Lightboxes and Lettering, an exhibition by Rendezvous Projects uncovered the story of the print industry across the 20th century in the east London boroughs of Tower Hamlets, Hackney and Waltham Forest. The exhibition, which was on in the Nunnery Gallery from the 17th of January until the 18th of March, included archive imagery and printed items, as well as print workers’ memories, told through a new collection of oral histories. We caught up with curator Lucy Harrison to find out more about the research project, the exhibition and ways to connect with east London’s print heritage from home.
Can you tell us a bit about your work with Rendezvous Projects?
Rendezvous Projects is a Community Interest Company I set up with 4 other artists and writers in 2015. Our aim is to work on creative projects exploring social history, which so far have all been based in east London. We started in 2016 with ‘WE’ which explored the Warner Estate housing in Waltham Forest, using photography, archive research and oral history interviews with Warner residents, and we had an exhibition at Vestry House Museum as well as making a walking tour app, website and publication. Following that we worked on a small project funded by Waltham Forest Council around Lea Bridge at the time of the new station opening, and then went on to ‘Lightboxes and Lettering’ as well as ‘Sweet Harmony; Radio, Rave and Waltham Forest, 1989-94’ which is ongoing. Most of these projects have been funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund which has been great – being a CIC allows us to apply for funding we wouldn’t be eligible for as individuals and we can support each other in different ways.
How did the Lightboxes and Lettering project come about?
As an artist I have had a long-standing interest in print; I studied printmaking at the RCA and since then have usually printed books and other publications in most of my projects. Through this, I had got to know several local printing firms and had also realised that with the changing nature of London, many of these firms had moved out of the city, changed the way they worked due to digital technology or closed down. A lot of them had really fascinating histories. It didn’t seem as if these companies and the changes they had been through had really been documented in the area and it seemed like a subject matter we could potentially work on in a way that combined research with creative practice. So I proposed it to the others in the CIC, and Rosa Ainley, one of the other Rendezvous directors, was also interested in working on the project, so we put in a funding application and were thankfully successful. The project aimed to look at the pre-digital industry, so mostly at people’s experiences of working in the industry up to the 1990s.
Throughout Lightboxes and Lettering, you worked with a number of volunteers. What impact did they have on the final outcomes of the project?
Our volunteers carried out oral history interviews which are really the heart of the project, they are how we have recorded the experiences of people living in the industry in the 20th century. We held training sessions for everyone taking part in this part of the project and then set up the interviews and gave the volunteers recording equipment to carry them out. They also transcribed all the interviews which was such a great help as this is quite time-consuming. Volunteers also helped with research and digging through archives, installing our work in progress exhibition at Space Studios in 2018 and our final exhibition at the Nunnery Gallery in 2020. It was great to see how interested people were in the subject and what they got from meeting people and finding out about the history.
What made you decide to share the findings of the project in an exhibition?
We always planned the project to culminate in an exhibition as there was so much great visual material around the subject, from photographs of workplaces over the past century, printed matter, type and letterpress objects. Having the project present in a space allows other events to take place within the context of all of that and we included outcomes from workshops we had run along with the rest of the project.
Why do you think it is important that the history and heritage of east London’s print industry is documented at this time?
The industry we have shown in the project through the 20th century has changed a great deal over the past couple of decades; digital technologies have changed the nature of print processes, and many everyday items are not even printed any more. People who have worked in the industry for some time will have seen their jobs change completely, with all the processes leading up to printing a litho plate for instance, having been updated to digital processes rather than exposing films and washing out plates. This is obviously true across the whole country, but in east London there are the additional pressures of rising property prices and industrial areas being taken over for other uses, including housing developments and projects like the Olympics. So many businesses that flourished in previous years eventually found it too difficult, or in the cases of family businesses, had nobody to pass it on to. At the same time, it’s such a creative area with lots of small businesses, and the few who have stayed are surrounded by potential customers. Many of these businesses will currently be closed due to the Covid-19 outbreak, and we will have to hope that they can survive the current situation.
Due to the ongoing COVID19 pandemic, we had to close the exhibition early. Are there ways that people can continue to engage with the project at home?
We have information on the project on the website www.lightboxeslettering.com and due to the early closure, we are now working on an online version of the exhibition which should be live in a few weeks. We’ll update on Instagram @rendezvousprojects and Twitter @RendezvousCIC when it’s ready.
We also have a lovely book designed by Sandra Zellmer which can still be ordered direct from us by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.