The Scotia Nostra. Socialisation Among Glasgow Artists

The Scotia Nostra. Socialisation Among Glasgow Artists
by David Harding
July 2014

Friendship, socialisation and networking among Glasgow Artists 1985-2001 The Scotia Nostra – Myth and Truth.


Talk given at ZKM Gallery in Karlsruhe, Germany in March 2001 and published in the catalogue CIRCLES by ZKM, April 2001


“A community can accomplish that – effectively and speedily – which a single person sometimes attempts in vain.” These words were included in the proclamation which launched the building of the great, medieval, gothic cathedral of Salisbury in England. I will attempt to trace how a community of artists in Glasgow in the late eighties and in the nineties formed and turned the city into an internationally recognised centre of contemporary art practice.


In John Ford’s film, ‘The Man Who Shot Liberty Vallance,’ the newspaper reporter says, “If the legend conflicts with the facts, print the legend.” Myth is an understandable and necessary ‘modus vivendi’ – a way for people to characterise themselves and to tell the world about it. But it is not neutral because to entertain it, even ironically, may involve becoming part of it.


One of the most enduring stories in the history of the British Isles is that of King Arthur. In fact it is so well known that it is often the only episode of the story of Britain that is known by non-Britons. Yet there is no archaeological evidence, nor any hard historical evidence, to prove beyond doubt that Arthur existed. Certainly a Celtic British chief, whose name could have been Arthur, led some successful battles against the relentless occupation of Britain by the Saxons delaying, for some decades, the inevitable settlement of what is now England. The Britons eventually retreated to consolidate their lands in the South West of Scotland, Wales, Cornwall and Brittany. This short period of history gave rise to the stories and legends of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table. The point I want to stress is this; that while we revel in the notion of myths and legends, they seem always to have been begun with a certain element of truth. Facts are embellished and enlarged and a dull world it would be without this natural human inclination. Oral traditions benefit from this phenomenon. In the early 19th century the mother of the writer James Hogg knew this when she castigated Sir Walter Scott for writing down the old oral ballads of the Scottish borders. She was acutely aware that, by doing so, the ballads would cease to be embellished and developed.


Much has been talked and written about the role that friendship, socialising and networking has played in the creation and consolidation of a vigorous and successful contemporary art ‘scene’ in Glasgow during the period of the late 80′s and 90′s. However it would need an in-depth study drawn from numerous interviews with a wide range of people to ascertain how much truth there is in this claim. I have not done this for this presentation (but may yet attempt it in the future). What I have put together here is something more ‘off the top of my head.’ It is therefore a personal take on this acknowledged phenomenon. I could be accused of being non-objective, of being part of the legend and not to be trusted. Myth, as I said before, is not neutral.


Glasgow, with a present population of around 700,000 people, is not a large city. However Strathclyde Region, of which Glasgow is the main city, has a population of two and a half million which is half the population of Scotland. The first groups of students in the Environmental Art Department came almost exclusively from this region. As far as I can recall none of the students came from Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland, just 40 miles away. Despite the ‘great stain’ of religious bigotry which blights Glasgow and the West of Scotland, the student group was a remarkably enfolded community and some had met, prior to coming to the School of Art, at art camps for school pupils. It might seem that this cultural and geographic closeness would be inclined to foster certain narrowness and ‘provincialism’ – a cultural inbreeding – but nothing could be further from the truth. I do not know how this came about but the dominant forces in these early groups of students were well aware of contemporary western art practice and had already, at the age of 18 or so, rejected the other traditional disciplines of the School of Fine Art; Painting, Photography, Printmaking and Sculpture. This was an informed political gesture repudiating what they perceived as the limitations of such art forms. They did not want to be bound by a single medium and this new Department of Environmental Art, which had been set up in the year 1985-86, was a non-media specific discipline.


I need to say something about art schools in the UK which are very different from those in continental Europe and the USA. They are part of the mass education system and, with the advent of Thatcherism in 1979, saw the numbers of students rise and the numbers of staff decrease. For the staff this has resulted in a full-time commitment to the School and by this I mean being in the School every day, of every week, of the academic year and no sabbatical leave of any consequence. I do regard this as an important contributing factor in that a small group of staff works with the same group of students for three years. We get to know each other well. We also, from time to time, get drunk together, party and travel abroad together. Certainly that was a feature of the Environmental Art Dept, at Glasgow. Socialising came to be seen as an important part of the education and became an expectation, a tradition of the department. Of course this was not planned. It just so happened that the teaching staff rather enjoyed drinking and socialising with the students.


I could not possibly present this topic, to try to understand it and communicate it to others, without stressing the enormous role that Sam Ainsley played and still plays in it. She worked with me full-time for the first five years of the course. Many students and ex-students have been on the receiving end of her particular generosity of spirit and they, more than I, would be able to speak to it.


I have been asked on many occasions what we actually taught the students in the department. I usually reply, half in jest and ‘tongue in cheek,’ ‘singing,’ and proceed to quote a short three line poem by Adrian Mitchell in which I have changed one word; (I use the word ‘singing’ where Mitchell used the word ‘poetry.’)




On being asked a similar question by a curator in Amsterdam, a few years ago, ‘What were you taught in the Environmental Art Department?’ Douglas Gordon replied ‘To sing. Not how to sing but simply, to sing.’ Not everyone of course can, or feels inclined, to sing publicly in company, but I learned in my family upbringing and in successive other situations, the value of a few drinks and a ‘sing-song’ in forging a close and friendly community, Where there is a mutual and supportive respect for the efforts of the individual, a confidence is bred in which people do perform whether it be a song, a poem, a story, a dance, a joke or play an instrument – whatever takes their fancy. That for me is singing. As the poet Shelley said, “social enjoyment in one form or another is the alpha and omega of existence.” Not only were we educating artists but also people to take their place in society. This of course is not new in education. It is an element long practised at, among others, the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. When the first university in Europe was set up in Bologna it described itself as “a company of scholars.” While, on the other hand, the typical prevalent ethos of teaching in art school, certainly in the UK, was that it was necessary first of all to destroy the student before then building her/him up. This ethos had no part in the teaching in the department. Environmental Art introduced two other things which were different and which have a bearing on this topic they were – context and collaboration. No other course in the School offered these. In moving art out of the traditional venues these new contexts required new attitudes and sensibilities, summed in the slogan “the context is half the work.” (coined by John Latham the early 70′s to represent the work of the Artist Placement Group otherwise known as APG) Collaboration was encouraged and workshops were devised in which it could be practised. Being a new department also set us apart. We occupied till 1994 the strangest and most stimulating building of all the Art School buildings, the old Girls High School. The unoccupied and decaying parts of it offered unlimited opportunities for contextual installation and performance. This set us apart. We were different, we felt different and difference drew us closer together. We got to know each other well and, despite the age and status differences, we became, and remain, friends.


There was also, to a certain extent, a shared interest, and commitment to, traditional Scottish culture. Glasgow is a friendly place and has, according to those whose interest it is to draw these conclusions – visitors, foreigners and sociologists – a very different ambience to that of Edinburgh with which it is most often compared. I do not like generalisations but visitors have so often told I that there is a real difference between Glasgow and Edinburgh, that I do now believe it. Glasgow is warmer, friendlier, more welcoming and I am saying this as a native of Edinburgh, albeit from that part of it called Leith – poor and working class, as it once was, that always felt that it was not really a part of the capital city. This special Glasgow ‘effect’ could also be felt in the department. It is of course best described by the German word ‘gemeinschaft’ meaning – there being no equivalent word in English – an organic community with a strong sense of tradition, mutual association and locality. But it is one of the dangers of any group that forms itself into a supportive network that by that very act it excludes others. I would argue that in this case the very strength derived from ‘gemeinschaft’ made it such that people from other cultures and places were positively welcomed. A Scandinavian critic, Gunnar Arnason writes, “There has been an influx of artists from the four corners of the world who have begun to move to Glasgow and settle there.” Individuals too from successive waves of graduates were, for a time, absorbed into the network.


Socialising among peer groups is a common feature of society so therefore it cannot be argued that this alone was the chemistry that brought about the colleagueship, the fraternity and sorority that played, and still plays, such an important part in the formation and the sustaining of the Glasgow art scene. Socialising is nevertheless a key factor. One need only look to the various art movements and groupings of the twentieth century to see how important socialising has been because it offers also the opportunity for the exchange of ideas and information and lends mutual support. This is exactly what this particular network of Glasgow artists did. After art school the Transmission Gallery then became the focus for this.


Demography too played an important role. I have mentioned that the core of the early network came from the West of Scotland. There are at least two other demographic features which contributed to the formation of the network. The larger one relates to Scotland’s relationship with England and particularly with London. The attitude of ‘Us against Them’ is a common feature in other areas of Scottish life and this again served to strengthen the network. It was the ‘other’ as a term of resistance to the metropolitan centre, the historical habit of Scotland forming partnerships with, among others, France, Holland, Flanders. By staying in Glasgow and not being seduced by London these artists were reviving an old tradition. In this they were innately recognising Jan Fabre’s response to the question, “Why do all the best artists in Flanders come from Antwerp and not Brussels?” Fabre’s answer was that “The provincial is universal and the metropolitan is specific.” The other demographic element is that certain parts of cities become identifiable as art quarters. In a small city like Glasgow the whole city centre could be construed as an art quarter. Certain bars become the place to meet and as important as that is the casual meeting in the local supermarket or laundrette which served to sustain that sense of being together.


The aphorism of ‘being in the right place at the right time’ must also be taken into account. In the early eighties the success and prominence given to a group of painters all of whom graduated from Glasgow School of Art had already attracted the attention of London, continental Europe and US art critics towards Glasgow. This was new and it was in the same way a phenomenon. These artists led the way in turning the art world’s attention to what was happening in Glasgow. This very success and the attention given to their painterly figuration formed part of the reason for the resistance of the younger artists coming after them. Notwithstanding these differences it speaks volumes, at least in terms of Scotland, that Glasgow School of Art should have spawned two successive groups of artists that gained international recognition, albeit for very different reasons, in such a short space of time.


Furthermore in the early eighties Glasgow had embarked on a massive makeover of its image, notorious as it was for religious bigotry, high crime rate, unemployment and poverty. In 1988 Glasgow was host to the UK’s annual Garden Festival which included a very large programme of visual art. (It is interesting to note that the first Documenta in 1955 was tagged on to a much bigger event in a flower festival.) Following that Glasgow was European City of Culture in 1990 which again featured a large art programme. These two events raised enormously the stature of Glasgow in the cultural world and the policy of the city was that where culture leads regeneration follows. Being the European City of Culture in particular gained an enormous amount of publicity for the city. However neither of these two events directly supported or gave prominence to any of these, at the time, young artists but there is no doubt that the attention of journalists, art critics and curators had been turned towards a city for which the biblical phrase ‘can anything good come out of Nazareth’ would seem to have been created. What was of real value was the funding made available by the city to artist-run spaces and projects which began in the lead up to 1990 and carried on for some years after it. This support can now be seen to have been critical in creating the opportunities for these artists to organise for themselves and to exhibit in artist-run spaces. However all of this was not entirely positive. The director of the city’s museums and galleries was positively opposed and of the huge budget he had for exhibitions and purchases none of it went to support or to purchase the work of any of these artists. Much of the money for these artist-run spaces and projects came directly from the city’s Finance Dept. under an enlightened director.


Some of the first wave of graduates had already had national exposure, while still students, performing at the National Review of Live Art at the Riverside in London and a year later at the same event in Glasgow. More importantly to my mind was the taking over of Transmission Gallery by Malcolm Dickson. He recognised early on that something special was happening in the Girls High School and exhibited the work of two or three of the artists while they were still students. His work I believe prepared the way for the eventual take-over of Transmission by the graduates of Environmental Art. I need not deal with this history here as others closer to it and involved in it will have a clearer picture of how things evolved from that point on. Key projects and exhibitions which have to be noted and in which these graduates participated and/or initiated were the Saltoun project, Sites Positions, Windfall and the Bellgrove Project


Another set of contributing factors cannot be left out of the equation in promoting and sustaining the network and in creating and negotiating opportunities, were the filofax, the fax machine and more recently the mobile phone.


1995-96 marked ten years of the founding of the Environmental Art Department. I co-curated, with Rebecca Gordon Nesbit, an exhibition to celebrate this decade. Unfortunately I was very ill at this time and feel that, although it achieved much, it could have been so much more if my energies had been able to give Rebecca more support. She did a great job with not very much in the way of funding. Several of the artists were on the working party and Roddy Buchanan came up with the title of “Girls High.” For me one of the most satisfying things was the fact that forty-three graduates of Environmental Art exhibited work. Part of the reason for the exhibition was to bring together all of these artists from different generations of students to endorse that notion of a family of artists. When Douglas Gordon thanked the ‘Scotia Nostra” in his remarks in accepting the Turner Prize he was simply describing a fact. We still meet, socialise and support each other.


In ‘The Corrosion of Character’ Richard Sennet writes that a society/regime, “which provides human beings with no deep reasons to care about one another cannot long preserve its legitimacy.” These Glasgow artists genuinely care about each other. In the art world this must seem to be a contradiction in terms.