Neighbourhood watch

Humphrey Spender Ashington – Washing in road between terraced housing, 1937/38 © Bolton Council, Collection of Bolton Library &Museum Services Courtesy of Mass Observation Archive

Humphrey Spender Ashington – Washing in road between terraced housing, 1937/38 © Bolton Council, Collection of Bolton Library &Museum Services Courtesy of Mass Observation Archive

The line between art and anthropology, if it exists at all, bends and breaks. Perhaps it would be too bold to suggest that all art is a study of humankind, but maybe not?  The recent exhibition at The Photographers Gallery in London, Mass Observation: this is your photo, gives us an opportunity to consider this question. It presented selected items from two phases of an anthropological study based in Britain, which was bound inextricably with the art of image making; producing sometimes hilarious, often poignant and always artistic results.

The first phase of Mass Observation was founded in 1937; its intention to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ through contributions from the public of diary entries, photographs, interviews and other material.  Britain in the 1930s was recovering from one world war and heading towards another.  The surprising thing is that the Britain in these images, and the photography techniques, look so modern. Graffiti on a wall could be the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat.  Beach images look like the work of Martin Parr; a caravan shaped like a teapot a particular moment of “Britishness” and humour.

Artists often obsess.  Mass Observation allowed artists and the public space to pursue their own lines of enquiry, whilst building up a nuanced picture of Britain at the time. The first phase continued into the 1960s and the material ended up in an archive now held in the University of Sussex, UK, and the subject of ongoing research.  Its content is as open-ended as it is focussed; by turns intriguing, revealing, divisive, silly, boring, and anxious.

To bring the story up to date, the archive initiated a new round of data capture in 1981, which continues to this day (residents in Britain can volunteer to write at: http://www.massobs.org.uk).  In the early days, many of the photographers were professionals; but in the 1980s they are amateurs, using snap shots alongside hand-written descriptions of ‘giving and receiving presents’ for example, or what happened to them on a certain day in August.  That day was both ordinary and extraordinary: fires raged, people drove cars, they went to the beach, crops were harvested, concord flew at 2000 km per hour and wild flowers were gently blown in the wind.

This project – in both the 1930s and its contemporary incarnation – demonstrates a keenness to divulge information about ourselves. It is closely aligned to the modern phenomenon of social networking and the practise of voluntarily ‘sharing’ the minutiae of our lives online. One woman describes how she is persecuted by her neighbours because of her sexuality. It seems to be cathartic for her to write about this. Like a diary entry written to the future.  A time capsule. A message in a bottle thrown out to sea.

For the most part, in the process of trying to tell us something about art, anthropology and photography, this exhibition binds them so tightly one cannot see where one discipline ends and another begins. The exhibition holds back from offering us any conclusions, allowing the images to speak for themselves; ideas to gestate in the mind of the audience. The exhibition is a defiant statement that the archive is living, breathing, ongoing and unfinished. It makes a passionate case for the importance of using multiple voices in telling a good story.

First published in Art World magazine, Shanghai

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