Antipyrine, Museum Of Ordure
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18 x 28 cm.
Stuart Brisley : The Peterlee project 1976-77
Stuart Brisley’s pioneering archival The Peterlee Project (1976-77) — one of the first attempts made by an artist to ‘perform history’ and an acknowledged precursor of the archival art projects of today. Peterlee itself was a ‘town without history.’ Founded in 1948 to relieve the severe overcrowding in the nearby mining villages, it was intended to bid squalor farewell (‘Farewell Squalor’ was the title of the preliminary report). The original mining villages had been cheaply built by the companies and reflected the extension of economic imperatives into all aspects of life: housing, landscape, leisure, gender roles and family structures. Peterlee New Town, in contrast, was to exemplify social progress, rationalized urban planning and the push towards new industry in accordance with the Distribution of Industry Act of 1945. Yet even here the residents had little say in the final outcome, as the regeneration itself was managed by the Peterlee Development Corporation, a government appointed semi-autonomous corporation. Brisley’s intervention operated across two modes. The first part involved the collection and collation of documents to form a ‘living memory’ (roughly reaching back to 1900 when the first mines were sunk, and corresponding to the three generations normally associated with the transmission of oral memory). The second was to transform this living memory into a platform for future debate and, in the last instance, political action.
The Peterlee Project offers a useful diagnostic tool to evaluate the current relations between ‘performance’ and ‘history’ because it was explicitly conceived neither as an archive nor as a work of art. The criterion for evaluating the success or failure of the project was practical and political, rather than aesthetic, namely to raise the historical consciousness of the local people, especially with regards to the impact of the Peterlee Development Corporation upon their lives.