What is the future? Reflections from Blackburn

Saima Hussain, Untitled (Audley Range), 2019

Shaping one’s future takes energy and purpose, requiring an understanding of the past and the present to plot a route. It also requires agency. Kick Down the Barriers is a project using socially engaged arts practice in Blackburn to challenge the stigma of ‘segregation’ that has tarnished the town and its image. The project asks an important question: if we cannot agree on the story of the present, how can we create a future for all? For the past six months, a group of artists, writers, researchers and campaigners have been embedding themselves within Blackburn’s communities, often the communities that they themselves are part of. Saima Hussain is an artist whose current work depicts acrylic streetscapes of Audley Range, a small place in Blackburn where she has lived her whole life. She says she is having ‘so much fun doing it’, and hopes to show that Audley ‘has its good as well as its bad, as with any place’. Allowing a place to depict and define itself authentically is a practice that goes beyond ‘public relations’ and politicians. Perhaps it is a land only inhabited by artists, and that authenticity is a vital to building a new future. Kick Down the Barriers is an arts project that began pre-lockdown, but it continues to play an important role in offering an authentic picture of Blackburn and its inhabitants. 

In 2016, Dame Louise Casey published The Casey Review, examining opportunity and integration. Commissioned by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, the report discussed how to ‘bring the nation together’ in the context of ‘the unprecedented pace and scale of population change . . . having an impact, particularly in deprived areas, at a time when Britain has been recovering from a recession and concerns about terrorism, immigration, the economy and the future of public services have been running high.’ Citing Blackburn as having ‘worrying levels of segregation’ the report led to many right-leaning media outlets using Blackburn as an example of the perceived problems with multiculturalism, immigration and multiracial communities. Two years later, BBC’s Panorama returned to Blackburn, following up on a film they had made in 2007. The two ‘White Fright’ features tracked ethnic and religious differences within Blackburn’s communities, and both films had led to criticism from Blackburn residents, with concerns over a lack of balance. The Council itself released a statement reflecting on the town’s challenges but also the strength in its diversity. 

This narrative and labelling by others may point towards real situations, real emotion and areas of conflict, but it doesn’t tell a whole truth, nor does it provide any agency to redefine a label from within. For Kick Down the Barriers, these labels of ‘segregated’ and ‘divided’ were imposed on Blackburn, and at the very least, a town deserves the right to its own narrative. Futurology is about seeking the path that lies ahead, culturally, physically and emotionally, offering a place of hope and potential. As someone of Palestinian heritage, I once wrote about Arab Futurism through the prism of the Palestinian diaspora; how do you plan for a future when you are not sure if you will exist in it? How can you plan for the future, if you do not know if you’ll have a say in shaping it? As Blackburn has been externally labelled in its past and present, the ambition of Kick Down the Barriers lies in seeking to wrest control of this narrative. One of the researchers and writers for the project, Abdul Aziz Hafiz, hopes the future of Blackburn will retain the positive characteristics and offerings it currently holds:

Despite the images and narrative depicted of the town as a place where segregation, tensions and deprivation are prevalent, I hope for more celebration of the strength of our cross-cultural, inter-faith and multi-national bonds through our personal friendships and solidarity with other Blackburners.

Blackburn’s legacy of immigration is rooted in its history as a textile town, rope makers and weavers powered the town’s mills and fed its cotton exchange, which was one of the sites of the 2019 British Textile Biennial, examining the culture and communities of the cotton industries of Pennine Lancashire.  Where once the floor of the Cotton Exchange must have been pounded by the feet of those making deals and trades, in 2019 it was home to fashionable footwear with the Adidas SPEZIAL exhibition, featuring 1200 pairs of rare Adidas trainers. In this way, cultural programming can engage with history, sifting for ways to define the present and to reshape it. This history of manufacturing, trade and immigration feeds into the present and can be used as a foundation for the future, Hafiz argues: ‘The industriousness and creativity in political action and production of new ideas, goods and services are the cornerstone of the identity of the town’. This, he hopes, will see Blackburn creating its own path, instead of adopting ‘dominant ideas about the future which are informed by a blindsided city-centric logic’.

Much of Blackburn’s diversity comes now from refugees and asylum seekers. With a warm welcome, these can be helped to flourish, Hafiz says, and become a force that drives Blackburn into the future. Marcus Raymond’s project as part of Kick Down the Barriers examines the role of Blackburn Rovers in bringing diverse communities together. Raymond reflects on his experience so far: ‘I have been to a match with asylum seekers from El Salvador and Georgia, who are hoping to be granted status to stay in Blackburn, which was a true privilege’. He agrees that the labels of ‘segregated’ and ‘divided’ carry connotations of a place with problems, and hopes for a future for Blackburn in which its people are as happy as they can be: ‘I suppose all I want for the town is for it to be a positive place that people enjoy living in, not burdened and shackled by this negative image’.

As with Hussain’s streetscapes, if a town is to shape its future it must be given the tools to paint its present as accurately as it can. Only by seeing its own flaws, strengths, challenges and opportunities, can a place see itself for what it is. This feels especially pertinent during this moment of crisis, when many fear misinformation as much they fear the virus itself. The Audley area where Hussain lives is mainly occupied by a Muslim Asian population while other areas, such as Mill Hill are largely White British.  She says: ‘I wish for the people of Blackburn to learn more about others before making quick judgements, that are most likely built up from fear and things they have read in the media which are not necessarily true’. Understanding each other’s lifestyles better, without fear, hate and ignorance is what she hopes for, and by empowering the communities of Blackburn to describe and explore each other’s cultures and identities, they will be far better placed to define this collective future.

Kick Down the Barriers is a project led by Blackburn Museum & Art Gallery.

Laura Brown is a writer, researcher and PR consultant based in Liverpool.

This exploration is supported by Kick Down the Barriers and Arts Council England.

Published 21.05.2020 by Lauren Velvick in Explorations

1,260 words