#project002: Label Free

An opposite shore, a new community and a debatably ambitious idea. With the second boom project now wrapped, we look back at exactly how creativity was used to inspire and empower young people dealing with forcible displacement in Glasgow.

“It was never going to be simple, was it? Not with the scope of this idea.” It would appear, having made it through the roller coaster of the first boom project and promised a much smoother ride second time around, the scope of our idea is being called for exactly what it is – pretty damn ambitious.

It wasn’t intended to be. The initial plan was to keep things as simple as possible, developing a concept lovingly stored on the back burner for many years. A t-shirt collection which was, quite literally, label free taking a stand against society’s generalisation of different groups of people and highlighting how detrimental this can be to our advancement as a whole. Of course, this idea alone was somewhat lacking the heart of any good boom project; the community engagement element was missing, the definition of those who we aimed to inspire and empower too broad. We needed focus, we needed talent and we needed hunger. And herein lay the real hard work. I’ve always found ideation the simple part of the creative process; it’s the implementation itself which terrifies me.

Astonishingly, from this point onwards we would continue to strike gold again and again. First, a former strategic partner spent time working with young people dealing with forcible displacement. He shared with us stories of their great potential, their creativity, their boredom and their deep desires to be a part of something to have a sense of belonging.

It had always been the plan to run boom projects from different cities around the world, one day stitching the communities together and offering international opportunities to all the talents we’re lucky enough to work with. Our decision to run this second project from Glasgow a different city, yes, but also only a short train ride away was only further justified once we began to flesh out the various charities, organisations and people we would bring into our network, collaborating with them to bridge the gap between the local communities and us, the outsiders.

Yet another twist of fate which helped shape the project took place in a small lecture theatre in Glasgow University, where we chanced upon a screening of Ai Weiwei’s groundbreaking film, Human Flow. Tackling the global refugee crisis from the ground, the film documents the forced displacement of a range of people around the world. In one scene, a man pins you down with deep brown eyes as he explains how he is instantly categorised once others learn of his current ‘status’. With that single remark, packed with poignancy, our thoughts to date were confirmed and our plan set in motion.

And so, we had our base: Glasgow. Our community: young people dealing with forcible displacement. Our concept: a t-shirt collection exploring how society can label people. And our plan to bring it all together: an ongoing series of free workshops covering the full design process, delivering a range of transferable skills to be taken forward. The t-shirts designed would be sold on a one-for-one model; meaning for each and every one purchased, one would be donated to Glasgow based charity Refuweegee to distribute to those most in need within the local refugee community. This concept would be furthered two weeks into our workshop program when we secured Spoon Café as a venue, leading us to decide to also give a donation to their Pay it Forward scheme for every t-shirt sold.

As seems to be the recurring theme, it was the groundwork phase which would prove to be most time consuming. I said from day one that the design process part of the project overwhelmed me the least. With the value of hindsight came knowledge, and we started this project fully aware of the huge undertaking it would be to collaborate with a community we had no previous connection to or so we thought.

From day one the scope of working with this particular community has continually surprised and astonished me; not for the people within the community themselves but, too often, for the gatekeepers. It’s not that I thought it would be easy, I just didn’t expect it to be quite so hard, quite so often. The further we progress with boom projects, the more adamant I become that the current system is in need of a shake-up. I understand the necessity of many of the restrictions in place; I do. The larger an organisation gets, the more departments, forms and legalities there are to deal with and the more essential bureaucracy becomes. What I cannot fathom is why this is allowed to run riot with good intentions and ambitious plans. Why is daring to do consistently so damn hard?

As seems to be the recurring pattern, we hit many a roadblock early on. There were those who could not grasp what we wanted to do. Those who got it, but suggested we first spend £150 on a course to teach us how to speak to refugees before uttering a “hello”. And then, as usual, there were those who insisted on raining upon our parade with torrents of words such as “impossible”, “over ambitious” and “naive”. On a bad day, I would tend to agree. The odds were stacking up against us as we had no budget to spare for the big three interpretation, transport and childcare.

Luckily, we had something perfectly placed to trump this all we had support. Were it not for meetings, emails and calls with the likes of Selina Hales, David Bradwell, Mozafar Haider and Umar Ansari, I might just have come close to throwing in the towel. When the odds are stacked against you, never underestimate the power of a dose of peer support and a friendly shoulder to offload onto. And so, heartened by the support of a motley crew we assembled through word of mouth, chains of emails and the odd surprise invitation, we launched into our second boom project.

We programmed a series of free drop-in workshops with guest speakers, covering the full design process from mood boarding to garment production. The workshops would take place at Kinning Park Complex, a known venue where everyone involved would feel comfortable and at ease. First speaker confirmed, poster drafted and information shared, we felt ready and raring to go. Little did we know.

The feeling of placing utmost belief in something only to be met with an empty room is an altogether unique sensation. Space seems to expand, further highlighting the emptiness and unfulfilled potential. Stomachs disappear and minds run riot as you begin to wonder if you’ve got it all most horribly wrong. It was at this moment, standing in the near empty main hall of Kinning Park, that I felt the utmost appreciation for Alice Dansey-Wright, our first guest speaker and re-assurer that such an occurrence was commonplace in community work. Buoyed by her words, we ploughed on adamant to learn from our experience, and learn fast.

That we did. Just a few weeks after our Kinning Park disaster we held our first official workshop, condemning the last to the realms of testing ground. In a new space at a revised time with a specific group of young people, we waited on tenterhooks to see how things would play out. This time around we’d pushed for direct referrals, going straight to ESOL teachers and community guardians. In the City of Glasgow College and the Peer Mentoring Scheme we found our audience; all that we could do now was hope they would turn up.

It hit me early on in the groundwork phase of this project that it was vastly different to the Creative Riot. That was geographically focussed; I could trip up to Muirhouse and, in theory, anyone I found kicking around would likely be from our target audience of young people in North Edinburgh. It’s not such an easy task to identify a young person dealing with forcible displacement, nor to even begin to build a connection of trust with them. This time around, we relied on others; thankfully, others pulled through.

From the moment our first attendees arrived for our first workshop, we knew we’d struck upon something remarkable. Although the assembled group did not all know each other, they seemed instantly comfortable together. They were imaginative, creative, unbelievably polite and hilarious. It’s funny to think back to the moments that stick out as real bonding experiences, many of them apparently trivial or unimportant. Comparing hair products, talking about boys, collectively lamenting deadlines and exams. To me, these are the kind of moments that build real connection, and I don’t need a course to teach me how to speak to people about them.

Of course, there were harder moments along the way; reminders of the heartbreaking events which tied these young people together. When creating mood boards in week one, Ishaq, one of the group, was uncompromising in his efforts to include outdoor imagery of skies, campfires and stars. Fair enough, we thought, reflecting little upon his choices in the rush to check in with the entire group. Ishaq is funny, self assured, and talented; it was only when we came to present our work that his chosen images took on another level. He told us of his love of the outdoors, of being outside and spending hours looking up at the stars. This was one of the few ways he could connect with his family back at home, knowing they too were gazing upon the same skies.

Similar stories peppered our workshops, adding insight and understanding perhaps even a little therapy to a project which was essentially product based. As our guest speakers grew in number, the weeks and months passed and the collection as a whole began to take shape. This, for me in particular, brought some unexpected challenges of its own. Caught up in the momentum of it all, I had rather overlooked the fact that the original idea had been one of my darlings. It still bothers me to admit this, but it’s entirely true to say that behind closed doors I was uncertain of how things were taking shape. The designs were so far removed from what I’d envisioned, so different from how I would have done things myself. It was only when we got to the actual garment painting that I had my lightbulb moment. Tacking all of the work so far onto the wall, seeing the progression of the stories behind the symbols and watching our group delight in creating something all of their own, I released that yes, this project was incredibly far removed from my initial idea. It wasn’t simplistic, minimal or typographic. It was so much better.

The finalised images and symbols are not overly complex; their beauty lies in the meaning behind them. Hamid’s sunset speaks of gazing out to sea when he first touched down in Stranraer, drawing a sense of hope from the rays fading across the depths of the ocean. Mahado’s triple face illustrates the many feelings a person can be experiencing at any one time, regardless of the one you can visualise on their face. This concept is one which sprung up time and again over the course of the workshops; I still wish I was able to remember Mahado’s exact words when she spoke of arriving in Glasgow as an empty shell, fraudulently filled with the meanings others attached to her as a young refugee.

It was often in moments such as these, shooting the breeze in between workshop tasks, that the strongest connections were formed. I think, and rather hope, that we overlooked the strength of these connections. This project was never in any way intended to solve any crisis; we always wholly understood that many of those we worked with would have far more pressing issues to deal with at times. And yet it was hard not to feel deflated when the whole group was not in attendance some weeks, hard not to worry that these connections were very much one sided. Receiving an image of an additional design David had created at home, without being asked, was a real breakthrough moment that meant everything. It’s one thing to bring a group together in a space; another altogether to find a way into their lives outside of that.

Yesterday we shot the editorial for the t-shirt collection. Photographer Connor Howieson very kindly came back to wrap things up, having first met the group as a guest speaker who held an incredibly popular photography workshop. Our models were scouted from Instagram, seemingly strangers who all happened to be free on the same afternoon. As we sat atop a sun-drenched hill handing out t-shirts, I wondered if the meaning behind them would be lost without explanation. And then I stopped myself, because it didn’t matter. These t-shirts are very deliberately label free packed with meaning but yours to understand as you see fit. They are a statement of intention, a reminder to look beyond the obvious and take the time to fully understand the world we live in and the people who fill it shaking off the labels which have been attached to them and celebrating their unique quirks, personalities and talents. Surely that’s not too ambitious an ask.