Making Space for Creative Feminist Care: Glasgow’s Peoples’ Bank of Govanhill
By Heather Mclean with contributions from Ailie Rutherford and Alex Wilde
The following piece is part of Progressive City's Planning for Community Economic Development series, which examines a range of initiatives, such as cooperatives, alternative forms of collective land ownership and stewardship, mutual aid networks and worker advocacy/training organizations. Read more about this series here.
Activists and artists around the world continue to critique creative industries and elite arts organizations for accelerating gentrification and reproducing precarious labour relations. They show how this sector entangles artists and community groups in exclusionary urban regeneration strategies that pit communities against each other for resources. They also charge that Indigenous, Black and People of Colour (I-BPOC) artists, two-spirit, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and gender diverse identity (2SLGBTQ+) artists, disabled artists, older artists, and working-class artists are bearing the brunt of exclusionary creative industry policies within a context of neoliberalism and ongoing colonial planning practices.
At the same time, it is important that we don’t view exclusionary capitalist practices as all-consuming and lose hope. Instead, we can also amplify the work of feminist, queer and trans artists co-creating alternative arts economies within the confines of restrictive neoliberal urban policies and politics. Glasgow’s People’s Bank of Govanhill (PBoG) is one exciting example. Feminist artist-activist Ailie Rutherford spearheaded the PBoG in 2015 as part of her broader practice of fostering alternative economies in Glasgow’s Govanhill neighbourhood. PBoG’s activities have included transforming a former pawn shop into a Swap Market space where communities can share, barter, and trade everything from English-as-a-Second language and music lessons, to clothing, food, books, and tools for home repair. With a range of collective interventions, the PBoG challenges neoliberal competition and individualistic modes of ownership and art making with currency experiments, ad-hoc exchanges, on-the-street discussions and workshops mapping intersecting local economies. Overall, the collective continually explore ways of putting feminist economics into practice at a local level, pushing for a radically different economic model and alternatives to capitalism.
Currently, 70% of children in Govanhill are living in poverty as violent UK austerity policies dismantle vital community services and infrastructure. Home to a high number of new immigrant and working-class families, the neighbourhood is also undergoing rapid gentrification as artists and middle-class residents are buying up the ageing tenement buildings. Over the past five years, Govanhill has transformed into a popular site for arts spaces, coffee shops, bars, and organic food stores.
At the same time, at Market Forces, a Swap Market event held in 2019, community members discussed how artists in Govanhill have played a significant role in the neighbourhood’s political activism and radical working-class history (People’s Bank of Govanhill 2022). These insights echo feminist urban researcher Winifred Curran’s analysis of the contradictory role of feminist and queer artists and arts spaces in gentrifying neighbourhoods. Even though property developers value the arts for development, feminist and queer arts-activist spaces like the PBoG are continually practicing care as a radical practice and creating collectives that unsettle “dominant neoliberal constructs of value” (Curran 2018:95). As a feminist collective committed to practicing radical care and alternative economies, PBoG’s Swap Market organises playful, accessible and creative public workshops on precarious labour, the intersectional dimensions of housing justice, and alternative feminist economies.
In the Spring of 2020, when Covid forced us all into isolation, Ailie and the PBoG still found ways to nurture collective alternatives, including the Post Capitalist Futures Read and Draw group. PBoG’s Swap Market blog stated:
This moment of global crisis and the Covid pandemic is likely to transform capitalism as we know it. While this is a difficult time for all of us, can times of crisis also open up space for new possibilities to emerge? It is in these times that large collective shifts in consciousness are possible and major shifts in political and economic structures can happen. We are already seeing lower pollution levels, reduced consumption and new mutual care networks. What else do we imagine happening that didn’t seem possible before?
For our initial meeting, poet Raman Mundair led participants in a guided meditation based on Arundhati Roy’s article “the Pandemic is a Portal.” To spark participants’ imaginations, the PBoG provided instructions on their blog on how to make our own headsets to wear while reading -- antennae to pick up signals from the cosmos as we envisioned post-Pandemic futures. Then, in the summer of 2020, eight of us from Denmark, Latvia, Scotland, and Canada participated in more read and draw gatherings. Twice a month, we met on Jitsi, an open-source meeting platform, to share the images we sketched in response to readings.
We also accessed funding from the Nordic Summer University to co-curate online gatherings where we learned about I-BPOC, 2SLGBTQI+, and disability justice responses to the pandemic, movements that centre the lives and leadership of sick and disabled queer, trans, Black, and Brown people. The articles we discussed included, “Hawaii Considers an Explicitly Feminist Plan for COVID-Era Economic Recovery” in Truthout, a piece that describes Indigenous, Women of Colour, and migrant women-informed strategies for envisioning a holistic feminist and queer economy that takes care work seriously. We also read the work of Joy Buolamwini, a “poet of code” who combines art and research to illuminate the social implications and harms of AI. Buolamwini founded the Algorithmic Justice League to create a world with more ethical and inclusive technology and fight against what she terms the “coded gaze,” uncovering large racial and gender bias in AI services from companies like Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook.
PBoG continues to live the precarious conditions they critique as they facilitate these kinds of alternative creative spaces. This past year, the collective lost the physical Swap Market space because of funding cuts and rising rental costs. The group, made up of working moms and caregivers living on piecemeal arts and non-profit sector contracts, now run PBoG as a nomadic organization that facilitates online events. At the same time, larger, more established and well funded Glasgow-based arts organizations continually try to usurp and control smaller, more precarious collectives like PBoG. Responding to these tensions, PBoG members wrote the following provocation during their tenure as artist-in-residence for the Southside Central area in a city wide Glasgow City Council residency programme:
"With the breadth of creative activity taking place, often against the odds, we propose that the last thing Southside Central needs is a new artist in residence programme. What we need is to find a way of better supporting existing creative activity. We need time and physical space for creative people to come together, form collaborations, alliances, share knowledge and resources, have a collective voice, to allow us to work together to develop ideas and address some of the larger issues at stake in our communities".
Moreover, as the collective curates online activities, PBoG is increasingly troubled by the ways that the virtual sphere reproduces heteropatriarchal, colonial, and white supremacist values and practices. Ailie and researcher Bettina Nissen write, “our every experience is commodified online, and our inter-relationships are increasingly trackable, traceable, and data-mineable.” In response they continue to envision and practice strategies for building caring and collective online alternatives, including String Figures, a project that supports and strengthens feminist and creative groups working for social justice through de-centralised open-source networks centred on a principle of mutual care (String Figures 2022).This digital tool creates space for local and trans-local collectives to collaborate in an online space to remotely create intricate visual diagrams coded with information and build de-centralised support networks. The Swap Market also hosted a three sided feminist cooperative football match. In this game, three teams named de-growth, decolonization and climate action were made up of women and non-binary players.
To conclude, in a recent article about activist responses to climate crisis, debt, and austerity in Yes Magazine, adrienne marie brown stated, ‘the most daunting thing to me is the scale of change that’s needed. What makes me the most hopeful is that so many people are asking “How do I live my life? How do I spend my money? How do I care for my babies and care for the loved ones in my life?” People are realizing the front line is within us, and we have to practice. And that makes me hopeful because I can feel that change in myself and see it in the people I love.’ Through proliferating creative economic alternatives with diverse communities in Glasgow, PBoG nurtures such caring and collective front line activism in the city’s Southside and online. As planners, activists, policy makers and artists committed to fostering socially just cities, we must continually work in solidarity with intersectional feminist arts organizations like PBoG.
Author: Heather Mclean is a performance artist and assistant professor in Human Geography and Environmental Studies at Athabasca University. Heather’s research focuses on culture-led regeneration, precarity, arts interventions, and everyday geographies of agency, resistance and mutual aid. Working from feminist, queer, decolonial and participatory paradigms, she engages in research that de-centres dominant discourses and involves participants in knowledge co-production. Her current research investigates the role of the arts in envisioning and enacting mutual aid in rural British Columbia and Alberta. Her drag king character Toby Sharp: The Tool for Urban Change is based on her ongoing research on gender, art, performativity and urban politics and her past life as an urban planner in Toronto. As Toby, she has engaged in co-research as Toby with Dirty Plotz, a queer/feminist cabaret collective. She has also led drag king walking tours and mock professional development seminars for the Workers’ Theatre, the People’s Bank of Govanhill, and the Glasgow School of Art in Glasgow, Scotland, the Edinburgh College of Art and the Western Canada Theatre.
Contributors: Ailie Rutherford is a visual artist working at the intersection of community activism and creative practice. Her collaborative artworks bring people together in conversations about our social and economic landscape using print, performance, sci-fi visioning, games and technology as playful means to work through difficult questions and radically re-think our shared futures. Resulting works range from proposed new models for living and working together to the building of new infrastructure.
Her feminist economic artworks have been shown at Unbox festival, (Bengaluru, India) MoneyLab at Institute of Network Cultures (Amsterdam, Netherlands), Supermarkt (Berlin, Germany), Tracing The Tracks//Work Affair at Rum 46 (Aarhus, Denmark) White Papers on Dissent for Dutch Design Week at Van Abbemuseum (Eindhoven, Netherlands) and will be shown in the Lumbung space at Documenta 15 (Kassel, Germany). She recently curated the Wired Women festival for NEoN Digital Arts (Dundee, Scotland) and is artistic director of the Feminist Exchange Network (Glasgow, Scotland)
Alex Wilde has experience and interests in social art practices, city planning, food systems, land stewardship and community ownership. Her practice often involves art, gardening, cooking and urban design. She often works with people to create spaces for gathering and sharing ideas, skills and almost always food. These spaces are used to initiate dialogue about connecting to our local environment, the land, our food systems and each other. They have taken many different forms including community gardens, temporary markets, pop up cafes, a mobile soup trolley, walks, a festival and a soil lab. She also works on active travel infrastructure projects, community regeneration initiatives and is a longstanding member of the community campaign to save Govanhill Baths.