Glasgow International's new director on the 2018 festival

As the 2018 edition of Glasgow International draws near, we check in with the festival's director, Richard Parry, to discuss his plans

Article by Adam Benmakhlouf | 19 Mar 2018

After his first nine months in the role, new Glasgow International director Richard Parry is now just a few weeks away from his inaugural edition of the festival. Speaking a month before the biennial visual arts festival is due to kick off, Parry remembers first arriving in Glasgow on the date that the submissions to take part were due in. “There was an amazing energy in the applications,” he recalls. “They gave a sense of what is interesting people here.”

Reading through the applications for GI, Parry was firm in his belief that “there has not been a more important time to listen to artists.” The last edition of the festival was in a pre-Brexit, pre-Trump world. “There’s almost been a change in historical period since the previous GI,” he muses. Perry has the sense that two years ago, when the last GI took place, there was a greater number of artists making work from a position that was purely aesthetic, thinking visually and in formal terms. However, in this current period “for many artists making work now, there the sense that you have to take a position and make it explicit in the work.”

Parry aligns some of the openness of the exhibition, and directness of the artistic voices involved, to the personal economy of living in Glasgow. “It’s reasonably affordable to live here,” he says. “Artists are able to make and develop work outside of the marketplace, and they’re free with what they’re doing.” Speaking statistically, Parry describes Glasgow’s “particularly rich art scene” and that there “are many artists that live here, more per head of the population” than other cities around the UK. “There’s a critical conversation, not just backslapping,” he adds.

While Parry had picked up some of these observations by proxy to some extent, it wasn’t until living here that he fully understood the distinctive positioning of Scotland. “In some ways you’re closer to Norway than other parts of the UK. There’s an outward-looking perspective in a very particular way.” He sees Glasgow's other like-minded neighbours being the rest of Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Berlin and Holland, and that in return, the world is intrigued by Scotland, particularly because all 32 of its councils voted Remain during the EU Referendum.

While Parry makes these observations as a new Glasgow resident, he nevertheless felt a great deal of familiarity with some of the ways and pace of the city upon first setting up here. In part, this came from having spent four years in the North West of England, in Blackpool. He considers them similar cities: both on the west coast with an industrial past, sharing a large working class population and now a university culture. “I feel very at home [in Glasgow] in a lot of respects, though even after four years in Blackpool I was still discovering new things there.”

Going further with his comment that there’s a particular importance to listening to artists now, Parry speaks candidly about what artists can contribute to societal debate. In particular, art is “a way of communicating beyond language… with humour and wit, exuberance and passion. There can be genuine depth and the sense of humanity coming across.” One way of thinking of this, he says, is “talking in an immediate and emotional way, beyond texts and narratives.”

While much has changed in the political climate around GI, one part of the festival that will continue into 2018 is the spreading of key works across unusual and occasionally otherwise inaccessible venues, and places outside of the city centre. For instance, “in the East End in Dalmarnock, there is a large commission with Mick Peter. There will be a 76 metre billboard on the changing architectural face of the city. There’s also a programme of work with young people from across the west of Scotland that are generating a lot of it and the ideas for it. It’s a collaboration between us and Glasgow School of Art's Widening Participation Department, and the participants come from less fortunate backgrounds, for whom a career in art might not be the first pathway.”

He also speaks excitedly about the project that will take place in Govan, “a fascinating and very old part of town, that was once its own town.” GI will take up residence in what was Govan Town Hall, and is now Film City – where many of Scotland's film and television production companies are based. “Graham Eatough and Stephen Sutcliffe are making a kind of adaptation of the Mr Enderby novels of Anthony Burgess, a fictionalised autobiography. They look at this figure of the poet and the writer. In their work, a group of schoolchildren are transported back in time into the living quarters of the artist, and they prod and poke him in his bedsit. Then there’s another part of the film, when the writer tries to go and converse with Shakespeare. There’s a sense of a time shift, as well as a layering of it being set in a film studio, that will be discombobulating in a really strange and exciting way, as you feel part of this narrative and act of time travel. And there’ll be parts of the set there that will create this sense of a shifting reality.

“There are also artists working on the underground system, doing installations in stations and trains, as well as in Queens Park Railway Club. There are performances happening on the River Clyde, as well as projects in well-known places like Kelvingrove, CCA, GoMA, The Common Guild. You have everything from those big venues to events taking place in artists’ flats. The Laurieston Arches are hosting a huge programme this year, across all 14 arches. It will be carnivalesque in the most exciting way. Also, in the Glasgow Women’s Library, there is an ambitious and exciting project with Linder Sterling, based on work she made in the Chatsworth Estate in Derbyshire, featuring a flag outside and a film she’s making inside.

“The Artist Run sector is also really exciting, with South African based collective iQhiya in Transmission, and Aniara Omann and Gary Zhexi Zhang in Market Gallery. That also has a great overlap and crossover with the Director’s Programme and the Cellular World show in GoMA, looking at the question of bodies, technology and communication in a digital world. So, for instance the effect of social media and a potential siloing in society, and asking the question: If, in social media, people have an avatar, how do we represent ourselves and how do people represent us?”

There’s a correlation between this politicisation of artists in Glasgow and Parry’s own sense of one of GI's strengths. He describes the festival as having “a lot of integrity, and it has allowed voices to come through in a direct way.” Summarising some of the parts of the 2018 festival, he says “there are themes around identity, race [and] gender.” He goes on: “I have a great privilege to be part of this, and as a visitor it’s exciting to see these questions and concerns.” For him, GI 2018 consists importantly of “a body of work responding to this historical period in time.”

Glasgow International 2018, 20 Apr-7 May, various venues, free