The Pipe Factory in Glasgow is a formerly abandoned building that has been transformed into a community art center and residency program. I spoke with Beth Dynowsk one of the founders and currently doing research on how DIY culture links to the public sector. She referred me to the Scottish Empowerment Bill (easy read version) http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Publications/2014/08/5194/downloads#res457535 legislation that will make it easier for communities to take over property and to access existing common goods that the local government holds.
Here are the notes from our conversation today.
Pipe Factory, Beth Dynowsk
I was in art school and looking for space to hold an exhibition. I had heard other people had used the space and so asked landlady if there was space- she charged 200 pounds for a week and 4 us did a show there. A few of us thought it would be great as studios, and so approached landlady. Lots of people got involved, around 15 of us. At the time we were living in a house with a lot of us, so that was good that we could work a lot together. It was always a little bit tricky because she was a private landlord, and she was not sure what to do, there where no facilities to use for studios—it was extremely cold, only one sink—4 floors in total that we could use. Retrospectively thinking about it was a gradual turning from studios into this space. Everyone had different layers of involvement. What was nice and flexible was that we were all able to leave at certain moments. It was definitely a considered move to create a new space within Glasgow, a space that did not exist, and a way for thinking together around what those kind of spaces would be, and what an artist run space would be in the community, particularly where we were placed. I was living in the East End which is like where I grew up in Dumbarton both of those areas are in the 0-20% most deprived areas on the SIMD (Scottish Index of Multiple Depravation). There became an interest within the community for us to be there. Over the years got more I got involved in that. What became interesting is looking back on all those issues around stewardship that is a key term for it, which I had not really thought about before. I guess I thought about it more as volunteering and public services and who is responsible for those kind of things. The building now is going ahead with big changes where they can have improved facilities, running a program with residencies, exhibitions and events. Still have a floor of studios with capacity of 12-15 and a committee of 5 running it and will probably have some external board members coming in, to help during that process.
I definitely had the experience of talking to people finding out that they thought it was important for us to be there as an alternative to traditional education. For young people in the community to be exposed to artists and architects working in their neighborhood as a way of seeing that that kind of work as possible, as an option.
There was a large group of people, then it went down, and then it went back up within the committee. Looking back it was not egalitarian enough. I definitely drove a lot of the developing it into a space and having a business plan. There were only a few of us involved at a certain point and there was a moment of do we just leave or do we keep going. I think it became difficult to distinguish growth for growth sake or that it was definitely a good idea to do that, to open up. You just keep it in a small community. In the state that it was in, it was always going to be for a special interest group. The drive to improve the facility came from the drive to create a space for public use. We had different ideas within the committee. You have to be on same page for it to work, I started by doing classes in the community center, because our facilities where not adequate, and they were looking for activities. That was successful. Artist organizations are normally for a special interest group, the majority being art graduates. Having seen history of galleries in the area, where learning departments get tacked on the side, I was interested in starting something where those things were intrinsic to one another, have a program that was not just exhibition, if you were having an exhibition to make an attempt to have the conversations to reflect the things that really matter to people. Kind of mixing up who is the producer and who is the audience and who is the specialist and who was not. I don’t believe in notions of talent. I think it is having a space where you can consider all kinds of productive labor and bringing those things to the table.
For me it was also tax payer money so that become important. Everyone gets into the role of becoming a gatekeeper, because there is only so much space, you get 300 people applying for a show, and it becomes more difficult for people to share their work. There is a huge culture of finding a place to show work, we were adding to that an option for the community and a space for artist studios for only 50 quid. I was interested in serving the community group and thinking horizontally about that, the arts community is served well. It was a private landlord as well, with a 25 year lease what happens after that? after all that public investment? It could literally go into private hands when lease is up—so thinking long term are there better ways of working insuring that goes to public benefit- organizations have to be accountable. And also what is relevant to what is happening in their city and what is going to be happening in the world. Even thought you might build great things together there is a point where it becomes I think people come together, that is why should have funding for arts so people can do this kind of thing. It was easier than I thought, we got full funding within three years, for work in the area and we were allocated money to help with the building. It is possible but you have to give up working full time and get yourself a cheaper place to live. Living cheaply—it is all these kind of informal economies that you have that make it possible to do these kinds of things. That would not be possible in the long term for some of us.
These issues really matter. It leads to lots of problems, and good stuff as well. There are definitely things you can do to help people along the way so that it does not lead to overworked, overwrought individuals, trying to look after themselves and trying to do decent stuff to make life a wee bit better in certain places. I noticed that in US- I am thinking about people I met doing great work. The difference there was, some people are well cared for and well looked after but it is questionable how much for the public good it is- it is a deep issue. A place in Greensboro (North Carolina)- it was for women specifically – has a group for people running non profit on low wages or no money along side rest of their lives, great place to discuss these things and receive advice and share common issues so you don’t feel on a limb. It was not just for people working in the arts.
They should have allocated funds available – public servant are often paid to do these things, if there was something set aside for people, so they could put in for in grants and assistance in order to carry out this kind of work. And if the community has say in how services are run. This is where the community empowerment stuff comes in. If you hand more responsibility to the people working there, you don’t have these strange systems where you have these people making decisions who are paid enormously, everyone in middle who is paid a living wage in the public sector and in your non profit sector which is low paid and always in these weird one or two year funding cycles and all the folk at the bottom who are dealing with all the mess and they are doing it for free, they are actually the ones using the services, so it does not really work. So if they pushed more readily available funds and resources that are available through an application process to be able to do that within your local community. In smaller communities and rural spaces and smaller towns, Scotland is not that big, if you have places where people can go to share knowledge and help one another, sound out ideas and problems. Extremely useful for people looking to do these things, some kind of support group and central point of information for these resources. And if possible more funds towards people on ground coming up with ideas and possible have ways to do it. Just need tiny bit of help to do it themselves. In wealthy city if there is a way for people to put in to a pot. Even if local patron thing, even if that is facilitated, it generally comes down to having development worker or central pool, or access to people in local government to help- streamlined funding not potlatched together.
I researched self-organization and public resources in arts, democratizing cultural programming within institutions and what could be useful for groups self-organizing and making recommendations in relation to that issue. This was in response to 2012 and David Cameron’s Big Society, which was all about volunteerism and community doing things for self while making huge cuts-- austerity measures. I wanted to know what are the politics of DIY culture in Arts, what are the consideration for us doing this. Are we making less of a case for support of the arts and making a drive toward volunteer and private funding, or do we want to keep public investment in these kinds of things, and we make a case for state support. One organization in New Orleans- were providing arts education in schools, without it there would be none. That was one guy working three jobs- the people running these organizations, parents running day care in morning to make money, being on boards and applying for grants, non-stop you know. It was strange to see. I think the question came: it is the political economy of what you do. Relating that to how you look after your household, not just financially, and how that radiates out in to your streets, your city, your country and the world. What is the thread that runs through or are you acting in different ways in those spheres. Big society has dropped of the language of the conservatives- what consequence does that have for children, what is available to them in school and communities.
The community empowerment bill will make it easier for people to take over spaces that they would have no chances of previously. I have already seen that in my own council (in Aberdeen). People are much more aware. If people call up to say what is happening with that building they don’t just get the phone put down on them, with the legislation that kind of conversation will have to be followed up on. That is exciting. It is just now more how to get people aware, to get literature out and support around that and conversations about what that can be. It is quite often elderly people that run the community centers; there is already a lot of knowledge around there. We have cultural assets map, but a lot of property is not on there and I am not sure how publicly available that it is. That will open up some doors.
Beth is still formulating some of her thoughts around these issues and will be sending me her final report- which I will post in a few weeks.