Shona Macnaughton’s durational performance work Here to Deliver took the form of over a hundred recorded virtual taxi rides between art venues in Glasgow throughout October and November 2020. Participants booked rides on Eventbrite at particular slots within Shona’s ‘shift pattern’, turning an event-booking service familiar to the art world into a makeshift Uber-esque platform – the first of many conversions of an art world lexicon into a language of contemporary labour conditions involved in the work. Once booked, the artist would call at the allotted time and drive between then-closed Glasgow venues, starting up a conversation with the passenger over the phone with the line ‘Hello, I’m the proletarian of art, am I speaking to…?’, inviting them to engage in a ‘speculative journey through a cancelled festival.’
The work was originally conceived to be a real taxi service around Glasgow International 2020, in which passengers would get a free ride between venues in return for the payment of their filmed performance, to be used towards a moving image work, conceptually figured as a kind of currency. But GI 2020 was of course cancelled in the first covid lockdown, and this revised work took place several months later than planned. This enacted a kind of double displacement and unsyncing from the art festival it was initially seeking to critically relate to, from within the channels the festival would have created in the city: a displaced activity performing a displaced critique.
This de-linking from what we now recognise as the doxa of the old normal only made the revised concept and performance more powerful than it is possible to imagine the original concept having been. And through distanciation, it seems to exert an even more exacting critique of the art festival which now, in 2021, resumes in a totally amnesiac fashion, its work largely unreflective of the social rupture which has taken place in the interim.
As Glasgow International’s director Richard Parry wrote in a statement introducing the 2021 programme: ‘we have sought to present the festival originally planned for a year ago as faithfully as possible, but also allowing space for re-appraisal.’ But how is it possible for both of Parry’s purported intentions – to be as faithful as possible to the original work, while also acknowledging the necessity for reappraisal – to be accomplished? The only way would be through a tacit acceptance of the status quo prevailing against an epochal change, an overriding desire for a return to normal and for art to be the vehicle for this return to normal. This conservative impulse reflects class domination over the production and display of art in capitalist societies, and the ultimate function of art within such societies: to preserve and expand bourgeois domination, while constantly sidelining all other kinds of subjectivities and engagements from coming to the fore.
Parry’s statement contains a series of universalisms and generalities about experiences of the pandemic and experiences of art, which under closer inspection relate only to middle-class experiences. For Parry ‘the festival is a special moment in the creative rhythm of the city – and this year its way of enabling people to collectively share in this resonates like nothing in living memory.’
In reality, the disconnect between GI and the city was felt even more acutely this year than in previous years; for me, the exclusivity of the art festival was accentuated by the context of the increased desire for and contestation of common public spaces in the city that we have experienced in Glasgow over the last year. An arcane website was compounded by GI venue posters and signs which contained no real information about the works, other than artists’ names, nor that entry to shows was free, and acted as gnomic code for people who already knew about GI. Venues in culturally diverse areas in Glasgow’s Southside attracted overwhelmingly middle-class white crowds. France-Lise McGurn’s installation, Aloud, exhibited as part of GI’s Commissioned Programme at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, was, again, described by the press-release in universal generalisations, ‘launching the viewer into a three dimensional world of the intimate and relatable’. In reality, the bodies depicted in McGurn’s derivative style are all bourgeois, white and skinny. That they are also described in the exhibition text as ‘archetypal women and men’ just goes to demonstrate the ways in which bourgeois art by default always describes itself as universal and relatable, while effectively excluding and effacing bodies which do not fit into McGurn’s world, or class, or indeed, those of us who do not identify as men or women.
Instead of believing Parry that GI is part of the creative rhythm of the city, what if we were to see GI as an unwanted incursion? An exclusion? In light of Parry’s own admission that the programme was not strictly speaking ‘contemporary’, we might ask what is meant when we speak of the ‘contemporary’ in contemporary art, when the artwork is even framed by the festival’s director as at least partly dislocated from any critical relation to the now? In this context, Here to Deliver now stands as a testament to that period of time in a city under lockdown which the empty, homogeneous temporality of GI, in its resumption a year later than planned, seeks to gloss over and erase.
The displacement from in-person to the virtual in Here to Deliver, mirroring a shift in social relations, was also a source of rich critical effectiveness. The experience of the work was more real through its absorption of the virtual; it was conceptually ingrained in the reality of familiar online life processes – from booking on Eventbrite, to leaving a review, to seeing each ride documented as a rated review, posted on Instagram – while also imaginary and interrogatory of the fabric of reality, normality and the everyday. For the artist/performer, each ride did take place within the real time and space of her car. For the audience, it happened only virtually. This again stands in contrast to the ‘hybrid’ compromise of GI between online and physical programming, a haphazard attempt to square profoundly altered social relations without an acknowledgement of the sources of tension and changes of meaning involved in such a ‘hybrid’ programme. In Here to Deliver, the rift between artist and passenger, or driver and audience, was powerfully figured in the surreal image of a cardboard cutout of a sketchy pencil drawing of a naked figure. Vulnerable and expressionistic, seatbelted in the passenger seat of each ride, the figure acted as a proxy for the passenger, existing within a different aesthetic plane to the ‘reality’ evoked. This disturbance between speculation, imagination and virtuality on the one hand, and physical reality on the other, was also heightened through the performance’s evocation (through the script of the spectral presence) of an already existing socialist heritage at the heart of everyday urban reality, somehow subsisting through a more familiarly portrayed capitalist realism. If the contemporary art festival, the biennial, shuts out space for proletarian subjectivity, socialist history, and collective, connective experience, then Shona’s work, through a series of performances, reminds us of its stubborn, inalienable presence.
Through a loose improvised script, journeys wove together a number of disjointed generic textures – improvised descriptions of the city, quotes about ‘social realism,’ academic writing on Marxism and art, as well as standard gig platform promotional copy and general chat. There was a certain antique grandeur in the effect of this, at once alien and familiar, Shona’s voice perhaps evoking one of the ‘stout-hearted heroes’ – at one point the working title of the performance – mentioned in the script. These heroes are at once constructing the passenger’s experience and disjointed from it, more real than it, and more integral. The Italian ‘workerist’ theorist Mario Tronti theorised a conception of the struggle between workers and capital which runs counter to a more usual conception. In Tronti, it is the workers, not the capitalists who have the a priori power and the critical initiative in the class struggle by virtue of the fact that the workers contain the source of profit – labour – which the capitalists need to dominate and exploit. Here To Deliver gestures towards a recognition of this power as the other side of the art festival. This work foregrounds a joyful proletarian subjectivity operating across the city more powerful, confident, and rooted in history than many passengers might have anticipated.