‘Housework. WANTED: Women artists to help transform an entire tenement block of flats in Glasgow, alongside women in the local community.’ In 1990, flyers and advertisements invited artists from across the UK to submit proposals for ‘Castlemilk Womanhouse’, a collaborative project in the Castlemilk area of Glasgow, located specifically within a so-called ‘housing scheme’ with little community provision. ‘Castlemilk Womanhouse’ was initiated by Women in Profile, a group that emerged to advocate for women’s needs in the programming for Glasgow’s year as the European City of Culture, together with the artists Rachael Harris, Julie Roberts and Cathy Wilkes. A ‘Women at Work’ sign created by Roberts captures the spirit of the initiative, transposing the iconic red warning triangle into an irreverent rallying point around which artists, community workers and participants could coalesce.
What I’ve just written makes it all sound far too easy: the four vitrines of archive material currently on display at the Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL), including sections from oral history interviews conducted and collated by the artist Kate Davis, together with slides and videos, convey the huge amount of sustained grass-roots work involved. It took two years for the project to get started, and for access to the disused space to be negotiated with the council, before artists could begin. Over the summer of 1990, Women in Profile and the artists (selected by participants) worked with a core group of about 10 women, building immersive environments as well as running workshops inside the tenement, which also provided accommodation and a crèche. The crèche was key to ensuring that children were looked after, but didn’t overrun a space intended specifically for women.
As the name ‘Castlemilk Womanhouse’ indicates, the project was initially conceived as an extension of – as well as engaging in critical dialogue with – the Los Angeles ‘Womanhouse’ of 1972, created by members of the Feminist Art Programme at the California Institute of the Arts, led by Judy Chicago and Miriam Schapiro. For ‘Womanhouse’, which has become a cornerstone of feminist art history, the artists moved outside of the education institution and took over a dilapidated house in Hollywood, which they renovated before filling with a series of installations that engaged with domestic experience, and which formed a setting during the month it was open for performances, discussions, and consciousness raising.
‘Castlemilk Womanhouse’ similarly fostered installations that drew on the domestic fabric of the tenements in their creation, both as a means of valuing women’s work and challenging its restrictions. Roberts’ ‘Treatment at Home’ featured surgical instruments painted onto the walls, in a commentary on the distanced, sanitized approach to women’s health taken by medical institutions. Rachel Field and Nenagh Watson’s ‘On the Throne’ transformed a bathroom space into a regal ‘lesbian closet throne room.’ A film by Anne-Marie Copestake from 1995 documents the workshops that continued beyond the initial efflorescence of the project into the middle of the 1990s. This community-based approach, and extended durational aspect, clearly distinguishes ‘Castlemilk Womanhouse’ from its US precedent. As Harris notes, the Glasgow project took the LA model and ‘pushed it in a different direction, perhaps a more political direction’, living through the model trialed in the US but adapting it to the specific requirements of the local context.
The politics of the project are multifold, and remain strongly pertinent nearly fifteen years on. While ‘Castlemilk Womanhouse’ could be approached as a groundbreaking example of participatory, socially engaged art, the display at the GWL doesn’t gloss over the economic and social tensions involved in a group of artists from Glasgow Art School setting up the project. The displays also record the lack of acknowledgement the project received at the time, particularly from the council, as well as within the wider context of what Adele Patrick evocatively refers to as the ‘stale, pale, male hegemony’ then dominant in many art institutions. The council’s lack of care for the project is especially resonant given that HOUSE WORK CASTLE MILK WOMAN HOUSE is presented under the umbrella of the major Generation project, timed to coincide with Glasgow’s hosting of the Commonwealth Games.
HOUSE WORK CASTLE MILK WOMAN HOUSE seeks to counter such elisions by recording the history of the project in a way that resists reducing it to a one-dimensional, mythological ‘participatory’ piece, retaining a feminist politic by writing narratives from the ground up. It’s here that the archive comes in, and the GWL, which developed out of Women in Profile and which now houses the ‘Castlemilk Womanhouse’ papers, is in an excellent position to pursue a collaborative history of the project. By interweaving the oral histories with the archival display, Davis communicates the polyvocal nature of ‘Castlemilk Womanhouse’. Davis will develop a further creative response in a second exhibition planned for 2015, which will take place in the GWL’s new display spaces currently being built. It feels eminently appropriate that these materials, many of which are being archived and also added to the GWL website, are being gradually unfolded in this ongoing fashion.