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The Serpentine presents four major film commissions
From left to right: Hans Ulrich Obrist (Artistic Director, Serpentine), Bettina Korek (CEO, Serpentine), Natalia Grabowska (Curator), Sonia Boyce (Artist), Elizabeth Graham (Curator), Rory Pilgrim (Artist), Helen Cammock (Artist), Amal Khalaf (Curator), Ilona Sagar (Artist) and Lizzie Carey-Thomas (Curator). Photo: Damian Griffiths.

LONDON.- Serpentine and the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham are partnering to present Radio Ballads, an exhibition showcasing a ground-breaking project that has embedded artists within core social care services and community settings across the borough. Over the last three years, four artists, Helen Cammock (Turner Prize winner 2019), Rory Pilgrim (Prix de Rome 2020), Ilona Sagar (Stanley Picker Fellow 2021, Saastamoinen Foundation 2022) and Sonia Boyce (representing the UK at the Venice Biennale in 2022) have worked with social workers, carers, organisers and communities to produce four new films and bodies of research, facilitated through the council’s New Town Culture programme. The pioneering, collaborative artworks share stories about labour and care, exploring who cares for who, and in what way. Radio Ballads builds on legacies of projects like the Artist Placement Group.

Each artist will present a major new film resulting from their work in the borough in the Radio Ballads exhibition which will go on show in Serpentine North opening on 31 March 2022 with a show in Barking Town Hall from 2 – 17 April 2021. The commissions will be shown alongside paintings, drawings and contextual materials.

Developed and sustained throughout a period of multiple global crises, amid the compounding issues of austerity, systemic racism, ableism and the pandemic, the projects shed light on innumerable ways in which those who do the work of care are often unsupported and devalued. The exhibition centers the voices of those receiving and giving care in both formal and informal settings, sharing complex and intimate stories of living and working in the care sector today.

Radio Ballads builds on Serpentine’s ongoing critical investigation of the role of artists in politics and civic life and is part of the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham New Town Culture programme. New Town Culture explores how artistic processes can reframe the work of social care and how embedding artists in local authority services can support systemic change.

Radio Ballads takes its name from a revolutionary series of eight radio plays that were broadcast on the BBC from 1957-64. Focusing on workers’ experiences and issues through a combination of song, music, sound effect and the voices of workers and communities, each Ballad presented lived experiences and stories of work and resistance in the UK at a time of rapid growth and change.

The exhibition is an ode to this project, positioned as songs for the 21st century which amplify voices and largely unheard experiences of domestic abuse, mental health, terminal illness, isolation, austerity and end-of-life care. Radio Ballads raises questions such as: “how can artistic processes support systemic change?”, “what resources do we need in moments of change and challenge?” and “what keeps us connected?”.

The four commissions:

Sonia Boyce, Yes I Hear You

Underpinned by a series of interviews that trace experiences of domestic abuse and recorded through a partnership with Barking and Dagenham’s Domestic Abuse commission which was set up in response to the Borough having the highest reported rates of domestic abuse in the UK. The work carefully reflects on complex issues including relationship dynamics, trauma, accountability and systems that perpetrate harm.

Helen Cammock, Bass Notes and SiteLines: The Voice as a Site of Resistance. The Body as a Site of Resistance

This project explores individual and collective power, asking viewers to consider where we sit within the social and political spaces we inhabit. It is a conversation between social care staff and an organisation called Pause, who work holistically with those affected by the social care system and the removal of children, to consider how we use our voice and bodies to find resistance and resilience to navigate our lives.

Rory Pilgrim, RAFTS

Taking inspiration from a raft as a preserver of life whilst also being the most fragile vehicle of survival at sea or upon open water, Pilgrim’s commission explores connections between work, mental health, home and care in a time of crises, particularly the climate crisis, and the ongoing recovery needed. With the climate crisis threatening increased displacement, homelessness and our support structures, the project explores ideas around interdependence and what keeps us afloat with collaborators from Green Shoes Arts, Barking and Dagenham Youth Dance, and Project Wellbeing in Idaho.

Ilona Sagar, The Body Blow

This project explores the difficult, and until recently untold, legacy of asbestos that is central to the history of work in the area. Those who suffer from asbestos exposure are stuck between layers of legal and bureaucratic paperwork. Work Capability Assessments, litigation and statistical scientific measurements have become controls by which the individual can be mediated, chained to notions of usefulness, framed by economic and domestic labour. Working with London Asbestos Support Awareness Group, campaigners, social workers, end of life carers, lawyers, and those with lived experience of asbestos related health conditions, the work focuses on ideas around risk, care, and the body and the relationship between them.

Radio Ballads is part of New Town Culture, a pioneering programme curated by the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham’s Culture Service and funded by the Mayor of London to develop artistic and cultural activity as a core part of social care services. The programme explores how artistic and cultural experience can reframe the work of social care and support adults and children using services. By embedding art and culture in the core business of local authority services, New Town Culture proposes systemic change. New Town Culture encompasses research, projects, exhibitions, publications, tools for practitioners, residencies, workshops, training and knowledge exchange to bring together creative and social practitioners in their work.
Radio Ballads has been developed by Serpentine Civic, a programme that seeks to redefine the role of the arts during periods of transition and social change and connect communities, artists and activists to generate responses to pressing social issues.

Radio Ballads is curated and produced by Amal Khalaf, Elizabeth Graham and Layla Gatens. The exhibition is co-produced by Natalia Grabowska.

Amal Khalaf, Civic Curator at Serpentine, said: “How do we listen and how do we hold each other? What systems and structures, formal or informal, support us? Radio Ballads brings together lots of learnings from the last decade of Serpentine’s Civic projects, that explore how artists can embed more deeply into civic life through multi-year residencies in movement spaces, community settings and civic agencies. Testing the potential for art to build political power, create life-sustaining relationships, and enact community and systems change, Radio Ballads builds on legacies of projects like the Artist Placement Group and the original radio plays that centred on practices of listening, voicing and collaboration. These new ballads developed through years of workshops, encounters, and the generosity of many collaborators, feature the voices of the people holding up the structures and systems of care that are keeping many of us afloat.”

Bettina Korek, CEO, and Hans Ulrich Obrist, Artistic Director at Serpentine, said:
“We are so proud of the work the artists, communities and curators behind Radio Ballads have done together throughout the pandemic, and delighted to share these four films with the world. Radio Ballads is a project about driving change in society as much as in ourselves — about listening, understanding and empathy. The care Serpentine gives and receives as a museum is exchanged with our audiences, both while we play the part of host within the walls of our galleries, and when we are invited into communities throughout London. Thank you to the Borough of Barking and Dagenham for believing in artists, and how art can deepen our understanding of care and strengthen these bonds upon which we all depend.”

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