Risky Business Neil Mulholland
David Sherry has produced a series of drawings and paintings and put them on display in the former R. Gauld & Sons grocer’s shop in the Aberdeenshire town of Huntly. They draw attention to some of the stories that he’s gathered during his residency there. A brightly coloured painting, which features also on canvas shopping bags produced by Sherry, shows a cybernetic diagram of the various relations at play in the great Huntly Health and Safety debate. Coloured nodes indicating ‘time’, ‘workers rights’, ‘health and safety law’, ‘company policy’, ‘insurance’, ‘selfresponsibility’, ‘freedoms’, ‘freegans’, ‘suing culture’ and ‘myths’ float on a yellow ground. These are the hot issues that were raised by the local people involved in the project. The painting looks like a Writeboard, it wants to be as organised as the International Time and Motion Studies AGM or a prototypically well-meaning socially engaged art project. But this painting is fumbling, all fingers and thumbs. There’s no faith here in the power of the network to resolve itself, no certainty that these cybernetic systems will achieve equilibrium. The number of ties between the nodes suggests a vortex of indecision, a registrar of disappointment and amused hopelessness in the face of the issues.
This makes sense on a number of levels. There’s no longer the sort of faith in systems, institutions or organisations that there might have been in the last century. In our post-industrial society, there’s no supreme regulatory power. So a government can’t resolve these issues a painting isn’t going to either. A painting can’t provide structure in a society that’s increasingly self-organised and structurally reflexive - nor is Sherry promising to either. What art might do is make us think about these matters a little differently.
The hot Health and Safety issues of Huntly are the perfect fodder for black comedy, and thus for Sherry’s imagination. Seen through the Health and Safety lens everything quickly becomes surreal. A framed drawing of a shoe is accompanied by the moniker ‘high heels on ice’. It looks every inch the passive aggressive note.1 Is it an
unnecessary warning or a West End musical? There’s an anxiety hidden here. Medieval ideas of resignation to fate are overcome by a plethora of perceived risks and horrific risk-effects, of categorised causes and rationalised preventions. This is an industry unlike any other. A red sign bears the oxymoron ‘GOOD ACCIDENT LEADERSHIP’. Sherry’s portrait painting of the artists Beagles and Ramsay is colour-coded psychometrically, as if giving us unique access to their collective consciousness. Can we always manage risks, intervene, choose, and take personal responsibility? Is someone always to blame when an accident happens? The Health and Safety industry would seem to assume so, and does all that it can to persuade us that it has the measures to make sure that the ‘right people’ are placed in key positions of trust and responsibility. Do Beagles and Ramsay, purveyors of human blood black pudding, fit the job description?
A drawing of a kid’s Tree Swing at River looks innocuous enough, a large rubber tyre dangling from an old rope. It’s not being used. In this context, it’s a little melancholic, wistful, a relic of a more carefree time? Here, in a nutshell, is what many feel is lost to Health and Safety culture. No risk leads to stagnation. Play suffers. Kids aren’t playing. As part of Sherry’s climactic Ill-Fated Fête: A Risk Assessed Event in Huntly, Anthony Schragg worked with the local Linden Centre kids, training them in Le Parkour so that they can climb the buildings in the town square. Rather than acquiesce to the coercive logic of the urban plan, the kids learn to self-regulate risk, to assess dangers realistically and to enjoy the thrill of this encounter with the unpredictable and transgressive. The complexity of the issues involved lie at the heart of Schragg’s work. If we don’t play as children, then we won’t play as adults. Fear stifles innovation. Risk is something we have to measure against this greater danger; it’s a balancing act. We are all in a crisis because of too much financial risk taking, but is this preferable to an ever-increasing homogeneity and spirit crushing predictability?
In the window of R. Gauld & Sons Sherry has placed a drawing of an Austin Mini Metro, the “distinctive sloped nose” of which was purportedly “designed to knock down people in the safest possible way.” The bonnet of the car looks like its being pulled down by a huge magnetic force, cowering, as if apologising for straining to make this point. The tale is an absurd one, shot through with perverse incentives and
conflicts of interest. It shows how Health and Safety is often less a question of ‘minimising risk’ (of bring run over) than it is of diverting attention from the real threat (automobiles in general). It also tells us something about how our attitudes to risk have changed since the Metro’s heyday. It was the car of choice for young aspirationals in the early 80s. It had a Sloany image; Lady Di had one when working as a Knightsbridge nanny. Now this constituency drive towering Chelsea Tractors, road warriors designed to mercilessly crush pedestrians and perambulators in ensuring the safety of their Labrador cargo at all costs. The MiniMetro drawing exemplifies, in an understated way, what the anthropologist Mary Douglas called a ‘low grid, high group’ attitude to risk.2 This is to say that it represents a more egalitarian, collectivist Health and Safety attitude where the liberty to drive has to be balanced against the liberty of the pedestrian to safely walk the streets. Today we experience the dominance of the opposite set of values, where the risk of the group is seen to be of less importance than the freedom of the individual.
It wasn’t always like this. The Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (HASAW) initiated many of the changes in attitude to risk that we enjoy (or not) today. It was part of a wave of legislation that came in under the auspices of a fairer and more protective state, including the Equal Pay Act for women. We need to see this in the context of the early 1970s when the Old Etonian Tory government of Ted Heath was swept aside by what promised to be the most radically left-wing Labour government in history. The legislation was finally put in place by Harold Wilson’s last administration to protect workers and consumers of goods and services. This wasn’t regulating itself, or at least was regulating itself in ways that were not acceptable to the greater good.
As a means of establishing the kind of kinship and social responsibility that might have been more common before the industrial revolution, Health and Safety culture is a curious solution. It paradoxically ensures that social responsibility remains depersonalised, contract-based rather than embodied or familial. Hence the widespread adoption of pseudo-scientific psychometrics, something that Sherry’s paintings parody, giving the theory as much weight as colour theories developed by 2
Mary Douglas and Aaron Wildavsky, Risk and Culture, University of California Press, 1982.
abstract painters in the early 20th century. Psychometric testing is widespread in workplaces as a cheap apriori means of reducing the risk of employing the wrong ‘personality type’. Of course there are more personalities than there are typologies only experience can tell if someone is right for a job - but the regulatory terms in which Health and Safety culture operate are explicitly pre-emptive. This means predicting the future at all times; any proffered solution to this insolvable problem is jumped upon. In contrast, drawing and painting is, at least, a more subjectivised way of engaging with the world on your own terms. The culture of Health and Safety, in contrast, doesn’t provide an infrastructure, meaning or value; rather it offers agents the opportunity to negotiate terms and conditions, to receive a limited range of freedoms in exchange for their loyalty to this dominant, frustrated, bureaucratic culture.
Despite its depersonalising effect, Health and Safety at Work established a bulwark against the supposition of modern subjects that their liberty, their protesting individualism, is something to be protected at all costs. According to the conventions of social liberalism (Douglas’ high grid, low group model), people are entirely responsible for their own actions. They choose what they think is an acceptable level of risk for themselves and negotiate, or purchase, a space to exercise their liberty. The social contract that Health and Safety culture established (or re-established perhaps) contests this position by asserting that societies cannot be entirely left to their own devices, to adjust their behaviour. They offer a paternalistic hand to enable basic standards to be maintained. In a social democratic model (Douglas’ low grid, high group model), people are responsible for and to one another, their risk is shared. There’s clearly no consensus on these matters, they vary from one society to another, from one time to the next – they are the tinned meat and hot potatoes of daytime radio discussions.
Sherry’s project in Huntly gets to the heart of this debate. It’s apt that Huntly should be the town-is-the-venue for this project. Claudia Zeiske of Deveron Arts, who trained as an anthropologist, has based her curatorial approach on testing out different ways that invited artists ingratiate themselves with this particular local environment. The town of 4,000 is a microcosm of Scotland in many ways. Once an important
textile-manufacturing town, it is now known as much for its proximity to the oil belt and tourist circuit. It is as tightly knit and divided as any other town in Scotland.
How do people in Huntly experience this culture? How do they conceptualise risk? Do they negotiate it or accept it? Are they willing to take risks? Do they get pleasure from risk? What stories do they have to tell about it? To find out, Sherry has created a Health and Safety Booth, a cardboard box that he takes around town and to local markets to gather opinion. Sherry plays it deadpan, remaining as disinterested as he possibly can. Like an anthropologist, he uses survey data and semi-structured interviews to draw out the attitudes of the people of Huntly. Sedulously empirical, he wears a florescent hi-vis coat; he speaks with people about their experiences of risk. He’s also established R. Gauld & Sons as the HQ of the Out of Date Society. Here he holds weekly meetings to update members on the activity of the society and to offer them free out of date cakes. Sherry is a good listener and knows how to draw out a good yarn from folk. He’s a genial host and the Out of Date Society is well attended, particularly when Phil Kay turns up to give him a safety-approved haircut. On top of this, Sherry indulges in participant observation, training as a risk analyst and testing out the difficulties faced by Health and Safety officers at first hand. Sherry’s empathy with the people of Huntly is genuine, his knowledge of the concerns diverse and informed.
The result of this is an A-Z, a series of anecdotes that Sherry has made public in a presentation at the local Ex-serviceman’s Club. There are numerous examples of the tension between the idea of risk as a subjective, socially constructed phenomenon and the idea that risk is real and can be objectivised. This isn’t a Health and Safety culture divide that cuts neatly across those who uphold libertarianism against those who tend to favour social responsibility, rather, it’s a subtle shift of perception that’s informed by experience. Within this there are other narratives that are very distinctive of the Huntly area - offshore safety, small hotelier’s costs - revealing that these perceptions are formed by the pressures of everyday life, by gender, occupation, group membership and location.
This is evident in the personal stories that Sherry hears; a litany of pressures and counter pressures. In Sherry’s lexicon, M is for Money. A big question on everyone’s
lips was ‘what does risk assessment and health and safety cost’? The costs of compliance for small businesses such as the Huntly Hotel are ever escalating. ‘No win no fee’. A combination of fraudulent insurance claims and the UK’s increasingly litigious culture doesn’t help matters here. Larger corporations and institutions find this easier to absorb, but the cost of staying in business is escalating out of control. Is insurance an answer to this? Perhaps insurance just makes a person lazy and less responsible, which means that they become less safe. Local people working on the oil rigs argue that there can be no financial constraints when it comes to offshore work, you can’t put a price on someone’s life. Or can you? ‘Dead peasant’ life insurance is a sick lottery that results from the incentives available to companies to buy their way out of their social responsibilities. D is for drunk. Bar staff aren’t allowed to serve people who are drunk. But what is ‘drunk’? Can’t people decide this for themselves? Not, it would seem, if they are drunk! Time to call last orders?