I attended an exhibition titled Glasgow Anew: Untold Stories and Transnational Perspectives, curated by Jessie Lawson and Alasdair Campbell from Settled in Glasgow an Oral History Archive (SIGOHA).
Settled in Glasgow an Oral History Archive
SIGOHA is an online collection of recorded conversations with people born outside of the UK who now call Glasgow home. It’s a storytelling vault, a resource for historians, a place where voices that often go unlistened to are given the opportunity to be heard.
According to the website:
‘…SIGOHA seeks to democratise history: to give normal people the opportunity to tell their own story and influence how history will represent them. SIGOHA promotes the voices of Glaswegians that are often left out of official accounts. Through exploring issues of nationality, identity, prejudice and what it takes to call somewhere ‘home’, SIGOHA hopes to construct an alternative history of the city.’
In its ‘analogue’ exhibition form, the archive takes on new meanings, spinning the stories told into an intricate grand narrative. Each story an echo of another, collectively adding volume to a disruptive voice changing the idea of what it means to be Glaswegian.
The Pipe Factory
The venue, The Pipe Factory, was a perfect container for the stories from the archive. Situated on the corner of the Barras Market, it’s a post-industrial space negotiating a new role in Glasgow’s history.
There’s construction work on the first floor and scaffolding covering the entire outside of the building. Once a clay pipe factory, it now hosts art installations and gallery exhibitions. It’s a space undergoing transformation; it’s becoming something new, and just like the stories from the exhibition, it’s still in pieces, not yet slotted together to create a cohesive sense of identity.
On the second floor of The Pipe Factory, Jessie and Alasdair used more traditional museum and art installation techniques to illuminate a series of stories from the archive. The walls contained photos of the participants, taken by Jessie, and hanging below, a pair of headphones, broadcasting each participant’s story in its entirety, unedited.
What struck me the most about this format was that on entering the room there was a sense of stillness, but if you listened closely, you could hear whispers from the numerous pairs of headphones hanging around the room. There were ghosts here, voices from the past, haunting the space.
Gallery attendees were invited to walk around the space and listen in, sharing an intimate moment with the voice of a person recounting their experiences with Glasgow and how it shaped their sense of identity. The open plan space helped build a sense of community, as people mingled, experiencing each moment subjectively but within a collective setting.
And it does democratise the history of Glasgow, showing that every individual experience with the city is unique, distinct, and tellingly, human. Yet there’s a commonality to all human lives, there’s something that makes us the same, yet so often we focus on the things that separate and make us different from one another.
Moving the online archive into an exhibition space allowed for new opportunities to create connections, and as Jessie said:
The (online) archive, in someways is really accessible because you can just click on it, but it’s aimed at a really specific person so it’s nice to bring it to a community setting.
A Shared Space
Jessie and Alasdair worked hard to make The Pipe Factory a place for people to congregate and share new experiences. Unfortunately, I didn’t manage to attend any of the events, but throughout the time that the exhibition ran, Glasgow Anew was host to storytelling evenings, mindfulness workshops, and shared food and drink. All of these events took place under the gaze of Jessie’s photos, with the stories playing unheard in the background, waiting for someone to put the headphones on and tune in.
The space was picked carefully, avoiding the more ‘traditional’ options of using somewhere in the West End, or a more established venue like the Gallery of Modern Art. As Alasdair said:
What we like about this space is it’s not a white cube… They see the raw brick work and it puts people at ease. They feel less intimidated.
Artefacts from the Past
One of the most affecting aspects of the exhibition was the addition of personal objects from participants’ lives. As the event flyer put it:
‘Participants were also invited to contribute personal objects which they felt would illuminate important aspects of their lives… These vessels have migrated with their owners across continents and societies; some are souvenirs acquired in transit, others tools or totems handed down through generations. In Glasgow today they take on new meanings, informed by the past and the present.’
These objects were displayed around the room as though they were precious pieces of high art. There was a sense of sadness and poignancy when looking at the artefacts that stood for a significant moment from one person’s past. For the most part the importance of these objects wasn’t immediately clear. Instead it took the participant’s story to contextualise and lend the objects credibility. But this is also where the gallery format benefited the exhibition the most. Putting these objects in this setting gave them more authority and it encouraged visitors to pause and consider them in more detail.
The Effect of a Conversation
I didn’t meet any of the participants in person, but through their stories and artefacts, it felt like I did. This was mostly due to the way the conversations were recorded. When describing her interview approach, Jessie said:
That’s what we want, for them to speak for themselves, rather than us to speak for them… I think it’s quite important for us to be as hands off as possible.
And Alasdair added:
A lot of the time when you get an oral history in an exhibition space, it’s sound bites, quite heavily edited, and you rarely hear the interviewer, so this way, it’s more like a conversation…. Just more like a natural interaction.
I agree with both Jessie and Alasdair, and I think the hands off style benefited the way the stories were told. It certainly suited their original context. But, in my mind, it will always be difficult to take an online archive and show it in a gallery setting. There’s confusion in terms of how the form impacts the participants’ stories and their artefacts. Is it an art exhibition? Or is it an historical archive?
The unedited stories work well online, and the form of an online archive allows for less construction in the way that the stories are presented. Placing them in a gallery setting, however, does change the aura and the way that these stories come across. It makes me wonder if perhaps editing the stories, and creating some kind of theme or wider narrative would make them resonate more.
The event changed my perception of Glasgow. However cliched it is, the Glasgow slogan somehow became more credible:
‘People make Glasgow.’
And they do. They change it, they alter it, simply by being here, leading to new stories, and new identities for the city. For Alasdair and Jessie, two people who themselves have moved to Glasgow from elsewhere (Dundee and London respectively) it seems that their work with SIGOHA has affected their view of Glasgow. Alasdair put it this way:
It’s been amazing for us to get this new impression of Glasgow… talking to people and seeing how they arrived here.
Talking to Jessie and Alasdair after viewing the exhibition, they expressed interest in taking the archive to another city. But they weren’t sure about how that would impact the stories told.
It seems that if people are the same the world over, if we all have a common core that resonates across international borders, then SIGOHA could help people to see Glasgow, and in turn their own home, with different eyes. It encourages us to tell stories that frequently go untold, and listen to voices that are rarely, if ever, heard.
With the EU referendum changing the makeup of Britain, and completely altering our perception of who we are as a collective, it’s important to take a moment and listen to voices that aren’t our own. SIGOHA lets us catch glimpses of other people’s lives. It lets us feel empathy, not pity for their struggles, an understanding that we all have similar experiences, struggles, and triumphs.
Home isn’t where you’re born. It’s where you choose to settle. This is a thought that might seem alien to some, but to others, home is a constant negotiation between what was, and what is. It’s the place in-between, the moment lived in, and Glasgow Anew artfully documents just how transient our individual and collective identities are.
The exhibition closed on the 26th of June, 2016. But the online archive is ongoing. If you would like to add your voice to the conversation, email Jessie via firstname.lastname@example.org