We ask artists DashnDem (Dash MacDonald and Demitrios Kargotis)
Back in November Houghton Regis Library hosted a gig on a Friday night. It was a first for the library and some of Houghton’s local residents were checking facebook and calling the library to check it was true.
I caught up with DashnDem recently to talk about the idea of dream libraries and see if they’d like to see more gigs in libraries.
Dash: When we started this project we were really interested in the role of the library as a space for creative activity for everyone. That’s why we chose to revisit the Dump It On Parliament compilation that was made in the mid 80s in Bedfordshire. That was about local artists and musicians who cared about their community, producing something that created a positive impact for the community, by protesting against a nuclear waste dump.
And we were interested in how the Luton 33 Arts Centre played a key role in bringing everyone together at the time. It acted as the hub of the Bedfordshire post-punk counter-culture scene and so much of the creative output came through the centre. It had a vegetarian café; Steve Spon (of Bedfordshire band UK Decay) set up a DIY recording studio; there was a film and video unit that spawned the artist film-makers Gorilla Tapes and the scratch video movement; a music venue. All these things crossed fertilised. We wanted to ask the question – how could a library function in this way too?
Dem: Yes, thinking back to the gig we did at Houghton Regis Library, we went in, created a space, moved the bookcases with wheels to create a backdrop, then used that space to create a stage, used the staff room as a green room for all the various bands, people involved and basically transformed the space. And it really worked. It didn’t take a lot of effort. It was about allowing the fluidity for these activities to take place and then it could happen.
Annie: Yes, it was brilliant seeing bands doing a great gig under the dome of the library. Has your perception of what local libraries can offer changed since you started working on this project?
Dem: Our initial perception was that they needed some updating to meet the needs of different age groups, particularly young people, whilst still maintaining the great services for their more regular family and elderly customers. When we said we wanted to host a gig in the middle of a library, it seemed radical, but we knew that historically this has existed.
Dash: During the 80s post-punk scene bands like Click Click and Party Girl played at Leighton Buzzard Library. It was a cheaper place to set things up, have an audience and have a gig. Steve Spon told us that for the post-punk bands the library was an important space and the libraries were really supportive. If you talk to younger bands today, it’s not something they would consider. We wanted to revisit this and make it happen.
Dem: And in the wellbeing workshops we ran at Dunstable Library we transformed the room into a DIY printing studio, there were music workshops which Roshi ran with Steve Spon, with a megaphone, an amp and guitar. It was loud. Definitely not what you might expect in a library.
Annie: You’ve been exploring some really interesting ideas about how libraries might adapt and change. What sorts of questions has this raised for you?
Dash: One question we’ve been looking at is how we can re-engage teenagers and turn the library into an interesting space for them. Going into a library, does it inspire those young people? Does it have the tech facilities they need? Does it have the online and digital culture they can use? From my own experience I know a library becomes hugely important as a space you can go to when you live in a small town or village. We’ve been looking at that. What would excite a teenage audience?
Dem: If you contrast a local library with somewhere like the new central Birmingham Library, the Birmingham Library is jam packed on the weekends with teenagers and students. They seem to choose this contemporary space, it has the tech facilities, the trendy seating, the spacious desks, the lighting.
Dash: But we also thought about the current situation of limited resources, staff and budget for local libraries and wanted to ask how you draw from interesting elements of history like the Luton 33 Arts Centre to help inspire what a library could become? Architecturally, environmentally but also the atmosphere and attitude it fosters.
The type of architecture and infrastructure of local civic structures is challenging, so what we tried to do is make it into an inviting place for teenagers by focusing on activities rather than the environment – linking up with different youth groups and looking at their activities and productions and inviting them to use the space.
The other inspiration we looked to is the role of libraries as custodians of local history and as we went around the different libraries, looking at how they had these archives but they weren’t necessarily that exciting for young audiences. We wanted to know were there other ways of making local history, which is fundamental to these local libraries. What local stories aren’t being told? That’s what inspired us to look at the alternative local histories, finding out about the rich post-punk scene in Bedfordshire, and how that relates to young people today with the social and political climate we’re experiencing now.
Dem: Libraries are great collaborators. They enrich the material they collect, they have important relationships with the schools and this is important work for our time. We wanted to know is there potential continuity where a library can be a place that encourages collaboration, from the arts, sciences, different community groups? Can it be where people come and bring in ideas, and the library helps facilitate their ideas? Could this be an effective way of re-thinking what a library can be?
Dash: Through working on the project and collaborating with so many people we can really see the potential of how the library can connect different generations and groups that otherwise might not be able to share rich knowledge.
Dem: Yes and you could really sense how everyone felt part of the project, because everyone was from that place, and this sense of belonging really grounded what we were doing.
Annie: So to my last question, if you were to create your own dream library, what would it be like?
Dem: For me, it would be a more flexible multi-use space, going back to the idea of civic engagement. So it would cover the fundamental things people need but also have the flexibility to accommodate for what people are looking for now –like the latest technology, music, gigs, a space for things to happen.
Dash: Yes, there would be lots of really exciting activity happening, different groups exchanging, things being made and produced as well as being read or listened to. And to do that, sometimes it needs to be a bit scruffy, to allow mess, so that things can happen that aren’t slick and highly polished. You can create a sexy space but perhaps you need something that makes you feel more at home. Luton 33 Arts Centre was quite rough and ready but it nurtured ideas and enabled a DIY attitude that gave it such a creative vibe. That would be really important for me.
DashnDem are artists Dash MacDonald and Demitrios Kargotis. Dash is based in Leighton Buzzard and Dem is based in Birmingham.