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Creating space: Rachel Garfield

Professor Matthew Worley interviews Professor Rachel Garfield.
I’m here today with Rachel Garfield who works with me at the University of Reading and is an artist. And we’re going to talk about how punk’s far more than just a form of music in that it opened creative spaces in lots of other realms and in particular for women. So yeah, Rachel punk– very quickly, very evidently, was more than just music. Why do you think that was? For women, particularly– I mean for everybody, but I’m talking as a woman particularly– it opened the doors of possibility.
And I think that if you think about how women so often are trained to just be man pleasing, to kind of slot into a particular form of life– marriage, kids, suburbs, or whatever the expectations were. We were presented with a big no, I’m not going to put up with whatever it is society’s presenting me with, I’m going to make my own choices. So looking at some of the women in punk, so Poly Styrene and The Slits, they were doing– they were transformative. They dressed in a way that was not acceptable, they made music in a way that was not acceptable.
And so it’s not just about the music you listen to, it’s about the clothes you wear, it’s about who do you want to become– if you’re not going to be just a mother, who are you going to be? And therefore, just asking those questions is in itself transformative. But I think that went into art as well, because some of the artists I write about in my book, I call them punk filmmakers– not necessarily because they made films about punk music or that they had spiked hair or anything. It was to do with making the kind of art that broke the rules. Can you give us a few examples?
So Anne Robinson, who made this film called Corridors, and it’s a two screen film and each of the screens uses a completely different visual language, if you like. So on the right hand screen it’s abstract, it’s taken from screen prints that she did that she then filmed and refilmed on different kinds of cameras. And then on the other side she’s got images that she filmed of corridor and of her friends and that again she put through filters and she degraded it.
So just using these different languages that don’t fit together was breaking the mould, and also talking about herself, talking about the kind of psychic state of her milieu was something that wasn’t really what art was about at the time. So to reveal yourself– I mean we’re very used to it now with people like Tracey Emin– but back then it wasn’t really the way you approached being an expressionist. There weren’t many women expressionist artists. So this kind of expressiveness as well as the low grade, downgrading and mixing up different languages were all very much new things.
The art world is not a very friendly world in some ways, as is the music world, but I think the music world is probably less so. I think that you’re more able to spend more time being an artist, even if you haven’t made it– you can be an artist with no money you can be– and I think it’s because it’s so much about your milieu. So if you have a good milieu, you can keep making art and feel like it’s worth it. Whereas, like, the relentlessness of playing in a band, at night, with small audiences is maybe not as rewarding.
So again, it’s that back to basics that you can really see aligned with some of the music, the three chord thing, is the same as like the super eight thing, the same, like not needing all the lights, not needing the best quality sound, but just filming it as it is. Filming real life. Break it all down and start it all again. Yeah, exactly. Yeah. You mentioned milieus a lot, so how all-encompassing were they? Were there any parameters or limits to– My memory of it was that it was very much– punk was a place for misfits people who didn’t fit in.
So there were people from all classes, I hung around with quite a lot of black punks, black skins, in fact. So obviously I don’t know whether it was completely inclusive of everybody, but I think that if we’re talking about multiculturalism, I think that thing of, like, saying no to the kind of cultural mores around you, being part of that was saying no to racism. And I think there was a very strong anti-racist, sort of, instinctive anti-racist streak through a lot of punks. Over time, there’s a danger of picking out the positives and kind of– for want of a better term– progressive elements of punk, and forgetting some of the more reactionary or regressive or violent or puerile elements of it.
I don’t think you can have one without the other. Because we were just a bunch of young people trying to work out what we thought. It wasn’t a political movement, which had a kind of set of– it didn’t have a manifesto or anything, you didn’t have to pass a test to get in, so it was just a rowdy bunch of people who align themselves with a particular kind of music. But however, it did, as I said at the beginning, it opened the door for possibility and that meant people could seize on things that they would not have seized on if it hadn’t have been there. It was a contested space.
And I think that you can’t extrapolate anything that is definitive out of it. I think, as I said, it was a moment of possibility.

In this discussion, Professor Rachel Garfield, Head of the School of Art at the University of Reading says that punk ‘opened the door for possibility’. This led to changed opportunities for women and for artists, and created space for multiculturalism. But Matthew reminds us that punk also opened the door to reactionary, regressive, violent and puerile elements. Could one exist without the other? This ‘contested space’ is the topic of Week 2.

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Anarchy in the UK: A History of Punk from 1976-78

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