Undertow: A Provocation for the Scottish Artists Union


(I was asked to create a provocation for the Scottish Artists Union AGM, on 28th September 2014. I responded to the brief knowing this would be recorded before the Independence Referendum (on 18th September) but screened after the event.)

I’m talking to you from Govanhill Baths, the community arts, social and wellbeing centre in the south side of Glasgow. I was artist-in-residence here in 2013, creating new work about the past, present and future of the Baths, and working with the community to put on new events. I love this place. I love the smell of it, I love the decaying history and hopeful future of it, and I love what it stands for.

The Baths were opened just over 100 years ago today, and were a vital local resource. There were three swimming pools, a steamie for laundry, slipper baths for washing, Turkish Baths for steaming off, and a community that met and talked and gossipped and married and all that. In 2001, though, Glasgow City Council closed them down, just as many councils closed community centres and resources in working class areas from the 80s onwards. Govanhill fought back, though, occupying the building for six months, and campaigning brilliantly and successfully for reopening it. Local campaigners, residents, businesses and artists worked together to save the building. For the last few years it’s been running as a community centre while funds are raised to reopen the swimming pool.

I’m spending time here now because this is the kind of political campaigning I believe in, and which I think artists need to be part of: community based struggles which fight to preserve and build resources and quality of life for all. The fight for Govanhill Baths saved a community centre, but it also opened spaces and created jobs for artists. The National Theatre of Scotland have produced work here, alongside the community-based work of the Strathclyde Theatre Group. Glasgow International hold exhibitions here alongside exhibitions by local artists. I worked as artist-in-residence here, alongside political meetings, citizens advice services and activist parties. None of this would be possible without communities campaigning in solidarity with each other.

The SAU asked me to speak a little bit about art, politics and the independence referendum. I’m speaking before the vote, and you’re watching, listening to or reading me after it. So I’m not going to argue about Yes or No. I am going to make a prediction though: whichever side wins, I think that artists and arts organisations are going to have a struggle ahead of them, and there’ll be steep arts cuts in Scotland to come.

I think there are steep cuts to come because the leading parties on both sides of the debate are, without exception, explicitly parties of neoliberalism. The parties are all parties of big business – interests in financial services and  energy extraction, commitments to low corporation tax, and so on. There are differences between them, and some of us – me included – will have voted for one side or the other in the hope of protecting the welfare state, or opening borders, or strengthening working class organising. But whichever side wins, I think much of the rhetoric will fall away and an incoming government will cut tax and cut spending, with spending on the arts the first to go and spending on welfare second. Even if a future independent Scottish Government keeps up some of its promises and resists austerity, it will be constantly called on to impose austerity politics by Europe – and it will take a consistent and strong broad-based campaign to keep austerity out of Scotland.

We need to be prepared to fight harder than ever for artists’ rights and artists’ pay. Artists are frequently among the most precarious of workers in a neoliberal society – working from contract to contract, unable to build pensions or other forms of safety net for ourselves, particularly vulnerable to cuts in funding and welfare. In that, though many of us have more social privilege and get to be part of the glamour of the so-called creative classes, we have more in common with call centre and supermarket workers than with our colleagues in management.

In a time of cuts, the most socially marginalised suffer most. We’re already seeing deep cuts to support for disabled artists through the Access to Work scheme; we’re already seeing the effects of hard-line immigration policy on the movement of artists, which prevents cross-cultural collaboration; we’re already struggling against pay gaps between men and women, including in the arts. All of this may get harder, and these struggles intersect with each other. Fighting for artists’ pay is also about fighting for women’s rights, for disability rights, against discrimination and racism, against all forms of oppression.

We’re also a messy sector professionally. Few of us are constantly in good work. Many of us have second jobs. Many of us spend time surviving on forms of benefits and working tax credits. We shouldn’t fetishise an idea of the full-time productive professional artist always in work – artists are always going to spend time on the margins, always going struggle to fit into a rigid model of labour, and should be supported to do the work that they do. Fighting for benefits is fighting for artists’ rights – and the rights that artists need are the rights that everyone deserves.

Which brings me back to Govanhill Baths. I decided to give this talk from here, because the Baths represents the kind of campaigning I believe in: campaigning which brings different interest groups together to struggle alongside each other; campaigning which has artists at its heart, working not just as artists but as members of a community. Only by fighting for rights for all can we also also secure the rights we need to make art.

I think there’s a vital role for unions in this. Unions for precarious workers in a neoliberal world have difficult challenges – we don’t share a workplace, and we’re all always overstretched, making it that much harder to organise. I don’t think unions are the only answer – and I think that often managerialised unions betray the interests of their members, particularly the most marginalised groups. I certainly don’t think that any voting option in the referendum is an answer by itself, even though voting can be a good strategic move sometimes. But strong, democratic and grassroots unions can be central to successful struggle, and we need new forms of organisation that meet our needs now.

I’ve spent a while trying to figure out which is the right union for me – I work across a few disciplines, so it’s difficult for me to fit exactly. But I’m joining the Scottish Artists Union partly because it feels like the best fit, but mainly because I’m excited to be part of a relatively new and fast-moving union. I want a union that recognises the challenges ahead, which finds the forms of organisation and campaigning to meet them, and which can join in struggle with communities and campaigns fighting not just for rights for artists, but rights for all. I hope we’re able to make this union just that.

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