As an exhibition by the Norwegian artist Vanessa Baird draws visitors to the Glasgow Women’s Library, its development officer Caroline Gausden explains the venue’s history and ongoing purpose.
Dr Caroline Gausden joined Glasgow Women’s Library (GWL) in 2018, having finished a PhD in Feminist Manifestos and Social Art Practice. She is a Development Worker for Programming, Curating, Partnerships and Participation for the library, an ever-changing role that takes her from the archive to the library shelves and out into surrounding neighbourhood to promote the library’s mission of promoting women’s creativity and achievements.
Gausden’s latest project for GWL is an exhibition of works by the acclaimed Norwegian artist Vanessa Baird. The works speak both to the library’s archive and to Baird’s links with her own Scottish heritage: her mother was born in Glasgow and, as a child, Vanessa spent many school holidays in Scotland. Vanessa Baird: I Get Along Very Well Without You is curated by Gillian Fox.
This autumn, in preparation for the exhibition, Gausden visited Baird in her studio in Oslo and toured the city’s various art centres, a trip she detailed recently in a blog for the GWL site. Following the show’s opening in Glasgow, Gausden talked to Norwegian Arts about Baird’s frankness, Scottish humour and heavenly Nordic libraries.
For those readers who don’t know the Glasgow Women’s Library, how would you describe it?
It’s a library, but we’re also a museum and an archive and an art space. So, it is multi-purpose. We’ve been around for over 30 years now and started off as a grassroots organisation. For the first ten years of the library’s life, it was an organisation that wasn’t funded, it was run by volunteers. Its collection – books, art, journals, zines, knitting patterns – has been made up of donations. The Museum of Roller Derby is here and also the Lesbian Archive and Information Centre.
It was set up in the 1990s by a group of artists when Glasgow was made the City of Culture. It was a protest against the fact that the City of Culture representation was going to be all men at that point in the history of Glasgow. It was set up to celebrate women’s creativity and is rooted in arts practice, which makes it totally unique: I would describe it as what happens when artists imagine a library. We get men who come in and say: ‘Am I in the wrong place?’ And the answer is no, it’s for absolutely everyone.
Could you tell us what your role entails?
I think it’s a great role. I haven’t got one standard thing I do but a thing I do a lot is work with artists to put on exhibitions. Give them access to the archive and things they might be interested in; to see where the collection intersects with what they are interested in; to give them access to the library and be part of that creative process. Often, we are lucky that the results of this might go in the archive. And, I do a lot of work on the programme, we have a lot of workshops and events as well as exhibitions. That involves working with partners a lot.
What was the library’s aim in staging Vanessa Baird: I Get Along Without You Very Well?
Gillian Fox, the show’s curator, approached us to work with Vanessa. And this has been in the pipeline for quite a while. Vanessa came to visit the space before the pandemic to get a feel for the space and look in the archive. And she has her own connection to Glasgow through her mother – that was one of the impetuses.
Usually, when working with an artist, I don’t have an aim, I’m in a learning process with the artist. I’m open to what they want to do and just make it happen, if I can.
You met Vanessa Baird both in Glasgow and in Oslo – how was that experience?
When Vanessa came to visit, she was open to learning about the library. Then I went to visit her in Norway and it was an amazing experience to meet Vanessa amidst her work. I feel there were two modes of Vanessa: a learning mode, about our space and what she could do here; and then when I went to meet her in Norway and I was around her in her exhibition, she was incredibly open. I guess she’s a storyteller really. She’ll tell you all sorts of amazing details about her life, which feels very generous. I feel that some of the things she shared, if I say them, they seem shocking, but when Vanessa does, she takes care around you on the details of some the things she’s been through.
So, you see her work as distinctly autobiographical?
Yes. That’s the short answer. When Vanessa takes you around and talks to you, she’s quite open about it being her way of expressing her experiences of caring for her mother and, in the case of this exhibition, around sharing a space and being in a relationship with somebody who is an alcoholic. So, it’s definitely autobiographical, but it’s what she does with those stories in terms of making them accessible. And the humour that doesn’t shy away from being uncomfortable. She located that as a particularly Scottish aspect that she has: this dark humour.
How has Baird’s work been received by visitors to the library?
She wants the works to be open, for people to be able to interact with them and make their own stories as well. And I think that absolutely happened when we opened up the show. We had a small crowd of people come and see it and they stayed in the space for a long time and actually talked about the artworks and then aspects of their lives. It seems to be quite rare at art openings that people talk about the art.
What stood out on your cultural visit to Oslo?
It was extremely good timing when I went to see Vanessa because I was there for the Oslo Art Weekend. I saw Brittany Nelson’s work at Fotogalleriet and also Camille Henrot’s exhibition at MUNCH. And, as a person who works in a library, the Deichman Library is a sort of library heaven. It’s an incredibly well-used space, a luxurious space but the message is that luxury is not luxury in terms of libraries, it is totally necessary to have this brilliant and well-resourced space and to have art everywhere. And the Future Library is also beautiful, it feels quite contemplative. I feel quite at home in a sauna as well, so that’s another reason why I loved it.
Vanessa Baird: I Get Along Without You Very Well is at the Glasgow Women’s Library until 25 February 2023