erasing clouds

If rain contributes to social history: Interview with Sarah Lowndes

by anna battista

What do you do before going to visit another country? The first thing many of us do is buy a guide that tells you all about the place you're going to visit and make a note of all the things you want to see there. As you might know, though, there are too many guides, and often none of them suits you. One is too superficial, the other goes too in depth; one is focalising its attention only on museums, the other only on shopping. If you're going to Scotland and in particular to Glasgow very soon and you're looking for an alternative guide to the place, then you'd better also pack in your bag Social Sculpture (Stop Stop Publications) by Sarah Lowndes. The book is a history of the art scene in Glasgow, with an exploration of the literary and music scenes as well.

Sarah, who wrote it in two and a half years, started the book as an MPhil thesis at Glasgow School of Art, where she now teaches. "I describe the book in the introduction as a 'social history', partly because I think - I hope - it represents the intersection of various aspects of Glasgow's recent past, including politics, literature and history as well as the music and art scenes that are the main focus of the book," she explains. "I guess the main audience of the book is the people who were/are involved in the art and music scenes in Glasgow, but also people in other cities who are also trying to make something happen on a grassroots level. There are a lot of parallels between Glasgow and other post-industrial cities in the UK like Belfast and Newcastle. Similarly, I have taught students from places as different as Melbourne and Nantes - and they were engaged in similar activities to artists and musicians in Glasgow."

While researching for the book, Sarah did quite a few interviews with local people who have been involved in various scenes. "I interviewed around 50 people, but I also did a lot of less formal information gathering through conversation and observation," she says, "People were so generous with their time. In general I was keen to talk to women like curator Nicola White and Women's Library founder Adele Patrick who played a very significant role here but may not have featured sufficiently prominently in other available histories, also people like Craig Tannock, founder of the venue the 13th Note, and Billy Clark, former committee member of the gallery Transmission, who had some very interesting recollections that hadn't been recorded by anyone else."

Sarah moved to Glasgow in 1993, studied at the University of Glasgow and later set up the fanzine Swing, the club Stiletto and the shop/gallery Echo Park. I wonder if she feels the town is more creative now than it was years before. "There have been numerous independent projects and events in Glasgow since the '70s," she explains, "interesting things are still happening now but I wouldn't say Glasgow is more creative now than it has been at any point previously. There is more of an audience now for music and art coming out of Glasgow but that doesn't mean that the work being made now is any better than before - maybe the increased attention creates more possibilities. However, there is an atmosphere and attitude here that is very resilient and real and I think will outlast any hype that cultural commentators might want to heap on the city." So, what has Glasgow got that many other towns in Great Britain don't have, apart from its "atmosphere"? "A lot of rain, twice as much as Edinburgh," she jokes, "so we have to stay inside and make music and art to entertain ourselves!"

If you're looking for tips about the coolest places to see in Glasgow, then Sarah is the right person to ask for a little help: "The best galleries are Transmission, The Modern Institute, Switchspace, Glasgow Project Room, Mary Mary and Sorcha Dallas, a recently opened gallery which has held some great shows so far by Alex Frost and Craig Mulholland. For what regards clubs, well, now that I have a baby I don't get out so much but I used to love The Sub Club in Glasgow and Club 69 in Paisley. The best record shops here are Monorail and Rub-a-Dub; the best live music venues Stereo, Mono, King Tut's and Nice and Sleazy's; the best cinema the GFT - Glasgow Film Theatre - the only 1930s cinema still operating in Glasgow; and the best restaurants Mono, Sarti's in Wellington Street, Cafe Gandolfi and Rogano."

As we said earlier on, Sarah is at present teaching at the Glasgow School of Art. The best thing of her job, she states, are the students, but another thing must be the creativity: she's indeed started two new courses there, Do It Yourself and Performance Art. "The former has been running for three years and it's a course for 3rd year students, but it's open to the whole school," she explains, "I invite local creatives who have set up their own initiatives to talk to the students - previous speakers include artist Lucy McKenzie, the Transmission committee, Radio Tuesday founder member Duncan Campbell, Shadazz founder Luke Fowler, Beechnut Press founder and comic artist Marc Baines, pocketbooks founder Alec Finlay, The Modern Institute founder Toby Webster and Graven Images founder Janice Kirkpatrick. The other course started last year and is tied in with my current PhD research." The PhD is indeed Sarah's next big project after Social Sculpture, "I am currently a year into a PhD on LA based performance art from 1965-1975, looking at Chris Burden, Paul McCarthy, Bruce Nauman, Bas Jan Ader, Ed Ruscha and David Hammons," Sarah says, "Hopefully this research will come out as a book in the not too distant future."

There must be something special in the air in Glasgow, how else could you explain the creativity of so many bands, writers and artists all based there? I suppose the only way to discover Glasgow's secret might be to go there and have a look around, maybe using Lowndes' Social Sculpture as a guide.

Issue 25, July/August 2004

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