[Published in London Street-Art Design Issue 9, 2012]
Brian Barnes studied at Ravensbourne College of Art and Design from 1961 to 1962 and the Royal College of Art 1962–1966. Based in Battersea, London since 1967, Barnes is known for his large, colourful murals in Battersea and throughout the London area, often designed in collaboration with local groups. To date his most famous mural is “The Battersea Mural: The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” also known as ”Morgan’s Wall” at Battersea Bridge road which was designed in 1976 and then collaboratively painted with a group of local residents from 1976 through 1978. The 276-foot wide mural was demolished in 1979 by the Morgan Crucible Company. Other important murals by Barnes include “Seaside Picture”, Thessaly Road (1979), “Nuclear Dawn” in Brixton (1981) (part of the Brixton murals), “Riders of the Apocalypse”, Cold Blow Lane, Deptford (1983), the “HG Wells Mural”, Market Square, Bromley, (1986), “Battersea in Perspective”, Dagnall Street (1988), and the “Stockwell War Memorial”, also known as the “The Violette Szabo Mural” (2001). Controversy over Barnes’ addition of Jean Charles de Menezes to the memorial broke out in 2005 and eventually this image was removed. Barnes works as a printmaker, in particular dealing with local campaigns and issues, and he was also involved in the long-standing campaign to preserve Battersea Power Station. He founded the Battersea Power Station Community Group in 1983, to see that the listed building is preserved and that local people are involved in the redevelopment. In 2005 Brian Barnes was appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to the community in Battersea, London.
I visited Brian Barnes in his printshop in Wandsworth one morning and we sat down to discuss his art, social housing and capitalism.
Barnes: The Battersea mural was 276 feet by 18 to 12 feet. We were a group of people who collaborated on planning issues and I worked with with a voluntary organisation, the Mural Workshop, to set up the project. We called ourselves Battersea Redevelopment Action Group [which was established] to make sure that planning related to local people and provided affordable housing, jobs and open spaces for all the people rather than the demolition of all the industries losing the jobs and the building of luxury flats. We have learned subsequently over the last 30 years that this was not to be.
Vigo: So in 1976 you decided to undertake a mural project. How did you choose the site?
Barnes: It was part of a campaign to get the site handed over to local people rather than be turned into private housing. It wasn’t our wall but we gained permission from the owner, the Morgan Crucible Company, to paint the mural. The wall was later demolished when the factory was torn down.
Vigo: Can you describe the processes you engaged from planning the mural to its construction?
Barnes: No. [He laughs.] Obviously we had to start with a design but we also went to various organisations in the community to ask them what they wanted it to be about. We sent a questionnaire to these organisations—tenant and residents associations, action groups, trade organisations, housing organisations—asking them what the mural be about if you were doing it yourselves. So they gave us a list of things to get us started. There were about 60 people involved in the mural’s painting with some people doing longstanding work and others infrequently contributing. No other professional artists were involved—just me—and local people. There were children, pensioners, people on the estates. We painted the mural for two years, not every day.
Vigo: How many of those people who were involved do you still see in the neighbourhood today?
Barnes: Uh [long pause]…none. The area has become polarised between very rich people and very poor people. So the only housing now for poor people is from the estate where the council allocates housing to the really really poor people, who’ve got families and maybe disabled children. And then rich people have moved into all the developments along the Thames and all the small housing. Even some of the council housing has been turned into luxury accommodation. So the ordinary middle class people have moved away out of the area—they can’t afford it. Many are not eligible for local authority housing and can’t afford to live in Battersea, so mostly people have moved. Only very tenacious people have remained, like me. This borough is now the fifth richest in London.
Vigo: So the purpose of the mural in retrospect was purely symbolic?
Barnes: It was a turning point. None of those things [depicted in the mural] happened.
Vigo: I noticed. And ironically many of these council houses that have been bought by the very occupants to whom social housing was made available. It seems problematic, if not immoral.
Barnes: What has happened is that many of the people who bought their flats were then able to move out. They kept the flat and then they moved out and then let it to people for much more rent than they had to pay themselves. It was a the philosophy by the Tory council. It was about offering these flats at a very huge discount at 70% off, so you only had to pay 30% cost. So it was like an offer you couldn’t refuse on the understanding that if you are an owner/occupier or you sell again, that person will then vote Tory. It seems to have worked.
Vigo: So this mural represents all that was really good about social housing just before the rise of Thatcher.
Barnes: Panorama did a program with the mural as an illustration called “When the Tories Take Over.” This television documentary was about Wandsworth Council the year before Margaret Thatcher came to power. And it just talked about the mural and that housing would no longer be for local people, there will be no facilities for children and all the things that people wanted that were shown in the mural would not happen after the Tories took over. It was prophetic—it was exactly what happened.
Vigo: What were some of those images that people dreamt for their futures?
Barnes: They didn’t want to live in the big blocks of flats—they wanted small houses with gardens, family units where they could have their children on the ground floor. People didn’t really want to live in these tower blocks with their families. They are not really designed for families with children. So people wanted these small houses and they aspired to a small council house that you might have got in the 30s, 40’s, 50’s—there were these big complexes of semi-detached houses. None of these flats in those days. But then in London it became twenty-story-high flats and people didn’t want to live in them. People wanted public transport and to have car-free streets where children can play safely, playgrounds, a public swimming pool, and allotments where they could grow food. There were some allotments in Battersea; they wanted more. There are none now. Industry—they wanted jobs.
Vigo: So the idea for the mural was to present these dreams as both the pictorial and realisable?
Vigo: Out of all these dreams, did any come true?
Barnes: There is quite a good transport system now—the buses are quite good. Some of the things we swept away with a broom have gone like the big old, the polluting factories, the theme park in Battersea Park never happened and even the ugly blocks of the Department of the Environment which were in Victoria were demolished. Thatcher got rid of all the jobs for people in this area: the power station which was working so there about 300 people working there and that was closed in 1983; the Morgan Crucible Company, that was 200-300 jobs in industry—they made carbon products (ie. switches); then there was the distillery Booth’s Gin; a waste paper merchant; a glass factory; gas works (all gone now); cement making factories (a few still exist) and there are lots of other industries which were lost.
Vigo: On the site of the mural, what exists there today?
Barnes: Quite a nice complex of luxury housing—the type of housing that people wanted from the mural: low-rise, street-pattern housing. Thatcher brought in the “right to buy” so if anybody had been there as a tenant they would have bought there and then sold again.
Vigo: This is part of the problem isn’t it? Some would argue that it is human nature to be selfish, but then I find it terribly problematic that those receiving housing benefits believe in community until the moment the are offered the “right to buy” and they become the very capitalists they had previously decried. Sadly many of these new home owners are today part of the problem as to the present housing crisis. Doesn’t the mural represent the turn in social thought demonstrating this switch in thought, this hypocrisy between selfish, individual benefit versus communal coherence and solidarity?
Barnes: This estate is a good example—it was an unpopular place, the flats on this block. So when there was the “right to buy,” these flats were being sold and people were buying them and then losing money. Many bought them for £30,000 back in the 1980 and they would be repossessed by mortgage lenders after people defaulted on payments. Then these mortgage lenders would go into receivership and they would turn around and sell these properties at auctions—sometimes two flats for £15,000! And that is where you couldn’t refuse to buy it. It was cheaper to buy your flat, than to pay rent. If you were paying the full rent you got a better deal on a mortgage—it was actually a financial incentive rather than capitalism—and you saved money.
Vigo: But this situation does pose ethical and social problems today where you have in London many twenty and thirty-year olds who cannot afford to rent in the city and who have no way of getting social housing. Ironically many of these people are now renting from the very former council housing tenant, renting the very flats that were intended to be shared by society and not privately owned.
Barnes: My wife conducted the census last year on this estate and so a lot of the flats are full of young Eastern Europeans paying rent—four or five people in a flat—paying a landlord each upwards of £300, or whatever, and he is getting a lot of money. What happened is that a lot of speculators offered to help people to buy their flats if they would sell it to them—so a speculator would ask a tenant to put in for the “right to buy” and provide the money for it. So then it became part of an empire of landlords who had ex-council flats who in turn would give people say £10,000 to move. So this gave the buyers a 70% discount and the local resident was given money to move out of the neighbourhood. In the end, the person who bought the property would have a cheap flat. About 50% of the flats are occupied by these immigrant tenants and they can only stay six months—the landlord can rent for six months and then toss them out.
Vigo: I have to say walking here to meet you I was impressed by the buildings and the inner green space and the sculptures…
Barnes: I have to say that our project was responsible for those sculptures—we engaged a sculptress to make them.
Vigo: So you look at this community and effectively all traces of that social group from 1978 are erased. What are the traces of the mural that exist? I heard you have a plywood replica of it.
Barnes: That’s here—not in this room. But I do have two-thirds of the mural in replica. It has been up a couple of times. [He shows me a photo of the replica.]
Vigo: Do you find that the mural project brought the community together or was the project just a moment whose spirit is now lost?
Barnes: There was a totally different community then…completely different. It’s not like that now. I think the only way I work is with the school—that is where the community is now. Community is not out there in tenants’ associations or residents’ association because of these very problems we are discussing—the disintegration of community by slumlords where those people have only got six months to be in the borough means that they don’t have any commitment to the community. They just work, come home, work, come home and then they pay the rent. But they are beginning to stay—some are marrying English men or women and are becoming part of the regular community. So many of the people I work with in the school are Portuguese and Eastern European people with children in the school and are now part of the Parents Teachers Association. They have the spirit that used to be in the borough.
Vigo: What about the communications between those who are here from the old community and the newer, posh crowd living in the privatised sectors? Do you keep points of communication open?
Barnes: [He laughs.] No, we robbed them. They won’t come here—there is a line, Battersea Park Road. They will only come to Tesco and scuffle back. Also, the government is trying to clamp down on tenants here in our blocks who have moved out and illegally sublet their flats for more money—so they live somewhere else and rent out their flats for a large profit. The Tory government is clamping down on this here and in Westminster especially. Wandsworth Council wants to make it that all new council tenants have six months tenure, not tenure for life. And if you become richer you have to move out and if you become unemployed you can’t be allocated a house.
Vigo: I cannot say I disagree that social housing should be for those in need and ought to be under periodic re-evaluation for those whose economic and personal circumstances have changed. There seems to be a misdirected critique from both the Left and Right when it comes to discussing social housing–the Left rebukes criticism of the abuses that do occur and so there is this perpetual wall of resistanc on the Left to any sort of re-evaluation of social housing while the Right pretends that social housing is somehow always a form of entitlement. There must be a way for us to discuss the problems of social housing for which the Battersea mural’s vision remains apotheosis. For instance, I know of many people in the city who received their council flats when they were students and today are professionals still living in flats they no longer economically need; yet there are many Londoners who struggle to find affordable housing due to occupying low-wage jobs.
Barnes: It is wrong that people take advantage of the system. There are also a lot of people who pretend to be single when they have a partner with whom they live. If they don’t have a partner they can get a flat more easily, so some pretend that they don’t have a partner so they can get a two bedroom flat for the children.
Vigo: So there is a privileging of single parents over married parents and both these groups over single people?
Barnes: Yes. That is why people were kind of keen to realise the “right to buy” because they were unfairly treated if they earned just over the limit to pay the full rent, the full tax as it was then, and it would more—it would be twice as much than if you got a mortgage from Halifax. So it was economically stupid not to do it. I would have argued against it but then everybody else was doing it and the whole tenure of everywhere changed—I am still battling away, you know, but it is very hard when all these other people have none of your ethos and they rent out their flat or treat it as a second home.
Vigo: This raises serious questions about community because I am still a Marxist—I might be the only person on the planet who admits this [Brian laughs and I join in]… But I do believe we should remain conscious when we are taking rather than sharing in community resources.
Barnes: I think a lot of that is lost. On this estate I am working on this estate with the SWP (Socialist Worker Party) which I don’t particularly like. There is an issue where one of the tenant’s mother is being threatened with eviction by Wandsworth Council because her son has been found guilty of rioting so they are going to throw out the mum and the sister because of the boy and his actions. They want to do it and they are going to do it—that’s how bad they are in this borough.
Vigo: What I like about murals is that they are impermanent—they deteriorate due to the elements and this fact alone requires a rethinking of both the artefact itself and more importantly, the political message therein. As we see with the Battersea mural, the ethos and spirit of the late 1970s was toppled by the greed of many who just wanted to get ahead. And here we see public space which is rendered private by the construction of luxury flats for the wealthy and by people who buy council flats intended for public use. So today the issues of public space and shared resources are much more at the centre of the discussion. So murals were once a thing of the poor neighbourhoods—from Mexico City, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Port-au-Prince, Montreal, Brooklyn and London. And now, not coincidentally, the murals have been toppled to remove the memory and to “gentrify” (“to people”)—that horrid word from the 1980s which “cleanses” space by removing the poor bodies and replacing them with the richer ones. Murals today now occupy a strange social and artistic category that is almost in jeopardy because of this lack of social consciousness that is pervading these now “gentrified” communities.
Barnes: I think one of the things you are describing is that murals are thought to be in poor areas—you know Belfast, Brixton. They were thought to be poor people’s are—get the art out of the galleries into the streets and get people to participate in art as much as possible. That is what we were into in the 1970s and 1980s. But I think they won’t want a mural in rich Battersea—certainly not a political one—they will have John Paul Getty grinding it off the wall like he did with Rivera.
Vigo: Or they just knock them down to make another building. But then there becomes a political co-optation of murals such as what happened in the early 1990s in New York City when the public transit authority (MTA) commissioned some murals, rendering them apolitical and more “art pieces” such as Bill Brand’s “Masstransiscope” in the Westbound B/Q tunnel going over the Manhattan Bridge or the various privately sponsored murals in London today whose sponsors can have direct political control over the content.
Barnes: The last really political mural I did was in 1983, the anti-nuclear mural down in Deptford which got me into a lot of trouble because I put up images of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. I think I had the CIA and MI6 after me all the time [laughing] because I put these people on the mural and they were sensitive about nuclear weapons and cruise missiles both in America and the UK. So to do a mural at this stage was dangerous I think—and I wasn’t really thinking how dangerous it was for me. It is still there and now I am called a “Cold War artist” by the Imperial War Museum.
Vigo: In Brooklyn there are so many wonderful murals that commemorate the Civil Rights movement—especially a wonderful mural dedicated to Medgar Evers—and more recently murals about 9/11. And what comes to mind is how murals have become more depoliticised as critique and now exist as pure memory, as memorial. And so this recent phenomena of murals moving away from social critique to memorial buttresses the scene for any political mural’s exclusion, critique or removal. So like Diego Rivera’s mural, the contemporary answer to political murals is to remove them either directly or through censorship preventing their creation in the first place.
Barnes: And Rivera made it again didn’t he? He redid that mural for Ford Motor Company. The right wing and the people who are involved in me lampooning them on a mural bring out every piece of armoury to stop you while you are doing it—-the press, your funding is cut, they do everything. If I depict somebody on the mural, they don’t just try to get it erased, they try to erase me. So Wandsworth Council said publicly, “They will never give Brian Barnes enough money to paint one brick.” That is what they have said to me, so I will never get money from this local council.
Vigo: And now it is even sadder because it is no longer a problem of the left or right for they have become almost indistinguishable today. It is a problem of truly constructing community.
Barnes: I keep seeing fantastic places for murals and I think, well, I will never permission for one thing and then I will never get money for another. I’m ok around the school, because I am paid through the school, through an intermediary—that works for Wandsworth Council because they know I am going to be controlled in what I do. I won’t be able to paint the Battersea Mural again in a school.
Vigo: Why don’t you just make another mural? [Brian laughs.] Or are there laws preventing you from doing so?
Barnes: No, no laws—they would just paint it out. Guerilla murals, well it’s Banksy now. Even he’s done wrong—he’s become a coffee table book. He’s kind of a one trick pony. He doesn’t really make a political comment with his work.
Vigo: Well, he does but perhaps it is over now. It becomes commodity because it is no longer a critique, the moment has passed. Such as his mural with the children pledging allegiance to the flag of Tesco. Isn’t there a moment when the people should see the mural and turn around and say, “Hey, I am going to stop shopping at Tesco”. So the component of political action is missing.
Barnes: It’s difficult because just today they [Tesco] were on the radio was saying “We are keeping down our prices for things people buy every day.” So people go there because they have to.
Vigo: So Tesco is capitalism with a Communist face telling us “Brothers and sisters, we are working with you”? [Brian laughs.] There is that aspect as well to consider—the language of social praxis simulated borrowed and synthesised by capitalist strategy.
Barnes: I do try to shop at the Co-Op as well but there aren’t as many Co-Ops as there are Tesco [laughing].
Vigo: That is just it—instead of acting on political belief, we end up giving in, don’t we? However, I do think we can do our best to resist.
Barnes: I’ll be straight out there to buy a sandwich in Tesco soon. [laughing] Where else do I get a sandwich?
Vigo: It’s just right there, isn’t it.
Barnes: Yes. They have a very good selection of sandwiches—and for £2.