Q+A with Seren Metcalfe, founder of the Working Class Creatives Database by Katie McGroarty and Amber Brown
Seren Metcalfe is a Yorkshire-born, London based Multi-Disciplinary Artist and Writer. Recently graduated from Slade School of Fine Art, Seren is a practicing artist, - exploring themes of time, labour, energy, routine and structure - a community workshop facilitator and the founder of the Working Class Creatives Database, our focus of this journal entry. The WCCD (from now on referred to) is a digital platform, network and growing project centered on highlighting the creative practices of working-class individuals across many artistic disciplines.
It aims to fight back against the bourgeoisie interiors of art institutions and university environments, where working-class creatives can find themselves confronted with imposter syndrome. For background knowledge, it’s not uncommon to go through your entire university experience without finding others to share this link with. Whilst spaces often deny being elitist, attitudes and things taken for granted can dictate an unwelcoming situation or one with a lack of understanding. For example, the guilt-tripping of wealthy students complaining about your higher maintenance loan - which is often an alien amount to sit in the bank account - or feeling alienated when your new flatmates talk about private schools and upper-class hobbies that you can’t comment on. In an arts-specific narrative, those unpaid summer internships, artist and competition fees or the funding of a fancy studio and facilities all ring a similar bell. But still we find ourselves putting on a ‘telephone voice’ to hide our accent when taking professional phone calls, changing to fit in while we learn how to navigate a new situation. Recently, in Edinburgh groups like the 93% club, Tackling Elitism and Level With Me have come about to challenge the issue of elitism in the University setting (note from Amber - in all honesty attending a meeting for one of these in my third year was the first time I’d discussed being working-class without later finding out that the person was using it as a buzzword). Given that these are all fairly new, little exists in terms of similar collectives in the arts sector, which is why the Working Class Creatives Database holds an important role in bringing together WC creatives.
Q: We both as members of your database have our own experiences and values in why it is important, but for those who are unaware, how would you describe the WCCD and can you tell us a little of how it came to fruition?
A: First off thank you for such a brilliant introduction. A lot of what you’re describing really resonates with me and definitely contributed to the creation of The Working Class Creatives Database. I moved from York to London to start my BA at the Slade School of Art which was such an amazing experience; one I’m incredibly grateful for. But throughout the four years I couldn’t help but feel the imposter syndrome. There were a lot of un-relatable moments for me. I wasn’t very “well read” or connected, I was the first in my family to attend university and one of the only people in the school with a regional accent. I realised that the process in which I made work was relational to class meaning it was hard for others to relate to it that weren't from a similar class background. The Database was created out of a need to bring together a community of creatives that would usually be overlooked in the arts and provide a support network, connections and exposure. Creating a space within the creative worlds for Working Class people and trying to make the elitist bubbles more accessible. The aim of this database is to facilitate a space that puts working-class creatives at the forefront. In the long term, I want the database to have contributed to making creative industries and creative university courses for everyone not just those who come from privilege.
Q: Whilst so many spaces advertise being welcoming, we often find that class differences are still a large issue, seeming to only be taken seriously now. It’s often left to WC artists themselves to initiate these spaces, and from experience, having enough fellow WC creatives within an institution to do such a thing seems like an unlikely event. Did you have anything to base the WCCD off, maybe at a local level? Or was the creation of the database born out of the lack of WC representation within the arts?
A: It was definitely born out of the lack of representation for working-class creatives. I was thinking a lot about nepotism and the privilege that comes with having connections amongst wealthy creatives and wanted to create a space where working-class people could share skills, ideas and opportunities with each other and just form a network. I think I also realised what an amazing tool Instagram was for promoting work and ideas so I wanted to use this platform to share the ideas of working-class people. At the time, I was also looking for performers to work with and I wished there was a database that existed so I could specifically choose people who would benefit more from being paid a proper wage whilst gaining experience. There wasn’t one so I decided to make my own encouraging people to prioritise working-class creatives when looking for people to work with.
Q: There is a no gatekeeping policy within accessing the database, so it seems there is a reliance on trusting that nobody will take advantage of the platform. There’s a constant changing image of what it means to be working-class. Have there ever been any issues with this? What do you think the root cause is, or did you include this policy as a precaution?
A: I really wanted the database to be non-hierarchical and I wanted to avoid coming from a place of ownership or power. I think in order for the database to be a place for anyone who felt they needed it, I had to take the risk of people who weren’t working-class maybe taking advantage of the database. It’s also incredibly hard to define class and I wouldn’t want to set the boundaries for that. In the beginning, I had a few cases of people going into personal details about their family situations or the poverty they have been through in their applications and I didn’t want people to feel they had to tell me about their lives in detail or go through that emotional labour to be in the database. If someone feels disadvantaged because of their class background they’re welcome to join but I definitely think it's important for others to make that decision for themselves.
Before moving onto discussing Seren’s own artistic practice, we decided to feature the artwork of some of the WCCD members, including that of Shona Sterland and Chanelle Love, both whose practices you can read more about on the database.
One always finds one’s burden’ again by Shona Sterland. Photograph.
Shona Sterland is a visual artist and graduate of Manchester School of Art. Her work explores themes of absurdity within the landscape, and how human interactions with the land create uncanny experiences for both the viewer and artist. There is a highly performative element to her photographic work, exploring the traces which we leave on landscapes intentionally or unintentionally. Pictured is her piece ‘One always finds one’s burden again’ from ‘Fundamental Disharmony’, an ongoing project exploring the absurd human relationship with the landscape. Her work can be found on Instagram at @ssterland and at www.shonasterland.format.com.
HDC TAG by Chanelle Love. Sculpture made of various stolen goods: inner tube, press studs, leather, milk carton lid, diamanté’s, and a tracking device and alarm for curfew, installed inside. Chanelle Love is an artist from the North East of England, studying Fine Art at Central Saint Martins. Her work ‘HDC TAG’ exists as a sculpture made entirely from stolen goods and was later installed on Chanelle’s ankle as part of a durational performance titled ‘Doing Time’, which explores working-class experiences. Throughout her artwork, she embodies and investigates narratives surrounding class through processes, thoughts, documentation, performance and archives which all remain integral throughout. You can find Chanelle’s work on her website www.chanellelove.co.uk.
Q: Seren, you’re practicing as an artist along with managing the database. It seems that your work deals heavily in movement, utilising multi-disciplinary features - sound, video, publication- to explore themes of time, labour and energy. Would you like to tell us a little about what you’ve been working on most recently, and how your practice has grown since beginning your degree? Has your practice been influenced by the creation and development of the WCCD?
A: My work has definitely progressed in a positive direction. I think at the beginning of my degree I knew what I was passionate about and I knew the work I wanted to make but I wasn’t able to pick out what my work was about and it's really nice to look back and sum up the themes of my work and also the concepts I’m passionate about in general. At the moment, I’m finishing up a video which explores a time shifting journey from North to South. Throughout my four years in London I’ve travelled North to South to North and back again countless times and I found I was my most creative on the train staring out the window. I likened this journey to the journey of coal along tracks and canals during the industrial revolution along with memories of going to the trout farm as a kid watching fish travel along rivers. The video I’m creating will be part of a multimedia performance full of childhood anecdotes. All this imagery has movement at its core. I’m interested in movement conceptually but also physically in a dance sense and I think where the WCCD fits in is that I want it to be a movement in itself and constantly striving for better representation. Creative industries often are very London -centric so another purpose of the database is to create a virtual space where working-class creatives from across the country can come together and break that North/South divide. It’s so easy to get stuck in a cycle of the ego when making artwork and I think for me the WCCD provided me with a driving force and a purpose outside my own head. I love collaborating with others within my work and the database has created a space to collaborate on making a change within creative industries.
We’re all just trying to get by again, 2017-2019, Large-scale painting
Q: The stand out piece for us is your painting ‘we’re all just trying to get by again’ from 2017-2019, pictured above. It feels like you can continuously delve deeper into layers of various references to working-class culture, creating your own story from experiences. There’s both symbolism and a sense of iconography in the work, which reminds us of artists like Alasdair Grey and Grayson Perry with your use of colours and banners. There’s more obvious references to martyrdom, through the crucifixion of the man in England-flagged printed boxers. Hills adorned with high rise flats, met with the gentrification of luxury apartments for sale opposite; sheep swirl down the landscape to form a queue outside of a factory. Maybe considering this being a given pathway for those in towns built around manual labour industries. Money flies away from the hubbub of the painting’s focus, which seems in turmoil whilst two aliens surrounded by surveillance cameras watch the scene unfolding. We wondered if you could talk a little about this piece? It was submitted to the Saatchi gallery, which has a predominantly middle/upper class audience. We imagine other WC viewers creating the links more-so from lived experience, which may not be as obvious otherwise. Have you heard how other viewers unpick the work or if this is a self-reflection on their own situation? Is there a reason this piece was submitted?
A: You’ve described the piece so well. This was me trying to piece together a lot of ideas I was thinking about and create some kind of view of the world. I also really wanted to do a massive painting. I was thinking about the television and how working-class homes seem to have the biggest tellys but also how we view constructed reality from a 4-sided box or screen. I guess this was my version of a constructed reality. I’ve found that this is a work that resonated more with the working-class audience. Whilst showing this in crits in art school the audience was mainly middle/upper class so it wasn’t too much of a step up to have it on the Saatchi website -showing to these audiences was something I got used to. For me having the painting on the site was purely about trying to sell it so I could make a bit of cash. I think who artwork is for is a really interesting topic especially because most people who buy art are wealthy and privileged and if I want to make a living painting imagery from a working-class experience it feels kind of wrong to sell that. This then raises a lot of other questions about who art is for and who art collectors can be.
Q: We’re also huge fans of your 2019 artwork ‘Coronation Street of Contemporary Dance’ which sees you using your own body to mimic the movements of actors in the Northern classic to a visual reel of montage clips, showing its span from the 1960’s to present day. In another video piece, ‘Rush Hour’ made in 2017, three tap dancers move through a space, mimicking underground tunnels. They move in uniform, tapping their shoes to a mechanical beat, recreating the tapping of women’s steel toe boots on factory floors where they would transfer ‘rhythm from machine to body and body to machine’. Chloe Walker, one of the dancers in ‘Rush Hour’ is featured in the WCCD. Do you use the database you created for your own projects? If so, are you working on any collaborations with other members of the database in the present or near future?
A: Thanks!! Yeah, I’ve worked with Chloe on a lot of performances and projects now. She’s brilliant! If I get funding for something I'd much rather filter that through the database and go through my working-class contacts before branching out and I’d deffo encourage anyone else to do the same! There’s so many talented creatives in the database that I’d love to work with! Also, members are starting to have larger roles in the behind the scenes of the database which in itself is a collaboration and is really exciting!
Q: Since graduating, as well having your own artistic practice, you’ve been working on the growth of the database. More creatives have joined, you’re launching a supporters’ scheme where industry professionals can sign up to offer mentoring, opportunities, skills and advice.
What’s the next step for the WCCD? Where would you like to see the database this time next year?
A: Yeah, I’m really pushing to take the database further! As it becomes bigger, I want to try and get some funding to provide paid opportunities and roles within the database. That would be a great way to provide work but also be away for us to grow. We have a new website with its own URL on its way which will be a lot easier to navigate and we also will have an online shop that members will be able to sell through. We also now have an Open Letter which members can send out to anyone within creative industries telling them who we are and why they should hire working-class creatives!
The Working Class Creatives Database’s Open Letter is available at the link below and we’d strongly urge any readers sending this out to their network! The Open Letter asks anyone within the creative industries to become a supporter of the database, if they are able to offer skill-sharing, workshops, mentoring, tutorials or advice in many forms. This small act of sharing this link could really help someone, not only with their skill set but in finding a community and feeling seen and heard as a working-class creative.
The Working Class Creatives Database itself has a plethora of creatives on it, it’s a great place to find collaborations or support working-class creatives, as well as somewhere you might find your experiences being validated, as Seren mentioned it’s not unusual for working-class creatives to have imposter syndrome due to the lack of representation. Seren Metclafe and the WCCD have so much in the works and many new projects coming soon. You can keep track and up to date via the links below, and we highly recommend you to explore the database! Both this project and people like Seren have made strides in the creative community for working-class people, and we personally can’t wait to see what’s next to come.
Maybe you know someone whose help could open doors to many WC creatives. Perhaps you’re a working-class creative who could benefit from the database, workshops and crits. At ALT-D, we acknowledge the lack of representation for working-class people in art schools and creative communities and know there’s much to be done.We’ll be sharing this interview and the relevant links throughout our platform, paying it forward, in the hope that it may circle around supportive organisations, in the same way we have been supported! Change only happens if we make it happen.
For any WC creatives out there, you can head to @workingclasscreativesdatabase to find out how to join the Working Class Creatives Database. Here you can also sign up for newsletters and events, including crits already offered as part of the WCCD.
Interview by Amber Brown & Katie McGroarty