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Not Be Moved… Reimagining a Gypsy Traveller political protest from 2000

By Vanessa Cardui |  September 12, 2016 |


Jim Connors with the placards we recreated for our exhibition

There are lots of different ways to make a copy of something. You can just make it look the same on the outside; or (and this is often a bit more interesting) you can try to get a bit closer to the heart of it, and copy the process and the meaning.

For Heritage Open Day this year, I and GATE members and volunteers made an art installation, Not Be Moved, based around recreating the placards that were used in a historic anti-eviction protest in 1999/2000, shown together with audio interviews and other material about the case. We did this because the protest was such an important part of the history of Travellers' rights and we wanted to highlight it; and also as a way of creatively exploring the photos of it that we have in our Archives. Read on to find out how we approached it and what we learnt.

 

When we decided to recreate the placards that Mr Jim Connors used in 2000 to protest against eviction from Cottingley Springs, at the start of the legal case that became Connors v The United Kingdom and ended up being heard at the European Court and changing the law for Travellers and everyone else, we started off thinking we should do everything we could to make our placards look exactly like the originals. But what would that involve? Buying wood of exactly the right size, when the originals were made of scrap? Painstakingly measuring and tracing out the lettering, when the original was painted freehand? We might create something that looked superficially like the real thing that we've seen in the old photos – but we wouldn’t be reproducing the feel of the original, and we wouldn’t be uncovering anything about how it was made, the process that the original makers went through. And for me, that’s a big part of understanding what an object really "is".

So we thought again. We started by collecting scrap wood of about the right size, using whatever we could find. Next came the lettering. We measured it out, but only very roughly; and we paid attention to the shapes of the letters and their relationship to each other (“Look, the “V” of “Travellers” is exactly underneath the “o” of “for”…  “The cross-bar of that A slants down a tiny bit”…) Our Archive volunteers Yasmin and Tori painted the biggest placard with me, and we tried to recreate all the smudges and stains as well as the lettering.

As we got into the task, it became a bit like the tradition of drawing runes. Apparently, when you draw a magical rune, there’s a right way and a wrong way – but it isn’t about the shape or proportion of the letter so much as the way your hand moves. Some lines should be drawn from top-to-bottom; others should always be drawn right-to-left, never left-to-right - and that’s how we found ourselves working. We looked closely at the photo, trying to tell how the maker had formed the letters by noticing where the lines were thicker or thinner, and trying to see the movement in them – “I think he drew the lines of his E's going inwards, like from right to left…” We were starting to divorce the letters from our own handwriting styles, and see them as just shapes; and it became another way of understanding the writing, and exploring what it means. We started understanding the placard as an object, with a history, that someone made in a particular time and place, rather than just the superficial meaning of the words written on it.

A couple of days later, we did the rest of the placards, together with young GATE members Ellen-Teresa and Gerry. When Mr Connors described the protest, he said it was mainly the young people on site who painted the placards, so this seemed fitting. We started with the same process of trying to work out how the letters had been formed, and copying the movements the writer had made; but then after a bit, we started wondering how people had felt when they made the originals. Were they scared, angry, worried, determined? Proud of their community? Having a bit of fun in the face of danger? And we started trying to bring some of those feelings into the movements of our brushes and the swish of the paint. It was funny – by the end of the afternoon, the last placard we did, if you really analyse it then you can see that the shapes of the letters are not really that similar to the original – but somehow when you look at it, it has the same “feel” as the original does.

But of course, all this is not just history – not for Gypsies and Travellers. Even though the case of Connors v The United Kingdom changed the law, and made it possible to invoke the European Convention on Human Rights to contest unfair evictions, the struggle isn’t over. I realised how the memory of injustice is still there even in the memories of people too young to remember it, when 12-year-old Gerry said to me quietly, paintbrush in hand, “We’re definitely only doing this to remember the history, right? Or are they going to evict us now?”

The memory of, and the fear of, injustice goes hand in hand with the memory of fighting for your rights and winning. That’s why this history of protest and survival, and the material objects associated with it, is important to preserve in an archive, and remember, and learn from.

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