Witnessed through the lens of subcultural groups in the northeast of England, Matt Stokes’ ambitious work is largely based on people’s histories. While his methods are symptomatic of a drift towards cultural studies-based subjects and methods characteristic of much British art, the tone of his research is local-historical, pitched in such a way as to collide with the folksy home publishing and obsessive empirical detail of community heritage groups. Stokes has worked with firefighters during a residency at the Tyne and Wear Fire Service and with pigeon fanciers on allotments in North Tyneside. He has made use of a variety of distribution methods, including FM radio broadcasts in Middlesbrough (QSL FM) and Newcastle (Living Proof) and alternative venues such as Newcastle’s Underground Metro Stations (Memento) and mobile projection space (The Big M). His most recent solo show, “Pills to Purge Melancholy” at the Collective Gallery during August’s Edinburgh Art Festival, involves an investigation into Edinburgh’s subcultures and music scenes.
Nevertheless, it is his work with the Extreme Metal, Northern Soul and Rave communities that Stokes is best known. All are recent historical phenomena that have been superseded by a myriad of pop tribes, which, given the compression of historical time engendered by rapid development of information technology, makes them part of heritage culture. His research for the Real Arcadia (2003-ongoing) project has involved collaborating with Out House Promotions, a free party organization from Lake Windermere that once held raves in a cave. Stokes brings the detail of the PLUR (Peace Love Unity Respect) scene into focus through artifacts, clippings and ephemera relating to the Cave Raves.
Other scenes examined by Stokes still have a legion of loyal followers. Just as Stokes’ pipe organ recital of Northern Soul classics was being premiered at the opening night of East International in Norwich, the Whitby Soul Weekender was underway 240 miles north on the Yorkshire coast. Along with recitals of Happy Hardcore and Black Metal gems, this forms Stokes’ Sacred Selections, a limited edition audio CD/publication produced in association with Locus+, and a touring project that has been aired in churches, at Grizedale Arts, at Dundee Contemporary Arts and most recently at St. Giles Cathedral in Edinburgh. Stokes’s Long After Tonight, a Super 16mm film of a Northern Soul night held in St. Salvador’s Church in Dundee as part of Our Surroundings, secured this year’s Beck’s Futures award.
The R’n’R (Residency and Research) career path is increasingly common in the northeast of England where there is little commercial incentive for artists to produce studio-based work specifically for galleries and where events and unsanctioned spaces are therefore attractive necessities. Stokes’ work has gained audiences through Northern public initiatives including Sheffield’s S1 Salon, Tyneside’s Vane and Workplace, a gallery situated in a brutalist shopping-precinct in Gateshead. These organizations are akin to the subcultural communities that form much of Stokes’ subject matter and are undoubtedly grist to his milieu.