Final Reflections: Ladies of the Press
Charlie: What have you learnt about Camden / your project topics during this Camden50 year?
Ladies of the Press: Needless to say, Camden is rammed with culture: every corner presents us with a multifaceted piece of history, history in the making and cultural institutions that challenge and question us about these histories and our perceptions.
Our project lent itself to a model in which we became not so much an artist educator but an artist learner; it was not hard to find networks of women working together to achieve all sorts of goals in Camden, each of them with a story to tell, and our mission was to discover, animate and disseminate these stories. Naturally we learn so much in the process, and we found that we were the ones being inspired most of the time! We met women running successful charities, organising feminist festivals, programming public facing events at public institutions, leading entire departments of Universities or entire art schools, leading national and international campaigns for women's rights—everything from the No More Page 3 campaign to training professionals in the prevention of domestic abuse, or simply running their own businesses and private enterprises, some as old as the borough itself.
We also gained an understanding of the role of local government in promoting arts to its constituents. Unaccustomed to public commissions on this scale, we had no idea of the political dimension that art can take at this local authority level. We had read about it, but it felt great to be able to contribute to political discourse practically in this way, by making pop-up publications on and off the street about feminism and radical press with the public and for the public, right then and there. As well as being a political tool to promote not only ideas and ideologies, this type of public art becomes a focal point for disparate communities to come together, which we think was the most significant and necessary part of the whole project during these politically unsettling times. Art at this level, we felt, has a responsibility to serve its public.
Our archive residency at Camden Arts Centre, while highlighting the contribution of women to Camden over the past 50 years, also enlightened us to the more complex interplay of social, cultural and ideological factors that helped shape Camden into the council that it is today. It broadened our understanding and hopefully the public's understanding of the bigger picture as well as the role Camden has played in London's, Britain's and the world's history throughout the 20th century.
We discovered that ideas such as 'democracy' and 'innovation' are alive and well in Camden council, but only through investigating the robustness of those ideas ourselves. We were able to communicate those ideas to our audiences precisely because were were given the freedom of interpreting the twin themes through the prism of our artistic practice and particular interests, namely 'feminism' and 'radical press' and because we were trusted to do so throughout our commission. In many way, it has been a dream commission for us!
Charlie: What do you think Camden will look like in 50 years’ time?
Ladies of the Press: Our day with the Camden Tour Guides’ Women of Camden walk in itself taught us that the political landscape has improved for women over the last 50 years, but in equal measure we are still far from any conception of equality. Camden is a borough proud of embracing its mixed voices, be it political or cultural, ethnic or sexual. We think that Camden will continue to nurture women's unique voices and value their contribution to the borough, in whatever multifarious form that may manifest. We certainly hope so.
Today's Camden is the product of many layers of its recent history even if this is not immediately apparent, on the surface, on corner store post cards and museum gift shop tote bags. Peer into any of its many archives or talk to anybody who is or has been a resident of Camden and this rich history comes to life. Camden, like all London boroughs, is facing difficult times with increasingly stringent austerity measures, the challenge of providing affordable housing and maintaining valuable social services. It was heartening to hear the majority of gathered politicians at Camden50 closing event in the Town Hall still believed in social responsibility, common good and a model close to the 'welfare state'.
Historically a haven for high profile emigres fleeing fascism in between the great wars, the borough absorbed and responded generously to the austerity of the post WWII years. It harboured oppositional and challenging voices throughout the difficult Thatcher years in the form of radical theatre, music and art activism and defended it's progressive thinking throughout the 90s and 00s in the face of immense political changes and pressures. Camden has always has a reputation for its socially responsible and pioneering projects and for its commitment to the arts, even when they were oppositional, problematic, and 'avant grade' in the original sense. We remain hopeful that despite the current climate, Camden will be even more itself, a combination of all of these great attributes, striving to remain as diverse and forward-thinking as it have been throughout its first half century.
Charlie: What has been your favourite part of Camden50?
Ladies of the Press: We were incredibly lucky to be able to engage with Camden's academics, activists, doctors, teachers and members of the public who were equally keen to tell us about their lives and work as we were to writing and reading all about it! We worked with some of our favourite institutions like the Wellcome Collection, whose inclusive ethos encapsulated by their Reading Room which is free and open to the public, is something we also very much believe in. It is very rare, as artists, to be asked to work with inspiring people and be able to send out a message we believe in ourselves.
Where to begin, or end. That is the problem. It became such a vast and engaging project that in the end, it only feels to us like the beginning.