futures in the abandoned, de-industrialised pit communities in the North of England.

Over this last three years I’ve enjoyed bringing together a team of academics, artists, community trade unionists and activists in what is effectively a kind of community ghost hunt! We are now beginning the third of three related Arts and Humanities Research Council funded projects that have steadily refined a unique arts-based approach to researching what we’re calling the ‘social haunting’ of deindustrialised communities. The current project Song Lines: Creating Living Knowledge through Working with Social Haunting builds on two earlier AHRC ‘Connected Communities’ investigations: Working with a Social Haunting, which worked in the South Yorkshire coalfield and Rochdale area in Lancashire during 2015; and Opening the ‘Unclosed Space’, which hunted social ghosts in the North Staffordshire coalfield and was showcased at the Utopia Festival at Somerset House, London, on the very first weekend after the Brexit vote.

Basically, all three of these projects grew out of research work that I did after a good proportion of a working lifetime spent in the UK coalfields of Derbyshire and South Yorkshire: growing up in a pit family, as a railway trade union activist who was heavly involved in the 1984-85 miners’ strike and, from the 90s on, as someone who worked as a community activist/educator in that area. My doctoral study – which focussed on pit village youngsters who were being excluded from school and was completed in 2013 – suggested that the 84-85 strike and its aftermath were far from being matters of merely historical interest but remained, rather, a continuing – if, more often than not, unspoken – context for the lived, cultural experience of people, young and old.

Fieldwork that I did revealed a complex, intergenerational transmission process - a “kind of haunting” - as some of my research participants called it - whereby a web of feelings relating to the conflicted culture of the coalfields continued to shape cultural identity in a form of knowing without knowing that is more than mere tacit knowledge, habitus, or embodied collective memory and that persists even though the material impetus for those feelings has, to all intents and purposes, disappeared.

More than a decade after that research commenced, the situation is essentially the same. Occult affective intensities still speak through the absent present of the coal industry in multiple ways. To name but a few routes: there are redundant architectures of extraction - the run-down villages that have no reason, now, for being where they are. There are invented landscapes of what we might call regenerative erasure - the faux rural of pit tips made into ‘country parks’. There are inscriptions on, and inside, bodies, named as ‘white’ finger or ‘black’ lung, a residual chiascuro of industrial injury and disability. And there are gendered affective practices of repetition and reversal, where the men still work remembered coal seams in half-empty Welfare clubs, while the women staff the new precariat.

In a nutshell, the strike is now over thirty years past, the coal industry gone, and coal has been firmly re-positioned as the bete noir of the Anthropocene, rather than the celebrated ‘black diamond” of industrialisation that it once was. Nevertheless, the conflicted and ‘sticky’ affects generated by coal’s conflicted past have far from disappeared. The spontaneous “Thatcher funerals’ that celebrated the death of former PM Margaret Thatcher in 2012 were perhaps the most striking and visible examples of these latent forces, but the widespread Brexit vote across the coalfields is probably their most complex and far reaching manifestation.

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A social haunting

Following Avery Gordon’s remarkable insights in her 1997 book Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination, we’ve used the idea of a ‘social haunting’ to think about these phenomena and have tried to put into practice a mode of research capable of getting in touch with social ghosts. How have we approached that? Well, working with a social haunting is about working with the hidden, so we thought, first, about how we might look beyond the ‘blind field’ (as Avery calls it) of the conventional social research disciplines. Secondly, a haunting indicates a troubled social field. It is a communal socio-political-psychological state that “…registers the harm inflicted or the loss sustained by a social violence done in the past or in the present” and is evident at that moment when “disturbed feelings cannot be put away”.

So we knew that we would be working with trouble as well. A participatory arts-based inquiry delivered with high regard to the best of adult community education practice, but playfully, seemed to offer the best approach. However, and this is key to our work, we also wanted to respond to something else that Avery Gordon had particularly emphasised: the fact that a social haunting carries a political imperative. It is always an indication that “something else, something different from before, seems like it must be done”. Hence, we devised our Ghost Lab approach.

Song lines

The Ghost Labs – essentially a semi-improvised, art/activist “event-space” (in cultural philosopher Brian Massumi’s words) – create a space in which to re-imagine how difficult affective meanings carried into the present from contested pasts might, rather than narrowing the scope of imaginable futures, actually be harnessed as energies for benevolent change. The Ghost Labs’ success thus far has been rooted in their capacity to allow participants to reflect on subjugated community histories using collective poetry, playback theatre, and comic strip, for example, as modes of re-imagining and enacting alternative community futures in a way that is enjoyable and remarkably peaceable, even when those communities have suffered divisive traumatic change.

As one of our participants from our first project said: "We had a laugh, did something different, got to know each other and ourselves a bit better...It felt good to try to express myself through unusual means - for me - like poetry or even drawing. Doing it together created a powerful and lasting feeling...".

Working again with our key community partners Unite Community; the Co-op College, the Song Lines project will use the newest tool from the Ghost Lab’s repertoire of arts-based ‘ghost hunting’ tools: the ‘Community Tarot’. The Community Tarot is just one of the repertoire of arts based methods that the Labs employ. It is designed around individual readings, divided into past, present and future, using a pack of cards produced from images and words collected from our partner communities. So it offers a simple, playful, but richly productive device with which to bring to light contradictory and troubling aspects of what academic social psychologist Valerie Walkerdine has called “communal being-ness”.

As individual readings are collected together as community readings, a kind of living cultural lexicon of community imagination begins to assemble itself, and hidden themes becoming increasingly clear and available for reflection and renewed action.

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The new project aims specifically to address feelings around Brexit and will see the Community Tarot technique rolled out in five new communities: three in the NE of England – Sunderland, Seaham, and Horden on the Durham coalfield – and two in the NW – Rochdale and Hyde, Tameside. The creative materials generated through those Community Tarot readings will stimulate the creation of a set of contemporary ‘video ballads’ that ally with local traditions of dissenting song and will be specially written and recorded by our partner folk musicians, Ribbon Road. The video ballads will be used to initiate “song lines” of living knowledge outwards from, and back into, the originating communities as they circulate through a series of interactive public engagement and dissemination channels that will reach new audiences in marginalised and de-industrialised communities in the UK, the Basque Country, Slovenia, US, Hungary, Haiti and Malawi through the channel of community radio.

The culmination of our project will be a practitioner and policy maker conference - and not-to-be-missed live performance by Ribbon Road - at the People’s History Museum, Manchester, on November 8th, 2107. We’ll also be at the Unite Community stall at the Durham Miners’ Gala and Great Yorkshire Show and at the Wigan Diggers’ Festival during summer 2017. Listen out for the beautiful voice of Ribbon Road’s, Brenda Heslop! Get a taste of it here: Ribbon Road. Try listening to Daddy for You, Eddie’s Tattoo Studio, or The Numbered Streets and you’ll see what our work is getting at.