By the mid-1970s, the National Health Service suffered severe cuts which were implemented by the James Callaghan government (1974-1979) as a result of funding restrictions from the International Monetary Fund. This led to the closure of a number of smaller hospitals across the country and the overall diminishing of the service’s reach. The Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign and the East London Health Project both sought to tackle these issues through a process of close collaboration and engagement with the local community and local councils in East London. This resulted in a series of posters as well as a video and exhibition to raise awareness around health issues in the UK at the time: from hospital closures and mental health to abortion, contraception and women’s role more broadly in society. Whilst the posters were informational and functional by nature, they also used some of the aesthetic tropes of appropriation and collage found in the politically-engaged work of early 20th century German artist John Heartfield and Russian Constructivist Alexander Rodchenko.
The Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign marked the start of a long period of collaboration between Dunn and Leeson. Following the announcement of the hospital’s closure, its medical staff decided to occupy the site and continue to care for its patients. Dunn and Leeson were approached by Dan Jones, a trade unionist and member of Tower Hamlets Trades Council, to make a video about the campaign. Entitled Emergency, it was followed by a series of posters and an exhibition in the hospital foyer to advise visitors as to why it was in occupation. The hospital was initially saved as a result of the campaign, though later closed under the Thatcher government and has now been converted into private homes.
Following the Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign, Dunn and Leeson were invited to join a steering committee involving representatives of health workers’ unions, a local trades council and health campaign, to produce visual materials that would inform the public on the potential effects of the increasing cuts in health services. This group, known as the East London Health Project, discussed suitable formats for this information and arrived at the notion of a ‘visual pamphlet’, resulting in a series of posters by the artists containing information for display in doctors’ surgeries and hospital waiting rooms. These addressed both general concerns, such as cuts to the NHS, but also issues pertaining specifically to women such as abortion, contraception and the impact of wider social issues on women’s health.
These posters were also shown at the ICA in 1980 as part of the exhibition Issues: Social Strategies by Women Artists (14 Nov– 21 Dec 1980), curated by the American feminist thinker Lucy Lippard, and which was last of a series of three landmark exhibitions (Women’s Images of Men 4 Oct – 26 Oct 1980 and About Time: Video, Performance and Installation by 21 Women Artists 30 Oct – 9 Nov 1980) that cantered on feminist art of the time.
The conditions that gave rise to the Bethnal Green Hospital Campaign and East London Health Project are echoed today with the funding crisis and increasing privatisation of the NHS, together with marches against public spending cuts and for women’s rights. Through their aesthetic and collaborative qualities, the visual work for both projects is testament to art’s capacity as a tool for social and political action and the role of the artist as an agent for social change.