May Day - Communities/Communications

Adbusters, Art Club 2000, Associated Press, A Tale of Four Cities, Roderick Buchanan, Communards, Egg i-Contact Video Network, Liam Gillick, Theodore Kaczynski, Out of Photography, Simon Patterson, Thomas Ruff, Sega Stamp Expressions, Richard Serra, Situationists International, Juergen Teller, Carey Young, Zapatistas and others

'May Day' means many things to many people. For some it is a time of festival, for others a moment of fear; it is both a shout of celebration and a cry for help. Ancient Saxons and Celts celebrated May 1 as Beltane or the day of fire, taking large wooden wheels to hilltops before lighting them and rolling them into surrounding fields; more recently, students and other demonstrators have chosen parked cars to set alight. In both these examples, 'May Day' is important in terms of both communities and communications. This is also our concern in MayDay, how communities use communications and are, in turn, created by them.

We are all members of many different communities. Some we choose to be a part of, such as a group of friends, or a club of some sort; others are involuntary, such as our families, or our ethnic background. Our sense of identity is, to a large extent, made up of the communities of which we are a part. We communicate these identities to each other almost continuously, letting people know who we are, or at least who we would like to be. Many others also communicate who they would like us to be, creating an identity for us to which we are to aspire.

Often these are advertisers, tempting us to be better people by spending more money; sometimes, we are simply invited to join the orthodoxy of a media-driven 'common sense'. The different forms of communications technologies - whether it is the internet or TV, photography or radio, newspapers or advertising - are political tools of immense power, neither good nor bad,but useful, and their uses are many and varied.

Throughout its history, photography has been used as a means not only of describing, but also creating, a sense of identity, whether it be photographs of the Communards in the Paris of 1871, or Thomas Ruff's composite portraits. Increasingly, the mass media has been adopted by other groups such as the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Army, which seized the Japanese Embassy in Peru in 1996, and for whom satellite dishes are more important than flags and banners. Even the Unabomber's manifesto, perhaps the most extreme anti-technology rant of the late twentieth century, is more easily found on the internet than in bookshops.

MayDay has evolved out of A Tale of Four Cities, an innovative arts and technology initiative established by The Photographers' Gallery in partnership with Richard Atkins Primary School, Brixton. Working with school-children in Brixton as well as Cape Town in South Africa, Dhaka in Bangladesh and Nairobi, Kenya, the project has used the internet environment through which these children can develop dialogues, exchange images and share experiences with one another. Perhaps what is most striking is how quickly these conversations turn to the social problems which the children experience, whether it be homelessness or poverty, lack of facilities or pollution. Here, a form of communication technology has facilitated the creation of a new community where children can exchange their ideas on the world in which they find themselves.

Such communities are not so easy to establish. The Mathare slum in Nairobi has a sporadic electricity and telephone supply; emails and pictures must be printed out in UN offices situated miles away. A global village? Well, in some ways, but certainly not all, or even most. The technical difficulties involved in such a project are in stark contrast to the 'wired' visions presented to us by global corporations and their partners in national government. Only 3% of the world's population has access to a computer. For most, faster modems are less important than peace, food and clean water.

Increasingly, however, different forms of communications media are being used as a means of provoking social change. During the riots in Paris in May 1968, students used the simple technologies of stencils and silkscreen posters to disseminate their message; now the technologies are often more complex. Perhaps most famously, the Zapatistas in Mexico have used the internet as a means of spreading their campaign against the effects of 'neo-liberalism' upon local communities. So effective has been their campaign that it is now used as a model for local groups campaigning around the world. Elsewhere, software such as Floodnet can be used by 'netizens' to disrupt access to certain websites by automatically, and continuously, flooding that site with requests, a form of electronic civil disobedience. Hackers have even changed the web pages of certain regimes and corporations, with official sites listing, albeit temporarily, the human rights abuses of those which they are supposed to be promoting.

We should not forget the more 'traditional' media of television and radio, however. A video library of work from community groups, alternative news organisations and video activists from around the world is available for visitors to watch. Pirate radio stations have also long been an important means of consolidating group identity, particularly amongst urban youth, and radios within the Gallery will be tuned to these throughout the exhibition.The mass media is often used solely to entertain and, as Richard Serra's 1973 video Television Delivers People notes, 'Entertainment is the propaganda of the status quo'. MayDay shows how the media can also be used as a tool for change. These campaigns, these forms of communication, do not just occur elsewhere, to other people. In fact, it is us, consumers within the 'Society of the Spectacle' as Guy Debord so memorably described it more than thirty years ago, who are subjected more than most. Clothing chains promote individuality in shops which are identical, whether they are situated in Osaka, Toronto or Berlin.

The artists' group Art Club 2000 explored this contradiction in a project from the early 1990s, photographing themselves in similar, but different, outfits from Gap, their individual identities subsumed within the larger consumer mass. Such a consumerist phenomenon is perhaps even more apparent in Japan, which has for some years now witnessed a photography craze amongst teenage schoolgirls. Photo machines - like the one installed in the exhibition - allow the production of mini-portraits which can then be distributed amongst yet more friends (they are even shown to interest potential boyfriends). Photography is used here as a means of 'individual self-expression'; as a result, magazines such as Egg and Out of Photography contain nothing but page upon page of teenage girls, in sailor suits and baggy white socks, each making the 'Peace' sign. As Debord noted, 'The spectacle is not a collection of images, but a social relation among people, mediated by images.'

Social relations have long been explored in Roderick Buchanan's work, perhaps nowhere more so than in his photographs of teenagers taken near his home in Glasgow. Here is a group of people bound together by geography and circumstance; they are also united in that each is wearing a baseball cap. In parts of Glasgow it can be of the utmost importance whether you are wearing a Celtic or Rangers football shirt; does a cap announcing the NY Jets or the Boston Red Sox possess a similar degree of significance? Buchanan's is a work of anthropological enquiry; for others also the importance of studying signs such as these is immense. Marketing companies collate information from credit card transactions and loyalty cards, placing people into one of over fifty consumer profiles. Are you a 'Clever Capitalist' or an 'Indebted Struggler'? Is your lifestyle 'Victorian Low Status' or 'Bohemian Melting Pot'? You may not be interested, but the political parties and advertisers certainly are. . .

MayDay is, at once, a celebration of community and a distress signal. It is part of a process, a process of culture, a continuous movement of ideas, people and communication. It encourages us to consider our own relationship to that process, within that process, and promotes an active rather than passive involvement. It poses questions which are simple, although the answers, if answers are possible, may be far from straightforward. They are questions which must be asked now, and in the future, here in the exhibition and more importantly beyond it: who is speaking to whom and why are they saying what they are saying?

Jeremy Millar
Programme Organiser

We would like to thank the following for their support of MayDay:
Associated Press
i-Contact Video Network
Sega Amusements Limited