What is democracy? How do artists interpret democracy? What can artists see and convey that others can’t?

The Purdah Press is a newspaper in which 9 artists respond to the notion of democracy.

The form of a paper was chosen for this project because it is a well-known format to everyone. There is a long history of papers being used as carriers to convey political messages. They provide the freedom to disseminate ideas to a whole range of audiences. The Purdah Press will be handed out in Lincoln on General Election Day, 7 May 2015.

In conversation with: Chris Heighton

Chris Heighton is the Arts Development officer at the University of Lincoln. Following an early career as a professional musician and community music practitioner, Chris has been working in the Arts management sector for the past twelve years in various roles encompassing learning and participation, project management, strategic planning, organisational development and change management. Our conversation was about the relation between art & democracy and the importance of socially engaged artists.

D: I think it is really interesting that a lot of people still seem to think at art is made up in an ivory tower, but actually most artists are quite politically and socially engaged.
C: Yes, they are indeed, sometimes even without realising it.
D: It’s a big part of The Purdah Press to show this to the public in a format they know, without them having to come into a venue.
C: It’s an interesting conversation really, because I’ve had conversations with both visual artists and performance artists over the years that were purposely socially engaged, it’s become a bit trendy in a way. There has been a kind of surge over here, in this county, and in other rural ecologies, that there are more and more socially engaged artists. Some artists are unaware of themselves being socially engaged, but others might have been avoiding it as well.
D: It can be a really good thing though, to think about the social impact of your artworks.
C: Definitely, and certainly in today’s world it is really important to think about it. Some artists I’ve spoken to, they have been thinking about it on purpose, but others try to avoid it.

D: Why is it important that artists are socially engaged? I think for me it is important to the public that art can be very useful and powerful to let people think about social values.
C: Absolutely. Art has a very long and very deep relationship with democracy, and that manifests itself in different ways, in different themes over centuries. Especially now, in the year we celebrate the Magna Carta.

Art has had and is having a big influence on the way we have experienced Magna Carta, and I think that is a really good thing.

I think it is good that the Magna Carta events are reaching out to people on the outskirts of Lincoln who wouldn’t normally go to the Cathedral or the Castle.
A lot of work in Lincolnshire is going about the Magna Carta, for example in terms of identity, in terms of place, and how art can be a kind of vehicle to put people at the heart of place making in their local area. This means that art can be used to improve the local area. I think there is a very intrinsic relationship between art and democracy, absolutely.
D: But it hasn’t always been like this, because you got the communists in the past that made all the propaganda art, and the futurists in Italy that wrote manifestos that came with their art, and so on.
C: Absolutely, and certainly within my own training in music as well. Looking at composers such as Stravinsky, exiled out of Russia for their work and their opinions, that still resonates within that work, which I think is amazing. Those Russian composers used their work to take a snapshot of the society as they saw it. I think that is wonderful, because you can look at as many historical documents or papers or images from whenever that time was, but the artworks provide an insight that you can’t find within any archive. Some say it’s a more raw form of information, certainly in my opinion: if there is a certain political or social place I am in, I always look at the artworks from that place first.

I think it is a very powerful position to be in as an artist: to be able to critically capture the truth of things.

D: Do you think the art world itself is structured as a democracy? I often get the feeling that not all artists are given the same chances and opportunities.
C: I think there is a lot of perspective on that in the art world, actually. I think the debate around who gets to create art, why, when, and how, is fascinating. There are some people that think that the art world should be a more democratic process, with equal opportunities for artists. I would imagine that it is a real struggle for some artists to find a balance between staying true to your practice but also having to make money with their art.

I don’t think we have a democracy in the art world. It is too chaotic to be democratic. But chaos is good, I like chaos.

About the artists

Holly Bowler works with several different media including sculpture, installation, film, painting and performance. The themes behind her work are very politically influenced. In the past she looked at how certain policies affected our country. Nowadays, her work is more concentrated on environmental politics and environmental issues we face today. She predominantly works with drawings that she turns into GIFs, which means the images move and come to life.

Thomas Cuthbertson has an art practice that develops artworks in the cross-disciplines of drawing, animation and video-based art. In his work there is often an emphasis on the everyday and handmade qualities of art. He expresses his experience of the everyday world with daily drawings, from doodles to short stories and observations.

Patricia Ferguson worked as a printmaker for many years, and is currently doing an MA Fine Art at the University of Lincoln. Her work includes etchings, prints and drawings. According to Ferguson, printed matter motivates democracy, and it allows information to be accessible to all, it allows ideas to circulate, and creates opinions.

Mustafa Hulusi is a Turkish Cypriot who was born and educated in the UK. His descent makes that he uses the Cypriot and Turkish culture and identity a lot in his work. His travels to Turkey have made him fascinated by the history of the country, the evolution of identity: his family still has the Cypriot heritage, but is also British. His work is “designed to stop you in your tracks”, and is not limited to one medium: he uses photography, painting, installation and video.

JCHP (Jeffrey Charles Henry Peacock) is the collective practice of artists Dave Smith and Thom Winterburn. Their practice has as its focus the subject of how to produce a critical form of exhibition making in the current conditions of the art world.

Danica Maier explores ideas of expectations of site, traditional values, ‘women’s work’ and labour mainly through site-specific installations and events. Maier is interested in manipulating a location’s expected function and pushing beyond the original intentions such as; home/gallery, village notice board/exhibition venue, model space/public artwork site, domestic/institutional space.

Gerard Williams is an artist who is also a lecturer in Fine Art at the University of Lincoln. Throughout his entire body of work Williams has used found objects including things that are both from and of ordinary contemporary life. His trademark meticulousness and attention to detail perhaps emerge most noticeably when timber and fabric are involved. Textiles as repositories of personal and cultural histories, freighted as they can be with values and associations, have long been a fascination and cornerstone to his practice.

Eleni Zevgaridou is a Greek artist working on contemporary figurative sculpture. She was born in 1961 in Thessaloniki. For 10 years she was experimenting with multiple media, painting and sculpture. During 2010-2012, she studied sculpture at the Art Institute of Maria Skłodowska-Curie University in Lublin, Poland. After her sculpture studies she moved to the UK, where she is currently studying MA Fine Art at the University of Lincoln.

The Cabinet of Ambivalence is a collaboration of General Practice members Alec Shepley, Kate Buckley and Dale Fearnley, for one of their so-called ‘Referral Projects’. General Practice is an artist-led collective based in the centre of Lincoln. Promoting exchange and collaborations with other artist led initiatives nationally and internationally, General Practice is an active group that regularly hosts exhibitions, events and workshops. Through the Cabinet of Ambivalence the trio will explore the poetics of the fragment and ambivalence alongside possibility and hope.


Willem Sandberg’s Experimenta Typografica

This text was originally published in Maraham Stories
by Alice Rawsthorn

One glance at the exhibition posters from the late 1940s and 1950s lining a wall of the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam is enough to see how dynamic it was at that time, both in celebrating the history of the avant-garde and championing new artists.

The Stedelijk owes its reputation as one of the most influential modern art museums of the postwar era to Willem Sandberg, its director from 1945 to 1963. If all he had done was discharge his directorial duties, Sandberg would still be revered as a great museologist, but he also fulfilled an unofficial role as the Stedelijk’s graphic designer, producing hundreds of posters and catalogues during his directorship, as well as the museum’s stationery and tickets.

Self-taught though Sandberg was in design, he developed a distinctive visual language for the Stedelijk characterized by the clarity and economy of simple forms and bold colors. The roots of his design sensibility, described by his friend and fellow designer Jan Bons as a “cheerful minimum,” are also on display there: a series of pamphlets entitled Experimenta Typografica that he made in a perilous period when he was on the run from the Nazis, living secretly in the Dutch countryside during World War II.

Born to a wealthy family in the Dutch city of Amersfoort in 1897, Sandberg studied art in Amsterdam before traveling around Europe, living in Paris and Vienna, visiting the Bauhaus art and design school in Germany, and serving a printing apprenticeship in Switzerland. Shortly after returning to Amsterdam, he started working for the Stedelijk as a graphic designer and curator.

When the Nazis occupied the Netherlands in 1940, Sandberg joined the resistance, applying his design and printing skills to forge identity papers and using his professional status at the museum to meet in secret with dissident groups on official visits to Germany. In 1943, he was part of a plot to destroy the official records at the Amsterdam Central Civil Registry Office. He and his co-conspirators were betrayed and forced to go into hiding. All of the others were eventually captured by the Gestapo and sentenced to death.

Having disguised his appearance, Sandberg spent the last fifteen months of the war in the tiny town of Gennep in the eastern Netherlands posing as Henri Willem van der Bosch. With Sandberg living hand to mouth under a false identity and knowing that his wife was in prison, their son was in a concentration camp, and many of his friends were dead, his hair went white. He sought solace in reading, mostly on art and philosophy, recording his observations in the Experimenta Typografica.

Sandberg produced nineteen pamphlets between December 1943 and April 1945, making a couple of copies of each one, all done by hand. They consisted of twenty to sixty pages of drawings, collages, and texts, which were either written by Sandberg himself or quoted from Confucius, Proudhon, Stendhal, and other favorite writers on themes like love, death, education, architecture, and typography. As Sandberg had no money and materials were scarce in wartime, he improvised by using whatever he could find: scraps of wallpaper, cardboard packaging, tissue paper, and wrapping paper together with photographs, drawings, and symbols torn from magazines for his collages.

The pamphlets were to be printed in Amsterdam by Sandberg’s friend and co-conspirator, Frans Duwaer, but he was arrested and killed by the Gestapo. Instead the Experimenta Typographica were printed first by the Vijpondpers, or “5lb Press”—so called because the Nazis banned the production of publications using more than five pounds of paper—and, later, by an art gallery in Cologne.

Just as Sandberg’s reflections as a fugitive had a profound influence on his directorship of the Stedelijk, his ingenious use of found materials, esoteric typefaces, vivid colors, and lowercase lettering in the Experimenta Typographica defined the visual identity of the museum, as well as remind us of his courage and resourcefulness.

Alice Rawsthorn is a London-based design writer. She is the author of Hello World: Where Design Meets Life, published by Hamish Hamilton.