In conversation with Lucy McKenzie, 25 June 2015, Islington, London (an extract from recently published The Inventors of Tradition II)
LM: Where did you grow up and what did your parents do?
JB: I grew up in Glasgow, Shawlands, on the Southside. My mum opened a little flower shop down near Anderston bus station, and I don’t know what it’s like now, but at the time it was really run down. There was a homeless shelter across the way, so you’d get lots of old guys coming in.
LM: It was still like that when I left Glasgow 10 years ago. What kind of creative things did you do before you went to art school?
JB: Well, I was involved with punk music in Glasgow. This was really early on: 1976–77, and it was a very creative time, lots of people in bands with the idea that you could do it without really being able to play very well, and you could play with the way you looked. My dad took me to one of the degree shows at Glasgow School of Art and I thought ‘I could do that’.
LM: The art school and the music scene are really intertwined in Glasgow, part of that great tradition of musicians going to art school and bringing those ideas into their music. And many people learn about art through subculture—Cabaret Voltaire, Warm Leatherette, Throbbing Gristle, and of course Andy Warhol.
JB: Punk attracted interesting people. People may look back at punk and see it as nihilistic, but it wasn’t like that. The people we met through punk were into reading, and things like philosophy. Everybody was reading literature that you would not have expected working class or ordinary kids to be reading, and that inspired me. Films too. We’d go to the Glasgow Film Theatre and see everything—Fellini, Bertolucci. As a working-class 16-year-old it was brilliant to be able to do that. That cultural moment opened up so many avenues of thinking, and made you feel you could do anything.
LM: That was something special, maybe because Glasgow was provincial in comparison to bigger cities you had access to stuff, but there wasn’t a cultural elite guarding the gates to fine art, and actually at that time, you and your friends in the independent music scene including Postcard Records, The Wake, The Pastels, were the most interesting things happening. It’s part of a period that some may argue already seems remarkable—grants and the dole in the summer, educational policy that also enabled my parents as working-class kids in the 1960s to go to further education, which is totally over now.
JB: Also there wasn’t the same pressure to spend a lot on things like clothes. We got our clothes at Paddy’s Market. I remember distinctly not being able to fnd anything in normal shops; you were forced to use your imagination.
LM: What was shopping like in the late 1970s; where would you go to buy clothes?
JB: There were places like Topshop and Miss Selfridge, and in the late 1960s and early 1970s there were a few of the really cool Biba-type boutiques: keyhole doorways, really dark, loud music. Sauchiehall Street and Argyle Street had some good places, but that tailed off, and the chains were just a sea of denim and brown in the late 1970s. You couldn’t even buy opaque black tights. I’d go to the dance shops to buy black leotards and footless black tights. On that I’d add things I made or bought at Paddy’s and jumble sales. I was 16 when I started caring about what I wore, and I loved the glamour of punk—Siouxsie, Debbie, Gaye Advert—proper bombshells with a twist to their style and a brain. Before that, what was there? Musically, for a woman, you had nothing. Kate Bush went to number one as the frst woman who had written her song, and even though she was not a punk we loved her because she was so unique and unmanufactured.
LM: That’s the inclusivity of punk/post punk: it could incorporate everything from reggae to Kate Bush to sound art. So when you went to art school you were not by any means an empty vessel waiting to be educated. You had developed ideas about art in a broad cultural sense.
JB: I was slightly older too, which feels like a lot when you are a teenager, because I’d missed a year of school through agoraphobia. It was punk that fnally cured me—I couldn't stay inside when these bands were playing. But through that period I had drawn a lot because I wanted to go to art school so much, and by the time I arrived I’d already been using my own identity creatively, and knew that was what I wanted to do. My boyfriend was doing photography at the College of Building and Printing down the road with Edwin Collins.
LM: His dad taught me at Dundee. He used to say that if the drawing was not going well we should ‘rip it up and start again’.
JB: After the foundation course I wanted to do Mixed Media, but it had just been scrapped as a fine art course and had been replaced with Murals and Stained Glass.
LM: Who would have gone into that department?
JB: It was for those who wanted to do print-making, or painters doing anything other than the academic Glasgow Boys style that was big at that time. Very traditional, lots of life painting. So the department was for painting that fell outside of that—colour, graphics, sculptural fabric work, bas-relief mixes of painting and other forms like metal.
LM: Which then in the late 1980s morphed into Environmental Art, and produced the site-specific, multi-media artists of the next generation.
JB: We once decorated a double-decker bus for kids to play in—soft sculpture inside. We were all down at the bus depot with scaffolding round a bus painting it, working collectively.
LM: Can you describe the process of how you arrived, after foundation course, at the work that we know that shaped Strawberry Switchblade’s visual identity? Silkscreened wraparound environments and the kind of static performance art?
JB: That started pretty quickly. The tutors were great and very supportive of performance art, already in the first year. The first one I did was inspired by some old formal ball gowns from the 1940s and 50s … god, you didn’t realise at the time the treasure you could find second-hand then.
LM: Were you interested in contemporary fashion? Did you like people like Vivienne Westwood?
JB: Yes, of course. I knew her through punk, and I loved the older things like Dior’s New Look, too. Zandra Rhodes spoke at the art school and I loved Ossie Clark. I loved the really old school, romantic looks that were part of the dressing up culture of punk. At the end of the 1970s there were tons of 1960s clothes at jumble sales, which was so much more colourful and fun. I remember getting a turquoise blue lamé dress and coat set, in a very large size.
LM: The Glasgow we both grew up in was so depressed, you can’t really compare it to the way it was, even in the 1930s, when it had the largest number of cinemas per person in the world. All those people would have been dressing up for going out, so there must have been fantastic clothes to find.
JB: Especially jumble sales in the West End. My parents used to tell me about all the ballrooms and dance halls they used to go to. Anyway, the dresses in this performance were worn with long gloves, and they were my inspiration, these incredible ready-made dresses that I just wanted to use somehow for something. I got the girls in my department to sit in them in very formal Victorian photographic poses and I hung lots of dark stuff behind them. In contrast I had a woman in a black and white polka dot dress (cheap bought fabric: I hadn’t started printing yet and it was not as bold as I wanted. I’d made the dress to wear myself, not as a costume. It had red slashes in it too) and a parasol that I had made. She just stood in sunglasses beside them against a white background, and it was photographed. So you had this sombre tableau next to bright white—just contrast, nothing sophisticated, but it was exactly what I wanted to do.
LM: Was it a performance or photography session?
JB: Performance to be photographed. There was music, and they were on stage (at the time there was one [a stage] in the Haldane building of the school for gigs), so they were elevated, and it was something in between. The music was just The Velvet Underground playing in the background. No invited audience, just the other people in the department passing through. That’s what got me started, combining music, theatre, fashion, performance.
LM: Did you do anything with the photographs? JB: No, they were just in my sketchbook.
LM: So the performance was not made to produce photographs that might be framed and shown in a gallery as the final work?
JB: No. The department just supported what you wanted to do without a product at the end, which made it so great. It was totally unremarkable to mix everything together there.
LM: You were developing your personal style alongside your art school work—were you also playing live?
JB: Not at that time, that was later. But a lot of my friends in the music scene would hang out at the art school, people like Edwin, and come to the gigs at the Haldane Building and the Vic Bar [Glasgow School of Art student union], which was open to everyone. After this piece I thought it would be great if I could do something from scratch, print the fabric, and make everything involved. The annual fashion show was coming up and I’d participated in the one the year before. Back then you could take part even if you weren’t in the fashion department. For that I’d made something that I wouldn’t do now—we found an old skip outside a furrier and it was full of boxes of pelts: minks, still with whiskers, so soft—but hideous. A whole leopard skin, so abject, just thrown in a skip. The leopard was so fusty I put it in the washing machine and it came out rock hard!
LM: You didn’t read the label.
JB: I made an outft with all these pelts for the fashion show-just hung them off the shoulders and waist, and I went to London to get thigh- length shiny leggings to go with them. I couldn’t afford thigh-length boots and you couldn't get them in Glasgow anyway, so I had to travel to London to buy them from a sex shop. So for the upcoming fashion show I wanted to do a kind of mini performance, not just show clothes. Simple idea: printed fabric stretched on large stretchers interacting with women in outfts from the same material, all variations of printed pattern, polka dots and stripes. The lights would come up and there would be the stretchers, which would be held by people behind with girls in front. They would move like a test card, mixing the different patterns. We did a test run and it looked great— but then it never happened because the fashion department thought I was taking over. Because it wasn’t only a backdrop, it was a work in itself, and not just fashion either-it 'didn't fit'. So then I had to just stage it for myself and film it, which was not easy at the time because video was only just becoming available and I didn’t have a Super 8 camera, nor [was there] one in the department, so it was never flmed.
LM: Did you have much contact with things outside Glasgow?
JB: Very occasionally: going to London for gigs or to buy those famous leggings. We’d go to Edinburgh to see bands, and punk was banned in Glasgow so you had to go to Paisley. Can you imagine? That gives an idea of the mentality in Glasgow at that time: grim. You felt very controlled, but this pushed us to find alternatives.
LM: With your performance work and its representations of women, it seems important that you were taking control of a classical language by using tableaux vivants. Using it to blur object and subjectivity. By using women as a kind of décor you were politicising it.
JB: Well, work like that being made by a man, using women as material, would be totally different. After the fashion show I thought I would do something to be filmed, and I made a box with polka dots, to house a fgure inside, a bit like a musical jewellery box—I was thinking about control and invisibility. I covered the figure head-to-toe rather than just having a nice outfit-though I did make a puffy frock, it couldn’t just be a catsuit. I think at the time I remember seeing Eraserheadwith the girl on the stage—really uncanny—and that was in my mind. I made everything, balaclava included, from a stretchy yellow and black polka dot fabric and I printed matching dot paper for the box. I had to do everything myself because I wasn’t welcome any more in the fashion department. It was filmed on Super 8 and photographed. It started with a black screen, then the doors opened (pulled on black strings) so you saw a strip of yellow and then the figure was revealed. She was dancing dreamily and slowly to The Velvet Underground, and bit by bit, revealed herself. Underneath the polka dot outft she was wearing black, and had black hair, and when she took the mask off she had stylised make-up-so you saw the black against the yellow but the only skin was her face. It was not like a striptease: it stopped and started, until she came out of the box and turned around, shut the doors and disappeared. The flm was never transferred or edited—I never even saw it. The box was at my degree show and I wanted to show the film but I wasn’t there because Strawberry Switchblade were by then signed to WEA and were on tour. I set it up before I went and had friends look after it. I’d have loved to have been there.
LM: Can you describe the transition between the work you made at art school and how that was used in Strawberry Switchblade—videos, photography, et cetera?
JB: Once we were signed and we got to do a video [for their second single ‘Since Yesterday’], we wanted to work with Tim Pope, who had done lots of videos for The Cure and a video for The Psychedelic Furs filmed through coloured marbles that we loved. We got really excited, made the dresses for the video, and made it so that the polka dots peeled off, which took ages to do but you hardly see it in the video actually.
LM: He was happy to have you art direct?
JB: Well, he was the one who suggested we animate it, and include [a giant polka dot] mobile and [the polka-dot floor game] Twister, so we were very happy.
LM: Did you feel like it satisfied something that you feel you didn’t get to do at art school?
JB: Absolutely, it did everything I wanted it to do. And I loved Tim’s involvement—you learn a lot working with other people.
LM: And at the time were art and music equally important to you?
LM: You were leaving art school to do something you loved, to a level of public that was unthinkable for an average art school graduate; you were on Top of the Pops, and your inspiration had come so much from pop culture anyway, and now you were part of it. But do you feel like you have missed out on some things that your quick success in music prohibited? Pursuing art more seriously? Music, so socially dependent, event- based and collaborative, is very far from an artist’s studio practice, which involves so much time alone.
JB: Although I still loved the visual aspects of it, and it was part of what we were doing, it stopped me dead in exploring art. Being in a band with another person means you have to make compromises, and being signed to a major label you are a commodity, which I hated and found very difficult. All the pressures, managers, advances; you were not your own. They got someone to design us some clothes at one point, and they weren’t bad, but they were costumes, and I never thought of my clothes as costumes. We wore ours out to the shops; they had to be part of who we were.
LM: What was Rose’s role in the look and image of the band?
JB: We got together in the second or third year I was in art school. She was this funny little punk who had a baby, and she did have influence because she was not scared to wear something mental, much more than I would wear. I remember she had a dress with a bow on the front that was wider than her. She would take up an idea and had no boundaries; and sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t, but it didn’t matter because she had the confidence to pull it off. I liked that she pushed my own taste boundaries. And it was the two of us. When going out, for instance, we’d decide on a theme for our outfts, say red and gold, and we'd do red and gold make-up and pool all our cheap jewellery in the those colours, divide it equally between us and wear it all. Then as the band developed we refined it, and for a little while it worked really well because we made lots of dresses. But she was a lot gothier than me—I didn’t feel much of a connection with that. I liked the drama, but I wasn’t mad on black magic, that kind of thing. Also, eventually, I had put a huge amount of myself into the band, and felt there was no acknowledgement of that.
LM: The goth element that Rose brought to the band was part of that great mix you had though—gothic, romantic, Warhol, 1960s girl group; such a unique look and sound.
JB: Well, that’s what they loved in Japan about our look.
LM: Has that ever been recognised? They must have loved the mix of sweet and malevolent, and that you were so tiny.
JB: Yes, the connection between ‘Gothic Lolita’ [a Japanese fashion craze] taking off and our tours of Japan has been made. With the hair and heels we weren’t so tiny.
LM: When the band broke up would you have liked to have returned to visual art and done something like an MA?
JB: The disillusionment after Strawberry Switchblade made continuing with music very difficult. Then I got married and had my daughter, and by the time she was old enough for me to think about making art again times had changed so much. I applied to Central Saint Martin’s School of Art in London in the mid-1990s, and by that time you had to pay; I’d been away from art for so long, and the person who interviewed me was so dismissive of what I’d brought. I had started working in glass—typical when you have a kid, you do a course—and they weren’t at all interested. After that I got a studio with the other mums at my daughter’s school who had all been artists before they had their children.
LM: I can just see your work as stained glass, with the female figure appearing through the dots…
JB: I loved it; I wanted to combine it, do perfor- mance art—but dipping your toe in again is so daunting. If you leave it for years you’re starting again from nothing, without the nurturing environment. I still collaborate with friends on shows, make prints and collages, and this in turn makes me continue with music. I’m working with my daughter on that.
LM: It seems that for you they go together; that what you want to communicate can only be fully expressed by their combination.
JB: Yes. Because I don’t think my song writing is the strongest, I bring elements to it with visual art, and that gives everything the reason to come about.
Jill Bryson attended Glasgow School of Art from 1979-83. A contemporary of Steven Campbell, Ken Currie and Adrian Wiszniewski, she studied in the Mixed Media department. In her final year she founded Strawberry Switchblade, a Scottish female punk/new wave band, with Rose McDowall. They were signed to Korova in 1983 and went on to have a marked cultural impact that extended as far as Japan featuring performance, which combined elements of fashion, music and theatre.
The Inventors of Tradition II, Beca Lipscombe and Lucy McKenzie (Atelier E.B), ISBN: 978-3-96098-002-5, edited by: Catriona Duffy and Lucy McEachan (Panel), with texts by: Michael Bracewell, Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt, Fiona Jardine, Juliet Kinchin, Mason Leaver-Yap, Beca Lipscombe, Mairi MacKenzie, Lucy McKenzie, Ray McKenzie, Bernie Reid, Rebecca Wober and Linsey Young, interviews with Jill Bryson, Eric Michael and Ellen van Schuylenburch, photographic compositions by Kimberley O’Neill and Eileen Quinlan with Jack Miskell.
Atelier E.B is the company name under which the artist Lucy McKenzie and the designer Beca Lipscombe sign their collaborative projects. The group was formed in 2007 by Lipscombe and the illustrator Bernie Reid, who are based in Edinburgh, and McKenzie, who is originally from Glasgow and lives in Brussels. Works to date include commissioned display and interiors for public and private spaces, fashion, textiles, furniture, events and publishing. In Glasgow, Atelier E.B and Panel presented The Inventors of Tradition, 2011, an exhibition, catalogue and fashion collection that examined the legacy of Scotland’s textile industry. This and subsequent collection Ost End Girls, 2013, was sold directly to the public through a series of showrooms and is now worn all over the world. www.ateliereb.com
Panel is an independent curatorial practice led by Catriona Duffy and Lucy McEachan. Based in Glasgow, Scotland, Panel promote design in relation to particular histories, archives and collections through exhibitions, events and cultural projects. www.wearepanel.co.uk