‘There is nothing in culture or art that is worth the life and elementary happiness of one of those thousands who rot in the Glasgow slums. There is nothing in science or religion.’
Lewis Grassic Gibbon, 1934
My dad photographed slums across Britain for Shelter in the late 60s. He said that the ones in Glasgow were the worst. Looking at his pictures of the Gorbals again, it is hard to believe that people were allowed to live like this. A girl puts on her eye make-up in a piece of a mirror, propped up by a window that’s broken and patched up with cardboard; children play in what looks like a blitz bombsite; a father holds his son in a worn chair while the plaster peels off the walls and clothes hang across a string. My father’s images were campaigning and clearly intended to motivate change, but revisiting them, I am struck by how unsensational and modest they are. They come from a time when poverty was something to be angry about and social realism in film, photography and theatre strove to address its profound hardship and debilitation.
The work was always in the background of our family’s lives, but when you’re growing up, everything seems normal. It’s all you know and so, to a certain extent, not very interesting. Somehow it was natural that he had spent his 20s and 30s being a freelance photographer, working for Shelter—documenting housing, factories, the major British cities—and had given it up to provide a home for his family.
But leaving home changed things, and little by little, a respect and curiosity for him has grown in me over the years. Is the fact that I’m standing, one windy day last October in the Gorbals, watching Kenny Hunter’s sculpture, ‘Girl with a Rucksack’, being lowered onto its plinth, anything to do with the boxes of contact sheets and glimpses into my dad’s early working life? Then there was that GCSE art project where Dad and I went to Toxteth in Liverpool and got shouted at for photographing some of the housing—they thought we were undercover drugs police. We were roughly the same age (a few decades apart)—25/26—when work took us to the Gorbals. The crumbling tenements my dad saw are now smart apartments with penthouses to boot, but all through its long history, the place has inspired cultural documentation. Scottish classic texts, including No Mean City by Alexander McArthur and H Kingsley Long, and Growing Up in the Gorbals by Ralph Glasser, are written documents of 50’s life in the Gorbals’ slums and in the 20s when 80,000 people lived there, while celebrated photographer Oscar Mazaroli captured tenement life in the 60s.
The area has been inhabited from the 12th century. Ever since, it has been a point of destination for incomers—Highlanders came during the Clearances, the Irish moved in after the potato famine, and in the 30s it became a district for Jews escaping persecution from eastern Europe—part refuge, part ghetto. Housing over the last 150 years has gone through three distinct phases, starting with the 19th century tenements which were allowed to deteriorate into the shocking housing documented in photographs like my dad’s. These were razed to the ground in a late 60s’ and early 70s’ vision of modernity, and replaced with tower blocks designed by Basil Spence. The poor quality of these paeans to a brighter age meant they rose in damp, dirty decay and have almost all been systematically pulled down in the last few years to make way for the privately-financed low-rise blocks.
Now the Gorbals’ latest redevelopment is nearly complete. Under its Percent for Art scheme, work by Kenny Hunter, Steven Hurrel, Amanda Currie, David Cotterell, Matt Baker and Dan Dubowitz, plus others, is located within the area. Documentation of day-to-day life has morphed into artistic interpretations of its past and future fabric. Though the forms and purpose are vastly different, all urges stem from a strong sense of its history and identity. This is key to what has made the Gorbals the subject of so many narratives, photographs, paintings and now public art. ‘The developers are trying to erase that history and erase the reputation with high-profile penthouses,’ Matt Baker, lead artist of the Artworks programme, tells me while sitting on the old cemetary wall. ‘We have a responsibility, as artists, to put our learning from the last 60 years into practice. It’s almost been like a stealth mission under the developers’ eyes.’
Going back a generation, when tower-blocks were a twinkle in the eye and penthouses a million light ears away, I return to my Dad’s photographs and ask him when exactly they’re from. ‘They were taken between 1969 and 1972,’ he says. ‘The Gorbals were being slum-cleared at that time. One of the women in the photographs —with the little baby and the pram—she told a story of waking up in her flat one morning to hear the demolition ball going through the buildings. She had to tell them that there were still people living here.’
Shelter, in its formative years, was producing reports on homelessness and bad housing in Glasgow, Newcastle, Manchester and Birmingham. ‘The thing about the tenement blocks, though, and you can see it in the architecture of some of the stairwells, is that they are extremely graceful,’ Dad says. ‘When they were built they were good flats.’ But the post-war housing policy encouraged the growth of new towns—East Kilbride and Cumbernauld were born. The concentration of money was fed into their utopian constructions, and areas close to the city centre, including the Gorbals and Maryhill, were run into the ground.
It is their central location that now, ironically, makes the new flats so desirable. Seventy-five percent privately owned, they are just a stroll from the upwardly mobile Merchant City. ‘In its hey-day in the 20s and 30s there were 100 bars in the Gorbals,’ says Baker (along with a Prague-style cinema converted from a synagogue). ‘Now two are left from the Basil Spence scheme. None have been built—in terms of local amenities there’s been fuck-all. There’s been a lot of greed for housing. The vision is that a yuppie couple could live here but have a social life elsewhere.’
Baker has struggled in his five years as lead artist with the conflicting interests of those laying claim to the Gorbals—developers, city council, present residents, future residents, architects, lawyers and himself and fellow artists. ‘We had to be very political and I’m not a political animal—I feel battered and bruised,’ he admits. The wall we’re sitting on, snaked by an steel frame two feet wide, which is planted with shrubs and trees, was a mini battle in itself. The victory scores the use of the wall as a resting place and ensures the inclusion of ancient stone in both the public and private spaces, which are slowly being divided as vegetation grows.
For my dad, though—as was the privilege of the 60’s young—the purpose was clear. ‘The idea was to illustrate the crisis of homelessness and bad housing,’ he says. But, as I discover in our conversation, documentation wasn’t always practised in this way. ‘When I first started working for Shelter the policy had been sometimes to manufacture or create the photographs using models,’ he tells me. ‘I was very shocked about this and persuaded the advertising agency to change their policy. So from around about 1969 we only used real situations. The brief was to try and illustrate in human terms what the cost of bad housing was—to bring a human face to that. You could photograph cracked and broken bathrooms, but it didn’t mean very much unless you had a human story attached to it.’
I ask him whether he was ever in danger of exploiting that story. ‘There are two or three intrinsic problems involved in this kind of photography,’ Dad says. ‘One is that it can be grossly sentimental. You could use pictures of only children to illustrate a situation, but I wanted to try and include men (though they were less likely to want to be photographed) when I could because it was the whole family that was concerned. The other difficulty that you had was the space that you had to work in, which was very intimate. When you’re in that situation you’re invading people’s privacy, so you’ve really got to work quite hard to make people feel at ease and unthreatened.’
The photographer’s presence, in this kind of work, is best when absent, while an artist’s work is about their presence (though not exclusively). The involvement of Matt Baker and Dan Dubowitz, together known as the Heisenberg partnership, began in 1999 with the ‘Journeyman Project’. This was a series of interventions that were ‘taking the piss a little’ out of the City of Culture notion. The duo, who caused serious offence among some sections of Glasgow’s artistic community, did a project at Oaklands, where the destruction of six large tenement blocks along the main road had exposed a small block. They made a series of installations over two weeks and in one rigged-up 300 metres of washing line and clothes from Oxfam. The work imitates the scenes that can be seen in some of my dad’s photographs. ‘Women came out screaming at us. They felt we were putting up for display the reality of their lives – the act of washing was supposed to be a private thing.’
They then did something called ‘Oaklands needs Pakora’ based on a ubiquitous piece of graffiti around the place. ‘We had a big party, and a van from a local Indian restaurant came around giving out pakoras—there was a band.’ The tactics anticipate the kind of happenings facilitated by Jeremy Deller, but as Baker admits, ‘It was like throwing a rock into a pond. As a human being I felt the need to hang around for a bit.’ This he did, while his relationship with Dubowitz catapulted between creative dynamite and destructive collisions—eventually leading to Dubowitz’s departure from the project.
Their methods over this time, and those subsequently used by Baker, became very different. In 2000 they were asked by the head of the Crown Street Regeneration Project, Tom McCartney, to take over the Percent for Art scheme which he’d inherited and felt was being wasted. He gave them the whole budget and allowed it to be artist-led. This is a move that has not been replicated in any other Percent for Art scheme. ‘We set it up as an organic process. It was always meant to evolve. The theme was subtle, time-based work. Artists have created conditions with an idealism that they’re going to impact on the future,’ Baker says.
‘The Orchard’, located in the old cemetery, is a section of the Rose Garden that is like a small meadow filled with fruit trees. Amanda Currie, who is responsible for the piece, lived in a caravan in the area for some time during its creation. ‘She has negotiated a strict maintenance contract with the council,’ Baker says. ‘Last summer kids were in gathering the fruit—blackcurrants, strawberries, raspberries.’
Kenny Hunter’s sculpture, ‘Girl with a Rucksack’, which I saw swinging into position last autumn, seems at home. Opposite the local primary school, she looks strong and ready, like she’s arrived—or maybe she’s just off. A bag at her feet, a bag on her back, she’s poised to take the next step. She’s a tribute to Hunter’s sensitivity and time spent in the area. ‘Kenny took a more traditional approach to the collaboration,’ Matt says. ‘He did a whole heap of work with the school. The work has been informed by local knowledge.’
Baker’s own flying woman, dangling on the corner of Caledonia Road and Cathcart Road, rather like the figurehead of a ship, has reportedly shed drops of blood from her palms, and the stigmata, along with her skyward position have earned her a local title of angel. She hangs above a large piece by Dubowitz, and collectively they are known as ‘The Gatekeeper’. It is, to be frank, a great shame that Dubowitz’s clunky and tacky work—a steel-framed, gold-tinted picture of a woman in white walking through a disused factory—dominates the space. It blocks what would be a clear view through, under Baker’s protective figure.
Looking more at my dad’s photographs, I wonder if any of the residents in them could have imagined all these things happening to their homes. Despite the inflow of more affluent outsider stock, there are reports that people who once lived here and were re-housed are moving back, and a study is due to be published later this year about the response to public art. It will include substantial investigations into the Gorbals’ schemes, but perhaps their importance cannot be known for a while—it takes time to build a relationship. And that, in the end, is what is crucial about public art. It is something that people can develop a connection with and link it to their own specific sense of place.
There is an unobtrusive method in the Artworks programme’s later pieces that share some of the values of my dad’s documentary work and through talking to him I am struck by his stress on the quietly determined quest. He talks about the American tradition of social documentary established by people like Lewis Hyne and Paul Strand. ‘But I think the model that I would probably most strongly relate to is the work which was done under the Roosevelt administration in America between 1935 and outbreak of the second world war by the farm security administration. They were working to try and publicise the plight of the farming communities affected by the dust bowl.’
So not a British tradition? ‘In Britain, in terms of documentary photography, the very best photographers at that time were people like Phillip Jones Griffiths and Don McCullin, who tended to be involved in photojournalism in world conflict situations like the Vietnam war or Biafra, and publication was in magazines,’ Dad says. ‘The current of that kind of photography was to do with tragedy on a world level and the tragedy was to do with action. The thing about people living in slum housing is that there is no drama. Occasionally there is if someone gets evicted, but generally speaking it’s an absolute wearing down of people’s morale in a quiet and undemonstrative way.’
Documentation has also been an important part of the work for the Artworks programme—coupled with the drama of creating something. In March 2004 Peter Smith put lights in each window of a derelict tower and connected them up to a computer into which designs were programmed on the windows’ grid system— images were created and illuminated on a loop with a seven second delay. The scene was broadcast on TV and as people at home saw what was happening up the road they came out of the flats to watch the event. The Artwork’s itinerant programme has documentation of every stage of the regeneration. Predating them, Christina McBride projected statements onto one of the Basil Spence buildings that was about to be demolished, and following that Pete McCaughey projected images of the demolition onto the Twomax building.
Then this year something extraordinary happened. The face of Emma Caldwell, the murdered prostitute, was projected for four hours between 10.30pm and 2.30am on 23 May onto a derelict block of flats in Cumberland Street in the Gorbals. ‘This site was specifically chosen because it would have been visible across areas where we know Emma and her associates were known to frequent until the early hours of the morning,’ Detective Superintendent Willie Johnston said. It is the first time police have used such methods.
Could this piece of enlightened investigation have anything to do with the projects enacted elsewhere? It says something about the power of the architecture— its visibility and presence—that artists and police are using the empty façade to communicate a message. Drama, documentary and reality are coming together for a purpose, rooted very much in the real lives of the people who live there.
Walking past the Somerfield supermarket on Crown Street, I’m surprised to hear it blasting out classical music at full volume, but apparently it keeps the junkies away. Matt and I sit down to have a plate of chips and cup of tea in the local café and a weariness comes across him that reminds me of my dad a few years ago. There is a zealouness—energy and belief—to both their early approaches, but three months wrangling over the protection of a wall among five years of mini battles, and 18 years of a government that erodes much of what you’ve worked for, takes its toll. What if they hadn’t done that work though? Housing may have crumbled around families while no-one knew; the private housing of the Gorbals may have just sprung up shiny and new, trading on an identity while erasing its core. There is a humanity in the work both have produced that gives it endurance. I have learned a great deal, and realise the seeds of my own enquiry and and purpose were sown a long time ago when I wasn’t even looking.
Ruth Hedges is deputy editor of MAP magazine