This Will Ruin Everything: Recoat's 10th Birthday
As urban art specialists Recoat celebrate turning 10 with a 40-person exhibition in the Lighthouse, masterminds Amy Whiten and Alistair Wyllie assess the changing face of street art and design in Scotland
On the Tuesday evening that founders of urban art organisation Recoat Amy Whiten and Alistair Wyllie are available to chat, they’re just off the tail end of a day as part of Test Unit. This week-long summer school is open to all and has its participants designing and building new wooden features for the empty industrial site surrounding Civic House in North Glasgow. As Recoat, Whiten and Wyllie are providing mentorial support and also helping by mixing paints for some of the new structures. Though they’re among some of the most consistent advocates and facilitators for urban art of the last ten years, they’re still obviously unfazed by a day’s graft – hands-on and out in the elements, work clothes on.
The theme of the week was broadly how to bring change to cities, and it’s part of the same Architecture Fringe Programme as This Will Ruin Everything, an exhibition marking the 10th birthday of Recoat. And Whiten and Wyllie’s organisation is an obvious fit for the Test Unit bill, as their public and community commissions and projects can be found transforming different spaces around Glasgow and beyond. Depending on the specific location, people and artists involved, sometimes they’re blocky, abstract and colourful, or geometric or figurative.
Together, as Recoat, they commission and curate urban artwork and design, and have done so since 2007 when they started the former Recoat Gallery, previously in Woodside, Glasgow West.
This Will Ruin Everything marks a reflection point and “coming of age” (according to Whiten) of Recoat, as well as the graphic and urban design and artworks that they’ve been making, supporting and facilitating for the last decade. This same work extends from what was originally meant to be a three-exhibition programme in Edinburgh, and a moment of increased resistance to the concept of street or urban art. Whiten recalls, “I remember someone saying ‘My friend doesn’t come to Recoat because they think it’s a graffiti gallery and they’re not interested in graffiti,’ and I was so upset because we exhibited so many different kinds and it changed every month – how can you make such a sweeping judgment?”
True to the name, from show to show, they would usually have artists coming in to work directly on the wall in some form. Come the next presentation, it would be painted over, ready for the latest artist. Though usual for the kinds of work Whiten and Wyllie were familiar with and making themselves, the cycle of temporary works and their erasure was just one of the ways that Recoat found themselves distinct from what they perceived to be the gallery status quo of that time.
“Recoat Gallery happened a little soon in Scotland. In London, people couldn’t get enough of [the type of art and design work Recoat were showing. But in Scotland] we were running the gallery but not seeing sales in the same way. We never really felt like we were accepted or respected, particularly in the beginning. We weren’t design, so we didn’t fit in the Lighthouse set-up at that point, but we didn’t fit into the fine art circuit like Transmission. We were commercial, but weren’t like Mary, Mary, selling what’s deemed to be high end contemporary fine art. We were just this little oddball, and to some people that was really exciting and underground. What I would say [is that] the support of the local press was great when we started.”
The back space of Analogue Books in Edinburgh was one place that was interested in showing this intersection of graphic design and illustration work. “Banksy showed there before he was famous,” according to Whiten. Wyllie adds that you could get a print from him then for 50 quid.
While this was the beginning of street art as a recognisable or relatively stable category in Scotland, when the pair had travelled around Australia, New Zealand and Tokyo they had become aware that their championing of more open-ended ideas of creative graphic design fit into broader trends happening internationally. At this point, they remember calligraphy, design and illustration experiencing a crossover, as practitioners were also interested in exhibiting their work.
In the same ten years that Recoat have operated and grown, new audiences and discourses have come to urban art (a relatively new artform in the grand scheme of things). There’s also been some change in the appreciation of work that doesn’t sit so comfortably in either art or design. “Maybe that’s about visibility – it’s about us doing Graphic Design Festival Scotland, doing Test Unit, and us being confident in expressing what we do in a certain way, that’s maybe more accessible to more people,” says Wyllie.
“The fact that the Lighthouse has invited us to do this exhibition feels like a coming of age moment for us as an organisation.” They describe this moment as a time when they feel much more confident explaining what they do, framing their roles as “contemporary urban art specialists.” Under this identity, they include a range of different community, commercial and curatorial tiers.
Within the exhibition itself, there will also be representation of a variety of practices spanning graphics, design, sculpture, painting, photography, and multimedia. For This Will Ruin Everything, Whiten and Wyllie’s thematic structure has been informed by their own early sense of being outside some of the more easily digestible channels and trends of art and design. “When we were talking about feeling like… we didn’t fit in before, I think that’s because a lot of the practitioners we work with move between design and art quite seamlessly. It was almost like to be told we weren’t one thing or the other [was stating the obvious]. Then, that felt like a slight.” Now they describe that feeling as much more of a compliment.
“The creatives we know and work with and exhibit are amazing creative individuals who flow between those things; I don’t think we really know anyone who doesn’t do that, who’s a total purist. But when we were at art school, we were told you need to be one thing or the other and you need to specialise, specialise, specialise. Even for us to explain at a dinner party what we do, a lot of the time we just say ‘We paint murals.’ It’s just easier.
"Doesn’t that make you an even more creative individual if you turn your hand to lots of different things? So the exhibition is a celebration of creatives who are artists and designers and maybe don’t even see the distinctions that everyone else places on them. And that hopefully then creates a bit of dialogue around that and shuts down the snobbery that seems to exist between [art and design]. Do there really need to be all these distinctions? Is that helpful?”
This increase in visibility might have taken them away from their previous ostensibly underground status, but has meant Recoat have been afforded greater material resources as well as a raised profile and greater appreciation of their work. Though neither Whiten nor Wyllie are able financially to give up their other teaching positions, they’ve nevertheless had relatively more funding to deploy more recently. This means they are able to give much-deserved paid work to some of the people that have supported them one way or another over the last ten years.
The importance, and their appreciation of the grassroots friendly favours and assistance they’ve received is more than evidenced in their acknowledgments page of the accompanying publication to This Will Ruin Everything. “There’s everyone that’s given their time at some point for free, whether they built a floor, sat in our gallery for us in the freezing cold, ran a show, donated beer… And it’s more than 100 people. We’re really lucky that we’ve had so many people who have wanted to do that stuff. What’s so nice about this project, we’re actually able to value their work and that’s really important to us. And we’re trying to do that more and more.” This kind of goodwill has bolstered the funding of the publication itself, with 250 already going to presales on Kickstarter, leaving only another 250 for sale.
With their relatively recent increased recognition, they’ve also been able to advance some of the principles of accessibility that have informed Recoat since the beginning. Their Creative Scotland funding for This Will Ruin Everything also covers an ambitious events programme, especially for people outside of the central belt. They’ll be able to fund support workers to bring groups from across Scotland, as well as the travel for everyone to come to some of the events. “And so we’ll have people from the Highlands, Argyll and Bute, down in Dumfries and Galloway. I think there’s huge geographical and therefore monetary barriers for people living in Scotland. It’s so disparate, it’s so stretched and there’s such a focus on the central belt.” In Glasgow, for issue-based groups, they’ve set up a similar style of funded participation. They mention Y Sort It in Clydebank, an arts hub for young people, as well as LGBT Youth Scotland.
Wyllie makes clear that this is a well-formed part of the work he and Whiten have been doing for a long time. “That is really building on the workshops that we’ve always done, when we have worked with all sorts of groups from all sorts of backgrounds, from adult drug rehabilitation groups to young kids from deprived areas and everywhere in between. We’ve got to that organically. Now we get to do it on a bit of a bigger scale, and pay for it to happen.”
They consider too the importance of considering the inclusivity of not just the audience, but the exhibiting line-up. Whiten expands: “To be truly equal and inclusive, it can’t just be that we have people visiting from those groups, they have to be in the show.” This is in response as well to a question on some of the arguably masculinised legacies of graffiti, in particular. Developing on this, Whiten thinks about the emergence of street art from graffiti, and the extent of the influence of one on the other. “You can’t argue, graffiti is heavily male dominated and it was definitely a feeling for me when I first… encountered all that, it was really male. Because of that, more street artists are guys.”
Whiten describes feeling uneasy noticing some shows had no women included, and seeking to consciously address that. “Towards the end, and again I think this is a confidence thing, we were starting to try and change that and I think we had the collective (a distinct group of Recoat artists) and three out of the six [were women], and in shows we were starting to be more conscious of it. Moving forward, the language in the current situation with feminism, and the way people are talking about it and exploring it and thinking about what it is at this stage, maybe a young generation are thinking much more about accessibility and inclusion and not necessarily focusing on the patriarchy in the same way…
"For example, for the Lighthouse exhibition, we made a conscious decision to be [approximately] 50/50.” They also mention their recent Graphic Design Festival exhibition THYPE, which was consciously composed to represent men and women equally.
For Whiten, “As soon as you say, ‘Do you actually believe that women are not as good as men at making art?’ No. So it doesn’t make sense for it to be male-dominated unless you believe that men are better, and they’re not. It’s actually really simple, and if you think about it like that, there’s no way you can create a show or do projects where it’s not more equal. We are curating a series of events, and within that again our panel discussion will be 50/50, our Pecha Kucha will be equal.”
Nevertheless, they acknowledge their status as white, middle-class people, thinking, with gender, of further issues of inclusivity. “When we sat and talked about who we wanted to be in the show, we [immediately] had 40 people we wanted to include, who we know or we’ve worked with, who we admire, who we wanted to exhibit. It was very quick and easy. If we did that, we could be lazy. We’ve worked really hard not to be lazy about the curation of the show.” Taking this responsibility of choice seriously, they mention thinking as well, for example, of gender, race, disability and sexuality. Though this process of thought is not acknowledged in great detail itself within or around the exhibition, they’re both clear that it will be evident in the strength of the exhibition itself.
Whiten and Wyllie are all set to take a bash out of some of the conventions and contexts they’ve been running up against and talking back at for ten years. Taking aim at unhelpfully ossified distinctions of the identity of the artist or designer, as well as renegotiating the presumptions of worthy Scottish audiences and challenging the unthinking habits of deciding which artist deserve to be exhibited, they promise: This Will Ruin Everything. Wouldn’t that be ace?
This Will Ruin Everything at the Lighthouse, Mitchell Lane, Glasgow, 15-30 Jul