INTERVIEW: What Does It Mean To Be Working Class? | NARC. | Reliably Informed | Music and Creative Arts News for Newcastle and the North East

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Image: Erin Dickson

Ask any creative how their year has been and you’re highly likely to get an answer along the lines of, “Absolutely horrendous, thanks. You?” Their entire industry is on its backside, after all. Disproportionately affected by this sorry state of affairs is the working class; even outside of the struggling artist narrative, those living pay-check to pay-check experience economic instability at the best of times. If it’s tough right now for cultural industries, it’s even tougher for those from a working class background within them.

Pink-Collar Gallery is tackling this issue head on; this online space works to represent the under-represented. They’ve recognised the importance of working class voices in the arts, and the danger of their extinction within the field without intervention. Their latest project, entitled What Does It Mean To Be Working Class?, seeks to answer the question with the contributions and testimonies from five working class artists. It’s an ambitious project, given the fluid definitions of ‘working class’. Is it just someone with a low income, ‘low skilled’ job? Or is there more to being working class than just your profession?

3D artist Erin Dickson argues the way we understand the term is outdated, yet maintained as a kind of social control. “Instead of working at the dockyards and donning flat caps, we are getting degrees and working for tech giants,” she explains. “The Working Class can now be defined as just another ‘other’, a way of judging without merit or pigeonholing a vast swathe of society.”

Socially engaged creative producer Shonagh Short agrees on the malleable nature of ‘working class’ – perhaps it is a status defined by its precariousness. “I think it’s really hard when you try and define [class] in economic terms because that can change throughout your life without fundamentally altering who you are – my situation now is not as financially precarious as it was in the past, but one unexpected life event could completely flip that… For me, class is about culture and belonging, and I know for a fact I am working class when I find myself in a space that isn’t.”

what is important about this project is highlighting the spectrum of working class-ness. There is not just one experience of being working class in the UK

Teesside photographer Kev Howard suggests a different approach to understanding what working class is, and that’s through geography. His view is that where you’re brought up can irrevocably shape your self-perception. “The vast majority of people I know who are working class are highly skilled in the work that they’re doing. I live, and was brought up, on Teesside, a predominantly industrialised area. Now, that’s changed. We’ve gone from industrial to service industry. So do you define [working class] by the people, or the socio-economic situation or the geography? Is it a combination of all of those? I think it does change for each and every person.”

Regardless of what makes someone working class, we exist; there are some unique experiences and troubles that come with such a label, self-imposed or otherwise. For Shonagh, it’s the struggle to understand “unspoken codes of behaviour and etiquette that seem to come naturally to everyone else in the room.” Erin is maybe more concerned with “invisible barriers” which come from bias “towards the wealthy or well-connected, which in the case of most working-class artists keeps us outside of the in-crowd.” Meanwhile, Kev points out the stigma and economic deterrent that surrounds the idea of stepping outside of ‘working class boundaries,’ be it seeking higher education or an interest in cultural capital. “Even just that decision of, ‘Am I going to go to work, or am I going to go into Higher Education?’ is massive. When I went to university, it was free, and it should go back to being free. Working class people might not have the financial security to properly consider it.”

And lo, we get to the crux of the matter: society has told us for centuries that it’s not our game to play, and that we should stick within class distinctions. What Does It Mean To Be Working Class? not only rejects that idea, but actively dismantles it through giving these artists from a working class background a platform to do with what they wish.

Kev Howard’s approach is as interactive as it can be given the restrictions faced. “My initial plan was to focus on people with disabilities who were working class. But because of lockdown, a lot of those people have been shielding. That’s meant I’ve had to rethink quite a lot. I’m photographing portraits of people who are working class, and alongside this are their narratives of what it means to be working class. Also if they are a creative, it’s what it’s like to be working class and a creative. Speaking as someone who was born with disabilities, the working class is a marginalised group; if you’re working class and disabled, you’re a marginalised class within a marginalised class. I wanted to explore that. Lockdown has gotten in the way of doing that as I wanted to.”

Erin Dickson is taking a deep-dive into biases she has faced personally because of her roots, in particular preconceptions surrounding Northern accents. “Accent prejudice is an absurd but well-rooted part of being British, sitting comfortably alongside our obsession with class. I think what is important about this project is highlighting the spectrum of working class-ness. There is not just one experience of being working class in the UK.”

Let’s face it, it’s tough to be working class, and we deserve more help and support than we get. But these difficulties should not be dissuasive in the quest for cultural fulfilment. In an industry steeped in institutional bias against those from a different economic background, it is perhaps time to make our voices heard.

What Does It Mean To Be Working Class, featuring work by Kev Howard, Shonagh Short, Erin Dickson, John James Perangie and Mark Parham will go online at Pink-Collar Gallery from Tuesday 16th March-Saturday 15th May

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