Sunday, 16 June 2013

Life in a Scotch Sitting Room – The Noise and Smoky Breath of The Third Eye Centre

1.

When the Tom McGrath Trust held a fund-raising event at the Centre of Contemporary Arts in Glasgow on March 1st this year, its melee of jazz, performance and poetry captured the polymathic chaos of the late playwright, poet and pianist in all its inclusive glory. It was, said someone, ;like spending a night inside McGrath's head. With the CCA housed on the site of the old Third Eye Centre, the event also marked something of a spiritual home-coming.

It was McGrath, after all, who was the Third Eye Centre's first artistic director when the hippified arts lab opened its doors in 1974 to become Glasgow's first multiple artform space. Theatre, music, exhibitions, readings and out and out happenings could all be housed under the same roof, with the best book shop on the planet and one of the city's first vegetarian cafes thrown in to plot, scheme, dream or just hang out in. With his own artistic roots at the centre of the 1960s London underground, be it editing counter-cultural bibles Peace News and International Times, arguing the toss with fellow Scottish travellers, novelist Alexander Trocchi and radical psychiatrist R.D. Laing, or reading his poetry at the Royal Albert Hall alongside Allen Ginsberg, McGrath oversaw all this like some avuncular Glasgow Buddha, calling on connections and making new ones to present a major platform for the avant-garde which Glasgow had never seen or heard before.

Much of the Third Eye's wayward counter-cultural spirit was captured on video by McGrath on primitive equipment he learnt how to use as he went along. When the fruits of McGrath's curiosity were re-discovered in box-loads of VHS tapes in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow, it revealed a treasure trove of unedited footage documenting a a crucial era, when Glasgow's multifarious art scenes were finding their feet and paving the way for Tramway, The Arches and other cross-artform venues.

More than a hundred of these excavated tapes could be seen in What We Have Done, What We Are About To Do, an exhibition hosted at the CCA between August and September 2012, which brought the Third Eye archive into the open, and allowed a new generation to see that the current swathes of artistic activity in Glasgow didn't come from some year zero 'miracle' as some commentators have mythologised, but was umbilically linked to a past which looks even more radical today.

On screen and in performance, Allen Ginsberg, Adrian Mitchell, Jimmy Boyle, Morton Feldman, Keith Tippett, The Brotherhood of Breath, John Byrne, Derek Bailey; poets, performance artists, folk musicians, thinkers and philosophers all rubbed shoulders in a way which in many other cities prefer to keep separate, be it in theatres, galleries or book shops.

What we Have Done, What We Are About To Do was the first public sighting of a long-term project instigated by Glasgow School of Art's Arts and Humanities Research Council in partnership with the CCA. With the centre's current director Francis McKee at the forefront of the project, what it does is reveal an almost lost world that existed long before the 'centres of excellence' approach to arts venues that arrived on the back of Thatcherism in the 1980s, when the arts were in many ways respectalised. The CCA itself was originally a product of this, and it's telling that it's ditched the gloss to reclaim its roots via speak-easy, Liberty Hall vibe. There's a book shop, a vegetarian café and an enlightened attitude to use of the premises which has given a platform to a new generation of left-field artists.

2.

Arriving in Glasgow in the mid-1980s, I was alerted to the Third Eye by as theatre director friend. McGrath had moved on, with Chris Carrell now in charge, but the Third Eye had developed its own publishing wing. One of the first books I discovered by the imprint was Noise and Smoky Breath, a wonderful compendium of Scottish poetry that was essential at the time, but is now long out of print.

I was aware that Ivor Cutler had recorded his Life in a Scotch Sitting Room album at the Third Eye in 1977, and would rummage through the book-shop, which seemed to be the only place on the planet that stocked William Burroughs novels. The New Image Glasgow exhibition introduced the world to a generation of major painters, all graduates of Glasgow School of Art a stone's throw away. Steven Campbell, Adrian Wiszniewski, Stephen Conroy, Peter Howson and Ken Currie would go on to world acclaim.

I saw Polish theatre troupe, Theatre of the 8th Day, in the upstairs performance space, at a time when a radical, oppositional form of avant-garde drama was venturing out into the world beyond its own borders. There was no Arches or Tramway then to showcase the international avant-garde alongside an increasingly fecund local scene.

Without the Third Eye, it's unlikely that the circumstances for either of these places would have existed, or that these initiatives in turn would put Glasgow on the international map in all artforms. It's significant that both tramway and the Arches opened their doors in 1990, when Glasgow was European Capital of Culture. The Third Eye Centre had known its home town was a capital of culture for years.

Now things have come full circle. No-one has much money, but Glasgow is bursting with ad-hoc, pop-up life, which again owes much to the Third Eye spirit. This isn't anything to do with careless talk of miracles, as if the sense of expansiveness and ambition that pulses through the arts in Glasgow had been beamed down from space. It's to do largely with the myriad of things that happened at the Third Eye and the enabling spirit Tom McGrath fostered. What We Have Done, What We Are About To Do and the ongoing archiving of the Third Eye Centre is a vital part of Glasgow's cultural history that lives and breathes that spirit.


Line magazine, June 2013

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