MULTI-STORY. art and asylum seekers in Glasgow

A short essay commissioned for an ongoing series of publications on new work shown at Street Level Gallery, Glasgow. ‘Multi-Story’ was exhibited in February 2005.


Migration, especially economic migration, has been a constant feature of human history. It isn’t so very long ago that masses of economic, political, cultural and religious migrants left their homeland and flooded into lands across the world. These were Scots looking for a better life than the one into which they had been born. They had been oppressed, imprisoned, starved and forced out of their homes. They had no alternative but to migrate in their thousands elsewhere – anywhere that they could find, anywhere that would take them.

When Glasgow City Council accepted a contract with the government to house refugees and asylum seekers it made sense in a number of respects. The city had a lot of empty flats in its tower block housing stock and it made economic sense to have them occupied. Empty flats means falling school roles and the closure of shops. Also history shows us that, in the long run, migrants contribute real benefits to the host country. Witness, for example, the explosive educational success of the children of South East Asian parents in the USA.

Glasgow’s legendary ‘friendliness’ and its compassion for oppressed people was significantly demonstrated when it became the first city in the world to name a street after Nelson Mandela while he was still a prisoner on Robben Island. Many cities followed that lead but it was to Glasgow that Mandela came to thank the cities of the world for their gestures of support and solidarity. Glasgow’s gesture possibly still remains unique since the street chosen to be named, Nelson Mandela Place, housed the offices of the apartheid South African Government.

From the sixties many artists, for democratic reasons and fuelled by the post war consensus, moved into a more directly engaged social art practice. They saw it as a way of involving broad swathes of people in the arts who, through economic, social educational and cultural reasons, were excluded from playing a full role in society. The work offered one way of liberating people from that very exclusion. It was natural therefore that artists and arts organisations with a commitment to social art practice should turn their attentions to the urgent needs of this sudden influx of asylum seekers suffering exclusion in an extreme form. Street Level, through its outreach and educational programmes has established a substantial track record in social art practices. In this respect, with its special emphasis on photography and the evolving computer technologies, it is well-placed to engage in such work.

‘Multi-Story’ has developed from ‘New Horizons’, a project developed in collaboration with the Scottish Refugee Council in 2003 which resulted in a CD-ROM. This was made collaboratively with asylum seekers and themed on an orientation guide to Glasgow, exploring emotional orientation as much as any physical guide map. ‘Multi-Story’ extended that collaboration and offered two weekly sessions over a 6 month period to residents of the YMCA Headquarters in Springburn, North Glasgow. Around 240 asylum seekers live in the 31 storey tower block and floor 28 is given over to social and educational resources. Residents were invited to participate in a range of creative activities using digital imaging, sound recording and video, alongside conventional photography and computer skills. The project generated a vibrant range of outputs including cookery videos, music, songs, personal testimonies and portraits.

Photography and new media are ideal means for collaborative art practices. There is something immediately appealing about them in their accessibility and universality – most can take a camera and press the shutter. I don’t suppose there are many places in the world where the photographic image in not known, especially in the form of the portrait and the family group. As one of the artists says, “… there’s a global familiarity with photography that cuts across cultural and language barriers… in its documentary role it says, ‘I am here. This is where I am.'” The photographic portrait, however, carries with it certain dangers for refugees and asylum seekers whose natural inclinations must be to remain anonymous. Making personal portraits, however, proved to be extemely popular and was taken up enthusiastically. Clothes, props and poses were used to illustrate the personality of each of the participants. The results are clear to see….a set of portraits with which it would be difficult not to engage at levels deep below the surface. Redmond O’Hanlon, in answering his own question, ‘why are great photographs so powerful?’ suggests ‘… they stop time… they are one in the eye for death… but also they deal in images, the language of our dreams.’ I’d venture that these notions lie at the root of the success of this photographic project. For fear of harassment, difference is often belittled and concealed. The project encouraged people to see their culture as something to be celebrated. Through this work, in which cultural diversity is framed positively, it is hoped that some of the fear and hostility to the uniqueness of difference can be challenged.

One of the problems with art projects in this field of work is a lack of any long-term engagement and continuity – it’s great while it lasts, but then what. Technology offers a solution and an interactive website has been established. It aims to provide a forum for discussion and dialogue for the participants so that this project will continue no matter that some might well be off to the other end of the country. New users will be able to get involved and contribute, so that ‘Multi-Story’ literally becomes an expanding web of contact and creativity.

David Harding
Jan ’05

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