Shona Macnaughton: Progressive?

Shona Macnaughton is one of four artists in the new exhibition at the National Gallery of Modern Art in Edinburgh, the sixth and final instalment in the NOW series. While the show as a whole has much to commend it, the room documenting her performance of 2017, Progressive, is particularly intriguing. Introduced as relating to ‘the politics of regeneration in the urban landscape, as well as the evolving individual experience of pregnancy,’ the performance is described as a response to Graham Square, in the east end of Glasgow, once the site of the town’s abbatoir, and subsequently redeveloped for residential use. Macnaughton’s gloss on the performance provides more detail: ‘[a]s I looked at the language used in local regeneration schemes their themes of new life at the expense of old, seemed to echo the progress of my body at that time. The Baby Box, another state-sanctioned scheme…neatly doubled as a podium to (barely) keep my pregnant weight aloft, and allowed my self-turned political speech to be heard over the crowd.’

With the artist’s script and photographs of the event on the walls, and a couple of props (Macnaughton’s jacket with the word ‘Progressive’ on the back and the cardboard Baby Box) in the middle of the room, there is little other interpretation. The script tells us that the performance starts in an empty shop unit where the contents of the Baby Box (babygros, a baby thermometer etc) lie on the floor. ‘The Pregnant Artist’ recites several phrases that will occur again during the subsequent performance, such as: ‘This performance is intended to provide a framework for the kind of collaborative action that will be necessary in bringing about beneficial change’ and, ‘An air of neglect pervades me.’ She then leaves the shop and the audience, two of whom are carrying the Baby Box, follow as she walks through the streets to Graham Square. Here, using the box as a podium, she delivers a short speech in which she positions her – pregnant – self within the language of urban regeneration. The speech begins thus:
‘The relationship between myself and my surroundings has changed over the past decade. points. No longer are-there-un broken-runs of activity. Motions to face. Swathes of vacant space emphasise the lack of activity and quietness in the core area. Motions to pregnant belly. Artists have moved me, however I still lack vibrancy during the week, offering nothing to the street in terms of atmosphere and activity.’

Having dryly ‘diagnosed’ the problems, and in line with the positivity of the regeneration discourse, she promises to ‘Improve my look and feel; Make me easier and safer; Remove my eyesores and tackle my blight.’ Her monologue concludes, ‘I have taken on all the challenges in a pragmatic and realistic way, determined not to make the same mistakes as previous regenerative efforts faltering emotive voice that are still in the memories of local people.’ The satire on the exhortative discourse of regeneration arises naturally as the language is applied to Macnaughton’s pregnant body, the comedy produced by the incongruity of her body invoked in relation to the urban fabric. The satire runs the other way too: with a sardonic commentary upon both pregnancy’s aberration from the narrow standards for the female body in the public realm, and the cultural denial of maternal subjectivity. The very phrase ‘The Pregnant Artist’ seems a contradiction in terms given the way in which pregnancy is commonly understood to occlude intellect or creativity, or indeed, authority.

The authority of the ‘Artist’- and its potential complicity in socially divisive urban development programmes – is a concept that is in itself also subject to Macnaughton’s satire: as suggested by the jacket she wears emblazoned with the word ‘Progressive’. This tacit commentary comes into focus through her gesture, before starting her speech, in putting the jacket over The Calf, a sculpture in the corner of Graham Square. To fully understand the implications of this action we need a little background. The sculpture, by Kenny Hunter, was made as part of the 1999 Glasgow City of Architecture and Design five urban spaces initiative, when artists were given an unusual degree of involvement in the redevelopment of 5 specific sites. At the Graham Square site, both architects and artist wished to acknowledge the site’s history as Glasgow’s abattoir, and to this end the architects kept the listed façade as a freestanding archway, effectively constituting one side of the square, while Hunter’s sculpture sought to ‘honour all the animals that … ended their life’ there (Sharp 279). While the end result ‘avoids the decontextualising trend of modernist [urban] design,’ in its preservation of communal history, the resulting square is elegant but arid. Furthermore, as Joanne Sharp argues, the site, along with the other four spaces, ‘has not been able to escape the bureaucratisation of urban managerialism’ as the process of regeneration meant ‘issues of day-to-day control of the Spaces’ were moved from Housing Associations and ‘led to decisions that undermined their local embeddedness’ (289). In this case, then, not only has art contributed to a confusion about whom the space is for, it has also helped sanction urban managerialism – a fig leaf for the development of space as a mechanism of social regulation. The idea of social regulation might seem rather abstract until we remember the Baby Box, ‘another state-sanctioned scheme’, which similarly regulates lived experience: the Baby Box issues state guidance on how an individual should parent, while the regeneration project ensures the state organises how they should live.

Pregnancy seems an incongruous way of approaching urban renewal – this is partly why it manifests as comic – but Macnaughton’s twinning of the two reveals a kinship between pregnancy, that apparently most private or intimate of experiences, and the evidently public and rather academic subject of regeneration, illustrating the extent to which both are subject to state control and technocratic rationality.

Sharp, Joanne, ‘The life and death of five spaces: public art and community regeneration in Glasgow’ Cultural Geographies 2007 14, pp.274-292

© Emma Sullivan 2019.

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