Thanks to all who took part in the second event of the SCAN series in the North east. ‘No one belongs here more than you’ approached alternative strategies for organizing in contemporary art from the perspective of feminist praxis.
Adele Patrick spoke first about Glasgow Women’s Library, now recognized as a collection of national importance, positioning it as an open space evolving in a responsive way. She opened by asking what would be of relevance to the audience in the collection and how could it move forward? This questioning, collaborative approach framed a project that from its origins developed through social arts practice. In Patrick’s hands GWL was described less as an immovable institution than as an iterative process that, importantly, would be impossible to imagine without artists. Expanding on this moving position Patrick used the metaphor of growing, from toddler years, rallying against the ‘stale pale male’ legacy of the city fathers during Glasgow’s year as European city of culture, in a premises with no windows, no phone connection and rats, through to their current situation, grown up, and mostly responsible, in a new home in Glasgow’s Eastend. In between these ages Patrick populated her talk with many many projects touching a diverse range of participants. In these descriptions Patrick insisted that at GWL ‘there is no typical visitor’ expressing a reluctance to box people into categories and arguing that through the projects they invariably confound expectations. Instead, she emphasized the value of GWL as a space where a mixture of different women (and the occasional man) from all different ethnic groups and with various levels of cultural capital can rub shoulders around art projects.
This trajectory from a resource-less (for the first seven years) yet ambitious beginning through the teenage years of becoming an employer and developing projects that intersected in a weary but fruitful way with other institutional contexts was marked from the outset by a consciousness of history and memory, always battling against the erasure of women’s contributions. Strong traces of this can be seen in one of the first projects Patrick touched on, Castlemilk Womanhouse, produced under the umbrella of the Women in Profile initiative, which pre-dated GWL and arguably gave the library its first form. The Castlemilk project combined the driving force of lead artists Rachel Harris, Cathy Wilkes and Julie Roberts. It was started with other Womanhouses in mind (including the well known precursor in Hollywood) but also with an acute awareness of the particular and different context of Castlemilk housing estate. This mixture of celebration and critique fed by an awareness of contextual complexity could be seen as a theme that crops up throughout GWLs work, threading itself through a growing activist history. Along with the success stories of individual artists and eventual recognition that Castlemilk Womanhouse achieved through inclusion in the Scotland-wide Generation exhibition Patrick was also keen to acknowledge the intensive labour and care that shaped the work. When thinking through the ethics of archival research, as artist Kate Davis was invited to do through an encounter with the project twenty-five years later, there was a concern at GWL to think about how the labour and costs are also accounted for along with the benefits such projects bring. This ambivalence is a critical edge that Patrick brings, a willingness to give praise generously but also to acknowledge complexity, to say that in social art practice, in women’s history and in GWL there is work still to do. As we are reminded by the title of a recent publication on GWL history it is not one but 21 revolutions and still counting
Dunja Kukovec, a founding member of the four women collective Redmin(e)d, started with the intention to continue where the last lecture stopped, echoing the form as, arguably, Redmin(e)d’s Bring in Take Out Living Archive could be seen to reiterate the moving tactics expressed by Patrick. Starting with the idea of collaboration, which Patrick emphasized through thinking about the support that enables artists to produce innovative social art, Kukovec posed a critique of the term arguing that rather than perceiving collaboration as a ‘one dimensionally good’ commodity it should be approached as a challenge. Perceiving it this way, collaborators can better manage expectations and produce different things within it as a form. As a guest this insight did much to challenge received views on collaboration without dismissing it as a working method. Kukovec went on to place the concept of safety at the heart of collaboration, which is enforced quite strictly within the collective to create an invisible dynamic and reduce stress. Safety is created through the ‘a priori belief that each of us did our best’ and through not dividing up labour in a heirarchical way. Instead members all work on concepts and execution depending on time and space (the various editions of the living archive have occurred across Europe in spaces ranging from one room to multiple stories).
From this detailed lens on collaboration, a perspective of the group’s dynamic that can not be see through its front spaces of website and exhibition, Kukovec’s talk went on to take a broader view again using what she termed as multidimensional thinking, echoing Patrick’s double edged perspective. Kukovec diagnosed our time as ‘apocalypse’ with things so disintegrated that no ideology has real power. Despite this situation patriarchy is ‘somehow not over’ with women still under represented in positions of power. To Kukovec this is an opportunity. Rather than participating in institutions as they exist, she advocated a strategy, which grows from this issue of representation into a concern for something else. Instead of fighting for representation in existing systems she argued for creating spaces with transformative potential, using outsider knowledge to build from scratch in a different way. Positioning Redmin(e)d’s work as an effort to trigger those spaces, with every edition of the archive being a process and continuation of ideas, an attempt to develop a new paradigm for thinking. In this Kukovec identified friendship as a powerful political tool; the only inter-human relationship not regulated.
Finally, in building from scratch the question of history is as important for Redmin(e)d as it is for GWL. Kukovec suggested a rewriting of history that would turn its forms upside down leaving only poetry intact as an important political discourse. Her critique of history revolved around a deconstruction of the enlightenment concept of progress and its heirarchical value system. She asserted that once we think beyond this paradigm, ‘things will resolve themselves’. Expertise and leadership, for example, must be reimagined not as positions of power but in terms of responsibility and care. In the meantime Kukovec reflected that the Bring in Takeout Archive is not perfect or complete but living. What does living mean in this context? Accepting failure as part of a learning process, taking time, sleeping and writing poetry so you can figure out the best way to keep moving.
Invites to organize
Merlyn Riggs and Sinéad O Donnell Dunn
From reflection the second part of the event brought two invites for attendees to enter the conversation. First artist, welfare rights worker, carer and accidental vice president of the Scottish Artist Union, Sinéad O Donnell Dunn spoke. She identified in all these activities three different points from which she was attempting to navigate; activism, art and academia, speaking on her masters degree and activist activities as well as her background as a ceramicist. She identified questions around how politics can be part of arts practice and also the difficulties around the politics of craft, folk and outsider art within a heirarchical art world where opportunities for makers are thin on the ground. Looking at a middle space between art, activism and acedemia she thought about both the potential there and confusion. She related that this space had become a third site for her, not for production but for active reflection. This insight led to a practical low down on the Artist Union giving the audience details on its initiatives and statistics on key issues like artists rates of pay, exhibition fees and contracts as well as covering wider social issue like welfare reform and the effects these could have on artist positions. Dunn highlighted the union’s intention to support regional and local groups but emphasized that these should be driven by local contexts rather than top down planning. From this point voices from floor asked questions on benefit reform, volunteer positions and internships.
In the hot and sunny downstairs space of Seventeen Merlyn Riggs was the final artist to take the floor having been active in the space since mid morning setting up a tearoom for guests and speakers. Riggs entered with a song starting from a familiar place and assuring us that after all this listening and discussion the ‘kettle was on’. She spoke on the red knitted backdrop that had until then acted as a blind to enable the other speaker’s projections and through this we were given some insight into her own social practice. The knitting had originally been pulled together as a back drop for a local performance of the virgina monologues and had involved the artist sending 80 invites out to women in a variety different settings from universities to safe houses, sheltered accommodation and care homes. The invite asked women to contribute a piece of knitting any shape, size or style and was the beginning of a longer process that triggered the formation of many groups in different contexts. From this example Riggs went on to delineate the symbolism of the tearoom setting, as a place where suffragette’s met and organized, generating ideas and advertising events on aprons and napkins. Through this reference to iconographic suffragette heritage Riggs recast the space as an open forum, inviting the audience to move their chairs and become organizers over tea and scones getting the chance to imagine together future transformative spaces and alternative history projects.