Mapping the Commonwealth with “Glasgow’s Finest”

Alberta Whittle shares her thoughts on the recent International Artist Initiated (IAI) project in Glasgow, presented by the David Dale Gallery & Studios as part of The Glasgow 2014 Cultural Programme which took place alongside this year’s Commonwealth Games. Read more below:

Photograph by Rayanne Bushell

Representatives of Clark House Initiative, RM, Video Network Lagos, Fresh Milk; Alberta Whittle and Rayanne Bushell

 “In 1884 the Earl of Rosebery visits Australia and asks, ”Does the fact of your being a nation… imply separation from the Empire? God forbid! There is no need for any new nation, however great, leaving the Empire, because the Empire is a Commonwealth of Nations“.”[1]

In the summer of 2014, the Commonwealth Games arrived in Glasgow. Much like any travelling circus, the Games brought believers, performers, participants and an audience. Like any participant, I came to Glasgow with my own expectations. Having lived in the city for many years, but failing to assimilate completely, I still feigned the confidence that comes so easily for those who know the area. Sharing a taxi ride, with the self-proclaimed “Glasgow’s Finest”, the driver quizzed me on my knowledge of the city’s geography, asking me where roads connected, easily highlighting my failure to truly belong to Glasgow. The driver insisted on informing me that Glasgow’s taxi drivers were always known as “Glasgow’s Finest”, and I was not allowed to forget it.

During this trip, over many conversations with “Glasgow’s Finest”, a discourse of belonging and not belonging readily emerged. The drivers often assumed Barbadian artist, Annalee Davis and I were Americans, our accents blurring into a vague sense of foreign-ness. They asked why we were here, and when we explained about our project as part of the Commonwealth Games, they in turn spoke of how the Games were not for Glaswegians. The Games’ faux presentation of multiculturalism and the promotion of the idea that we are all in this together confronts the reality that, for many Glaswegians, there is a disconnect between their participation on home soil and the participation of the athletes and visitors flown in to contribute to the spectacle of imagined unity. The notion of unity between us, members of a former British colony, and Glaswegians, a nation grappling with securing their own independence, came from an unlikely direction. Driving through the Merchant City we passed roads such as St. Vincent Street and Jamaica Street; easy reminders of Glasgow’s active role within the slave trade as members of the plantocracy and as indentured servants. However, “Glasgow’s Finest” posited the belief that Caribbean and Scottish nations must be united against the English, advocating the belief that Scots also faced “oppression” from England. This supposition did not entirely surprise me, given the political climate surrounding the upcoming Scottish Referendum.

From the banners, traffic diversions and the odd, green mascot called Clyde dotted across the city, the aura of the Commonwealth seeped into Glasgow’s public spaces. As part of the celebrations, the David Dale Gallery in Glasgow’s East End invited artist-run spaces from across the Commonwealth:  Fillip (Canada),  RM (New Zealand), Cyprus Dossier (Cyprus), Fresh Milk (Barbados), Video Art Network Lagos (Nigeria) and Clark House Initiative (India) to participate in their International Artist Initiated programme.

As part of the Fresh Milk platform, Mark King, Ronald Williams and myself presented a series of interventions. Responding to the commercial nature of the area, we crafted three individual presentations. The location of the David Dale Gallery within the heart of the East End of Glasgow – once a thriving industrial boomtown – seems peculiarly apt, mirroring the substantial role of production Britain’s former colonies assumed, laying the foundation for the industrial revolution. These same former colonies are now re-positioned as independent nations, members of the Commonwealth, exhibiting artwork in their own image. The recent deterioration of Glasgow’s prominence in manufacturing, where production is now outsourced to these former colonies, lends symmetry to the proceedings.

 “Internet ultimately offers both the seductions and subductions of a postmodern “world.”’ [2]

Taking possession of the pavement immediately outside of the gallery space, Mark King’s piece ‘Wayfinding’ speaks simultaneously of globalization and the shrinking of the globe through advancing technological developments. The importance of producing a site-specific artwork responding to Glasgow’s architecture fuelled King’s research. Since King was unable to physically enter Glasgow’s public space, the development of his work leant heavily on the Internet as a research tool. The simulated reality, which the Internet manufactures, enabled King to virtually explore the Glasgow urban landscape. Appropriating visual iconography he discovered using interactive maps from the Internet such as Google Maps, he decided on a grid formation. Mirroring the structure of the grid, yellow pigmented chalk spray paint was stenciled onto the ground in a diamond pattern. The diamonds can be seen to both reflect the wealth Scotland built on the backs of the colonies in the Commonwealth, whilst the grid formation suggests a means of concealing and revealing. King’s grid imprinted on a Glasgow pavement speaks to the mapping of private and public space, the gatekeeping of information, and the access to this knowledge. In this way, his grid also becomes a net, implicating the public in his piece, where by traversing through his grid they extend it outwards through the chalk debris on the bottom of their shoes. The ephemeral nature of the chalk spray paint insists that the physicality of this piece will ultimately disperse through wind and rain, gradually leaving a faint residue in its place.

King’s choice of intense yellow pigment runs parallel to the street signage found on most roads. By bringing this same signature colour of hazards and caution onto the pavement, King raises questions of right of access. Who has the right to inhabit public spaces?

“Infinite spaces … have become advertising spaces.”[3]

Ronald Williams‘ billboard project responds to the important role the media assumes in stereotyping black bodies. Williams’ seductive, computer generated collages respond to advertising campaigns, which use notable athletes such as Jesse Owens, Usain Bolt and Serena Williams to tout their wares. His billboards question the exploitative nature of these campaigns, which generate immense wealth, yet continue to marginalize the same audience they are aimed at.

These advertising campaigns typically present black athletes as glorified flesh. Almost animalistic in their depiction, their muscles ripple, flexed, ready to leap, strike the ball or pummel the face of an adversary. Only deemed relevant because of their sheer physicality, these bodies are rendered as commodities, easily consumable, packaged and identified as abnormal. Their role as anomalies, who escaped poverty by signing lucrative contracts for endorsements and achieved stardom through their physical prowess, is apparent through their appropriation into the dehumanizing role of silent motif by global brands. Branding these athletes as celebrities inspires intense devotion by their fans, who are encouraged to buy into the mirage of aspiration that brands such as Nike, Adidas and Lacoste distill. Williams’ deliberate absence of flesh in his collages addresses the reliance on black flesh these feats of branding depend on. Employing the characteristic poses of these athletes to fashion a silhouette which then acts as a canvas, Williams manipulates forms taken from popular culture to offer a critique into the industry, which both celebrates and caricatures these icons. His decision to fill in his silhouettes of Bolt and the like with imagery from an array of sources, including contemporary dancehall and hip hop culture, pimp attire, shackles, money, animals and symbols of black resistance; reveals the underlying stereotyping at play in these acts of branding.

Williams’ billboards question the typical position of authority held by these advertising campaigns. His work raises important questions around authorship and the responsibility of the advertisers in not perpetuating stereotypes.

For my own presentation, I produced a series of digital collages, derived from Barbadian “fete”[4] my work attempts to interrogate the prescribed gender roles prevalent in the Caribbean. Following the format of the original fete posters, these collages apply the same aesthetic, adopting similar poses, modes of dress, iconography and typography. Historically denied subjectivity, the Other is able to reclaim this, reclaiming public space through their participation in preparing and distributing their own images presenting their individual ideals and aspirations. These collages were printed as posters and hung from railings in the area surrounding David Dale. The familiarity with this technique of displaying posters advertising club nights renders posters. Inserting myself as both the female and male protagonist, them almost invisible in this urban space. They seem to assimilate within this easily recognizable visual language. What is jarring is their presence within a Scottish context.

Fresh Milk’s discursive project entitled “Notions of Common/wealth versus Single/ wealth” ensured that the elephant in the room was named. What were critical, contemporary artists and artist-run initiatives doing participating in a platform which historically had systematically disavowed their authority and authenticity as cultural entities? The event moderated by Mario Caro, President of Res Artis, and held at David Dale after the exhibition opened was broadcast live and archived on the This Is Tomorrow website.

Glasgow-based artist Ellie Harrison raised the important question around the contradiction of participating in a Commonwealth sponsored event given the history of the Empire, which reveled in exhibitions of live bodies and relied heavily on gross representations of former colonies now repositioned as Commonwealth nations. In response to this critique, members of the panel claimed the importance of the International Artist Initiated programme as a mutually beneficial means of enabling cross-cultural links to be bridged and conversations to flow while not being dictated by the Commonwealth.

Fresh Milk’s project provided a valuable platform for the audience to engage with representatives from the invited artist-run spaces, open a dialogue into the varied approaches to programming led by the initiatives, and tackle the meaning of what participating in the Commonwealth means. Topics addressed by the panel ranged from the importance of building substantial platforms supporting and nurturing local and regional artist communities; how to expand the conversations across borders; the challenges of making work in the Global South without the acknowledgement of the West; hierarchy of value surrounding art-making outside of the West; questions around the existence of cultural purity and authenticity; and fetishization of culture, leading to commodification. This event reflected the passion and commitment to work locally, which the different artist-run entities have in abundance. Important work is being done and the gaze of the West is shifting.

After the “Notions of Common/wealth versus Single/wealth” event, “Glasgow’s Finest” picked us up from David Dale, which is located on Broad Street in an area called Bridgton. As Barbadians, these names immediately resonated with us; Barbados’ capital city is Bridgetown and the main shopping street is Broad Street. We reflected on the historical practice of naming areas in colonies after familiar places in the “Mother country”, where any cultural autonomy is negated through the disavowal of indigenous knowledge and naming. It is striking that through conversations with Scots about the Commonwealth Games, it is assumed that the Games are not for them, that there is a disconnect, yet the Commonwealth is  actually as old Scots term, “Commonweal”, meaning “wealth shared in common for the wellbeing of all”[5]

These four interventions from the Fresh Milk platform will probably not last long, some weeks and maybe only days. Their transitory nature encourages an exchange of some kind, where King’s chalk mapping may end up “sticking to their shoes and hitching a ride”[6] . The fete posters will probably end up damaged by the elements, rain causing the ink to run and the paper to tear. Besides the possibility of them being ripped down and replaced, they may simply disappear and become invisible as people become accustomed to seeing them, fading into the landscape. It will be curious to see what happens to Williams’ billboards. Will they be defaced, torn or remain pristine?

Participating in this event, whilst opening the floor for conversations and questions to be asked, is an important activation, especially against the backdrop of the Commonwealth Games, where the notion of belonging still needs to be unravelled. The most recent summary of ethnic group demographics sites the percentage of ethnic minorities in Scotland to be 4%[7], but given the growing population of  immigrants in the city, perhaps before long “Glasgow’s Finest” really will be representative of the Commonwealth.

 Sources:

1. http://www.andywightman.com/?p=3852
2. Nunes, Mark. “Baudrillard in Cyberspace: Internet, Virtuality, and Postmodernity.” Style 29 (1995): 314-327.HTML
3. Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories, Verso Books, 1990
4. “Fetes” are parties held at a variety of locations in Barbados, from private homes, bars, nightclubs, to parks and beaches. They are rarely ticketed, usually inexpensive and often free. They can be hosted by anyone, who can secure the venue, organise the DJs and provide a bar to ensure the party is “HYPE”. “HYPE” is a colloquial phrase, meaning cool, fun or popular.
5. http://www.andywightman.com/?p=3852
6. http://markkingismarkings.com/
7. http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/People/Equality/Equalities/DataGrid/  Ethnicity/EthPopMig

Alberta Whittle

About Alberta:

Alberta Whittle is a Barbadian artist, currently based between South Africa, Glasgow and Barbados. She has undertaken residencies at CESTA (Czech Republic), Market Gallery (Scotland), Collective Gallery (Scotland), Fresh Milk (Barbados), Greatmore Studio and The Bag Factory in South Africa.

She choreographs interactive installations, interventions and performances as site-specific artworks in public and private spaces, including at the Royal Scottish Academy (Scotland) and has exhibited in various solo and group shows in Europe, the Caribbean and South Africa, including at the CAS Gallery, University of Cape Town in March 2013 and in ‘WHERE WE’RE AT! Curated by Christine Eyene in Brussels in June 2014. Her practice is concerned with the construction of stereotypes of race, nationality and gender, considering the motivation behind the perpetuation and the different forms in which they are manifested.

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