Votive (2009)

Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow 5th December -30th January 2010

Curated by Sarah Lowndes

‘Every event is an object anyway and every event has object-like quality’ George Brecht

Votive examines the idea of object as event, addressing the idea of performativity enshrined in the votive offering. A votive offering either expresses a wish or is given in thanks for a wish fulfilled. It is thus both sculptural (existing in space) and performative (existing in time, as an event, and thereafter as a memory). Many of the objects included in the exhibition have qualities similar to amulets, charms and talismans, which work by magical and not physical means. Johan Huizinga, in his important study of the play element in culture, Homo Ludens (1940), observed that ‘[…] in giving expression to life man creates a second, poetic world alongside the world of nature.’ This activity, the act of representation, the creation of a second poetic world, is the focus of the Votive exhibition. The offering of votive objects sets in place a contract, whereby the object becomes a physical marker of something imagined which could yet become real.

Chris Burden, Bed Piece (1972) on display in Votive (2009)
Chris Burden, Bed Piece (1972) on display in Votive (2009)

The Super 8 documentation of Chris Burden’s seminal concrete performance piece Bed Piece (1972) is a cornerstone of the Votive exhibition. He described some of the underlying motivations of his early performances by explaining, ‘…there are considerations like the myth and the reality, fantasizing something and having it be real – the early pieces were apparitions.’ Apparition can be interpreted in two interconnected senses – a ghost or ghostlike image of a person, and the appearance of something remarkable or unexpected. The word derives from ‘the action of appearing’. This idea of the action of appearing is significant in thinking about all of the works selected for inclusion in this exhibition. The ghostlike quality of the documentation of Burden’s work is also present in Torsten Lauschmann’s film installation Dead Man’s Switch (2008), which depicts a single candle burning on the kitchen table in the artist’s home. This vision of almost stillness elides the temporary and ephemeral nature of the live event, to fix the flame in an eternal present. The phased action of appearing is converted into the plenitude of the appearance itself, stripped of both preamble and aftermath.

Richard Wright, No Title (2009) on display in Votive (2009)
Richard Wright, No Title (2009) on display in Votive (2009)

The notion of an apparition recurs in considering Richard Wright’s wall paintings, which often take weeks of tremendous physical effort to produce, yet manage to transcend the painstaking method of their production to transmit an experience of clarity and lightness to the spectator. Wright explains, ‘I always say that painting is a physical act; it is about touching matter, but paradoxically painting is essentially immaterial. It is a projection.’ This aspect of projection is evident in Wright’s practice, in which his meticulous and highly complex wall drawings articulate muted or unspoken aspects of the architecture. The predestination of the work (which is usually destroyed at the end of each exhibition) means that in an important way it becomes itself through disappearance.

Devotional objects effect a bridge between sculpture and performance which resonates in the work of George Brecht, a key member of the Fluxus group, who developed John Cage’s Eastern philosophy derived ideas of chance alongside colleagues such as George Maciunias and Yoko Ono. Brecht’s work demonstrates the possibility of sculpture as a prompt to action, whether actual interaction with the objects (as was the case in the early years of his work) or the imaginary acts his work now inspires in spectators. His seminal Chair Event works of the 1960s, in which objects such as a lit candle, or a walking stick and an orange, are placed on a chair, generate a sense of preceding action or an event that has yet to occur.

Thea Djordjadze, Untitled (2008) on display in Votive (2009)
Thea Djordjadze, Untitled (2008) on display in Votive (2009)

The idea of event as object / object as event is handled differently by Thea Djordjadze – she composes nuanced arrangements of forms, using pliable, fragile and ephemeral materials and techniques that foreground the hand of the individual, such as knitting and moulding. Her process-based sculptures possess similar properties to amulets, charms and talismans, in that the manner of their handling gives them a second existence beyond their everyday status. Although amulets, charms and talismans are real objects, their magical properties operate as ‘acts’: their magic inheres in things done and said rather than in the things themselves.

Glasgow Museums have generously loaned twelve objects from their world-renowned World Cultures Collection to the Votive exhibition. In many of these objects, the natural world and the poetic world co-exist: as for example in the turquoise bead, used in decorating headdresses, from a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet which, for traders in salt of the Himalayan region, had an amuletic function, in averting sickness on journeys. Similarly, the trumpet conch-shell, from Tibet, used in worship along with cymbols and also placed on altars is a natural form that has a symbolic, cultural meaning and function. The other objects selected are man-made, but similar to the turquoise bead and the shell trumpet, their use or significance may not be immediately apparent to the observer. Several of the objects possess a duality, being both functional objects and also possessing symbolic meaning, for example the wooden bowl, with red interior, used for tea and food, from Tibet, which was used by pilgrims both for ordinary meals and for making offerings, and the holy water bowl, made in Lhassa, from a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet, which perform both a practical and a ritualistic function, both containing water and symbolizing the cycle of life. Similarly, the bone figure used by the natives for tightening the skins on their drums, from a collection of ethnological specimens from the Marquesas, South Pacific, is not only a musical tool but also a fetish.

Objects from The World Cultures Collection of Glasgow Museums on display in Votive (2009)
Objects from The World Cultures Collection of Glasgow Museums on display in Votive (2009)

A number of actual votive offerings have been selected for inclusion in the exhibition, which serve no practical function, other than their use in specific rituals, such as funerary rites. These objects include acone shaped mould for marking votive stupas, from Tibet and a small terracotta votive stupa, from Burma. Also on display will be a figure of a human head and two miniature masks of terracotta from Mexico, found near the Pyramid of the Sun, San Juan, which are believed to be either funerary figures or votive offerings. The exact significance of the Mende or Sherbo Nomoli figures in soapstone is also unknown, although it is believed that they are either fetishes or votives. The mysterious nature of these objects means that they hold great potential in terms of interpretation, particularly in the context of the Votive exhibition, where their performative and sculptural qualities are highlighted.

Nerea Bello performs at the opening of Votive at CCA, Glasgow, December 2009
Nerea Bello performs at the opening of Votive at CCA, Glasgow, December 2009

Abraham Cruzvillegas’ silk-screened works on paper are based on political protest posters, and are both documents of historical struggles and reflections of what the artist calls ‘real experience: subjective, warm, live.’ The message of resistance and of hope communicated through these works provides another instance of an object that may also presage an event. On the opening night of the Votive exhibition there was a live song performance by the Basque singer Nerea Bello, Bello’s remarkable vocal range and mastery of different song idioms generates song performances that are suspenseful and captivating – a recording of her opening night performance can be heard at one-hour intervals during the exhibition. Bello uses objects in her performances such as a radio, a tambourine or a spinning top, that become a means of moving through both physical and imaginary space, much as the ex-voto offering of a gold ring or a burning candle is but the concrete marker of activity emanating in the realms of the imagination.

Sarah Lowndes.

Torsten Lauschmann, Dead Man's Switch (2009)
Torsten Lauschmann, Dead Man’s Switch (2008)

Description of works:

Nerea Bello, accompanied by Shane Connolly (2009).  A recording of a performance made on the opening night by Basque singer Nerea Bello in response to the other works in the exhibition. Bello has a ‘passion for voice, the broken voice that carries bad news, that of a distant argument, of protests and after dinner songs, laughter, whispers, breaths, howlings of labour, sadness, joy. Voices tuned to train sounds, to radios crackling, to a baby’s cry, a toy, a bread maker, thunder, car horns, anything is an excuse to experiment with voice’. The recording will be played at one-hour intervals in the exhibition space.

George Brecht, Chair Event (1969).This important and rarely seen sculpture consists of a whitewashed chair, on the seat of which are placed a walking stick painted with black and white stripes and an orange. Brecht’s work demonstrates the possibility of sculpture as a prompt to action, whether actual interaction with the objects (as was the case in the early years of his work) or the imaginary acts his work now inspires in spectators. He once described his art as a way of ‘ensuring that the details of everyday life, the random constellations of objects that surround us, stop going unnoticed.’

Chris Burden, Bed Piece (1972).The Super 8 documentation of Chris Burden’s seminal concrete performance Bed Piece, in which the artist undressed and remained in bed for 22 days, is problematic because it can never fully convey the power of Burden’s vigil-like performance, which he has described as the ‘strangest, most powerful piece’ from his early career. Burden described his body as generating a force-field like ‘a repulsive magnet’ during the performance, an effect reversed in the Super 8 film, which onlookers cluster around to observe the supine body of the young artist.

Abraham Cruzvillegas, Ink & Blood: 1968-2009 (2008-2009). For Votive, Cruzvillegas sent from Mexico City to Glasgow a portfolio of screen-prints based on political protest posters – as a gesture of faith and an acknowledgement of the ideas implicated in the postal art of the 1960s and 70s. A different poster from the portfolio will be shown at ten-day intervals throughout the exhibition in vitrine two. Cruzvillegas has donated his fee for participating in the exhibition to Amnesty International.

Thea Djordjadze, Untitled (2009), Untitled (2009)and Untitled (2008).The Georgian-born Berlin-based artist Thea Djordjadze has selected three works for the exhibition. There is a quiet insistence on a relational rather than absolute idea of time in Djordjadze’s works: in the modernist referents of the framing devices and supports, the ghosts of the real objects that the plaster casts take their imprint from and in the history of making that is knotted into the weave of the nomadic carpets.

Torsten Lauschmann, Dead Man’s Switch (2008). Torsten Lauschmann’s film installation, Dead Man’s Switch was commissioned for the ICA’s Nought to Sixty series and depicts a single candle burning on the kitchen table in the artist’s home: the film image appears and disappears at timed intervals. This work alludes both to votive offerings and to Gerhard Richter’s painting Kerze (1983) which appeared on the cover of Sonic Youth’s 1988 Daydream Nation album – but like Lauschmann’s earlier films of ‘almost still’ subjects it also reveals the tension between the absent contingency of the real and the static, endless quality of representation.

Richard Wright, No title (2009).A new commission from 2009 Turner Prize nominee Richard Wright, who makes site-specific wall drawings which respond to both the emotional and physical qualities of architecture. Working predominantly with paint and gold leaf directly on walls, his work relies upon intensive and laborious processes, yet the clarity of the finished work reveals none of the commitment required to render the immaterial concrete.  Most of his work exists only for the duration of a given exhibition, but thereafter may appear to haunt both the space and the spectator’s memory.

Objects loaned from the World Cultures collection of Glasgow Museums.

Lent by Culture and Sport on behalf of Glasgow City Council

Vitrine One    

Holy water bowl made in Lhassa.  From a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet.

Figure of a human head (bald head, female) in terracotta from the neighbourhood of Mexico City. From a collection of Prehistoric Implements from Mexico.

Figure of a human head & Mask of terracotta (bald head, male) and mask of terracotta (torso) found near the Pyramid of the Sun, San Juan, Mexico.

Nomoli figure in soapstone, Mende or Sherbo.  The head has nose and mouth thrust forward and ears placed well back.  Flattened nose with wide nostrils, teeth bared.  Attached by brass peg to rectangular wooden plinth.

Small fragment of a nomoli figure in grey soapstone. Mende or Sherbro with a pair of arms with hands at one end, either side of a large piercing.  Above the arms is a worn s-shaped section, possibly the remains of a head.

Thea Djordjadze, Untitled plaster and watercolour. 2008

Vitrine Three

Wooden bowl, with red interior used for tea and food. From a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet.

Turquoise bead used in decorating head dresses, flat triangular shape.  From a collection of ethnographical objects from Tibet.

Trumpet – conch-shell, used in worship along with cymbols and also placed on altars.  From Tibet. Gifted by Mrs. Thomson

Mould – cone shaped, for marking votive stupas.  Shows band of inscription near rim and on head of mould around square pin top.  From Tibet. Gifted by Mrs. Thomson

Small terracotta votive stupa – Buddhist, from Burma.

Bone figure used by the natives for tightening the skins on their drums.  From a collection of ethnological specimens from the Marquesas, South Pacific. gifted by C.M. Stuart

There was also a series of events related to the exhibition, including a screening of Andrei Tarkovsky’s Andrei Rublev (1966) on the 13 January and a talk on the theme of Object as Event with curator Sarah Lowndes and artists Richard Wright and Torsten Lauschmann on the 28 January.

Votive, CCA (2009) Installation view
Votive, CCA (2009)
Installation view


Ken Neil, “Votive”, Map #21, February 4th 2010.

Writer, academic and curator Sarah Lowndes has gathered a variety of subtly poetic artworks and arranged them as if according to the uncanny logic you might meet at the heart of a dream. Votive is an economical exploration of three central themes: the intrigue generated by those carefully fabricated things which have since time immemorial supported magical narratives; the awe that even secularists can register when close to the minds and manners of humans capable of extraordinary devotion; and the idea of ‘sculpture as event’ – matter fixed in the moment it is beheld but which inspires imagined episodes, post and ante.

A grainy black and white filmed recording of Chris Burden’s eerie ‘Bed Piece’, 1972, is a powerful mood-setter for the show. Burden, on public display in a Californian gallery, stayed in bed for 22 days, speaking to no-one. In one shot the camera hovers over Burden’s face; he’s sleeping, like a doomed convict. In another he seems to express a monkish contentedness and in yet another, he is seen from afar, his performance symbolically miniscule against the role of expansive nothingness played by the studio wall.

Burden’s asceticism lingers in mind in the space of Torsten Lauschmann’s ‘Dead Man’s Switch’, 2008. Projected onto the wall of what feels now like a darkened transept is a mesmerising window of colour. With something of the nostalgic richness of a Vermeer and the contemporary look of a Richter, the projected image shows a lit church candle on a kitchen table next to breakfast condiments. The zone of light is magnetic after Burden’s monochromism; but as pious beholding turns into viewing pleasure the gallery light comes on and the projection pales. The wick issues a wisp of smoke as trace of its extermination. A hand appears, relights the candle, and darkness conversely returns to real space. The dead man’s switch, that morbid safety feature which anticipates the demise of a human operative, and covers for it, appears to have been activated by us.

Into the nave – at each end Richard Wright and George Brecht present signature pieces. Thea Djordjadze and Abraham Cruzvillegas make offerings in between. In addition, two vitrines display actual votive objects selected by Lowndes from the Glasgow Museums’ World Cultures Collections. Some have been identified as components of funerary rituals, others remain now distant from original use, so the primed viewer begins to place them in sequences of events in an invented narrative.

Georgian artist Djordjadze’s surrealist works of materially contrasting artefacts – woven nomads’ rugs, smooth plaster, wooden supports – are quickly anthropomorphised by the conditioned mind; skin, cranium, skeleton, appear in place of the inanimate. The invoked transubstantiation parallels the scripted transformation to follow those acts of religious communion which are structured around symbolic objects as markers of faith.

Brecht’s ‘Chair Events’, 1960s, most clearly signal the role of sculpture-as-event, and by now one is attuned to speculate on the before and after-life of the chair the cane and the orange. Although the telegraphed surrealism doesn’t match Lauschmann’s poeticism or Djordjadze’s idiosyncratic invention, the peculiar tension between Brecht’s items-as-things-inthemselves and items-as-signs-of-actsunseen is worthy of contemplation.

Looking back from Brecht towards what is convincingly the apse, the delicately unnerving wall drawing of Wright comes into its own. Wave-like patterns in red gouache are spread up the height of the architecture and perpendicularly to that axis. The wall work is engagingly hard to account for: might this formation be cruciform, or is the aesthetic that of a cardiograph?

The eye is taken up and out of the main gallery space by the verticality of Wright’s composition. Indebted to the prompts and hints of the surrounding works our eye is trained through the skylight to the firmament. But as the apotheosis dawns, and our attention to the earthly prefigurings of other worlds is on the verge of some great reward, we meet the jagged geometry of the man-made metalwork above the roof of the CCA. This is no accident I think. From this observation, a return to Lauschmann’s haunting film is enacted. For if our commitment to Wright’s devotion to his craft moves us upwards but back down to earth, there is parallel thinking from Lauschmann: it is we who control the dead man’s switch by being alive and attentive, but when it does switch, on our demise, the divine light, which is of our worldly making, will snuff and join us in the tomb.

Talitha Kotze, “Votive”, The List, 9th December 2009.

Curated by Sarah Lowndes, Votive offers a well considered exhibition showcasing the works of international artists George Brecht, Chris Burden, Abraham Cruzvillegas, Thea Djordjadze, Torsten Lauschmann and Richard Wright. It also includes artefacts from the World Cultures Collection of Glasgow Museums and a recorded performance by Basque singer Nerea Bello.

The image of the votive offering – an object placed in a sacred space for ritual purposes – encapsulates the idea of object as event as this exhibition takes a lead from Fluxus artist, George Brecht’s seminal Chair Event in 1969. Brecht, who died last year and whose work has rarely been seen in Scotland, said: ‘Every event is an object anyway and every event has object-like quality’.

Also addressing this idea of performativity is the documentation of endurance artist Chris Burden’s 1972 performance ‘Bed Piece’ where he remained in bed for 22 days.

Both sculptural and performative, Torsten Lauschmann’s film installation ‘Dead Man’s Switch’ projects a moving still life of a burning candle onto the wall. As the flame gutters and blows out, the event continues in another dimension. A nod to lighting candles as an act of invocation and to Gerhard Richter’s painting ‘Kerze’, this work brings together the old and the new, extending the tension between the real and the static.

Turner prize -winner Richard Wright, whose work is meticulous and labour intensive, has made painstaking wall drawings on the far back wall of the CCA ‘chapel’. Here too the act of making is a sculptural event as the artist responds to the site-specific architectural conditions.

Alluding to amulets and talismans, the objects in this exhibition work a certain kind of magic. In an attempt not to take for granted the history of the last century of Western Art, but rather to revisit ideas and play with questions that have not yet fully been answered (and this is why people still make art), the objects work together to transcend that philosophical, intellectual and even poetic explanation of what is on display. It is open ended, but covers all corners; it is disconcerting, yet compelling; and it is truly beautiful as it puts us at ease while it supersedes its own premise.


All photographs of Votive exhibits are by Alan Dimmick, except the photograph of Torsten Lauschmann’s Dead Man’s Switch which is by Colin Davidson.

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The Burning Sand

The Burning Sand is a bi-annual prose poetry and art magazine, featuring creative and critical writings and drawings from artists, musicians and writers involved in the unique and largely self-initiated arts infrastructure in Glasgow. Published and edited by Glasgow-based writer and curator Sarah Lowndes, the magazine means to plough the furrow of Critical Regionalism.

Sarah Lowndes initiated the magazine in the winter of 2012 as means of promulgating the work of colleagues, collaborators and allies through print.   The magazine was construed as a way of amplifying the dialogic quality of the grassroots arts scene in Glasgow, which centres on (often unrecorded) talks, discussions and lives events of all kinds. The magazine attempts to reflect some of the lived ambience of the city, and functions as a demonstration of sociologist Richard Sennett’s observation that, ‘As social animals we are capable of cooperating more deeply than the existing social order envisions’.

One very important aspect of the magazine is that Lowndes’s editorial interventions are very light – the invitation to contribute is accompanied by a promise to allow the contributor both freedom and control with regard both to the nature of their contribution and to how their work appears. Consequently (and happily), there is a very wide range of approaches taken by the contributors which is testament to the diverse and imaginative practices of artists currently living and working in Glasgow.

Although the potential of new technologies to facilitate rapid, free circulation of information has been vital in developing both content and audience for The Burning Sand, an early decision Lowndes made was that the magazine had to be a physical publication, printed on paper (as opposed to a download or blog or website). A printed publication has a sculptural, sensorial quality that a text read onscreen can never have. A printed publication can be touched and held, it has a scent: it can be given away as a gift. It is more likely to be read slowly, you can turn down the corners of the pages, you can write in the margins. The hope is that The Burning Sand reflects something of the energy and concentration of Glasgow, that it might have a presence that is not exactly sound and not exactly smell, but is closer to touch.

The intention in first establishing the The Burning Sand magazine and associated events was to promote visual art, music, literature, performance and interdisciplinary art forms to a local, national and international audience. Under the banner of The Burning Sand Lowndes planned to facilitate both live performances and to produce a magazine, which would feed one another. That intention sprang from the belief that, as Alain Badiou observed in In Praise of Love (2009), ‘Love always starts with an encounter. And I would give this encounter the quasi-metaphysical status of an event, namely of something that doesn’t enter into the immediate order of things.’ For meaningful dialogue to occur, there must be a disbursement of energy, time and concentration: this generosity in itself secures the future.

The Burning Sand Vol I
The Burning Sand Vol I

Volume 1 of The Burning Sand featured diverse examples of new works coming from and addressed to Glasgow, but which all reflect the investment of time and energy and a belief in society, community and in art. Our first contributors were: Giles Bailey (London), Rob Churm (Glasgow), Romany Dear (Glasgow), Mark Hamilton (Leipzig), Ashanti Harris (Glasgow), Chris Johanson (Los Angeles), Tom Worthington (Glasgow), Richard Wright (Glasgow), and working collaboratively, Katy Edelsten (London) & Annie Hazelwood (London), Barry Burns (Glasgow) & Louise Shelley (London) and Laura Smith (St. Ives) & Rebecca Wilcox (Glasgow). Seven out of the fourteen contributors were Glasgow-based, but most of the other contributors also had a significant connection to the city, having either lived and/or worked in the city in the past.

Emily Ilett performs at The Burning Sand, The Poetry Club, Glasgow, April 2013
Emily Ilett performs at The Burning Sand, The Poetry Club, Glasgow, April 2013

Vol 1 of The Burning Sand was funded by an award made to Sarah Lowndes by Glasgow Life’s Glasgow Visual Artist Awards Scheme 2012/13, run in partnership with Creative Scotland.

The Burning Sand Vol II
The Burning Sand Vol II

Volume 2 of The Burning Sand began with Glasgow-based artist (and Aggi Doom drummer and vocalist) Scott Caruth’s essay, “The Semiotics of the Stone”, which reflects upon his recent experiences as an human rights activist in the West Bank city of Hebron. There was poetry too, from the artist and writer Emily Ilett (Glasgow), the poet and performing artist JL Williams (Edinburgh) and Correcto songwriter and frontman Danny Saunders (Glasgow) and experimental prose writing from three Glasgow-based artists who are also musicians: Tom Varley (drums and vocals for Triple School and Total Jerks), Sam Bellacosa (Silk Cut, Lovers’ Rights, Golden Teacher) and Jamie Bolland (keyboard player for Uncle John & Whitelock and Tut Vu Vu). And there were three image sections, featuring new works from artists Mark Hamilton (Leipzig), Sophie Mackfall (London) and Richard Wright (Glasgow). Varied though the submissions were, each in their own way reflects Glasgow, not only as a geographical location but also as a place constituted and made meaningful by social relations and marked by identifications or emotional investments.

JL Williams performs at The Burning Sand, The Poetry Club, Glasgow, February 2013
JL Williams performs at The Burning Sand, The Poetry Club, Glasgow, February 2013

Vol 2 of The Burning Sand was funded by Creative Scotland’s International Presentation and Touring of Work Overseas Fund in order to present the magazine as part of The Glasgow weekend: Art, Music and Design from Glasgow (BQ and Volksbuehne, Berlin, 20-22nd September 2013).

The Burning Sand Vol III
The Burning Sand Vol III

Volume 3 of the magazine was launched as part of Glasgow International 2014, and included distinctive voices including a new image-text work from artist Kathryn Elkin, a collaborative contribution by Wolf (musician and composer Kim Moore and artist Fergus Dunnet), Jenny Brownrigg’s story, Five art curators consider transforming an interior, three Untitled acrylic paintings composed on pieced newspaper by Tony Swain, Nerea Bello’s eloquent analysis of the controversial annual ritual Alarde parade, Lauren Gault’s evocative composition Such Lush Detail, Luke Fowler’s researches into the live electronic work of maverick Canadian composer Martin Bartlett and Sarah Lowndes on the emergence of Projective Verse in early 1950’s San Francisco.

Perri McKenzie performs as part of Lauren Gault, Such Lush Detail (2014) at The Poetry Club, Glasgow, April 2014
Perri McKenzie performs as part of Lauren Gault, Such Lush Detail (2014) at The Poetry Club, Glasgow, April 2014

The Burning Sand Vol 3 was commissioned by Glasgow International 2014, with support from Outset Scotland.

ISSN 2052-5699

The Burning Sand Vol I, II and III were designed by Sophie Dyer and Maeve Redmond.

The Burning Sand Vol IV, V and VI have been funded by a Creative Scotland Open Project Funding award made to Sarah Lowndes and will be designed by Jessica Susan Higgins and Matthew Walkerdine of Good Press, Glasgow.  Volume IV will be launched in September 2015.




See Stockists page for more details.

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Subject in Process symposium (2009)

Centre for Contemporary Art, Glasgow, 5th September 2009

Co-organised by Kathryn Elkin, Louise Shelley and Sarah Lowndes

A symposium into the obligation of artists to connect with events in the real world with speakers Sam Ainsley (Glasgow School of Art), Dr Fiona Bradley (The Fruitmarket Gallery), Kathryn Elkin (writer, curator of Moots Points and Critical Applause), Dr Adele Patrick (Women’s Library) and chaired by Dr Sarah Lowndes (Glasgow School of Art). With screenings of films including the documentary Town Bloody Hall (1971) artist’s films by Cathy Wilkes and Emma Hedditch and a live set by Muscles of Joy.

Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer, still from Town Bloody Hall (1971)
Norman Mailer and Germaine Greer, still from Town Bloody Hall (1971)

Transcript of Adele Patrick’s paper, “Making space for women: a review of the work of Women in Profile and Glasgow Women’s Library, 1988-2009”

Subject in Process

Lizzie Mitchell, “Subject in Process”, The List, 14th August 2009.

The 1971 documentary Town Bloody Hall is a seminal document of 1970s feminism. A packed-out New York City Town Hall roars with approval as Germaine Greer, glamorous and sharp as hell, rips into Norman Mailer in what remains one of the most stimulating debates on women’s lib on record.

As a starting point for Subject In Process, an upcoming symposium on feminism and art run by the CCA, Town Bloody Hall is a powerful reminder that, 38 years down the line, many of the big questions which drive 21st-century feminist discourse are still broadly the same as those which drove Greer and her peers in the 70s.

But in 2009, the word ‘feminism’ also carries a very different set of associations, and as the name suggests, this symposium will be an exploration of a “subject in progress” as well as a celebration of long-running ideals. In recent years, a series of new exhibitions, publications and projects have suggested that feminism is discovering new impetus, but at the same time, the f-word has become harder and harder to categorise as interpretations, applications, and criticism of ‘feminism’ have multiplied.

In this spirit, a whole range of backgrounds, interests and media will be represented at the symposium. A morning of talks will be followed by more films, an afternoon of open discussion, and a performance by rising art pop group Muscles of Joy. Sarah Lowndes, one of the organisers, stresses that the day will be open and relevant to comers of all ages, ‘from 15-year-olds to grandmothers. And grandfathers as well.’

To give an idea of the diversity which the symposium will embrace, Lowndes quotes Julia Kristeva, ‘I favour an understanding of femininity that would have as many “feminines” as there are women’, and promises a lively assortment of feminines and femininities for the morning’s talks and the afternoon’s discussions.

The issues at stake will be live ones. One of the speakers, Kathryn Elkin, recently sparked controversy by tabling a motion (on behalf of the Yes! Association) that the Glasgow gallery Transmission should make a commitment such that 50 per cent of the work on display would be by women artists. Meanwhile, The Fruitmarket Gallery’s Fiona Bradley will be talking about her ongoing exhibition of Eva Hesse’s studio models, a project which brings up a very different set of issues: what does it mean to use feminist terminology and ideas to talk about an artist who would never herself have thought about her work in feminist terms? Is it a valid art historical method? Would it be valid, or possible, to think about Hesse’s work without bringing the language of feminism into play?

Apart from anything else, Town Bloody Hall is a reminder of the rich history of activism and debate which has always been so central to the feminist movement(s). By opening Subject In Progress with this classic documentary, one hopes that the symposiasts will spark off a day of lively discussion and disagreement to keep a vitally important set of issues alive and squirming.

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Three Blows: all-sound acoustic performance (2008)

St. Cecilia’s Hall, Edinburgh, 5 & 6th July 2008

Curated by Sarah Lowndes and produced by Katie Nicoll

A showcase of new music by Glasgow-based artists/musicians including the painters Tony Swain and Richard Wright, the filmmaker Luke Fowler and the sculptor Sarah Kenchington and experimental music pioneers Mayo Thompson (The Red Krayola) and Keith Rowe (AMM). During the weekend-long event, the participants performed music composed specifically for the oldest purpose-built concert hall in Scotland, St. Cecilia’s Hall.  The artists responded to this architecturally and acoustically unique environment with a series of performances that included unaccompanied singing, non-amplified improvisation and interactive mechanical music contraptions.

Detail of an instrument used by Rude Pravo during Three Blows (2008)
Detail of an instrument used by Rude Pravo during Three Blows (2008)

Artist biographies

Tattie Toes

Glasgow-based band Tattie Toes was formed in 2005 by bassist and vocalist Howie Reeve, puppeteer, accordionist and drummer Shane Connolly and Basque singer Nerea Bello. Reeve previously played bass for post-rock orientated outfits such as Shlebie and Maxton Grainger (with Chris Mack and Stevie Jones) and with Plates. Bello has previously collaborated with Connolly in German band Krakatit and also sung for world music band Zuba, while Connolly’s many musical projects include playing in Johnson and an on-going collaboration with Jer Reid and Stevie Jones. The trio improvised together over nine months before inviting violinist Rafe Fitzpatrick (ex-Johnson and G Plan) to join them. Reeve explains, ‘Everyone writes their own parts, whilst remaining open to suggestion from the others. We craft the music as a four piece – rhythms, melodies and feeling, they’re the criteria. We just attempt to make good music that’s accessible, exciting and expressive.’ For Three Blows, Tattie Toes performed an unorthodox and largely improvised set.

Nerea Bello and Rafe Fitzpatrick of Tattie Toes perform at Three Blows (2008)
Nerea Bello and Rafe Fitzpatrick of Tattie Toes perform at Three Blows (2008)


Correcto frontman Danny Saunders describes the band as ‘a bit of a revolving door’ – as since they formed in Glasgow in 2003 the line-up has included curator Will Bradley, Franz Ferdinand’s Paul Thomson, and Patrick Doyle (The Royal We), Jake Lovatt (Uncle John & Whitelock and Colin Kearney (Bricolage). However, since the outset the two constants in Correcto’s spiky new-wave sound have been songwriter, singer and guitarist Saunders and guitarist Richard Wright. Both trained as artists –Wright is well known for his dazzling and often vast site-specific wall paintings, made using ‘the most direct and simple means possible’ – brushes and paint. Saunders is still involved in art as a producer/facilitator of installations, but attests, ‘I think music is the most exciting art form out there.’ Influences revealed on their eponymous debut album (released in 2007 on Domino records) included the Kinks, Velvet Underground, Brian Eno, the Ramones, Creation, Bob Dylan, The Smiths, The Modern Lovers and PiL or, as Saunders puts it, ‘all the good stuff’. For Three Blows, Saunders and Wright played a reworked acoustic set of Correcto songs.

Richard Wright and Danny Saunders of Correcto perform at Three Blows (2008)
Richard Wright and Danny Saunders of Correcto perform at Three Blows (2008)

Richard Youngs

Richard Youngs was born in Cambridge, England, and has been based in Glasgow since the early 90’s. Youngs has produced many prolific and diverse recordings, incorporating aspects of folk, experimental rock, improvisation and electronics. His extensive back catalogue of solo and collaborative work includes albums with Matthew Bower, Brian Lavelle, Neil Campbell, Stephen Todd, Makoto Kawabata, Alex Neilson, Andrew Paine/Ilk, Telstar Ponies and Simon Wickham-Smith/R!!!S!!! Youngs plays many instruments, often choosing the guitar, but he has been known to use the shakuhachi, theremin, oven tray, dulcimer, a home-made synthesizer (common on early recordings) and even a motorway bridge. He also released an album which was entirely a cappella. A Melody Maker review of his album Festival (1996), described him as ‘grand-meister of contemporary British improv, spiritual son of Eddie Prevost and Maddy Prior; gentle manipulator of English hymn-notics and religious incantations; protege, challenger and radicaliser of folk, blues, rock, minimalism and improvisation; translator for the sea and the rain and the sky; ambassador to war and peace, to love and anguish’. For Three Blows, Richard Youngs performed an unaccompanied vocal set.

Richard Youngs performing at Three Blows (2008)
Richard Youngs performing at Three Blows (2008)

Mayo Thompson

American, born Houston, Texas, 1944, founded The Red Crayola with Frederick Bartheleme, 1966, first performing and recording for International Artists during the ‘psychedelic’ boom. Since, the band in one form or another have recorded more than twenty records and toured the USA, Europe and Japan.

He worked with Rough Trade Records in the late 1970s and again in the early 1980s. He produced a number of records with Geoff Travis during the ‘punk’ boom and, later, on his own. A short list: James Ulmer, The Fall, Stiff Little Fingers, The Raincoats, Scritti Politti, Cabaret Voltaire, Kleenex, Primal Scream, The Shop Assistants.

He played guitar in Pere Ubu 1980-1.

Over the years The Red Krayola project has involved many players known in their own right. To name a few: Gina Birch, Lora Logic, Epic Soundtracks, Allen Ravenstine, David Grubbs, John McEntire, Jim O’Rourke, Tom Watson, Sandy Yang, Elisa Randazzo, Albert Oehlen.

He has a long association with visual artists. He worked for Robert Rauschenberg. He collaborates with Art & Language, and has collaborated with Albert Oehlen. In 1994 he became an adjunct faculty member of Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, CA. In the late 2000’s he lived in Edinburgh, where his wife, a molecular biologist, had her laboratory.

Mayo Thompson performing at Three Blows (2008)
Mayo Thompson performing at Three Blows (2008)

Sarah Kenchington

Sarah Kenchington makes interactive mechanical music contraptions. Her approach to music is as a sculptor, her instruments are constantly evolving, with the ongoing tinkering and adjustment process spilling over into the performance. She often plays too many, barely controllable, machines at once, creating a complex and dishevelled mix of patterns and sound. It is not so much about the craft of music or instrument making, but a means of gatecrashing the worlds of music and science, in order to obtain a new perspective on human limitations. Sarah Kenchington also performs with experimental folk band The Book of Beasts, with Daniel Padden (Volcano the Bear, The One Ensemble) and Shane Connolly (Tattie Toes).

Daniel Padden and Sarah Kenchington performing at Three Blows (2008)
Daniel Padden and Sarah Kenchington performing at Three Blows (2008)

Tony Swain

Artist and musician Tony Swain was born in Lisburn, Northern Ireland and lives and works in Glasgow. Swain studied at Liverpool Art School and Glasgow School of Art, and in recent years has attracted critical acclaim for his atmospheric paintings, rendered on pages of The Guardian newspaper. The pages of newsprint are painted over with considered delicacy, distorting perspectives and entwining abstract motifs with the landscapes and figures of the original print, creating surreal landscapes or a depiction of an intimate, but unrecognizable object. Swain is one third of the critically acclaimed band, Hassle Hound, who released their second LP on Staubgold Records in 2008. Since 2005, Swain also played in Dreghorn with his former Cylinder collaborator Chris Wallace and Torsten Lauschmann (Slender Whiteman). For Three Blows, Swain performed a set of new acoustic material.

Tony Swain performing at Three Blows (2008)
Tony Swain performing at Three Blows (2008)

Rude Pravo

Experimental Glasgow band Rude Pravo was formed by Stevie Jones and Luke Fowler in 1998. Occasional Rude Pravo collaborators have included the Belgian artist and singer Lucile Desamory and Parsonage creator Janis Murray. Jones is well-known as the bass guitarist of post-rock bands including Maxton Grainger and Peel-favourites El Hombre Trajeado. He is a prolific collaborator, who has played guitar with Jer Reid and Shane Connolly, and also played guitar, piano and double bass with Malcolm Middleton, Sophia, Bill Wells, Norman Blake and Aidan Moffat among others. Luke Fowler is an artist, filmmaker and musician, acclaimed for his experimental documentaries on enigmatic radical figures such as R.D. Laing, Homosexuals frontman Xentos Jones and the English composer Cornelius Cardew. Fowler has also released a number of projects on his SHADAZZ label, including Evil Eye Is Source (2001), a VHS compilation of music videos for local bands made by Glasgow artists. Rude Pravo’s debut release, The Dust is Flying (2004) was released on SHADAZZ, as was Gold (2004), the debut 7” single by Correcto’s Danny Saunders. For Three Blows, Jones and Fowler played an all-new set of acoustic material.

Rude Pravo (Luke Fowler and Stevie Jones) performing at Three Blows (2008)
Rude Pravo (Luke Fowler and Stevie Jones) performing at Three Blows (2008)

Keith Rowe

The English free improvisation guitarist and painter Keith Rowe was a founding member of AMM in the mid-1960s and a founding member of M.I.M.E.O., and is often described as a godfather of electroacoustic improvisation. He began his career playing jazz in the early 1960’s – notably with Mike Westbrook and Lou Gare. He gradually expanded into free jazz and free improvisation, experimenting with methods such as ceasing to tune his guitar. This change in his approach, Rowe recalls, was partly inspired by a painting tutor who told him, ‘Rowe, you cannot paint a Caravaggio. Only Caravaggio can paint Caravaggio.’

Rowe subsequently developed various prepared guitar techniques: placing the guitar flat on a table and manipulating the strings, body and pickups in unorthodox ways. He has been known to employ objects such as a library card, rubber eraser, springs, hand-held electric fans, alligator clips, and common office supplies in playing the guitar. Rowe sometimes incorporates live radio broadcasts into his performances, including shortwave radio and number stations. He has worked with numerous composers and musicians, including Cornelius Cardew, Christian Wolff, Howard Skempton, Jeffrey Morgan, Taku Sugimoto, Otomo Yoshihide, Sachiko M, Oren Ambarchi, Christian Fennesz, Toshimaru Nakamura and Peter Rehberg. He lives and works in Pays de la Loire, France.

For Three Blows, Keith Rowe traced a line of development of the transient aspects of landscape, from J.M.W. Turner to Agnes Martin, using high pitched sounds, extremely low volume and materials and instruments including hand-held battery operated fans, thick paper and guitar.

Keith Rowe performing at Three Blows (2008)
Keith Rowe performing at Three Blows (2008)


Three Blows was funded by the Scottish Arts Council, with support from The University of Edinburgh and The Modern Institute.

All photographs of Three Blows by Martin Clark.

A transcript of a conversation between Sarah Lowndes, Mayo Thompson and Keith Rowe that took place during Three Blows, “There is Only the Room: A Conversation with Mayo Thompson and Keith Rowe” appears in Sarah Lowndes, All Art is Political: Writings on Performative Art (Edinburgh: Luath Press, 2014).  See Stockists page for details.

Posted in Curatorial Projects | Leave a comment

Art and Leisure in the Age of Neoliberalism (2014)

It is therefore, the interest of all, that every one, from birth, should be well educated, physically and mentally that society may be improved in its character, – that everyone should be beneficially employed, physically and mentally, that the greatest amount of wealth may be created, and knowledge attained, that everyone should be placed in the midst at those external circumstances, that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations, through the longest life, that man may be made truly intelligent, moral and happy…

Robert Owen, 1841

Ten years ago, in 2004, I was invited to read from my then-newly published book on the Glasgow art and music scene, Social Sculpture, at an event organized by Edinburgh radical bookshop, Word Power. I decided to read from the conclusion of the book, but as I reached a quotation from Terry Eagleton’s 1997 book Marx and Freedom (“We are free, when like artists, we produce without the goad of physical necessity.”) I hesitated and skipped it, went on to the next line. Afterwards, the curator Will Bradley, who was taking part in the panel discussion that followed, asked why I had missed out the line. He said he had been planning to talk about that quotation and what it meant.

I hadn’t spoken the line aloud because I had the sudden feeling that I didn’t know what it meant. There was something problematic in Eagleton’s idea, which I want to explore in this essay.

In 2010, a revised and expanded version of Social Sculpture was published. When I rewrote the conclusion, I hesitated but then kept Eagleton’s quotation in. There was something idealistic and inspiring about Eagleton’s idea, which I also want to explore in this essay.

The quotation at the beginning of this text is from Robert Owen, the Welsh social reformer and one of the founders of utopian socialism and the cooperative movement. After his marriage to Caroline Dale in 1799, Owen became a manager and part-owner of New Lanark cotton mills near Glasgow, which had been started in 1785 by Caroline’s father, Glaswegian businessman and philanthropist David Dale and the English inventor Richard Arkwright. Owen implemented a number of changes at New Lanark motivated by philanthropic principles rather than commercial interests, such as improving pay and the working and living conditions of the 2500 workers, many of who had come from the poorhouses of Glasgow and Edinburgh.i

The chief points in Owen’s philosophy, first expounded in A New View of Society, or Essays on the Principle of the Formation of the Human Character (1813) were that man’s character was formed by circumstances over which he had no control, by a combination of Nature or God and the circumstances of the individual’s experience. As part of his project of improving the quality of life of the workers at New Lanark, he opened an Institute for the Formation of Character in (1816).ii He explained,

The three lower rooms (in the Institute) will be open for the use of the adult part of the population, who are to be provided with every accommodation requisite to enable them to read, write, account, sew or play, converse or walk about. Two evenings in the week will be appropriated to dancing and music, but on these occasions, every accommodation will be prepared for those who prefer to study or to follow any of the occupations pursued on the other evenings.

Owen’s campaign for education as a means of eradicating society’s problems, and making people happier and more fulfilled, continued throughout his working life. In The Social System (1826) he wrote, ‘To train and educate the rising generation will at all times be the first object of society, to which every other will be subordinate.’

I’m revisiting the utopian socialism of Robert Owen because it still seems to have much to teach us, nearly 200 years later. Owen was fortunate in having both the private funds and the support of board members such as the economist Jeremy Bentham, which allowed him to implement his vision of a model society at New Lanark. Today, New Lanark is a World Heritage Site visited by 350,000 visitors every year. How I wish New Lanark were not a curiosity of utopian socialism, preserved as a museum, but that Owen’s values had remained alive, enshrined in British governmental policy.

In the post-World War II period the establishment and expansion of the welfare state and the increased provision of funded higher and further education in the United Kingdom, did to some extent uphold Robert Owen’s emphasis on fairly paid work and his insistence on access to education and pleasurable recreation for all. Prime Minister Clement Attlee (1945-1951), the first Labour politician to serve a full term and the first to command a Labour majority in parliament, adopted the ideas espoused by the economist JM Keynes in The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money (1936) and stimulated the UK economy by increasing public spending. Following the recommendations of economist and social reformer William Beveridge’s 1942 Report, Attlee tackled the five giant evils of ‘want, disease, ignorance, squalor and idleness’ through a number of reforms. The last of these evils – idleness – has the most bearing with regard to this discussion, as part of an understanding of health that encompasses mental health as well as physical health. As Robert Owen had understood many years earlier, meaningful leisure activities such as reading and dancing gave shape and purpose to human existence and were as necessary to wellbeing as other means of safeguarding health such as good nutrition and medical care.

The National Health Service was established in 1948, followed by a national system of benefits to provide social security ‘from the cradle to the grave’. Attlee also invested heavily in free universal education and in council housing and nationalized public utilities and major industries, beginning with road haulage, railways and coal in 1947 and then the coal industry in 1951. For three decades all parties accepted the reforms put in place in the post-war years.

However, since 1979, when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government (1979-1990) took power, those principles and values have been steadily eroded. Thatcher’s political philosophy and economic policies emphasized deregulated (particularly of the financial sector), flexible labour markets, the privatisation of state-owned companies and reducing the power and influence of the trade unions. In Thatcher’s view, articulated in a 1987 interview with Woman’s Own magazine, there was ‘no such thing as society […] the quality of our lives will depend on how much each of us is prepared to take responsibility for ourselves.’ Her period of office, and that of her successor, John Major (1990-1997) were characterized an emphasis on personal responsibility and choice – and by public spending cuts that polarized the life experiences of the rich and the poor.

R. Pollack, Dereliction at New Lanark in 1983
R. Pollack, Dereliction at New Lanark in 1983

The Labour governments of 1997-2010 increased public spending, until the 2008 global financial crisis ushered in four years of global recession. The Coalition Government has, since taking power in 2010, pledged (in a manner very reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher’s early years in office) to promote the free market economy while enforcing ‘austerity measures’ in the form of vicious and damaging cuts to public spending, notably in the areas of welfare (health care, social housing and benefits), in education and in the arts. Real earnings have fallen continuously since 2010, the longest decline in living standards since the 1870s.iii

Since 2010, when the Coalition government won a vote in the House of Commons which would result in universities eventually being able to charge students up to £9,000 a year for their annual tuition costs, Higher Education educators have increasingly become viewed as service providers by students who (with some justification) increasingly behave as customers.  But today HE academics and support staff (after receiving an annual 1% pay increase) are facing a 13% pay cut in real terms as compared with pay rates in 2008. Meanwhile, in the same time period, vice-chancellors have received wage increases averaging 8.1%, with some now on more than £400,000.

Up until the 1980s Glasgow School of Art (GSA), where many of the city’s best-known artists studied, attracted a largely local student body, who could apply for funding via the Student Awards Agency for Scotland (SAAS) to support the cost of both tuition fees and (if eligible) their maintenance while a student. Since the late 90s the scene in Glasgow has changed as the city has become established as a noted art centre: a place where aspirant artists can form alliances and build a profile –and with lower rents than either London or New York. Nowadays the GSA’s cohort is much larger and more geographically diverse: 20 % are international students and a further 20% are from the rest of the UK. The MFA programme at Glasgow School of Art, which had a year group of just 12 mainly UK students during the 90s, now recruits over thirty students for the two years masters course, many of whom hail from outside the UK. Today, many students attending Glasgow School of Art come from comfortable backgrounds – a situation that is replicated in all other UK HE institutions. Data published by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills in August 2013 showed that the gap in progression rates between private and state schools has widened since 2008, and that almost two-thirds of students from the independent sector went on to Britain’s leading institutions in 2010/11 compared with less than a quarter of those from the state system. And within the state school system, teenagers from the poorest families – those eligible for free school meals – were half as likely to progress on to any higher education course as relatively affluent classmates.

Since 2008, market forces have brought an increased sense of competition to the cultural scene in the United Kingdom – competition for audiences, for attention, and for funding. The reality of the current situation is that the inequality of access to art and culture reflects wider social inequalities. The class divide that is apparent from the postcode lottery of birth is reinforced by private education is increased by the introduction of university fees, is reinforced post-graduation by unpaid “opportunities” such as internships, which rule out anyone who cannot afford to work for free. The massive upsurge in unpaid internships that followed the 2008 financial crash has not gone unnoticed, especially by those who lack the means to pay for that all-important “foot in the door”. Dom Anderson, vice president for society and citizenship at the National Union of Students said, ‘Unpaid internships are one of the biggest obstructions faced by young people and students today. With over a million young people unemployed, we need to be clear now more than ever that young people’s enthusiasm and desire to work cannot be exploited. A fair day’s work always deserves a fair day’s pay.’ In November 2013, The Guardian reported that HMRC had announced it would be cracking down on unpaid internships, by targeting 200 employers who had recently advertised for free labour.

Part of my problem with Eagleton’s sentence (“We are free, when like artists, we produce without the goad of physical necessity.”) was that it didn’t match my experiences of how many artists lived. A 2012 survey conducted 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. Similarly statistics seem to apply to writers, as Naomi Alderman, professor of creative writing at Bath Spa University, pointed out in an article published by The Guardian on 14th March 2014. Alderman said,

If you’re a responsible teacher, you talk to your students about money. You say: most novelists earn around £5,000 a year from their writing. You watch them blench. You say: so if you’re going to do this, you have to think about how you’re going to support yourself. I tell my students about journalism, about other kinds of writing, about crowdfunding, about grants, about balancing the day job with the novels, and the pitfalls of all of these. Most people can’t make a living only from selling their art, but almost anyone can put together a life in and around the art form they love if that’s what they really want.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation’s annual report on how much income is enough to pay for a basic but socially acceptable standard of living concluded last year that a single people needed to earn at least £16,850 a year before tax in 2013 for a minimum acceptable living standard. How do aspirant cultural workers make up the difference? For some, it is through a “day job”. For others, it is “the bank of mum and dad.” And as writer and curator Isla Leaver-Yap said at a 2012 meeting organized in Glasgow by the Scottish Artist’s Union (S.A.U.) to discuss non-payment of artist’s fees, ‘If only the people who can afford not to be paid are making art, then those who can’t don’t.’ S.A.U. has in recent years begun to campaign for best practices between cultural producers and the institutions that contract their labour, taking a lead from New York based activist group Working Artists and the Greater Economy (W.A.G.E).

The artists, musicians and writers who emerged in Glasgow during the Thatcher and Major years (1979-1997) didn’t have to make a choice between conventional paid labour and their artistic practice (usually unpaid), given that there wasn’t much paid employment of any kind 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, the city’s subcultural scene grew incrementally, following the model of the avant-garde: Parisian salons re-imagined as exhibitions in rented tenement flats. But as many of the participants were without private income, it was a scene largely funded by goodwill and income derived from benefits and non-art related jobs in ‘semi-routine’ occupations’ such as manual work, cleaning, temping in offices, bar and shop work, often on a temporary or part-time basis or through art-related employment such as arts administration, art installation, art invigilation, art therapy, and the teaching of art.

Social Sculpture was a book that I wrote because I felt so inspired by the relentless enthusiasm of certain determined individuals active in Glasgow from the early 1980s onwards, who had not been able to reply upon public subsidy, private patrons or media for support, but had refused to allow this to curtail their ambitions. At heart the scene that revolved around grass-roots organisations such as the artist-run gallery Transmission (est. 1983), Variant magazine (est. 1984), Women in Profile (est. 1987, in 1991 evolved into Glasgow Women’s Library), The Free University (est. 1987), Tower Studios (est. 1987) and Worker’s City (est. 1988) was fired by the same kind of utopian socialism espoused by Robert Owen. That generation of artist-organisers were not motivated by profit, but instead rooted in a desired social experience: one that rested upon people investing time in supporting one another through social co-operation, collectivism and conviviality.

However, as the years have gone by, and I have gradually moved from only writing about the cultural scene in the city, to also teaching at Glasgow School of Art and curating exhibitions and organizing events, I experienced first hand how much that “make do and mend” attitude really costs in terms of time and energy. As an attitude it requires a belief in society, community and art that may at times be difficult to sustain. Given competition for funds and opportunities there is no guarantee of being able to secure funds to support creative practice, either through (rare) commissions or sales of work or funding applications to public bodies like the Scottish Arts Council (re-constituted as Creative Scotland in 2010), Glasgow City Council or other trusts and funds. Public funding for art is heavily oversubscribed. For example, in January 2014, Creative Scotland received 383 applications requesting in excess of £5million of grant support from their Artist’s Bursaries Fund. Within the budget available for this deadline they made 39 Awards totaling £440,000, meaning that less than 10% of the applications received were successful.As a consequence, many of the vital, invisible activities that keep communities together go for the most part go without recognition or fair payment.

The crucial difference between Owen’s 19th Century New Lanark cotton mills and 21st Century Glasgow’s post-Fordian economy is that the wealth generated through the shopping-and-services economy of contemporary Glasgow tends not to be wholly redirected back to the local population to improve their educational and recreational possibilities. In the contemporary neoliberal situation, those companies that have benefitted from the cultural regeneration of post-industrial cities like Glasgow, Liverpool and Manchester/Salford, do not necessarily feed money back into those cities. On 16th March 2014, The Sunday Herald reported on one notorious recent example: Peel Ports Limited, who in the last financial year paid no tax at all on profits of more than £628 million. The Peel Group has significant interests across the UK, and owns numerous ports, retail and media facilities including Mersey Docks, Durham and Doncaster airports, MediaCityUK in Salford, Blythswood Square and Robertson Street in Glasgow city centre, the Meadowside complex in Renfrew and Straiton retail park in Edinburgh. All of Peel’s national and international concerns lead back to Tokenhouse Limited, a company with total assets reportedly worth more than £18bn, registered in the offshore tax haven of the Isle of Man. As the political economist Will Hutton observed in his recent article, Capitalism simply isn’t working and here are the reasons why, allowing the rich to protect their wealth from taxation not only allows them become ever richer but also to become increasingly detached from the societies of which they are part. He wrote:

In Britain, it may be true that the top 1% pays a third of all income tax, but income tax constitutes only 25% of all tax revenue: 45% comes from VAT, excise duties and national insurance paid by the mass of the population. As a result, the burden of paying for public goods such as education, health and housing is increasingly shouldered by average taxpayers, who don’t have the wherewithal to sustain them. Wealth inequality thus becomes a recipe for slowing, innovation-averse, rentier economies, tougher working conditions and degraded public services.iv

Although some private patrons of the arts do exist in Scotland, they are relatively few in number and the responsibility for supporting art and culture rests mainly on public funds derived from taxpayers and those who buy lottery tickets. In the absence of taxation on higher earners being enforced effectively by the UK Government, available funds for public spending are curtailed. And, as Dr. Jeremy Valentine, wrote in an article entitled “Why Scottish culture is a risky business” (The Scotsman, March 13th 2014), ‘In budget allocation competitions within government, culture will always come off worst against things like health, schools, roads, energy and poverty.’

On 14th March, 2014, the Arts Council of England released a report, The Value of Arts and Culture to People and Society: An Evidence Review, in which they stated the case for gathering further information on the multitude of benefits the arts bring, in order that continuing and greater investment in the arts can be won from public and private funders. The foreword stated,

The general value of arts and culture to society has long been assumed, while the specifics have just as long been debated. Try to imagine society without the humanizing influence of the arts, and you will have to strip out most of what is pleasurable in life, as well as much that is educationally critical and socially essential. Life without the collective resources of our libraries, museums, theatres and galleries, or without the personal expression of literature, music and art, would be static and sterile – no creative arguments about the past, no diverse and stimulating present and no dreams of the future. Of course the inherent value of arts and culture is, in part, a philosophical assertion that can’t be measured in numbers. Quantifying the benefits and expressing them in terms of facts and figures that can evidence the contribution made to our collective and individual lives has always presented a problem, but it is something that arts and culture organisations will always have to do in order to secure funding from both public and private sources. […] We need to be able to show the impact of arts and culture on different scales – on individual, communal and national levels – so that we can raise awareness among the public, across the cultural, educational and political sectors and among those who influence investment in both the public and private sectors.

The public funding of art in contemporary Scotland relies upon those who implement cultural policy making funding decisions based on a criterion of what culture is and what it should do (Be socially inclusive? Be made by those already recognized as ‘successful’? Be ‘good value’?) Those who implement cultural policy must also, as Dr. Valentine pointed out in his article, ‘audit projects in order to check whether the boxes have been ticked in the right way and “evaluate” whether the “outcomes” have been achieved.’ He concludes, ‘This is a waste of resources which encourages cynical conformism and Creative Scotland could probably drive greater cultural value by relaxing its grip and encouraging risk.’

Would it be a risk? Or an informed guess? Everyone should be placed in the midst at those external circumstances, that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations, through the longest life, that man may be made truly intelligent, moral and happy…

Let us turn now to American anarchist Bob Black’s 1985 essay “The Abolition of Work” in which he disputes the wisdom of life devoted to the production and consumption of commodities. Black contends that much work is unnecessary, because it only serves the purposes of social control and economic exploitation. Black states that the only way for humans to be free is to reclaim their time from jobs and employment, instead turning necessary subsistence tasks into free play done voluntarily. Black argues that ‘no-one should ever work’, because work – defined as compulsory productive activity enforced by social or political means – is the source of most of the unhappiness in the world, eating up as it does time and inclination for friendship and what he calls ‘meaningful activity’.

Victor Considérant, Perspective view of Charles Fourier's Phalanstère
Victor Considérant, Perspective view of Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère

Bob Black’s thinking draws upon the much earlier writings of French philosopher Charles Fourier (b.1772, d.1837) who declared that concern and co-operation were the secrets of social success. Like Robert Owen, Fourier characterized poverty (not inequality) as the principle cause of disorder in society, and he proposed to eradicate it by sufficiently high wages and by a ‘decent minimum’ for those who were not able to work. He advocated a new world order based on unity of action and harmonious collaboration. In addition to liberating human passion, he felt that education was central means of liberating individual men, women and children. Fourier believed that a society that cooperated would see an immense improvement in their productivity levels, and visualized such cooperation occurring in communities of 1620 people he called phalanxes, based around structures called Phalansteres or ‘grand hotels’ where jobs would be assigned on the interests and desires of the individual and jobs people might not enjoy doing would receive higher pay. American post-anarchist author Peter Lamborn Wilson, aka Hakim Bey, wrote in his essay “The Lemonade Ocean & Modern Times” (1991) that ‘The life of the Phalanstry is a continual orgy of intense feeling, intellection and activity, a society of lovers and wild enthusiasts.’

We are free, when like artists, we produce without the goad of necessity.

Maybe it was the words ‘like artists’ in Eagleton’s sentence that I hesitated over. Shouldn’t everyone have the energy and the inclination to produce without the goad of necessity: whether it’s having a conversation with a friend, writing a story, going for a walk, baking a cake, drawing a picture, sewing a dress or growing tomatoes? Yet neoliberalism stamps out the urge for ‘meaningful activity’ in all but the privileged few. Most British people are too tired to readv eat too much junk food and rarely exercisevi, and are ruled by a government who offers nothing except “beer and bingo” to dull their pain.vii

It is therefore, the interest of all, that every one, from birth, should be well educated, physically and mentally that society may be improved in its character, – that everyone should be beneficially employed, physically and mentally, that the greatest amount of wealth may be created, and knowledge attained, that everyone should be placed in the midst at those external circumstances, that will produce the greatest number of pleasurable sensations, through the longest life, that man may be made truly intelligent, moral and happy…

This essay was commissioned by Museums Press VI, Art and Leisure (2014) museumspress.co.uk

i As Bell, Colin and Rose explain in their book City Fathers: The Early History of Town Planning in Britain (1972).

ii As Donnachie and Hewitt relate in Historic New Lanark: The Dale and Owen Industrial Community since 1785 (1993).

iii Seumas Milne, “Budget 2014: George Osborne’s record is a dismal failure even in his own terms”, The Guardian, 19th March 2014.

ivWill Hutton, “Capitalism simply isn’t working and here are the reasons why”, The Observer, 12th April 2014.

v A 2013 survey by the charity Booktrust found thaton average, the richer someone’s background, the more likely they are to read. Meanwhile a higher proportion of people from poorer backgrounds admitted they never read. More than one in four (27%) of adults from the poorest socio-economic backgrounds said they never read books themselves, compared with just 13% of those from the richest socio-economic backgrounds.Almost half of those questioned (45%) said they prefer watching TV and DVDs to reading a novel. Source: Hannah Richardson, “England divided into readers and watchers”, BBC News, 11th March 2014.

vi The UK has more obese women than any other country in Europe, a 2011 study by data agency Eurostat found. 28% of adults in Scotland are obese. The figures suggested that the proportion of women who are obese or overweight falls as the education level rises. Source: “UK women are the fattest in Europe”, BBC News 26th November 2011. In 2014, more than half of Britons are overweight or obese and only 6% of men and 4% of women meet the government’s recommended levels of physical activity. Source: Juliette Jowit, “Why are we really overweight?”, The Guardian, 26th February 2014.

vii On March 20st 2014 Conservative chairman Grant Shapps posted a #Budget2014 poster on Twitter celebrating “cutting the bingo tax and beer duty to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy”. The suggestion, as Owen Jones commented in The Guardian the same day, ‘is so crude it looks like a crude attempt at satire’ but the much-lampooned poster may yet prove fatal to the Conservative’s party’s recent attempts to rebrand themselves as the party of the workers.

Image credits:

Fig 1: Victor Considérant, Perspective view of Charles Fourier’s Phalanstère. The rural areas and the gardens are not represented. (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Fig 2: R. Pollack, Dereliction at New Lanark in 1983 (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

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