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scotland, glasgow, people, thinking, research, african american, history, reading, figures, black, questions, exhibition, called, clyde, romanticism, imagining, stuck, point, quiet, bit

a rant! a reel! is part of an ongoing project of research you've been undertaking. What has that entailed so far, and how does this exhibition fit into it?

The project has been through various iterations over the past four years. I was loosely doing research into Black figures and Scottish history, trying to piece or stitch together various stories and anecdotes to try and figure out what this country's doing, saying, and what I thought about it.

Since about 2014, around the time of the Commonwealth Games, there’s a lot of research and conversations been happening in public life in Glasgow about the city's relationship to slavery and colonialism and the relationship between Scotland and the Caribbean. I was interested in thinking about people, essentially, about Black Scots, or even what that term means or does. And so, eventually that became the project, which at the time took on the title of echoes of a black loch, which was sort of a proposal, for a sketch, for a future performance, which I was exploring while working on a residency at the National Theatre in Scotland in 2019.

That’s why I started collating some of my research to date, quite intensely focusing on a guy called Cornelius Johnston, and the 1913 private members club for Black people that he ran in the Gorbals. And we know about this because of the record of his arrest for hosting these parties. And yeah, those sort of details in the early 19th century really caught my eye. And then, I think from there I sort of went digging.

It was probably in 2018 when I first came across the PhD thesis by a woman called June Evans, which was a socio-geographical Study of Africans and Caribbeans in Scotland, and expands from the 1500’s to what was then the present day, 1995. And I was sort of struck by how Evans' research wasn’t confined to the histories of slavery and was more expansive, and then I spent a lot of time thinking through the development of contemporary racism in Scotland, and how it manifests, and the sort of varying experiences of people across time. There has been some research showing the prevalence of minstrel shows in Scotland, which then shaped attitudes towards Black people. I remember somewhere reading about how during one of Frederick Douglass’ last trips to Scotland he noted “a change in the air”, which in one article I'm reading was attributed to the rise of minstrelsy shows and things like this, as well as the sort of, like the Empire exhibitions and practice of ‘putting people on display ’also feeds into Scotland's imagining of the Black/inside/outside/Other.

And yes, between this and thinking about the River Clyde, I then sort of got stuck on silt and desilting.

Tell us about this interest in silt or de-silting?

I guess it was sort of ongoing work, thinking alongside what Christina Sharpe has written in relation to residence time. And then thinking about how that could be attributed, or like, how you could think of it in relation to smaller bodies of water, which is, I think, what I was trying to do with echoes of a black loch. I'm thinking of the river because Glasgow was referred to as the Second City of Empire, at one point, the world’s center for shipbuilding. I basically got stuck on the detail that the River Clyde was de-silted in order to make it wider so that ships, rather than having to unload in Greenock or Port Glasgow, could come right up to Broomielaw in Glasgow (which is also the site of Glasgow’s 1919 race riots). And so then I was just thinking about this process of like dragging this sediment out of the river, this scouring and dredging to make way for the ships and to increase profits. The artist Adebusola Ramsay pointed out to me that it seems like you can see the traces of that process when you look at Google Earth pictures of the Clyde. You can see that it's been stretched and widened and I think about what gets caught, carried, buried and unearthed… so yes residence time and also something the artist Redeem Pettaway wrote that I’m maybe misremembering about ‘sediment and sentiment building up at the banks of the Atlantic Ocean... In the 1800s, one of the reasons why Glasgow is such a successful port is because you take the North Sea and sort of skip over Europe, so you avoid any of the wars happening, and basically have like a two-three week advantage to get to the Caribbean, Americas and other places, over Liverpool and London. And, yeah, I guess I just decided to think about, how and what is dragged along, what is held in the silt.

The Clyde is central to Glasgow’s industrial history. A lot of the devastation of the post industrial decline is sort of centered around the Clyde and the waning of the shipbuilding industry. Now, the last active shipyard on the Clyde is run by BAE Systems. The history of shipbuilding is now being called upon as they're becoming one of the largest growing markets for the building of like spaceships or rockets and satellites and things like this, and this sort of like prior history of shipbuilding and naval prowess is being recalled in relation to space-age-space-race stuff without any criticality or reflecting.

I’ve been sort of using silt as a way to bring together these different people I was encountering through snippets and gestures and things that stuck in the mind, from Cornelius’ parties, to Kirsty Sanderson (who apparently got a white man drunk and robbed him) with some fragments from lots of different people that haven't fit into the exhibition so far. I guess this exhibition is a chance to create a pause in that research today, and sort of try and si(l)t with some of the ideas and images that have been encountered or created through thinking and working along these lines, and yeah, explore those, aesthetically, and think about these gestures through time, these refusals at various points, and thinking through the visuality of all that before being able to return to text and writing, where I think some of the particulars, chronology and more ‘concrete’ or rather less oblique information, fascinations, knowledge would appear. I want to be able to return to the text, but right now is an opportunity to sit with images in order to produce the essay(s) that would, in other (nonpandemic) times, have sat alongside the works but will now emerge later.

Would you be able to give some further context to the particular figures you're referencing in the show, why you're interested in them, and how they show up in the works in a rant! a reel!?

Yeah, so, one of the centerpieces in the show is these floor works which are (hopefully) slowly degrading, are the submerged paintings from an African American painter called Robert F. Duncanson, whose work I was introduced to a couple of years ago by Tiffany Boyle/Mother Tongue and I was sort of struck by them. Yeah, thinking about this Black person's particular relationship, and visualization/imagining of the Scottish landscape and that period of time and the relationships and inspirations that Duncanson had, like J.M.W. Turner and Sir Walter Scott, and these romantics/ this romanticism. These constructions of a space, places that endure into the present, often at odds with lived experience of a place, obscure this and hide the messier histories and violences (The Highland Clearances, slavery, colonialism and their interconnections). Duncanson is by some, such as the Smithsonian, described as the first international African American artist, and firmly in the catalogues of success in Europe. And I guess I'm interested in those mobilities, or how the people that you come across faster are the people who had more mobility, or like would be part of an elite, or perhaps, mobile class, to some extent or another.

And these depictions of Scotland sort of tie into an idea of Scotland which was emerging at the time, in part with romanticism and the sort of beautiful dramatic landscapes in a similar way to the creation of the English countryside, and how these landscapes are these beautiful lies, or rather actually speak to clearance, enclosure and expulsion, industrialisation, expansion and an awful lot of death of people, communities, ecosystems and ways of life. That sort of tension was interesting to me, and sort of tied to my ongoing research, trying to find people who lived in and across Scotland for extended periods of time.

There is more information about the time spent in Scotland by African American figures, such as Frederick Douglass, (he started the Send back the Money! campaign here), and Ida B Wells, who came to Edinburgh; the first African American doctor James Mclean trained at Glasgow University. And because Scotland was the centre of knowledge, at the time, with Glasgow and Edinburgh Universities, because with Oxford and Cambridge you couldn’t go unless you were a clergyman or something like this. Scotland is where all the other people would travel to.

And, yeah, then finding, Robert and then William Davidson who was the son of the Scottish Attorney General of Jamaica, and a Black woman (accounts differ as to whether she was enslaved or not. He's referred to as illegitimate, but acknowledged and provided for.) My first meeting with Davidson is through a line in Evan’s pHD which said that the last person to be hung, drawn and quartered in the British isles was a black man. He was executed on May 1 1820 for his alleged role in the Cato Street conspiracy - you can read his ‘eloquent and unsuccessful’ speech to court where he maintains his innocence and argues that he was mistaken for another man of colour. Essentially, exploring the lives of these mobile figures became an entry point... Finding records of everyday people, history, from below, that sort of thing. So much comes up, like the British Honduran/Belizean forestry workers who were stationed across Scotland during the Second World War, in the most terrible of conditions and the Abrews who appear in Maureen Blackwood’s film...

This show really leans into the intention we had of No Real Closure to be a platform for experimentation as its the visualisation of a dense research period explored through methodological experimentation in material or process, and a kind of playfulness with research towards a potential film outcome. Could you talk about these processes and what you’re thinking about in relation to them?

I felt like the invitation to participate in No Real Closure was a really important opportunity for me to experiment and play with the process and the virtuality as someone who spent a lot of time researching and reading and countering objects, people, images, anecdotes, of figures in archives, the internet, unofficial archives, conversations, etc. And sometimes it's really hard to know where to go with that, or like how to then sort of present something in an exhibition form. And as someone who actually struggles a lot with exhibition making, and that process of translation, this exhibition became an opportunity to play and experiment, and to sort of sift/silt through the research and not feel any pressure, I suppose, to cram everything that I know, or want people to know, into the exhibition space. And yeah, sort of play with/within the aesthetic realm. And then see how or if the undercurrents of research appear in what you encounter within the gallery space.

To be able to return to still images is really important for me, listening to those images and having the opportunity to see what other people might read or encounter through looking. I think it was important for me, as an artist at this point, to have room to sit with images and present images, and to do something which is maybe a little bit overly….. it doesn't quite tell you everything that you might want to know. Sometimes really, people need to know and actually, yeah, refuse that framework and sort of focus on the details, the particulars. I've always been interested in gestures and when I first came across the photographs of the black students at Edinburgh University in the 1920s I was really struck by what could be read in their faces, postures in these otherwise quite formal or rigid class photos. Reading or feeling something in their faces that maybe attends to their experiences, but is just as likely to do with what I’m bringing to the photograph, my subejectivities, experience..baggage...I think a lot about the gap between a person and what we put on that person retrospectively, retroactively… how to engage sensitively and ethically with people, their stories, the rumours surrounding life. But I also, at the same time, want to engage in bad readings or sort of work with a particular flippancy or ambivalent point.

This exhibition is really about processing a variety of thoughts and feelings. And then that sort of emerges through the ways in which I'm working with the various elements, which are all processed and reprocessed a number of times. I've been able to return to my work with my photographic brain, I suppose I studied photography at art school. This show has been an opportunity to take my own photographs and take photographs of existing archival images, focus on details, scan and print and rephotograph and continuously work on them. I'm interested in how images degrade over time, the archival process, what remains of things that are continuously worked on and against, what survives, and then also engaging with the unknown with the floor works. I don't know what those will look like at the end of eight weeks. But it's a process I've always wanted to explore. For the past three years, I’ve wanted to explore having these framed prints submerged in rum, which is a process which came out of my previous research into limbo and rituals of burial and grief, within the Caribbean context. And this programme, I suppose, provides an opportunity for them to do things otherwise, what I might want, what I might not have normally had the chance to... it's an opportunity to reflect on what I've done over the past couple of years, sort of follow around a project that is ongoing; this exhibition functions as a pause.

What’s soon to come in the future for this research project?

I sometimes have an impulse to cram lots of information into space. And I've been able to take a different approach with this exhibition. The sort of meatiness or all the information, notes, writing that might have at other points been appearing within the exhibition space, actually, will emerge much more slowly, in the form of publication, which will be published in 2022 to accompany the show and this research, to explore text more and sort of get to the point of weaving together these various stories and rumours; I guess in a more sort of textual way, actually speak directly to Scotland and its entanglement within the current global racial order. The publication will bring together some of my own writing, images from the show, and also commissioned pieces by artists based in Scotland, and interviews and reflections as well. And then I'm sort of working towards a feature film, which brings all these things together.

The collection of still and moving images through the slide projection images that are visible in the show sort of become reference points, the storyboard in ways that have not yet been realised. I will be researching and developing over the next year with the sense this proposed feature-length film, or any moving-image project might not come, it might take on other avenues or forms. I know that text is quite important to my practice. And so I'm sure there'll be some other things that emerge from this research. But yes, I think I'm at a stage in my practice where we're having ideas about form. I'm engaging with the process, allowing the work to speak to me or tell me what form it wants to take rather than forcing a particular medium into the research.