Valentines Day and Candy at Einsteins as part of the GWL Welcome Wall display
Glasgow Women’s Library, installation shot, foyer display. Photo: Neil Hanna

Spanning the entirety of Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL), on the occasion of the organisation’s 30th anniversary, the exhibition Life Support: Forms of Care in Art and Activism presented artworks, archival materials and ongoing collaborations, that explore ‘care’, past and present, in feminist struggles. In the foyer, as you entered, archival materials were presented alongside artistic interventions from Greer Lankton and Franki Raffles. In the main library space, a tryptic of video works and new sculpture by Alberta Whittle. Next to the staff office, soft furnishings, cushions and table cloths by Manual Labours offered an invitation to sit and listen to podcasts. In the adjoining room, prints by Kate Davis and photographic works and sculpture by Veronica Ryan. Upstairs, an exhibition within an exhibition by Martha Rosler exploring housing struggles. Next door, the community room, redesigned by Olivia Plender, with new carpet, tables and a large curtain, dividing the space, featuring reproduced imagery and materials from GWL’s extensive feminist and LGBTQI archives and collections. Life Support was woven into the fabric of the building, learning from the past, putting it in productive dialogue with a present day activism that extends beyond the library.

Life Support Kate Davis
Kate Davis, ‘Charity’, print, 2017. Photo: Alan Dimmick

Take care

The process of archiving is always active, always contested, always, as Stuart Hall put it, ‘open to the futurity and contingency—the relative autonomy—of artistic practice’. [1] Life Support welcomed visitors on such a refrain, archival materials sitting alongside artworks, the contours of the past becoming less defined or fixed when brought into relief by artistic and curatorial intervention. In the foyer, a glass display case presented a view of the archive at its most familiar, feminist and LGBTQI related ephemera sitting side by side, photographs of protests, a selection of books and magazines. Above, projected onto the wall, a video showed the beginnings of GWL as Women in Profile—the artist-led organisation founded in 1987 which organised events, workshops and exhibitions during Glasgow’s year as European Capital of Culture in 1990, a less noted history within ‘the Glasgow Miracle’. The exhibition began with these archival fragments, framing a return to earlier feminist discourses on care and social reproduction as they might inform contemporary political struggles. Social reproduction seeks to account for the often gendered and racialised forms of un- and under-waged labour within capitalism, typically associated with a range of subjects from domestic, family and house work, to sex work, migrant labour and transitioning. [2] Kate Davis’ ‘Charity’ (2017), a print of a plastic milk carton with a drawing of a woman breastfeeding, speaks to these histories—highly visible and of value as a work of art, but value-less in relation to the financial payments made to a child carer. Life Support sets the archive in motion and in dialogue with artworks and the library as a context to explore the role of ‘care’ within art and activism. GWL’s archives, collections and ongoing work attests to such struggles in the terrain of social reproduction.

Be careful

Life Support also thought through the limits of the archival record with moments of discord and dissonance that emphasised the importance of embodied knowledges and histories. Tucked amongst archival ephemera, a photograph of one of Greer Lankton’s genderqueer life-sized dolls, confidently poised, looking to camera, glamorously troubling the archive’s desire to capture, categorise, and fix. Alberta Whittle’s series of three videos explore a violent neo-colonial state which does not care (in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic), punctuated by Black and POC resistance and joy: in RESET (2020), choreographer and collaborator Mele Broomes, draped in netting, moves within the finely kept rooms of a (any) stately home, flesh confronting the bones of colonial pasts. [3] I think of Saidiya Hartman’s reflections on the archives of slavery, proposing histories written ‘with and against the archive’ in order to ‘imagine what cannot be verified’. [4]

Life Support james Bell 3
Veronica Ryan, ‘Lamentations in the Garden’, 5 print series, 2000. Photo: Neil Hanna

Veronica Ryan’s five print series muses on loss, growth and regeneration. Lamentations in the Garden (2000) show Ryan with one of her sisters, black and white acrylic paint used to obscure the photograph. The blocking of the image, the interference with the capture of the lens, opens up a negative space for that which ‘cannot be verified’, the affects and emotions, the beautiful complexity and ephemerality of a life. The limits of archives, and an often white historical imaginary, requires artistic intervention to re-work the narrative, to account and care for marginal pasts.

Careful now

Martha Rosler’s If You Lived Here… (1989-present) looks to issues of housing and homelessness. Originally presented in New York in 1989, the iterative project takes its cue from local activism in housing. For Life Support, Rosler’s project was presented in collaboration with Living Rent. Franki Raffles’ various photographic works from the late 1980s to 1990s, provide a historical view on social housing and activism in Scotland. An entire section, curated by Joey Simons and Keira McLean, is given over to a timeline of housing struggle in Glasgow. This feels particularly important in an area like Bridgeton (where GWL is based), neighbouring Dalmarnock, and the east of Glasgow, which have faced successive attempts at regeneration and gentrification. GWL is itself a beneficiary of the Bridgeton town centre redevelopment, kick-started by Glasgow’s hosting of the 2014 Commonwealth Games. [6] Shona MacNaughton’s performance Progressive (2017), documented in the exhibition, makes explicit such confluences of arts, culture and state-led gentrification, embodied and recast as ‘change’ within the artist’s own pregnant body—an allusion to the biopolitical control upon which the logics of reproductive capitalism are built. The exhibition within the exhibition is a case study in the role art can play in mediating histories of political action, drawing connections and creating wonky genealogies across seemingly disparate moments in social justice movements. The coherence of narrative and historical continuity is normally a privilege of those in power, of those who control the archives, write the books, run the museums. Life Support presented a para-history, underlining GWL’s role within such vital feminist historiographic activism. [7]

In the arts, discourses on care, performed publicly in the exhibition or public programme, often conceal the anything-but-caring labour conditions for artists and cultural workers. Manual Labour’s podcast series The Global Staffroom (2019-21) attends to such a dichotomy, and explores the social reproduction of cultural workers through a series of conversations and interviews alongside a ‘prototype’ manual exploring ‘care’ in and beyond work. The lunchtime chat becomes a place and time for organising and collective action. The project raises questions around traditional trade union organising—how has it changed over time, who is served by it (and who is not), and what changes and shifts when these practices and politics of organising exist within public programmes. At GWL, The Global Staffroom asked these questions of a charitable third sector organisation still subject to neoliberal structuring and ordering, while suggesting a re-conceptualisation of care within work that might always already exist within histories of feminist organising and practice.

Life Support Review James Bell 15
Glasgow Women’s Library, installation shot including Olivia Plender’s carpet and curtain. Photo: Neil Hanna

Life Support made me think specifically about the role of art within social justice movements. It mapped a loose constellation of relations between feminist pasts and present, the archive and the body, life and work, and the politics of home (or homelessness). In its 30th year GWL continues being a space of lifelong learning and is a place where art is put to work in all socially reproductive senses. When I visited, I had to wait a little to see Olivia Plender’s re-design of the Community Room, a reminder that GWL is a working, women’s library, its priority being to the many constituents of women who make active use of the space on a daily basis. In moments such as these, I hold on to my anxiety, that turning of the stomach, my energy and expression, a reminder of the importance of de-centring oneself, de-centring the exhibition, so as to know a set of experiences that exceed the bounds of the gallery. In the room, an instructor is wrapping up a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) class. I delicately walk across Plender’s carpet, examine the veneered tables on trestles, and marvel at the curtain with reproduced archival materials. I ask the instructor what the group thought of the new room, ‘they didn’t really say anything’. The art doing its job then.


Dr James Bell is an artist, educator, and researcher, with a background in education and production in artist-led and contemporary art organisations. James’s research focuses on histories of feminist and queer cultural activism in contemporary art practice, and the ways in which artworks mediate feminist and LGBTQIA+ archives. James undertook a PhD at Northumbria University, Newcastle (2017—21), and currently teaches on the MLitt Curatorial Practice (Contemporary Art) at Glasgow School of Art and the University of Glasgow.

Life Support: Forms of Care and Art in Activism, Glasgow Women’s Library, 14 August-16 October


[1] Stuart Hall, ‘Constituting an Archive’, Third Text 15, no. 54 (March 2001)
[2] For an excellent example of the use of feminist social reproduction theory within contemporary transfeminist activism, see: Harry Josephine Giles, Wages for Transition (Edinburgh: Easter Road Press, 2019).
[3] For a discussion of flesh and bones in performing archival remains, see: Rebecca Schneider, ‘Performance Remains’, Performance Research 6, no. 2 (January 2001): 100–108. When speaking of flesh, I also think of: Hortense J. Spillers, ‘Mama’s Baby, Papa’s Maybe: An American Grammar Book’, Diacritics 17, no. 2 (1987).
[4] Saidiya Hartman, ‘Venus in Two Acts’, Small Axe 12, no. 2 (17 July 2008): 13.
[5] The work is in part made in response to the suicide of one of Ryan’s siblings.
The Games and adjacent Culture 2014 programme brought a raft of inward ‘investment’ to Glasgow’s east end communities, stretching from the Barras to Dalmarnock where the Athletes Village and major venues (Celtic Park and the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome) were located. In Dalmarnock specifically, compulsory purchase orders saw the forced eviction and demolition of tenement flats, and the displacement of the working-class population to make way for Games infrastructure, in some instances car parks. See: Neil Gray and Libby Porter, ‘By Any Means Necessary: Urban Regeneration and the “State of Exception” in Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games 2014: By Any Means Necessary’, Antipode 47, no. 2 (March 2015): 380–400.
[7] I say historiographic to note a self-reflexive practice that does not simply re-write the historical record, but troubles it, and indeed makes the process of making history one that is active and in and of the present. Life Support is a larger research project that extends beyond the exhibition, supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC/UKRI), the Henry Moore Foundation, the Art Fund/Garfield Weston, the University of Edinburgh History of Art Department, the St Andrews School of Art History, and the Contemporary Art Research Collection at the University of Edinburgh.