From the high windows of Civic House in Cowcaddens, where Toby Paterson is preparing to install his show for Glasgow International, a cross section of the city is laid out before us. The M8 roars by at eye level; beyond it rise the tenements of Garnethill, the white steeples of Park Circus and, on the other side, the red brick flats of Raglan Street.
And, in the middle – what? An expanse of scrubby grass and bushes with a solitary island of children’s play equipment and two artificial five-a-side pitches Paterson says are unused. One of the city’s many vacant spaces.
“There’s not even any evidence of teenage boozing,” says Paterson, who has spent hours exploring the area. “Even people who live nearby just hurry across it as quickly as possible. It’s nothing, a negative space. We’re less than a mile from George Square. It’s shocking, in a city the size of Glasgow, in the fifth or sixth richest country in the world, that this can be the case.”
Paterson is a lifelong observer of cities. The built environment has been both a personal passion and an endless source of inspiration for his work in painting, installation and sculpture. As a teenager in Glasgow, he explored the city’s concrete byways as a skateboarder. At Glasgow School of Art, he developed an interest in the failures of modernist architecture which carried him into a distinctive and acclaimed artistic career. But his home city fascinates and frustrates him in equal measure.
“I guess one of the great things which has come out of being able to work as an artist and travel is being able to come back and look at my own city through a different lens. But then you think: this is not normal, this is really odd and dysfunctional. A space like that one over there feels all wrong.”
Vacant spaces are not uncommon in post-industrial cities, but rarely so close to the city centre, and rarely so completely unused, even in unsanctioned ways. Paterson puts Glasgow’s situation down to the double-whammy of post-industrialisation followed by the city’s 1960s masterplan, to demolish the Victorian tenements and drive a motorway through the heart of the city, which fell apart in the early 1970s leaving stretches of the city in limbo. That has been followed by underinvestment, and an emphasis on big, flagship projects over local regeneration and infrastructure.
We conduct most of this conversation in our socks as the new floor in Civic House is currently being sanded.
Built in the early years of the 20th century to house a left-wing printing press, it was the offices of National Theatre of Scotland until NTS moved into new headquarters at Rockvilla, and is now owned by Agile City, an urban development organisation which shares some of Paterson’s concerns.
He will be the first artist to exhibit there. He grins: “I think it’s the most well-appointed floor I’ve ever worked on!”
The title of the show is Penumbralism, the term he has coined for the city’s in-between spaces (the word is used to describe areas which seem to fall between light and shadow during a lunar eclipse). He stops several times to apologise for his gloomy tone. “I didn’t want it to be like this, I wanted it to be: ‘Wow, look at this resource [of empty space] that we have to hand, won’t it be great when we can do something with this?’ But there’s a degree of melancholia in the mix.”
Nevertheless, one of the touchstones of Glasgow International is the way that it opens up the city’s non-spaces. Later this month, pop-up exhibitions and projects will rise like mushrooms in vacant shops, closed-down buildings and empty lots. Railway arches, a former pipe factory and a vast gas purifier shed are just some of the venues this year’s festival will explore.
But Paterson is concerned that the success of Glasgow’s grassroots can-do contemporary art scene has a flipside. “GI is brilliant, it’s had many positive effects and I’m delighted to be involved. But it becomes easy to say: ‘They do all that on a shoestring anyway, what wonderful energy, that doesn’t need further support or development.’ That’s the double-edged sword of self-organisation. There are aspects of that across the city as a whole. Yes, Glasgow is vibrant and dynamic but it has great big holes in the middle of it, failures of infrastructure and investment and vision.”
Paterson is currently involved – with artist Raydale Dower and a group of other artists and skateboarders – in a plan to create a sculpture park and skate park in another penumbral space, under a motoway flyover in Port Eglinton near Tradeston. “So much of this is driven by a sense that there must surely be other ways of doing things. Surely we’re not just tied into this situation in perpetuity? I think the situation around Brexit is only going to make that thinking more acute.
“My work has always been driven by a question of: ‘Why is this like that?’ That can lead in all sorts of directions. I think what I’m trying to do at Civic House is make some symbolically affirmative action in relation to negative spaces and these seemingly intractable issues of what the fabric of the city is. I can’t provide any solutions, I’m just the annoying person asking the odd question.” ■
Toby Paterson: Penumbralism, Civic House, Glasgow, 20 April until 7 May, www.glasgowinternational.org