Mass Observation

 In Sailing

Darcy Lange A Documentation of Bradford Working Life, UK (The Second Situation: Whiteheads Woollen Mills, 2nd Study: Traditional Combing—Alah Dad) 1974, photographic still. Courtesy Govett-Brewster Art Gallery and Darcy Lange Estate

I saw my Dad a few days ago and he told me about Darcy Lange, from the New Zealand side of the family. He was photographer and film maker who came over to England and recorded life in factories and schools in the Seventies.

The most extensive presentation of his work in the UK is going to be shown at the Tate later this month. More details here:

Darcy Lange worked in the tradition of mass observation, recording ordinary working lives. His work reminds me of my original ambitions for the Labour Exchange, and also of why I had to abandon them.

I first intended to use the Labour Exchange to collect stories about working lives. At each Harvest in different countries we would encourage people to participate in a mass online survey. I did a lot of work on the feasibility of this project with futurescaper. They were going to provide the platform for surveying employers and employees. It would have provided a useful resource. Their powerful software, which extracts data from narratives rather than formal surveys, would have made accessible a wealth of sub clusters and multi-level analysis. For example – the stories of different sectors and age groups could have been compared at the touch of a button. It would have been a real improvement on the traditional HR surveys and a brilliant project, one that I hope someone will still do.

Why didn’t I? Well I still occasionally wish that I had. The survey I was proposing would have followed in the best traditions of mass observation. This has an ideological tie to socialism. Darcy himself was a committed socialist. I’m no socialist but this association didn’t especially concern me.

What I realised back then, and what I’ve been reminded of again recently, is that no matter how hard I try these little bottles stubbornly refuse to be put into any box, they reject any dogma. Their strength is their complexity. To attempt to pin them down is folly. I recently tried to make them about wellbeing at work. I didn’t think this was especially ideological or controversial. It was a benign cause that all but the most extreme could endorse. I chose to frame it in this way because it related strongly to the GGR and my previous ambitions for the Labour Exchange. It’s also a subject that I have given a lot of thought to.

Yesterday while I was discussing sales with a friend in the boatyard they likened me to a “city whizz kid”, merely selling clever financial instruments for myself and others to get rich. It was a surprising reaction to these little bottles of sweat. I tried to tell them what I thought it was about – wellbeing at work, the importance of getting at least some satisfaction from your job. They were having none of it. The more I tried to convince them the more I felt like a fraud. Not because I doubted my intellectual integrity, but because as I attempted to convince them it dawned on me that I no longer really have any control over their meaning and message. This was both horrifying and thrilling.

Who am I to dictate their interpretation? These objects are formed by our culture and our society as much as they are by me, maybe even more so. If some people wish to believe they symbolise my own rampaging hubris and a supercilious form of financial wizardry then I am inclined to let them. I am secure enough in my values to take that on the chin (and gratified that they believe they are going to be so profitable).

Darcy Lange’s work had a clarity of purpose. It worked within a recognisable trope – artwork that is also a form of social activism. Maybe he had more control over his creations and message. Then I think of all the people who will go to the Tate to see his films. How many will be going for a nostalgia trip? How many will be attending for reasons that somehow conflict with his own strongly held convictions and beliefs. I suspect quite a few. Once an art object is completed the artist must completely relinquish all control over how it’s perceived.

Recent Posts

Leave a Comment