The Key Material is Time (2014)

On Saturday night I went to the dancing. You were working late in the shop so you went straight there…you had your dancing shoes at work with you, and something for your tea.   The Plaza was nice with the coloured fountains and the wee tables. John and I liked it there. But we went to the F and F Palais in Partick too, and Green’s Playhouse, the Locarno, and the Albert…I loved the dancing.[i]

By 1946, Glasgow had 93 dancehalls, almost three times as many as London per head of population. The Saturday night dancing was a kind of counterpoint to that of the local heavy industries, being devoid of tangible goal or object. The dancehall was a place where a kind of subcultural currency (of seeing and being seen) was in operation – where young people could elevate their social standing through their self-fashioning and dancing skills alone. Dick Hebdige famously characterized the ‘subcultural response’ as ‘both a declaration of independence, otherness, of alien intent, a refusal of anonymity, of insubordinate status. It is an insubordination. And at the same time it is also a confirmation of the fact of powerlessness, a celebration of impotence.’ [ii] The subcultural response played out in Glaswegian nightspots in the post-war era matched Hebdige’s definition, serving as it did to alleviate the alienating effects of ‘normal’ society.

After 1945 Glasgow began a gradual decent into post-industrial decline, which lasted until the late 1980s, when the city re-emerged as a ‘destination city’, with a post-Fordian economy based on shopping and services. The artists, musicians, filmmakers and writers emerging in this period in Glasgow no longer had to make a choice between conventional labour and their artistic practice, given that there wasn’t much traditional employment to be had. As local poet Donnie O’Rourke put it, this created ‘a whole generation of artists, who, absolved of the old polarity between employment and one’s real work, just do it.’ In those years of high unemployment, thecity’s subcultural scene grew incrementally until its reachextended beyond the parameters of the weekend. New models of living and working were fashioned in those years, which would eventually culminate in a unique and largely self-initiated arts infrastructure. By the early 1990s, the ‘free’ space of the nightclub had found a kind of representational corollary in the art that was emerging from the city: work that was process-based, rooted in social co-operation and often realized with an economy of means and materials. This work reflected its point of origin: a city constituted and made meaningful by social relationships and marked by identifications or emotional investments.

I moved to Glasgow in 1993 to study at the university. One night I met Toby Paterson and Robert Johnston, who were volunteer committee members of Glasgow (then) only artist-led gallery, Transmission,which had been established by painting graduates from Glasgow School of Art back in 1983.   Crucially, the gallery was non-commercial: established not to generate sales of works, but to offer opportunities for the exhibition of work and a social space for discussion. It answered to Nancy Fraser’s description of a democratic public sphere: ‘not an arena of market relations but rather one of discursive relations, a theatre for debating and deliberating rather than for buying and selling.’[iii]. The committee members supported and encouraged the work of others, motivated by a belief in the importance of community.

I went out dancing with my friends at clubs like The Arches and the Sub Club, where you could feel the bass through your entire body. Detroit techno and Chicago house were the order of the day, played by visiting American DJs like Derrick May, Juan Atkins, Blake Baxter, Jeff Mills, Larry Heard (aka Mr. Fingers) and Cajmere. But there were also local heroes with equally strange monikers: Harri at Atlantis, Twitch of Pure, H’atch and J’Ilkes, who ran Knucklehead at the art school, not to mention A-man and Panic of Tangent putting on raves on trains, boats and underground bunkers and mobile sound units like Desert Storm and Breach of the Peace, who staged riotous ‘Part and Protest’ events in flagrant contraventionofthe 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act, which attempted to prevent raves by outlawing public gatheringswith ‘amplified music’ and ‘repetitive beats’. As cultural theorist Hillegonda Rietveld noted,

The participants of the party and club life surrounding the musical discourse of house music were empowered by the celebration of a sense of community, which shaped identities that were excluded from, or given less power by, the world in which they were administratively ruled by government and mass media. The very existence of the house scene as a space for the bonding of ‘alternative’ identities was therefore a starting point for an opposing strategy.’[iv]

The main thing that was really striking was that the situation seemed exciting, and it also seemed wide open. You could get involved.

I remember going to the opening of the Girls High exhibition in 1996, at the Old Fruitmarket and seeing a work by Jonathan Monk called Whatever Will Be Will Be that consisted of a big mirror that had been dropped on the floor, and a sculpture by Jim Lambie, one of the constituent parts of which was a black pudding.I also remember seeing Claire Barclay’s exhibition Out of the Woods (1997) at CCA on Sauchiehall Street, curated by Nicola White. The main spacewas dominated by an enormous acid yellow plastic sculpture that stretched from the floor to the ceiling rafters: a giant florescent cut out bag. There was something so audacious about that.I remember the colour but also the smell of the work, the sense of knowing it somehow.  I remember Toby Webster’s trio of shows for the CCA, the first of which was the group show Lovecraft, which he co-curated with Martin McGeown, and which included pornographic pencil drawings by Tom of Finland alongside works by Glasgow-based artist Cathy Wilkes, an enormous quilted multicoloured cube by Jim Isermann and a whole wall covered in biro drawings, handwritten poetry and badly typed stories by fans of the Manic Street Preachers called The Uses of Literacy, put together by Jeremy Deller. Glasgow-born artist Lucy McKenzie later wrote that the work had discomfited her, ‘because it related directly to experiences with somebody real and not imagined.’[v] That was how I felt, too. The final show Webster curated for CCA was called Waves in…Particles Out, and featured a Piotr Uklański disco floor that Martin Creed’s band Owada played on at the opening. I don’t remember them being particularly good, but by that point I understood it was less about mastery, and more about having a go.

Tony Blair got into power in May 1997. That seemed at the time, a point of great optimism and Labour very quickly began the process of devolution for Scotland that was so necessary and so much desired.[vi] After I graduated, I started bringing out my own fanzine, and then started organising my own events. All the time I was going to gigs and clubs and exhibitions and thinking about and observing the scene in the city, which was beginning to attract more and more interest from outside.I carried on writing arts reviews for various places, initially local publications but later on London-based art magazines like Afterall and then Frieze. I was particularly interested in the work of artists like Hayley and Sue Tompkins, and loved their solo show Sounds of Grass, held at Transmission in 1999.

They have subdivided the space with a diagonal chipboard partition, and hung it with loosely draped squares of hessian sackcloth. There are a few cheap gold earrings, the kind they sell in Ratner’s, hooked into the sackcloth.  You pause in front of a dark cluster of what look like leaves hanging on the wall. They are magazine pages, crumpled until they are soft and shapeless in the palms of the sisters’ hands. The floor in the space is painted black, but they have left a dusty area unswept and then one of them has walked through it. You look at the footprints and think it’s like a kind of portrait. On the floor they have arranged, like a picnic blanket, a large hessian square, with a neon pink seam, set with a glass of orange liquid, probably paint water but possibly orangeade.

One of the most important changes in the local situation came when The Modern Institute was set up in Glasgow in early 1998, by Will Bradley, Charles Esche and Toby Webster, with a view to promoting Glasgow artists in ways that extended beyond the remit of the city’s existing museum and galleries system, chiefly by showing their work at key commercial art fairs in cities like London, Basel and New York, and forming relationships with curators and collectors outside Scotland in order to secure both exhibitions opportunities and sales of works for their artists.  Bradley later recalled,

Toby Webster, Chas Esche and myself had all been thinking of starting something. Toby and I had been at Transmission, and Chas had left Tramway. It’s partly you get into a habit of doing things and you want to keep doing them – but it came about really from having experience of what’s going on outside Glasgow. Also a lot of artists who were working here were starting to become quite successful – the artists that we knew were starting to get involved, and showing abroad. We got a real sense something like [a commercial gallery] could work in Glasgow, and wanted to give it a try.  We wanted to be everything: a record company, a publishing company, organising exhibitions and representing artists. We’d be all singing, all dancing. We tried to keep the definition of The Modern Institute loose: we called ourselves a research organisation and production company rather than a ‘gallery’.[vii]

The Modern Institute offices were located on the first floor of a decayed red sandstone building on Robertson Street, which also hosted the offices of socialist MSP Tommy Sheridan, a pro-life organisation, a private detective agency, a bookbinder, an ‘invisible mender’ and a maker of masonic regalia. On the top floor, Lucy McKenzie established Flourish Studios, where she and several artists including Keith Farquhar, Alan Michael and Craig Mulholland made work, rehearsed music and staged performances. I remember attending one Flourish Night where Lucy McKenzie played the clarinet while her collaborator, the Polish artist, Paulina Olowska formed the shapes of letters of the alphabet with her body. The evening ended in disarray when one of the guests started an unscheduled fire in a sink in a corner.Several of the artists who worked with The Modern Institute also had studios within the building, including, at the beginning, Martin Boyce, Jim Lambie, Toby Paterson, Jonnie Wilkes and Richard Wright, so the dingy corridors often echoed late into the night with sounds of sawing, hammering and broken electronic filters.

The Modern Institute in those early days hosted a number of three-day exhibitions by artists, both from their own (mainly) local roster[viii] but also artists from other cities that they were interested in working with, such as the Belgrade-born installation artist Bojan Šarčević. That show sticks in my mind especially because Šarčević built a very high shelf around the gallery space and then put all The Modern Institute’s files and paperwork on it, meaning that whenever the gallery staff wanted to refer to any documents they had to climb up a ladder to get it. Those shows were real events because the rest of the landscape had been fairly subdued since Charles Esche had left Tramway and Nicola White had left CCA in 1997. In 1998 and 1999 Tramway and CCA both closedfor Lottery funded renovations. Tramway’snewly appointed Visual Art Officer Alexia Holt organized offsite projects in the interim, but until Tramway re-opened in June 2000 and CCA reopened in 2001, Transmission and The Modern Institute were the two main heat spots in the city. That situation continued for several years, shored up by low budget temporary exhibition projects that artist organisers set up either in empty properties or in their own flats like James Thornhill’s Ready Steady Made (1999) and Marianne Greated and Sorcha Dallas’s Switchspace (1999-2004).

In 2000 I began to write Social Sculpture, my book about the Glasgow art and music scene. I was working during that time for The Modern Institute and went with them to the Chicago art fair in 2001, where we showed the work of Martin Boyce, Richard Wright and Eva Rothschild. I remember meeting the American Fine Arts gallerist Colin de Land at a dinner one night and telling him about my research on Glasgow, and how owing to a comparative lack of support in Scotland, the city’s artists had really come to rely upon opportunities elsewhere, in Europe and America. We were interrupted by a woman on the other side of the table, who opined loudly, ‘Of course, the model for that is jazz.’ It seemed to me then, that there was something particular and special about Glasgow that made it different from everywhere else. It didn’t follow a model; it wasn’t logical. Many of the most interesting artists in the city didn’t even produce a saleable product like a photograph or a recording that could be circulated outside the city.

One such example was Richard Wright, who had worked as a figurative painter in the 1980s but had become disillusioned with painting and destroyed nearly all his early work. In 1990 he made a gradual return to painting after taking a studio in a former cigarette factory, where he made some paintings on board and the first wall paintings. He remembered,

Sometimes I would just go to this old warehouse where I had my little  space and just fiddle around with things. If I didn’t like them I would just turn them to the wall. I very much liked the idea that the work had this very fragile or unstable kind of existence.[ix]

In the early 1990s he had begun to exhibit once more, showing site-specific wall drawings (that would be destroyed after the exhibition) in flat galleries, and artist-led galleries like Transmission and City Racing in London. Wright’s temporary wall drawings used pencil and gouache to chart a geography of response, accentuating the volume, scale, light and the social conditions or atmosphere of a given space. He explained, ‘My work is like a worn step, it is like a smoke detector, it is even like a picture, but it is more like the space between the letters of words.’[x] Another case in point was Christopher Mack, who began performing his emotive fingerstyle acoustic songs under the moniker The James Orr Complex in 1996 but did not release his first recording, the EP Figa on the Glasgow independent label Rock Action until 2001. But when he played, often in the pungent basement of the 13th Note on King Street, the audience knew all the words to his songs, because they had attended all his other gigs. The work being made in Glasgow in the late 90s was made with all manner of materials, but perhaps the central material was time. The scene wasn’t motivated by profit but was rooted in a desired social experience, one that rested upon people investing time in supporting one another.

In the early 2000s, two young galleries opened in Glasgow that had grown out of the flat gallery tradition: Sorcha Dallas, which evolved out of the Switchspace temporary exhibition project run by Dallas and Marianne Greated, and Mary Mary, which had begun life in a tenement flat on Bath Street. One of the first times I saw Glasgow-based artist Karla Black’s work was in 2004, in a solo show at Mary Mary’s first premises. Black had devised her own method of working over a number of years, actively avoiding traditional or learned techniques in order to develop her own language of making, using materials such as clay, paper, cellophane and non-art materials such as Vaseline and make-up. I wrote

Black’s art is not only about the body; it also speaks to and of the surrounding space. This exhibition, for example, reflects and amplifies its setting, in a tenement bedroom that doubles as the artist-run gallery Mary Mary. Walls with painted-over cracks and holes paved with Polyfilla reappear in the texture of Black’s work. In the days she spent in the space the artist created images not only of herself but also of the   atmosphere of the room.[xi]

Since the late 90s the scene in Glasgow has changed as the city has become established as a noted art centre. As the scenehas grown, it has become more elastic, with a variety of different styles and motivations at play, and, it must be said, an increased sense of competition – for audiences, for attention, and for funding. Since 1996, no fewer than 13 artists associated with Glasgow have been nominated for the Turner Prize, including Douglas Gordon (1996), Christine Borland (1997), Martin Creed[xii] (2001), Jim Lambie and Simon Starling (both 2005), Nathan Coley (2007), Cathy Wilkes (2008), Lucy Skaer and Richard Wright (both 2009), Susan Philipsz[xiii] (2010), Martin Boyce and Karla Black (both 2011), Luke Fowler (2012) and David Shrigley (2013). Of these, six won: Gordon, Creed, Starling, Wright, Philipsz and Boyce.[xiv]

Up until the 1980s Glasgow School of Art, where many of the city’s best-known artists studied, attracted a largely local student body. Nowadays the cohort has a much more geographically diverse demographic: 20% are international students and a further 20% are from the rest of the UK. The MFA programme at the school, which had a year group of just 12 mainly UK students during the 90s, now recruits over thirty students, many of whom hail from countries such as Switzerland or Canada but who then post-graduation have been selected to represent Glasgow or Scotland in international exhibitions. The success of The Modern Institute[xv] has led to other changes – in 2006, the organisation took the decision to relinquish the moderate amount of public funding it was receiving, and to channel that into a new non-profit project in Glasgow, The Common Guild, which would be helmed by Katrina Brown (then curator and deputy director of Dundee Contemporary Arts). The Common Guild was originally based in Robertson Street, in premises lent by The Modern Institute, before moving to Douglas Gordon’s town house at Woodlands Terrace in 2008 where it has been based ever since, presenting a programme of projects, events and exhibitions by international artists including Tacita Dean (2010), Wolfgang Tillmans (2012), Carol Bove (2013) and Phil Collins (2014).

In the last decade, The Modern Institute has been followed by other independent galleries in the city, such as Sorcha Dallas (2004-2011), Mary Mary (est. 2006), The Duchy (est. 2009), David Dale Gallery (est. 2009) and Kendall Koppe (est. 2011), which have helped to take the work of the city’s artists out of Glasgow and to collectors and collections elsewhere. It is no longer the case that everyone will turn up to the Transmission opening or the Modern Institute opening because the level and variety of activity in Glasgow has increased so dramatically – both through the young galleries and through the activities of studio and exhibition complexes such as Southside Studios, SWG3 and the Glue Factory which provide vital support for the development and exhibition of work within the city.

Scotland’s participation in the Venice Biennale since 2003[xvi] and the growth of Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art have also helped focus attention on the Glasgow scene. Glasgow International began as a relatively modest undertaking in 2005, led by CCA Director Francis McKee, who grew the budget and ambition of the festival in two further outings in 2006 and 2008. Katrina Brown directed the 2010 and 2012 editions of the festival, which in 2012 showed 130 artists across almost 50 venues, attracted 205,067 visitors and generated £1.7m for Glasgow’s economy and a further £436,878 for the rest of the country.[xvii]

However, Glasgow remains a city in which many artists make work that they do not expect to sell. A survey conducted in 2012 by the Scottish Artist Union (SAU) confirmed that three-quarters of visual artists in Scotland earn less than £5,000 a year, putting them in the lowest socioeconomic group of income earners, alongside pensioners, casual or lowest grade workers, benefit claimants and students. Indeed, many of the artists who live and work in Glasgow continue to work with inexpensive everyday materials, out of which they have formed their own unique language, after years of experimentation. This approach has been defined by Richard Wright as ‘a tactile element to the work, that has to do with a reinstatement of a concern with material and its poetry, still done in a stripped-down way.’[xviii]  Some of the most significant and distinctive artistic work made in Glasgow since that time remains intrinsically bound up with ideas of performativity: the material form is ‘secondary, lightweight, ephemeral, cheap, unpretentious and or dematerialized’.[xix] The scene is dialogic, centring on talks, discussions and live events of all kinds. It is rooted in the body, in song and dance, and concerned not only with style but also with the sound, scent and feel of things.It lives in memory more effectively than in photographs. It’s about empathizing with and being curious about other people. It is an approach that was fostered in the free space of Glasgow’s post-war nightclubs, and that stillinforms the city’s many independent exhibition spaces, music venues, record labels and publishing imprints today.

As you get in the driver regards you through the rear view mirror. ‘A girl like you should be going up the dancing.’ ‘What? Oh, I’m a bit tired tonight.’  He turns right onto Oswald Street and stops at the lights. ‘Mind you – it’s quiet tonight.’ He drives on, up Renfield Street. ‘I’ve been doing this job forty year, and I mind the days when all they street corners would be packed with folk queuing up for the dancing.’ He gestures out the window at the empty corner of West Regent Street.‘Aye, the Locarno, Green’s Playhouse, I mind them all.’You see the queue: the boys in their best suits, with their hair slicked back, smoking and rocking back on their heels. The girls with their eyeliner on, their hair set in waves. The stiff skirts of their dresses, just with a little pocket for their cloakroom ticket and comb.They were the portent.[xx]

Sarah Lowndes

[i]Interview with Bunty Angles, Anna Blair, More Tea at Miss Cranston’s, (Edinburgh: Shepheard-Walwyn Ltd., 1991), p.419.

[ii]Dick Hebdige, Hiding in the Light (London and New York: Routledge, 1988), p.35.

[iii]Nancy Fraser, “Rethinking the Public Sphere: A contribution to the critique of actually existing democracy” (1992), The Cultural Studies Reader (London and New York, Routledge, 2007), p.489

[iv]Hillegonda Rietveld, “The House Sound of Chicago”, The Club Cultures Reader: Readings in Cultural Studies, Steve Redhead, ed., (Oxford: Blackwell, 1997).

[v]Lucy McKenzie, Accelerated Learning, Luke Fowler, ed., (Dundee: Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, 1999).

[vi]In every General Election from 1957 until 1997, Labour did better in Scotland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom, while a third party, the Scottish National Party (SNP), grew in popularity. Following the establishment of a devolved Scottish Parliament under Labour in 1998/1999, SNP continued to grow in influence, and in 2007 SNP formed the first minority government of the Scottish Parliament. At the 2011 election SNP won a majority sufficient to call for a referendum on independence, which has been scheduled for September 18th, 2014.

[vii] Will Bradley, in conversation with the author, April 2001. Note: The Scottish electorate voted against being an independent country by 55% to 45%. The respective ‘Yes’ and ‘No’ campaigns generated much public debate and the high turnout of 84.59% reflected the level of engagement. In the 2015 General Election the Scottish National Party (SNP) won 56 out of 59 seats in Scotland.

[viii]The initial group of 13 artists represented by The Modern Institute were all Glasgow-based, with the exception of Eva Rothschild, who lived in London. The other artists were: Martin Boyce, Jim Lambie, Victoria Morton, Toby Paterson, Mary Redmond, Simon Starling, Hayley Tompkins, Joanne Tatham and Tom O’Sullivan, Cathy Wilkes, Jonnie Wilkes and Richard Wright.

[xi]Sarah Lowndes, “Karla Black”, frieze, Issue 89, March 2005.

[xii]Martin Creed was born in Wakefield, England but moved to Glasgow when he was three. After attending Lenzie Academy, near Glasgow, he trained at the Slade School of Art.

[xiii]SusanPhilipsz was born in Glasgow, but trained in Dundee and Belfast and now lives in Berlin.

[xiv]In 2014, another Glasgow-based artist, Duncan Campbell, won the Turner Prize. The 2015 Turner Prize will be staged at Glasgow’s Tramway, underlining the city’s many associations with the prize.

[xv]In 2014, Toby Webster co-directs The Modern Institute with Andrew Hamilton, and the gallery represents 39 artists, twelve of whom are from his original roster of Glasgow-based artists, and the rest from cities all over the world, including Monika Sosnowska (Warsaw), Chris Johnson (Los Angeles) and Urs Fischer (New York).

[xvi]The artists who have been shown as part of Scotland + Venice are: Claire Barclay, Jim Lambie and Simon Starling (2003), Alex Pollard, Joanne Tatham & Tom O’Sullivan and Cathy Wilkes (2005), Charles Avery, Henry Coombes, Louise Hopkins, Rosalind Nashashibi, Lucy Skaer and Tony Swain (2007), Martin Boyce (2009), Karla Black (2011) and Corin Sworn, Duncan Campbell and Hayley Tompkins (2013). Of these 18 artists, 16 were at the time of the exhibition Glasgow-based.

[xvii]Frieze curator Sarah McCrory was appointed as Director of Glasgow International in 2013, directing the successful 2014 edition and the forthcoming 2016 edition.

[xviii]Richard Wright, in conversation with the author, September 2001.

[xix]Lucy R. Lippard, Six Years, (New York: Praeger, 1973), p.vii.

[xx]Excerpt from work in progress, by Sarah Lowndes (2014).

This is an amended version of my essay “The Key Material is Time” first published in Moira Jeffrey, ed.,  The Generation Reader (Edinburgh: National Galleries of Scotland, 2014).


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