speaking in tongues

I first found the Glasgow Women’s Library by way of an intriguing sign pointing down a city centre alleyway on my way home from school every day. Finally googling circa 2009, I’ve since attended a slew of events, met some wonderful people, and assisted in a few of the library’s projects, from sorting through and cataloguing feminist magazines, to helping to establish the Hens Tae Watch Oot Fur zine of young queer women’s voices, to geeking about literary heroines while shovelling delicious homemade hummus down my throat. Now I’m involved in its new Seeing Things project, which intends to establish a safe, friendly, and engaging social network for women who might not otherwise feel comfortable attending cultural events around the city. Don’t you just love the reclaimative sense of that name? The 19th century Madwoman in the Attic idea of women “seeing things”. Infantilised hysterics confined to their beds, stimulated only by the patterns in the wallpaper.

One of the best things about the project is being privy to an enhanced, behind the scenes view of what’s happening in Glasgow, and last week we were lucky enough to be guided through the Centre for Contemporary ArtsSpeaking in Tongues exhibition by Director Francis McKee. The CCA is currently sifting through its extensive collection of promotional and administrative materials, researching its own history since 1992, and that of its predecessor the Third Eye Centre: a ‘shrine to the avant garde’ founded in 1974 by playwright Tom McGrath. This exhibition invites back three important contemporary artists — Susan Hiller, Pavel Büchler, and Sonia Boyce — each of whom worked with the TEC/CCA early in their career. Though keen to chronicle the venue’s past and evidently committed to honouring the history of the avant-garde arts in Glasgow, McKee is wary of the institution of the archive; their capacity to be ‘awful, dangerous things’ loaded with political or ideological or even just subjective bias, representing only a very specific version of the past. Indeed, many of the works in Speaking in Tongues worry the question of what is to be kept and what is to be left behind, passed over, discarded.

Susan Hiller, Lucidity & Intuition: Homage to Gertrude Stein, image from susanhiller.org

Upon entering the exhibition space, one is immediately met by Susan Hiller’s Lucidity & Intuition: Homage to Gertrude Stein, an approximation of the writer’s desk, under which is packed an unexpectedly copious selection of books on automatic writing: the practice of writing while directing one’s attention elsewhere, whose messages have latterly been attributed to the workings of the subconscious mind, but which were once co-opted by surrealists and spiritualists as evidence of spirit and alien worlds, the writer’s hand ‘owned by something else‘. Though Stein conducted experiments into automatic writing at Radcliffe with renowned psychologist (and brother of Henry) William James, fast becoming his “most brilliant woman student”, she would later grow ashamed of — and reject — the association. In Hiller’s sculpture, the books seem almost to hold up the table, as her disowned academic life surely supported her literary experimentation, and subsequent cultural legacy. The piece is topped by a bound copy of Stein’s thesis, and surrounded by a collection of mounted light boxes (From India to the Planet Mars) in which Hiller borrows examples of automatic writing by fin de siècle medium Hélène Smith, who claimed to be in communication with Martians, as well as the reincarnation of first Marie Antoinette, then a Hindu princess. Hiller’s work is obsessed with what we suppress, what we sublimate; as a culture, as evolving selves.

Pavel Büchler, conversely, is preoccupied by what remains; by the offset of representation and reality; by the process of transforming an object’s purpose and presentation while retaining some kind of spirit of its meaning. In I am going to use this projector, the artist presents a by now antiquated cassette recorder, mounted to the wall, which plays a distracting recording of typewriter clacking, a tiny counter smoothly ticking off the seconds of tape. When Büchler originally found the object it included a recorded discussion between two artists, Mel Gooding and Terry Atkinson, which he had transcribed by a typist, recording this new sound over the old, losing forever the original conversation while commemorating it in this new incarnation, the typed transcription mounted alongside, formatted in pale ink on a lengthy scroll of paper so as to be all but unreadable. In his other assembled works we see traditional printing press typesets brought out of retirement to spell the names of the primary colours using secondary coloured paint (Honest Work); a sculpture of air mail scales and ping pong balls in which everything hangs in the balance, ‘a kind of visual gag’ (per McKee), signifying nothing (0:0); two clunky television podiums playing a synchronised looped video, switching between two small still images of Samuel Beckett, that endlessly dour master of pointless repetition, effecting him as a rampant Pythonesque nodding dog (Nodds).

Finally, in Sonia Boyce’s anteroom, floor-to-ceiling shelves display selected records and bookmarked magazines from an archive of black female music artists raised (or who made their careers) in Britain. Born of a 1999 workshop in which Boyce and her participants struggled to name anyone beyond Shirley Bassey, The Devotional Collection is an ever-evolving, tactile piece that includes a functional record player, for curious or nostalgic visitors to delve into the stacks. The opposing wall is decorated with the names of some of the 200+ women added to Boyce’s list since the day of that workshop, set out in large bold serif type and decorated with messy concentric outlines, echoing the rapt, obsessive concentration of a pop-loving teenager. Through this collection and her short video Oh Adelaide — a collaboration with sound artist Ain Bailey which can be viewed online here — Boyce interrogates the erasure of women of colour in the music industry, the cultural disposability of women’s art, and the question of who and what is archive-worthy. Who gets to decide what needs to be remembered? What is the importance of collective memory? In this internet age of real-time history-writing — when everyone with a tumblr log-in is a fledgling curator and the V&A is acquiring Katy Perry falsies and Primark jeans as part of a ‘rapid response’ collecting strategy — when does preservation begin to indulge pointless nostalgia, the blinkered arrogance of the present?

Susan Hiller, Measure by Measure // Pavel Büchler, Idle Thoughts // images from the CCA website

There were two works especially from the exhibition that have lingered with me. In Measure by Measure, Susan Hiller creates an industrial sculpture from the ashes of her own work. Annually selecting twenty pieces to be burned, she collects the rubble in long stoppered pipettes, date-stamping and displaying them in thick glass jars. In Pavel Büchler’s Idle Thoughts, the artist frames a year’s diary on twelve single sheets of paper: one month of entries per page, overwritten to create a bruised, tangled mass. As a terminal diary-keeper and life ephemera hoarder, both of these works fill me with a kind of tender horror. Though I rarely even drag my bags of old journals out from under my bed, one of my deepest regrets is still throwing away the thick blue hardback notebook that was my constant teenage companion. Despite the cathartic notion of sending them out into the public sphere in impenetrable disguise, the idea of my most intimate feelings, my profoundest thoughts, being lost in an illegible thicket of ink — a whole year of lifewriting and memory-making made irretrievable. Who on earth can foresee what we’ll consider important, what we’ll want back in our lives later on?

Of course what these pieces might be trying to tell us is that the importance of the work is putting in the work. The importance of the work is in creating something meaningful, even if that entails demolition, decreation. Archive-creation by its very definition requires a strong stomach for destruction, a ruthless eye, Ockham’s razor. If writers are always selling someone out, archivists are always cutting something loose. This deftness of touch, a palpable tautness, can be felt viscerally as one wanders through the Speaking in Tongues exhibition space. The clacking of Büchler’s typewriter, Beckett’s nauseating nod, the long dark cables stretching from television and tape recorder to their impossibly distant power sockets, not an inch to spare: all help to create an environment of austerity, a heavy sense of what is not being shared. Despite the overarching theme of being spoken through, being owned by something else, being out of control and presenting the private, between the regurgitated works, distorted language, and conscientiously bookmarked pages, it soon becomes clear that each of these artists is saying only exactly what they mean to say. Sharing only exactly what they wish to share.

Speaking in Tongues runs at the CCA until March 23rd, though be aware that exhibitions are closed on Mondays. Shouts go out to Francis McKee for an illuminating, fantastically personal tour of the collection. The GWL is currently hosting an exhibition on the LGBTQ* acronym as part of LGBT Month Scotland until February 28th — amongst other events. The Seeing Things project (#seeingthings) has lots of exciting exhibition trips lined up, including provocative sculptor Sarah Lucas at the Tramway, and Louise Bourgeois’ ‘insomnia drawings’ at the Edinburgh Fruitmarket. If you want to get involved, have any questions, or would like to suggest an event, I’m sure organiser Alice would love to hear from you.

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