St Margaret's, Barking


Re:Generation & Memento - A digital commission by Michael Cousin

"All things are wearisome; more than one can express; the eye is not satisfied with seeing; or the ear filled with hearing. What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done; there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, "See, this is new"? It has already been, in the ages before us. The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come by those who come after them." The Book of Ecclesiastes

The event that led to this project happening occurred sometime during the First World War. On leave from the Royal Artillery my future grandfather was walking past a photographer's studio when he saw a picture of a young woman that he found attractive. So the story goes, he said 'That's the one for me', sought the young woman out and married her. I don't know how real or true that moment is, but I hope that the story is as exactly as it is told.

This story is one small part in the beginning of an oral and visual history that is integral to my own personal history; it is the flavouring of my life and much of it took place in Barking and Dagenham from the Second World War when myGrandparents moved to the area until the death of my Aunt Joan in 2004 when I thought my last ties with Barking were irrevocably severed. I never took the time to find out more stories from my Aunt, she was the main repository of family history being one of the eldest children, and now all those stories have been lost with no chance of them ever being recovered.

My own career as an artist has taken many forms and investigated many ideas but I have always chosen as my tool of exploration the camera, both stills and video. I feel that these two means of expression are part of a democratic language that is understood by the vast majority of people and are a way of supplementing our own histories and traditions. We are all constantly surrounded by images created through these media and sometimes this is to our deficit, but sometimes these images can be heartbreaking, often they can be heartwarming, but they do have the power to move, inform and to provoke.

When I started making this project I was interested in comparing the differences between the Barking of memory and the Barking of contemporary life but after many hours of interview, research and editing I've come to realise that I wasn't interested in that at all. Talking to the interviewees and listening to their stories and seeing their photographic histories I came to a realisation that I didn't need to make comparisons between then and now. The viewer of these works would come to them with their own contemporary viewpoint. They know what modern urban life is like without me reminding them of its dangers, its stresses and its pace, its great opportunities, advancements and potential.

What I thought would be a stark contrast between life then and life now has surprised me by being reassuringly similar. Although things are very different materially the changes in humanity are not so different. Throughout the work we are reminded time and again of the commonality of experience between generations, the hopes, fears and desires about life.

Community, relationships, children, the future, happiness, death, suffering, all of these are continuously present in our lives. We still experience these life affirming or challenging events no matter how the material fabric of our environment changes. And this to me is a hopeful thing. People from all walks of life have brought about change in the world, large and small. By our very existence we make those changes every day. We aren't powerless in the face of life and you can never underestimate the effects of an action or a word for good or ill, everything we do is significant in some way.

This is at the heart of this project, a realization that is inevitable and unstoppable, desirable when applied to the problems of life and undesirable when change creates those problems. Change just is and it's how we respond to change that is the important factor. And I think that this is at the heart of this project, a reminder and affirmation of the similarities between generations rather than a distancing through the differences. Our connections with real people about real things shouldn't be ignored or forgotten in our rush to get wherever it is we're supposed to be going. And that's the point of the project for me, to reconnect with another generation before it's too late again, to realize that we are one and the same.

Special thanks go to the following people for helping make this project happen; to my wife Claire and two sons for giving me a temporary leave of absence, to all the participants; Eva Cousin, Pat Ellmore, Peter Midlane, Jo Murphy, PatNappin, Fred and Vera Rook, Albert Smith, Joyce Webster, Rose Wildblood, Ronald and Jean Wylde for letting me document their stories and for being so welcoming, to the Reverend Jonathan Evens for being so accommodating in allowing the project to be staged at St Margaret's, to Tahlia Coombs at Valence House Museum for her fantastic effort and finally to Tracey McNulty and Chloe Brown for supporting me in bringing this project to fruition.

Michael Cousin

Michael Cousin is an artist who lives and works in Cardiff. He exhibits his work both nationally and internationally and currently works for a-n magazine in Newcastle and g39 in Cardiff. Examples of his work can be found by clicking here.

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