An Interview with Edwin Mingard — The founder of unMonastery?
Last month I met with Edwin Mingard, a filmmaker based in London, whose work is concerned with the way we collectively understand and use moving image to look at ourselves.
Our conversation though was less focused on cinematography or the nature of film itself but more specifically the inspiring initiatives Edwin has been involved in. As well as his crucial role in the very early stage development of unMonastery and where his alternative fork in that journey took him over the last few years, namely his great work on Deptford Cinema. Which is described on their website as follows:
“The London Borough of Lewisham is one of only two London boroughs with no dedicated cinema. Deptford Cinema is a project designed to rectify this with the building of a new venue for film and the arts. Deptford Cinema is being built by the local community, for the community. Whilst still mid-build, the cinema once complete will comprise a 40 seat screen, darkroom, gallery space and a fully licensed cafe/bar.”
Meeting with Edwin for the first time in long time a few months back I was deeply struck by what he (along with others) had achieved in such a short period of time, and the echoes of earlier conversations we’d had, particularly in respect to what we had sort to achieve in the articulation of the unMonastery model. Following that first initial meeting it was clear to me that there was much to learn.
Whilst this interview was initially intended as means to share that story and some of it’s learnings with those currently focused on unMonastery work, it felt important for us to share and highlight this work and it’s inspiration with broader audience, what follows is an edited extract of that conversation.
Ben: The impetus for this interview comes about as a result of a gathering in Strasbourg a few years ago, and because together with others we began working on a project called unMonastery. Perhaps it was actually three years ago now, and in a way, you’re kind of the founder of that project, at least in terms of data points, as well as formulating many of the foundational concepts for the project.
With that as a starting point I wondered if you could say how you ended up in Strasbourg at the first EdgeRyders conference?
Edwin: Yes. I was doing a bit of work at the RSA, which was for me a weird experience in its own, a good but odd experience. It was my first time ever on an organisation’s payroll, and I met somebody really interesting there called Gaia Marcus, and one day we were just sitting there and she was like “Oh, have you seen this? There’s a thing going on in Strasbourg.” We had no idea what it really was, it looked very… You know, when central government designs something for the youth, it had that kind of vibe to it, but it looked like there were interesting people behind it and we would meet all kinds of interesting people there, so we just signed up and then ended up there, which, again, you know, it paid off like 10 times over I feel like.
I met quite a few really interesting people from there who I’m still in touch with, and the conversations there in general just felt really valuable. There was a disconnect with what was going on with the Council of Europe, but there were clearly some people there as well who had probably fought quite hard for that to happen.
Ben: And so there was this particular conversation that I’ve referenced quite a lot when people ask me “Where did the unMonastery come from?” and the default response for this, “Well, there was a room of about 30 people discussing their very basic needs and desires…” Looking back though, what is your recollection, with regards to that conversation, in which we began to discuss physical spaces and a new way of living in the world?
Edwin: I remember… That was something — I guess because of my background, and I wasn’t the only person in that room with that kind of background — that was something I felt strongly about. I think people work in different ways, and there are some people who, for example, work very much in an online way, or in a networked way. I’m not saying that such an approach isn’t important, but I’ve always felt quite strongly about the importance of doing things with your hands, and being in the same room with other people acting together in a real action kind of way.
So, we were having this conversation about a wider social problem, a Pan-European problem, caused by the financial crisis, and longer-term factors, which had resulted in a generation — probably the most educated that Europe has ever produced, whilst also being the most unemployed. You can see that as a huge social problem, but you can also see it as an amazing resource that, for some reason, the people who paid for it aren’t willing to tap, and maybe you could do something nice with that.
We were talking about different ways that could happen, asking “If you were to design a model that could do something quite radical with these conditions, what would it look like?” And yeah, I remember that very much the focus was on models, and also just having a few people in the room who you could pick out who were really — basically, I guess it comes back to what I was saying about action. I felt like I could recognise those people, because whenever we said “What should we do?” one of those people would say, “I will do it. I’ve got some space somewhere. I’m willing to go somewhere”. And that was really exciting.
Ben: That’s actually an interesting point, because I remember at the end of that conversation we said, “Raise your hand if you’re prepared to pack your bag and leave tomorrow, to realise this project.” and of a room of maybe thirty people there were eight, and I recently looked back at the document with that list, and five of that eight actually ended up being directly involved in the project later on.
But, it’s been a long time since that moment in 2012, a lot has happened, we’ve prototyped unMonastery to some acclaim, but after 6 months you disappeared from the project and the impetus for this interview is really to highlight the work you have done since then and recognise your contribution to the creation of unMonastery.
And so could I ask you to explain?
Edwin: Okay, so yes, I was one of those eight people who put their hand in the air but then didn’t end up in Matera, and I guess there were all kinds of reasons for that. Some to do with the projects, and some to do with me, and, you know the circumstances we all kind of live under. And I guess I’ve spent a lot of that time actually making work, and my work, again this involves dealing with similar issues. I’ve been making a lot of work that explores ideas around how film is made and who makes it, and the importance of that, and alternative structures for approaching that.
Perhaps more central to your question that we’re going to talk about is what I did with some friends, kind of old and new, in setting up a cinema in one of the two London boroughs that has no cinema, which is an entirely volunteer-led, not-for-profit organisation. Its mission statement is to providing high-quality film and art for people who don’t have access to it.
Ben: Something that particularly striking to me is how much overlap there is in the conversations that we had in 2012 and how, with the cinema, you have realised this within a functioning durable structure.
I think it’s exceptionally important to point out that this cinema is not funded by the state, nor does it receive foundation funding or cultural funding or anything of that order but is able to exist and sustain itself.
If you could talk me through specifically how you began to establish it, and why you chose not to seek funding?
Edwin: Well, you grew up in the same political and economic circumstances that I did, and I feel despite Europe’s different political structures for most of us of this generation those things have been broadly the same.
We grew up in an era of relative prosperity where somewhere between left and centre-right governments, they consistently pursued broadly progressive social programmes, things like education and the arts and health care were being funded, and the level of funding was rapidly increasing. A lot of organisations that formed in the 80s, or in the previous Conservative administrations with very little money were, under New Labour, being given a lot of money, which was an amazing thing.
Then the recession happened; what you saw then was this huge social structure, all of these really great organisations, some of which had incredibly interesting histories and which had been built into large structures with a lot of funding, and when somebody made the decision to pull the rug from under them — which wasn’t inevitable — the structures which fell down were much larger and fell much harder and there were a lot of people who the arts let down in that moment, “You know, this cool thing that used to be down the road from here is no longer there,” kind of way, and in more pressing areas of life, people were let down much more seriously.
So, I guess we both grew up in that environment and seeing that happen. Whilst we live in a structure where people can gamble with everyone else’s housing debts then the instability that creates means that anything that relies on steady public funding streams is just extremely vulnerable, and if you really believe in something then it can’t be vulnerable.
Ben: And in terms of that economic model, that you believe to be more resilient than the economic conditions you’ve described, what you deployed in order to not take those routes… How does that function practically?
Edwin: When you have no funding, and no hope of funding, you can be quite ingenious I guess, and a lot of late-night spider diagrams and envelopes exist that show that. I had noticed that private rents in London — I say I’d noticed, as if everyone hadn’t, but [laughs] — private rents in London have been beyond a joke for a very long time, and deposits that people have to pay on shitty flats in Zone 3 have been beyond a joke for some time as well. The weird side effect of that was — at a time when commercial space isn’t really being fully utilized because of the recession and there’s a housing crisis — a situation where if you’ve got enough private rental deposits together, it was possible instead to get a long-term commercial lease on a building that way exceeded what you would need to live in, especially if you were prepared for a few months to live like sardines to ensure the project could happen.
I guess that was how it began. We just pounded the pavements for months. We knew why we wanted to project happen for social reasons, and it was just months and months of hard work by a lot of people who really believed in that, with a financial model that included all kinds of other things as well, but basically took advantage of every single weakness that we could identify to create the foundation of that organisation.
Ben: And in terms of the people that you’ve worked with, were they self-selecting, or was it an existing group?
Edwin: The invitation to take part in something was made as a group to everyone, and then certain people accepted that. It was to unMonastery where It was like unMonastery in that I was aware that if we were to do this thing — and I was the only person with any background in film, and possibly in organisational structures — that if it was to happen there would be certain skills required. Some of them were practical skills or professional skills.
Way more important than that was, in the same vein as that conversation in that room, the kind of person who says, “I will do something.” Then you leave them to their own devices, and when you come back later they’ve done it. The importance of that — which I don’t really know how you express it, as “skill” feels like the wrong word — but the importance of that attitude or attribute in a person… I just think I can see that incan’t think I can weigh heavily enough on every good person I know; that is really central to how they are and how they behave.
Ben: I agree.
I think maybe before we go into more detail, it makes sense to zoom out a little and give an overview in terms of time frame. The project has been operating during the last 12 months? And exactly when it start, and what’s happened in that time?
Edwin: Yeah, pretty much. We got our feet through the door of building about 10–11 months ago. At that time we were sleeping on floorboards in a building that had no power and washing clothes in a launderette around the corner. You know, cooking together on a gas hob, and the space that we hoped would one day be a cinema was full of an insane amount of dangerous landlord-owned junk, and there was a huge hole in the floor. [laughs] Yeah, so that was then. There was also no organisational structure, we were just going to “build a cinema,” and this was somehow going to happen. You know, maybe one of the best ways of making sure that it happens is to… I don’t know, like if you’re… If you’re stuck at sea and you really need to make sure that something makes it to land, maybe if you just tie yourself to it, perhaps that’s the best way of ensuring that that will happen — like, either it survives or nothing does — and maybe we kind of did that. We just put all our eggs in one basket on purpose.
So, since then we had that initial period of a few people working very hard to put in the very tedious and very hard groundwork, so that we weren’t just going out and holding meaningless meetings with people where we were suggesting the idea that there might be a cinema in a place. When we first got in touch with anyone about the existence of the project, what we were able to say was, “We’ve got a building, there’s a non-profit legal entity, a cinema is going to happen — it would be better if you’re involved,” and that was the offer. All of this stuff is documented, but off the top of my head it feels like it was in about July when we had our first public meeting. We were just overwhelmed by the number of people who we’ve never met before who just showed up, many of whom are now close friends, who said, “Someone handed me a flier in the street. I’m here to help build a cinema.” And now… we’ve kind of done that, there’s a lot of work still to do, but there’s what physically looks like a cinema; there’s a functioning organisation that pays its way.
Ben: In terms of bringing people into the space, involving the local community, you just mentioned, “Somebody handed me a flier on the street.” How did you make people aware and ensure people are actually able to participate?
Edwin: Yes, that was really central, at that point I don’t think we even had a web presence. We were looking for people who would get involved in a real physical way and not like “click favourite.” It was an organisation with a specific purpose for the local community, which was both residents of that borough and people from London. The best way it seemed to meet those people was to walk out on to the street, so that’s what we did. We printed out loads of fliers just saying “We want to build a cinema — please help.” I remember it said “Please help us!” in massive letters across the top, you know because that seemed kind of important. [laughs]
And we just went out every evening, every weekend we would do that, and we would also sweep the space clean. For example, take down dangerous things in preparation for these meetings that were going to happen pretty soon, and we would do that all day and all evening. People would walk past and just ask what we were doing and we’d hand them fliers. It’s a weird thing, you see people doing that stuff for like club nights or whatever in the street all the time, and you can watch those guys just being told relentlessly where to go with different degrees of politeness by people passing by. I never put a flier in someone’s hand, or attempted to, without them taking it and smiling, and normally asking how we were planning to start a cinema and expressing interest — not once.
That was really incredible.I kind of feel like the way online interaction has worked has actually shifted the way people behave socially in the real world, in that there’s an understanding that you say, “I’m running an event or I’m going to do this thing,” and the invitation to anyone to take part is open to all, and that’s really great. But the flip side of that is that no one is ever actually invited. You don’t go up to someone and say “I would like you to be there,” and for a lot of people that’s really important. It’s not just like, “Oh, no one’s going to stop me being involved in this.” It’s more like, “There’s a person who actually wants me to be involved.” I feel like for a lot of people who became quite heavily involved that was a really important first step.
Ben: That’s really interesting, because I think one of the things that we struggled with in Matera with unMonastery and also subsequently, was the issue of what we’ve come to refer to as a permission mechanism. It’s very easy to say on the Internet or even a flyer, “It’s open for everybody — please come.” And then no one does and I think that’s one of the things that we’ve really struggled with. It’s basic, but it’s also very difficult to achieve in a meaningful way.
Edwin: And if you’re not struggling with those things then you’re doing them perfectly, and I’ve yet to meet that person.
You know, we work really hard at doing those things, and I often feel — and everybody feels — like there is just so much that we should be doing that we’re not, mainly due to capacity issues. Everyone involved in the organisation lives in London, pays London rents and works three low-paid London jobs to support that. People do small things for the cinema, and you realise how far they went out of their way to do those things. It’s just something you have to work relentlessly hard at. The worst is just seeing people talk about how they seek to represent underserved, underprivileged groups who they may have never met, and certainly aren’t going out of their way to meet and work with. It’s just all too easy to.
Ben: There were some details that I wanted to focus on. One thing in particular is governance model, but maybe we should start with the legal entity that’s been set up and how decisions get made in relation to people that are volunteering?
Edwin: We’re a CIC, which is essentially a private company that is prevented from making a profit of any kind, and it has to demonstrate every year — sorry if this is a bit simplistic [laughs] — it has to demonstrate every year that it’s achieving some kind of social good. That’s broadly what a CIC exists to do. Now, that’s not perfect for what we necessarily want to do, but it gives us better options than being a charity or similar, in that we live in a country that bends over for private companies. So a model that is a private company but is not for profit and has social aims gives us a lot of freedom and allows us to do what we want to do. Everyone broadly knows what they are, and so it’s a bit of a yardstick that just says, “This organisation exists for you, not for anybody else. There is a legally backed government mechanism that ensures that nobody can ever take anything out of this organisation; it can only exist to provide things for you.”
Now, because of that structure, it has a lot of things that a private company has. It can have shareholders if you want, and it has to have directors. We decided that those structures were not the structures that we wanted, but we were legally obliged to have them by the government, and we would find other things — getting a bank account et cetera — very difficult if we didn’t. We chose to go along with them in name only, so there are people who are directors of the organisation, which entitles them to no additional say above and beyond any other volunteer in how the organisation works. They are, at the same time, obliged basically to sign off decisions made by a large group of people.
We have a constitution that’s constantly in draft, and the idea is that the decision-making body is the public meeting, which happens once a week. Anyone can come to those meetings, and anyone who does come to those meetings is part of the cinema and has full decision-making ability. There’s something really powerful about that and also really effective. It means you come into the organisation at the top rather than the bottom. I think it’s difficult sometimes getting people to recognise that, because we don’t live in that structure normally, that you suddenly enter a space where you actually can do anything. A lot of people come along to a few meetings and don’t really say anything, but then after a few meetings they’ll suggest they want to programme some films, or you’ll hear that they’ve been to another group to do something specific, or they’ll show up for a building session or whatever — you know, that’s really important. Just that people understand that that is where the decisions are made is quite powerful as well.
Ben: And in terms of the actual public meetings, how is a decision made?
Edwin: It’s consensus. We don’t vote on anything, with the exception of the right to have a vote about something basically if wethey deem it very trivial, and the discussion could take a long time, like, “What brand of toilet paper should we buy?” We can just raise our hands because it doesn’t matter. For anything of any importance we don’t vote; it’s consensual. But we’ve also gone quite far out of our way, for example, not to use a lot of quite formal consensus decision-making techniques, there’s no jazz hands. Those things were done really consciously, we wanted someone who isn’t… I don’t know… doesn’t follow Occupy on Twitter to be able to step into a room with a load of people they don’t know and not feel like there was a code or a language going on that they didn’t understand. If we couldn’t do it in plain English then we couldn’t do it.
A lot of those things just quite intrinsically make sense, or you can lead by example, so people who’ve been there a while and maybe been to a few meetings will be able to just show people in a very normal way how it works, and it just seems like a load of people in a room having a reasonable conversation, which essentially it is. Maintaining that is quite important.
Ben: I’ve focused a lot on specific aspects that are of particular relevance to unMonastery, but clearly it’s a cinema. So, what kind of films do you show?
Edwin: Well, since every thing’s done by volunteers, and anyone can be a volunteer, then any film can end up showing in the cinema. I guess we show everything between art-house cinema and a kind of mainstream alternative cinema — anything between that and maybe quite far-out film performance, expanded cinema. We’ve done a couple of music events. There’s something quite special about running a music event in a cinema.
You need to be a reliable source of high-quality art for an audience, if you’re really seeking to serve that audience. That involves signposting things, which is difficult when programmed by a very large group, so we programme in strands, which is very important, and also that the programming reflects the communities that we seek to serve. One of the ways to do that obviously is to make sure that the group, and therefore the people who programme, represent the broader community. But there’s also an element of — you know, we live in a very ethnically diverse part of the world and part of the city. So, for example, we’re showing a season of films at the moment, 10 films, each of which is about the experience of being a young person in a different parts of the world.
Aside from the fact that it gives you a really nice global perspective in its sum total, it also means that recently we showed a Chinese film, a really amazing Chinese film called Song of Silence last week, and there were just loads of people from different Southeast Asian backgrounds, who I hadn’t met before, who came along exclusively because that film was showing. We had the same when we showed a really amazing Iranian film a couple of weeks before that. We’re showing a Greek film made during the financial crisis next week, and the director’s coming over from Athens. For us, that’s really exciting, and I assume the same thing will happen again.
Ben: That leads on really well to what will probably be my last question. One of the ideas that we talked about early on together in relation to unMonastery, was that of creating a network and connecting to other spaces. I wonder in respect to the cinema is there a connection between yourself and other cinemas, or is it purely isolated?
Edwin: I was part of setting up a network called Kino Climates, which is a Pan-European network of alternative not-for-profit screening venues, and it has a few representatives in every country. I guess I was involved in that at around the time that you and I originally met. The network has a couple of functions; one of which is a big meeting every year where people from all of those cinemas come together. I’m involved quite heavily to some degree in three of those organisations, and Deptford Cinema is the building that I live in. We have this big meet-up where we programme films together for a week and run workshops for each other. Basically, any cinema shows up that year and they’ve done something really amazing, and every other cinemaone just wants to know how they did it, in a really practical way, there’s that side of things.
Another side of things is that you’re dealing with a continent, and some bits of that continent are in a completely different position from others. For example, in Western Europe cinemas have been closing down for decades. The idea is that you can get the basic practical ingredients to set up a cinema basically for free, if you know the right people or are asking the right questions — seats, projectors, very expensive equipment, old equipment that someone else is chucking out is very easy to get a hold of. There are parts of Europe where that just isn’t the case at all, and creating this organisation that can basically funnel the wealth of Western Europe into parts of Southern Europe that don’t have that heavily funded arts infrastructure, that was a really important part of that as well. We all care about the same things, and I support an amazing cinema in Thessaloniki as much as I would support one in Bristol.
Deptford Cinema relies upon the community who come along and support its film and events programme, but it also relies upon a network of volunteers who put in their time to make the organisation what it is.
If you would like to join Deptford Cinema and get involved in any capacity. It’s simple as coming along to one of their Sunday meetings, held each week within the cinema at 4PM. The organisation has no hierarchy, each volunteer is on equal footing and all decisions are made as a group at these regular meetings. More details here.