So much of our recent work had been about bringing people together to plan a positive change, being called in to mark the death of an industry and the loss of 600 jobs seemed a real sea-change.
But the similarities were there; helping a community (in this case the work-force) to make sense of a situation by finding creative means to reflect back to them. With the Meltdown project, that meant looking backwards, but also, interestingly–looking forward...
Over a six month period, we used film, photography and writing to create a book, a website and an exhibition. When the exhibition launched at the Industrial Museum in Leeds, over three hundred foundry workers and their families attended: one of the biggest openings the Museum had seen.
It was a three-way partnership between ourselves, the union AMICUS and HYDRO; the Norwegian-based company that was closing West Yorkshire Foundry down.
Now that was an interesting partnership! Pure brinkmanship at one point weeks before closure where we sat arguing about a poem and whether it should be allowed in the book or not. Afterwards the Union officials suggested we could run training for them in negotiating techniques. Praise indeed!
Funding for the project came from the Heritage Lottery Fund. They were really pleased with the work and used it as an example of what could be achieved in the most difficult of circumstances.
I'm a foundry man me
Molten metal in my veins
I've sweated and I've toiled
But I'll not change
Smokes in my throat and
swarf's in my skin
The metal's my life and my living
Poem from Meltdown
It was a fabulous project with lots of good-will despite the circumstances. During the residency, we displayed photos in the canteen and even showed videos in the smokers' shelter (until we got shut down by management worried about loss of productivity!).
But the biggest learning point was the need for a really strong structure to make a difficult partnership work. Again we were in a situation where the other sides weren't used to partnership-working, but we planned well in advance to be able to deal with the crises that arose.
One major advantage was third-party funding (from Heritage Lottery). That identified the project as a different beast from the normal contractual relationships. Although they weren't used to it, the HYDRO management realised they couldn't pull all the strings...