Open Eye Gallery, Mann Island, until 16th October, free
For the Biennial, the ground floor of Mann Island’s Open Eye Gallery is dedicated to Koki Tanaka’s recreation of The Student Strike. “What student strike?” I hear you say, for I’m sure I’m not the only person who had never heard of this before. Apparently in April 1985, thousands of school pupils from across Liverpool gathered outside St George’s Hall to protest against the Youth Training Scheme – a government scheme where school leavers were sent into firms for training, with no pay. This was seen by many as having little educational value, and as a way of companies getting cheap labour. (Sound familiar? We’ll get to that…)
Artist Koki Tanaka read about this, and decided to recreate the strike as an artistic statement. I remember seeing them walk down Dale Street making the film a few months ago, marching with their placards. That film almost feels like a bit of a side-note here, though. Also being shown are the placards, and video interviews with participants of the original strike. There are also photographs of the 1985 event taken by local photographer Dave Sinclair.
I must say that I found this exhbition a bit of an odd one. As Sinclair says in his interview, it feels “more like local history than art”. It didn’t feel like an art exhibition – I was being told facts and given information in the same way that I may be in a museum. But if the purpose of art is to challenge your thinking (as discussed here), there was some success here.
Mostly, it left me feeling somewhat depressed. For how has society changed since 1985? For Liverpool as a city, of course, that’s a big question. But I’m asking on a broader scale here. Follow the news for a while and you see the same sort of stories about young people having to work for free as ‘interns’ to get started, or falling into dead-end jobs. The cost of education is continuing to rise, leaving many of us with huge, never-ending debts.
And yet I’ve never really seen that a protest against the system is on the cards. Maybe we’ve been beaten down by years of losing, of nothing changing. Maybe we all need whatever we’re being offered too much, so we’re willing to keep quiet and play into the system. The interview subjects were cynical, from experience, that real change for the people is possible. And then I made the mistake of reading the comments on this (rather rose-tinted) Guardian article. The commenters have nothing but disdain for the strike, mostly talking in that derogatory way people do about teenagers as lazy slackers, who in 1985 just wanted a day off school.
And that was probably true for some people, just as there are too many young people nowadays who are disengaged from politics. But it’s easy to forget something important – how easy it was to be passionate and optimistic at 16. I remember desperately wanting to go to the big anti-Iraq march in February 2003, feeling like I could make a difference. At 16, the world should be your oyster and you should feel that engaged. Maybe we all should. Maybe then things would change.
I’m not sure I can recommend this exhibition to those of you who want aesthetics in your art. It feels too much like an extension of the nearby Museum of Liverpool, with the story being told in a very similar way to how their galleries are curated. But it’s left me with questions of if, and how, I can fight the power. Which is a good thing.