By Nick Pelling and Helen Murphy

Something weird and wonderful just happened in Gotham City. Gotham Alley, I mean. There was no Penguin, but there was plenty of Zap! And Pow! The East Sussex College, in partnership with Hastings Commons, put on a dynamic exhibition in the basement of Rock House, showing the work of the Level 3 Art Foundation students. The brief was to create Zines to reflect and examine what it means to be part of this place, Hastings. And perhaps, above all: what it is like to be young in such strange and ambiguous times.

We went along to the private view on a sunny Thursday evening, feeling maybe a bit tired, but on arrival we found ourselves lifted up by the energy of the show. Even before we got into Rock House, it was evident that there was a buzz going on. The presence of an ice cream van seemed oddly exciting. A signal perhaps that winter was over, and creativity could start again. And the students were full of life and optimism. We spoke to them. Their willingness to talk and enthuse about their work was refreshing. 

ART AND PIZZA

Lexie showed us her work and said that she had really enjoyed the project. And she loved the imaginative way it was displayed. We asked her about the college: “I love it. It is so supportive, open and amazing.” As if by magic, her tutor, Sarah, appeared. It was evident in talking to her, that tutor and student fired off each other. 

Another student, Masuma, was very interesting. She approached the brief by putting together a lot of close-up photographs of architectural aspects of the town. The shades of grey and pink that she had chosen married together beautifully. We asked her if she thought art would be her future and she commented, “No, I want to be a radiologist!” But, interestingly she did feel that the arts and sciences should not be so mutually exclusive: “They should talk to each other.”

Lexie and fellow students 

Not only were there students from the Level 3 course, there were also slightly older students who came along to support (and maybe get some of the free pizza and ice cream). Tabi was working on ideas to do with superhero imagery. His muses were Spiderman, Batman and Robin ̶ maybe we were in Gotham City after all. 

THE TEEN ZINE SCENE

The college staff floated discretely around the exhibition but it was obvious their guidance had been very important. We spoke to Rachel Bright, who is an established brand designer but who also teaches at the college. She felt that encouraging students to make physical Zines pushed them to think more deeply, away from the easy slickness of computer design. The Mac may be all powerful in the arts, but there is something liberating in a lo-fi approach, perhaps. (Having said that, it should also be said that the college prides itself on delivering professional presentation skills, to help students transfer to the world of creative jobs.)

The work itself was very diverse. Some of it had a punk ethos. Punchy black and white images that grab attention. Others were more poetic. But even here the college had encouraged the students to think beyond the conventional. They had been introduced to the random cut-up technique of the anarchic Dada movement. This led students, like Toby, to come up with staccato lines in a stark typeface. Poetry, but not as we know it.

Masuma and her work

A QUIET TRANSFORMATION

The college’s partner in all of this is the Hastings Commons group. This community-led project is slowly transforming the area around the America ground. Speaking to its educational leader, Andrew Myers, the full extent of their ambition for the town revealed itself. They have managed to take control of about eleven buildings and they have either been transformed – or are in the process of being transformed – into multi-use hubs for the community. Some parts are becoming rental accommodation, but importantly those rents will be capped. Affordability is the watchword. Other parts of buildings are given over to arts and community-based projects. In all cases, ‘good use is prioritised over profit’. The jewel in the crown of all this, of course, is going to be the re-born Observer building. This is apparently due to open to fanfare in July. In talking to Andrew, it slowly dawned on us that something rather amazing was quietly happening in the town. 

In many ways, the students, the college and Hastings Commons are all part of a process by which this part of Hastings is re-inventing itself. The title of the whole exhibition was The Art of Commoning. We took this to mean something to do with pulling together, as a genuine community. Certainly, the emotional investment of all involved was astonishing. The last word ought to go to Lucas, the neo-beat poet who introduced the performance part of the evening. He encouraged the students, the tutors, the parents, the bewildered passers-by, and everyone else to shout out, “We all stand on common ground.” We all shouted. As we came out of Gotham alley and headed into the Triangle, we felt that, quite literally, we should all watch this space.


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