21st Century Folk Art

Photobook documenting more than seven years of social practice and research by Lucy Wright.

Folk is a slippery and divisive term with some uncomfortable associations.

However, for me it doesn't represent a specific vernacular or style, nor a set of rustic artefacts once gather by Victorian collectors on bicycles and promptly preserved in aspic.

It's what can happen when people, alone or together, and regardless of anything, engage in cultural practices they create for themselves.


Documenting more than seven years of social practice and research by Lucy Wright.

A5 book with 170gsm pages, 88pp including cover (67pp full colour images).
Published by Social Art Publications with thanks to Axisweb.

Purchase 21st Century Folk Art here

“Don’t call me wyrd” – 21st Century Folk Art
[Short presentation given at the launch of Social Art Publications, Live Art Development Agency, London, December 2019]

Hello my name is Lucy Wright. Thank you so much for having me this evening to talk about my book, 21st Century Folk Art: Social Art and/as Research which I published through Social Art Publications back in July.

I think my slot has been listed as a ‘reading’ – but since it’s primarily a collection of photographs documenting my practice (some of which you can see playing on a loop behind me)—there’s not really enough to justify that title. Plus, I feel that the short texts alone might not say very much in isolation. They need some kind of context. As in, what is all this and why should you care? I started by interviewing myself to get some clues.

Why did you make this book? I asked the face in the mirror one evening as I’m brushing my teeth. ‘I’m so glad that you asked!’ I exclaim with a winning, toothpaste-y smile—and then dry up: at first, I can think only of the vain and self-serving reasons. I wanted to see my work in print. I wanted to have something tangible to show for my social practice which so often doesn’t look like ‘art’ and my research that so often doesn’t look like ‘scholarship’. I often work in universities and everybody around me seems to have a shelf of books with their name on. I wanted to start a shelf of my own.

No, that’s not it.

Perhaps a better answer is that 2019 marks ten years since I started the practice I call ‘ social art and / as research’. (The forward slash matters as I’ll go on to explain!) That’s a whole decade of trying to make work that works in a particular way and a whole decade’s preoccupation with the seemingly arcane questions, ‘what constitutes ‘folk art’ in the 21st century?’ ‘What is the role and meaning of ‘tradition’?’ Does it have one? I was hoping to gather and take stock of what I’d found…

I’ll start with the first part—Social art and / as research. Anthony Schrag scolded me for the slash because he felt my hedging the ‘and’ and the ‘as’ was too apologetic and risked undermining social art’s existing—if uneasy—status as a mode of knowledge production in the academy and beyond. That’s not my intention. As most in the room know, art already is a form of research. The success of social art depends on a deep understanding of collaboration and an openness to learn from and be challenged by those with whom we partner. We are privileged to learn so much from the work that we do.

But I guess for me the connection is even more literal: I have a day job is as a researcher-for-hire and my background is in ethnomusicology—the study of people, performance and place. I was an ethnographer long before I identified as any kind of artist. And I think it’s that urge to hurl myself into the midst of unfamiliar places and research my way out that continues to drive my artistic practice. What I always found slightly uncomfortable about ethnography is what you are expected to do once you’ve ‘been there and done that’, after you’ve ‘turned away’ from the field, as Tim Ingold puts it. How do you represent that process and, more importantly, the people you meet—the friendships and collaborations that have developed en-route? Social art is one of the main ways I try to negotiate that difficulty, making work that is concerned less with representation and more with creating shared narratives. What happens if we ‘think-through-making-together’?

Actually, perhaps it’s fair to say that I’m not really an artist at all, but an ‘artistic researcher’: a hybrid identity I first discovered in ‘The Artistic Turn Manifesto’ by Kathleen Coessens, Darla Crispin and Anne Douglas and have doggedly held on to ever since. I once described myself as a ‘conscientious objector’ who refuses to take sides and rather seeks to remain both and to produce work from that strange, conflicted bothness. My attempts to do this are contained in this book.

Now on to the ‘21st Century Folk Art’—because understanding this is the driving motivation of my work.

I take a fairly broad view of ‘folk’—as this short excerpt will hopefully explain:

Folk is a slippery and divisive term, with some uncomfortable associations. However, for me it doesn’t represent a specific vernacular or style, nor a set of rustic artefacts once gathered by Victorian collectors on bicycles and promptly preserved in aspic. It’s what can happen when people, alone or together, and regardless of anything, engage in cultural practices they create for themselves.

This credo is important to me, because it contradicts a lot of the commonly-heard assumptions about what ‘folk’ is and does. There’s this idea that folk is something inherently of the past—something fundamentally unchanging and existing at a remove from everyday life. It’s misty-eyed and sepia-hued like Mumford and Sons and ‘Kirsty’s Handmade Home’, or gothic and wyrd like the Wicker Man and Midsommar. It is always rural, as opposed to urban, masculine as opposed to feminine, apparently old as opposed to conspicuously new. These are exclusionary fictions. From its earliest days, ‘folk’ was a limited collection project, concerned with rescuing and ‘salvaging’ embattled cultural practices, whose working-class progenitors were too irresponsible to ensure their survival.

For this reason…
It was an increasingly purposeful decision to avoid, for the most part, those activities and phenomena that self-identify as ‘folkloric’. Now is the moment to move away once and for all from the assumption that such concepts are the domain of those who most readily identify with them. Indeed, a key conviction of this work is that folk is ‘the name of a secret’, finding a fruitful analogy in Derrida’s definition of the Marrano, which describes a process of forgetting and self-secrecy necessary for a practice to be done, as opposed to merely known and circumscribed. Folk that is acutely conscious of its ‘folkness’ (see also, its ‘wyrd-ness’) represents something quite different than the quotidian customary performances in which we are all engaged, every day.

So I didn’t draw that much on my background in folk music—my Dad was a morris dancer and I’d played at folk festivals all over the country in my early 20s. Instead, I looked for the non-folk-identifying folk arts, the folk arts taking place right now, just a stone’s throw from my home in South Manchester—and later all across the UK. I was told that there wouldn’t be anything to find…and yet…

There were troupes of carnival dancers, practicing twice weekly and competing each weekend in the local community centre…

There were kazoo marching bands—called ‘jazz bands’—who didn’t play a note of jazz, but were the pride of their community

There were rose queen celebrations and graffiti artists and teenage girls ‘blinging’ their phones.

I wanted to know more about them all…

A couple of quick examples of projects taken from the book:

The English folk arts are marked by their whiteness. In spite of the predominantly left-leaning politics of most contemporary folk practitioners, a paucity of performers of colour is compounded by the ongoing co-option of folk materials by nationalist and populist movements. Folk performance is often understood to hold comforting and vital meaning, but its real and imagined links to concepts of territory and origin are by no means assuredly benign. In particular, fierce debates about the permissibility of ‘blackface’ morris dancing suggest that for some at least, imagined links to a rustic, pre-migration past are more important than the lived discomfort of people of colour in the present day.

In Sewing Difference three makers were given a sample garment—a girls’ carnival morris dress—and commissioned to re-interpret it using the fabrics and techniques most routinely used in their work. The makers were Basir Wafa of Clarendon Road Asian Outfitters’, Sidnie Peel, lead designer at Sidnie Co Couture, whose work is heavily influenced by her West Indian background, and Claire Louise Vincent, a dancewear specialist. Each dressmaker agreed to be photographed at various stages of the process and interviewed about their understandings of ‘tradition’ and post-colonial identities.

The aim of the project was to envisage how the English folk arts might look with proper acknowledgement of the contributions of non-white people in the UK and to explore new ways for folk dance to reflect the diverse ethnic make-up of a contemporary South Manchester suburb.

Girls’ carnival—or ‘fluffy’—morris dancing is a competitive, team formation dance performed by girls and young women in the Northwest of England and Wales. Characterised by precise, synchronous routines with pom-poms (or ‘shakers’) executed to pop music, it functions at a remove from the more widely known morris performances of the English folk revival.

This Girl Can Morris Dance confronts the contested status of girls’ carnival morris in the English folk arts, where it was historically denigrated on grounds of gender, class and community adaptation (i.e. its propensity to change). I argue that the neglect of the performance is indicative of a wider history of misogyny in the folk revival, in which the role of women and girls was routinely neglected, resulting in a canon of folk arts practice that remains fundamentally patriarchal. This gender inequity is especially problematic given the close links between folk performance and expressions of national identity.

The project also points towards the continued disregard for working-class cultural productions and the reliance of cultural policymakers on biased and partial definitions of art and culture. Primarily located in areas categorised as having ‘low engagement’ in the arts, girls’ carnival morris dancing groups have the power to unsettle the dominant ‘deficit’ narrative of cultural participation based on absence or lack, also signalling the urgent need for new models of cultural value which support and celebrate the community-led practices already taking place.

And what of it all? I sometimes worry that the focus of my practice does not seem very impressive or useful when compared to the more worldly subjects explored by my colleagues and peers. In an era defined by almost vertiginous social and economic instability, climate change as no longer an ‘if’ but a ‘when’, and the Far Right marching with impunity worldwide, to trouble oneself with the inconsequentially small and quotidian feels somehow…small-fry? Insular? Unworthy?

And then I remember why this subject is important to me. Folk matters because the things that we make and do and think for ourselves matter. Perhaps they matter now more than ever.

Those who view traditionalism as a thing of the past need only look at the schism uncovered by the UK Brexit vote and the rise of anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim feeling worldwide to see how traditions continue to inform our sense of self and other, too often with agonistic consequences. And yet traditions are not inherently malignant: they are also heartfelt vehicles of human sociability, brimming with ingenuity and munificence—whose endless adaptations and calls to action help us to punctuate and make sense of time and place.

It's that kind of tradition that I want to bring out and celebrate in my work… 

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