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7. Spare us The Cutter

In the 1970s and 1980s, political developments in Europe unfolded on a kind of spectrum of extremity. Undoubtedly, the situation in Northern Ireland was one of the most extreme and the strategies of artists and creatives reflected this, whether deploying political “street art” or making documentary films that, falling foul of British emergency measures that allowed banning open media coverage, were disseminated through informal networks or smuggled to Europe for broadcast by channels not supportive of the British strategy for containing The Troubles.

"At the time, a friend of mine was writing for the NME and lots of other indie magazines and fanzines. That was so cool. 

"But, dealing with the nutty antics of a member of an emerging 'next big thing' band as she tried to throw herself under a bus in Tufnell Park or the disappearance of the lead member of another band—still a mystery to this day—were all part of what she had to put up with as one of the very few women writing about music on the UK scene at the time. 

"I was filled with delight when I learned that she had emptied a pint over the head of a vaunted dickhead from a leading Scottish indie label of the day in a pub in Brighton because she had had to deal with his incessant sexist crap just one time too many.

"It's pretty gross that a lot of the guys from these labels that emerged in the 80s have gone on to fame and glory, even had TV dramas made about their stories, yet many of the women I knew back then, who worked twice as hard and had more musical talent than so many of these men, are expected to be satisfied that their contributions are only documented and remembered on obscure, niche circuits. So much for #metoo culture. It's sadly under-present in the reconsiderations of 1980s  and early-90s music culture we see today."

Elsewhere, such as in Spain, the paradigm shifts in power saw both new opportunities and new forms of control, particularly where groups, such as ETA, were prepared to use violence to achieve their separatist goals. In some cases, political conflict was heavily aligned to a linguistic separatist cultural agenda, in others, not nearly as distinctly.


Almost as an adjunct to the growing consciousness of linguistic-cultural self-identity, “softer” iterations of regional identity also emerged. And, perhaps ironically, it was heavily connected with the "underground"; with grassroots pop culture. 


Much of this emerged from large—often capital—cities. And, indeed, many who made their mark in London or Madrid would go on to be embraced by the international arts establishment, even if they did not come from these cities. Of course, this attraction to big city lights and their promise of fame and success was nothing new. 


However, there was also another, less overt tendency that saw regional centres re-emerge in the international popular imagination; Manchester with its burgeoning music scene of the 1980s or Antwerp with its directional fashion, Hamburg, the hub for German Neue Welle or Barcelona for simply being cool. In many cases these almost spontaneous movements harked back to the days of former glories of these cities. 


An aspect that should never be overlooked is the mindset of the generation that brought about these combustive bursts of energy to regional centres. Informed by the nihilism-as-success of punk bands such as The Sex Pistols, facing mass unemployment and looming nuclear obliteration, enclaves of young creatives in regional centres, almost in isolated unison, did something that few in the preceding generations had done: they did not migrate to large capital cities but, instead, opted to make their new culture at home. 


Deftly learning lessons from London’s underground scene that had created internationally visible music, magazines and fashion from almost nothing, it’s easy to see how those living in regional centres soon realised, “We can do that here.” And, they did. 


Opting out of seeking affirmation from “official” channels, from the late 1970s/early 1980s onwards, a new generation created their own music, clubs, fashion and burgeoning pop videos using analogue social networks. The cool people found the best clubs by word of mouth or in fanzines sold in small record shops or alternative fashion boutiques. Hip kids around the world sent off their international postal orders for subscriptions to insanely uncommercial new magazines or saved money for ferry tickets to places they heard had something interesting going on. Soon, local underground scenes were popping up everywhere from Toronto to Melbourne, Valencia to Auckland.


In 1991 Canadian writer Douglas Coupland published his seminal novel ‘Generation X: Tales for an Accelerated Culture’. It incidentally kicked off the whole trend of giving each nascent generation a natty sobriquet that has been turned into a thing of horror in the hands of marketing people. But we can’t blame poor old Douglas for that. In his novel, read by millions eager to learn—and debate—the motivations and values of this particular generation, he talks about Gen-X as being obsessed with obscurism. If you were the guy who had a whole collection of the most obscure 1960s cult sci-fi none of your friends knew, you were the coolest. If you were the woman familiar with the work of a neglected Czech cultural theorist no one else had heard of, you went straight to the front of the queue. 


Though Coupland never (apparently) explicitly stated it, the generation in their early twenties in the early 1990s decided it was all about them and their “ironic” t-shirts. Coupland, himself older than the loose consensus on what constitutes Gen-X, almost certainly understood that this elevation of the obscure to the desirable had been a notable feature of underground culture at least a decade earlier. 


In the early 1980s, whether in Edinburgh, NYC or San Francisco, it was cool to go to clubs that your classmates didn’t even know about or to buy your clothes from a charity store no one else frequented—or better still, make them yourself—and to trawl the dust-laden vinyl collection in the local public library to “discover” forgotten musicians from the 1930s. The word “commercial” was an insult where music was concerned; “alternative”, by contrast, a form of praise. Perhaps the biggest insults of all were to call someone “pretentious” or a “poseur”. If you could do that with a straight face while being exactly both of those things and get others to agree with you, you were a winner.

Art will out

Embedded within these tendencies that emerged in the 1980s, particularly when playing out away from the capital cities, was their connection with art. The connection, dating back to the 1960s, between art schools and what is now considered to be among the most influential music of particular generations is hardly news. Certainly by the mid-1970s, these narratives in relation to international music stars such as David Bowie, Brian Eno or Bryan Ferry were already the stuff of popular culture. 


Young art students eagerly mingled with those who had opted out of the education system in favour of simply being successful music groups. More through chance than plan, this also created a certain reemergence of those openly or indirectly linked with Celtic cultural traditions, from the eager Scots, to the third, fourth or fifth-generation Irish and Scots migrants to cities like Liverpool. 


This new landscape offered new opportunities for the full Celtic spectrum and fellow travellers. Whether the likes of Big Country or The Waterboys churning out their Celtic-pop schtick with an eye on foreign stadium bookings or the achingly cool Ian McCulloch or Edwyn Collins, was almost entirely irrelevant; whether they identified as Celts or not. Collins was overtly Scottish and McCulloch, precisely because of the English deep-rooted anti-Irish prejudice, was “read” as of Scottish or Irish extraction, perhaps for the first time in post-WWII popular music history, something that was an asset.

The impact of this connection between art and “art school” music culture was particularly strong in Scotland where numerous pop bands that rose to prominence—or were one-hit wonders—studied art or were part of broader art school student culture. This comes through even in the works in True North: Catriona Shaw was exactly one of them. During the period she undertook postgraduate studies in Munich, a keen musician, she became part of the German music scene in the noughties, later forming the group Queen of Japan with her future husband Fred Bigot—incidentally, a Breton. Their best-known track was a cover of Rod Stewart’s ‘I Was Made for Loving You”. It all feels somehow connected to the ruminations of True North


In a number of European countries where there was an active strategy in the post-WWII period to access increased numbers of people to tertiary education, art schools that developed strong educational reputations were not only located in traditional capitals and very large cities. 


Some had been set up during the 18th and 19th centuries when blossoming cities with new trade and industrial wealth were eager to augment their cultural credentials. As an aside, it's worth noting that many of Europe’s oldest universities did not have art schools until as late as the 20th century, if at all.


In the case of other, younger universities—and technical colleges—some carved out strong reputations for art education in the post-WWII period. In the UK, for example, Sheffield Polytechnic and Middlesex Polytechnic garnered prestige as centres for music and new multimedia art practice that attracted students who would go on to find success on both international pop and “high culture" circuits. 


While some students at such institutions were local, an increasing number were not, seizing the opportunity to study further afield, away from parental scrutiny. Some completed their studies and headed for big urban centres. Others stayed and became part of building a local “scene”. Most importantly, this migration of young artistic talent at both a national and European-wide level saw an invigorated cross-fertilisation of ideas in regional centres.

Furthermore, back then teaching practice, both in Europe and further afield, was very different in art schools from how it is today. Anecdotal stories from artists studying in this period might cause abject horror on social media today. Tutorials held in pubs or gay leather bars—and, yes, those are actual primary source witness accounts—and a general disregard for academic measurement in favour of approaches more aligned to R.D. Laing’s positions than today’s received pedagogical practice abounded. 


No, this is not a nostalgic glance: all of the sexism, sexual harassment, racism, prejudices and performance defined by a tutor’s unquestioned personal opinion of a student were also allowed to run rampant in this system that really wasn’t too far removed from the traditional apprenticeship of artists centuries before. So, no rose-tinted lenses in considering any benefits it may have offered.


It is also the period in which the “international art system” emerged. There is, naturally, a lot of debate as to whether significant change was effectively forced upon the commercial gallery world by a new generation of institutional curators or whether the process was more one of natural evolution on the parts of both. 

"I remember that after finishing art school in the 80s, and moving to London, there really wasn't an art gallery scene as such, just a handful of places around Cork Street in Mayfair. 

"None of my friends, a number of whom had also been to art school, ever wanted to go to these places because they really weren't cool. 

"But I went because I was genuinely curious to see what they were showing. It was only after my friends learned that they generously poured out free booze at private views that they started tagging along."

Change the picture

Hard as it is to imagine in today’s economic landscape, by the mid-1970s, the worlds of young, transgressive art and commercial galleries had completely diverged, more or less. In much of Europe—but also to an extent in the USA that we might not assume now—questions about the role of culture raised in the 1960s had led to far more public and foundation funding for artists. Younger artists and those with more transgressive or ephemeral practices relied heavily on these to fund their work. By contrast, though steadily growing during the post-WWII period, the commercial gallery sector had its own “safe bets”; artists whose reputations were established by the 1960s and appealed to their genteel patrons.


Exhibitions such as the COUM Collective’s ‘Prostitution’ exhibition at London’s ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts) in 1976 caused outrage and stern letters of protest to The Times. However, it would be almost a decade until London’s then relatively small colony of high-end galleries would start embracing younger artists. But, canny gallerists recognised that it was exactly these shows, shows by artists presenting practices and work that baffled their coteries of collectors, that gained all the column inches in the media and were hotly debated by “the chattering classes” at dinner parties in Islington, Maida Vale or Hampstead. 


Arguably, on the commercial gallery side of the new culture divide, it was the Germans who made the boldest moves. In a still divided West Germany, Cologne was a national hub for high-end commercial galleries. Seizing the opportunity to scout new talent, artists working right up against the hard edge of the Cold War in Berlin, gave them a new type of painting they could commodify: Neue Wilde. Gallerists, using the networks with global art centres such as New York they had carefully nurtured since the 1950s, had a new European art export.


To some extent, this kicked off an evolution in which not only would the commercial gallery sector steadily return to a much closer relationship with the museum circuit, but one in which the interchange between the commercial and the institutional would form a kind of allied entity, enabling the global growth of both sectors by the end of the 1980s that continued in a very particular form at least up until a series of impacting factors that started with the fallout of the 2008 Financial Crisis, and then via the impacts of #metoo and Black Lives Matter, on into the tumultuous changes resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s still too early to tell whether things have fundamentally changed in that relationship or not. But, certainly the publicly visible discourse has changed.


So, why is any of this relevant to True North?

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"Ultimately, everything becomes narrative." - Luc Tuymans

Sucker punches

All of the artists invited to exhibit in True North might be described as “of a specific generation”. This was never intentional. Rather, artists, some a little younger, some a little older, were invited on the basis of connections to the curatorial considerations of the show. But, anyone inclined to the Jungian notion of there being no coincidences might view this as inevitable and I am not going to object. For one thing, lived experience, as it comes out in very different ways in the works of each of the artists, is important, especially where it connects with the core preoccupations of the premise. 


Each and every one of the artists exhibiting in True North is connected with the cultural discourses arising in the 1970s and 1980s, whether through childhood lived experience or through the seminal influences that shaped him or her as a professional artist.


Let’s, for example, consider Janice McNab and Catriona Shaw. Two Scottish women artists of marginally different generations, each with her own very different practice, there are nonetheless traces of a shared cultural sensibility that connects their work. 


On one level, we could see their work as being connected through the values and artistic preoccupations of the tertiary art education system of their initial studies as artists in their native Scotland—both completed their initial degrees at Edinburgh College of Art. So what? What’s that got to do with anything? Well, maybe more than is obvious at first glance. 


For one thing, Scottish art in the 1980s was on a bit of a high with “The New Glasgow Boys”, a loosely connected group of Scottish painters who were successfully marketed as almost a “school” that, in a number of ways, looked back to Glasgow’s strong socialist traditions and painting as a form of ideological commentary and—dare we say it in these cynical times—exhortation. What this meant in practical, day-to-day terms was that students in Scottish art schools were not dismissed outright for considering painting as a valid contemporary medium; for valuing representation or craft as a valid artistic language, least of all when “postmodernism” was a buzz word. 


In Scotland—as in certain other “peripheral” regions such as Flanders—painting or drawing were not only not poo-pooed if the conceptual approach was sound, rather they were embraced. In Scotland, even if welcomed as an ego-massaging follow-on from the achievements of notably male Scottish painters in the 1980s, then at least working in such media did not result in the automatic judgements experienced by some students hoping to explore them in art schools elsewhere in the world dominated by artist-tutors that openly dismissed painting, drawing or any form of representation literally made by the artist's hand as "outdated" artistic practices. 


In the practice of each of these two women showing in True North, there is an intrinsic appreciation of what the artist physically makes with her hands and its utter validity, even in today’s world of AI-created “art”. 


Is there a feminist aspect here? Oh, most definitely. But, let’s pull in another included artist to frame some of the most interesting aspects of their collective oeuvres in the context of True North: Michelle Deignan


Initially educated in a different “Celtic” locale—though also notably later studying in Scotland—Michelle’s work exists on a spectrum that takes in everything from what we understand as documentary film in broadly received terms to far more poetic works in which the immediate reading is not straightforward.


For example, her hour-long documentary ‘Breaking Ground’ on the pioneering London’s Irish Women’s Centre is unquestionably a recognisable documentary format about an organisation that supported Irish women in London with numerous practical and therapeutic forms of assistance as well as being politically active in more broadly challenging racism against the Irish in London. 


Its resonance for anyone who worked in socially engaged areas in the 1980s and 1990s in London is probably even more resonant. As someone who worked in allied disciplines during that period, its resonance is amplified for me. Even in the mid-1990s, Irish women in London, whether from the Republic or Northern Ireland, were proven to be nearly four times more likely to experience mental health problems than the average London female population and twice as likely to experience domestic violence. The London Irish Women’s Centre was not the local Women’s Institute, as the film elaborates.


Yet, it’s a far cry from ‘Red Cheeks’ that uses documentary motifs, yet delivers a denouement that operates using an entirely different filmic mode of address.


There is something, if you look more closely, at the very different work of these three artists that connects them. Yes, there is a feminist aspect: that's not hard to discern. But, it ends up being more specific than that. It’s there in the deftly drawn impressions of Catriona Shaw’s Berlin hospital room with running textual commentary. It’s there in Janice McNab’s paintings that evoke derogatory terms about women’s bodies or actualise the ways the male gaze infantalises women as sickly sweet "ice cream" that will soon lack substance. And it’s there in Michelle Deignan’s ‘Red Cheeks’ where a rather shocking story is retold with an almost disturbing distance and equally jarring humour.


Essentially, what connects them all is rage. Never obvious and always turned into something of great beauty, there is nonetheless the potential—albeit beautifully aestheticised—for violence always bubbling beneath the surface. Perhaps this is exactly what connects them to that old, historic Celtic impetus and axis. Celtic culture historically, after all, had women farmers and warriors who were never above taking up arms to defend their interests or those of their tribe, even if trampled and elided by later social mores and narratives.


Celtic culture—especially at times when its images or words have been outlawed—has frequently produced songs and poetry of exquisite beauty that are, notwithstanding, songs about hanged sons and brothers, comrades shot down mercilessly and women and children exploited by overlords, whether occupying feudal lords or predatory factory owners. This tension between aesthetic beauty and something far more turbulent going on beneath the surface is almost a signature in its particular mindset and modes of address. It's part of how we recognise it and that it exists.


Within certain Celtic cultural forms, there is almost something—in its case harking back to far older times—that evokes Gandhi's philosophies of satyagraha or the kind of resignation we find in Billie Holiday’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’. When you are entirely powerless at the hands of an abuser, dignified resignation can be a form of power. Better still, if you can articulate that experience of abuse as a thing of beauty, it will live on long after anyone ever remembers the abusers. 


And, no, this should that be understood as some form of misguided masochism. To misquote Jenny Holzer’s work, "Savor kindness, cruelty can always come later."


In the work of Deignan, McNab or Shaw, there remains a sense of tightly coiled defence biding its time for counterattack. We would, after all, be entirely remiss to imply the Celtic impetus was content to be a victim without retaliation, even if usually carefully strategised. We circle back to "you strike the woman, you strike the rock".


Nor is it hard to see its comparable resonances in Spanish culture after the 20th century, Celtic or not, where memories of civil war, occupation, oppression and abuse, whether as perpetrator or victim, float to the surface. Look at the work of Enrique Marty and it’s not hard to see that the influences of the subcultural exuberance of the post-Franco period become a lens for casting a much more discerning gaze over Spanish European history, to regions and times when Spain was not exactly tolerant.


Similarly, the work of Andy Hsu & Sarah Baker in the context of True North evokes the eventual full extent of migrations and diasporas, originally playing out in the Bay of Biscay and North Sea before taking in new continents. Their exhibited work encapsulates a kind of sublimated elegiac aspect that is embedded and intrinsic to the "voice" of older narratives arising between Spain and the North, also present in the work of Claire de Jong. If you don’t look closely enough, you won’t see it, just as you won’t realise what those old songs are actually about until you sing the lyrics. Memory and transmission are fellow travellers on the numerous migrations that have their origins in Europe's regions connected by Celtic culture and the sea.

Back to blue

In the end, the personal is political and the massive force of commerce impacts close to home even if we seldom question its impact on our cultures and self-identity. I doubt I really understood this until many years after my cosy little reality had disappeared.


I circle back to my cousin, with whom this voyage started. The last bastion of a childhood lived out on the blue economy, she is the connection that brought new ideas back over the ocean.


Bluntly, you were not there; not on those formative voyages. And you were not party to how our fathers imbued, each in his own way, a deep admiration of (and curiosity for) the cultures they encountered, perhaps most specifically Japanese culture. This, you can never take from us. I apologise for nothing, not for being that kid on the ship, nor for my family sharing an understanding of how the “blue bits” still make your world happen; your fridges and microwaves, your home cinema systems and bloody automobiles, even. If this view is baffling, turn your map upside down and read it that way up. 


True North is a tale of interconnecting journeys: the greater cultural trajectories; and a much more personal series of journeys. In the case of the latter, it’s hard for me to identify anyone other than one particular cousin—and maybe her younger brother and a couple of others—who still even understand what I’m rattling on about. Unlike her, even my own younger siblings were not party to this maritime introduction to the world.


True North is a deeply personal show. I have always preferred to keep the construction of exhibitions at a certain arm’s length. Not here. If not full-blown narcissism in which I see my own reflection in the work of the included artists, then it is most certainly something that abandons previous personal curatorial “rules”. No, these are hardly the only artists whose work I admire and that “speak” to me on a very personal level, but they all do so on specific levels of self-identity. 


These artists and their work reach me in private moments when I’m plodding about unobserved at home, harmonising to an old country song, or making a joke about something on trashy TV that few others might understand. In such moments I have absolute clarity about my cultural position in the bigger scheme and timeline of things and, equally importantly, my connections, via the blue bits, on the big map of the world. The works in this show not only give me confidence in my existential validity, but almost a proof that I exist, yet add to the discussion of questions that have long been on my mind. 


I could tell anecdotes about curatorial voyages of discovery, though it’s generally discouraged; how I first met Michelle Deignan as a fellow “naughty kid” giggling in the back rows at a highfalutin art conference. Or, how I was first shown images of Enrique Marty’s work by artist Jemima Brown, first got to really know Janice McNab when she made an experimental curatorial training project I’d initiated in Rotterdam something of which we could all truly be proud or met Catriona Shaw through Angie Reed on a great, drunken night out in Berlin long before I ever saw her work. I could talk about how I first met Sarah Baker—and later Andy Hsu—at 1000,000 mph, artist Dallas Seitz’s London project space. I could tell about how Claire de Jong and I first met as kids on a Union-Castle Line ship sailing from Cape Town to Southampton before meeting her once again decades later in London. I could tell all these things, but that’s not proper. I could even talk about Toni Ferrer and meeting him during his "birth by fire" when his foray into London's art scene involved working through the night to deliver a great exhibition despite unforeseen disaster on the high seas of art installation. Of course, I shouldn't speak of these things.


But, there, I already have. It’s probably because long before I was a curator, I was reared on looking at the blue bits of maps and not the brown. Artists, like ports, are where you connect with those who are very quickly no longer strangers and make sense of long and occasionally rough voyages. 


Is that sentimental? I should hope so. Can one even get into a discussion of Celtic culture without discussing sentiment and overblown emotion? With such a long history of suffering at the hands of the victors who wrote history, emotive sentiment, especially when combined with whisky or good wine, fulfils multiple functions.

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