WORDS: Alex Caslano
Every venue in Glasgow has its history, and while there may be more significant or widely recognised clubs, The Art School Union as a venue is arguably the most culturally important. With a timeline that stretches back to the 1930s, it’s always been a place where people have gathered, whether that be to dance, create or experiment. From early performances by Orange Juice to The Clash, its cultural significance is highlighted by some of the great bands who met and formed there, inspired by a free and creative atmosphere which was felt right up until its closure two years ago.
Of course, it wasn’t just live music which attracted the vast array of students, music lovers and artists into the fray; when electronic music really started to take hold in the 90s, nights like Divine touched all corners of the dancefloor, playing everything from house to northern soul. Cited as an inspiration by Optimo’s JD Twitch and one of the first nights to really adopt this eclectic and inclusive approach to mixing, its influence can’t be overstated. Eventually it would lead to other flagship nights and no less important events. Freakmoves, a Hip Hop party which resided for several years in the noughties would host some of the first sets from Hudson Mohawke and Rustie, while the likes of RPZ, Mixed Bizness, Numbers and LuckyMe all made the Art School their venue of choice.
Needless to say, the news that it would close its doors for two years was met with understandable concern. Although it would eventually re-open, would it be the same building we all knew and loved? What impact would it have on the city’s close-knit but relatively small club scene? We all have our memories of our first night there, and for some it was unlike anywhere else in Glasgow. Ascending the hill from Sauchiehall St the bass-rattling sound of the Vic’s exterior windows would immediately give you that sense of excitement, then you’d see the queue snaking its way down from the building’s grand façade – the lucky people who had already entered presiding over you from the smoking area. Of course, crossing the threshold was like passing through the wizard’s curtain, there was no telling what you’d see over the next few hours (in fact, the first time I partied there a man in drag commanded the lobby only to lift his dress to full exposure). From the dilapidated toilets to the Vic’s chequered floor and the Assembly Hall’s booming soundsystem (and £1 pints), it was overflowing with character, a character which only comes with years of heritage and a very special clientele.
Thankfully, the powers that be are invested in The Arty, and re-opening its doors last night, all reports have returned positive. Sure, the interior may have changed, but only as part of the building’s natural progression – sympathetic to the past, but embracing a very essential future. With one of Glasgow’s best spec’d soundsystems and events which include everything from Leisure System to Mungos Hi Fi, this is simply the next chapter for Glasgow’s most iconic venue.
Gods For All Occasions, 1987
Photo by Neil Menzies
With the opening weekend in full swing, we had the chance to talk with four of the people who are integral in guiding the Art School into a new era. Here we talk with Alex (entertainment convenor), Joe (live music booker) and Liam (clubs, live music and events programmer) about some of the challenges they've faced and what the future holds:
SG: It’s been two years since the Art School Union closed and in that time Glasgow (and electronic music/clubbing in general) has arguably changed quite a lot – from new venues to new sounds, new nights to trends, club culture has continued to shift. From that respect, do you feel like you’re almost starting fresh, like you’re entering a new arena?
Liam: Yeah we do, it’s important not to rest on your past; the club scene has been invigorated over the past years, especially with smaller venues like La Cheetah taking off and the work Chambre 69 and Make Do did in our absence. There's a lot of new live electronics and we're pleased to have spent time getting to know those acts and make contacts, so we're working with people who are making new work, like getting Golden Teacher involved as residents and collaborators on the new Thursday nights.
SG: Soon after the closure in 2011 you moved the union down to Sauchiehall St where you had a quite an intimate basement space and regular live events; did you feel under pressure to maintain the original venue’s reputation? Obviously you lost many of the bigger nights, but was that something you were expecting?
Liam: We couldn't of expected the larger club nights to stay as we only had a midnight license - it was a big challenge and a totally different space; the school of art had been split between two campuses so the central challenge was to continue to provide a social space for students. We learnt a lot on Sauchiehall Street which we are bringing with us to the new venue; because the space was smaller and tailored towards gigs we had time to experiment and work with band and promoters on shows, exhibitions and all day events. It was a lot of fun, an informal atmosphere and right in the centre of the best and worst sides of Sauchiehall Street debauchery; it was where the team we have now formed - from programmers to bar staff, we got to know each other there and travelled back up to Scott Street together.
SG: Of course, the original venue is steeped in heritage and we were lucky enough to have experienced the last six or seven years there. It was certainly unique in its place and it had a LOT of character. What measures have been taken to retain that charm? Obviously the surrounding exterior is drastically different, but will we recognise the inside as reflecting the past?
Alex: We have had a hands-on involvement in the redevelopment of the space from the outset. One of the architects is a GSA graduate and they have been sympathetic in retaining the integrity of the building. It will be quite disorienting for people with strong memories of the space before it closed, with a different layout and overall reduction in size. But both the Vic Bar and Assembly Hall have a similar layout and topography which people will identity with.
The original walls have been stripped back to the brickwork and the iron beams exposed, which in combination with the new welded mild steel stairwell give it an industrial vibe which relates well to the programming. It has been reworked with the idea of it becoming worn in again. Whilst the old space was fantastic, it was literally falling apart and in dire need of drastic renovation. We feel the redevelopment has truly succeeded in re-establishing what was best about the space without resorting to twee nostalgic gesture.
Subcity Presents Dimension B at the Art School in 2010
Photo by Sean Anderson
Nearing completion...the Assembly Hall in 2014
SG: The Art School was always recognised for pushing new sounds and new ideas – it was the first place we heard dubstep in Glasgow for example and it also hosted some of the finest resident nights in the city; are you confident you can recapture that ethos and bring back the type of nights which have people coming week in week out?
Liam: A lot of that is about taking risks and working with crews that aren't yet established, it's also about bringing music to Glasgow that's not been here yet and opening up the space for collaborations.
Joe: Hopefully people will maintain and in many instances develop a real affinity for the space and a strong sense of belonging, engaging with the venue and the programme. We hope that everyone, old and new, will join us in getting involved with all the fantastic things that will be going on here. That strong ethos you mentioned, and the ability for collaborators to manifest that in their own style helps to create a strong collective impetus.
SG: We’re hearing a lot about how the new space is going to be one of the best spec’d venues in Glasgow; can you talk us through the soundsystem and what we can expect from the venue with regards to the flow of the dancefloor, DJ booth and layout etc?
Joe: The soundsystem has been spec'd to allow us to host the very best acts, both locally and internationally. We take pride in our inclusive and innovative programme and to have an infrastructure at the venue which enables artists from various areas of music to express their creativity in the best possible fashion is essential. The system in the Assembly Hall incorporates a flown D&B Q-series with Q1s and Q7s. We have also designed it for weighty low-end capabilities, so 4 V-Subs and 2 B2s make for a system which provides power, clarity and consistency across the room, all of which mean it will sound (and feel!) amazing.
The system means we can fill the new space with all manner of wonderful sounds. In addition to the soundsystem we have fantastic lighting and AV options which enable us to create unique events and experiences for people on a regular basis. It is important to remember that after putting those AV options in place we have also created a fantastic in-house team who can get the very best out of what we have to offer.
SG: Finally, scanning some of the events for the re-launch and looking into the future, you have some truly exceptional parties planned with the likes of Leisure System, Shackleton and the return of Mungo’s Hi Fi; what is the rest of the year looking like and how do you feel on the cusp of a very important new chapter?
Joe: We are extremely excited to put on those events which identify just how exciting a venue The Art School is, with an ever-expanding international reputation. They also serve to highlight different facets of the venue's unique identity. A Shackleton live performance, for example, is exactly the type of thing which showcases how well we are positioned to push the boundaries of sound.
The acts involved here, along with those to follow in the next year, also reiterate both our engagement on an international stage and our desire to encourage fantastic new artists. As for the next year, I can't give too much away at this juncture. but basically 2014 is looking exceptional! We will have a programme here which matches our ambition for The Art School and mirrors the huge excitement we all share for the reopening of the venue. Let's put it this way, throughout the year there will consistently be one-off events and creative experiments which can't be found anywhere else!
A specific mention should go to Mungo's HiFi, who along with the likes of Numbers and Optimo have a special relationship with The Art School and all of whom we will be collaborating with closely in the near future.
The Art School re-opens its doors this weekend. Tonight (24th) you can catch Bondage Education with JG Wilkes, Nightwave and Miaoux Mioaux and tomorrow (25th) sees Mungo’s Hi Fi return with the likes of Gorgon Sound, Flowdan and Inkke. Check full listings of upcoming events here.