Performance artist Bryony Kimmings has been working with young men from inner-city council estates and tooling ‘em up – with art.
There was a time, a while back, when I thought nearly all articles written for liberal publications were contracted to start: “I’m from a council estate background…” It was weird. Why did everyone suddenly want to be seen as working class?
The more I thought about it, the more I fathomed this strange phenomena came from a need to separate oneself from the bad guys. What, with a government hell-bent on taking away any modicum of support they could from the people who needed it most, it became easy for me to step away from the idea that people just wanted to appear edgy and towards the idea that, actually, people were feeling a deeper level of recognition – consciously or not – that something terribly affronting to basic human rights was afoot.
ANYWAY. I’M FROM A COUNCIL ESTATE BACKGROUND…
I grew up in a small town about 15 miles from Peterborough. Not the most glamorous place, but by no means the worst place in the world. It was fine. My father left my mum when I was two and we lived with family friends for a year or so while my mum had a depressive episode and we waited for our family name to shunt slowly but surely up the council list.
We were housed on a small, quiet estate that had a few blocks of flats but was mostly family homes. It was the roughest bit of town: dads were in and out of prison; the guy that lived next door had a python and tattoos on his face, and there were loads of old ladies who died from the cold. Yet to me and my siblings it was amazing: friendly, vibrant and very very safe. BUT a lot of council (everytime I say this read as “social”) housing is NOT like that at all; it’s fucking bleak, not safe and bloody run down.
I have spent the last eight months starting a project to take me into the heart of London’s largest and most deprived estates to begin to dig further into that dark part of my thinking that cannot help but keep saying over and over again… the world is out of kilter… upside down.
This article is about “The Lost Boys”. No, not the film with Kiefer Sutherland (it’s more of a Peter Pan reference actually), but a project I am making with 20 or so young men aged 18-25 from inner-city council estates across the UK.
See me, I don’t like to write articles that start with a precursor that gives someone the right to talk about suffering in a more “genuine” way than others, or to make the government cuts more disgusting, or even to showcase their deeper understanding of life’s hardships. BUT I do write articles that have political action at their heart. In the same way that I only make art that has the same ethos. Sitting round and moaning is NOT a skill I was taught (on my shitty council estate). BEING something doesn’t mean you are DOING anything. And right now I see something in the world that is SO FUCKING RUBBISH that I can’t help but seek out how I can do something positive, active and mentally outlandish and against the odds to CHANGE IT…
Because I began to notice another trend in the news. A trend, post riots, that I found extremely worrying. A way of painting young men from areas of social housing and boroughs of extreme poverty that villainised, stereotyped and marginalised them. A contaminating paint-job that used such broad strokes it seemed to bray, “Hello. Some young men in hoods robbed shops and set fire to things once so ALL young men in hoods are GOING TO ROB AND KILL YOU… Thank you, bye”. Now I know this trend of both youth-bashing and working-class villianising is nothing new, but with a government that has no sympathy for, or need for voting traction from, the young (especially the poor ones), it’s incredible ramifications for continued and endorsed inequalities seem overpoweringly wrong.
The world doesn’t need a 33-year-old, now middle class, feminist from Peterborough banging on about the rights of young men from estates… BUT what the world desperately DOES NEED is to hear these young men for themselves: being political; being peaceful; being loud and cheeky; being excellent artists; being equality warriors. This is the antidote to these media hate campaigns – rising above it and being activists that make REAL change happen. So that’s what I set out to do. Recruit an army of young men, who also disagree with how they are sold in the media and the inequalities that surround them, and tool ‘em up… with art!
Thus far we have worked in three boroughs of London and in Leeds twice. It’s early days and although each place we visit is VERY different, the affinity in story, drive and heart has proved overwhelmingly corroborating to my initial anger. I spend a week with lads referred to me from charities, local word-of-mouth, special police units, probation and other council departments. We sit and talk a lot about the world we see around us; what we would like to improve and how – if money was no object and audacity reigned supreme – we would get people to notice these things, and even more brilliantly how to persuade them to get off their ass and change them. Not a question they get asked very often sadly.
I have 15 solid lads now. Lads on the cusp of manhood and just understanding what the world is about. When I recently asked them who really needed our help I was shocked that many of them said “the government”. They identified that Whitehall didn’t understand them at all, and might actually need a hand! We have plans for a website, a video web series they aim to make viral, a youth translating app for political rhetoric, lots of bawdy public art and music projects, a documentary (made by a popular website la-dee-da) and of course I plan to get them all in one of my shows (they aren’t so keen). As with all my work, the aim isn’t grassroots beatboxing in a youth club, it’s front page news stories and household name-making. In 2016-17, whatever it is that we decide upon, you will see my army of lads being the opposite to what you are sold.
So for now, before I can update you with all our ideas, I urge you to see the papers with new eyes for a while. It’s still afoot. Keep a tally of how many positive stories you hear about young, council men. Also maybe take a little think about how you feel when you see a group of hooded youths in your path. I think, for most, the gut reaction is to cross the road. But it’s time to really ask yourself WHY? WHY do you do this when only a small section of this group are in gangs; only a small section are on drugs, and only a very small section are criminals? It’s time to recognise, from a council estate background or not, that we are trained and brainwashed to see these young men as a threat. These lads are human beings not monsters. Believe me, I know. So maybe as an experiment don’t cross the road. Fuck man, say good evening, say hi. You will be rewarded with such beautiful faces beneath those hoods… I promise. Cross my little council heart.
Performance Artist. Activist. Writer. Feminist. Comedian. Auntie. Person. Currently: pop star for tweens, collector of pubes and sayer of sooths.