St. George's Hall

The article below is an extended version of one which appears in issue 12 of tiktoc (available at Studio 1.1 Gallery, London. Issue 12 was produced specifically to fit with the series of events and exhibitions coinciding with renovation of the Cable Street Mural and is completely devoted to conversations and writing relevant to the mural.

What follows is partially an attempt to consider the famous Cable Street Mural with reference to the theory of Feedback Loops i.e. Cybernetics. This implies accepting that the mural, and its place in the world, can be looked upon as a system of sorts. A second implication is that the piece operates as part of a communication network. And of course such assumptions are easily contested; this seems too ordinary a paradigm by comparison with the flights of thinking typical where the art word is concerned. Then again surely it is no less valid to employ Cybernetics than to look formally at a work and consider aspects such as colour, composition, the traditional factors.

First and foremost there is the fact that the Cable Street Mural is a reminder about an historical event. This is the key communicative loop or partial loop. Information from the past is amplified so to speak and then fed forward to a later date. The mural was created in the late 1970s, early 1980s prior to wikipedia, blogging, indymedia, the internet even but other forms of communication were available then and were certainly also utilised. These include pamphlets, history books, political and academic texts, word of mouth, photographs, imagery and moving imagery of various sorts (see Newsreel Footage 1936 for example).

Now, one definition of culture is the sum total of all the information stored by a society about itself for passing onto the next generation. (Other) animals don’t do this or at least what’s done is infinitesimal by comparison. This data, all that is not genetic and not inherent, takes multifarious forms, and survives as a set of narratives. Objects may be created less consciously, certain information which has no obvious use value is kept, presumably because if it was created at a certain time then it tells us something important about that time and might contain gems which are not yet apparent. Other material had function in its original context, was not created as a storage buffer or memory bank but serves a dual purpose from the outset and eventually becomes information only, as say a protected piece of heritage or unendorsed and seemingly useless structure.

But this vast warehouse, called culture, is a static thing, dead. Only in the receiving of it, the reinterpretation of it and its use in new ways does a fact or artefact come to life. So forms which are effective in encouraging engagement are superior to others in this respect. For sure this begins to sound formulaic: the situation is more complex than words can do justice to. It might be important to make a record but not embellish it with too much of this noticeability: the message is accessible if needed but does not shout about itself, is not spectacular. Other information is deliberately archived in a way which does justice to its importance. Thirdly, interest in certain information grows regardless of whether anyone stipulated it should.

The Cable Street Mural is large in scale, secondly it stands out because murals, as a means of conveying such history, are not so common in the modern world and thirdly the particular artistic techniques have the instant impact that a pamphlet or book would not. For some reason, paradoxically, it is hard to make sense of the thing only as art (unlike Guernica or Miro’s Aidez l’Espagne say). The clear connection with Vorticism and the general quaintness might be causes for worry rather than impressive. Also the cartoonish style is potentially a double edge’d sword and it is interesting that the original drawing for the planned mural had more of this comedic quality which may have been seen as a problem. Regardless of these questions and regardless of conventional (and not so conventional) aesthetic considerations, most likely as people pass St. George’s Hall, they do notice the giant picture and are prodded in some way to think/act, even if that action is just one notch above apathy. Through the mechanism of the Cable Street Mural then, a flow of information about fascism and how it can be fought, as well as a reminder that people felt the ideology should be confronted, is transferred into the minds of others. If faced with a similar threat, we might learn from the mural and even knowing about it is potentially of value. Whether a naïve aim or not, whether the mural also serves to promote the talents of a group of painters or not, surely this design objective, the function of the mural described above outweighs all others.

With all information loops and feedback systems something is lost in transfer, changed through translation. Secondly the desired action is not always achieved. Systems become unstable through over-reaction or fail through under-reaction, due to the particular dynamics, time delays, time constants and hysteresis. Digressing slightly, and not intending to trivialise given the serious subject matter being dealt with here, but take as analogy the simple Feedback Loop of person in an unfamiliar shower. The control is turned one way to adjust temperature, if it gets too hot then the dial is turned back until eventually an ideal temperature is reached. Overshooting and instability through inexperience or bad design is also possible though. Likewise the dynamics of attention given to the 1936 story, through the creation, emphasis and maintenance of the mural, do matter. In the late 1970s far right groups were a threat again with the growth also of the politically polar opposite. And we live in an environment where elements of fascism are always present but the situation now is not equivalent to the 1930s. So the same information, the mural, in a new landscape/period may operate differently. There are sub-messages though, other impacts. The mainstream media emphasise tensions between people, race and religious hatred, give coverage first to the various pointless wars and conflicts. Rarely is attention given to the more mundane reality of everyday life. The mural exposes the lie that solidarity is the exception, because if we are to be frank Cable Street 1936 was a dramatic example of unity against an essentially upper-class and state-supported enemy: it is not that well known that on Cable Street Sir Mosely’s 7000 Black Shirts with 10,000 police were met by an immense number, 300,000, opposing. The general case remains that most go through their lives, getting on reasonably well with each other, not directly involved in violence or war, caring for others even. Hardly headline grabbing news but certainly closer to the truth. Yes confrontation took place on Cable Street in 1936 but that’s the deliberately simplified story. The vast majority were on one side, a small minority on the other: if the event says anything about ‘human nature’ or the history of that time it is that there is a tendency towards agreement.

Newsreel Cable Street 1936