Lecture delivered to Fine Art students at the University of Illinois,

Urbana-Champaign, U.S.A.

26th April 2000

I’d like to start with a quote from Scottish artist George Wyllie - "it should be obvious that an adventurous voyage is most unlikely in the shallow waters of a bathtub, but the illusion of that possibility persists and is exemplified by art that never sails beyond the gallery" bath-tub Comparing the gallery to a bath tub, Wyllie advocated sailing in wider oceans in his work and teachings. His ‘Paper Boat’ of 1989 was a heartfelt tribute to the declining Scottish shipbuilding industry. But I’m from a different generation. For me, an equally interesting journey could be made in the offices and tower blocks we see in the background of this slide.

These first slides are from my undergraduate days at Glasgow School of Art. I studied in the Environmental Art Department which was originally the mural department. The course encouraged us to explore new avenues for researching and displaying work outwith the traditional gallery setting. I knew I wanted to work with 2D images and maybe here was a chance to have more control over the environments in which they were seen.

As one of the early placements, five of us developed and produced this gable-end mural in Glasgow. The subject matter - a bit of tromp l’oeil, washing away the bricks as the council tried to clean the city up, and some local history - didn’t really appeal to me but the scale of work and the relationship with an unpredictable audience was amazing - exactly what I wanted to work with.

At the time, opportunities to complete further murals and develop a personal language were in short demand. As the permanence of the work was of less interest to me, one day a tutor suggested that I investigate billboards. This was 1988. It was such a logical progression which allowed me to ‘learn in public’ with sets of temporary works.

I approached the billboard companies and, as a student, got free use of sites - each month there were an average of forty unsold sites which they allowed me to choose from. Similar to a mural, each work was hand-painted; unlike murals, each billboard was painted in the studio and professionally pasted up outdoors - a more anonymous and usually more unpredictable approach. Each one lasted for 2-4 weeks and was then pasted over.

skinheadEvery work was in Glasgow’s East End where I grew up. I knew the streets and knew roughly the kind of audience. I had two of the common art student obsessions at the time - the self and the urban city. This one was inspired by a newspaper article entitled ‘UK is an environmental skinhead’. I’ve always been interesting in this kind of comparison art, placing one object next to another and proposing that there could be a link between them. Most of the work was black & white, included a self-portrait but never included text. Although choosing and researching the site, I could never know which poster would go up next to mine. On this occasion, the two seem to play off each other.

As I graduated and stayed in Glasgow to do a two year Masters Degree, the work reduced down until there was only ‘the self’ with the ‘urban environment’ being the ‘real’ and not the ‘painted’. self These are twelve painted self-portraits, maybe surveying the area, looking around robotically at the environment. The French urbanist Bernard Lassus visited Environmental Art one day and spoke of our ‘vertical life’ - we had sailed across the oceans and then moved across land with rail networks - and gradually towards aeroplanes. With the development of high-rise architecture and the space race, he proposed we were now living in a vertical world. I was interested in this horizontal/vertical relationship.

But the work had reached a dead end. I was also getting frustrated that, due to the non-commercial relationship with the billboard companies, often the artworks would be pasted up at the wrong time, in the wrong place or even upside down. I wanted some more control over the whole process. During the MA course, I applied for and got some money and paid the billboard company to construct a billboard to my design, in my spot; I would ‘own it’ for a year, presenting my own work and that of others.

bellgrove This is a wall at a Bellgrove Railway Station that I passed through every day for six years travelling to art school. This is where the billboard would be. A new hand-painted poster appeared each month. There was a passing audience but nothing to say that this was ‘art’. No explanatory text or sponsors’ logos. The panel (approx 6x1m) was half the height of standard ones, creating a more cinematic format. The train line physically separated art from audience.

Mendoza, 1978, 68 minutes In January 1991 I did this piece about Scottish football. It was a very important piece - a move away from the direct self. I’d just come back from 3 months in Chicago studying the murals, the celebrations of various cultures, and had been particularly taken by ‘Bright moments and memories of the future’ by Caton and Jones and I wondered about Scottish culture, during what was the first month after Glasgow’s ‘European City of Culture’ year had ended. It’s a detail from an image that means a lot to people in Scotland who are passionate about football. A bit sentimental but heart-warming. Done with black and white spray paint, the background is collaged fragments from a commercial billboard (Virgin Airlines) I acquired. The exact same football image cropped up again five years later in the Trainspotting film.

This was a work by Thomas Lawson, born in Scotland and now at CalArts, painted from a photo of Glasgow’s main civic square but also with a football connection; the railway station itself is always unmanned, no ticket office, nothing and the only time there is an official presence is when there’s a match at the nearby Celtic Park and the whole platform is policed; fans alighting at the station were faced with both painted and real police.

There’s a very thin red line around each figure which add an extra definition to the forms. Part of the project was working with and learning from professional artists.

I was interested in opening it up beyond artists and collaborated on this work with the director of a local hypnotherapy company. With train delays and no timetables or clocks, blood pressure would often run high at the station. We wanted to soothe people a little. We coated some canvas with the lilac haze colour and stretched it over the frame. It caught the slowly drifting shadows from the platform pylons.

The next two works, early 1991, responded in different ways to the Gulf War that we were viewing on TV: Craig Richardson’s carefully composed text (in the snow) and Brigitte Jurack’s camouflaged tracking piece. The ‘OPEN TO THE PUBLIC’ text pre-dated the project - the only vaguely commercial sign at the station. By this time, I think people were realising that here was ‘art’, not advertising. A few minor mentions of the project in local papers assisted here. Every morning as my train drew in, I would watch people watching the art. Those travelling with companions would perhaps make comments.

Some of the contributors were Environmental Art students at the time and would use my studio to paint the works and discuss the works. Ross Sinclair’s original proposal was to have the Union Jack next to the word HATE within a black frame. When we got to the station, the billboard company had obviously got cold feet over the design. Rather than refuse to install, they simply shifted the whole poster one section to the right - HAT! After discussion, HAT was pasted over with white while Ross developed an alternative. The white was graffitied by some right wing groups before his redesigned piece appeared.

I enjoyed the Ross episode; the quickly changing situation, the discussions with the billboard company, the conversations on the train; I speeded things up, changing the posters every week for the last few months - a text piece by Douglas Gordon, while the Reverand Billy Graham could be heard preaching at the nearby stadium. Another of my own pieces, a baby, gloss paint on gold paper, in response to the nation census that was taking place and which used a baby image on other billboards with questions like WHO AM I? WHERE AM I FROM? And also some research I was doing into the ‘and babies’ poster by the WPA after the Mi Lai incident, refering to protest art for other purposes. And finally a 3-piece work from Pavel Büchler, the reversed word NORTHERN gradually changed into HORIZON.

The billboard was then removed and all that remains today, its physical legacy are these two thin lines of overpainted blue colour.

frank + lally Shortly after Bellgrove I worked with a Pensioners Action Group in Glasgow; they met every week to do arts & crafts, basically copying Christmas cards; they wanted to try ‘something different’; I struggled for weeks until I realised the most interesting fact was that the first thing they would do each week was switch the cassette player on - Shirley Bassey, Tom Jones, Frank Sinatra. So, I gave them some black paper and white chalk and for three months we just drew Frank Sinatra, zooming in on the eyes. We white-walled an empty shop unit nearby and had a little show. It was less about Sinatra and more about their progress, extracting an inbuilt creativity that was in them, going through the process of drawing highlights and learning to leave shadows alone, letting the black paper speak; we showed all the works from the very tentative first to the quite individual later drawings. Then they returned to their arts & crafts, but with great memories.

Robin Hood I then left Scotland and moved south to the middle of England. This was a proactive, self-funded work. The first time I came out of the coach station, I noticed a chest-high brick wall and as I peered over it, this huge crater revealed itself, lush and green, with a ramshackle boarded-up rail tunnel at the far end. I tracked down the owners, who said the whole plot was due for imminent conversion into multi-storey car park, so, with their bemused permission, I did this painting, about 10m wide, and pasted it on. It’s a large face, Sean Connery taken from the film Robin & Marian (he plays Robin Hood) and I just liked his cheeky expression; this is not ‘protest art’ but it was followed up by an exhibition in two years later in which I could go into the environmental situation in more detail. It’s more an alternative to the city’s official Robin Hood Museum which is a surreal grotto housed in the ground floor of an office block. The past meets the present, usually at the convenience of the present. The work remained until and during the car park construction.

surgeons! I opened the paper one day and saw the famous picture of the Loch Ness Monster. One of the men behind the photo had just died and left behind notes on how he and a friend had faked the 1934 photo using balsa wood on a clockwork submarine; Scotland had in a sense been very proud of the image (if not the monster) and suddenly it had been taken away; I booked a billboard and did this Pollock-like work and at the last moment changed the monster shape from black to white. It was all very quick. Under the billboard I installed a bookwork recounting the whole tale. Again it was anonymous and self-funded but by this time I had started using local newspaper articles to inform people as to the whereabouts and thinking behind the works.

I moved again, from the Midlands to Liverpool. I was getting into computer animation and getting a studio in Liverpool is difficult, which I think effected the these next few works. Derby was home to Rolls Royce; Liverpool has its famous Liver Bird and the two corporate figures did a little animated dance, which was part of an hour long piece about my time in Derby shown on a computer screen in a Job Centre. I find it hard to produce work without a reason, a project, a context. If there was nothing there, I would create a context.

Myself and some other artists heard about an old stately home in Liverpool which could be a potential venue. It was quite touristy but we got access to some unused rooms. The building was a bit remote and spooky so we came up with the SCOOBY DOO exhibition. I wrote to various artists, including Barbara, to contribute small Amsterdam artworks, objects and oddities to a piece called ZOINKS!! which was housed in traditional Museum cases. Again, the project allowed me to develop new works too - The Anthropologist’s Camera, a carved copy from one in an Amsterdam Museum and a piece called Schrödinger’s Dog.