In the editorial for the pilot issue of Nothing Personal, a new, Glasgow-based journal for art, essays and reviews, we are reminded of the problems of criticism in a small scene: the fear of being ostracised for espousing unpopular (or at least publicly unpopular) views, of being (or being regarded as) unkind, of ruining careers. The scene is small, evidenced by the fact that this reviewer has met five of the eight contributors—but it is perhaps because of these very difficulties that an attempt to engage in criticism should be made. As the editors’ note, the journal’s title highlights an inherent contradiction of criticism: it might be ‘nothing personal’ but it can sure as hell feel like it.
In the mid-to-late twentieth century, the most incisive critics in Scotland were at pains to emphasise that Scottish art was not helped by the critical apathy assumed to be necessary to maintain the social capital on which artists depend. To speak out of turn about another person’s work, it was thought, was to spoil the party, to damage the close-knit community that had been established. Critics, such as Cordelia Oliver (1923-2009), believed that Scottish art was beleaguered by politeness, its artists diminished by avoidance of the very critique she believed would allow them to confidently take their place on an international stage. In this spirit, Nothing Personal does an admirable job of asking awkward questions and posing complex ideas while avoiding the hectoring, self-righteous tone of some of its predecessors. It acknowledges that while critical thinking takes place in Glasgow, it does so casually, in conversation, between friends, and that this ‘closed-door criticality’ inadvertently leads to stasis and stagnation. Common grievances and perennial concerns are worked out in the pub or over the dinner table rather than in plain sight, or in a way that might effect change.
A sense of common purpose and civic responsibility runs through the journal in its attentiveness—in some texts explicitly, in others more implied—to scrutinising the mores and moods of cultural life in Glasgow. Neil Clements’ opening essay, ‘Leaving the Auld Toon’, offers an insightful history of the principles on which Glasgow International Festival (GI) was built, and does some much-needed dismantling of the continued mythologising of the city as a wonderland of energetic, sustainable artistic self-determination in spite of the radically altered (diminished) socio-economic and political circumstances which have taken place since the Festival’s inception in 2005. Reflecting on the tensions generated by attempting to serve both local and global audiences (an issue much debated at the beginning of Glasgow’s so-called ‘cultural regeneration’ in 1990), Clements’ speaks as an insider, an artist who has observed first-hand both the positive and negative impact such programmes can generate, particularly in terms of the pressure on Glasgow-based artists and arts-led organisations to compress a city’s artistic output into a bi-annual showcase aimed at powerful visitors. To paraphrase the Guerrilla Girls Pop Quiz, if every second April is GI, what happens for the rest of the year? As Clements’ notes, ‘the difficulty will lie in developing strategies that allow a collective image of ourselves to be formed and preserved, while resisting attempts to co-opt it as an official narrative’.
Esther Draycott’s ‘The Monroe Effect’ is a change in tone, but similarly begins by looking backwards, opening with a quote from David Wojnarowicz’s 1975 New York diary. The author’s reflective account of the relationship between the weather, architecture, class and gender eloquently restates what the inhabitants of high-rise housing schemes have often experienced: that in a number of so-called modernist experiments, the sheer force of the wind serves as an allegory of the residents’ economic and social status—it is a fight just to stay standing. Drawing on the autobiographical work of writers such as Lynsey Hanley (Estate) and Darren McGarvey (Poverty Safari), Draycott begins with Wojnarowicz in Manhattan in the 1970s, stops off at Chelmsley Wood, Birmingham in the 1980s and ends in Pollok, Glasgow (McGarvey’s former home) and the Gorbals, specifically Basil Spence’s Hutchesontown Area C, at Queen Elizabeth Square. Spence’s now-demolished Brutalist complex (inspired by Le Corbusier’s Unité d’Habitation buildings in Marseille) was intended to appear on washing days as ‘a great ship in full sail’. Its residents who literally struggled to keep their feet on the ground due to the building’s unfortunate Venturi effect, became, Draycott notes, ‘…part of a hostile feedback loop of tall buildings and poor facilities, dislocating them from that which seemed to allow other human beings to stand upright: home, routine, safety, a footing.’ Such projects, she writes, ‘entailed the elevation of some and the ongoing humiliation of others.’ It’s perhaps ironic, then, that this year Sir Basil Spence was described as a ‘Scottish Design Icon’ by V&A Dundee for his Hutchesontown Area C work. The validation of the architect and his disastrous project as iconic, in spite of its manifold cost in human terms, is surely the ultimate expression of ‘failing upwards’?
Calum Sutherland’s ‘Campus’, like Maria Howard’s text which forms the final essay here, begins as a kind of ‘One Way Street’ series of observations while walking through areas of Glasgow that are both inner-city and edge-land. Along with Clements and Draycott, Sutherland’s focus is firmly fixed on Glasgow, the identity of the city, its branding and ‘reinvention’. From the International Financial Services District (also the sexual services district) to the ravaged remains of Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building, its ‘ruin value’ yet to accrue, Sutherland astutely reflects on the appropriation of the language of academia and creative production in the branding of new corporate premises or ‘campuses’. His discussion of the political agendas behind ‘place marketing’ considers the complicit and inadvertent artwashing of Glasgow’s image. Citing Venda Louise Pollock’s work, he notes how we are led towards a situation where projects such as Barclays Glasgow Campus are representative of ‘the entrepreneurial strategies and boosterism enacted on the Clyde and is emblematic of the way culture-led regeneration is threatening the creativity of the city itself, peripheralising it.’ It is a succinct and trenchant analysis, recalling Stephen Pritchard’s work on the same subject in relation to Leith.
Elsewhere in the journal Swapnaa Tamhane, Kiah Endelman Music and Aman Sandhu each articulate issues that are commonly experienced but rarely addressed in writing, and all the more valuable for it. All three accounts help to make sense of concerns that are hard to call out precisely because of the veiled, soft power tactics of the art world. Tamhane’s ‘The Limits of Self-Orientalising’considers the continued tendency to decontextualise and homogenise in what she describes as ‘a frenzied rush towards decolonisation’. The treatise is also a discussion of trust and confidentiality, both routinely disregarded when difficult questions are raised by the author in the anecdote that opens this piece. Tamhane’s observations echo two (paraphrased) statements that never seem to lose their relevance in the context of the art world: Art & Language’s claim that the art world is dependent not upon criticality itself, but the illusion of it and Bertolt Brecht’s insistence that we should not assume that audiences can’t handle ‘difficulty’. In this case, Tamhane calls out the presentation of reductive, digestible, easily absorbed narratives which claim to ‘speak for’ entire cultures or nations, however nuanced or complex their histories might be. In doing so, she considers the expectations placed on artists who are said to ‘represent’ such identities, who often end up in what she calls ‘a sticky spot between self-Orientalising and the ethnographic’. Tamhane offers no easy solutions, but her questions are acute and reveal that in spite of both sincere good intentions and more cynical virtue signalling, the methods undertaken to decolonise the art world often bear a striking resemblance to the very structures they purport to dismantle.
In the first of what is hoped will become a regular column titled ‘The Metacritical’, Aman Sandhu’s ‘House Omelette’ ably meets the editors’ hope that this section will ‘scrutinise rituals and methods of criticality used by artists’. His text is wry and anecdotal in its handling of some of the questions raised more formally by Tamhane, but Sandhu is similarly self-reflexive and no less critically confident in his ‘suspicion of this decolonial moment’ during a discussion of his recent exhibition, No More Artists, held at Intermedia Gallery, CCA Glasgow. In common with Tamhane, Sandhu cites recent Canadian attempts to decolonise, this time the prayer-like territory and land acknowledgements that preface many cultural events in the country. Are such acknowledgements really meaningful and reparative or are they (as many suspect) designed to make a primarily white audience feel that they can leave their hair shirt at the gallery door, absolved by a speech act or a secular act of contrition? While Sandhu notes that such declarations may ultimately function as empty signifiers, ‘they are, nonetheless, a reminder of those who are the original and continued caretakers of the land’. Here we might replace the word ‘caretakers’ with ‘custodians’ or ‘curators’. Back at Market Gallery, Sandhu recounts an anecdote in which, while invigilating his own exhibition, he is called upon to explain it. His explanation, and its refusal, make for an ironic end point.
In ‘Much of it Means Nothing’, Kiah Endelman Music neatly summarises the way in which the highly coded protocol of the art world can be/is often used as a tactic to avoid paying its artists and writers. Endelman Music details the awkwardness and embarrassment entailed in even raising the question of payment for work completed, and the duplicitous opacity about fees on the part of commissioning editors, gallerists and other art world gatekeepers. While many artists themselves necessarily rely on a gift economy, swapping skills and artworks, the text highlights that a lack of transparency around payment is not limited to the usual suspects from whom we might anticipate unethical behaviour. As Endelman Music observes, such behaviour is also commonplace amongst artist-run and so-called radical spaces, whose stated aims and general ethos often explicitly suggest otherwise. At this stage, where galleries and organisations clearly boast on their websites of being ‘committed to offering a fair fee’, the complete absence of a fee after submission of work feels like ghosting. The cognitive dissonance that results from the disparity between what an organisation says they do and what they do in practice can feel more than disorientating. In such incidents, as the author notes, ‘…naming becomes a way of stopping action. Not only does nothing happen, the statement might actually be the thing that stops anything from happening.’ Did we miss a memo? When such anecdotes and encounters are shared, they reveal that, publicly, there is a conspiracy of silence when it comes to holding institutions to account, but that shared privately, non-payment is so endemic as to be almost normalised. Along with the fact that artists and writers need an income, it is the dishonesty, arrogance and avoidance around money that is particularly disheartening in these exchanges—the complete reluctance to pay is hidden in plain sight. When money is raised, class is also invoked: money is vulgar, you’ve misunderstood the protocol, don’t ask the price, value the opportunity, put it on your CV. It’s a sobering and frustrating read, but a reminder to artists and writers that reputational damage goes both ways. Among many anecdotes of my own, and debts for work stretching back decades now, an artist friend of mine was once asked to contribute full-page artwork to an internationally-distributed, for-profit art magazine. He asked about the fee. He was told there was no fee, that it wasn’t ‘the done thing’ to ask, but that it ‘would be good for your profile’. He emailed back, comparing his work for Royal Mail with his work as an artist: ‘if my manager at Royal Mail asked me to work a shift for free’, he wrote, ‘I’d tell him to fuck right off’. He didn’t send the work. His ‘profile’ is doing fine.
In two sections, ‘Hybrid and Writing Through’, also introduced as regular themed columns for contributors, Loll Jung and Maria Howard adopt a more fragmented, associative mode of art writing. In ‘Janus Sees the Greys and the Blues but also the Greens and the Yellows’, Jung presents a meditation on walls, boundaries, thresholds, dreaming and day-dreaming. It’s a timely portrait of the kind of liminal space many of us have encountered during COVID lockdown, ‘a learning of how we live’, ‘moving from bedroom to kitchen to lounge, the body is presented with options. But the body cannot decide where it wants to be, as eyes roll around the already-seen-today walls and countertops.’ Maria Howard’s ‘Bernadette Mayer’s Memory’is also imbued with a kind of slipstream quality where time runs backwards. This kind of writing—drifting, tangential, diaristic—has the potential to show rather than tell us what might be interesting about Mayer’s work, to draw us in through the author’s subjective restaging of Mayer’s summer of 1971. It’s a dazzling, shimmering text, evocative, unafraid of its poetic power, and quite the inverse of the journal’s title.
There is no house style in Nothing Personal, but the shifting tone across contributions shares a questioning and thoughtful, rather than corrective, approach. The writers and artists succeed at negotiating the intersections of the anecdotal and subjective with the structural, social and political while acknowledging that such modes of discussion are not mutually exclusive. The stated aim of the publication—to provide a starting point for debate, and to let artists contribute to and re-centre these debates—is sound. Art and artists are always present here, from the contributors and subject matter to the design and use of visual material, which is integral to the publication rather than being complementary or illustrative. The only real problem with Nothing Personal may be in identifying how and where the debates raised can be facilitated further. It would be disappointing to see the issues addressed in these engaging, thought-provoking pieces loop back no further than the dinner table conversations the contributors are attempting to reach beyond. This reviewer might hope for a podcast, a seminar series or a radio show by extension, a place to extend and further discuss insights, position pieces, provocations and critical poetics. Either way, this is a remarkable collection.
Susannah Thompson is a writer, critic and art historian based in Glasgow. She is Head of Doctoral Studies at Glasgow School of Art.
Nothing Personal was co-founded by Calum Sutherland, Maria Howard, Esther Draycott and Kiah Endelman Music. The editorial team met while studying the Master of Letters in Art Writing at Glasgow School of Art. The pilot issue was released in January 2021, and Issue 1 will be released this summer.