Helen Cammock's latest show is a love letter to cooperation. Not just the idea of getting along and doing things together, but the political movement of the same name. The Cooperative Movement was about protecting workers’ rights in the face of growing industrialisation, a bringing together of labourers and crafts people. And it has its roots in Rochdale, where Cammock went to create the film at the heart of this deeply political and engagingly conceptual exhibition.
Before the film, you get to wander through a room of objects and artworks from Rochdale’s own collection. There’s a painting of young girls learning to knit, another of women washing clothes on rocks, three oddly decorative police truncheons, an old sewing machine, a work on paper by Lubaina Himid, a bust of the singer Paul Robeson by Jacob Epstein.
Cammock’s point with this collection is simple and direct. Work and craft and art are a joint endeavour, a single thing made by and for the community. It’s all labour.
It echoes a feeling you get from older French painters like Millet, people who depicted workers not as noble peasants to be observed from some patronising distance, but as a vital part of life’s political and cultural ecology.
The film just reinforces that. It’s a series of interview with Rochdale residents: a muslim mayor, a member of a Ukrainian wmonem’s choir, a beekeeper, etc. Immigrants, artists, workers, they’re all just locals. Where other shows by Cammock have been too slight, too long and too unengaging, this is neatly balanced and absorbing. It’s a quietly, subtly beautiful film, and it’s hugely moving.
Cammock juxtaposes painting, craft objects, tools and social history to show that those things are not distinct, separate entities, that there is no ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture, it’s all just different versions of labour, it’s all essential, and - more than anything - it all works better when we do it together.