Joel Chima, The Socially Engaged Artist Truly Making A Difference.

Whilst living in Manchester Joel has truly made a cultural difference in a place that loads of people have been but never spent any time, a Covid 19 Test Centre, specifically at The Etihad. Joel is certainly a community engaged artist or at least an artist that brings fun to a horribly oppressed environment where humans are treated like cattle. Bringing his past experiences of opera with children and community work with refugees together to really change our eco-system, but changes that truly uncover the mess of British politics and the untold story of life as a key worker throughout the pandemic.

I talked to Joel about everything from the beauty of Mancunians, what it was like to live in a Calais refugee camp and how modern politics need to change to help the people who most need it.

Watch or listen to our full chat just here or read on below!

Let’s start at the beginning and see how this necessity to engage with the community through arts really began?

“I think my current practise is only really a product of the last few years, I took a long break from making artwork, I think there was just a big gap between what I was making and my politics and I couldn’t bridge that gap. I had radical politics that would manifest in organising or volunteering and artwork that seemed to hint towards those politics, or sometimes were more irresponsible towards them.

So then I took a long break way from artwork maybe 3 or 4 years partly because nothing was happening and partly because I felt like I couldn’t do it anymore. It’s the classic thing of coming out of art school and realising you no longer have an audience and you need to engage people in fine art and it’s your job to find a way to do that and democratise the medium.

So in that time I worked more in activism, mainly with migrants and refugees, through central Europe and Northern France and then things fell into place, totally removing ego from my work. Learning really why I was making my work and it was to dismantle systems in an attempt to reveal the inequities in them and then how we might rebuild that system.”

When did that political driving force become the centre of your work?

“I think the stuff I am doing at the Covid site feels like a real crystallisation of my politics, Working a gig job is always a relatively degrading situation and there’s not much you can do about it, but because of the current global narrative I find myself at the epicentre of this late capitalist nightmare. It feels as though the work is important by definition, a story needs to be told! This really feels like the first work that I have done that is overtly political rather than just hinting at those ideas.

The opera that we made over the summer aimed to be more politically engaged and to be a democratic way of filmmaking. Everything had to have consensus and working with children brought different struggles, but my work at the Covid is the first where I feel that I show real political aggression. There’s a real element of anger."

So let’s talk a few steps back and talk about your work in Calais and your separate work on teaching children about opera.

“So the opera. That was a lovely little project where we got funding to give working class kids from Lewisham exposure to art forms that are often not offered to them, like ballet, opera and classical music. So a close friend and collaborator, who is an operatic composer, spent several weeks workshopping operatic techniques with children over zoom, then towards the end of the school year I stepped into the school and gave physical workshops and then we made a film, which was a really moving experience.

We would love to try and make this a more annual project, so I may still go make the film but collaborate with other people who may focus on ballet that year. Really being the facilitators of alternative art making for that school.

The time in Calais was a very different thing. I was working for a charity that churned out food so I was really just making and serving food there.”

Wherever this work has happened Joel has acclimatised, before moving to Manchester they stayed in Belper for a while. "Laying low was a necessity at that time with the pandemic really hitting hard." Moving to Manchester was more of a base for them at that time and really worked as a place to search inside for answers of what to do next and we all know that lockdown gave us that time to be more introspective than ever before. Alas, Joel needed some form of income and a place to work.

How has your time in Manchester been?

“Manchester so far has been an extension of lockdown really, I’ve had lots of time to read. To me, Manchester has a really intense vibe, it’s a rainy dour place and particularly so through a pandemic. However I’ve been thinking a lot about the soul of city, listening to a lot of Joy Division and reading a lot of Mark Fisher to really get into the head of Manchester. Finding myself stood outside on a cold rainy car park I’ve really got into that. I’ve enjoyed being surrounded by the real people of the city rather than art students or the higher classes of the city centre, so in that sense I feel quite connected to the people of Manchester. I myself am from Newcastle and I feel that people in the north aren’t inherently nice, but we are kind, there’s a warmth here but it comes with the terrain.

Because this country doesn’t work anymore, at least work for the people, I feel that we are a generation of people just waiting to leave, always planning to move to Berlin and it all be fine. In that you find that you’re not present or showing the true solidarity that you should be and in the pandemic we cannot leave, so instead we find ourselves being hyper present. In that you find the real needs of your community and learn how to make your work relevant and impactful.

I think the pandemic has made me feel more British than ever before and realise that I am willing to fight the uphill battle more than ever, rather than fuck off and find my own corner of the world.

Back in November I started to work at the Covid centre at The Etihad, let’s work from the top and I’ll tell you how this financial structure works. So the government contract is given to Deloitte, which is an audit accountancy firm that work with government contracts, that contract is then subcontracted to G4S that famously run prisons and fine people for littering etc, that is then subcontracted to a variety of other companies. These companies such as HRGO, who hired me, then create these fake phoenixing companies that all have absurd names like Crexarts or Tinker Jazzy -it’s almost like they just use a word generator or something-. These fake companies are even registered in the Philippines, it’s just cronyism on a mad scale, it’s completely bat shit and almost definitely fraud.

All of that got me really angry and got me thinking about how we organise ourselves in the workplace, whose responsibility is it? I’m quite visible, but bad at organising in the workplace, I’ve just been fired in the past.

So I was thinking more about socially engaged art and performance along with joy as an act of resistance. Moving away from the classic black and red aesthetics of revolt and really engaging people in leftist politics and democratising work places. One of the ways we can do that is by being loving and compassionate in the workplace and use that as the revolutionary thrust of organising, rather than handing out union leaflets or having meetings.

The attempt in this situation was less about overthrowing a company and more about how I can shift an attitude of a workplace using our practise. Just to run through some things we have done so far. We have set up a choir on site, so we perform whilst we are there together, we spent Christmas eve together singing at the workers through the fences. I set up a community garden also recycling plastic containers that we get tests sent in.

There is a Team A and Team B and we work 4 days on and 4 days off and never met the other team, so an interesting question for myself was, can I organise something like this with people I’ll never meet? So we started a lettering campaign where we tried to communicate with them, which didn’t really go down well. Writing more dour prose on how the managerialists were destroying our dignity, they pretty much ignored it and then thanked us for the plants.

There was an incident where a team member had broken their elbow coming to sing with us on Christmas eve -prior to that another member of our team had been fired for a similar injury- so we made him a fake arm so he could wrap up his broken arm and have his fake arm hanging down so he was deemed fit to work.

More recently I have started a more political campaign for the workers to try and get a union rep. So we made a political advert and flyers and distributed them throughout the site. I’ve been commissioning artists to design logos for these fake companies in an attempt to really make a world within this world. We have this oppressed world where people are treated quite appallingly for minimum wage and how can we supplant this more joyful world within it?

It all needs tweaking because I feel like I’m always playing catch up. I originally wanted to do a project a week, there was just so much going on, whether they would take our kettles away or something else absurd, so my theory always ends up playing catch up on my response. I don’t think you can make a political point without a poetic narrative behind it, there needs to be beauty shoved on top of reality to get people to see.

You can make a materialist argument for why socialism is a good thing because it would allow us to love each other more and to spend more time with each other and watch our children grow, not just ooh it’s fairer on a mathematical level or theoretical level. I want to love more people around me, that’s why I’m a socialist, not just because healthcare is good, it is more than that. What I have been asking is, through an art practise how can that be a part of political organising? The ideological grip that capitalism and neoliberalism has on people is something I hadn’t really considered on that scale.

I do like the idea of taking these ideas I have used in different workplaces or even scaling them up into bigger projects. There’s no final defeat and there’s no success, it’s a journey and a progression, just taking all those small victories. We are all part of this political puzzle, but these things are all a small ray of hope and I think I should look back and take stock and realise that they were good things.”

I think this account of life and of lived reality can only be heard and understood by slowly digesting it totally uninterrupted. Joel covers so many points from the reactions that then need theorising and how that theory can differ in real life, but both are as important as the other. I find myself hearing it and firstly being shocked at the reality of people working in what I thought was a key sector in the life of 2020 and secondly how someone (and a group) have responded within that world to create happiness and fun. It is truly a remarkable tale that for me needs to be told and shared up and down the country, both as a marker of hope and a marker of real truth.

We have to make change.

With Joel now planning on relinquishing his vocation at the Covid centre how does this socialist artistic practise work away from its WIP base?

“At the minute everything I do I put straight onto Instagram and I’m quite happy with that for the moment, but it’s also nice to make some sort of a living out of what you are doing, so maybe at some point it can enter a physical space. I have enough material now that I could make an exhibition, playing around with the herb garden idea. The herb garden was made out of these plastic boxes that the Covid tests get sent in and they’re quite pretty, so I would cut off the top, glue them together and pop the plant in. So I’m playing with the idea of gluing them all together and making a huge 3D herb garden that you, as people at the exhibition, will have responsibility to help grow and then there would be all the videos and work surrounding that garden also.

I would also really like to do a long article piece on my experiences at the Covid test site, hopefully I can be commissioned to do it , but we will see. I think I want it to be a kind of exposé, however I’m not a journalist, so it will really straddle art writing and journalism really. It feels like something that needs to be written! I’d like a final word on what have been a really shit few months, it’s so apparent that everyone at that facility is aware of how oppressed they are and how shit their surroundings are.

Am I being over dramatic?

I really don’t think that I am, the way we are treated and spoke to on a daily basis is like children. People who work there are really there because they don’t have a choice, there is a real economic necessity to the workers. Working for the NHS is very different than working within the subcontracted gig sector, it feels different and there’s a different sort of communal purpose to it all, even though you are treating NHS patients, someone is making profit from that. I feel that it's really felt at the Covid place, we never have conversations about how we can make ‘customers’ -as we call them- comfortable, because they are all scared. Every customer is treated with suspicion, every other employee is treated with suspicion and mistrust. It’s a problem when you get to that level of privatisation because there are layers of sub-contraction and then when you give a company who is usually in charge of prisons and deportation the keys to a healthcare job, which is a social care job, it becomes super hostile. You have bouncers essentially running a healthcare machine that doesn’t work and without care, so all meaning is taken away from it.

I describe it as like Amazonian conditions with a World War 2 aesthetic.

On another site someone has died, a Sedexo site I believe because of the mistrust and lack of healthcare knowledge. The healthcare side of the site is really secondary to the distrustful drama, everyday there is something new that has happened on a site. People are also not using the service to capacity so there are staff stood around in this car park causing dramas when there is really important work to be done. It’s just really sad being there.

I want to break through the hero narrative, but this story does need to be told.

I woke up the other day and I was still lucid dreaming and I was arguing with my boss, I then weirdly got a Covid diagnosis, so I think I need to spend some time untangling all of it in my own mind before being able to go forward with perspective work on my time here.

The artwork, I think, has only made things more confusing, in a way I like, however I go to work and test people for Covid but also to form a choir? Then I go home and edit the performance and it ends up that my whole world is spent at the Covid centre, 7 days a week, it’s all I think about and maybe I need to remove myself. However I like the idea of testing the system and seeing what’s acceptable.”

I find it hard to really end this interview because questions come quite naturally in this conversation because the terms of reality that Joel and all others in his position have to deal with are so removed from what my experiences are. The experiences that are only going on 2 miles away from me sat here writing about it. That seems to me like a scary distance in the fact that these stories are not told and instead brushed away by the corporate right wing media, because this isn’t what ‘people want to read’. However I believe this to be the most important story you will read about the pandemic.

Anyway, I did end the interview and as always ended it with asking Joel to recommend us some people to check out from Manchester.

“I think I can recommend people even though I haven’t been here that long!

Firstly I’d say Steam Radio because I want to shout out Liam for putting us together, the project is super cool!

I’ve been reading lots of Mark Fisher, his work on capitalist realism is seminal.

Then I’ve been listening to a rapper and performer called Black Haine from Salford, it feels mad unique especially the movement.”

Keep up to date with everything that Joel is doing and if you haven’t already, go back and watch all his short films, I know you’ve all got at least an hour to spare tonight and you should spend it looking through the eyes of Joel.

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