Activist Spaces and the Relationship Between Designers and Social Movements – The Common House

Meeting in Bethnal Green this week for our seminar, rather than at University, we were introduced to the collectively owned space ‘The Common House’.

The Common House was rented in 2013, with several activist groups contributing towards costs. This was due to a lack of spaces being accessible in the hours needed for the groups to meet; as well as the high costs of rent in London. This location allows activists from different backgrounds, fighting for different causes to come together, offering them a maintained infastructure and collectively owned resources for radical ideas and practices to be excercised. Due to it being neither a public nor private space, it is maintained by the people that use it having members not consumers. This allows more flexibility, meaning groups are able to bring their children, host parties and public events, screen films, have discussions and classes.

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There was a compelling example of a protest from one of the activist groups that uses The Common House. United Voices of the World is a group of immigrants that work in services such as cleaning, The Common House runs English classes and teaches them about employment law; empowering them to speak up for themselves and protest against unfair treatment from employers i.e. not being entitled to sick pay.

This method of empowerment allowed by The Common House, means social groups that normally wouldn’t have the skills or knowledge to stand up for their rights, are able to do so, and do so successfully. It is important that activist groups don’t just rely on specialists, i.e. designers to communicate what they are fighting for; being given the skills to design banners, posters and other protest artefacts for your own issue, means for a much stronger fight. Producing something a lot more organic and honest; increasing passion for the cause. It not only gives the people skills to do it themselves, but also shows them they are able to do it themselves.

This links into author Walter Benjamin’s argument that it’s the conditions of something’s production that makes it radical, not the content of the culture, and that instead of asking what politics a piece of art is representing, we should be asking how it came to be produced (Jennings, M., Eiland, H., Smith, G., 1934). The United Voices of the World’s ‘Sick Pay Now’ protest follows this idea; it’s not a designer having input, it’s the people actually affected, it’s them making the posters with The Common House’s risograph and it’s these production conditions that strengthen the protest.

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Reference List
Jennings, M., Eiland, H., Smith, G. (ed.) (2005) Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings. USA: First Harvard University Press. Volume 2.

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