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Remember the Demolition

Lilt, Twang, Tremor | The CCA, Glasgow | 18th November 2017  - 14th January 2018

‘Remember the demolition. It haunts it. The suspended slum. Then the rising dust and accelerated, obscene blossoming. We’d gone there that day, September 12th, 1993, because we thought we’d bring an end to it. The compulsion to return to those empty blocks. The retreading and circuiting of muddy tracks. From outside it looked monolithic . Hutchesontown C. A brooding slab marooned in the shifting sediments of the Gorbals.’

Laura Oldfield-Ford (2017) (transcribed from the sound installation, Radical Futures)

Recalling the demolition of Hutchesontown C, a series of brutalist high-rises located on the periphery of Glasgow’s city centre, artist Laura Oldfield-Ford remarks on the haunting quality of the ruin in the developing story of urbanisation in Glasgow. This was one among many important issues to arise from the discussion (Who Speaks? Who Listens?) staged between Oldfield-Ford and feminist philosopher, Nina Power, this December. Accompanying the opening of the exhibition Lilt, Twang, Tremor at the CCA, the talk interrogated the violent effect of urban development and the subsequent impact this has on our experiences of the city. Played at the beginning of the talk, Oldfield-Ford’s sound installation, Radical Futures, highlights the voice in particular as an overlooked site of political urgency. Retold through anecdotes from former residents of Hutchesontown C, Oldfield-Ford drifts through parts of the south side of Glasgow - offering, at one stage, the promise of utopia. Originally built as a solution to the unsanitary and cramped living conditions of the old Victorian tenements, the demolition of the high-rises represents the ruination of a postwar vision of modernist utilitarianism. Wherever you go in the city there are echoes of this lost future.

Together with Nina Power, Oldfield Ford—and the correlating exhibition at the CCA—raises important questions around the placement of the voice and the ways in which it intersects and impacts the urban environment. For Power, the omnipresence of the ‘voice’ becomes a governing factor in the city. The lives of city dwellers are drenched in pre-recorded, robotised and disembodied voices, tailored to a variety of cultural and economic commands. The ‘politics of pitch’, as Power suggests, are at work in the use of soft female voices at transport hubs and supermarket machines, masking a deeper authoritarian threat. The gendering of power, in this way, reveals further concerns about how people react to the female voice in public. For instance, Power refers to the notion of ‘soft coercions’ in which female voices are seen as being less likely to be associated with authority; as such, public announcements which require general compliance, are more likely to work if they are ventriloquized by the ‘softly coercing’ feminine voice. In this way, the city stages the dissociation of voice from body—resulting in voices without bodies (voiceovers, machines, computers) and bodies without voices (billboards, posters).

These concerns find physical form in the exhibition Lilt, Twang, Tremor. Echoing Power and Oldfield-Ford, Scottish artists, Susannah Stark, Sarah Rose and Hanna Tuulikki explore the application of the voice in different spaces, such as: the Greek Agora, a Hebridean island, the interiors of luxurious apartments and the city of Glasgow. Sarah Rose chooses to exhibit a film from Glasgow’s archives, No End in Sight (1971),  which provides a speculative account of what city life might be like in the 1980’s. Significantly, Rose gestures towards the recently published collection of essays The Right to the City (inspired by French Marxist philosopher Henri Lefebvre) in which contemporary issues around the enclosure of public spaces into privatised zones are examined. Who has the right to the city is a pressing question; the collection of essays explore the urgent demand for a voice of protest, and its need to challenge gentrification in urban space, and the privatisation of public space. Additionally, the essays discuss the demand for public spaces to accommodate self expression. Dominating the exhibition, meanwhile, Susannah Stark’s sculptural assemblage, Agora of Cynics, places the spectator within an immersive soundscape. Collaborating with Reggae musician, Donald Hayden, we can hear disjointed rhythms of reggae beats layered with a robotic female voice spouting fake public announcements. Echoing Nina Power’s observations, the voice in Stark’s installation appears to be mocking the saturation of the female voiceover in urban spaces. The combination of reggae and robotised voices elicits a feeling of uneasiness, distorting what it means to be in a public place. In an interview with Stark, the artist comments on the vibrant reggae scene in Glasgow and how the energy of voices which grow from such a context can convene in public spaces, and contribute to shaping cultural movements. On top of this, the soft greek agora columns - with their digitally printed, stone-like surfaces - are scattered with unsettling, cartoon-like faces. Made from vinyl and foam, and presented in varying states of collapse, the soft sculptures seem to be commenting on the unstable structures of political engagement in the 21st Century. Basing her columns on a greek architectural agora, Stark seems to play with the political heritage of public space, drawing from her uncanny sculptures a space for assembly, a platform for public speech. The overall effect is disorientating, ‘out-of time’, as if relics of an old world have been cut out of their proper place, and their purpose reimagined from places of free speech to historical artefacts.

Stark’s ancient Greek structures hold a particular cachet with the facade of history peculiar to Glasgow. In the selective preservation of heritage sites, a narrative of the city is created, fabricating or obscuring certain aspects of the past and present. An example of this might be the origin of the neoclassical GOMA, originally built in the 18th century for William Cunninghame, a prominent Glaswegian tobacco merchant. Raised on the profits of the tobacco industry, the construction of the celebrated arts venue was complicit in an industry cultivated by slavery. There are layers of accident, prejudice, improvisation and unpredictability missing from our vocalisation of the city in this way. In particular, Walter Benjamin refers to a porous layering of history which defines urban environments: ‘a spatial metaphor for time in the city for the variety of temporal dimensions embedded in physical space.’ This debris reflects an accumulation of time, revealing the transience and instability of urban and social form. Here, Benjamin touches on the ruin and the city’s tendency to gather failed architectural forms. The GOMA has not failed in its physical form, on the contrary, it is a well-preserved monument, however, its beautiful facade hides an ignominious history. Nevertheless, the attraction to ‘the ruin’ as an aesthetic trope has been the subject of much criticism in the arts. Described as ‘ruin lust’ or ‘ruin porn’, this tendency has been met with a backlash declaring that the romanticisation of ruins - a decayed, crumbling remnant of the past - fetishises failed projects and does not consider the voices of those who might still reside in these areas. A storied example would be the hoards of ‘ruin photographers’ arriving to gawp at the dilapidated remains of Detroit. Claims of insensitivity are combined with the more strident disagreement that picturesque aesthetics have little to do with the devastating reality. However, this fascination for the ruin is not a new topic. Seeking to devise buildings with their eventual collapse in mind, Nazi architect Albert Speer, proposed a Theory of Ruin Value in which he discussed the need to leave behind imposing and impressive ruins. For Speer, the value of ruins for future generations, arose from their role as symbols of greatness and achievement. And yet, we can also read the endurance of the ruin in Speer’s writing for its more sinister connotations. By recuperating the ruin as an aesthetic ‘built into’ the architectural structure, Speer offers a surprising counterpart to the contemporary optics of the ruin. In this way, a bias narrative of history has been selected by choosing the historical monuments of the past in the present.

This motif of ruination attains a strikingly different resonance in the installation Radical Futures by Oldfield-Ford. Her work does not romanticise the modernist architecture of the brutalist blocks and nor is she revelling in its failures. Rather it highlights the lost future amongst the debris, and the potential for change within it. Indeed, she is interested in hearing the voices which are not heard. To this end, we return to the story of Hutchesontown C.  By recounting the experiences of the residents in the high-rises, Oldfield-Ford provides an alternative account to the demolition in Glasgow’s city centre. Interested in discovering ruptures, murmurs which can be found in liminal spaces, in urban hinterlands, Oldfield-Ford seeks to recover the voices of those lost to urban development and the cult of heritage. While the construction of the Hutchesontown C high-rises initially prompted relief from slum conditions, maintenance of these 20 story brutalist blocks was vastly underestimated. The homes were riddled with damp and infestations, significantly prompting a year long rent strike from some of the residents—an event resulting in the plan for the buildings’ demolition. As we hear in Oldfield-Ford’s sound piece, ‘this flat was our kingdom… coral pink wallpaper…iridescent sheen, mould scattered across the ceilings… wallpaper buckling, rent strikes, calls to renovate the blocks …the dankness of a ruined cathedral’. At the end of Radical Futures, we glimpse the beginning of the process of gentrification. To this end, a ghostly echo of Ed Sheeran’s Shape of You is slowed down to just a murmur; sounds of new spaces opening, a flowering of new possibilities. Luxury housing, bars and restaurants open, however, there is something eerie and artificial. It’s a future which is not for them (the previous residents), but for ‘the more affluent’. As such, Oldfield-Ford’s work asks us to question the government’s motivations for attacking the public housing scheme, and the significant lack of voice which is given to the residents who saw the brutalist high rise blocks as their home. Although there is good reason to rethink the high rises, reflection is not provoked by simply destroying them - this just leaves vulnerable residents without an alternative. This much is stated by theorist Owen Hatherley in his book Militant Modernism. As Hatherley states, ‘the selling off and demolition of public housing is presented as a philanthropic gesture’ - as something to be thankful for. Hatherley  continues: ‘the modernist/high-rise movement was the centuries greatest public project, covered up by this pitiful excuse to get rid of it, that concrete high rise blocks are an “eyesore”.’ In this regard, we should hold on to the remnants of brutalism, for their echoes of forgotten voices. Indeed, we must preserve the modernist ruins as a way to prevent the vanquishing of a voice. In a warning to those who care about the city, Hatherley states: ‘as the disneyfication of Britain continues … the walkways, towers, and concrete surfaces are all we have left, the only thing standing in the way of gentrification’s purge of undesirables from urban space’.

Jo Morton is currently pursuing postgraduate studies at the Glasgow School of Art.

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