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Conversations with the Garnethill Displaced Residents Group & Centre for Contemporary Arts
on displacement following the fire at the Glasgow School of Art’s Mackintosh Building, 15th June 2018

I approached collating the experiences of residents and tenants from the recent GSA fire with anxiety. I had found little to account for the displacement of those separated from their homes and businesses. Dominant media narratives tended toward viewing this situation as an irreconcilable tragedy, honing in upon the loss of local heritage – notably felt by the institutional bodies represented by Glasgow School of Art (GSA) and Centre for the Contemporary Arts (CCA).  From further reckoning in conversations with CCA and Garnethill Displaced Residents Group (GDRG), I have since realised that displacement can take many forms.

What has been largely quantified as a ‘cultural crisis’ should instead be written as a serious failing to account for the assured safety and wellbeing of a community encompassed by the cordon – not consolidated into the intangible future of a single site, institution, or privately operating body. With that said, this is not a polemical essay. Several oppositional factors are at play when thinking through the meaning of ‘displacement’. No one perspective can singularly articulate those who displacement affects, how it is expressed, or how it can be resolved.

Freedom of Movement

Garnethill is a conservation area, but it is also a residential one. It is comprised of 13 offshoot streets and is encroached by four notable institutions; two of which have been new builds, sprung upon the hill in the last five years. Glasgow is known for its freedom of movement: the relativity of one place to another through its grid system, allowing for an easy flow of pedestrians and traffic. However, constant blockages by construction workers over the last 10 years have posed a tangible threat to this ideal of seamlessness within Garnethill.

Restrictions intensified when, in June of this year, a second fire decimated the Mackintosh Building. The resulting cordoning-off of Garnethill brought about a privileging of space. The cordon should have befitted tenants, residents, and institutions, all with an equal need to access the area. However, this portioning of ‘safe’ and ‘affected’ areas brought about by the cordon was of particular deficit of the local community, who were unable to access their homes and businesses for a ten-week period.

The issue of disabled access to the affected area was further intensified when overnight many tenants and residents found themselves separated from their homes for a ten-week period, without the chance to collect essentials. Those with disabled relatives had to be particularly resourceful in how they dealt with periods without access to the proper medication, implements or environment to nurture their loved ones. One family had to improvise to ensure that a relative with epilepsy was accompanied at all times because their medication had been left behind at their evacuated property. It is especially hard for families to be so consciously and consistently vigilant without the correct aids or support.

The restrictions of the cordon were made movable only for a select few – namely, the press. In this way, proximity to the Mackintosh was treated as a cultural currency that was manipulated to ‘sell’ headlines on the basis of this exclusive access, meanwhile failing to account for the crisis happening much closer to home. The morning after the recent fire, one member of GDRG was left rightly aggravated to find the established safety cordon had placed him at a removal from his house and work van. Media crews soon approached him, hearing that he was a displaced resident. Some minutes later, their discussion was cut short as the press dissipated into the cordoned area, outside the resident’s home, “with absolutely no safety gear on”. Residents were barred from entering into the press cordon. This is a frustrating example of the pedantic measures the press took to allocate prestige to the GSA’s plight over the equal loss of the residents.  The media went on to grant GSA representatives access to the Mack in order to give initial comment, while, access to the residents remained restricted. In fact, a lot of information surrounding access was either improperly communicated or was never passed on to the local community at all. Multiple narratives were at work, each with a different ‘story’.

Blockage of paths during the cordon prevented the safety of vulnerable individuals within the community, not only blocking freedom of movement within the cordoned area but creating narrow pathways with no clear exit or detours. This has not only caused unwelcome traffic – both pedestrian and vehicular – in the area but ultimately makes it more difficult to confidently navigate these home territories: for example, mothers with young children had been left with little option when encountering drunken or intoxicated individuals late at night.

On a human level, a neighbourhood should be accommodating; a welcoming atmosphere allows for the community to feel as though they belong. Freedom of movement is just one factor in which the needs of residents were not met after the Mack fire and ensuing cordon. These events have significantly altered the community’s perception of ‘belonging’ to the area, highlighting many disparities. Displacement can be felt perhaps most potently by minority groups within the Garnethill community, including the disabled and those with limited English comprehension.

On a comprehensive level, Garnethill should fulfill the needs of a community by way of facilitating open channels of communication. Council applications for funding for householders and businesses failed to acknowledge that a number of the affected parties have the ability to fluently speak, but lack comprehension of written, English. GDRG partially formed out of oral communication between residents, actively forming a channel of support designed to help those who were struggling to access funding applications or feeling overwhelmed at the prospect of having to deal with the verbose, complex language and instructions contained within them. In more serious cases, those with little to no spoken English were reliant on the resourcefulness of their peers to source translators. GDRG attribute this to an initial failure of Glasgow City Council to properly assess the needs of displaced tenants and businesses in the immediate aftermath of the fire.

‘Belonging’ may also point to an individual’s agency in the interpersonal network that forms a community. In Garnethill,  the community’s displacement was not only manifested in the physical repercussions of having been separated from their livelihoods, but in their mental state too. In a community meeting, one resident suffered a nervous breakdown when recounting her experiences. Another required counselling for PTSD and was left mentally and physically unable to face what was once her home, having to later draft in help when it came to packing up her possessions to leave her property. Returning to premises has been described as a “living hell”, with the mere sound of sirens posing as a triggering reminder of recent upheaval. On the whole, the unremitting consequences of the fire – be it damage to their property, financial, or the psychological fear of a similar incident happening again – has lost the community a few familiar faces: those who can’t or won’t return. These ramifications could have been prevented had the local community been better informed.

Vocational Identities

It was clear to me that many locational identities, on a number of different levels, have indelibly changed over the last three months. Both CCA and GDRG expressed that the ‘place’ of the institution and the community was under negotiation in light of their displacement. In this section, I will suggest that what were once stable, locational identities – grounded geographically, socially and culturally within Garnethill as a shared site – have become vocational ones, shifting under pressure to vacate homes and businesses.

GDRG were keen to emphasize that tenants were displaced, not homeless – separated from, but not without homes. One resident was forced to relocate 11 times. Displacement should be read with nuance. The handling of people should require sensitivity and an empathy for the care of the individual; not mere compliance with legislative restriction and spatial boundaries.

Homeowners fared worst through the crisis. Insurance claims lacked “evidence” – with no visible damage to their property – or required residents to move frequently. Alternative accommodation was often a short-term solution to a long-term problem, though those catered for under local housing associations (with Charing Cross Housing Association named as “heroes”) have fared better, as they were found longer-term temporary accommodation. Much of Garnethill has been subject to building works for the last 10 years; meaning that the Mack fire is only the latest in a number of constructions to hit the area, one in succession of the other. GDRG believe that planning permission has often been made without proper consultation of the local tenants, leading many to feel marginalized in their own homes.

Footfall on Sauchiehall St is believed to have fallen significantly, meaning those businesses with the means to reopen have faced a drop in custom. Some cannot afford to reopen: their overheads simply too high and the prospective drop in supply and trade too great.

Biggar’s Music represents one of the oldest retailers on Sauchiehall Street, having held a presence there for a hundred years until the cordon forced them to close and later relocate to other premises.  Many businesses still remain closed and face an uncertain future. Staff from GSA, O2 ABC and Campus – each with long-lasting damage to site – are said to have been forced into unemployment, with little communication about the safety or future of their positions. In a conversation with Ailsa Nazir and Viviana Checchia, it was put to me that these vacant lots may express opportunity for Sauchiehall Street to form new identities, beyond being a locus for nightlife and retail. Indeed, there have been reasonable attempts made by CCA to mediate communications between the public and private bodies involved.

CCA, aware of their traction in the media as an internationally-recognized institution, exercised their voice as a means to bring attention to the local area in which they operate. The mourning of the site and catastrophic press surrounding Garnethill’s continued closure, said Nazir, had forced the public to consider CCA’s importance to the city’s infrastructure. Moreover, artists resident in the community were made to feel a significant part of Garnethill’s continued legacy, particularly calling upon the CCA’s previous incarnation (operating as the Third Eye Centre) as an example; older generations identify with CCA as a call to remember the Third Eye Centre; demonstrating a continued warmth and affection for the institution as, as Nazir muses, ‘a place for everybody’. The rescheduling of parts of CCA’s programme in locations outside the city centre may have provided promotion for more peripheral venues but it did required that these vocational venues follow CCA’s ethos. CCA’s ‘open-doors’ policy means their venue is made accessible and open to all. CCA is a place in which artists and residents intersect; a space, on all of its four tiers, to meet, eat, exhibit, showcase and perform. As Ailsa Nazir expands:

So, initially there was some sort of tension in that we were giving people space for free and then other venues were thinking, ‘maybe this is a good opportunity to make money from the situation’, which was never going to be the case. Once people got their heads around that, there was still quite a lot of offers…

It takes quite a lot of time for people to understand what we’re doing, and we’re kind of always out there explaining it to people but this has really opened that up; because people have gone, ‘Oh yeah!’ All of this activity can’t take place without this venue being here; that has been a really valuable thing that has come out of it. You could lift this whole space and plop it down somewhere else entirely and it’d probably be okay, but I think the history here around Sauchiehall Street is now probably more important than it ever was. Our connection to the community is important, founding new friendships, new allies.

Displacement, in this case, proved a positive way in which to validate the presence of an institution in communicating a message of democracy. Nazir also infers the potential commodification of the situation, pointing to CCA’s intention to ensure the fair treatment of artists. Too often, displacement can lead to feelings of inadequacy met with anger. Similarly, GDRG did not want to be referred to as an ‘angry mob’. We too often dismiss feelings of resentment or disgust as being part of a polemical discourse – one that is not so much productive, but blood-hungry and motivated by positing blame. We too often believe that sharing these perspectives – among them our most honest and critical feelings – will be damaging to our reputation.  The conversations which have informed this article – the data it registers and deposits as ‘truth’ –  would have been impossible if not predicated on a mutual understanding of the recent displacement as a crisis; a crisis which had inspired the series of negative consequences aforementioned.

CCA have tried to positivise this ‘negative space’. This negative space may be expressed by way of Sauchiehall Street having been emptied of its businesses, the displacement of residents from their homes. This has required for their social engagement team to pay particular attention to the ecology of the local area, says Viviana Checchia:

We have had several projects engage the local community. Botanic Concrete is one of the best examples of this: the local demographic were divided into ‘residents’ and ‘users’, the place doesn’t just belong to those who live here, but also to the people who are using the area: we know we have a special attachment to Garnethill, which is unlike those who live here. Our investigations were formulated by the process of research, undertook to try and learn about Garnethill as Garnethill is now, and [utilised] imagination to create tools and methods for the re-engagement of the urban space.

Botanic Concrete is a project which engages the local Garnethill community to think more expressly of the multitude of ways in which the area is presented and percieved. At its core, the project intends to reconcile these different ‘visions’ of Garnethill into research projects which ultilize local interpretations as a first-hand resource, facilitating social engagement and functioning at the core of their exhibition programme. The principles of Botanic Concrete are currently being reconsidered as the ‘seed of an idea’ for future engagement of the Garnethill community since the crisis. This raises a potential for CCA to stand alone from the aggression continually felt toward the bureaucratic entities involved, including GSA. CCA are deemed to have suffered the same as their counterparts in the community. CCA had a major exhibition due to open the night of the fire that, until last weekend, had not been seen by a member of the public. This exhibition, entitled The Scottish-European Parliament, presents an autopsic vision of a Scotland connected to Europe by way of an imaginary parliament, run from a floating oil rig. Checchia believed that recent circumstances may well have a potential impact on the interpretation of an exhibition, pointing to the relevance of an immaterial architecture which no longer exists (such as the Mack). Research is one way in which the experience of displacement may well be quantified, collected, and made active. Part of CCA’s inherent functionality lends itself to the blueprint of its architecture: open plan and allowing for festival-goers, for example, to mill between screenings and studios: its café, Saramago, is often utilized as a break-out space to encourage discussion after events.

Perhaps this blueprint can lend itself to a way of establishing how space can be shared harmoniously in Garnethill. We should give opportunity for the pedestrian, the resident, the artist and the tourist to ‘greet’ each other; to face the council members, institutional faculty and construction responsible for their care. Accountability in the crisis fell merely to the individuals to look after themselves, under circumstances which were simultaneously preventable and deemed out of their immediate access. It is remarkably important that clear channels of communication between councils, institutions and public bodies are established in future, and that people act in line not necessarily with protocol, but with generosity and humanity.

Something must be said for CCA as it stands today: a visible landmark of Sauchiehall Street and of the wider Garnethill community. While director Francis McKee has worked hard to ensure that the Centre for the Contemporary Arts operates democratically, it is also a product of its environment: as much of the generosity and warmth of the local Garnethill community – a kind of folk who have beared witness to the best and worst of humanity in the last three months alone. Here’s to them.


With thanks to the GDRG and the staff at the CCA for giving their time.

Rachel Boyd was the co-founder of Glasgow City Arts and was the Art Editor for Glasgow Guardian.

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