For the continued publication of critical writing and the essay form in Glasgow.
About Info, Contact  /  Contributors Text, Art  /  Programme 

Art Work / Hard Work:
an Exercise in Being Both

Site-specificity, locational identities and Glasgow International. Rachel Boyd talks to the In Kind project.

Site-specificity is a polyphonic term, taking on a number of meanings within the creative sphere. Site-specific work, by definition, utilises its immediate environment to retain its composition and meaning, as in the land art movement of the 1970s. In this essay, I will consider the notion of site-specificity in relation to Glasgow International; site-specific in that its authority and influence is derived from its location within the city.

The context of what is ‘site-specific’ is sometimes best articulated through an act of negation – a conscious resistance to the relative confines of a gallery, perspective or locale, unearthing repressed but important contexts for both artist and audience. According to art historian Miwon Kwon, ‘proper’ community practice disarms what that community believes itself to actively represent.|1|  Her writings on site specificity call for a radical reassessment of artwork and its locational context. Site-specificity is not only relevant to the material or geographical origins of an artwork, but to the community it addresses or involves. In the art-world, creative practices are mediated by our environments, whether they take on a natural appearance or not.

In thinking about Kwon’s definition of site-specificity and community practice, I will turn to Ailie Rutherford and Janie Nicoll’s contribution to this year’s Glasgow International: In Kind. The project investigated the accessibility of proper funding to artists – utilising their own funding to challenge the topography of GI ‘from the inside’. The data collected over the course of In Kind was then made subject to discussion: challenging the existing trope of exhibitions in failing to represent a given time or space.

Participants were asked to consider the number of unpaid hours they had worked in preparing for, travelling to and mounting the festival, as well as the total cost of their financial outlay, including transport and the cost of artists’ unpaid labour. The number of voluntary and unpaid roles in the arts raise some intriguing questions on how we value creative production versus other kinds of work, and in relation to the practice of others – including artists who may go unrepresented.

The anatomy of the artist in festivals like Glasgow International comes down to several factors. Each instance demonstrates both physical and theoretical constraints upon who can identify as an artist and which artists are deemed successful.

The belief in meritocracy, for example, belies not only a system of privilege, but also the way we negotiate a definition of success. We locate success just as we view an object in the context of a gallery – by seeking out in others what we aspire to in ourselves. Networking in the art world can also lead into self-sustaining practices with little outreach or audience beyond the known circles of influence. Success is accounted for by people we may know – the ready-made professionals – as much as it is a measure beyond an individual’s own capabilities.

The first concern is for locality. If the artist is a product of Glaswegian schooling or is indeed Scottish, this poses a ‘home-team’ advantage, ignoring the slippage of cultures, ethnicities and race which constitute identity. However, much of GI was comprised of an influx of artists from elsewhere. This fractures the site-specific nature of GI, while undermining the visibility of local projects in desperate need of the resources and support which the festival funding offers.

The second consideration is institutionalism: the artists ‘fit’ towards the market ethos of the festival. In other words, the individual acts as a marker of the creative currency of an event, an extension of their branding. For GI, the emphasis was most definitely on quantity: ‘Scotland’s largest festival for Contemporary Art’ comprised of 268 artists spanning 90 exhibitions; 80 events in 78 venues over 18 days. The sheer scale of the festival prioritises temporality over physical or conceptual resonance of an artwork, constructed as part of a ‘whistle-stop tour’ where individual efforts merge into one.

Curation is the third factor. Curation may enforce the idea of a temporal artwork, made to fit the paradigms of display. The identity of an artist within the context of GI is indirectly shaped by the exhibits within their vicinity. In some ways, group shows follow the same relational patterns which constitute ‘social reproduction’ (networking). Individual merit not only is justified through large-scale festivals, but locates itself through the authorised discourse. Their success is derived from the overarching authorised discourse created by the list of affiliated galleries, institutions and governmental bodies, each of which exerts control and influence upon the visibility of the artist.

The Barbican’s 2018 Panic! report has proven that the concept of a meritocracy (Hard Work + Talent = Success) generating employment in the arts is fatally flawed. The survey approached a variety of individuals working across the arts sector: in publishing, media, and theatre as well as the visual arts, to investigate patterns of inequality in the arts. The survey revealed that the arts privilege the white, middle class and male: hailing from financially secure backgrounds in which proper education, an expendable income and opportunities to network were most within reach. Those who attributed meritocratic values to their personal success were, on average, comfortably earning more than £50,000 a year|2|; most visual artists earn under £10,000.|3|

The data collected over the course of In Kind was made subject to discussion: facilitating a continuing dialogue which had the ability to transcend the facility of the festival. The information kiosk, site-specific to the context of Trongate 103, inspired discussions between the artist and audience in the context of In Kind’s ‘exhibition space’, as designated by GI. The kiosk represented data visually: each centimeter of a ball of string represented an hour’s unpaid work and an abacus using ping-pong balls measured the money spent which wasn’t covered by prior funding. These conversations continued in a series of panel events, hosted in CCA and again in Platform.

The results on the last weekend of GI demonstrated that individuals were subsidising more of the cost than Creative Scotland funding was covering.

Ailie Rutherford explained the statistics:

‘At the minute, that is at something around £260,000 for fifty artists. We had reached 31 participants the other day – that’s basically a tenth of the amount of artists we estimate are taking part in GI. If we multiplied that total by ten, the estimated cost of that was £1.6 million – which, bizarrely, is the exact same amount of money expected to come into the festival in revenue [from the previous festival, in 2016]. It is a total coincidence that these two totals came to the same amount. It does illustrate how bizarre and ludicrous these financial models are, and that they need to be restructured: it is absolutely related to what we do and don’t value.’

Success, In Kind concludes, is relative to visibility. The arts are in increasing danger of being entirely self-referential, refusing to account for the disabled, ethnic minorities or the vulnerable in failing to facilitate proper pay for artists. Rutherford continues: ‘One of the things we didn’t apply to Creative Scotland for was to provide expenses for an artist who might have a carer; we ourselves had been quite exclusionary over things we have not considered before...We are addressing these issues as white women, with hereditary prejudices and all kinds of bias which we ourselves don’t always realise we have. Ideally, you want to learn as you are working.’

The drive towards celebrity in funding applications demonstrates that cultural relevance is linked to financial worth. Furthermore, access to funding presumes the applicant’s access to materials and time before the application has even begun, or an exhibition made. In addition to charting the unpaid hours of GI participants, In Kind also accounted for the cost of materials which were not covered by funding.

For the underprivileged, exchanges of goods and materials are often reliant on the generosity of and support of one’s peers. Festivals, as temporal entities, prioritise the end product of an artwork over its means. Arriving there requires the capacity to work for free without obligation or restraint. Rutherford is quick to mention that the project has been a massive undertaking both physically and mentally, posing phenomenal strain on her family life. Both she and Nicoll are mothers: ‘Working unpaid is a form of self-exploitation; this does have a disproportionately negative effect on other people.’

The Panic! report, which launched concurrently with In Kind’s research into fair pay, also returns to the idea of which ‘types’ of labour quantify success. Some responses from those within the arts privileged ‘social reproduction over the meritocratic value of ‘hard work’ in achieving employment. These responses cited learned professions – lecturers, fellow artists, graphic designers – as within their social circles. Librarians, bus drivers and secretaries were least likely to be ‘known’ or mentioned.|4| This grants insight into how we view not only the production of a ‘successful’ artwork but its tangential relationship to types of occupation beyond creative or academic fields. Manual occupations are deemed less likely to confer creative ‘success’. Motherhood supposes another form of undermined labour which typifies personal worth.

Sekai Machache was one of the panelists involved in In Kind’s discussion, Who Can Afford to Be an Artist: Strategies for Survival and a fellow artist-participant in Glasgow International. Here, she recounts her individual experience:

‘I suppose it’s another economy that comes into the city. It brings in crowds from elsewhere, which can be a boon for the city. The artists invited from outside of the city who are well known tend to get the bulk of the funding because the city is seen to be benefiting financially and through publicity so it appears that the intention is for that to ‘trickle down’ or find its way to the artists and practitioners working within the city somehow. I feel that it was inevitable for us in particular to not be funded. I feel undervalued and underestimated in general as an artist who is both gendered as female and racialised as black and I’m sure I’m not alone in this feeling.

The immense amount of time, energy and personal funds that went into making the show aside, I do feel that I’ve gained something out of the experience. I’ve been confronted with and reminded of the reality of how difficult it is to work within the art market, period. I would say that it’s important, however for the people who organise events like GI to be aware of the economies that already exist within the city and to potentially create space for, or even establish a fund and provide resources that support less established, early career artists from marginalised groups to be involved in the festival. That could be a possible way for them [festival organisers] to find new ways to engage with the arts communities that are more neglected, thus locating themselves in a way that is seen to be at least mindful of their position of power and influence.’

There are a number of potential solutions which may help to alleviate the problem of unpaid labour. The introduction of Universal Basic Income is one way in which contemporary art practice could benefit from a more inclusive approach; dialogue poses another.

Universal Basic Income would mean that everyone, regardless of age, employment or circumstance, would be paid a weekly sum to maintain a basic security and ‘fulfill their creative potential’.|5| Interestingly, Basic income pilots – introduced by the Scottish government in late 2017 – have taken the form of small-scale community practices, in part inspired by the RSA (Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) and on a local level, pioneered by the Scottish Green MSP Zara Kitson.

The written and spoken word is becoming increasingly relevant in Glasgow’s art scene. Chloë Reid’s curatorial debut, To see this story better, close your eyes is worth mentioning: for the way it poses film in an arbitrary relationship to literature and the spoken word. Susannah Thompson has recently started a masters in Art Writing in the Glasgow School of Art, which supposes that the way we generate and interpret art work is becoming unfixed from the object-dominated practices of the past. In moving exhibitions away from showing singular art practices – painting, media, graphic design – we also transcend the privileging of status over the sharing and development of expertise. Current models for funding and grants require a certain degree of notoriety from the individual; in doing so, they discourage interdisciplinary activity such as residencies that span not only the duration of a festival, but over the longer-term – providing a mix of opportunities for artists early in their careers.  

The emphasis on a core project spanning festival programmes such as Glasgow International would not only reduce the mental and physical strain on the individual to produce such vast bodies of work, but challenge the site-specific nature of such projects. The site-specific art of the future may well not be based on the merit of entering into the greater networks and spaces offered up to us by institutions, galleries and learned professions. It may represent an art which speaks; not just one which is seen.

Miwon Kwon wrote, ‘Sometimes at the cost of a semantic slippage between content and site, artists who are similarly engaged in site-oriented projects, operating with multiple definitions of the site, in the end find their locational anchor in the discursive realm.’|6|

Community-led projects, reliant on a call and response between the artist and audience, are awarded spatial context in bureaucratic realms. A dialogic practice challenges the site-specific identity awarded by institutions like GI by undermining the long-assumed authority of ‘named’ artists. In turn, discussion and debate brings greater awareness of creative labour as process, facilitated by chains of exchange. Patrons, donors, lenders, family and friends each contribute to an artists’ development, in good faith and In Kind.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS    The author would like to thank Ailie Rutherford, Janie Nicoll (In Kind) and Sekai Machache, whose generous responses (both written and oral) have informed the framework of this article.

|1|Miwon Kwon. One Place After Another: Notes on Site Specificity, (October (8). Spring, 1997), 85-110.

|2| The Barbican. Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency: Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries.

|3| K. Goodwin. In Kind? artists call on rethink on unpaid art festival work., (Herald Scotland, 29th April 2018), Accessed: 6th May 2018, Available:

|4| The Barbican. Panic! It’s an Arts Emergency: Social Class, Taste and Inequalities in the Creative Industries., Accessed: 8th May 2018, Available:

|5| RSA. Annual Report: Creative Citizen, Creative State - The principled and pragmatic case for a universal basic income., (The RSA Website, 16th December 2015), Accessed: 26th May 2018, Available:

|6| Miwon Kwon. One Place After Another: Site Specific Art and Locational Identity. (Cambridge Mass.: MIT Press, 2004) 

Rachel Boyd co-founded Glasgow City Arts and edited the Glasgow Guardian.

Copyright Art Review Glasgow 2019. All Rights Reserved.