Wednesday 10 July 2013

What matter location?

In one of my previous posts I was interested in finding out how much the Third Eye Centre was trying to reach out to other countries. Tom McGrath stated that "As far as possible, within the scope of its budget, the centre will try to bring creative people to Glasgow from other parts of the world, so that everyone in the city, but particularly the artists, can have a direct experience of what is happening elsewhere."

This is a photo of some of the original folder labels containing outreach to other countries and international artists.
Correspondence from Bridget Brown, Exhibitions Officer courtesy of the CCA/Third Eye Centre Archives
Third page of correspondence from Bridget Brown, Exhibitions Officer courtesy of the CCA/Third Eye Centre Archives
This represents a series of proposals that would have set a very high standard for organizations working internationally, but it only exists as a unfinished project in an archive, a letter from one woman to another. Two years later, the Iran that Bridget Brown is addressing no longer exists.

These folders with international ambitions stick out, as I am one of many graduate students who would have stayed in Glasgow longer if the UK visa situation had not changed. The concept of location becomes more apparently strategic as it means that establishing oneself here, or not here, will look different as it will inherently be different. Will this affect the decisions of students who are considering whether to come to study here or not, will this create a new generation of de-centralized Glasgow-based artists?

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The culture of searching or locating has continually changed throughout this project. What was once one box after another resurfacing out of the Mitchell Library and out of private homes is now a group effort of precise cataloging, and the careful choice of key words to aid retrieval.

The etymology of "locate" is to establish oneself in a place, or to settle. There is an attempt to locate the Third Eye Centre at the core of a story, the Glasgow Miracle, but there is also a real need to establish the archive itself as something that can provide a service for the future which requires that it itself must be established, practically institutionalised.

What is it about the way the public can locate something that creates a feeling of ownership? One of the largest uses of archives in Scotland is to locate one's genealogy, and in turn it connects people to a place they never even grew up in. There are about 5 million Scots in Scotland and about 30 million scots scattered across the globe. People will travel thousands of miles to search an archive for a name and it gives hope that feeling connected to a particular culture can also be backed up by something tangible.

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Location is also pertinent to the concept of accessibility. David Buri, the Academic Liaison Librarian at the Glasgow School of Art recently sat down with the archive volunteers and described how the history of making something easy to locate is rife with politics, especially because the usual way to begin organising an archive is to defer to the most authoritative institution. But what we're finding is that the only way to really go is to create bespoke navigation that will bring up the most appropriate results. It's not about efficiency, it's about being realistic about what the archive can and can't provide. He gave great anecdotes including one in particular about Glasgow University having a well thought out Scottish literature section contrasting the Library of Congress considering to demolish Scottish literature as a genre to be subsumed into the English literature section.

In 2007 Liz Lochhead had an impassioned response: "It just seems crazy that they have assumed English means British. It is a huge piece of cultural imperialism. It must be out of ignorance, which is appalling in this day and age... The point is America is the most culturally powerful country in the world and it is hugely damaging not just to Scots but to Welsh and Northern Irish writers... Can they claim Mark Twain is an English author? Of course not."

He then transitioned to describing the difficulty of making something "easy to find" which is a very strange concept involving imagining not only how people search, but what would be useful for them to stumble upon, where just noticing the presence of a particular topic could create a far more worthwhile journey.

The way I have thought of creating blog posts is to randomly select a box and to use that scrap of information to gather how much more there is to know about Glasgow. It feels a little bit like I'm a secret shopper that is meant to test the system that's in place. It's not necessarily bad or good when you are that person that helps a library realise that a book is missing. Of course it's bad for you because now you have the disappointment of knowing that at one time you could've had the information at your fingertips, but it's good because up until that point no one knew that it was even missing.

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What this archive may want to embark upon is a thorough interactive investigation into what is missing by bringing together a diverse range of participants, (thankfully there is probably more than enough locals who just by memory can create a bigger picture). But beyond those who were once involved with the Third Eye Centre, what is also necessary is this concept of ownership for everyone else. It's a great start to suggest the possibility of establishing 'alternative histories', but just as the archive volunteers are creating a unique set of search terms and metadata, we need to be able to feel like we can approach the archive on our own terms. Then location of the user doesn't matter, nor the location of the materials. What matters is that a curiosity-based culture of accessibility creates a fulfilling level of engagement. Learning how to create access for others is unique skill set, but also having an actually accessible archive helps others to dream about what other access one can gain (that doesn't require being of a certain social class to know how to navigate all of it). It creates demands such as governmental transparency, it demands a nuanced understanding of history, and it demands that we never take ourselves too seriously as we will be humbled recognising the forward-thinking long-term ambitions of those in the past.

I get a sense that Glasgow is very supportive of artists creating their own forms of research and this sense of empowerment is something that I will take with me wherever I go from here.

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