Peasants With Pens
“Without the humanities, all we have are the inhumanities.”
~ Alan Moore
WRITTEN BY JOSH RAY – JUNE 2016
With the divisive toxic of the EU referendum looming over the country, there doesn’t seem to be much optimism left in the UK. You’d have thought that the murder of a principled MP in cold blood or the use of anti-immigrant propaganda eerily mirroring that of Joseph Goebbels would be enough to make a population who’ve seen their freedoms systematically encroached on over the past two decades finally take a stand for what’s right, but – aside from venting in the echo-chambers of social media – it seems our apathetic population are happy enough watching the world fall apart, so long as they can see it in HD or on the latest smart phone.
Having watched society move closer and closer towards the dystopia he imagined in ‘V For Vendetta‘, it would appear comic book maestro Alan Moore and a group of like-minded individuals in Northampton have decided to take a stand. Forming an Arts Lab, or rather restarting the Arts Lab that was founded in Northampton in 1969 – of which a 16-year-old Alan Moore was a member – the subversive souls of the East Midlands town have begun getting together creatively in the name of counterculture. All of this crystalised at a University of Northampton event in November last year called, ‘Under The Austerity, The Beach’, which sought to address the issue of our muted culture.
At the event, a number of lateral minded thinkers discussed the necessity for a ‘culture which flamboyantly and energetically opposes the prevailing doctrine’, highlighting the fact that we seem to be lacking a counterculture at a time when we need it the most. What happened, they argue, was that instead of developing a new counterculture in the mid-’90s, the youth instead lapped up the bland, recycled Britpot they were fed. Caught up in the wave of optimism New Labour whipped up, the culture was diluted dramatically, and after the optimism came crashing down in 2008 the millennials were left with nothing but the mind-numbing stream of mediocrity spewing out of the cultural black holes of reality TV and hyped-up talent shows.
That’s not to say people haven’t been creating, the problem is that, although the Internet has led to great leaps in communication, it has also led to the fracturing of culture and the eradication of shared experience. What people are increasingly becoming aware of is that in order to meaningfully connect and truly share ideas, there needs to be a physical coming together and that’s why the logical solution seemed to be creating an Arts Lab.
The idea of an Arts Laboratory emerged in 1967, when Jim Haynes, one of the editors of the underground newspaper, International Times set up a space in Drury Lane in London, with the aim of creating a suitable environment for the cross-pollination of ideas. As the concept entered the collective unconscious, it wasn’t long before similar creative hubs started popping up across the country and around Europe – London’s ICA, Paris’ Entrepôt and Amsterdam’s Melkweg were all originally arts labs. The Amsterdam connection is unsurprising, with Alan Moore speculating that the Dutch Provos and their White Bicycle movement had a lot of influence on the initial thinking behind Arts Labs.
The unrestrained environment offered a space for creative chaos to flourish, enabling it to stay at the cutting edge, and many towns and cities had established their own Arts Lab by the end of the decade. In 1969, David Bowie was famously involved in the Beckenham Arts Lab on the outskirts of London, which allowed him to further his artistic ambitions, culminating in a local open air event he later immortalised in the song ‘Memory Of A Free Festival‘.
Taking a look through the first publication of ‘Peasants With Pens’, right from the off it’s clear to see that the modern incarnation of Northampton Arts Lab is looking to use art as a political force again. In the editorial Alan Moore calls out the government with ample venom and vitriol, condemning their actions against the vulnerable members of our society. He bemoans the current cultural void and lays down the ambitions of the Arts Lab; to make the first steps in rebuilding a solid counterculture to vehemently oppose the soulless swine who’ve taken 20th century dystopian fiction and made it a 21st century reality.
Explaining that the organisation is leaderless, and that he only wrote the first editorial because he offered, Alan implores everyone across the country to take Arts Lab as an umbrella term and to get together with like-minded people to perpetuate creativity and take subversion to new levels. Positioning themselves within Northampton’s long-standing history of dissent – which garnered the town a reputation of being a nest of ‘malignant, refractory spirits’ – the Arts Lab looks to start holding those in power to account. If you’re a little sceptical about the effectiveness of subversive literature, you should perhaps check out the work that came out of Situationist International and you’ll begin to see why the French mentality doesn’t take too kindly to labour reforms.
The brilliant ‘MEH!’ cover concept by Megan Lucas is symbolic of the collective’s desire to add some colour back into the greyface culture imposed on us from above. A mix of poetry, prose, interviews and features covering a range of topics makes up the content and an anti-establishment fervour permeates almost every page. ‘A Resistance Manifesto – a snapshot’ by Cleo Cameron seeks to awaken readers from their existential slumber and start questioning the world around them again, whilst Tom Jordan’s simple yet effective photography piece, ‘eye level is buy level’ shows ‘the forgotten tombs’ of our historical buildings, which are all too often overlooked by shoppers and commuters, caught up in the tangles of their lives and the brain pollution of the ‘consumerist temples’ at street level. Mike Huskisson’s ‘Northants Hunt Saboteurs’ calls for direct action against all bloodsports, that he says, continue to thrive despite the 2005 ban. Whilst Tony Clarke of the Green Party talks of how counterculture will not only help bring about the post-capitalist world that people are currently discussing but also that it will give more meaning to life once we enter that brave new world.
Not everything is strictly political however, Samuel Jones ‘Why Do I Art?’ and Dan Johannson’s ‘Recipe For Creative Types’ look to dissect the artistic process, whilst Dan perhaps, also vents some creative frustration in ‘Action!’, whose protagonist is an easily recognisable archetype we’ve all unfortunately come into contact with at some point. Frederick Von Bonhoeffer breaks the illusion that the UK is beyond the kind of bombardment it received during the blitz by painting a chilling picture of conflict in an easily relatable world and a diverse array of poetry from Megan Davies’ blasphemous ‘Not Going To Church’ to the Elsie Holley’s whimsical ‘Nana’, Donna Scott’s harrowing ‘Westsuits’ to the Alastair Fruish’s visceral ‘the bitumen pourers’ – who also offers up the double entendre laden, ‘Food Porn’ – add some curveballs to the magazine. Plus, the poem written on a paper bag that was put through the author’s letterbox, ‘Shezzibaby vs Cameron Diaz – The False Queen of Abington Square’ is as surreal as it sounds.
In ‘Wake The Dead’, the Magus of Northampton, Alan Moore looks at the paradoxical ambiguity of Herewald, a medieval man ‘photoshopped out of the English picture’ in an elaborate piece that weaves together the contradictory accounts of the forgotten English hero as he tries to reclaim the land taken from him by the Norman invaders, whilst acutely seasoning it with modern popular culture references. In ‘Gandhi – The Enlightenment’, Josh Spiller explains ‘how we’ve all let ourselves down’ by thinking our individual actions alone with have no impact on the environment, whilst Thomas Jordan continues on a similar theme in ‘Rubbish’ depicting a trash pile that grows out of control and consumes a town.
Bitingly satirical comics come courtesy of Earthboundmisfit’s ‘Inaction Man’ and Josh Spiller and Alan Ashworth-Muños’ ‘Pub Profundities’. You should be warned though, they may hit a little too close to home for some people.
The magazine also looks to shine a light on different things happening on both a local and national level, like The Good Loaf in a piece by Martin Marprelate, which looks at the café and bakery in Northampton that offers female ex-offenders a second chance in a society that’s quick to shun them. They also introduce us to the charity that promotes social mobility within the arts, Arts Emergency Service, printing their 11 point manifesto, whilst Raunds-based grunge outfit These Strange Explosions are the first of the magazine’s featured bands.
Offering up ‘some subterranean suggestions’ the magazine recommends a few other publications including the ‘International Times‘, ‘Dirty Rotten Comics‘, ‘All City Queens‘, ‘Discordia Britannica‘, ‘Cosmic Trigger I‘ and ‘Test Centre‘. They also recommend some upcoming events including the Arts Lab’s own Artmageddon in Northampton on 24th June and Festival 23 near Sheffield on 23rd July, where cosmic seekers will converge in the name of discord.
We cannot recommend this magazine enough. The main message that it seems to be transmitting is that we desperately need to start clawing back the counterculture we were shafted out of. Go out, find like-minded people and start creating art in order to transcend the constraints of our current situation.
I think it’s safe to say the message was received loud and clear over at Super Weird Substance HQ – watch this space for our small contribution….
If you would like a copy of ‘Peasants with Pens’, please message Arts Lab Northampton on Facebook, or send £3 plus £1.50 postage and packaging to firstname.lastname@example.org
ARTWORK BY VICTORIA STOTHARD, MEGAN LUCAS & ALAN MOORE