A Case for the Defence

image © Nathan James Page

image © Nathan James Page

We’ve all been to museums during busy periods, especially if travelling in tourist meccas like London or Paris, and we’ve all at some point therefore been intentionally or otherwise harassed by our fellow visitors. Not content to leave their ill will in the gift shop however is Time Out, who recently opted instead to express its grievances in an article called “Top Five Annoying People in Museums.” Museums if nothing however should be a forgiving environment, and as such I am compelled, despite my own frustrations at times, to make a case for the defence of Time Out’s selection of culture criminals.


The first on their hit list in is the ubiquitous “primary school gremlin.” I was fortunate in my childhood to have been regularly taken to the National Museum of Scotland by my parents, and it is undoubtedly these trips that have fostered my enduring love for it (and museums in general) to this day. Some children however are not so lucky, and it is important that primary schools act as a vehicle to introduce young people to museums. This is especially true of national institutions; they belong as much to them as they do to you. For as long as I live I will never begrudge a child, no matter how gremlin-like a visit to their museum. Besides, we’ve all been through primary school and most of us can testify that it was often the front-toothless scruff with the inability to blow his nose that became the brightest and best of their peers.


Second on the list is “the know-it-all” who, as Time Out put it, “like to spend long afternoons in museums imparting nuggets of wisdom on [their] specialist subject.” With this I can empathise, but it depends on the nature of your new acquaintance. The author’s real issue here seems to be with the pomp and pretence with which the “know-it-all” insists upon assisting. Remove these however and find yourself approached by a fellow visitor who is genuinely knowledgeable on a subject, with a desire to serve your interests rather than their own, then they will undoubtedly elevate your experience. We go to museums to learn after all, so why turn down the chance to do so?


I would instead warn against whom I’ll call “the fraud,” who masquerades as the “know-it-all” despite knowing little about the subject in question. An immediate example that springs to mind is the individual who once insisted to me that a Max Ernst painting we were looking at in the Peggy Guggenheim Collection was likely the work of famed art forger Wolfgang Beltracchi, despite my repeated attempts to inform him that the iconic collector was married to the artist for five years and was even suspected to be the subject of the piece. I later learned that a fellow colleague had an identical encounter with him elsewhere in the museum. Beware of the fraud.

Fake Max Ernst painting by Wolfgang Beltracci, titled La Horde (1927) © VBK Wien 2010

Fake Max Ernst painting by Wolfgang Beltracchi, titled La Horde (1927) © VBK Wien 2010

Number 3 on Time Out’s list is “the teenage sceptic.” This is an odd one but appears in the author’s estimation to boil down to a huffy high-schooler, more interested in girls than anything the museum has to offer. I actually think this is preferable to the pretentious philosophical sceptic the name suggests, deep in the midst of an existential crises or attempting to engage you in a needless discussion about whether anything in the museum is even there. Besides, if the lad the author is describing happens to take a shine to the girl in the museum then good for him, she has at least proven by her location to be interested in things other than herself, unlike the one whose “gym progress” selfies he spends all day “liking” on Instagram.


Lazily slotted in at number 4 is what Time Out has dubbed, “the cultural castaway.” This is essentially someone trying but struggling to learn in the museum and I fail to see how this can be annoying unless they are badgering you with questions. But why not then become the sincere informant discussed earlier, whose knowledge can elevate their overall experience that day? If you are equally at a loss then simply be polite. Nobody should ever be chastised for trying to educate themselves, especially when they are making use of a public service designed for that very goal.


Last in the firing line of course is that eternal scapegoat, the tourist. They have just as much right to attendance as anyone else though, being human beings as they are. Furthermore, many of them are just as represented by the museum as its native attendees. For example, despite its name, the British Museum considers itself a “museum of the world, for the world,” and its retention of contested objects such as the Parthenon Marbles and Benin Bronzes is predicated on the claim that it offers the best platform for the “world” to come and visit them. Tourists therefore are not just welcome, but they are necessary in order to justify the collection.


To be fair to Time Out, number five on their list is specifically “the tourist tool,” who spends their entire visit with their noses pressed into their cameras. On this issue I concede. There is no need to take photographs of literally everything on display, and to answer the question posed by the author: they are within their rights to do so, but no, it is absolutely not the best use of their time. Even so, that’s their prerogative. If I would make one request though it would be that they at least turn their devices to silent. Nothing sucks you out of a museum experience quite like an obnoxious cacophony of faux shutter sounds.


I do of course appreciate that there is no venom in the fangs of Time Out’s article, and that it is clearly just a bit of fun. However I feel it is important to re-establish that museums are intended to be fun too. Let people enjoy them.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 8.3.2016

KiM Review: Powering the Future – Glasgow Science Centre

image © Glasgow Science Centre

image © Glasgow Science Centre

This review was originally written for Kids in Museums and was published on 21.2.2016

Following on from the success of 2013’s Bodyworks, Glasgow Science Centre’s newest major exhibition Powering the Future opened in December last year. The show focuses on what is known as the “energy Trilemma,” a vicious circle whereby governments are struggling to find a solution to the demand for power that is cheap, plentiful and at the same time environmentally friendly.


The exhibition opens by questioning the visitor as to how the three needs of the “Trilemma” can be met in the future, with all subsequent content intended to help inform their answer over the course of their visit. As with other Glasgow Science Centre exhibitions, Powering the Future casts its visitor in the role of a scientist for the day, learning through as series of interactive experiments. Children and adults alike learn almost exclusively through their own actions, creating an immersive and engaging experience. As you would expect from its content, it’s a lively affair, with the noise of the exhibits and excited bustle of attendees creating a peculiarly harmonious cacophony.


This excitement is not without just cause however, as Powering the Future offers a number of unique experiences. Proving to be particularly popular is the “hurricane simulator” (a glass chamber that demonstrates the power of wind energy), a tank in which you can operate an AC-ROV (small remote control submarines used to assist drilling in harsh underwater environments), and the chance to launch a small rocket by fuelling it with user-generated hydrogen energy. This is an exhibition designed to appeal to kids and “big kids” alike.


Having said that, the content is a little more complicated than previous exhibitions. As such, there is noticeably more written text here than in other areas of Glasgow Science Centre and some of the topics and terminology may be difficult for particularly young visitors to comprehend. Never the less, our energy future is an important subject that children do need to engage with, and the exhibition does a good job of translating its themes into relatable activities for children. For example, a large “Scalextrix” style racetrack where each user has to generate the power for their car by using crank handles proved particularly popular. As did the “dance mat” style game that required a certain level of prolonged exertion in order to charge up first the music, then accompanying disco lights, and lastly a group “selfie” for all of those involved, rewarding them with a nice take-away memory of their day.


With the exhibition’s focus on fostering an understanding of the scale and effort of meeting the UK energy demand, it is very deliberately designed to leave the visitor exhausted by the end, so expect some weary scientists on the trip home. While we’re on the subject of responsible energy usage though, a trip to Powering the Future is undoubtedly just that.

SMF Blog: The Good, The Bad and The Untitled

image © National Galleries Scotland

image © National Galleries Scotland

This article was originally written for the Scottish Museums Federation blog.

The museum is one of the great educators; this has always been understood to be its primary function. Despite several pedagogical shifts over the 300 years since the first UK institution opened its doors (the Ashmolean in Oxford, 1683), the one typical constant has been the direction of travel in which knowledge and information is imparted, especially when it comes to children. In nearly all circumstances, learning is conferred from a knowledgeable adult upon a recipient young person, and understandably so.


There are occasional anomalies though. At the end of 2014 for example, the National Museum of Scotland hosted the exhibition Games Masters, where there was often an observable role reversal in which younger visitors who tended to be more familiar with the content, assumed the role of educator to their accompanying adult. This is why Bad Entertainment, which opened this month at the National Portrait Gallery is such a fascinating concept. The exhibition, a series of films and artwork created by artists as young as 12, puts young people not only in the position of communicating the museums content, but creating and curating it as well. The result however is a distinctly harrowing experience.


This is not a criticism. “Legitimately creepy” by its own admission, the show is also an incredibly astute and well-considered piece of work. Centred around the theme of “the actuality of everyday experience and the fantasy world of media culture,” the four films depict a nightmarish future in which masked youngsters appear to rage against the savagery and anti-socialised world that they find themselves a part of. The young artists collectively wash their hands of the responsibility attributed to them by the media for the growing culture of narcissism, where language is deteriorating and anti-social behaviour is on the rise, by suggesting that the media itself is to blame instead.

Bad Entertainment is a declaration from young people that today’s media culture is not a by-product of their behaviour, but is forced unwillingly upon them. Amongst the exhibition’s targets are the dual over-saturation and over-simplification of media via a television set that shows four channels of “scratch” videos, a relentless stream of over-stimulating and almost incomprehensible 4 or 5 second clips. By exclusively donning masks and referring to themselves only under the collective guise of The Untitled, the group also challenges conceptions of the current “Instagram-generation” as attention seeking and vain. Whilst there is also a resistance towards the over-selling that occurs in the consumer world, with an exhibited desire for honestly best exemplified by “Stone,” one of the props from the films, which is presented like art but labelled with the brief catechism: “What is this? A Rock. Describe it? Rocky. What does it stand for? Rocks. Is this art? No, it’s a rock.”


The Untitled are a group of young people who have seized the opportunity to inform not only their peers, but also their elders and the results are as effective as they are visually impressive. Demonstrably, despite what the exhibition portrays as a dumbed-down media culture and its resultant society, young people today are now better informed and more in-tune than ever, and credit to National Galleries Scotland for providing them with a platform to prove this. These young artists not only show that a reverse museum pedagogy, where education flows from the young to their elders is achievable, but is valuable too.


Through the horror, Bad Entertainment is actually a message of hope. A message from a self-aware generation, conscious of its own flaws but resistant too to a media culture they are unfairly blamed with demanding when they have done no such thing. It is a message from a generation who also fear a future where, “society has collapsed, language has collapsed. Everyone is a stranger,” but will not accept that as their fate.


The exhibition too gives hope to the museum itself. Bad Entertainment’s message is a vindication of their necessity and of their approach. Amongst the torrent of “scratch” videos and frustrated creations is a longing for the tranquillity, honesty and respect with which the museum communicates information, and for the breathing space and time that it affords reflection. The beauty of the exhibition is therefore twofold. Not only is Bad Entertainment good education, but it has also provided young people with the freedom to challenge and explore their fears in one of the few places they are not manifest.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 29.2.2016

KiM Review: Build It! – National Museum of Scotland

image © National Museums Scotland

image © National Museums Scotland

This review was originally written for Kids in Museums and was published on 11.2.2016

Nestled in a busy corner of the National Museum of Scotland’s famous Grand Gallery is Build It. Part of their 150th anniversary celebrations and in conjunction with the Festival of Architecture 2016, the exhibition is a celebration of the work of local artist Warren Elsmore and his works created from Lego. Additionally, as part f the show Elsmore and his team will be working every Wednesday and Friday on a huge Lego recreation of the museum’s iconic building.


The works on display vary in scale and feature renowned architecture from the ancient world, such as the Roman Colosseum and the Treasury at Petra, to the modern, including the Empire State building and the Auckland Sky Tower. Smaller works then champion some of the most recognisable sights in the world of design, from the London black taxi to the Venetian gondola, while written exhibition material includes brief but effective biographies of both Lego and the artist himself. Knowledge that a young Elsmore’s bedroom floor was permanently the site of a vast Lego city may vindicate many a messy young visitor.


Exhibited content here is minimal however, as the real focus of the show is children and engaging them creatively. Around 90% of the floor space is dedicated to “maker stations” offering families the chance to take inspiration from Elsmore’s art and come up with their own creations. There is even a display case where completed works can be left for others to admire. This is a particularly nice touch as I can think of few better ways to reward creativity than the ability to say it was displayed in a national museum.


display of visitor’s Lego creations – image © National Museums Scotland

The hands-on interactivity of the exhibition was a visible and audible hit with the busy chatter of youngsters, and parents will be pleased to find a bounty of activities and events planned for the half-term holidays. These range from “Challenge Days” that will test their construction skills through a series of fun architectural tasks, “Mini Mechanics” which will explore the science of pulleys, cogs and wheels using Lego and Meccano, and the “Big Build” which will help engage youngsters with the National Museum of Scotland’s collection by assisting it’s master builders in the Lego reproduction of some of the key objects.


The beauty of Lego as a subject is that it relates to everyone; it is as nostalgic to adults as it is current to their children. There are few people who cannot say at least one sentence of their childhood story is not punctuated by colourful Lego bricks. For every child building fond memories there were adults having just as much fun, and even if it’s not your thing, there are few places better to rest your feet for a while than the airy splendour of the museum’s panoptic Grand Gallery.


Perhaps Build It’s greatest asset though is in its scope for repeat visits. It is a truly organic exhibition and no two experiences will provide the same results, such is the magic of Lego. Unlike other temporary exhibitions at the National Museum of Scotland, Build It is free, and families should be encouraged to make the most of this. Above all, the ability to track the progress of Elsmore’s live construction of a Lego National Museum of Scotland building will be fascinating. Having only been open a few days at this point, only a select number of foundation bricks have been laid down, but the sheer scale of the model promises it will be just as interesting at its various construction stages as it will be awe-inspiring in its completion.

Keeping Up Appearances

Artist's sketch of new Chambers Street piazza - image © National Museums Scotland

Artist’s sketch of new Chambers Street piazza – image © National Museums Scotland

2016 marks the 150th anniversary of Edinburgh’s National Museum of Scotland, and the institution is gearing up for landmark year of events in celebration of this milestone year. Programming will include the first ever exhibition to fully examine the history of Celtic art and identity, exhibitions on primates and fossils, and a celebration of the Lego creations of local artist Warren Elsemore, which will include a recreation of the original 19th century Royal Museum of Scotland building. Additionally, the second phase of renovation work (the first completed in 2011, seeing the creation of 16 new galleries) will be completed by the summer, providing the museum with 40% more floor space in which to exhibit its magnificent collection.


With this bounty of new gallery space, carved out of previously hidden areas of the building, it is understandable that some may question why the museum also needs the creation of a new piazza outside its Chambers Street entrance, which will rob the thoroughfare of around 50 parking spaces in a city centre that badly needs them. Work is already underway though, with the statue of 19th century Lord Provost William Chambers already temporarily relocated to facilitate the works. While the piazza’s creation may be contentious, and its necessity hard to gauge, it may prove to be one of the most important renovations the museum will see this year.


While the old Royal Museum building is undoubtedly a masterpiece of Victorian era architecture, it is now 150 years old and the role of the museum is now far removed from what it would then have been. The National Museum of Scotland’s panoptic style grand entrance hall is characteristic of them time, the British government built a similar structure at Kilmainham Gaol in Dublin just five years earlier. The intent being that the full-length glazed ceiling would act as a “window to heaven,” placing the prisoners at all times under the watchful eyes of god in an attempt to reform them.

Left: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Right: National Museum of Scotland - images © Barry Mason, National Museums Scotland

Left: Kilmainham Gaol, Dublin. Right: National Museum of Scotland – images © Barry Mason, National Museums Scotland

Its use in Edinburgh was in a similar vein. The Victorian museum was cast in the role of social reformer as well; the idea being that they provided the “cultureless” lower classes of the time with an opportunity to improve themselves through an association with art and objects that were better they were. Early museum architecture all over the world reflects this, generally very deliberately designed with an entrance atop at flight of steps, and with a domed ceiling inside which aimed to place the visitor in an advanced position between the heavens and the earth, where it was considered the objects on display belonged. The old Royal Museum building follows the model exactly, when it opened its doors in 1866 the seventeen steps that led up to them literally placed the museum and its collection above the people.


The role of the modern museum however is far removed its 19th century counterpart. No longer to be perceived as a near-celestial treasure trove, tasked with dragging people (fortunate even to be let in) up to its level, the 21st century museum is understood to be a public collection, in service to them. It is an entertainer and above all an educator, and as such it is essential that every institution is accessible, relatable and approachable.


The National Museum of Scotland’s 2011 refurbishment made significant changes to achieve this, most obviously through its redisplayed galleries but also through a subtle architectural change too. By moving the doors to the museum away from the top of the entrance stairs to two unassuming glass ingresses at either side, the psychology of the museums façade was vastly improved without any compromising of its grandeur. The museum and its collection are now returned to the same level as the public; we are equals, as we should be.


A piazza will be the next important step in achieving the sense of “openness” that museums should be striving to instil. While museums of course no longer view themselves as such, some public perception of them as highbrow and unapproachable is still an issue. The National Museum of Scotland is particularly challenged architecturally, as most large museums in Europe afford the visitor the ability to fully encircle them (British Museum, Louvre, even Kelvingrove) in order to obtain a sense of perspective. The Edinburgh museum however has peculiar sense of fortification, visible from only two sides and badly hemmed in by the clutter of Chambers Street at the front. A piazza will now not only allow the building space to breathe, but it will breathe life out into its environs. Providing space for art and entertainment, the museum will achieve an important state of cultural osmosis, with activity flowing out into the street as easily as people now flow into the museum from it.


This issue of “openness” is important and museums all over are struggling to tackle it. Amsterdam’s city council for example opted to retain the cycle path that runs through the centre of the Rijksmuseum in 2013, despite condemnation from some curators, and the British Museum is much maligned by the lack of welcome bestowed by its austere façade (I attended a debate regarding this in 2014). The National Museum of Scotland is fortunate in the changes that it has been able to make without compromising the aesthetic of the original building. Although they may be too small to appear of any significance, they are vastly important. The museum’s building is set to become a perfect fusion: its heritage safely preserved whilst eliciting a clear understanding of its modern role within society. In its very bricks and mortar it will be shining example of everything that is expected of the museum of today.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 5.2.2016

Useful Work vs. Useless Toil


The Turner Prize 2015 exhibition drew to a close this week at the Tramway gallery and there is no doubt it has been a great success for the city of Glasgow as much as for worthy winners, Assemble. The show brought a record number of visitors to the venue, increasing its local influence and improving its stature and reputation further afield.


It also did an excellent job of engaging the city’s residents, both through Tramway’s complementary in-house programming, and across Glasgow itself. A fine example of this being the establishment by residents of the Pollokshields Playhouse, a community arts space in the formerly derelict site across from gallery itself. The exhibition also facilitated the return of the Assemble group to their continuing project in the east end, an adventure playground for children on Baltic Street, begun in 2014 with funding from the Commonwealth Games. The positive legacy the Turner Prize exhibition leaves Glasgow is clear, however it is the effect it will have on its eventual winners that is most intriguing.

Pollywood cinema at the Pollokshileds Playhouse - image © Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra

Pollywood cinema at the Pollokshileds Playhouse – image © Glasgow South and Eastwood Extra

The announcement on the 7th of December last year that the judges had plumped for Assemble to receive the £25,000 prize was a splash with powerful ripples. The key talking point was that Assemble were the first “non-artists” to win the award. Assemble consists of individuals with varying skills, but predominantly come from an architectural background and by their own admission much of the group do not consider themselves an art collective. This of course provided commentators with both cultural and economic concerns.


From an economic standpoint, being non-artists the collective are the first winners to consciously ignore the art market. Assemble’s portfolio is a collection of in-situ community projects, created collaboratively with the people who reside in them. They are therefore, not for sale. Rather than the Turner Prize being a launch pad to fame and fortune, Assemble instead, as they freely admit, saw the exhibition as a perfect opportunity to promote the catalogue from their Granby Workshop. The workshop is part of the Granby Four Streets project in Toxteth, Liverpool that lead to their Turner nomination, and sells handmade homeware created under Assemble’s supervision by the local community. The exhibit created by the group at Tramway was not so much an artwork as a showroom; a physical catalogue to peruse. This is a catalogue however that just won the Turner Prize, and anyone with as little as £8 at their disposal can purchase a piece.

Assemble exhibit at Tramway - image © Murdo MacLeod (Guardian)

Assemble exhibit at Tramway – image © Murdo MacLeod (Guardian)

From a cultural perspective though, Assemble’s non-artist status is blamed by some as the reason for their inability to communicate the social context within which their work is placed. All across the UK families are being torn apart as local councils are being forced to sell off their social housing stock to private developers who replace them with expensive new properties. While a small information panel in their corner of the exhibition explains some of plight of the residents of Toxteth, and Assemble’s work to help the community there, their exhibit in its manifestation as a bespoke home furnishings showroom did little to highlight what is a far wider issue.


My concern is that the excellent work that Assemble is doing does not become hindered by a convergence of these economic and cultural peculiarities. Whilst it is admirable to see creatives ignore the lure of the art market and its stratospheric sums, Assemble’s abstention from it assumes that the art market too wishes to ignore them. I am not suggesting that a simple Turner Prize win will put million pound price tags on everything the group have ever touched, but it will certainly raise the prestige value of owning them. Assemble will need to be careful that any perceived financial value in their output does not negate its good intent, especially if they do not improve their ability to communicate the social context that their work engages with.


The social housing crises affecting areas like Granby Four Streets for example has been described as “social cleansing dressed up as gentrification.” Oppositely, Assemble do not want to appear complicit in this by having their excellent work in these communities misconstrued as gentrification as well. The worst thing for them would be for 10 Houses on Cairns Street to become viewed as “Turner Prize winning properties,” or the art and studio spaces they have created as Durham Wharf and Sugarhouse as harbingers of the bourgeois bohemian economies that have overtaken other formerly lapsed areas of London.


The solution is simple though, Assemble merely have to assume a more conscientious responsibility for their brand. Whether they consider themselves artists or not, they have just been awarded the most famous art prize in the UK. Assemble’s victory owes surely to its clear echoes of the utilitarian principles of William Morris in the unending usefulness of their artfulness. However, as Morris once wrote, “History has remembered the kings and warriors, because they destroyed; art has remembered the people, because they created.” They can protest, but Assemble have had “art” conferred upon them. They must now accept the responsibility of remembering the people who have helped them create, and specifically, why.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 22.1.2016

The Desired Effect?

Artist Ellie Harrison

Artist Ellie Harrison

Now is the winter of our discontent, and didn’t we welcome it with open arms and furiously typing fingers. Facebook’s Glaswegian contingent was gleefully disgruntled yesterday. Nothing of course warms the cockles, or knuckles at the least, like hammering your frustrations into your keyboard amidst the latest social media outrage. The response to artist Ellie Harrison’s year long “action research/durational performance” piece has been simmering since the Facebook event advertising it first appeared, but boiled into a full blown chip-pan fire on Monday. So, what’s the problem?


The problem is that that the project is most succinctly described as, “the artist will spend an entire year living in Glasgow, unable to leave, and will be publicly funded for the privilege/burden,” delete as appropriate. The root of the problem however is the Facebook event being used to promote it, which is either naively or deliberately fostering this understanding of its premise. The reaction to this pertains to two incendiary elements. Firstly, people are offended at the suggestion that confining herself to Glasgow amounts to some great of feat of survival, like Will Smith in I Am Legend but with a better donkey impression.

The Glasgow Effect event page on Facebook

The Glasgow Effect event page on Facebook

The event page does nothing to help this, painting the endeavour almost as a battle against inevitable declining health. The chosen feature image of loads of greasy chips is crass, but it’s the name of the project, The Glasgow Effect that is particularly troublesome. The term of course is already used to refer to the peculiarly poor health and high mortality rates of the city’s population compared to elsewhere in Europe. To use it as the name for the project seems devoid of any logical consideration. Picking a phrase out of the history books and re-appropriating it because the individual words are relevant is dangerous if you haven’t properly considered their combined meaning. It’s like doing “action research” into the optimum concentration of diluting juice and calling the project The Final Solution.


The other prompter of public ire is that the project is being funded by Creative Scotland, meaning people, not incorrectly, feel the money is coming straight out of their own pockets to pay someone to do what many of them already have, not leave their home city for a year. It comes across like some clever conceit by the artist to acquire a sort of “creative” dole money, receiving a better-than-minimum wage salary to do what ostensibly looks like nothing. Whether you view the project as a privileged outsider being parachuted into the city on a “poverty safari,” or just an elaborate benefit scam, it’s offensive.


But people are quick to take offence, because deep down we find a perverse satisfaction in the camaraderie of a mass social media outrage and are always tacitly seeking an opportunity to turn our keyboards, like Bluetooth pitchforks towards the next deserving culprit. Harrison has given people little choice in this instance though; the magnitude of the backlash towards her project is testament to how badly she has explained it. The Facebook event that attempts to do so contains three paragraphs, and the first and the third are toxic. Sandwiched between the sections about simply not leaving Glasgow for a year and who is paying for it is a second paragraph that attempts, half-heartedly, to flesh out the concept. The trouble is, you can take the finest, tastiest ingredients in the world, but place them between two mouldy bits of bread and nobody is going to swallow it.


But then it’s hardy haute cuisine in the middle either. Harrison’s description of the event is vague and uninspiring. The crux of it appears to be to ascertain if living in Glasgow will have any visible effect on her output, but living here puts little to no strain on her as an artist. It’s a post-industrial creative hub, and materials and inspiration are impossible not to come by. We’re not short of examples of the city’s effect on artists work anyway, be it in it’s Art Nouveau architecture, the Glasgow Boys and Girls or the current Gallery of Modern Art exhibition showcasing works from prominent Glasgow School of Art alumni.


The only glimmer of hope exists in the phrase “encouraging her to seek out and create local opportunities.” There is a suggestion here that her work may involve engaging local communities in the arts in some way but it is far from explicit enough to make any assumptions. Arts funding is subject to two public pressures: the economic right, who demand value for the money spent, and the cultural left, who demand some form of societal benefit from the output. When you filter through the cheap jokes and pontification in the responses to her chip-emblazoned Facebook event page, Harrison’s project is being squeezed like a clogged artery from both sides.


To compound matters, if some sort of community engagement was to be her saving grace here, she has already failed at her first attempt. Social media is an incredibly important tool for interacting with audiences these days and not to show it due diligence can be damaging. Just look at the mess she’s made. It is better to forfeit the exposure social media can give you than to make an uncommitted attempt merely for appearances sake.


I am inclined however to give her the benefit of the doubt. It is entirely her fault that a lack of details about the project has met her with such contempt but someone at Creative Scotland, wrongly or otherwise, has seen value in the idea and I’d like to give her the chance to properly share it with us. To be fair, if one of her strategic aims was to gain a better understanding of the city then she’s learned a valuable lesson already. To make allusions to poverty and hardship whilst “challenging” herself not to leave the city was stupid. To claim receipt of public funding without explaining what it’s actually for, in a city troubled by poverty and hardship was stupid. The chips thing was stupid. But this is all just bad social media, and hopefully the project itself, when less lazily communicated is of some value. Unless of course the event page was deliberately antagonistic, and the real “durational performance” art here is to survive for a year in a city that hates her guts? But that’s really stupid.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 5.1.2016

Art Bull

image © The Red List

image © The Red List

A woman got stabbed at Art Basel Miami Beach, and people thought it was performance art. A woman got stabbed, gruesomely, in the neck and the arms, and witnesses thought it was art. It bears repeating for the absurdity of the sentence. So much so that when I first read it my fine-tuned Facebook feed scepticism was hard pressed not to dismiss it as the ubiquitous spoof news-du-jour. It’s hardly surprising so many people continue to be fooled by faux-news sites when the genuine articles are now just as ridiculous. Joel Golby of Vice.com this year declared, in the wake of those bizarre front page allegations regarding David Cameron and a certain piece of dead livestock that if the news is now this silly, “satire is dead.” If he was wrong, this headline is surely a further attempt on its life.


Art Basel is one of the world’s leading modern and contemporary art fairs. It has been operating annually for 45 years in its namesake city in Switzerland, and has also been staging events in Florida’s Miami Beach and Hong Kong since 2003 and 2011, respectively. While it is undoubtedly every artist’s goal to be the hot topic of conversation coming out of the event, nobody in their right mind could have imagined they would be so horrendously upstaged.


While art is intended to provoke emotional responses, murderous rage is not generally one of them and historically has been backed at least, yet still unjustifiably, by a political or ideological grievance when it does. This however was no Nazi response to “degenerate art” or an incendiary reaction to a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad; it was a woman stabbing another woman for bumping into her in a crowd, the works on show had nothing to do with it. The craft knife wielding, and reportedly unrepentant Siyuan Zhao’s murder-attempt was artless both in its execution and its context. This could have happened anywhere, but it has rocked the art world none the less.


It is the supporting cast of onlookers though who elevate the story from scandalous to absurd. Some of them really did think they were witnessing a piece of performance art; they even thought the police tape was an installation. You could genuinely feel the distain dripping from the media headlines as they incredulously reported, “Witnesses thought it was art.” After all, to repeat the phrase used earlier, nobody in their right mind could have imagined the art actually on show would be so horrendously upstaged.


But some people did, and on reflection, to question their state of mind may be unfair. To observe art, especially contemporary requires a different state of mind than to that of ordinary life. One that specifically harbours an expectance of the unexpected. In performance art, if the intent is to shock, then surprise is surely the key. Take some of the most iconic scenes in film history: the Alien exploding through John Hurt’s chest, Linda Blair vomiting on Father Karras in The Exorcist, or the children in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory’s first glimpse at Gene Wilder’s “chocolate room.” In all of these scenes the actors involved were kept in the dark about what was actually going to happen, and the genuine reactions they elicited are what made them so effective.

Alien - image © 20th Century Fox

Alien – image © 20th Century Fox

The headlines portray the onlookers as idiots; like docile consumers so intent upon being seen to “get” any and everything an artist confronts them with that their basic senses are dulled to clear and present danger. But as dreadful as Siyuan Zhao’s inhumane attempt at murder would have been as a staged piece of art, it is surely only humane to have assumed that this is what it was. The reality is more absurd than the assumption.


It’s a shame. At the risk of sounding faint in my damnation, Siyuan Zhao ruined it for everyone. Ruined not just the event, but the reportage surrounding it too. Prior to the incident, there was a valuable and necessary discourse occurring around the negative impact of artist narcissism, of the influence of ultra-wealthy collectors and the general behaviour of their similarly entitled peers. Now, it’s all about a headline. A headline that is not merely absurd, but actually reverses the entire dialogue, villainising ordinary people instead. The headline paints the everyday art enthusiasts as a sort of full-spectrum art version of “Black Friday” shoppers, frothing in impudent rage at one end, brain-dead conformist consumers at the other.


This story hasn’t “killed” satire. Look past the headline and not only is the requisite humour not there, but the facts to support the sensational headline aren’t either. Yes, the stabbing was horrific; yes, some people thought it might have been staged. But it wasn’t then met by a clamour of morons declaring it a visionary masterpiece. It was simply an unbelievable incident with a believable alternative explanation. Siyuan Zhao is to be tried for attempted murder, and here’s hoping her actions also failed to kill what should be the real talking point from Art Basel Miami Beach, an art fair that was being ruined by elites long before her moment of madness.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 9.12.2015

What’s In-Store, Glasgow?

Kelvin Hall - image © Page\Park Architects

Kelvin Hall – image © Page\Park Architects

While the atmosphere in museum circles prior to George Osborne’s budget last week was tinged with a distinct air of impending doom, one which is unlikely to have alleviated in smaller regional museums, there was at least some good news. The decision to retain free entry to national museums undoubtedly was the most important, however the most intriguing was a further commitment to public access to some of the UK’s finest collections. In his statement, Osborne pledged £150 million to allow for the construction of a new state-of-the-art storage facility to rehome the hidden collections of the British Museum, Science Museum and V&A. This will not only improve conditions for the objects, but for people too, providing the public with access to their national treasures without having to wait patiently for an exhibition to reveal them.


In Scotland we are ahead of this game already. The Glasgow Museums Resource Centre (GMRC) has been operating for several years now, allowing the public to make appointments at their leisure to view its collections, and the National Museum of Scotland opened a similar site in Edinburgh this year. There are some who argue that accessible storage is not the answer however, and that national museums should improve the visibility of stored treasures by loaning them to smaller museums in need of fresh attractions. Steven Parissien for example, director of Warwickshire’s Compton Verney gallery this week accused London’s national museums of “cultural colonialism” in their hoarding of stored masterpieces.

Visitors at GMRC - image © Glasgow Life

Visitors at GMRC – image © Glasgow Life

There are few who would refute the argument that a loaning of these objects to smaller institutions would be desirable but the reality is that this is not always possible. Some museum objects are stored rather than publicly displayed because they have stringent conservational requirements, while some others are set aside as research material. In some cases objects can be caught up in red tape making them ineligible for display. Glasgow’s Burrell Collection for example was famously trapped in storage purgatory for 39 years due to William Burrell’s problematic bequest that his treasures be given to the people of the city, but couldn’t be displayed within it.


The chief reason larger museum services have so much in storage however is that the collections are simply that vast. Glasgow’s flagship museum Kelvingrove Museum and Art Gallery, even with its cavernous interiors and “salon-hangs,” can only host 8,000 of the 1 million objects in the city’s public collections. Even with a further eight museums across the city exhibiting from the same resource pool, less than 1% of this collection is on display outside of the GMRC. Glasgow Museums could fill all the smaller museums in its vicinity and its need for storage would remain unchanged.


This is why the Kelvin Hall Project is so exciting. Set to open in the summer next year, “Phase 1” of the initiative will see the historic venue re-open as a “centre for cultural excellence,” housing publicly accessible collections for The Hunterian, Glasgow Museums (from remaining non-GMRC stores) and The National Library of Scotland, alongside extensive teaching facilities. Additionally, the site will feature areas for objects to be conserved in public view, beginning with the Charles Rennie Mackintosh-designed suite from Mrs Cranton’s Ingram Street Tearooms.


Belgium’s Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp is one institution that has mastered the idea of accessible storage. Opened to the public in 2011, the galleries and storerooms are housed in the same building, with visitors free to transition between both at their leisure. The storerooms function in essence like an extension of the museum, with everything made visible, merely without the flair or interpretation of that which is officially exhibited. This gives visitors a unique opportunity to really engage with the artworks or themes that inspire them by allowing them to immediately discover similar or related objects. In addition to this, the storeroom also seeks to educate visitors about conservation and its other primary functions.

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom - image © Filip Dujardin

Visible storage at Museum aan de Stroom – image © Filip Dujardin

Kelvin Hall will share many of Museum aan de Stroom’s attributes. Its public conservations and easy-to-access objects being key, but it is its location that is most desirable. While the GMRC is a little out of the way, Kelvin Hall is directly across the street from Kelvingrove, and following the completion of “Phase 2” of the project, will also house the exhibited collection of The Hunterian (currently displayed across Glasgow University). Following this, The Hunterian would have the ability to emulate Museum aan de Stroom entirely, with only one set of traffic lights preventing Kelvingrove from doing likewise.


It is in this period between Phase 1 and 2 of the Kelvin Hall Project that I often worry about public perception of what it actually is. Making the collections accessible is one thing, getting the public to understand the endeavour is another. While an incredible resource in its own right, prior to the completion of Phase 2, Kelvin Hall will function best as an incredible supplement to Kelvingrove Museum, and I hope the public appreciate this; my message to them when it opens next year is simply, use it. Few museums in the world can offer so much of their collections in one place like that; I very much doubt Osborne’s new storage centre in London will be particularly close to its national museums (which are already half an hour from each other). Those stores will make hidden treasures visible if you make time to seek them out, Kelvin Hall meanwhile, will have brought them to you.

This article was published by The Scotsman on 01.12.2015