Participatorama -The Newest Development To Hit Cinema In Years
TonTon and Tha Visible Choirboy
The Star and Shadow Cinema is a radically alternative open-access cultural organisation and venue in Newcastle upon Tyne in the north of England. While it has cinema in the title, it consists of much more – bar, meeting and workshop spaces, gigs, parties, film/art/music/publicity resources etc. We are mostly known as The Star and Shadow, without the ‘cinema’ bit, a name which was bodged together out of other suggestions, and in a sense reflects the ambiguity and multiplicity of our organisation and work. It perhaps makes us differ from the other centres in this pamphlet. Our identity is not explicitly anti-capitalist or confrontational, however it is very clear that our aims, working practices and a lot of what goes on in the building are centred around mutual aid, D.I.Y. processes and self-empowerment in the face of the capitalist system. Our politics is largely implicit rather than explicit, which means that people have less prejudices about considering to come along or take part. We don’t have leaders, bosses or ‘staff’. We are run by volunteers, try to share skills, and operate through consensus.
While there is no over-arching ideal that binds us together, it is fair to say we all wanted a collective space that we could take collective responsibility for and feel the collective benefits of, while allowing individuals to express themselves fully. As such, behaviour isn’t proscribed. We wanted to create something that moved away from the traditional market relationships of the entertainment and cultural industries: from supplier/consumer to participator. This is perhaps problematised by the fact that we still operate to some degree in the former paradigm – we sell drinks at the bar, charge ticket prices for cinema and gig admission, but redeemed by the fact that anyone can participate in the programming or organisation of the venue, and we are volunteer run and not-for-profit. We wanted to create an environment that is non-hierarchical on entry. One experiences the inherent power dynamics in public art galleries, concert halls, museums, libraries and other loci of culture, (especially the cinema multiplex) where the audience is meant to fall in line and consume what is on offer according to a set of unwritten rules and codes of etiquette with no fuss please, no matter how hard institutions try to make themselves more accessible. We wanted a place that is grass roots, where everyone meets each other on eye-level, and there is potential for genuine personal liberation.
The historical roots of the cinema are in two film groups who hired another small cinema down the road for four and a half years to show respectively; a)political and b) alternative/ historical/art films. We couldn’t have an office or bar on the same site, so we moved to the larger old warehouse in the Ouseburn area. Part of the vision came from experiencing our emotional sister cinema, The Cube, in Bristol, and other inspiring squats, self-organized venues and cinemas in Europe. Equally, the call out for the G8 Camp at Gleneagles encouraged us to organise our own ‘Building Festival’ where people came with their skills and labour to transform a plain warehouse into cinema, bar, and the rest.
The building used to be part of Tyne Tees TV’s production studios. We found it with help from the City Council in a terrible state of disrepair, and renovated it from TV set building workshops (somewhat poetically, considering the devastating impact TV had on cinema in the 1950’s and 60’s) into a multi-purpose environment that was dryish, warmish and lit. Since then, gradually people have put their creative energies into it making it cosier and more visually and spatially imaginative, a process that will continue as long as we are here.
We organized the ‘building festival’ in April 2006 and invited people from all over the UK, through networks in Europe and of course mainly in our home city to come and help build our place. Over 50 people came for a fortnight, helped demolish and then construct, using materials which were recycled wherever we could find stuff to recycle (carpet tiles from an old snooker hall, insulation and plaster board from an art exhibition, timber from a salvage yard etc.) We cooked and ate together, and had film screenings, parties and drinks in the pub together. The aim of this exercise was to skill share, get a decent way into the building of the cinema, make new friends from similar collectives elsewhere, and benefit from their experience and enthusiasm for the DIY approach. The festival lasted 2 weeks, followed by another 6 months of smaller groups building, and by the time the venue opened about 150 people had helped in some way or another: 150 people who felt ownership over the building and would therefore consider it theirs to put stuff on.
This process was done entirely legitimately and legally: our building meets all the building regulations, licensing and environmental standards that applied in November 2006, when we officially opened. While this conformity to the bureaucratic requirements of the state is nothing to necessarily brag about, it does give us a sense of long-term sustainability than something less legit might have allowed. Ultimately, many of those issues we had to deal with were empowering, common sense and in the public interest (like accessibility and dealing with emergencies like fires).
Activities and programming
Content-wise, the programming of the Star and Shadow is very varied, by-and-large presenting things normal profit-centred cultural centres would ignore. Freed from that economic pressure, we are able to offer culture for contemplation and criticism, not just consumption. We operate an open-programming policy, unlike any other cultural organization we know of. Anyone can come along with an idea for a film, gig, workshop, performance, exhibition or way to use the space and discuss it with a group using consensus decision-making.
Film screenings range from political documentaries followed by discussions, to screening experimental artists work, to showing films from the history of cinema. There is a very strong focus on enjoyment and having a good time, and we all strive to create a programme and an atmosphere to enable that. On close analysis, we could generally argue that the anti-spectacular context (D.I.Y. home-made cinema, friendly open-minded volunteers) combined with the approach to programming, encourages reflection on current and previous struggles, as communicated through journalism or art, and further revealing latent meanings in otherwise ignored genres (politics in sci-fi films, queer analyses of b-movies and melodramas, deconstructing propaganda in seemingly innocuous Hollywood cinema). Gigs tend to be put on by local bands or promoters on the DIY scene, and incorporate the diverse styles that exist in the highly varied musical sub-cultures internationally. There is no emphasis really on one over another. We have space for workshops and exhibitions by local or visiting artists, again which try to circumvent the ‘art-world guided by the market’ relationship. The space is flexible and anyone can ask to exhibit. There is plenty of space for organizing meetings, planning projects and running workshops, and many resources to facilitate those processes too (from photocopiers and screen printing to high quality video cameras and a DIY 8/16mm film lab for home processing and printing). The bar is stocked ethically, with local pints, fair-trade and environmentally sustainable drinks, food and cleaning stuff.
At the core of the management are open, weekly organizing meetings, which are regularly devoted to publicity and the programme, and normally attended by 5-20 people. An online wiki website has really helped people collaborate on shared ideas, and information (like this article). Developing the wiki has pre-empted a lot of long and tedious meetings, and significantly helps prevent individuals from overburdening themselves with all the knowledge😉. Using a wiki has meant that most information about how to do something, where something is, how far we are along with something, or whatever, is centralized onto an openly accessible website which anyone who has registered can adapt or improve. This is used most effectively in the programming of the building, where anyone can register and book an event on the calendar. This procedure is protected by the fact that any programming suggestion on the wiki is accountable to the weekly meetings.
By far the biggest contribution to the sustainability of the Star & Shadow is our own labour. We have perhaps 200 people who have volunteered at one point or another, and receive about 3-4 emails a week from people interested in helping out, which compensates for the alarming turnover of volunteers. This turnover needs to be looked at, and is slightly baffling, because no one as yet has complained about volunteering being difficult or unpleasant! Perhaps it is just peoples priorities are in constant flux.
The continuity of people taking larger responsibility seems to be getting better too (we need to have key holders, people to do specific time consuming jobs etc.) Financially, bar sales contribute the most and we might one day be able to survive off them. On top of that, the place is kept going by the grants we get from the City Council, and Arts Council and very occasionally the Film Council, which helps with programming special things and the £19,000 annual rent. The conditions attached to this money are relatively minor. There are different opinions about how quickly, or if at all, we should be trying to become self-sufficient. Broadly speaking people would be happy to be entirely self-financed, but some think we should take state money if it doesn’t stop us operating in the way we want to.
The standard entry charges are pretty low (£4 & £3) but no one is turned away because they don’t have enough money. We advertise that entry is free to people seeking asylum. Of course people who volunteer on the door, bar or projecting get in free. True to our recognition that the place is ‘only as good as the people involved’, we have adapted the Brazilian local government process of Participatory Budgeting. This lays bare the past budget and gives anyone who comes along to an annual process the awareness and tools to say how we should raise and spend the money to keep the place great.
Glimpses of autonomy
Each month there is a gathering of activists to plan direct action as groups and individuals. Often there is food and a film as well, to inform ourselves. This forum ‘Glimpses Of Autonomy’ is an essential resource to anti-capitalist politics on Tyneside. The activist scene in North East England has never been that linked with others because it is almost 100 miles to any other major city.
Way before the G8 in Scotland in 2005 activists were given some money to set up a Social Centre on Tyneside. This proved to play into the hands of “the enemy” because we spent ages and ages looking for good buildings and talking instead of taking down the systems that get us down. It’s a pity because this demoralising process followed three brilliant squatted social centres. But the transient nature of the squats enthused us to use new money to try to create a social centre that would be around for a long time. After lots of arguing and involvement in the Star & Shadow most of us think we now have many of the things we wanted from a Social Centre, here in the Cinema. Not quite everyone thinks that, though.
For the last four years an associated collective has organized the Projectile Festival of Anarchist Film & Culture (www.projectile.org.uk). People have travelled from across Britain to take part in the workshops and see an internationally unique festival. It has proved to be a more friendly, less dogmatic and more cultural alternative to the London Anarchist Book fair. The festival has been a space to talk about our differences rather than shout at each other.
So far the activities at the Star and Shadow have not been that child-focused or even child-friendly, for that matter. Kids have been to lots of events but none have been organised by them. A working group has just been set up to try and fill this gap, so fingers crossed. Whilst the Cinema is inevitably part of the cultural gentrification of this part of the city, we offer an alternative take on it, and are respected for that. A Trust made up of volunteers (unrelated to our project) oversees the ‘regeneration’ of the Ouseburn area, and is actually quite powerful in resisting acutely negative changes, most obviously the building of high-rise expensive apartments. We are at the stage where we must consider what to do when our lease runs out – doing a community buy-out or moving on are two options.
There is an ongoing debate about what we programme, how we market ourselves and who exactly we are talking to. Do we programme and publicise in a way which some assume is more populist, in the hope of attracting a more diverse, or as some might perceive it “unconverted” audience? Or do we embody our politics in the programme and publicity itself? A prosaic example of this is: should we keep a consistent sense of branding in our publicity, or should we continue to deviate for every piece of publicity we create, in an act of resistance against the psychology of capitalist advertising? Maybe we should be radical in our approaches and strategies if we want the end result to have a radical impact. In reality, we go for a varied and multiple approach, but frequently don’t get our shit together quick enough to let people know what is going on with enough notice! One area that there is always room for improvement is how much we share our skills. Lots of people have tried doing new things, but there are some jobs and roles that don’t have a varied personnel.
The flexibility of the Star and Shadow – as opposed to a ‘concrete position’ concerning content and how it is organised – is very important. It does however open us up to exploitation by people who just want a free space to do their thing, and then go home again. We have some pretty satisfactory systems in place to limit that form of exploitation, through working groups and confirmations for most things only being made in open meetings. Equally, the notion of creating a liberatory space is kind of esoteric and hard to evaluate (“Did you feel, madam/sir, that you really had a transformational experience tonight?!”). On bad nights, it can feel that we are providing (with free labour) a service to people wanting a nice, cheap place to hang out and drink beer. On good nights it feels like the opposite.
The Star and Shadow is therefore an open-minded free space (as in libre not as in beer, to borrow the term from the Open Source paradigm), not constricted to a totalising set of principles. A space where people are able to experience and critically engage with the world around us: to work out how we ended up living this way, what should be changed, how to feel mutually fulfilled, and where we focus on our shared strengths rather than allow our differences to divide us.
The Star and Shadow is at Stepney Bank in Newcastle Upon Tyne. Email info [at] starandshadow [dot] org [dot] uk and see the website at www.starandshadow.org.uk