Simon Yuill: Fields, Factories and Workshops
Neil Cooper talks to Simon Yuill, whose solo exhibition explores the relationship between space, community and politics
History, as has become increasingly apparent, doesn’t always tell the truth. Official records invariably have an agenda and, as the line of inquiry in Simon Yuill’s Fields, Factories and Workshops solo show makes clear, there is more than one way to tell a story.
‘I’m looking at forms of self-organisation within communities,’ he says. ‘You get a lot of cultural archives with lots of legal documentation, but we’re developing our own archive, which has lots of more anecdotal stuff in. We’re trying to bridge the terrain between personal expression and official records.’
There are three strands to Fields, Factories and Workshops. ‘Stackwalker’ juxtaposes the experiences of crafting communities in the West of Scotland alongside that of East European migrant workers in the North East. ‘New Commons – Field Reports’, meanwhile, looks at a housing estate on formerly common land that became the inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s fictional Egdon Heath in the south west of England.
It is perhaps ‘Pollok Free State’, however, that remains most emotive to the exhibition’s own landscape. Here Yuill returns to the territory of ‘Given to The People’, a film originally commissioned for the 2008 Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art. The film charted the long-term environmental protest in the early 1990s that attempted to prevent the building of the M77 motorway through Pollok Country Park, cutting off an adjacent housing estate from what was then the largest urban green space in Europe.
The protest, which involved protestors living in tree houses, ended after the bailiffs evicted residents in 1995. By that time, a real-life community had grown up around the activism, with some campaigners having become radicalised forever. ‘Pollok Free State’ shows a full six hours of unedited footage in an attempt to create a pure document, free of any mediated narrative.
All three works in different ways reclaim a history of dissent and direct action some people and power would rather pretend hadn’t happened.
‘A lot of people in Glasgow know about the Pollok Free State,’ Yuill points out, ‘but it’s not officially acknowledged.’
Alongside the main exhibition, a series of accompanying films and events aims to highlight the connections between documentation of communities and an oral folk culture. Yuill cites the folk-song collecting of Alan Lomax and Hamish Henderson as influences on his explicitly social practice.
Much of Yuill’s work ties in too with a resurgence of grassroots activity that in spirit dates back to the mid-1980s via initiatives such as Workers City and the Joseph Beuys-inspired Free University of Glasgow, the culmination of which was the ‘Self Determination and Power’ event, which brought Noam Chomsky to the Pearce Institute in Govan in January 1990.
Twenty years on, David Cameron’s coalition government has just announced the idea of ‘The Big Society’. With public spending about to be slashed, however, Cameron’s catch-all attempt at community spirit is fooling nobody.
‘The early community arts movement is really interesting,’ Yuill points out, ‘but it became completely distorted, and the idea of community has been appropriated and used in an ideological way. But people are seeing through that now, and are hopefully starting to think about what community really means.’
Simon Yuill: Fields, Factories and Workshops, CCA, Glasgow, Sat 7 Aug–Sat 18 Sep. See www.cca-glasgow.com for full programme.