Image of the GWL lift shaft, 2019. Credit GWL.

Refusals, Resistance and Alternative hosting: Artists, Queer Practices and Glasgow Women’s Library

Caroline Gausden

There is no unthreatened, unthreatening conceptual home for the concept of gay origins. We have all the more reason, then, to keep our understanding of gay origin, of gay cultural and material reproduction, plural, multi-capillaried, argus-eyed, respectful, and endlessly cherished.

Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet1

Different Homes

When I first began to think about this article, I envisioned I would be writing from Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) where I am currently a Development Worker responsible for supporting a number of intersecting elements of GWL’s work around programming, curating, partnerships, and participation. Although the GWL building is situated in Glasgow we work all over Scotland delivering events with partners and in a range of rural and urban locations ranging from cultural festivals to schools and prisons. Much more than a library, GWL is the only accredited museum dedicated to women’s history in the whole of the UK, holding museum and archive materials that make it a Recognized Collection of National Significance. These attributes and many other awards and accolades mean that the reach of the library is increasingly international, with people visiting from all over the world to access the collection, alongside exhibitions and events that are open to all interested in learning about women’s history and creativity. 

  • Image from inside the Main library space, 2019.

My job in this article will be to give some insight into how GWL, as a hybrid space, answers MESA’s call to examine the hidden in contemporary society.  Presenting it as a new and idiosyncratic home for multiple creative practices, I hope that in exploring GWL as an alternative home, a set of feminist hosting practices comes into view that pivot around honoring, through making visible, the labor of hospitality whilst also acknowledging some of its violent histories. 

Instead of writing from within the library space and its exhibitions and collections, I have been doing this thinking in a paused moment away from its physical spaces as we all experience new life conditions in a global pandemic. I’m going to take this pause as a cue to interrupt my writing to first try to briefly acknowledge my own changing relationship to GWL. Before being a member of staff I was a researcher and arts student (working between art institutions, art school, and university) intuitively looking for knowledges that I had not been able to find in institutions where, excepting for those tutors with a feminist outlook that I am indebted to, I could not see myself and did not feel seen. It took a move into the alternative space of GWL for me to notice and reposition this invisibility as something other than an inevitable norm. What GWL offered above all the things that I listed in my opening (events, exhibitions, archive materials, books etc.) was a space with a profound listening practice. It is through this quality that GWL has come to feel more like a home than a workplace. Here, I share a hosting practice with many others who, finding GWL at different moments, have come to feel similarly attached. Through this at home feeling I could begin to recognize and articulate the extent to which I had felt uncomfortable and unheard in other institutional settings and to understand that if I felt that as a cis-white woman, privileged enough to have access to higher education, then others felt the same and more acutely.

  • Before GWL Women-in- profile, 1987.

The history of the listening space that is Glasgow Women’s Library can be traced back to 1990 at a moment when Glasgow was receiving recognition as European City of Culture.  A group of artists including Adele Patrick, co-founder of the library, were concerned that this vision of a creative city would, without significant intervention, be a story of Glasgow boys, “stale, male, and pale.”2 Out of this concern came the initiative Women in Profile that aimed to tell other stories, championing a more multifaceted vision of culture. Women in Profile included the ground-breaking art project Castlemilk Womanhouse, which set about creating a space apart for local women to explore their creativity collaboratively, inviting women artists to take up residencies alongside them in an empty house away from the city centre in Castlemilk, then the largest housing estate in Europe and an area of high deprivation. Artists were invited through an open call and selected by local women in Castlemilk. This trust in the ability of communities on the margins to be at the heart of decisions around culture (rather than simply included afterwards) is important. It is one of several qualities expressed in the project still fundamental to GWL, along with a commitment to providing a safe space, set apart from domestic duties and care work, for women to explore their creativity and connect with each other. This commitment involves an understanding of the often invisible support structures needed for people to feel empowered and find their voices. Alongside this was an understanding that a diversity of perspectives is vital (and to trust in what diversity has to say). Castlemilk was a heterogeneous meeting space for women from different walks of life. Over the years this initial cry for diversity that first looked to work beyond class and gender divisions has expanded, forming into a core value alongside equality that shapes not only GWL’s immediate space but the streets in its host city (that have been imaginatively remapped through a number of women’s history tours) and beyond in the form of a national engagement program.

For me this particular detail in a history of innovations is significant as it points to the artist-led nature of GWL’s beginnings. Founding artists in the Castlemilk project Rachel Harris, Julie Roberts, and Cathy Wilkes asserted that creativity could be found beyond a small canon of artists and city centre venues. They did work to demystify the creative process by revealing its hidden support structures. Initiating an open conversation around creative process, the work was an act of bravery by the artists who took part and also inhabited an art world not ready to consider art as a social act. One of the founding artists, Rachel Harris, put her career on the line by asking her tutors to consider Castlemilk as part of her degree show. Their response was to say this was not art but social work. Actions by artists like Harris, Roberts, and Wilkes as well as the many others that joined them paved the way for the more expansive understanding of art that flourishes in Glasgow’s art scene today and for its links with activist practices. In addition to this groundbreaking project, I would like to consider one more courageous act in relation to GWL’s history. These two moments will help structure a consideration of our work now, 30 years on, with a focus on a recent exhibition that considered the barely visible gestures that make new hosting practices possible.

  • Dyke Manifesto poster from the Lesbian archive.

Coming Out Against the Odds

In 1995, whilst still an entirely volunteer run organization, GWL became custodian of a significant collection of lesbian history, making the decision to offer a home to the London-based national Lesbian Archive and Information Centre (LAIC) when it was threatened with closure. For LAIC it was important that the collection remained within a community of peers so that future users would be able to access and draw strength from its materials without facing many of the barriers that other institutional settings present. Sue John, in the senior management team alongside Patrick, describes a process of convincing LAIC organizers that there were lesbians in Glasgow and Patrick also remembers lesbian volunteers moved to tears unpacking the materials when they arrived. Patrick has gone on to describe the action as “an institutional coming out” and “act of bravery”3 in a moment when debates over Section 28, the law that made the promotion of homosexual materials illegal in the UK, raged. Section 28, part of the Local Government Act of 1988, only repealed by the Scottish Parliament in 2000 and in 2003 by the rest of the UK, caused many LGBTQI groups to close or limit their activities and generated much hostility towards these marginalized voices in the public and press. Despite these hostilities GWL persisted in not only providing a home for this important collection, which still makes up over a third of the archive today, but also centering it in their first funded project, Lips (Lesbians in Peer Support), with the understanding that, as Adele Patrick noted: “there was work to be done in ensuring that this nationally significant resource became owned, used and a source of pride by young women and that the empowering stories to be found in every facet of the collection should be unleashed.”4

LAIC had options to house their collection in an academic context, often perceived as the safest choice, yet the decision to go with GWL reflected a desire for the archive to be continually activated rather than withdrawn to become history in a linear sense; distant and separate from the concerns of the present. The difference then is between being in the closet or out of it in the world.

Closeted Knowledges

This coming out resonates with recent reflections by feminist scholar Claire Hemmings on what a queer approach might mean, not only to lesbian histories, but also, more broadly to the current social and political circumstances we find ourselves in. In a reading delivered to Manchester University’s online Sexuality Summer School, Hemmings reflects on how queer community care and education practices offered in response to the HIV crisis should be reconsidered in light of the new viral threats that are shaping the present.5 In her reading Hemmings evokes the different families set up by queer people on the margins to deal with the HIV virus in communities of care rather than constraint, challenging the association of risk with people and identities rather than behavior. These different families are considered in relation to the evocation of the conservative household as a place to shelter within. Hemmings deconstructs the, universally called for, retreat to the household as a solution that can only work for a minority of people, excluding many along race, class and gendered lines. A short list of some of those excluded makes the inequalities that structure life very clear: queer people who might have received hostility in traditional households; migrant and refugee communities; and women and ethnic minorities whose underpaid and undervalued labor keeps them in the world and the world turning. In response to this situation Hemmings evokes writer and queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick who explores the metaphor of the closet as a kind of open secret of inequality played out in plain sight. Through the closet, imbalances of power are denied by a studied ignorance that allows for the persistence of homophobic and racist assumptions. In opposition to this Sedgwick encourages us to call out these denials, refusing to put knowledge on inequalities back in the closet.

Lesbian Avengers new library protest, in thePink Papers, 1995. Photo Credit GWL.

Section 28 is one example of how this studied ignorance was enforced through public policy. As can be seen from the history of the Lesbian Archive it is also an example of where GWL acted to cultivate many refusals to this closeting of knowledge, not only through prioritizing supported access to the collection but by activist work, including setting up a Glasgow chapter of the Lesbian Avengers adding their own voices to this important archive and going against the idea that a museum should or could be neutral.6

Alongside refusals, Sedgwick also celebrates the ways excluded communities have created alternative “viral knowledges” and “circuits of intimacy” through the cultivation of shared histories that are touching in different ways (Hemmings after Sedgwick, 2020).7 It is not simply that GWL’s LAIC collection is objectively valuable (which it is) but that it doesn’t keep its distance. Against the grain of western traditions of thought that champion objectivity, Patrick asserts that feeling palpably affected by history, being moved to tears by its touch is perhaps the most valuable quality of an archive. In being close to the heart, history starts to feel collectively owned, taking on a cherished quality. It also moves away from a sense of singular authority that other collections sometimes have. Like the early work in Castlemilk, that was co-curated with the community, the collection is a continually evolving collaboration, based entirely on donations from many, many different individuals and interest groups. In this way it does not claim to be definitive but instead, being multi-voiced, has a radically open quality. Gaps in representation are freely acknowledged and those that bring experiential knowledge of those gaps are valued and supported to develop new facets of the collection. This approach is not only generative but something that resonates with Sedgwick’s ideas around the sense of threat. Strong feelings towards a collection and cultivating many voices within it are two hugely productive ways to ward off existential threat.   

Sedgwick’s work on queer approaches to knowledge is also hugely useful in that it gives notions like the closet a wider significance beyond reference to sexuality. It reveals the complexity, relatedness, and lack of equality that often hide behind binary categories. GWL employs this queer approach beyond its work as custodians to important parts of LGBTQI history. Patrick’s perspective on inclusion brings this home. Taking the mainstream narrative on inclusion, that there are hard to reach communities, GWL turns this round to suggest that communities on the so-called margins are not hard to reach – but easy to ignore. Furthermore, when the mainstream looks for them it is as discrete categories of people, single mums, ethnic minorities, people with disabilities but not as individuals that bring complex intersecting needs and a wealth of experience that could be unleashed. From its beginnings GWL has been designed and built around harnessing these different and diverse voices. This easy ignorance is the open secret of inequality in the museum and cultural sector, where supposedly universal cultural offerings only resonate for a minority of people. There has been a failure to do the hard work of listening and making space for different voices to contribute to cultural spaces from a position of equality.


Hopefully, from this brief history it is evident that GWL has been designed in a counter-cultural way around a mission to bring different, easy-to-ignore perspectives out of the closet and that the innovative nature of GWL’s curatorial and collecting approaches is tied to its history as a queer, artist-led space. In this case GWL’s queer stance can be found not only in championing lesbian sexuality in a repressive moment but going against the grain of received wisdom on who culture is for and who is hard to reach in a way that reveals the hidden inequalities these assumptions rest on. Following Sedgwick and Hemmings I would like to look at how this queer approach is a useful lens through which to consider continued artistic experiments in the library space and with the collection. By looking in this way at GWL’s origins and contemporary practices alongside each other I’m also replicating a methodology at the heart of GWL. This comprises firstly seeing history as having a continued relevance and impact in the present moment and secondly being resolved to shape what the impact of that history could be through iterative and evolving collective practice.

I want to look at this idea of different homes, so resonant in the current moment, and relational modes practiced at GWL through a consideration of a recent exhibition called a Spoon is the Safest Vessel, which invited three artists, Juliane Foronda, Kirsty Russell, and Tako Taal to make new works in response to their exploration of the collection. As can be seen in descriptions of Castlemilk, this invitation, issued in an open way from an artist-led space to other artists, is a practice that is integral to GWL, being one of the ways that its iterative, evolving, and collective nature plays out.

  • Guest book from the GWL archive, photo by Foronda, 2019.

A Spoon is the Safest Vessel was an exhibition about hosting that set out to explore the power relationships in acts of hospitality, asking questions around the labor of hosting, so often hidden from view, and its limits from within a feminist context. The work was also made with intention for it to travel to the Look Again project space in Aberdeen. So from the start it balanced thinking on hosting with considerations around the movement of people and objects. The exhibition started with Filipina-Canadian artist, organizer, and writer Juliane Foronda. Whilst carrying out an extended period of research in the GWL archive Foronda had been drawn to the handwritten diaries and idiosyncratic recipe books that we have in the nutrition and cookery sections of our collection, ephemera often referred to as ‘women’s papers’ in mainstream archiving language, which also advises that such papers are not worth keeping. Drawing on testimonies of professional archivists in the Scottish context Sue John sees this disregard as “evidence of the institutional nature of the purging of women’s lives, achievements and historical contributions” with women’s papers being part of an explicit process of erasure and gendered “weeding” embedded within the collections professions working in Scotland.8

From these ‘women’s papers’, alternatively catalogued and cherished at GWL, Foronda showed me a number of intricately pieced together notebooks with recipes and clippings, expanding at the sides and becoming poetic in places – although it is doubtful that they were conceived in that way. We discussed together the traces of the handmade evoked by these, from the beautifully formed handwriting, to hands as a way to measure ingredients, such as a handful of flour. Learning through the materials, in relation to personal experiences, Foronda spoke of her mother’s habit of passing on recipes with descriptions like a handful of rice, or the practice of using spoons over knives and forks to eat in the Philippines. I thought about the term ‘spoon-fed’ and how it carries contempt in our culture for the kind of primary nursing activities that keep us alive as babies. Does this speak of resentment towards those who support us for inadvertently signaling our lack of independence? This web of interdependence, revealed by the material remainders of hosting, including these intricately pieced together recipe books, has been branded as something to hide, just as our cultural institutions choose to throw out ‘women’s papers’ that could reveal its traces.

Foronda also shared the ephemera of guest books and invites in the archive of Dorothy Dick, who was an ambulance driver in the Second World War. Dick travelled around Europe leaving pictures and other fascinating remnants for her daughter who eventually donated them to our public collection. Despite her career as a visitor who cares for people under traumatic circumstances, the portrayal of Dick in the archive is very much also as host, creating guestbooks, wax seals, and invitations – things that could be seen as the supporting structures for bringing people together. As we moved into lockdown, with media rhetoric around the virus abounding with war metaphors, I was reminded of this collection documenting many aspects of care work from a conflict-scarred situation. In a moment where touch has been necessarily withdrawn to be replaced, for some, by smooth digital surfaces that privilege vision and voice, I started to think about how an archive could evoke touch and remind us of the hands that are still working at a cost to support us.

  • Method; Foronda (2019). Photo Suzanne Heffron.

These “furnishings” of hospitality, as Foronda calls the guestbooks, invites and recipes, that caught her attention, sit between categories. The notebooks, in particular, become a personal way of preserving a knowledge system that is difficult to trace, being full of small hard-to-measure gestures. Foronda looked at the etymology of words like compress and preserve that feature in these systems and noted a tension. In caring, there is also necessary force. Weight needs to be applied and time spent in forethought and planning, process and gestation. The work she produced became a living out of these systems so that the archive crept into the other library spaces. The work Method, (2019) played homage to durational work through the making of different preserves that were consumed in GWL’s event space, on occasion by visitors to the exhibition, but more often by staff and volunteers whose work maintaining GWL was also acknowledged in the process. Other backroom spaces essential for hosting, including the kitchen and toilets, were also visited by the series of wall paintings, supporting gestures, enlarged and simplified diagrams of sheet and napkin folds, hugging the walls in faint colors. 

What the wall paintings expressed was the in-between nature of hospitality, occurring on the edges of things and how its gestures seem to be on the edge of disappearing, perhaps because they reveal dependencies and comforts we find it uncomfortable to speak of. Foronda represented these crossings in different ways. In slow pressure, wild survival (2019) a crossing between outside and inside took place via a collection of wild and fallen flowers from around Scotland that were carefully pressed in borrowed books from GWL shelves and then made into 94 badges and displayed in a case for museum objects. The flowers spoke of uncultivated ecosystems and neglected knowledges that have nevertheless thrived and are now celebrated in GWL. The badges mimicked a form that runs through every aspect of the library from collections full of activist examples to a practice of making a name badge for everyone that works and volunteers in the space. A badge sits fiercely close to the skin, quietly declaring allegiance to a cause, this quiet declaration linking you to others through multiple small acts of recognition that build movements.9

  • compress(ed memory foam) Extracts from the online (news)letters, Foronda (2019). Photo Foronda.

The Angel of the House

Foronda’s writing also escaped the exhibition space in the form of a series of online newsletters, which, taking inspiration from many newsletter forms in the archive, shared suggestions in relation to built environments, care, as well as the practices of preserving and following through. Readers had to subscribe to the (news)letters which were delivered to inboxes every Friday throughout the duration of the exhibition. This discipline of sharing went against the grain of the other works which attested to the way in which hosting gestures tend to hide themselves. Instead the letters had a confessional feel as Foronda laid out impossible passions that lead her to try “to be everything entirely all the time.”10 The writing made visible the complicated, tiring, uncomfortable, and raw feelings that come with a lifestyle full of change where she is often simultaneously the artist visitor and host struggling with “taking up space.” 11 In places this intimate writing reminded me of a text we shared between us written by Jan Verwoert that concentrates on the social time flows that go into organizing as an “offstage” temporality. Verwoert’s writing is featured in a compilation of contemporary art practices organized around offerings of food, pulled together by Stephanie Smith and the Smart Museum of Art in Chicago, entitled Feast: Radical Hospitality in Contemporary Art.12 Despite the focus in the exhibition on food practices, what Verwoert comments on is something that often goes alongside nourishing bodies that is, perhaps, even harder to pick out, a kind of critical diplomacy that places people into relation to each other creatively. This is a type of labor increasingly performed by artists engaged in social practices and certainly pioneered by the artists who built the foundations of the library.13  In the essay Verwoert describes a “temporal horizon” that is a labor of “constant care” involving “sustained social communication, preparation, administration, and maintenance” that is long term, durational, and unspectacular. He uses Virginia Woolf’s fiction as a focus describing how, through the figure of Mrs Ramsey and in her own writing, Woolf lays out “a scenario for exemplary hospitability” in To the Lighthouse. In Woolf’s fiction Mrs Ramsey is the angel of the house holding the very fabric of the social together through a “constant invisible labor” that “renders the inspired conviviality possible.”14 Woolf’s plot reveals a significant paradox. Being everywhere, extending her care ceaselessly to every social detail, Mrs Ramsey is also nowhere. Hospitality, it seems, is like the host, invisible to the cast it supports. Absent by being present in every aspect, it performs a deception, masking its own labor in social engineering so that interaction appears effortless. It is in this aspect, painted as self-sacrificing altruism, that Verwoert reads ambivalence on the part of Woolf who simultaneously honors the beating heart of the household, mother, and host, and also, betrays her, making her labors visible. In a speech to the London and National Society for Women’s Service in 1931, later translated into the essay Professions for Women, Woolf, standing on the edge between a traditional and modern world that we are arguably still transitioning from, makes this betrayal apparent:

In those days – the last of Queen Victoria – every house had its Angel. And when I came to write I encountered her with the first words. The shadow of her wings fell upon my page; I heard the rustling of her skirts in the room… I turned upon her and caught her by the throat. I did my best to kill her. My excuse, if I were to be in a court of law, would be that I acted in self-defence. Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing. For as I found directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel, without having a mind of your own.15

In this we see the transgressive nature of Woolf’s action, by killing off Mrs Ramsey in a plot twist she reveals her role in everything but also the impossibility in trying to “be everything entirely all the time,” as Foronda noted, and sustain a creative life. Woolf’s clever dance between honoring these hidden labors and betraying them by bringing them into visibility is an act of survival but also arguably a practice central to forms of feminist hospitality. It is part of her assertion that for creativity women would need A Room of One’s Own, something which is both a practical taking up of space and time to nurture creativity and a symbolic coming into visibility.

This independent space ofcreation is something Professor Jane Goldman, an expert on Woolf’s writing from Glasgow University, has seen in the Glasgow Women’s Library. In speaking on the library GWL co-founder Adele Patrick writes: “The space we have created is indubitably one where women can create, learn  (but importantly, [not the traditional] academic space) and feel inspired, whatever their background.”16  When Patrick speaks on this process of creating rooms apart, a process that arguably began with the social art project at Castlemilk, it is possible to read Woolf’s dance  between honoring the creative ingenuity of the original artists and acknowledgeing the burnout and exhaustion embedded in these hosting gestures. 

Finally, Foronda also writes of libraries:

There is something about a library book that automatically feels familiar in my hands… I like how I can trace the previous readers through the curled, dog-eared pages, and miscellaneous artifacts left behind as past place-markers. They feel like a community, the used pages, and they remind me that when we come together, we are capable of creating something so much greater than we can independently, and gives way for our individuality to shine in a new way. 17

  • Sewing pattern from the archive, Russell (2019) Photo Russell.

New Circuits of Intimacy and Attention

The idea of books as a means of support is something that I had explored previously with Aberdeen based artist and organizer Kirsty Russell. Before starting work for GWL we had run a reading group together because we were both interested in how books, shared between people, could be a support system, but also, we wanted to know what they had to say about support. Starting with a reading of Céline Condorelli and Gavin Wade’s Support Structures (2009) we learned that the practices of support are something of an outsider to formal knowledge systems, not really written about in and of themselves or acknowledged.18 This made me think of GWL’s origins as a collective of outsider voices, but also, of the artist as a visitor/outsider who is continuously mobilized to show the library’s objects in a different light. In an introductory essay on the subject Condorelli writes through the metaphor of a scaffold, standing necessarily close to what it supports and going between categories to prop things up in unnoticeable ways.

Russell’s practice also moves between categories producing sculptural interventions, alternative pedagogical projects, and long-term participatory collaborations in health care settings and places of cultural democracy that spill over and between the discrete descriptive categories of art and organizing. As a thread running through these different modes of practice Russell’s attention is focused on what she has called the “underpinnings” that support creativity, moving her work between formal and informal spaces.19 In a similar way to many feminist artists she sees the kitchen as a place with generative potential. It was there that I first met Foronda when Russell opened up her flat in a collaborative project they had conceived together called How to be Closer (2018). This invitation coupled with GWL’s actively open archive laid the ground for those first conversations between myself and Foronda. Beyond this the practice of sharing texts was something Russell explored with Tako Taal in the exhibition Palm (2017) hosted by Peacock Visual Arts in the context of Aberdeen, a city where support structures for creativity are relatively thin on the ground. A lot of the time these informal connections that create familiar ground for conversations are left outside the frame in describing the conceptual roots of projects. With Russell’s help, though, I began instead to see these as the frame for the work; a shared knowledge of each other that has been particularly nurtured by Russell’s creative interventions and invitations. In the context of Russell’s practice, the creation of informal networks have been a survival technique within a context where artists face marginalization by a local economy that prioritizes other modes of production (Aberdeen is the oil capital of Scotland) and are geographically distant from the centers of artistic work in Glasgow and Edinburgh. Where the cultural theorist Sedgwick points to gossip as an overlooked way of knowing employed by those with limited access to resources, Russell’s practice also raises the question of friendship as another informal way of knowing and organizing.

In GWL’s archive Russell gravitated towards the sections that hold sewing and knitting patterns finding the yellowing newspapers, cut outs, and sketches that helped create final forms – the normally discarded parts of a creative process. These parts of the collection sit side by side with contemporary print works, zines, and activists’ materials honoring sewing as one of many undervalued creative processes. Besides the ephemera of sewing, Russell was also aware of the many moments in the organization when GWL’s skilled facilitators sit with groups of women to read aloud together, share experiences across cultures, support each other to learn new things and plan for future interventions. Russell responded to this work by introducing Buffer (2019), a hand-tufted circular rug that could be moved around the library and used by anyone needing a resting or gathering space. It was important to Russell that when not in use Buffer was stored in a rolled up position so that it would be possible to see the underside and seams holding the work together. Similarly to how Foronda found them in the archive, hands appear in Russell’s work through a showing of these signs of labor. They also provide a measure for types of support work, appearing in videos that feel their way along surfaces and in pictures that indicate the spaces in between.20

  • Threshold, steel, Russell (2019). Photo Suzanne Heffron.

As much as the showing of work honors different types of creative labor, it is also a refusal along similar lines to Woolf: to allow support work to remain hidden. In this way Russell’s practice acts to redraw boundaries as well as crossing them. These refusals and re-drawings are perhaps best expressed by the work Threshold (2019), a small steel gate that she installed in the library beside Buffer (2019). The title of this piece appeals to my imagination of hospitality as occupying a borderland, being a meeting between inside and outside that sets up power relationships between those inviting and being invited. As well as the offering of something warm and comfortable, hospitality has also been noted for its proximity to the word hostility. Guests can be considered to take hosts hostage. Threshold sits between the impulse to welcome and to set limits, evoking the barriers that are set up when power relationships are unequal. In working at GWL I can see how there is a continuous negotiation between these competing considerations – to offer a warm welcome that removes barriers, but also to be mindful of our capacity to host in meaningful ways.

Some distance away from Buffer Russell also installed a third piece, Rug Beater (2019), which signals another aspect of hospitality that is now of heightened importance: cleaning. Russell’s improvised tool speaks to a similar carpet beater that is part of our museum collection. In the past we have displayed this older carpet beater in relationship to zero tolerance campaigns, protesting violence against women, in order to pose questions around the history of objects and to raise concerns about museums that keep these histories hidden by claiming a neutral stance in relation to their collection. Through these connections Rug Beater consequently raises the specter of violence in relation to the practice of hosting.

  • Spit-breath-scan, Digital print, Taal (2019). Phot Credit Suzanne Heffron.

Violent Histories

From my first conversation with Foronda, where she brought up spoons as the best way to get food from the plate to a mouth without dropping any, I realized that what we were looking at was not just objects but how they sit in relation to our bodies. We were asking questions about our closeness to things as Russell does in her work. This brought to mind very vividly a video piece called Table d’hôte (2017)made by Tako Taal which had been produced while she was in residence at the Gambia School of Hospitality and Tourism, a residency which saw Taal weave clues and records of her personal history into a quiet witnessing process (Taal’s father is from Gambia while her mother is from Wales, where she was born) with political implications. In this work we see the edges of a black hand meticulously laying out a hierarchy of cutlery on a table in familiar configurations. I invited Taal to speak with Foronda about the possibility of showing work together and with Russell who had previously introduced them. We spoke about Taal’s residency in the Gambia School of Hospitality and Tourism and the European hosting traditions taught in this West African institution, prompting questions about the continuation of colonialism in different forms, as well as her fascination and lived experience of how people come to understand cultures they have not directly experienced through their objects. As with narratives of hospitality, Taal’s work points to histories of imperialism that aren’t visible without careful study of the way people move around the world making different impressions.

Taal recommended a book that we have in our collection at GWL called Imperial Leather (1995) by Anne McClintock that makes a strong connection between histories of domestic servitude in the UK and colonialism.21 Between Taal and McClintock I saw a shared interest in the hands that perform this labor. Where McClintock writes about working class women who made visible performances of manual labor part of resistance strategies, Taal reflects that in Gabon soft hands were dismissed for having not seen enough work. Taal expressed an interest in how that translates into touch, with the rough and smooth being “surfaces that speak so much of a position.”22 As well as thinking on the politics of resistance the book focuses on cleansing rituals that were performed to mark boundaries in Victorian Britain, designed, in part, to try to reassert hierarchy as the world was opening up to a multitude of differences. McClintock maps the history of advertising and its beginnings through soap, featuring racist narratives of a grand Britannia cleaning up the colonies, which was one of the first products that was marketed and branded on a mass scale. This history, tying cleaning labor so closely to colonial violence, resonated with us then and now, as Claire Hemmings has remarked, when the denied inequalities that structure our consciousness have been brought to the surface by the Covid 19 virus, a new hostile visitor. And what better symbol to think through inequality now than the smooth surface of soap?

  • A body, Vinyl text on window, Taal (2019). Photo Credit Foronda.

As well as migration and cleansing we spoke about home remedies and public health – with its inspecting practices and boundary policing. In an uncanny way Taal’s imagination alighted on tracing moments where things spill or are contained, concerns that have proved to be pertinent beyond the bounds of the exhibition. Complimenting Russell and Forondas’ explorations of objects as material supports, Taal brought the human body into the exhibition space in a visceral and poetic way through a series of spit lithographs entitled Spit-breath-scan (2019) and through the vinyl text A Body (2019). Installed on one of the large windows in GWL’s main event space, over a meshwork of bars that speak of a residual fear of violence at the edges of a warm and inviting space, A Body (2019) touches on the very real things like language, breath, and tears that escape the borders of objects and people as we move through the world, meeting each other and leaving things behind. Positioned in front of the changing Glasgow light the work seemed to me to be a kind of continuous negotiation with conditions beyond itself. This poetic intervention in the space of GWL reminded me that improvisation works with the things to hand, but also of some writing on the subject of hospitality by French philosopher Anne Dufourmantelle.23 Dufourmantelle describes the condition of being a visitor as that of navigating a territory in the dark, feeling your way through unfamiliar circumstances.   

Taal pointed out to me that Dufourmantelle’s writing on hospitality also mentions that in early societies the rituals, texts, and artifacts that are often held in common, and perhaps as a first concern, are about death and hospitality. I like the way Dufourmantelle gives the subject a gravity it isn’t normally afforded by its proximity to this other important migration between life and death. Alongside this she speculates that it is more often people who know what it feels like to be without a home that best know how to offer the warmest forms of hospitality to others.

This last thought by Dufourmantelle is perhaps a good one to finish on as it provides a basis for understanding what it is that these practices we have been exploring, from Woolf through to GWL artists Harris, Roberts, Wilkes, and Patrick and John, the hosts that remain, to emerging artists Foronda, Russell and Taal, might hold in common. Together these artists point towards more radical hosting forms, all the organizing, cleaning, cooking, and sustaining that manage to hold a tension between honoring and critiquing the ways in which spaces for creativity are produced and maintained. In writing about those who know what it feels like to be without a home we are reminded of Hemmings and Sedgwick’s writings on queer subjectivities but also of diaspora and refugee communities. Dufourmantelle’s suggestion offers a reversal, appearing in opposition to the ubiquitous idea that it is the head of the house, owning the space, who is host, permitting people to cross a threshold and setting up a whole chain of activities around commanding and hostage taking. Instead she makes space in our imagination for a different kind of host or in fact plural hospitalities. When I imagine these hosts who are first guests (and not always welcomed) I am struck by how the image resonates with the practices I have looked at, including GWL itself as a kind of social sculpture initiated by artists. These artists do work to make hidden things visible, often they offer their own reversals to received knowledge, including where they point out what has been ignored. They also perform many crossings for us, not least by building public institutions that feel like home. This work says something about the kind of hospitality we offer at the library: one that reverses power relations, letting the traditional outsiders take center stage as hosts and honoring all the hidden work that hosting involves.


Caroline Gausden
Writer and curator based in Glasgow, Gausden has a practice based PhD in Feminist Manifestos and Social Art Practice from Gray’s School of Art, Aberdeen and currently works as a development worker for programming and curating at Glasgow Women’s Library.  

1 Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, Epistemology of the Closet, University of California Press: 1990

2 I first heard Patrick use this turn of phrase at an event in Seventeen, Belmont Street, Aberdeen in 2015 where she was speaking on the beginnings of GWL as part of a Scottish Contemporary Art Network event

3 Adele Patrick, Claiming Space and being Brave: Activism, Agency and Art in the Making of A Women’s Museum in Feminisms and Museums | Intervention, Disruption and Change | Volume 1 edited by Ashton, J Museums Etc, 2017 p.163

4 See above reference

5 Claire Hemmings, Revisiting Virality (After Sedgwick) 2020 can be found on the Manchester University Sexuality Summer School page https://sexualitysummerschoolonline.wordpress.com/clare-hemmings-on-queering-the-archive/

6 The Lesbian Avengers was initiated by a direct action group in New York City in 1992 but quickly spread to be a worldwide phenomenon with chapters appearing everywhere after the organisation of a Gay and Lesbian march on Washington in 1993 mobilised 20,000 lesbians to claim greater visibility.

7 Hemmings Revisiting Virality (After Sedgwick) 2020.

8 Sue John traces these observations back to a paper written by archivist Alistair Tough called “Thinking about and working with archives and records: a personal reflection on theory and practice.”Speaking of his own experience, Tough remembers that a senior colleague gave him two memorable pieces of advice during his first week in the archives profession in 1975. Firstly he was told, never waste time on women’s papers. Secondly he was urged to make sure that anything he earmarked for disposal was actually destroyed and that no evidence of the matter was kept, lest historians should make a fuss about it later. Tough’s paper is printed in the Journal for Archives and Records, Volume 37, 2016 issue 2 https://doi.org/10.1080/23257962.2016.1147343

9 Fig 23 shows an image from the Badges of Honour: How Badge-Wearing Women Changed the World project – a year-long Heritage Lottery funded project exploring women’s badge wearing. The Library has a fantastic badge collection which charts the campaigns women have been involved with, from the right to vote to peace activism, anti-Apartheid to domestic violence. The Badges of Honour project collected women’s badges and the wonderful stories attached to them. The project was Highly Commended by the UK Women’s History Network Community Prize, and Highly Commended by the UK Collections Trust in the ‘Enterprise in Museums’ Award category M. Zechner, P. Rojo, A. Kanngieser

10 Quote taken from an extract of Julianne Foronda’s (news)letters Compress(ed memory foam) (2019) the sentiment appears in the letter Holding (on and missed) connections. All copies of the letters can be found online at https://us20.campaign-archive.com/home/?u=fa97a27fec7f1a92e796b3a70&id=33ed99aef2

11 As above this quote comes from the same letter written by Foronda in 2019.

12 Jan Verwoert in Feast: radical hospitality in contemporary art, Stephanie S. Smith ed., (Chicago: Smart Gallery Chicago: SMART Museum of Art / University of Chicago: 2013 p.361

13 I am indebted to Jessica Gogan for pointing out Janna Graham’s use of the word diplomacy to describe this kind of labor in writing on Radical diplomacy in the essay The Committee for Radical Democracy that features in VOCABULABORATORIES, Zechner M, Rojo P., Kanngieser A. eds (Opensource:2008) p.99. https://archive.org/details/VOCABULABORATORIES/mode/2up. Beyond this, ideas about backstage work appear in the writings of artist Chu Chu Yuan who completed a PhD around her practice as a form of negotiation that paid attention to these processes of negotiation. The work was entitled Negotiation-as-active-knowing: an approach evolved from relational art practice. Robert Gordon University, PhD thesis. 2013

14 Jan Verwoert quoted in the above referenced Feast: radical hospitality in contemporary art.

15 Woolf, V. & Barrett, M. L. Virginia Woolf: on women & writing (London: Harcourt, 2001) pp.57 -63

16 I was made aware of this observation in Claiming Space and Being Brave: Activism, Agency and Art in the Making of A Women’s Museum where Patrick writesI have come to see GWL’s space post relocation as a manifes­tation of a collective Woolfian Room or Rooms of [Our] Own. (Woolf, 2002). Not a Woolf scholar myself, I have been embold­ened in this line of thinking in discussion with GWL supporter and Woolf expert, Professor Jane Goldman.”

17 Quote taken from an extract of Julianne Foronda’s (news)letters Compress(ed memory foam) (2019) it appears in the letter page curls like roof shingles. All copies of the letters can be found online at https://us20.campaign-archive.com/home/?u=fa97a27fec7f1a92e796b3a70&id=33ed99aef2

18 Céline Condorelli and Gavin Wade. Support Structures (Berlin: Sternberg Press: 2009)

19 Underpinning is in fact the title of a discursive platform that Russell runs, first out of the public space of The Anatomy Rooms, Aberdeen and currently out of her own flat, with the evolving shape of the series prompting this move from formal to more informal space. 

20 Fig 30. Shows a still from Touch Studies a work Commissioned for Dance Live 2017 by City Moves Dance Agency SCIO. Touch Studies is a collaboration between artists Svetlana Panova and Kirsty Russell.
The two 5 minute films responded to spaces within the festival venue, The Anatomy Rooms, which is set in the old Anatomy building for Aberdeen University. The works are filmed in the spaces that were formerly the dissection room, and museum. One of the films was exhibited in the male bathroom and the other in the female bathroom for the duration of the festival.

21 The full title of Anne McClintock’s book is Imperial Leather: Race, Gender and Sexuality in the Colonial Contest (New York: Routledge 1995).

22 Taal used this poetic term in a conversation with me shortly before I started writing this article – with the move into digital space I had been thinking about the smooth surfaces of the internet and way that we have necessarily moved away from touch in our interactions but how also the hands performing all sorts of labours beyond the screen (people are still caring, packing, delivering and cleaning) are not immediately visible.

23 Anne Dufourmantelle and Jacques Derrida, Of Hospitality (Stanford: Stanford University Press: 2000)