Helen de Main talks consciousness raising at Platform in Glasgow

Helen de Main has recently opened the exhibition that has come from a year's engagement with women in Easterhouse through a consciousness-raising group. She discusses this terminology and the ways this process have changed her own outlook

Feature by Adam Benmakhlouf | 12 Dec 2017
  • Helen de Main

For over a year, the artist Helen de Main has facilitated a monthly consciousness-raising group (more on this terminology soon) in Easterhouse’s multifunctional learning, cultural and leisure facility, Platform. Until 11 February 2018, Platform will be hosting an exhibition of de Main’s work that has emerged directly from her discussions with the local knitters’ group.

De Main describes being introduced to consciousness raising by her partner’s mother, who had run this kind of discussion group for ten years in a small town in semi-rural Derbyshire. “She went to art school and painted for a while, before life took over… It seemed like [activities like the consciousness-raising group] were her way into creativity, these open spaces where she could speak freely with other people. It offered creativity and a huge amount of support as well.”

Not having previously heard of consciousness-raising, de Main began to read and research the idea. She discovered it had had its heyday in the late 60s and early 70s, and started to sense there was a real value in the kinds of interactions it might foster. One question that came up was, do online forums fulfil this need for sitting together in a circle and taking turns sharing? Not for de Main, who thinks of the importance of the intimacy and general principles of consciousness raising: "go around in a circle, everyone has a turn to speak, don’t interrupt, don’t try and give out advice – which is an interesting one, just to let things sit there, rather than endlessly trying to advise people.”

Though it may take many forms, the most simple way of imagining the feminist practice of the consciousness-raising group is a group of individuals sitting together and sharing everyday or past experiences openly in a circle, without being interrupted. De Main describes this as a “non-hierarchical discussion around things happening in women’s lives,” then projecting from the personal experiences “into more political life, what’s happening more widely,” but always relating it to the experiences discussed rather than allowing for theory to dominate conversation.

When the invite from Platform came in 2015, de Main had already started a consciousness-raising group in Glasgow, and spoke about these interests to the Community Engagement Programmer Margaret McCormick. It was then that McCormick introduced de Main to the knitting group that has run for many years in Platform.

“I just started going along, and they tried to teach me to knit but I was terrible.” It was at this point that de Main asked the woman if they’d be interested in trying the consciousness-raising format of discussion. “They normally sit in the cafe, so I suggested that we could go into another space to have a bit more autonomy and privacy. It wasn’t that I was asking them to expose themselves to me, but I was interested in creating a safe space in which they might want to talk about [more personal subjects].”

As conversation progressed, de Main began to appreciate the intergenerational perspective that the range of ages allowed for in the group. “Six of them are in their 70s, and one of them was just a little older than me. They were all very open, and they all led ordinary but extraordinary lives.” Specifically, motherhood and family life were important bases for bonding. “I have two young kids, and there were lots of things that were resonant to me about the struggles and hardships. I have found myself going back again and again, and thinking ‘What would Jean [longtime member of the knitting group] do?’ They just have such a resilience… They weren’t all friends to begin with but have very much become their own support network.”

De Main also asked the women to bring in some photographs, which started a “steady trickle” of photos that she began to scan on Platform’s photocopier. These materials have formed the basis for the current exhibition You Know, Things Like That, which comprises of around ten large-scale digital prints of the women she met in the group. “I’m interested in Platform as a public space, and I’ve made works in the past about introducing pictures of women into public space that are contrary to the usual imagery we are usually exposed to through media and marketing.” For example, as part of the Bloc Billboard project in Sheffield during 2015, de Main incorporated images of an older woman dancing, three women wearing hijabs on a motorcycle and a woman wearing a political placard.

In Platform the blown-up images of the women de Main met there are also accompanied by small excerpts from the transcriptions. “It was a hard process to edit down, as we’d covered a whole range of subjects. In my work, I’d used snippets of text before, but [this time] it felt weird to have a pithy bit of text sum everything up… The things I’ve drawn out can be applied to lots of different situations, and hopefully evoke emotions in people – you can tell that there’s an authentic voice. I’ve selected 25 little sentences that are linking together the images that are on a huge 35 metre wall.” Due to its scale, the work is visible from different vantage points around the library area in Platform.

A small series of screenprints on glass to go on the top part of the library space came from one participant bringing in a group of photographs that corresponded almost directly to some of the experiences that had been brought up during the conversation. After speaking to the group about her complicated relationship with her family, the woman brought in a photo album in which there were striking instances of the images illustrating sharply what had been partially addressed: “feelings of isolation, not being part of a larger family group.” De Main goes on, “I found it quite moving, so I made little screenprints of her on her own.” Printed on glass, the image is printed partly on the front then the back. “Different parts of the image operate on different [sides] of the glass.

“We spent one of the sessions talking about motherhood, and that’s where I’ve taken most of the text from.” When thinking about the reason for this, de Main considers her own position during the beginning and later sessions. “I literally was pregnant when I first met them, then I came back with a baby, and they made me some lovely knits as well.” So it is that in the background of the images, there are diagrams of knit patterns. It’s a literal reference to the knitters’ group, but also an important symbol for de Main, too. “In their case, I was interested in the way things weave and knit together, the idea of one long piece of thread bringing all these stories and lives. I haven’t attributed one text to any one woman, because it was about that conversation.”

You Know, Things like That by Helen de Main continues at Platform until 11 Feb