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In Conversation with Seren Metcalfe of Working Class Creatives Database

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