Iseult Timmermans‘ photography is rooted in a collaborative practice, exploring techniques and ideas with others across a variety of contexts. Between 2003 and 2014 she worked on a range of projects in the Red Road Flats in Glasgow. Margaret Mitchell caught up with her to discuss in depth aspects of the projects, the value of a collaborative approach and the legacy that the work produced.
M.M. The work in the Red Road Flats took place over many years, can you start by offering some background as to how you first started working with people there?
I.T. In 2004 in my role as Project Co-ordinator at Street Level Photoworks I was involved in establishing multi-story which was a collaborative arts programme based at the Red Road Flats, North Glasgow and involved artists, local residents and community organisations. It was a flagship project for Street Level, reflecting the organisational ethos and approach to community based engagement programmes.
multi-story offered opportunities for people to take part in creative photography alongside artists and aimed to support dialogues across communities. Using traditional and contemporary approaches multi-story aimed to support asylum seekers and refugees new to Glasgow in their emotional orientation and to celebrate different cultural traditions.
M.M. Expanding on this, where was multi-story as a project based?
I.T. Initially the project ran mainly from the YMCA Central Branch, which was one of three main agencies contracted to house asylum seekers in Glasgow. The YMCA (now Y People) already leased a 30-story tower block, one of the eight Red Road flats in North Glasgow.
The Red Road flats were significant in Glasgow as they were the showcases of social housing in the early 70’s and were the highest tower blocks in Europe at the time they were built. They are all now demolished, although at the time we started multi-story this was not even in the planning. By 2004 the residents of the Y’s block were almost exclusively asylum seekers. The 28th floor housed a dedicated space for use as a community facility. There was a little café, a crèche (daycare), a games room and computer suite. That’s where multi-story began.
M.M. So, working in this environment at the flats, what did the project entail in practical terms, both in terms of materials and techniques as well as artistic approach?
I.T. Alongside other artists I ran weekly creative photography workshops for asylum seekers. The project was collaborative, we offered ideas and introductions but the participants were able to shape the activity too. For me this process is very fluid and although there was an over arching structure in place, sessions were not rigidly scripted. This allows the space for the creative direction to be developed at a pace and level that my collaborators are comfortable with and capable of, and in this context there was a big variation on that scale.
This approach allows the chance to create possibilities that I could not have devised on my own. In practical terms, the workshops I offered were across a range of different media from traditional film based photography, including large format (5×4) Polaroid portrait workshops through to digital photography, Photoshop and digital imaging.
The initial team included Lindsay Perth, who designed the website www.multi-story.org and was later a resident artist on the project and Basharat Khan delivered workshops in the first few years.
M.M. As part of multi-story, you set up the Red Road Flat Obscura and Pinhole Photography workshops followed by the establishment of the Community Studio. It is inspirational that you turned one of the flats into both a working camera and a darkroom for residents. Can you give some detail on this?
I.T. In 2007 we started a three year funded phase of the project and shortly after the plans for the demolition of all eight of the flats were announced. The Red Road Flats project was established by the Glasgow Housing Association (GHA) and Glasgow Life to work with organisations in the area to deliver creative programs aimed at recording some of the history of the flats.
Through this partnership, I was able to access an empty flat and develop the Flat Obscura. I converted the empty rooms into a series of camera obscuras and light environments. I also converted the kitchen into a temporary darkroom and ran pinhole photography workshops with local residents, mainly refugees and asylum seekers by then. It was very popular – we had hundreds of people visit and enjoy the sheer magical simplicity of the obscura. There’s a documentary about the project still available to view online. After the success of the obscura flat I devised a proposal that led to me setting up the Red Road Community Studio on the 23rd floor of 10 Red Road Court. I co-ordinated a creative programme from there for Street Level which was funded by GHA until the final decant of the block in 2013.
The community studio was two flats knocked into one, comprising of half of the 23rd floor. We created two main workshop areas with photographic backdrops and an area for digital animation. There was also a darkroom, an obscura and an exhibition corridor.
M.M. Would you say there were different photographic approaches for different parts of the project? Was it a natural evolvement or more planned?
I.T. Clearly different artists working on the project had different approaches, I can only talk about mine. The residents I engaged with were fluid, passing through an area that was actively being demolished. It was like working in a waiting room, no-one knew how long they had before they got on with their journey. It was a very challenging environment and also really rewarding. I was especially connected to the work with young people, some of whom attended workshops over a 6 year period.
My approach was very organic and shifted and responded to the people engaging. At times it was documenting the area together, at times recording peoples experience and at times playing with the medium of photography itself.
M.M. What would you say the project aims were in relation to both the participants’ experience and for the artists?
I.T. The project aims changed over time but always at the core of the work was the aim to support emotional orientation for asylum seekers new to Glasgow; to celebrate cultural diversity and to support social integration in the local area.
Through exhibitions and events both locally and in Glasgow we aimed to support a different view and narrative about the refugee experience and to enable people to represent themselves. Later on as I started to explore more of the history of the area and discovered many positive, untold stories of the original residents of the flats, the work came to reflect that too.
I developed the Red Road Portrait Archive, which photographed people who had lived there across the flats history, including some of the first residents to move in and someone actually born in one of the flats. Some of these portraits were exhibited as posters on the old lock up doors as part of a final community event held in 2013.
M.M. Your collaborative practice is incredibly important for you as an artist, what do you think the key benefits of this approach were in the context of the flats at that time?
I.T. I aimed to impart new skills, build confidence and have fun. With the young people I concentrated on helping them see their environment differently and learn something of it’s history through connecting them to the ex-residents stories.
There was something at the heart of the collaborative approach that acknowledged the erosion of community and was exploring if there was a possibility for new communities or at least a sense of a community to be facilitated through the arts in the context of a de-communitised area. I certainly met ex-residents who really wanted to tell their stories and for whom the demolition of the flats, even for people who had moved decades ago, was a very emotional experience.
There was something powerful in the capturing of these stories for people involved, not just in the photography activities but in the broader Red Road Flats Cultural project. I think it was the combination of those two things that the collaborative approach allowed – a different perspective on the present by bringing aspects of the past into the frame.
M.M. There is a real sense of a legacy having been created when looking at this work. Can you tell us a bit more of your own thoughts in this regard?
I.T. I recently met up with some of the young people I worked with dating back over 12 years. Those discussions revealed the best legacy for me from my collaborative practice – it is rooted in the young peoples’ lives.
I have an interest in exploring the role art has in hard times and hard places and my discussions with the young people revealed that it can be what sees people through. It can be what gives young people the confidence and ability not just to survive, but also to be happy and thrive.
I think artists have a vital role in the everyday; as teachers, collaborators and agents of change – not necessarily policy or political change – but a change of perception and viewpoint for people involved.
To quote one young man who was a participant, aged 15, in the first series of workshops at Red Road:
‘Looking back at that time, it was the most creative in my life, it was the time I was happiest’.
This is despite multiple challenges he faced including attacks and a stabbing. Also the impact on him of living with an uncertain future due to his residence status. Another young woman, who was involved from aged 8 to 14 gave a thoughtful response when asked if anything had stayed with her, had carried forward from the experiences in the project. With a direct and an open smile she answered promptly:
‘It gave me happy childhood memories’.
The poignancy of that statement must be understood in relation to the context of her young life. This is the legacy from that work that matters most to me. The physical artworks are a fantastic legacy too of course, capturing a unique place and time in history. In 2016, Glasgow Museums acquired a body of over 24 photographs for their collection that came from the Red Road work, ensuring a significant physical legacy for audiences to come. As there are still many photographs that have never been shown, there are plenty of possibilities for future developments and for sharing more of the work and stories from the Red Road.
Iseult Timmermans website
Main multi-story website
First multi-story website (requires Flash)
Iseult Timmermans‘ photography is rooted in a collaborative practice exploring techniques and ideas with others across a variety of contexts. She enjoys creative applications of photography, with a particular interest in early, analogue and alternative processes. She is interested in the role art has in hard times and hard places, and has seen the positive impact it can make to lives that are on the edge of society. She continues to be inspired by the resilience of the human spirit and the extraordinary aspects of everyday life.
Since graduating from Glasgow School of Art in 1995 she has been involved in making work and creating opportunities for others across a range of settings. She developed her collaborative approach to arts practice working with Street Level Photoworks for 20 years – establishing their award winning outreach programme www.multi-story.org and developing projects with a wide range of social groups.
Margaret Mitchell is a photographer based in Glasgow and webeditor at SSHoP.