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The Rio Cinema and the 1981-6 GLC

ECOLOGIES | Essays  }

Lucy McFadzean / October 16, 2021
Much of the focus on the cultural politics of the GLC in the 1980s has been on flagship campaigns and events. The Rio Cinema tells a different story: the nurturing of a cultural ecology. 3636 words / 15 min read

Photo: The Rio Cinema today, by Andrew Woodyatt


Now more than ever we need to imagine futures beyond our current one. We need imaginative solutions to the impending climate catastrophe, to tackle right wing populism, to the entrenched socioeconomic differences this pandemic has highlighted. I’m certainly not the first, nor will I be the last to say this (it’s almost reaching parody, a parroting of slick advertising and think tank language). I also won’t be the first or last to assert the role of culture in fostering this imaginative turn. Why then, does so much cultural policy discourse (at least in the academy) focus on creative industries driven (certainly funded) qualitative impact surveys, of policies proven time and again to be largely ineffectual in supporting different futures, and embracing little of the imaginative thinking we supposedly need?

I believe there is still a place for thinking imaginatively about cultural policy and policymaking, outside of today’s creative-industries-academic-think-tank nexus. I hold out hope for there being the space and funding, in some future leftist state form, for an imaginative cultural policy centred on commoning, participatory democracy and radical imagination. In the meantime, I think the GLC between 1981-6, their cultural policies, can offer us an insight into how we might begin to root a radical left cultural policy.

The GLC famously undertook a political cultural policy, in which they sponsored a wide range of community arts, Black arts, and cultural industries between 1981-6. The GLC’s cultural experiments have been described variously as a beacon “of progressive, anti-racist, left leaning activities” creating “social democracy zones”1 in a “strategy of (disruptive) politicisation,”2 giving the period an almost mythical quality in cultural policy discourse – what Justin O’Connor has described as “the final blaze” of the cultural politics of the radical left. The GLC’s cultural policies have a place in history and the common imagination, as an exciting flash of activity, possibility, and action in London, but one which arguably, in the succeeding years, came to be overshadowed, came to be momentary. Yet, what few detailed accounts there are of the GLC’s cultural offer often focus on their flagship policies – their summer festivals, their themed years like Peace Year and Anti-Racist Year and the resulting murals and campaigns – and are rightly sceptical of much of the celebration around the Council’s work. Paul Gilroy was famously critical of the GLC’s municipal anti-racism, pointing towards the Council’s narrow definitions of anti-racism, and the limits of the state’s institutional structures and power with regards any transformative racial politics.3 Owen Hatherley, similarly, referencing the important work of Hazel Atashroo (as well as Gilroy) into the GLC’s experiments in cultural democracy, celebrates the Council’s vision for London and the resonance of their cultural offer, but questions whether their flagship festivals and attempts to open up the Southbank were an overall success.4

In trying to understand why the GLC’s cultural policies hold so much resonance for so many during the period, despite the limitations of their flagship policies, I want to make the case here for the ecology of cultural campaigning projects the Council sponsored across the city. Not reducible to a single campaign or project, the GLC’s infrastructural sponsorship of bookshops, filmmaking collectives, theatre groups, fostered what I am calling an agonistic cultural ecology across London. I believe it is this GLC fostered cultural ecology which resonates so clearly with Londoners and those memories of culture in the city during this period. It is this, I want to argue, that was the crucial cultural achievement of the GLC in the period.

In trying to understand why the GLC’s cultural policies hold so much resonance, despite the limitations of their flagship policies, I want to make the case for the ecology of cultural campaigning projects the Council sponsored.

Here, honing in on the Rio Cinema in Hackney as one such agonistic ‘node’ in the GLC’s cultural ecology, I want to show how the GLC’s cultural support for the cinema in connection with a multitude of other nearby projects, played an important role in fostering an ecology of community empowered agonism in Hackney during the early 1980s.

Fostering an agonistic cultural ecology

Through a cultural policy which emphasised collective provision of space and equipment, and which took a political definition of culture, across London, the GLC built up an agonistic cultural ecology within the city. What do I mean by agonistic cultural ecology? I understand the GLC’s approach as twofold. On the one hand, they supported a kind of oppositional, political – agonistic – culture, to use Mouffe’s term, that worked in and against the state. On the other, their provision of cultural infrastructure created a mutually supportive cultural ecology across the city. The GLC, in their role as a strategic body spanning whole areas of London, were able to support whole networks of spaces, campaigns and media projects, and their Community-Arts Sub Committee, discussed here, was the first (and therefore longest standing) of the newer arts committees established between 1981-6.

Critical to the Council’s fostering of a cultural ecology was their emphasis on infrastructure. Rather than funding cultural products – film productions, plays, publications – the Community Arts Sub Committee distributed money for physical spaces, equipment, technical training and the wages of cultural workers. The Rio serves here as one example of where this support went. Most ambitiously, the Council envisaged creating an “independent media distribution network’ across the city, involving ‘support for community cinemas or some model of media centres”.5 In working towards this, they provided strategic, infrastructural support (as opposed to choosing who to fund on the basis of their cultural outputs) and placed the cultural and political power in the hands of cultural producers, whilst providing them some degree of economic security. This kind of infrastructural support resonates with an understanding of culture, in line with Raymond Williams, that emphasises institutional-democratic forms, rather than individual cultural outputs and products.6 This too sits in important contrast to the individualised, precarious figure of the ‘creative’ so idealised by today’s creative industries.

Critical to the Council’s fostering of a cultural ecology was their emphasis on infrastructure. Rather than funding cultural products the Sub Committee distributed money for physical spaces, equipment, technical training and wages.

I use ecology here, to understand this infrastructural cultural support, as a consciously chosen descriptor for the emotional, political systems and connections fostered by the GLC in this period. I draw here on the phrasing of historian Stephen Brooke who describes the Council’s “affective ecology” in this period.7 I am influenced, too, by adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy in which she argues “emergence notices the way small actions and connections create complex systems, patterns that become ecosystems and societies.”8 In particular, brown’s use of ecological systems to understand organising and relationship building – the importance of interdependence, complexity and chaos – has all come to influence my understanding and framing of the GLC’s agonistic cultural ecology. As I explore the GLC’s cultural policies, I think with brown to understand the interdependent connections made, the sometimes-chaotic agonisms encouraged, and the ecosystem developed in London during this 1981-6 period. This, again, sits in important contrast to the technology-driven rhetoric of networks and innovation in the creative industries, that emphasises flexibility and growth, to the detriment of sustainability, the common good and fair working conditions.

In supporting a multitude of actively politicised, campaigning and cultural spaces and organisations in the city, the GLC were fostering a kind of agonistic ecology. The independent, community-led media ecology they funded in the so-called ‘inner city’ began to facilitate physical spaces and media-spaces which could challenge stereotypes and narratives put forward in the mainstream media. This was particularly significant in the wake of the 1981 uprisings in many under-funded, criminalised inner-city areas. As we will see with the Rio – London’s first ‘community cinema’ – this combination of both physical space and cultural spaces (i.e. places to create and share new narratives) was important in creating politicised communities and civic spaces for discussions and agitation. Bianchini and Bloomfield have described this as the GLC “strengthening the city’s function as a civic space”.9 I agree with their emphasis on civic spaces, but I want to argue that the GLC were not intending to create a ‘functional’ city in any traditional sense with their cultural policy. Rather, the ‘function’ of GLC’s support of cultural civic space was to create some level of disfunction – or perhaps more accurately agonism.10 Typified in their embrace of the “in and against the state” narrative, the council explicitly supported cultural campaigns that organised outside (and often against) state structures in order to demand accountability. An important aspect of the Council’s Community Arts policy, following this, was their support of cultural campaigns and movements. The GLC’s arts policy explicitly “wanted to fund arts activities which not only benefited that long list of people who are discriminated against in our society… but which also linked with cultural campaigns fighting to overcome the reasons for their oppression”.11 They were unapologetically political – supporting cultural activities, groups and spaces which were acting against the state and challenging power structures.

The GLC were not intending to create a ‘functional’ city in any traditional sense. Rather, the ‘function’ of GLC’s support of cultural civic space was to create some level of disfunction – or perhaps more accurately agonism.

The Rio Cinema, Hackney

The Rio, located in Hackney, serves as an example of how the GLC funded explicitly political and agonistic cultural and media spaces. It formed one node in the wider council funded ecology of local cultural, political and industrial projects. Whilst I use the Rio as an example here, the cinema was a part of a much larger movement of community building, solidarity and organising for social and cultural change, large parts of which were funded and supported by the GLC. In 1983 the Rio worked with Cinema of Women, Centerprise, Hackney People’s Press, Hackney Unemployed Media Scheme, Sheba Feminist Publishers, Theatre of Black Women – to name a few. Other GLC funded projects also figure prominently – including GLC Peace Year, the work of the Ethnic Minorities Unit, Save Hackney Campaign, the Roach Family Support Committee.12 The GLC were funding a host of mutually supportive cultural groups, organisations and campaigns, all working in and around the borough of Hackney. The Rio, particularly as it was a physical building and a space for entertainment, was well placed to support and bring together a wide range of people and communities.

Located on the Kingsland Road between Stoke Newington and Dalston, the Rio Cinema had re-opened its doors under a local management committee in 1979. As a self-described ‘community cinema’ the Rio aimed to become “a cinema that serves the community and has a positive value in terms of the social and cultural needs of that community”.13 The cinema was a space in which people could come together and create alternative narratives of the city: both in their physical being there, in Hackney; and by sharing locally produced media – films, videos and slides – which directly countered the stories offered in the tabloid media and by Thatcher’s government. The GLC played a critical role in funding and supporting the Rio, along with many of the other cultural projects and campaigning organisations they worked with.

A significant part of the Rio as a community cinema was the work of a ‘traditional’ cinema – the showing of newly released feature films, selling popcorn, special performances for OAPs and the unemployed. However, alongside this the cinema produced a programme in conjunction with local organisations, trade unions, campaigns and individuals. The August/September programme of 1985, for instance, offered – alongside Desperately Seeking Susan – a multitude of events aimed at and organised with community groups in Hackney. The Rio Women’s Cinema in association with Black Audio Film Collective screened Ousmane Sembène’s 1966 film Black Girl. On the anniversary of the Turkish revolutionary and artist Yilmaz Guney’s death his film The Wall (1983) was shown in association with the Campaign for Defence of Democratic Rights in Turkey, followed by speakers, an exhibition and a bookstall. There were a number of screenings with the Women’s Media Resource Project (WEFT) who worked in the basement.14 Screenings like these, and the regular discussions, fundraising and organising which went on around them, were an important aspect of the Rio’s involvement with the communities in Hackney, and their striving to become a cinema that served their ‘social and cultural needs’.

One example of the way in which the Rio worked with local groups was through their engagement with campaigns around the death of Colin Roach. The death of Colin Roach in the entrance to the infamous Stoke Newington Police Station on 12 January 1983, was the latest in a long line of injustices experienced by the black population of Hackney at the hands of the police. The incident sparked protests on the streets of Hackney, calling for an inquest into the suspicious death, and for an investigation into the actions of the police on the night in question. The Rio was geographically located at the centre of this. Utilising their status as a cinema, the Rio showed Isaac Julien’s 1983 film Who Killed Colin Roach? As a part of the normal programme before films, and in special one-off screenings. By screening Julien’s film, in the centre of Hackney, right down the road from Stoke Newington Police Station, the Rio offered up a different narrative of Hackney, policing, and deaths in police custody. Offering the film for free, and for community groups seeking to initiate discussions and agitate around the issues, the cinema became a valued community resource and physical hub. Julien’s film explicitly aimed to show a different narrative relating to the death of Colin Roach to that being offered in the media. As Julien recalled: “in Who Killed Colin Roach?, I made it a priority to create a space for them to articulate an alternative point of view to the official reconstructions which were being pronounced by the dominant media…it was a question of defining a different set of priorities”.15 The Rio’s connection with the Roach Family Support Committee did not end there: the cinema’s Slide Reel Group covered the justice campaign in their short newsreel shown at the beginning of commercial features and, when the Committee and Hackney Community Action broke links with the police in Hackney, the Rio also broke links in solidarity. In creating space for different narratives of Hackney, in fostering discussions, and supporting such campaigns, the Rio — funded by the GLC and working with an ecosystem of GLC funded groups — was a place where agonistic politics could occur.

Another clear example of the Rio’s community and political work can be seen in the Slide Tape Reel Group.16 The group offered a space for young and unemployed people from the local area – the very same targeted in articles related to ‘no-go zones’ and urban unrest – to create their own media, to offer up their own narratives, and document their own histories. Through the group, the Rio truly began to fulfil their aim of a community cinema which began to help local people begin to challenge assumptions about control of the media.

The Slide Reel Group used their equipment and their platform to empower local communities. Violent and excessive policing of local black communities was commonplace in Hackney during the 1980s. Alongside this, mainstream press and Conservative government narratives framed these actions as necessary reactions to violent, uncontrollable youth. Formed of young people from the local area, the Slide Reel Group reported on policing from another angle. In 1983 the group documented one case of violent policing on camera — “On July 28th 1983, an incident took place opposite the Rio, involving the arrest of young black people and the use of Police dogs. The Rio Slide Newsreel caught this incident and had it up on the screen 24 hours later.”17 In documenting this –– right outside the doors of the Rio, in the centre of Hackney –– the Slide Reel group used their community-powered media to hold the police to account. The images captured were later used by local MP Brian Sedgemore in his campaign to remove dogs from local policing.18 In calling out police tactics in this way, the Slide Reel project became a site of power and legitimacy for young people so often positioned at the other side of the camera, with no control over the ways they were represented in the media. As one article in City Limits described it, “the Rio is the kind of enterprise that consciously straddles the difficult divide between the screen and the street”.19

In documenting and calling out police tactics, the Slide Reel project became a site of power for young people so often positioned at the other side of the camera, with no control over how they were represented in the media.

With the Rio – London’s first ‘community cinema’ – this combination of both physical space, and providing the tools for creating and sharing local, political media was important in creating spaces for community discussion and agitation. In doing this, the GLC were not simply fulfilling some civic function. They were actively promoting some level of disorder, friction and agonism in the city. Unlike so many recent ‘Creative City’ policymaking narratives, the GLC’s agonistic cultural policies were not intended to boost the desirability of certain areas for outside investors, or regenerate and bring a sleek happy exterior to public spaces. Quite the opposite. As with the case of the Rio Cinema, the Council supported organisations who agitated in the street, who proactively campaigned against change that was not led by communities, who agitated in the street.

In looking to the GLC, I hope we can reimagine what might be done with local cultural policy not only on a higher level of how policy is shaped, but on how we might be able to create cultural ecologies to empower and support communities to resist gentrification. Viewing the GLC’s community arts policies as agonistic, can open up questions of the possibility of radical cultural policy for transforming community’s relationships to their city. In enacting a cultural policy which fostered spaces of agonism, the GLC strengthened and gave space to increasingly disenfranchised communities, not only to express and share their emotions, to imagine different futures, but to build community resilience in a period of increasing economic inequality.

I think the GLC’s cultural policies can offer us a glimpse into what could have been if the British Left, and the Labour Party, had embraced local cultural funding as a means to empower and engage citizens in complex discussions around history, power and race in urban areas. Their cultural policies give us an idea of what might be possible if future left (Labour) councils do the same. Too often, cultural policy is about creating cohesion in cities; we need to think more about creating challenging, agonistic spaces for culture – creating complex ecologies – and allowing local radical media and cultural forms to become mediators and tools in these discussions. It is this kind of imagination, both in (cultural) policymaking and fostered by it, which might begin to open us up to different futures.


  1. Stephen Brooke. 2014. “Living in ‘New Times’: Historicising 1980s Britain”, History Compass, 12. p. 28. 

  2. Jamie Peck. 2011. “Creative Moments: Working Culture, through Municipal Socialism and Neoliberal Urbanism,” in edited by Eugene McCann and Kevin Ward. Mobile Urbanism. Cities and Policymaking in the Global Age. London: University of Minnesota Press: London. p. 44. 

  3. Paul Gilroy. 2013. There ain’t no black in the Union Jack. London: Routledge. pp. 181-93. 

  4. Owen Hatherley. 2020. Red Metropolis: Socialism and the Government of London. London: Repeater. pp. 124-28; Hazel Atashroo. 2017. “Beyond the ‘Campaign for a Popular Culture’’, PhD diss., University of Southampton, 

  5. GLC. 1986. Campaign for a Popular Culture: A Record of Struggle and Achievement; the GLC’s Community Arts Programme 1981-86. London: GLC. p. 40. 

  6. Raymond Williams. [1958]. 1987. Culture and Society: Coleridge to Orwell. London: The Hogarth Press. p. 309. “We may now see what is properly meant by ‘working-class culture’. It is not proletarian art, or council houses, or a particular use of language; it is, rather, the basic collective idea, and the institutions, manners, habits of thought and intentions which proceed from this. Bourgeois culture, similarly, is the basic individualist idea and the institutions, manners, habits of thought and intentions which proceed from that…Working-class culture, in the stage through which it has been passing, is primarily social (in that it has created institutions) rather than individual (in particular intellectual or imaginative work). When it is considered in context, it can be seen as a very remarkable creative achievement.” 

  7. Stephen Brooke. 2017. “Space, emotions and the everyday: the affective ecology of 1980s London”. Twentieth Century British History 28:1. pp. 110-142. 

  8. adrienne maree brown. 2017. Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds. Chico CA: AK Press. p. 3. 

  9. Franco Bianchini and J. Bloomfield. 2001. “Cultural citizenship and urban governance in Western Europe.” in edited by Nicholas Stevenson. Culture and Citizenship. London: Sage. p. 114. 

  10. Chantal Mouffe. 2013. Agonistics: Thinking the world politically. London: Verso Books. 

  11. GLC. Campaign for a Popular Culture. p. 17. 

  12. Rio Cinema Annual Report, “Our Own Image” (1984). London Metropolitan Archives GLC/RA/GR/01/016/001-Rio Cinema. 

  13. Ramsay Cameron and Robert Rider. 1984. “Flying Down To Rio” in Another Standard: Community, Art, Culture and Politics. Shelton Trust. pp. 10-11. 

  14. Rio Cinema Programme, (August/September 1985). London Metropolitan Archive GLC/RA/GR/01/016/001-Rio Cinema. 

  15. Jim Pines. 1985. “Territories: An Interview with Isaac Julien.” Framework 26. p. 2. 

  16. Recently released, Alan Denney, Tamara Stoll and Andrew Woodyatt’s 2020. The Rio Tape/Slide Archive Book Isola Press can be bought at the Cinema’s website

  17. News clipping reprinted in Rio Cinema Annual Report, “Our Own Image”. 

  18. Rio Cinema Annual Report, “Our Own Image” 

  19. “C4 in the East End” City Limits,. 17 March 1983. 


Author:

Lucy McFadzean (@lucy_fadz)

Lucy researches municipal socialism in the 1980s and her writing hopes to reimagine how we might foster a socialist cultural policy.