‘You have to be a dove when you need to be a dove and a snake when you need to be a snake’ In conversation with Linda Brogan
Continuing our series, In Frame, here is part two of Elias Mendel unravelling the views of artist and activist, Linda Brogan In Frame is a new series at Candid Orange, dedicated to hearing artist’s voices, uncovering what is behind the canvas.
This is a series of excerpts of conversation with Linda Brogan. This is an intergenerational exchange, on institutional battles, decolonisation, slavery and trauma.
Beginning as a short interview about Brogan’s recent Reno exhibition at the Whitworth Gallery, our Zoom discussion sprawled into a few hours of debate and discourse- an intergenerational exchange as activists and creatives.
On poverty and mental health
Brogan: I think treating these issues should just become normal…There shouldn’t be Mumbai with children in slums, it’s not isolated problems, that everybody should have a certain level that is good for their body, mind, mental health and self-esteem. I think if everybody saw that, it would wipe out a lot of things about blacks, who can just do menial jobs and so on.
There’s this thing I’ve heard of, it’s so idealistic, but where everyone gets paid the same money.
Mendel: Universal basic income?
Brogan: Yeah Universal Basic Income, now whoever you are, if you want to be a doctor you can be a doctor, what’s your passion as a kid, did you want to be an archaeologist? Did you want to be a cleaner? Some people love cleaning…
On how to have an open discussion, build community
Mendel: I often feel like there is this problem, especially on the left, we devolve into arguments not discussions, I don’t know if you have any advice on how to maintain a positive open discussion and not shut people down?
Brogan: Well I don’t at the minute because people have got huge egos haven’t they, they want to be heard and to be heard to be said.
Instead, you need a project, so for example I think they should put free school meals in all schools, because I think it’s good for the brain, and I think they should have organic vegetables. So, I think of a school that could implement that, discuss it with them. I can have discussions with schools that have already implemented something like that. Then talk to a group in California who did this fantastic guerrilla farming…And then use It to build something that works, then start having a conversation once I’ve proved its worked.
All of it is time and all of it will take a long time. I think to have a discussion you invite the argument.
Mendel: So you can’t just have an idealistic discussion you need to ground it in reality So, it’s not just a talk shop meeting, its practical discussion you need something to be working towards.
Brogan: The next phase, which I’ve never tried, which I imagine would be harder, is to get real authority involved, to begin to implement it so it’s about caring, not box ticking.
On institutional battles
Mendel: Then you end up with the next problem, the battle with the institutions, like you did with the Reno. You spoke about how you successfully achieved what you wanted, without your project being diluted
SO how do we [activists] replicate the success of the Reno, of true undiluted stories?
Brogan: It’s about individual relations I think, between people you trust, because in order to get to be friends with the artistic director [of the Whitworth] I had to be really ruthless and cut down the woman who was in my way. It felt like a sword fight…
You have to be a dove when you need to be a dove and a snake when you need to be a snake.
Mendel: On the Reno, you made it clear that the Whitworth wanted to tell one story about the Reno, about people from Moss Side, about mixed-race people in Manchester in Britain, about suffering and racism and violence, and that’s part of the story, but not the point of the story, because its stories about people’s lives, its these mosaics.
These mosaics, this part of the story, Brogan spoke to me about when we first virtually met. This phrase really stuck with me, a mosaic is not one story but a holistic ontology of lives.
On institutions themselves
Mendel: It’s a question of these, I hate the term woke, because is problematic, but these woke institutions like the Whitworth, the so-called liberal institutions, who are meant to be politically correct, but by inherently being an institution, they want to tell the sad story but not necessarily the whole story. What’s your view on that, because you fought against that at the Whitworth?
This battle was in regard to the Whitworth wanting, as part of the Reno exhibition, to have a timeline about the racist suffering in Manchester, which Brogan termed an inauthentic part of the Reno exhibition, due to it telling only part of the story.
Brogan: I think, the problem is how these institutions were created in the first place. You know why? There are two types. The first, Mr Whitworth, he was poor, a self-made man and wanted to leave something to his community, so they can see some art.
The second, are those really rich people who want to leave something behind, so they can have wings in heaven. They want to be seen as a beautiful person.
I think both ways are patronising, they begin with patronisation. The people who work in these institutions, they are do-goody people who believe they are doing what people needed.
We then need to investigate the origins of these institutions honestly. I doubt very much that when these institutions were first made that a real working-class person ever went in them. You know a real working-class person of the 1880s, with no dole, no NHS and consumption: I doubt they would have gotten into those doors.
I think that problem applies to the present. If we look to the past, the problems, why they work how they work, the solution will be found.
Mendel: So, it’s the institutions themselves. I’m interested in storytelling, and in a way every exhibition every piece of work is telling a specific story about the person, the community and so on. What I meant about institutions is how they want to tell this one story that gets repeated a lot, and why that story is problematic, the negative slant these institutions build over the more holistic honest picture.
Brogan: Because it is patronising in the first instance, I mean in the 1880s they would patronise people working in the mills, in the same way they did about us, they would go ‘let’s go get some poor people, they can bring some cotton with them, some cloth, and show how they get up at 5 in the morning, and show that they only have one meal a day’. That’s the story they think they know, but what they can’t see on the surface, is that they don’t want to look at the real story because the surface story makes them rich and makes their clothes.
They can’t go ‘on the 26th April I met my wife and she was wearing a beautiful pair of slippers that her mother had brought her, I loved her from that day, we’ve got three children one who died of tuberculosis.’ They couldn’t tell those real stories, from their environments. Because as I’m seeing it now, they only give you five minutes.
The institutions they show high culture like Lucien Freud and Elizabeth Price, so you’re culture like the emperor’s new clothes, and then they give us our five minutes, get us to doth our caps, tell the story they want to hear about our horrible poor lives, so they get to go to heaven, and we get five minutes relief from our horrible lives, and they’ll get back to being cultured.
So, it’s not their real lives. It’s the stories how those from above want to hear it.
The power of stories, to retell history, who tells them and why is central to creating true authenticity of voice.