FAIRIES IN THE UNDERCLASS
MARK LECKEY O' MAGIC POWER OF BLEAKNESS
When I walked into Mark Leckey’s show I was ready to feel mixed feelings. I don’t know a whole tonne about the guy, I always tend to think of him as the working class Jeremy Deller with less hype who didn’t get in on the ground floor of the tote bag racket. IDK y Im thinking of a Turner Prize winner as an underdog but maybe cuz he did a tutorial with me once and was v nice and even complimented my badly mixed donk song.
Anyway I walked in to the underpass re-construction prepared to be mildly annoyed. it had the vibe of one of those artworks that’s like lifestyle simulation for middle class people - I’m thinking Tania Burguera’s fake kettling situation with cops on horses at the Tate. a bunch of people who probably avoid underpasses, don’t live anywhere near one, or walk thru clutching their iPads to their chests, but in a fake underpass.
I went up to the slanty bit, which reminded me of an underpass in Basildon between Gloucester Park swimming pool and my parent’s (*council*) house. it’d had paintings of different animals on and we used to climb up to the top and sit in the spot where it met the bridge. It was knocked down, along with the pool, to make way for unaffordable identikit housing. I tried to run up the fake cement, feeling angsty, but it was too steep and I slid back down. Then I was kinda in to it - a lil you cant sit with us fuck u to the Tate Brit audience from the projected young lads up in the hidey space.
I watched the videos on the screens, also of a group of young teenage boys hanging out in Adidas trackies, stylised - a little bit Adidas advert vibes, a little bit music video. again my hackles were raised, but then I saw a group of lads maybe similar in age to those depicted in the video also wearing Adidas trackies, totally enthralled. When the video switched walls to show a silhouette of one of the lads doing a crab position, I heard one of em gasp and say ‘thats sick’ & I was like o yeah, the audience really makes something like this. I started thinking of my own defensive positionality in relation to the imagery of the young sportswear clad kids.
What to do with the ‘working class aesthetic’?
If ur aesthetic has been co-opted so much, what do u do? Do u give it up, change it, switch to something else? Or can u try to keep it or reclaim it? This show got me thinking a lot about things swirling around my head for a while, about this idea of the white working class and the multicultural urban working class and chavs and roadmen and the fetishisation of these perceived cultures in contemporary art. At a base level it’s the cliche of the white kid from Surrey who goes to art school and buys a new wardrobe from wavey garms, starts saying ‘calm’ and pretends his dad didn’t buy his flat in peckham. Higher up, it’s Eddie Peake’s show at the white cube. ‘concrete playground’ shared many commonalities with this Mark Leckey show but feels so very different. On surface level we’ve got 2 reconstructions of concrete urban infrastructure, we’ve got a soundtrack of dance music, references to subculture, nice lighting, and 2 white men who perhaps flirt with queerness to varying degrees. But while Peake’s show felt desperate and cluttered and insincere, Leckey’s show seduced me. Maybe it’s just cuz he’s been doing it longer, maybe its cuz he was a working class boy from Wirral, not a posh boy from a legacy art family, maybe it’s cuz he’s a nice guy(?) with a bit of self awareness.
Once the videos started playing, showing a history of England through this underpass, I lost myself in the work and started to bop about to the soundtrack.
It made me think about the variances and specificities of working class culture, and how the need to be specific is vital to deconstructing Whiteness. How a white working class kid in Liverpool could have more in common with a black british working class kid from the same area than a white working class kid in Newcastle than a white working class kid in London, who in turn can have more in common with working class people in other parts of the world than with middle and upper class English people. It’s possible to have both specific and universal solidarity.
It only plays in to the white supremacist project to flatten the differences in whiteness and see it as a monolith, a standard against which everything else is ‘other’. Rather it is a collection of varied heritages and experiences that have been lumped in to one category, a category with blurry and complicated edges that move to assimilate or exclude people in turn. When it’s useful, whiteness tries to claim the achievements of (mostly) Eastern European Ashkenazi Jews, Greeks, Italians, Turkish and North African people. When it’s useful, whiteness can choose to exclude Polish people and Irish people. Until whiteness is dismantled it will never offer permanent cover.
It does not help then, to fetishise this idea of the ‘white working class’, which was actively promoted by the ruling class to divide people in the UK, encouraging people to choose the false security of whiteness over solidarity with their more marginalised brethren. An over identification with any aesthetic will only lead to fetishisation.
At art school and in many mostly white middle class circles there’s a muddy idea of taste and class being intrinsically linked: conversations about class become about which supermarket you shop at, what food you eat, what clothes you own, your cultural references etc. etc. this is again mostly a result of whiteness and monoculture, a lack of understanding of all the different cultures that exist within the working class, the most diverse class. Many working class people are great at cooking, have recipes handed down through generations, many working class people are educated in many ways and value knowledge dearly, many working class people enjoy ‘rarefied culture’. What’s considered rarefied or high or low art varies so much from county to county, country to country. There are things we may share like going to the ice cream van, and there’s things that not everyone shares, like church or mosque or synagogue, going to certain shops or having certain little rituals or habits - it doesn’t make any of these things any more or less working class.
What’s with this horrible neoliberal English thing of thinking culture and learning = middle class? We really do need to get rid of it. Maybe it’s my Irish roots but it just feels really depressing and like we’re holding ourselves back. And it hasn’t always been this way, England has a rich history of working class art and self education - the pit painters, miner’s reading groups, working class bands that melded their experiences with ‘avante garde’ modes of expression, community organised weekend schools in black British communities. further back, storytelling and oral history. It’s wacky that many working class people that got fed the lie of ‘escaping’ their community and going to art school to be a weirdo are now caught up in recycling the tropes of their area, using Burberry cash converter chicken shop aesthetics in order to compete with the posh kids who appropriate this imagery. The art often ends up looking the same, and altho the intention is different and the identity of the artist does make a big difference, it all starts to get a bit slippery. It feels like an exercise in giving ppl what they want to see or what they expect, trying to subvert the stereotype but maybe just falling into it. It feels dishonest. In my area the kids who look like the kids in mark leckeys work, the kids that art boys dress up as, were the kids who’d spit at me and try and slap me and shout at me on the way to the shop, chase me home, sit on my back wall and harass me. later, when figuring out my transness, I had some trouble with aesthetics, not wanting to fall in to a queer aesthetic cuz of it seeming ‘posh’, something I’d been called for want of a better word at school, something many young working class closeted and not closeted queers are called for want of a better word. I ended up wearing what I almost wanted, glitzy t shirts n trackies and jewelry and jeans and nice trainers and short hair, and then I looked in the mirror and saw them boys that had given me shit 10 years ago, filtered through those art boys I held in disdain. I worry that I’m appropriating the aesthetic too. Lots of ppl tell me I don’t sound like I’m from Essex, and I probably don’t. I think its because I had gay voice, now trans voice. I don’t have the Essex girl voice, my vocal range is too low, and I spent my childhood reading books rather than talking to ppl. yES, I hung out in underpasses, but I also sat at home reading and drawing and writing. I was the weird kid, but there were lots of other weird kids too. My sister’s mates, more marginalised than us, set up their own book club, did lots of weird things that could’ve been ‘art’, but they didn’t get to go to art school.
My parents are educated and supportive of my interests, I was lucky. They came from working class backgrounds and didn’t manage to parlay their education into ascension to the middle classes, partly because they didn’t cash in on ‘greed is good’ and instead spent the 80s supporting striking miners. This was a preview of my future, of many of my generation’s future. There’s plenty of working class people out there educated, from university or internet or reading or whatever who won’t be able to gain entry to the middle classes - so we can use this knowledge to upend the whole fkin thing instead.
It all just gets a bit unhelpful when we try to treat class as an identity tag / a self identification rather than a moving, fluid economic state of being. We get to policing people’s classes- and its really tempting to! I do it all the time. If ur a working class artist, at what point do u stop being working class? Is it when u get a show at the Tate Brit? But again, all of this stuff should not just be an exercise in categorisation, especially when it comes to class. We should be dismantling the class system, not trying to claw back some sense of social mobility and the clout that comes with being ‘self made’. As white working class people it works in our favour to decenter whiteness and be honest about our specific experiences and the attempts to assimilate or ascend offered to those deemed exceptional, those who take that chance and those who aren’t offered it, probably because they have other intercepting identities.
I understand the desire to take ownership of visual cues deemed trendy, and certain tropes and signifiers, but that doesn’t really work for class. The fing is, it’s kinship which must be reinscribed not the floating signifiers around it. I liked Leckey’s imagery of teenagers hanging out by a motorway haunted by fairies. It allowed for a sense of joy and fancifulness rarely afforded to depictions of young working class people, particularly young boys, particularly young black boys. It reminded me of images of otherwise ancient rituals in England taking place on council estates in the 70s. These rituals, a way to connect the communities which enacted them, were a rebellion against hegemonic laws and top down culture of the ruling class, and killing them was one of the ways neoliberalism tried to kill the bonds of the working class. Leckey talks about rave, jungle and hardcore as spritual, creating a hive mind with rhythm, a contemporary reinscribing of the role of the hag or cunning folk or ritual. It’s something ive thought about myself and even attempted to tackle in my own work. i was thinking about chavs and paganism (paigon) and bits a couple years ago but couldn’t work out how to put it all together and i felt it rlly wasn't my place - then i saw leckey had done it with this group of young boys in sportswear renaissance fair gear and i was like, nice.
The working class is always creating - it’s where all our actual culture comes from: our words, our style, our music, our chat, our humour. It bubbles up from the bottom and gets stolen and fed back to us as normative trash, and then we get told we’re reactionary or are denied the classification altogether. One of the ways we will stop fascism is by bringing in a romanticism and spiritualism, to delve into our various cultures and find the magic and weirdness in them, not purely through nostalgia but to learn and make them better and more. We can’t let the white supremacists steal these conceptions of working class culture, decontextualise them, render them ahistorical and exclusionary. Only the ruling classes stand to gain from this. Fairies in the underpass.