Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Social Culture and Special Unit Sculpture

The Third Eye Centre functioned not only as a space for arts events and exhibitions, but was also engaged with social issues affecting Glasgow in the '70s and '80s, a concern that manifested itself in a close relationship with Barlinnie's Special Unit, an experimental piece of penal reform that encouraged rehabilitation through creativity. In addition to this, the centre played host to numerous talks that focussed on the social or political rather than the artistic. From the material contained within the archives, it seems that the community that surrounded the Third Eye had a radical politics that largely avoided compartmentalisation; through community arts, an inclusive atmosphere and events like the Special Unit exhibition. This group show featured work from many of Barlinnie artist-inmates, including well-known figures such as Jimmy Boyle and Hugh Collins.

One of the figures who emerges from the archive in the context of the Third Eye's socially engaged ethos is American community artist Beth Shadur. Recently, fellow researcher Caroline Gausden contacted Beth regarding her time in Glasgow, with the following response;

I had been doing community murals prior to coming to Scotland. When I was awarded a huge fellowship from Brown upon graduation in 1975, I wrote to Jimmy [Boyle] at the Special Unit about coming there to do a large mural project. We corresponded several times before I came. I was working briefly in Mexico to photo document the murals there, when I heard from him that I should plan to come that summer of 1976. We did a huge mural at the Special Unit that is now documented at the People’s Palace.
The Chicago-based artist also appears in several of the Portapak videotapes held within the archives, including this extract from footage of a talk by psychiatrist Maxwell Jones and subsequent discussion, where she espouses the case for professionals working to make their roles unnecessary:

In this footage, it seems we have an arts centre functioning as a democratic, open space - in opposition to the notion of a gallery as a cloistered, exclusive and elitist environment. On the European arts centre model Beth Shadur comments:

Third Eye Centre was radical in that it not only served an arts audience, but just regular people who came in off the street. That was what always fascinated me, because in the US, arts venues tend to be populated by those already interested in the arts. In Europe, arts venues seem to understand how to welcome everyone, so that people from different socio-economic classes come in to see art and have a coffee. That doesn’t happen so much in the states.

One of the events that sought to bring together the Third Eye's inclusive ethos and its work in various communities was the Special Unit exhibition, captured in the following film. It is an interesting piece of footage because it doubles as a kind of walk-through tour of the Third Eye, culminating in shots of the co-operatively run cafe where we see people queuing for their coffees:

Like much of the filmic material in the archive, the footage sits somewhere between documentation, experimentation and film. This is actually one of the most edited of any of the tapes and, unusually, has its own soundtrack. It's a great little piece of experimental film-making that really transforms the figurative sculptures into subjects, in a way reminiscent of Chris Marker and Alain Resnais' Les Statues Meurent Aussi (Statues Also Die). This 1953 film-essay critiqued the aestheticisation and commodification of African art by Western culture, Marker's camera imbuing the pieces with a feeling of humanity perhaps denied them by their confinement to museum cabinets.

Les Statues Meurent Aussi (1953)

The relationship between the Third Eye and the Special Unit bore strange fruit. Having been brought to Scotland by Edinburgh artist and gallerist Richard Demarco (co-founder with Tom McGrath of the Traverse Theatre ), self-styled shaman and conceptual artist Joseph Beuys found in the Special Unit an example of what he termed social sculpture. Beuys also had admirers among the inmates, as Beth Shadur describes:

Jimmy Boyle was friends with Tom McGrath and Joyce Laing before I got there. He had contacted Joseph Beuys too, upon seeing the work "I Love America and America Loves Me," telling Beuys that he, Jimmy, was the coyote. 

Indeed, in a letter to McGrath, Boyle - serving a life sentence and probably the Special Unit's most infamous inmate - asserted that the piece was the only piece of contemporary art with which he felt any affinity. In an ongoing friendship, Beuys was to stand in for Boyle at an opening that the latter was unable to attend due to his incarceration. The German artist even went on hunger strike in protest at the decision to move Boyle from the Special Unit to a normal prison - an action which became known as the Jimmy Boyle Days. This relationship, forged between two figures, both of whom have taken on somewhat mythical status, seems to typify the way in which the Third Eye was a node which fostered unusual relationships and through which distinctions between art and society at large became difficult to maintain. With the Third Eye Centre providing a model for arts centres in Glasgow and elsewhere, it may be worth questioning whether the current incarnations live up to this early promise. As Beth Shadur comments:  

Now, the idea of socially engaged art has taken off as if it is a new thing! Many of the community mural artists involved since the early 1970s would “laugh at this.” [...] It is really fashionable now to do socially engaged art and this type of work in many ways is the darling of the art world.

Courtesy the Richard Demarco Archives. Copyright Richard Demarco


  1. You write that "……Richard Demarco (was a) (co-founder with Tom McGrath of the Traverse Theatre)…". Assuming that you mean the Edinburgh-based Traverse Theatre Club, I believe that this is not so, and Tom is nowhere accredited with such a connection.

    Jim Haynes, a Traverse co-founder, went on from Edinburgh to set up the Traverse Theatre in London circa 1966, just north of Oxford Street, at the beginning of Southampton Row, but again I am not aware of any evidence linking Tom, though he was in London during that period.

    Tom was instrumental in founding the Glasgow Theatre Club in 1978. The first public open meeting was held in the Third Eye cafe where Joe Gerber, Tom Laurie and Tom McGrath. and others were confirmed as members of the steering committee. This duly became the basis of the present Tron Theatre.

  2. Apologies, I think I must have got confused between Tom McGrath's involvement in the early days of the Tron and the showing of his plays at the Traverse.