It was fifteen days into the Glasgow Gallery of Modern Art’s exhibition ‘multi-story‘ that the news arrived concerning Serguei Serykh, a resident of the city’s Red Road estate who was seeking asylum together with his family, and who had led said family in a suicidal leap from the top of one of the estate’s infamous towers. ‘multi-story’, a showcase of work completed with the involvement of Red Road’s inhabitants, under the stewardship of artists Lindsay Perth and Iseult Timmermans, may go some way to explaining the root causes of this tragedy.
It took most of the 1960’s to construct the eight blocks that comprise the estate. The tallest residential structures in Europe at their birth, the flats were seen as a triumphant modernist solution to overcrowding in the centre of Glasgow. However, with little thought having been given to the construction of local amenities, Red Road’s inhabitants came to feel socially isolated. This certainly seems to have been the case for Mr. Serykh and his family, who had been denied asylum in this country and faced the prospect of deportation.
It is this sense of isolation that forms a major theme of the multi-story exhibition: one of the works on which Perth and Timmerman collaborated, ‘Untitled’ (2009), comprises of a storage cabinet with nine sections containing televisions, each playing a looped video, this piece shows nine spaces of varying human contact and energy that are nontheless separated by the unchanging structure that houses them. This is a powerful metaphor for the treatment of the people who have been moved to Red Road over the years. Seen to be ‘taking up space’, they have essentially been ‘stored’ in the Red Road flats; though thousands live together, they are isolated within their allocated homes. There is a recognition among the inhabitants that the purpose of this housing scheme was the movement of ‘undesirables’ (it is tempting to use the term ‘clearing’). The walls of the exhibition carry evidence of the humiliating effect that this had on the people moved there, featuring fragments from the testimonies of Red Road inhabitants, one of whom remembers how the ‘state-of-the-art’ flats were said by a Tory MP to be “too good for the working classes” that were moving in to them.
This also highlights the dangers of the one-dimensional identification of the people that live on Red Road or the countless other estates like it in this country. This inflexible attitude effects not only foreign residents but all of the estate’s inhabitants, who feel burdened with the labels ‘deprived’ and ‘unambitious’; or, in the case of many of the asylum seekers, ‘foreign.’ This kind of classification only compounds the sense of isolation that surrounds Red Road.
This notion is foregrounded in the ‘Tall Storeys’ collection of video installations that comprise another major part of the exhibition. Three makeshift booths consisting of lace curtain recreate a claustrophobia which is encountered by the inhabitants of the flats. Inside, a selection of short films are played which star, or are created by, younger inhabitants of the estate and which, consequently, reflect a sense of enclosure. In one of the films, ‘Teen Spirit’, two teenage girls discuss how the social barriers they believe hamper their future prospects at a formative period in their life, but nevertheless demonstrate a great deal of ambition, insight, and desire for a better life. In a darkly comedic passage, they mock their societal identification: “’socially deprived’, as they say on the telly.” The other films of the Tall Storeys project are made by children from diverse backgrounds and showcase, often playfully, a creativity and personality that forces the viewer to see beyond the ‘asylum-seeker’ label to an ineradicable yearning for self-expression.
You might suppose that the influx of asylum-seekers to Glasgow in the late 1990’s has engendered flash-points of racial disharmony, but another major point made by the exhibition is that, though the inhabitants of Red Road were initially suspicious of asylum seekers moving in to the estate, any sense of conflict between racial communities has largely been cast aside by a more unified identity. Indeed, the problems for the inhabitants are shown to be caused by the sweeping identification of the population as a single, homogenous, ‘deprived’ unit. In every work there is recognition of the diversity of the Red Road community, but in none is there evidence that the discontent felt by many of the residents is directed at other members of their surrounding community.
In fact, there is an immediate sense of identification between the Scottish inhabitants and those from outside of Britain. After all, as another one of the testimonies points out, many people living in the east of Glasgow are of Irish immigrant descent themselves. This community identification is shown in a playful way in ‘Untitled’ (2009) by the Mothers of Purl. By editing films clips that portray Scottish lifestyle and traditions, and re-mixing them with films from countries such as Iran, Somalia and Pakistan, the resultant package shows strong parallels between the cultures, at least foundationally, of the various people that settled in Springburn.
What ‘multi-story’ stresses above all is that, although the life of a refugee is by no means easy or trouble-free – as was exemplified by the tragedy of the Serykh family – their experience in the UK is in the vast majority of cases much more positive than if they were not allowed to live here. If the exhibition had opened in the wake of the deaths of the Serykhs, its positivity could have been mistaken for and dismissed as a hysterical overcompensation, intended to dismiss criticism of urban planning. The timing of the exhibition (which both preceded the event and remains in its aftermath) could instead prove to be crucial. It now acts as a testimony of the people of Red Road that is unclouded by social stigma, and shines a light on the failings of segregational housing projects in general. The community artworks recognise that although the conception of estates like Red Road may have been broadly well-meaning, they caused communities to label each other as different and mutually exclusive along class lines. In the cases of the people forced to live in estates like Red Road through circumstance, a sense of unwantedness and isolation is only perpetuated by the identification of them with this plight. This identification is also well-meaning, but is crucially and fatally flawed when it is used carelessly, in a way that dangerously disregards the creativity and potential of the inhabitants of Red Road.
by David Jackson