Thursday, 20 June 2013

Norman Potter: Dissident Anarcho-Designer

ENGLISH folk reputably tend to under-cook their vegetables but somehow manage to end up with a politics that is nothing if not half-baked. This is particularly the case among the English anarchists where one always feels one is residing with the runt of the political litter, and recent research into English anarchism would bear this out since it appears that half of the so called English anarchist movement are employed as civil servants or teachers on a State stipend, or alternatively have been stuck on state benefits (see Martin Gilbert's interesting posting on this Blog: 'Washing dirty Anarchist linen in public' 4th, Oct. 2012). 

The Northern historian, David Goodway, has written:
'... anarchism - or left libertarianism ... is a long-established political position and ideology, associated with a substantial body of necessary, radical thought.  In other countries this is taken for granted and intellectual respect is paid to anarchism ... but it has never been in Britain and the other Anglo-Saxon nations.'

For this reason many lower-middle-class English anarchists live double lives with 'subterannean' identities and often use so many aliases they must forget the names they were christened with when they were born.  Herbert Read said:  'In calling [my] principles Anarchism I have forfeited any claim to be taken seriously as a politician, and have cut myself off from the main current of socialist activity in England.'

And yet, for the journalist, the designer or the artist in this country it may be positively an advantage to be labelled 'an anarchist'; in so far as one has no obvious party political bias to uphold or party-line to follow.  Herbert Read survived and prospered despite his anarchist connections and David Goodway hasn't done badly as an 'anarchist historian'.  It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, to read an article this week in the International Herald Tribune by its distinguished design critic, Alice Rawsthorn, on an exhibition in Bristol inspired by Norman Potter and assembled by Susanne Kriemann entitled 'Norman Potter, a heroic rogue'.

The Arnolfini Exhibition:
Susanne Kriemann: Modelling (Construction School)
Saturday 04 May 2013 to Sunday 07 July 2013, 11:00 to 18:00
Free →

Norman Potter was a designer and poet who set up the Construction School for experimental design in Bristol in the mid-1960s.  In his book 'Anarchist Seeds Beneath the Snow', the historian, David Goodway, referred to Potter in his chapter on the famous anarchist art critic Herbert Read wrote:
'Potter ... an anarchist from his teens who has been described as "the English Rietveld" - the reference is to the great Dutch furniture-maker and architect, Gerrit Rietveld - point[ed] out how much Read's work and example had meant to him, especially as a young man.'

As for the artist Susanne Kriemann, her works look at specific examples of documentary images, from early photo history to surveillance cameras, and how they shaped our understanding of reality. With playful and inventive moments, the artist suggests a reading of pictures that asks for their meaning in the present. 

For the exhibition at Arnolfini, Susanne Kriemann develops a new series of work that respond to the history of the Construction School in Bristol. The history of the Construction School has been extensively researched by designer James Langdon, who provided the original material for the exhibition. The Construction School existed from 1964 to 1979 as part of the West of England College of Art and Design (now UWE) and was an attempt to establish an experimental design school, similar to the Bauhaus and the HfG Ulm, in a local English context. The Construction School’s history is closely bound to the career and concerns of its founder Norman Potter, an anarchist and practitioner on the margins of mid-twentieth century English design culture. Potter resisted the increasing emphasis on specialisation in design education and worked to encourage practical collaboration between disciplines. Susanne Kriemann’s exhibition will look at materials from the Construction School archive and their legacy of protest and change for today. 

The exhibition by Susanne Kriemann is organised by Arnolfini in connection with a series of events about the Construction School, initiated by James Langdon in collaboration with Spike Island. At Spike Island, Langdon will present a performance of a play by Norman Potter, In:quest of Icarus, and a purpose-built space for the archive of the Construction School.

The exhibition is closed on Mondays (except Bank Holidays).

The graphic designer, James Langdon says:
'I think Potter's image is very heroic ... [h]is workshop at Corsham and his teaching in Bristol were defined by their being so unlikely, and requiring such conviction and energy to bring into existence.  It was very bold to attempt such a radical and uncompromising program in a provincial English context.'

That is the difference between the kind of artistic anarchism represented by Norman Potter as opposed to the typical English political hanger-on one might meet, the former is bold and committed, while the latter is often furtive and sly. 
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