Jo Spence worked prolifically in Britain during the 1970s and ‘80s, when she collaborated with Terry Dennett, was a founding member of The Hackney Flashers, and was involved in setting up ‘Camerawork’ magazine; before dying from leukaemia in 1992 at the age of 58. After a period working successfully as a commercial photographer, Spence began the critical documentary series and community education projects for which she became well known. This work was firmly grounded in her socialist-feminist principles and explored the hegemony of popular culture, forming a radical enquiry into how audiences could challenge and assume control of representation.
Spence’s work is relatively well known in Scotland (Glasgow’s Gallery of Modern Art was, in fact, one of the first UK institutions to acquire her work for their public collection) and there have been previous solo exhibitions of her work (1995/2008). However, the current show curated by Ben Harman at Stills adds to these by presenting works that predominantly haven’t been seen before in Scotland.
The exhibition space is divided into two main rooms. The first contains examples of the photographs Spence is probably best known for: the revelatory explorations of subjectivity and social identity that made her work especially renowned within feminist art discourse. In the series ‘Self-Portraits’ (1978-92), ‘Libido Uprising’ (1990) and ‘My Mother’ (1986-88) we can observe the re-enactment phototherapy method Spence developed with Rosy Martin, wherein she stages herself as a petulant child, an eroticised homeworker (with coiled vacuum hose snaking up her legs), a bride, mother, and so on. As Spence and Martin explain it, the phototherapy technique allows its subjects to explore the multiplicity of their identities, equipping them with knowledge to break down the institutional or public gazes that ‘fix’ them in particular positions within the social order. The seriously playful actions of dressing-up, performing and acting-out coalesce as a sequence of discomforting images that make social relations strange and encourage viewers to see familial structures anew. The well-selected display conveys the still-surprising rawness of Spence’s various phototherapeutic projects.
However, it is the second room that offers a fresh perspective on Spence’s work beyond the well-established rhetoric about the body, health, identity and representation. Given the capitalist assault on the terrain of social reproduction and the intensified commodification of reproductive labour, the documentary projects on display here have immediate and pressing relevance for feminism’s critical realist age at present. The inclusion of a collaborative, multi-panelled documentary series by the Polysnappers (1981) is a particular coup for Stills. Pulled out of storage, where it’s been since its presentation at London’s ICA, this is the project’s first public exhibition in 35 years. A comparable series by The Hackney Flashers found its way into the collection of Madrid’s Reina Sofia in 2010, and I would hope that ‘Family, Fantasy and Photography’ also finds a permanent home.
The project consists of laminated, collaged boards pinned to the wall through reinforced holes. The quotidian materials and modest display method indicate the Polysnappers’ attention to alternative models of distribution: these are robust boards designed to be transported and displayed with ease. The boards contain magazine cut outs and tableaux staged with dolls; and this visual work simultaneously illustrates and expands upon short theoretical statements by Burgin, Barthes, etc. The boards offer a series of ‘lessons’ covering race, gender and class differences, the image industry and sexual stereotypes, the division of labour and hidden reproductive labour. The vast swathe of ground covered by these lessons is sometimes overwhelming, but viewers — including those who dip in and out — will be rewarded by incisive revelations on the cultural and ideological power of photographic imagery. As the Polysnappers wrote: ‘Throughout our work we have endeavoured to speak in plain English drawing from theory in order to make it accessible.’ (from exhibition label) Thus the pedagogic aims of the project are made clear; the laminated panels are a method of media education intended to arm audiences with the tools to stand against both the mainstream media and the ‘intellectual terrorism’ of esoteric theory.
The other series of photographs on display in that room documents Spence’s community education work in 1973-75 after becoming involved in the Children’s Rights Workshop. These unrefined images, some of which are roughly printed with details scribbled on the margins, are social documents sweetly capturing children’s games in adventure playgrounds and their early experimentations with photography. The famously democratising pinhole camera designs are also included. This display bears witness to Spence’s pragmatic community endeavours — a commitment that took her photographic practice far beyond the self-referential realm of the art world, or even of the realm of the self via phototherapy. If ‘to be a Marxist is to muck about in the realm of the concrete’, Spence did not work abstractly in the realm of representation but materially enacted those politics through practice and attempted to use photography in ingenious ways to deconstruct, challenge and educate.
Spence’s philosophy of care returns us to Lucy Lippard’s 1974 suggestion that women in the artworld were not only striving for a bigger piece of a ‘rotten pie’; instead the women’s movement was about producing new standards and structures that would enable audiences to imagine society differently. Spence’s photographs support such a vision, remaining shockingly relevant to current debates about care, education and a consideration of art’s autonomous or social function. Spence’s exploration of the politics of representation is also directly pertinent to our intensely mediated 21st century existence, embedded in a flow of commoditized visual information and requiring the critical tools to negotiate that terrain.
 David McNally and Susan Ferguson qtd in Lise Vogel, 2004, Marxism and the Oppression of Women: Toward a Unitary Theory, Haymarket, p.2