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Glasgow School of Art – Auto-Destruction in Action

In February 2008, the Mackintosh Room of Glasgow School of Art played host to Vanishing Point – Gustav Metzger and Self-Cancellation. This round-table discussion formed part of Instal 08, the Arika organisation’s festival of ‘Brave New Music’ which took place more or less annually at the Arches club and performance venue throughout the noughties. In the 1960s, Metzger had been one of the prime movers behind the notion of auto-destructive art, in which art destroyed itself as it was being created.

One of Metzger’s first public demonstrations of auto-destructive art in 1961, Acid action painting, saw the Bavarian born artist ‘paint’ acid onto sheets of nylon, which burnt itself out of existence after fifteen seconds. Metzger later showed an ongoing series of enlarged historic photographs of twentieth century disasters.

With Metzger in attendance, the discussion focused on the idea of self-cancellation, and included references to the Hindenburg air balloon disaster of 1937 and the destruction of the twin towers in New York in 2001, an event now immortalised as 9/11. Two days after the discussion, a version of Acid/Nylon was performed in the Arches by musicians and artists Benedict Drew, Rhodri Davies and Chris Weaver as part of Instal’s Self-Cancellation strand.  

By the time Metzger passed away aged 90 in 2017, Glasgow School of Art’s iconic Mackintosh Building had been seriously damaged by fire once, in May 2014, and a major rebuilding programme was in operation when the second occurred in June 2018. The Arches had closed in 2015 following its late license being withdrawn. With the building’s cavernous interior left empty for some time, it has more recently been turned into a food market, with assorted deals with commercial operators looking set to be sealed. Meanwhile, committee-run gallery Transmission, another beacon of independent thinking, was this year turned down for regular funding by arts funding agency Creative Scotland.

That the second Mackintosh Building fire happened at all was deeply troubling, not least because of the wider consequences beyond the damage to GSA. The fallout of the blaze left both the neighbouring Centre for Contemporary Arts (CCA) and, further along Sauchiehall Street, the O2 ABC music venue, cordoned off for several months along with other local businesses and residential properties.

While mercifully there were no fatalities in either GSA fire, everyday livelihoods were at risk of being destroyed. In the CCA alone, as well as the visual art, film and music programmes that had to be cancelled, the Saramago Café Bar and Aye Aye Books were seriously under threat. On top of this, more than a dozen other cultural tenants, including visual arts magazine, MAP, moving image producers LUX Scotland, film-making collective Camcorder Guerillas and theatre companies, comic book publishers, writers agencies and music ensembles had been made homeless. 

The second GSA fire occurred in the wake of another blaze that happened at the other end of Sauchiehall Street three months earlier. One of its casualties was the Pavilion, the city’s self-styled ‘national theatre of variety’, which is run independently, and was closed long enough to threaten its survival as a going concern just as the CCA and the O2 ABC would be. Between the two fires, some 75 businesses were damaged, destroyed or temporarily closed.

With all these doors shutting, it’s hard not to presume that Glasgow’s artistic life is itself currently in the painful throes of both auto-destruction and self-cancellation. That might have been the impression gleaned by GSA’s new intake of freshers who were perhaps attracted to their would-be alma mater by the perceived glamour, not just of its Turner Prize winners, but how it feeds into a grassroots artist-led culture that seemingly moves in tandem with a flourishing DIY music scene.

GSA itself has been an important meeting point for extra-curricular activity which has similarly fed into a wider ground-up infrastructure. The student union, these days simply called The Art School, is where things begin. Friendships, love affairs and life-changing ideas all start here.

CCA too is at the heart of Glasgow’s artistic ecology, and has been ever since its premises opened in the 1970s as The Third Eye Centre. The city’s first multi-arts centre became a melting pot for alternative thought in a way that has trickled down into the city’s artistic life since then. Francis McKee’s tenure since 2006 as CCA’s artistic director (and lecturer and research fellow at GSA) has consistently recognised the umbilical links that exists in on-the-ground activity across the city.

As with other fires, such as the Cowgate blaze in Edinburgh in 2002, the GSA and Sauchiehall Street fires could be a gift to developers. Amongst the Cowgate casualties were music venues La Belle Angele, The Gilded Saloon and The Bridge Jazz Bar, as well as artists’ studios in the old 369 Gallery space. While La Belle Angele reopened after more than a decade, a new hotel and supermarket are the main beneficiaries of the rebuild.

In Glasgow, developers have been sniffing around Sauchiehall Street for some time, though up until now proposals for student flats and other lucrative developments close to GSA have been resisted. After the Sauchiehall Street fire, however, a headline in the Glasgow Evening Times on March 29th 2018 suggested that it ‘could be opportunity to invest in area’s decline’.

Whatever caused the most recent GSA fire may never be clear, but when on October 20th the CCA sent out a press release for a full November programme, and when The Art School did the same on October 29th, one suspects the word ‘release’ carried a more active weight than usual. For the venue’s tenant organisations too, to be able to function again, even with all the losses inevitably acquired, is a relief.

The art school dance goes on. Glasgow School of Art must be rebuilt. Self-cancellation and auto-destruction are not an option.

Scottish Art News, Autumn 2018/December 2018

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