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House Omelette

Aman Sandhu

Aman Sandhu, NO MORE ARTISTS, 2019, digital collage print, wheat paste. Photograph by Matthew Arthur Williams.

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Accept the wrinkles.

I received this sage advice from a friend, when I was struggling to achieve a seamless surface.

Lately, I’ve been really worried about burning sage indiscriminately. You should too. That’s my advice, coming from a long line of worriers. 

I know those are different sages, but I often conflate to bridge, I’ve learned this coming from a community of reckless conflators,

artists. 

My worry is that I’m not burning it right. In my attempt to clear, I might be inviting something else in. Maybe I shouldn’t be burning it at all, because it’s not mine to burn.

I’ve been in Canada for most of the pandemic. I haven’t spent a sustained amount of time here for nearly a decade. Most of that time away was in Glasgow and it’s in Glasgow where I learned something about the Canadian landscape. A landscape that I could never really see – see as in feel and see as in see. I had great access to it from the suburb I grew up in but whenever I tried to venture north my sight would become blurry. I ascribed this problem to the tired line, ‘this place is for white people, brown folks don’t camp.’ It’s an exhausting and boring joke, however this shit joke does two things. It gives white people the land and it gives brown folks a glaring pass. 

I should be more technically specific. I didn’t realise my parents’ own role, as Punjabi immigrants in settler-colonialism, and in continuum, my own. I attributed this burden solely to white European people – the campers. So, I’m trying to look now, with humility and a soft step. 

When we moved into that house, my parents arranged for an Akhand Path, a three-day continuous, complete reading of the Guru Granth Sahib. A makeshift gurdwara was set up in the living room with all the necessary objects required to support the reading, including housing granthis who read in shifts. I loved their transitions. As one granthi was wrapping up, another one would sit next to them and scan the page, locating where they had progressed and then begin reading, allowing for an uninterrupted oration. Inevitably there would be a few moments of a polyvocal reading. 

The Akhand Path served many purposes – an opportunity for a community gathering, an invitation for bad housewarming gifts and a tool to clear a newly occupied space of
untoward energy. 

I often partake in what I call a poor man’s naval gazing, invigilating my own exhibitions. Even if I could afford to pay someone, I prefer paying friends and I would never ask a friend to sit idle counting heads. I love my few friends. 

Therefore, I sit and sometimes slash I I I I

For this exhibition, NO MORE ARTISTS, my invigilation presence was supported by early morning shifts at a veg shop. I would work from 6am until noon and then run over to the gallery to open my show. I needed a signal change to go from ‘veg shop me’ to ‘gallery me’, so I would change into a nice button up shirt between spaces. My mum stressed the importance of dressing well. Like many things with my immigrant parents, impositions were never granted the time for reflection and articulation…things are what they is. 

I know now, what she hasn’t said yet, that dressing well is a resistance against racist impositions. The idea of presenting as working class could put you in danger when you have more melanin in your skin. 

NO MORE ARTISTS 

Spin it. This lament and mantra is a container for my suspicion of this decolonial moment, an encircling field of protection. It functions as a refusal of the name that has been used to negate non-Western cultures as pre-modern and traditional. When will the brown birthday party end? I’m worried about these low hanging representation fruits upending the exits. 

Fuck your reading lists.

Fuck your cushions.

I heard something startling the other day while listening to a recording of an artist talk by Imran Perretta for his solo exhibition, ‘the destructors’ at Chisenhale Gallery. Perretta begins the talk with a speech in which he ‘acknowledges’ the land that Chisenhale sits on – that British-Bangladeshis make up 60% of the demographic of the London Borough of Tower Hamlets and are the fastest declining demographic, whilst white-Europeans are the fastest growing demographic. He also ‘acknowledges’ that he is the first British-Bangladeshi to have a solo exhibition at Chisenhale and that he is both a British-Bangladeshi and a Londoner, and though he has lived in London, he is not from London. Also ‘acknowledged’ is his potential complicity as a cultural worker in the increasing cost of housing in the borough. He repeats that he is the first British-Bangladeshi to have a solo exhibition within Chisenhale’s walls and hopes that he won’t be the last. 

The form and cadence of Perretta’s speech is eerily like territory and land acknowledgements that occur at public gatherings in Canada. The purpose of these acknowledgements is to recognise the traditional First Nations, Métis and/or Inuit territories of the place where everyone is gathered and to acknowledge the continued presence of Indigenous peoples. Although these acknowledgements have been criticised as being gestural and performative, they are nonetheless a reminder of those who are the original and continued caretakers of the land. 

Perretta goes on to reveal that he fashioned his speech from First Nations land acknowledgements after learning about them in the introduction to Amy Fung’s book, Before I was a Critic I was a Human Being. He also jokingly admits that he only read half of the intro. 

We must be careful with what we use to punctuate our punctures.

Finish the book.

 

Punctures like this gets my trypophobia going…also, the hypochondria. 

Projecting pustule abscesses, fear of cherry angiomas, assuredness of an intestinal or kidney failure, a habit of examining my urine, is it foamy or is it just bubbles? A rush of relief when the bubbles burst. During high tide hypochondria, I like to engineer some extra inertia by becoming very conscious of the workings of the universe, especially arming myself with possible endgame scenarios. 

I have dived headfirst into the Higgs field, a field of energy that wraps around the universe and gives all matter weight. Our universe sits comfortably in this Higgs cradle but what was discovered a few years ago is that the Higgs field is in an unstable state. Just like an ice cube is unstable, and its stable state is a pool of water, the Higgs field has a preferred state that exists just on the other side of the universe. It would take an unlikely cataclysmic event to push our universe onto the other side, where it couldn’t be supported, and we would cease to exist. There is a possibility though, that through a phenomenon called quantum tunnelling, a pinhole sized bubble from the preferred Higgs state could burrow its way through the barrier that separates us and enter our universe. It would create a powerful vacuum – as it travelled through our universe everything in its path would be destroyed. This scenario isn’t likely to happen for another 10 to the 100 years (a 1 followed by 100 zeroes) but it might have already happened, and it just hasn’t reached us yet. Because the vacuum would travel at the speed of light, we wouldn’t see it coming, nor would we be conscious of the end. Everything would be gone, this and parallel universes. 

While invigilating, I was approached by this Dutch man who wanted me to explain one of the works in the exhibition. He was asking about a set of three prints that were wheat pasted on a wall. The prints included an image of my face, buddha and the text: NO MORE ARTISTS

I was feeling generous so I explained that I reject the name artist in this decolonial moment when bipoc artists are being invited into the institution where historically the western modernity project positioned the artist as genius and maker of pure objects this was done so that sources didn’t have to be acknowledged if something comes from nothing than it definitely didn’t come from Africa so now that our stories are wanted we have to reject the name that was used to push out our histories I’m critiquing the institution and figuring out ways to be in it and not in it like a parasite like a ghost 

 

 

Bullshit, he said.
Picasso painted African masks.
You just want to blow this place up. 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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The Limits of Self-Orientalising

Swapnaa Tamhane

It was nothing personal when I emailed the director of a contemporary art foundation in Calgary to request a confidential phone conversation. 

I felt compelled to discuss the curatorial approach of an upcoming exhibition that included the work of an old friend of mine. Friendship aside, I had curated his work in a group exhibition a few years earlier. 

His work was touring from Toronto, where it was met with an explosive response from the wider South-Asian community. They raised concerns about a singular narrative being presented – concerns which were largely ignored by the gallery, the artist, and the curator. 

The content of the exhibition essay: references to an attack on a holy Sikh site in 1984 by the Indian government in response to militant characters who were leading uprisings. One of those uprisings resulted in the largest terrorist attack to take place on Canadian soil – the bombing of Air India Flight 182, which was left out of both the exhibition text and footnotes.

There should have – at minimum – been a footnote. 

But none of the actual artworks in the exhibition were very clear in fact – frankly a bit of a missed opportunity to think through the complexity of the Indian state in its past and present. Instead, there was a lot of decoration that could easily fall into what I will call an ethnographic reading. 

The director was to have an in-person meeting with this artist in the following days. 

I learned shortly after, from our mutual friend located 11,240 kilometres away and 10.5 hours ahead in Delhi, that she had exposed my name to him.

The director later told me that if I wanted a ‘confidential’ conversation, I should have said so.

My email, it seems, was not so closely read.

Questions arise: 

What does it mean for us ‘brown’ and ‘black’ people in Canada to be patronised and courted by white institutions, white curators, and white audiences? What does it mean for our conversations to be placed secondary to an idea of ‘redress’ that attempts to uncover lost histories and right wrongs but does so in a way that glorifies tropes of the exotic, of the Oriental? 

In wanting to form a language or new methodologies in my practice, I tend to draw from visual forms and objects of signification that stem from my own culture as part of the South-Asian diaspora. Even if I am aware of the pitfalls of pigeon-holing oneself into a stasis of Orientalism and identity politics, I often wonder if the work I make as an artist, or produce as a curator, could be regarded as a process of self-Orientalising.

Edward W. Said identified Orientalism as a range of geopolitical strategies which found their way into academia, economics, and aesthetics, imagining the world as two halves – the Orient and the Occident. He wrote that the intention to control and manipulate a kind of power over the ‘other’ is produced as intellectual, political, cultural and moral. It has less to do with the actual ‘other’, and more to do with defining ‘our’ world, ‘our’ selves.¹ More simply put, anyone researching or writing or negotiating the ‘Orient’ produces ‘Orientalism’ – a series of vantage points, perceptions and understandings that are built and premised on the process of defining a superiority that was historically enacted by the missionary, or the trader, or the slave owner, for instance. These ideas of superiority have perforated the West, forming the basis of ideologies that lie at the heart of white supremacy.

The language that I sometimes feel I am clumsily stumbling towards is manifold in its desire for a resistance against easy legibility – not necessarily achieving the opacity that Édouard Glissant defines,² but in proximity to an earnest attempt to reclaim something that perhaps was never really mine. Now that many curators, historians and artists alike have begun a frenzied rush towards decolonisation, I am weary about the binds that tie my hands: wanting to reclaim something and being damned for how those associations might reverberate. With primarily white audiences in Canada there is little patience for nuance. I often find that a preface to a preface is required. 

In the case of Canadian artists from the vast South-Asian diaspora situated across this country, subject matter tends to harken back to visual codes, political commentary, and nostalgic cues from India, Pakistan, Mauritius, Madagascar, Sri Lanka, Guyana – from wherever the amassing of cultural identity was (dis)placed through immigration, colonialism and slavery. A Canadian identity as a singular thing is in itself impossible to define given the holding-hands campaign of ‘multiculturalism’, a policy first introduced in the 1970s to encourage social integration due to the influx of immigrants. Additionally, there is the grappling of understanding the diasporic responsibility in relation to our roles in settler-colonialism.³ For past curatorial projects, my mandate has been to complicate ideas of representation of how ‘we’ are seen as the diaspora; not national enough, not ‘Indian’ enough, not ‘brown’ enough; not ‘Canadian’ enough.

Let’s trace things back: perhaps a sort of unintentional collusion formed between institutions/curators from the West in a sincere attempt to include artists from non-Western countries in the early 1990s. This led to tacit agreements that the artist would self-Orientalise or self-other – an anti-colonial reversal of the lens of Orientalism that sees the artist announce themselves as ‘other’. Hal Foster’s 1995 essay ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’ discusses alterity as a combined force of realism and primitivist fantasy: the belief that the ‘other’ has access to primal psychic and social processes from which the white (petit) bourgeois subject is blocked. The late Okwui Enwezor more generously termed self-Orientalising as ‘the will to globality’, recognising that artists could be and were obviously self-reflexive about their locales.

Post-1989 there was a proliferation of ‘global’ art, encouraged by exhibitions like Magiciens de la Terre or Primitivism (as problematic as they were) being held alongside the ground-breaking Third Havana Biennial. Non-Western artists, who could evidence themselves as authentic survivors of their ‘unfortunate’ countries, riddled in problems that the West was gleefully free from (until Covid-19), were included in these sprawling group exhibitions. As markets and biennales grew, so did exhibitions that focused primarily on national identities, some with rather silly exhibition titles (in the case of contemporary Indian art: Indian Highway, The Empire Strikes Back: Indian Art Today, Chalo! India: A New Era of Indian Art).  The process of selection for group exhibitions is what Hans Belting argues to be a replication of ethnographic modes of collecting and disseminating from the colonial era, inherited from strategies of 19th century world trade fairs, aka theft and piracy. In the West, the racialised body (in the above cases, Indian) continues to be assigned the behemoth task of speaking for their community, their nation-state, their region. Again, questions arise: what agency does a singular artist have in such group snapshots? How do artists assert an individuality that is not attached to a cultural identity in these exchanges? Where does the diaspora fit into these national identities?

short dash.jpg
 
 

Graffiti in Athens’ Omonoia Square, photograph taken by Julia Tulke during Documenta 14, June 2016. Barely legible, the last two lines read: Sincerely/Oi I8ageneis [The indigenous]. As Tulke points out, this is not an artist attribution; the individual or group that disseminated this and similar stencils across the city remains unknown.

 

‘The Orient is an integral part of European material civilization and culture,’ writes Said, reflecting that museum collections are full of stolen ‘stuff’ which has informed all aspects of life in the Occident, from imagery to bureaucracy to education. Have we diaspora artists in the Occident absorbed and inherited all of this? How do we/I unlearn this? The larger question is, are there any other modes of looking at the ‘other’ and at ourselves, besides ethnographic readings? In addressing the multitude of ethnographic collections across Europe, curator Clémentine Deliss declares that museum anthropology remains a monocultural field, preventing other disciplines from developing alternative forms or processes of remediation in a frame of decolonisation. They remain filled with collections built on anonymity, with no records of craftspersons, artists, or engineers. Mariam Shatanawi, curator at the infamous Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, says that contemporary artists critiquing these collections must redefine ideas of classification or display in order to avoid a process of complicity used historically by colonisers. Concurrent to this is the car-washing-like activity of changing institutions’ names, as though rebranding removes the original intent of how and why the ‘other’ has been collected and represented.¹⁰

The processes of self-Orientalising and the curatorial utilisation of tropes of identity are complicated and somewhat thorny for diaspora artists. As Kobena Mercer wrote in response to the exhibition The Other Story,¹¹ curated by Rasheed Araeen at Hayward Gallery, London, 1989:

The conceptual promise of the symbolic concept of ‘diaspora’ is withheld by the recourse to the replication of the primordial racial binarisms of white/not-white, European/not-European, us/not us. ¹²

Does this ‘replication’ still hold true? In the case of all diasporas, do these binaries that Mercer outlines shape what is produced and ultimately supported? I would argue yes. In discussing the immediate aftermath of independence in India, historian Monica Juneja writes that artists had to define themselves as modern or transgressive, representing a national identity yet simultaneously recognisable as the ‘other’. Juneja writes that in the nation-building post-colonial process, artists translated their ancient past into ‘modernist idioms to occupy a secular aesthetic space’, which assisted in bringing ‘tradition’ and ‘modernity’ onto a shared platform, an act that confirms the demarcation of Asia from the West.¹³ That secularisation has been ebbing for a number of decades, particularly now with Modi’s ‘Hinduisation’ of the country’s social, political and cultural spheres. Artists of the South-Asian diaspora can end up on incredibly murky ground representing a homeland which may often be imagined, out-of-date with local politics, or imbricated with casteist ideologies. While the process of self-Orientalising opposes anthropological readings, it can become one of self-absorption: James Clifford claims such an ethnographic self-fashioning can be regarded as a philosophical narcissism.¹⁴

What happens when an artist from a diaspora calls on politics and symbols that enact the ‘primordial binarisms’ of Orient/Occident? How is legibility critiqued when there are manipulative alignments of historical traumas set in parallel to the centuries-long oppressions of First Nations and Black peoples? What happens when this work risks dangerously reversing strategies carefully thought out and enacted by artists in newly decolonised countries? Mercer writes: ‘There is no definitive “answer-word” to the master discourses of racism and ethnocentrism, because our Other can also re-appropriate what we have ourselves appropriated.’¹⁵ In a perhaps unintentional self-Orientalising process, re-appropriation of symbols or imagery appear more and more in the work of artists from a range of diasporas who are angrily rejecting what they understand of Conceptualism as a white art movement. The result of some of this rather ignorant rejection is highly decorative artwork that can easily fall into the ethnographic category through its imagery and materiality. Paradoxically, artists using white cube spaces, which historically assisted in the process of distinguishing an art object from an ethnographic object,¹⁶ want institutional affirmation regardless of the violence enacted by these very institutions upon their cultures. So, there are strange contradictions happening in parallel: contemporary art in the global period unwittingly replicates an ethnographic model and ethnic production of reductive identities, while diaspora artists use tactics of self-Orientalising as ploys to counter the white art world, which can include aping ethnographic objects or methods of display.

In attempting to claim one’s own self-representation, the artist and the artwork end up in a sticky spot between self-Orientalising and the ethnographic. Does self-Orientalising reverse progress and enact a violence in the decolonial effort to reconsider the ethnographic? Or does it fall back into the crux of the ‘burden of representation’ that Kobena Mercer so aptly described 30 years ago? That said, with accelerated efforts towards decolonisation, could self-Orientalising in this time become a position of power and rejection of Western dominant narratives? Is self-Orientalising now truly a method that no longer plays into the tropes of representation, but owns that positionality? Is the use of an ethnographic aesthetic language perhaps the only way to point back at how our cultures have been commodified and interpreted in and by the West? Or, is the double bind an inevitable sinkhole that develops unbeknownst to the artist(s)?

 

 

NOTES

  1. Edward W. Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage Books, 1978), pp. 12–13.

  2. Glissant’s ‘le droit à l’opacité’, or the right to opacity, is the idea that Otherness does not always need to be transparent, or difference made communicable, or consumable, as that easily leads to appropriation. See Édouard Glissant, Poétique de la Relation (Paris: Gaillimard, 1990). 

  3. See the Canadian Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s studies with the goal for reparation and understanding of the impact of residential schools upon First Nations: <http://nctr.ca/reports.php>.

  4. Hal Foster, ‘The Artist as Ethnographer?’, in The Traffic in Culture: Refiguring Art and Anthropology, ed. by George E. Marcus and Fred R. Myers (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995) pp. 302-309 (p. 303).

  5. While these exhibitions took place in the early 2000s, as curator and historian Naman Ahuja says, a true understanding of transculturalism still remains to be achieved, and the West continues to be attached to the same ‘idea’ of India. Naman Ahuja, ‘Modernism’s Muse: The Indian Presence in European Art 1880–1930’, 5th KG Subramanyan Memorial Talk, Faculty of Fine Arts, Baroda, and Gallery Art, 8 February, 2020.

  6. Kavita Singh, ‘The Future of the Museum is Ethnographic’, The Future of Ethnographic Museums, Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, 19–21 July 2013.

  7. Said, p. 2.

  8. Clémentine Deliss speaks about the problematics of collections that are sequestered by city and state administration, or by their locations in the museum stores in her 2018 lecture ‘Political Futures’ at the Kunsthalle Wien. Clémentine Deliss, Political Futures, YouTube, 19 February 2018, <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8bmFpDX4xSI>.

  9. Christoph Chwatal, ‘Decolonizing the Ethnographic Museum: Contemporary Art and the Weltmuseum Wien’, Art Papers, 2018 <https://www.artpapers.org/>.

  10. In Canada, the Museum of Anthropology was rebranded MOA: A Place of World Arts + Culture (here Indigenous communities have rights to control and protect their traditional cultural expressions) in 2010, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization was changed to the Canadian Museum of History in 2012. In Austria, the Ethnology Museum (‘Völkerkundemuseum’) was rebranded as the World Museum (‘Weltmuseum Wien’) in 2013.

  11. Including artists such as Lubaina Himid, Frank Bowling, Donald Locke, Anwar Jalal Shemza, Mona Hatoum, Keith Piper, and Sonya Boyce.

  12. Kobena Mercer, ‘Black Art and the Burden of Representation’, Third Text, Volume 4, Issue 10 (1990), p. 69.

  13. Monica Juneja, ‘Global Art History and the “Burden of Representation”’, in Global Studies: Mapping Contemporary Art and Culture, ed. by Julia T. S. Binter and Thomas Fillitz (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2011), pp. 284–285.

  14. James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1988), p. 92.

  15. Mercer, p. 77.

  16. Singh, 2013.

 

Back to Pilot

 

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Leaving The Auld Toon

Neil Clements

A prominent feature of Glasgow’s 1911 International Festival was the ‘Auld Toon’, a replica of a city quarter as it would have appeared in the Jacobean era. There, spectators were offered an opportunity to vicariously encounter life in a pre-industrialised Glasgow, set in an architectural vernacular that had been all but erased by the urbanising projects of the 19th century. The buildings that made up this settlement were not constructed in their original materials, but in wood, plaster and fabric, ingeniously painted to resemble the originals.¹  These ghostly facsimiles served as a theatrical setting in which a form of bygone civic life was acted out for the benefit of visitors. 

As with all expositions of this sort, the perceived audience for the 1911 festival was twofold. It was intended by its organisers to communicate to the world at large the power Glasgow held as an industrial manufacturer. The approval of Royal visits and foreign delegations were highly sought after by the city’s burghers and formed a large portion of whether the event was deemed a success. However, despite such global pretensions, the bulk of footfall to such festivals was drawn from the local population. To these throngs of Glaswegians, the festival was part education, part entertainment. Attractions were designed accordingly, intended to inculcate in local audiences an authorised message about their own civic identity.

Although dramatically diminished in terms of scale and the amount of financial support it receives, the contemporary Glasgow International Art Festival arguably operates on many of the same principles as its Victorian namesake; seeking to address both local and international interests while looking to frame the city as somewhere that is at once culturally productive and outward-looking. It is worth considering the way in which Glasgow International has exerted a determining influence on the image of the city held by local practitioners. Here, one might point to the refined sensibility that marked Katrina Brown’s programmes in 2010 and 2012, the sense of up-to-dateness that typified Sarah McCrory’s curatorial selections, or the more egalitarian attitude adopted by Richard Parry, the festival’s current director, as cues to this composite image. These have, year on year, assumed a greater degree of institutional coherence when compared with the inaugural 2005 festival, organised under the auspices of Francis McKee.² Through both its curated and accompanying programmes, each iteration of GI has articulated its own worldview, and presented a model of what the city is capable of becoming, by providing a guide to the kinds of artistic activity considered germane to its institutions at that moment. 

T & R Annan & Sons, The Old Scottish Street (Looking East), 1911, photogravure, 18 x 23 cm. Souvenir Album of the Scottish Exhibition of National History, Art and Industry, Glasgow.

What such an analysis of curatorial intention overlooks is significant changes to the backdrop against which GI has taken place. The dwindling number of regularly funded venues exhibiting contemporary art, and a steadily declining number of exhibitions in those venues per year, has led to the festival occupying an increasing centrality in the city’s calendar. There is also an argument to be made that the concentrated hive of activity offered by GI acts to de-incentivise international visits at times outwith the festival. The kind of cultural spectacle which might have been distributed more evenly across an annual calendar is now reserved for this narrow window of time. Such an issue extends beyond the curatorial principles driving any single festival. It highlights the extent to which the festival format has been embraced by different groups, and the various ends to which these groups would have it serve.

The biennial festival serves to regulate the kinds of contact local artists have with international visitors to Glasgow. Anecdotally, a London-based curator, responding to a question in the summer of 2018 about when they next planned on visiting the city, told me that they were planning on attending the 2020 festival. At the time this was just under two years away. While this might not necessarily be representative of the curatorial community as a whole, I still found the answer disquieting. On one hand it speaks of the festival’s evident ability to mobilise professional attention; while on the other it sends a clear message as to when it will fall on the city, and the narrowing channels through which this will take place. Rather than being somewhere individuals travel to speculatively, GI ensures the city instead takes its place amongst a scheduled sequence of global events that structure the curatorial calendar. It does so as part of an infernal bargain on the part of cultural organisers, as it is assumed better to form part of this calendar than to not.

In previous iterations of the festival the number of exhibitions on show, both within and outside the listed programme, has meant that all but the most voracious visitor is unlikely to engage with anything near the whole range of attractions on offer. Professional visitors’ itineraries are for the most part limited to a tour of the director’s programme and the city’s central institutions and commercial spaces. Taking this into consideration, the benefit of mounting peripheral exhibitions to attract the attention of influential visitors is questionable. A more likely audience is the multi-generational assemblage of individuals who make up the local scene, and who can spend a fortnight or more taking the programme in.

If peripheral activity of this kind is more likely to reach a local audience, what is the purpose of prioritising a single month on a biennial basis to do so? As anyone who has been involved will know, the lead up to GI involves a panicked stampede for available real estate to accommodate these displays. The strain placed on the city’s few professional fabricators and lenders of technical equipment is not inconsiderable either. Complaints from participants that they have been unable to see anything on or adjacent to the festival programme, having been so preoccupied with their own preparations, are as ubiquitous as they are tedious.

The festival format reinforces a story about the city being an exceptional place to live and make work. Underpinning the image of Glasgow as an artistic hub is a narrative of organisational self-sufficiency, one whose origins lie in the artist-led activities of the 1980s and 1990s. Its key milestones are enshrined in Sarah Lowndes’ Social Sculpture, first published in 2003, and re-issued with an additional chapter in 2010.³ Lowndes’ survey of the Glasgow scene lays out a series of core tenets that continue to shape its identity. This is a story of improvised, non-conventional gallery spaces, artist-led activity, and international dialogue fostered at a grassroots level. Its seductive appeal is unmistakable when compared with the other more conservative histories of Scottish art available. Lowndes’ account has come to represent an official history for those looking to package Glasgow art for international consumption. This packaged identity presumes a structural continuity between the conditions under which artistic activity took place twenty or more years ago, and the conditions under which it takes place today. 

There are a range of factors that should temper such presumptions. A dramatic increase to non-Scottish UK Higher Education fees beginning in 2006, and additional alterations in 2010 have added to the financial burden of many young graduates, while steadily climbing rental and property prices pose real challenges to the economic maintenance of an artistic practice. The 2010 replacement of the Scottish Arts Council by Creative Scotland has brought about significant shifts in how cultural subsidy is sought and awarded to both individuals and smaller organisations. Glasgow City Council’s delegation of its real estate portfolio to City Property Glasgow the same year, a LLP that in turn employs the commercial property agents like Ryden and Graham and Sibbald to manage many of its holdings, has meant artists’ access to vacant spaces has changed in equal measure. These are only some of the factors that those looking to perpetuate a narrative of Glaswegian self-sufficiency would prefer to ignore. 

Signs of this can be found in the paucity of exhibitions that take place when compared with previous decades. It is not unusual either for organisations to schedule their first exhibition of a Glasgow International year to coincide with the festival opening. These observations can to an extent be countered by acknowledging the larger number of screening events and performances now hosted by these spaces in lieu of static exhibitions. In many ways this is representative of a changing focus on the part of younger artists towards these formats, though this shift could itself be at least partly symptomatic of financial pressures that preclude access to studio space and more material-based practices. This cannot in any case disguise the reality that, at a time when art schools are producing more prospective exhibitors than ever before, and Glasgow has become an attractive destination for many creative practitioners dissatisfied with their working lives in London and elsewhere, there is a scarcity of local opportunities for these individuals to receive institutional validation for their efforts. 

What I am really asking is who is best served by the current arrangements? There is a good chance that by accommodating this centralisation of activity, however reluctantly, something is being lost. Glasgow’s visual artists are in danger of reducing to short periods of time, largely for the edification of visitors rather than ourselves, a space of engagement that was once continuously operational. And, by allowing our cultural capital to be channelled in this way, the city risks becoming less somewhere to live and work, and more like a folk village in which a hidebound re-enactment of previous freedoms periodically takes place. We are, in this sense, constructing our own ‘Auld Toon’. This is a space in which grassroots autonomy becomes little more than an authorised façade. Or, in words used to describe the original 1911 attraction, ‘a charming sham’.

A vaunted capacity for self-organisation is a cultural brand that the Glasgow City Council, those in charge of the city’s cultural organisation, and its practicing artists each present to the world at large. This brand purports to consider proximity to financial capital a corroding influence and celebrates a DIY attitude to cultural production. This has had both positive and negative effects. It is a formula that suggests an admirable degree of endurance and adaptability. However, the fact that activity will occur in spite of whether or not it is supported is no doubt comforting to those responsible for funding visual art in the city. It allows such interests to ignore the impact their negligence is producing, while at the same time laying claim to any cultural product that emerges in spite of it. 

There is little to suggest that things will change any time soon. If anything, it is only likely to become more pronounced in coming years. It is currently unknown what effect the Covid-19 pandemic will have, beyond the postponement of the 2020 GI festival, but it is likely to lead to a greater degree of isolationism more generally. Emerging discussions around curatorial sustainability, examining the environmental consequences of international shipping and travel, may offer institutions a moral rationalisation for their austerean programming. 

If the city is to function in service of its local practitioners, we must pay closer attention to its internal rhythms. These are represented by the patterns by which cultural events are distributed and rendered visible to a wider audience. It may well be that the only way to perpetuate a grassroots scene is by parting with the very myth upon which it is founded. This has less to do with questioning the validity of previous histories than acknowledging the lack of any successful attempt to extend or expand upon them. A list of the noteworthy organisations, collectives and projects that have been established in the last decade would now run to the dozens, if not more. It is a patchwork infrastructure such as this that we may have to fall back on if the artistic health of the city is to be preserved. The city’s continued attractiveness to an international audience is probably just as reliant upon the mystique this infrastructure presents to outsiders. The difficulty will lie in developing strategies that allow a collective image of ourselves to be formed and preserved, while resisting attempts to co-opt it as an official narrative.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 

NOTES

  1. Perilla and Juliet Kinchin, Glasgow’s Great Exhibitions (Bicester: White Cockade, 1989), p. 103.

  2. It is worth noting that the inaugural festival was itself an expansion of the Real Art Week, a cultural programme organised by UZ Events that accompanied the Glasgow Art Fair.

  3. Sarah Lowndes, Social Sculpture: Art, Performance and Music in Glasgow – A Social History of Independent Practice, Exhibitions and Events Since 1971 (Glasgow: STOPSTOP Publications, 2003); Social Sculpture: The Rise of the Glasgow Art Scene (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2010).

  4. See Dan Brown, Deborah Jackson and Neil Mulholland, ‘Artists Running: Fifty Years of Scottish Cultural Devolution,’ Visual Culture in Britain, Vol.19, no.2 (2018), pp. 139–167; David Stevenson, ‘Tartan and Tantrums: Critical Reflections on the Creative Scotland “Stooshie”,’ Cultural Trends, Vol.23, No.3 (2014), pp. 178–187.

  5. For more information on Glasgow City Council’s use of ALEOs (Arms-Length External Organisations) see Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, ‘Glasgow Life or Death?’, Variant, No.41, Spring 2011, pp. 15–20.

  6. While not statistically sound by any means, a comparison of exhibitions by several of the city’s artist-run initiatives in 2005 – the year GI is initiated – and 2018 – the last iteration of the festival – provides a compelling, if partial mode of comparison. Transmission Gallery held eleven exhibitions in 2005, and just two in 2018; Glasgow Project Room held eleven exhibitions in 2005 and five in 2018; Market Gallery held eight exhibitions in 2005 and two in 2018. Overall the pattern would seem to indicate a widespread shift towards a model of programming favoured by Regularly Funded Organisations such as The Common Guild in Glasgow, and the Fruitmarket in Edinburgh, who each schedule around three exhibitions per year.

  7. Kinchin and Kinchin, p. 103.

  8. An incomplete list of spaces and artist led organisations formed from 2010 onwards would include The Albatross, A Library of Olfactive Material, A-M-G-5, Art in Public, Cabbage, Caledonia Rd. Church, Celine, Chapter Thirteen, Civic House, Civic Room, Collective Text, Crownpoint Studios, The Glue Factory, Frutta Gallery, GmbH, Hotel Gilchrist, Good Press, G.O.D.S, Govan Project Space, Grey Wolf Studios, Gwennan International, Glasgow Open House Festival, GY Open-House Festival, The Hidden Noise, Jo Brand Gallery, Komplex Gallery, Laurieston Arches, LoomLoomLoom, Love Unlimited, Lunchtime, Lux Scotland, Mother Tongue Curating, Mount Florida Screenings, Mount Florida Studios, New City Space, New Glasgow Society, O-II-IO, The Old Hairdressers, Patricia Fleming Projects, Panel, Pavilion Pavilion, The Pipe Factory, PLANT, Platform, The Poetry Club, Poster Club, Psychick Dancehall, Publication Studio at CCA, Queens Park Railway Club, Radclyffe Hall, Rez de Chaussée, Saltmarket Co-op, Sculpture Placement Group, Slaghammers, Studio Pavillion at House for an Art Lover, Telfer Gallery, tenletters, Tiki Bar, Torrisdale Street Studios, Voidoid Archive, Washington Street Studios, Where People Sleep, 1 Royal Terrace, 16 Nicholson St, and 42 Carlton Place. To this one could add a number of other, slightly older projects that have not featured in existing surveys, such as The Chalet, David Dale Gallery & Studios, EmergeD, It’s Our Playground, One Ton Prop, Open Eye Club, The Now Museum, Ten Til Ten and 85A.

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Editorial

Nothing Personal is a new magazine for art, essays and reviews. Normally, the caveat precedes an opinion: It’s nothing personal but… Whoever states the phrase lets themselves off the hook. Someone is told: I don’t mean to offend. Sincere or disingenuous, with hopes to hurt or to soothe, these words create a tension. It both is and isn’t personal. In terms of the magazine, this phrase introduces the contradictions inherent to criticism––the way, despite attempts otherwise, it cannot help but be revealing of both itself and its subject. In Nothing Personal, the anecdotal offers a bridge to the political, social and aesthetic, and vice versa. The writing within works at this intersection, knowing that the subjective can disguise the structural just as easily as the objective can mask the intimate. 

The problems of criticism are pronounced in a small scene like Glasgow’s. The personal and the professional overlap: friends are collaborators, successful artists are former tutors, graduates compete for limited opportunities. Engaging in public criticism is a gamble, you risk alienating your peers and forebears. As a result, a lot of important critical thinking in the city takes place casually between friends, within small crit groups or over drinks in the pub after an opening––in most cases, privately. This kind of closed-door criticality hides entrenched rhythms, curatorial norms and common grievances both of and from the wider scene. Exasperation with this situation sparked the magazine’s conception, along with a sense that writing and sharing these thoughts more widely could open out and animate the city’s artistic communities in untold ways. The contents of Nothing Personal aim to provide a starting point for discussion and are focused on letting artists contribute to and re-centre debate.

Lindsey Jean Mclean, Salome, 2019, screenprint on paper, 59 x 84 cm.

This issue begins with Neil Clements’ Leaving The Auld Toon, an essay which looks at Glasgow International’s relationship to the city, its biennial effects and mythology. Echoing Clements’ concern with belonging, Esther Draycott’s The Monroe Effect charts the downward pull of high rise buildings, asking what it means to be upstanding in a modern city. Swapnaa Tamhane’s essay on self-Orientalising inaugurates our The Limits of … column, a series exploring the problems inherent in various forms of art practice, and their associated language. Drawing primarily on the writing of Edward W. Said, Tamhane reconsiders the labelling of progressive work, defining and unpicking the ironies of self-Orientalising. Following this, Kiah Endelman Music’s Much of it Means Nothing critiques the lack of meaningful care or action behind so-called ‘statements of commitment’ that art institutions seem to endlessly churn out. Loll Jung’s hybrid work Janus Sees the Greys and the Blues but also the Greens and the Yellows looks at beginnings and ends, reflecting an interest in boundaries and transitions found throughout the writing in this issue. In CAMPUS, Calum Sutherland draws a conceptual line between the Barclays Glasgow Campus and that of the Glasgow School of Art, considering the affect of inner-city infrastructure. The Metacritical is written by Aman Sandhu, who embraces the column’s aim to scrutinise rituals and methods of criticality used by artists, while considering the fallout from making, researching and invigilating his show NO MORE ARTISTS. Maria Howard begins our Writing Through feature with a piece that engages with the latest incarnation of Bernadette Mayer’s Memory, meditating on the life of an artwork and its potential to haunt and influence.

Each of these texts is paired with an image. Some provide a counterpoint, some an illustration and others are woven into the writing. Attentively chosen, every image is an essential part of the fabric of the magazine. The issue itself is paired with an artwork too. A few months ago, when Rhett Leinster showed us some new paintings, we knew immediately we had seen something special and had found our first cover image. The painting took us back to the pub, going for drinks after an opening. A toast to the lassitude, the talk, the friendship.

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