Public art, Matt Baker thinks, “has been slightly devalued of late – as naff sculptures on plinths”. So Baker, along with fellow artist TS Beall, is setting out to reclaim it.
“I believe in a genuinely public art,” he says, “where the primary intention is to do something useful for the place it was made, rather than use a public context to give the effect of a gallery.” Public art, Baker thinks, should be “a tool for positive change and empowerment”.
The artist is putting these ideas into action with Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us, a one-day event at Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art, this Saturday. The result of weeks of preparation, it consists of a bold attempt to communicate across the Clyde using various non-electronic forms of communication, including marine signal flags, roaming choristers, a “human megaphone” – one speaking voice amplified by the repetition of many more – a trebuchet – a medieval siege catapult – nicknamed the Charm Offensive, and the Govan Armada: a fleet of small boats made from reclaimed rubbish.
Baker was previously the lead artist of the Gorbals regeneration scheme and artist in residence to the city of Inverness, as well as the winner of last year’s Saltire Award for Art in Architecture. The fruit of Baker’s ongoing artistic residency with the Govan Riverside housing scheme, Nothing About Us… crystallised with the opening of the Riverside Museum on the Clyde’s north bank last year, directly opposite the Govan Riverside estate and within Govan Parish.
“The building of the museum suddenly cast a light on Govan and the way it’s become quite isolated,” says Baker. “The idea that you can regenerate a place by putting something amazing near it and its influence will spread out and make everything wonderful around it; this project asks the biggest kind of questions about that strategy.”
In other words, he asks, what has the Riverside Museum really got to do with Govan?
Beall, originally from just outside Washington DC but resident in Glasgow for a decade, came to the project because her studio is just around the corner from the Riverside estate and her artistic practice involves significant areas of overlap with that of Baker – she was involved in his first Govan project The Govan Raid last July, when he led a “raiding party” of kids dressed as Vikings across to the museum to repatriate various items of “hidden treasure” back south of the Clyde.
“It’s the most exciting place I’ve ever had a studio,” says Beall, “and I lived in New York for ten years. Govan’s a place that’s very open, where many things are possible, but also where there are an overwhelming number of amazing people and creative organisations. It feels very rich, but at the same time there’s a lot of genuine need and the organisations aren’t that joined-up – so there’s an extremely complex series of conversations going on.”
The project looks back on a local history which Baker says has been defined by “two eras of greatness”: first, the early medieval era when it was the heart of the Kingdom of Strathclyde, and latterly the almost entirely eroded shipbuilding heights of the 20th century.
He recognises the irony of this history being placed alongside the theme of the project. “Through all its history, Govan’s been about connection. It was the fording point where you could walk across the Clyde, and then through shipbuilding it was connected to the entire world. But for us the river became a symbol of isolation, and we want to try to bridge that with communication.”
Various fringe events will run alongside Saturday’s happening. Beall has already led a walking tour with local activist Helen Kyle entitled Stalled Places, looking at sites such as Govan Old Church, which contains 10th century hogback stones, and the derelict Govan Graving Docks, while a strictly limited group will view the abandoned Lyceum Bingo Hall on Saturday.
There will also be an event celebrating the 90th birthday of local artist George Wyllie – featuring Murray and Barbara Grigor’s film about the artist entitled Why?sman – a historical talk about the medieval Doomster Hill, Cinema Action’s 1971 documentary film of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders’ Work-In, and Baker’s own film of The Govan Raid.
A host of local and community organisations, small and large, are involved in the project. These include the Govan and Craigton Integration Network, which works with refugees and asylum seekers, the mental health group Platforum, the GalGael Trust, Kinning Park Complex, Glasgow Science Centre and the Riverside Museum itself.
“I’m nervous about presenting the piece as some kind of solution to anything,” says Beall, “and I wouldn’t want to suggest that. It’s an experiment, and it involves the efforts of a huge amount of other people, with Matt and I as just small catalysts. All we’re doing is highlighting a problem, that there’s not a lot of communication across the river or between the different groups of folk doing very good work on this side of it.”
At the heart of it all, she keeps coming back to the idea of “placemaking”.
“Instead of thinking about heritage as a site that needs preserving, the sense is that it’s something that’s living, so you’re taking ideas from the past and using them to create new meaning for the present. It’s about trying to strengthen the different identities and communities of folk who are living in a place, because modern living is quite unrooted. But the reality is that people are always tied in to the place they live.”
• Nothing About Us Without Us is For Us and the Lyceum Bingo Hall Tour are at various venues around Govan, Glasgow, on Saturday. Some Questions About Govan… in Honour of George Wyllie is at the Pearce Institute, Glasgow, on Tuesday 1 May. www.aboutuswithoutus.com, www.glasgowinternational.org