In 2017, Tom James collaborated with Alex Hartley to build a geodesic dome from reclaimed materials on the grounds of a country mansion. Then they invited various experts and members of the public to join them and learn together how we can survive in a collapsing world. Most of the workshops involved learning the kind of skills that modernity has rendered obsolete: making your own booze, harnessing wind power for electricity, making a foxhole radio, foraging for something edible, finding your way by looking at the night sky, etc. A couple of workshops even explored how to rebuild democracy and how to die.
Continuing his exploration into a future that will probably depend more on DIY and basic survival skills than on the thrills of green, sleek smart cities, the artist recently launched Absolute Beginners. The project is a new factory where young people can learn how to make basic goods that used to be produced locally – and which we might need to make again in the uncertain economies of our future.
The first edition of Absolute Beginners took place over 9 months in 2021 in an old factory in West London. Three groups of local 17-21 year olds learnt to make one product -a cup, a pair of sandals or paper- using simple tools, local materials and off-grid power.
James’ endeavours might sound a bit melodramatic but there’s something daring and inspiring in his way to confront anxieties with practical, small scale solutions. He kindly accepted my request to interview him:
Tom James, Absolute Beginners. To make clay cups off-grid, you need to build a brick kiln. Here it is, being assembled inside the factory space by Cam Biddell and one of the young people. Photo courtesy of the artist
The Clearing was all about learning to live off-grid, in this idea of a collapsing future: how to light fires, dig toilets, keep chickens, make mead, build radios. And it was a great place to actually be; it felt amazing to live in this DIY way. But I noticed that all the things we were making still relied on particular products from the outside world. We still needed saws to cut the wood for the chicken coop, or large glass jars to make mead in, or copper wire for the radio. Basically living ‘off-grid’ means that you’re still reliant on someone else making things – basic goods – somewhere else.
And I just got really interested in this idea of basic goods: all of these things we use everyday – our clothes, cups, shoes, pencils, buckets, pans, even the ball-bearings in our bike wheels – which we just take completely for granted. We don’t know who makes them, or how they’re made, or where they come from. We just walk into a shop and they’re just there. So I started to wonder what it might be like to try to make a factory where you could make these things off-grid, too.
Absolute Beginners is all about radical sustainability. What does being radically sustainable look like exactly?
I think it’s not making things worse, right? The economy that we’ve got, which we’ve let them build around us over fifty years, is based on mining or extracting raw materials in super destructive ways, shipping them across the world, making them into a product that’s as cheap as possible, using that product once, and then throwing it in a bin when it breaks. The impact of this economy can be seen all around us: in terms of deforestation, in terms of workers rights, in terms of emissions and climate change. It’s literally cooking us alive like lobsters in a pot.
So if you only used local materials, or abundant waste materials around you, or simple tools that you can fix yourself, or local power – perhaps the world wouldn’t be on fire.
But I also think it’s about different ways of using and buying the stuff. So rather than the economy that we have, we could be using and repairing and fixing and refilling and sharing and rotting down goods, which are made locally, for a fair wage. It’s basically trying to invent a new economy which doesn’t kill us, which is quite hard to do in a year-long art project.
A medieval box-comb cutter, living his best life, just about to go off for a feast
All this local, low-tech, non-global economy looks exhausting though. And the result of your efforts is not always very pretty. But I’m sure the whole process was not as bad as i make it sound. How would you sell the beauty and advantages of this type of radically sustainable production?
Ha! How dare you? To be fair, it is exhausting. Skinning the tyres for the tyre sandals was a complete nightmare: so slow and such hard work. And it’s important not to fetishise it – making basic goods by hand is much slower, much harder work than pressing a button on an assembly line. But maybe that’s just if you’re trying to compete with The Man?
The idea of a factory that we have in our heads is really recent. For most of history we only did work when there was work to do – only made the amount of things we actually needed. I have this image on my wall of a of a Medieval box-comb cutter. He’s sitting there in his tunic, and he has a certain amount of box-combs to make that day, and it’s light, and the door’s open. Now, I’m aware that I downloaded that image off twitter, onto my computer made in Shenzhen, but the point still stands – that seems like quite a good life to me.
With The Clearing, i had the impression that what mattered was to collaborate and build something with others. AB is more about making ultra-simple objects. Does it mean that it is less important to rely on the others?
No, I don’t think so, because you’re still sitting side by side, still learning from each other. You’re still using your hands, next to other people, and you can talk and chat and listen to music and hear the work going on. One of the failings of the project was that some of the workshops were too hectic, and I don’t think we had enough time to talk about the big issues, the economics, all that side of it. But the young people basically talked about it anyway, whilst they were making, with conversations about fake meat and leather and Moana and their schools, and gossip of course.
I was also relying on all the other people involved in the project – you can’t set up a factory on your own. The workshops for each product were made by a different maker: Lucy Baxandall led the paper making; Lauren Macdonald led the tyre sandals (and more than her fair share of tyre-skinning); Camille Biddell led the cups workshop. Cam Jarvis from When It Works led on working with the youth, keeping them safe and helping them navigate in this art world they might not have been in before. Jon Cannon did the graphics, Rachael Clerke did the banners. Without all those people, it wouldn’t have worked.
A project like Absolute Beginners (but also The Clearing and The King’s Cross Gas Workshop) projects us into the future as much as it makes us look at a past when most people had basic skills that are now completely lost in Europe. Do you feel that being sustainable automatically means going backwards?
This is a difficult one. I’m naturally a Luddite, and drawn to a simpler way of living. To work less and have less money but more time to do the things you want with your few years of existence, seems really obvious to me. To walk and cycle basically for nothing, instead of sitting in traffic jams, fuming, in cars that you have to work your whole life to pay for – it’s common sense, simple common sense.
But at the same time, we can’t really go backwards, because that way lies patriarchy and slavery and no rights for women, or gay people, or trans people. And we don’t need to. We have all of the tools we need to build a world that’s powered by renewable energy, that’s comfortable and safe, where everybody has enough. We just need to demand it.
What did you learn from the participants themselves?
Two things really. First, that young people today are amazing and resourceful and capable, and far more mature than I was as a 17 year old. Some of the young people we worked with could just pick up a skill and do it, solve problems, suggest ideas. Doing Absolute Beginners has left me feeling a lot more hopeful about the future.
And the second is that the way I talk about my work, and about the future, has to change. For years I’ve been making work about climate change that’s trying to be a bit ironic, a bit funny – talking about how to ‘survive and thrive in a world where the flood water is round our ankles, and Big Sainsbury’s is on fire’, that sort of thing.
But I’ve realised that this joke isn’t funny anymore. Climate change isn’t something that’s just around the corner any longer – it’s happening now. And because the young people who live near Park Royal are from really diverse backgrounds, there’s a chance that some of them might have family in places where temperatures are in the 50s (THE FIFTIES), or from places where the floods are destroying towns, or where the crops are failing and people are having to leave and migrate. So it’s not enough to do something that’s ‘half useful and half useless’ any more, as I used to describe my work. It can’t be about surviving in some imaginary future. It needs to be useful, now.
The economic side of the project is quite interesting too. Could you say something about it? The products made were sold during a design event. The proceeds were split 50/50 with the young people involved in the project. They were also paid London Living Wage for the time they spent working on the products. Why was it important to compensate people for their work rather than just have a fun afternoon learning and doing stuff together?
Because they are the art! The idea of a factory where young people can learn how to make basic goods wouldn’t work without the young people. I think it’s important that, if I’m getting paid to run this project, they’re getting paid too.
To be honest we didn’t sell enough stock – we only had the Factory Shop open for two days, and we didn’t do an online shop this time. This is something I really want to change in Absolute Beginners 2, to make it easier to buy the stuff, so that more people can get their hands on the products.
What were the strangest, most unexpected challenges you encountered during these workshops?
Skinning the tyres! Honestly, what a ball-ache. We chose to make a product – tyre sandals – which is made across the developing world, where the tyres are solely made of rubber. But in Europe, tyres are reinforced with steel wire, which meant we couldn’t cut through them. So we had to laboriously skin the top layer off. It took forever.
The other challenge was the pandemic, of course. We did the first workshop, making paper, on zoom, which was really hard. The young people did really well, and the workshop leader, Lucy Baxandall, was amazing and patient and kind. But we still made loads of mistakes because we just couldn’t see what the young people were doing. When they came together later in the project to make paper in person, the difference was incredible. Real life is the best.
You are now working on Absolute Beginners 2. Do you already know what it will look like, the kind of products you will produce and how different it might be to AB1?
I know I want it to be much more real, more useful, to intervene more in the economy. For example, I’d really like to make soap, and then find ways to get that soap into every cafe toilet across Park Royal. We could sell it for £5 a bar to people who think it’s art, and 20p a bar to people who think it’s just a basic good. This is a trick I’ve learnt from my heroes at Company Drinks.
And I also want it to become a real place, and some kind of legal entity – a not-for- profit Community Interest Company, where we can potentially respond to all these different things that are going to go wrong over the next few years, as climate change starts to bite. There’s an artist called Julian Oliver who has this phrase ‘weedy infrastructure’, and I think that’s really what we need: bottom-up, not-for- profit spaces where we try out new ways of making the stuff we need.
Absolute Beginners is a project by Tom James, commissioned by Old Oak & Park Royal Development Corporation, as part of In The Making. Youth engagement by Cam Jarvis (When It Works). Workshops led by Lucy Baxandall, Lauren MacDonald and Camille Biddell. Graphic design by Jon Cannon. Banners by Rachael Clerke.