This is personal. It can’t not be. I’ve been trying to write a dispassionate, rational and constructive blog post about the closure of the Arches, which was announced on Wednesday, for over two days now. I can’t do it. I did get angry, like, swearing-my-head-off angry, at someone on Twitter who told me to stop “bemoaning” its fate; I also had a vivid dream last night that I was walking through the venue, and it was empty. All the doors were open to brickwork tunnels, long concrete-floored corridors stretching out to nowhere, mirrorballs hanging down from every ceiling. There was that smell, that faintly dank Arches smell, and the pink-ish lights, and some lush, soaring electronica coming from somewhere. I woke up just there feeling very, very sad, so it’s probably in that spirit that I should try and write this.
In the two days I’ve been procrastinating, a lot of people have written a lot of beautiful things about the venue – what it was like to be an artist there; some of the amazing shows and exhibitions and gigs they saw there; what it means for the clubbing world. Not sure what else there is to offer – I did work there, though, and I want to try and say something.
From 5 January 2005 – 15 December 2006, I was the Arches’ press officer and spokesperson. I wrote its brochures, slogans and weekly emails to subscribers. A brilliant, excited (sometimes, er, fractious) team of people – most of ‘em well under 30 – created programmes of live music, experimental theatre, visual art and club nights, and my job was to put all of that into words. They hired me because I could write (it certainly wasn’t for my experience): they wanted me to ‘express the venue’s character’. When you speak for a place, even just for a couple of years, it gets under your skin, so maybe this can’t not be personal. I was just 24 and I’d bluffed my way into the job, and it changed me. It taught me that there was more to music than the dreary indie pap I’d been listening to. It made me drop my cynical twenty-something snark about experimental theatre and live art, and actually appreciate what was trying to be said. It took me dancing. It took me DANCIN.
Artists and DJs alike got fired up by the possibilities of that rangy big brick bunker. Over my ten years as an employee, then an audience member, then an event manager, I had some of the most exciting, transformative cultural experiences I’ve ever had in the theatre and the club. And dear god, I saw a lot of shite. That was the point of the place.
It was set up by Andy Arnold in 1991. A simple, brilliant idea: that this huge theatre space he’d stumbled upon and excavated during Glasgow’s year as City of Culture should be used as a club space at night, and all the funds put back into the theatre programme. A lot of people have been talking about the club and theatre sides of the business as though they were two separate concerns, but even when the space was rented out for superclubs like Pressure and Inside Out, great barns of serious techno, it was never easy to separate them. Kieran Hurley has spoken far more movingly than I could about his journey from cloakroom attendant to award-winning playwright. I remember squinting through the dry ice at Death Disco to watch a couple of live artists recreate what looked like a scene from Nosferatu in the middle of a cheering circle of clubbers. In the early days, street theatre group Mischief La Bas would try out their new characters at the club nights. The presence of the club was important for the character of the Arches and the work that was made there – it made everything a little more ad hoc, democratic, rough, ready and good to go.
I’m not going to pretend that there were huge swathes of clubbers coming to the theatre productions, but the two audiences weren’t unrelated. When I worked there we generally brought theatre to the clubbers, rather than the other way round, but that was important. So was their familiarity with the building as a place where that sort of thing happened.
I saw some shite at the Arches because Andy wrote into its ethos at the beginning: this venue will always champion the right to fail. Artists don’t spring, fully formed, into the world with a show or a sound or a set that will transform culture. They need somewhere to put their weirdest dreams into action, even if they don’t work. Especially if they don’t work – not all ideas do, but you won’t know that until you try them out, and then learn from what went wrong. The Arches was a practice ground and a playground, and that was Andy’s genius, ably carried on after he left the venue by people who understood what it meant.
Here’s what worries me about this closure, if I get my rational head on. Where else in Scotland is there offering this combination? Offering artists a space to play, to strive, to fail if necessary; offering young working class people inroads into a building and a culture that tends to otherwise exclude them? Here are a handful of people who worked there at the same time as I did: the cloakroom boy became a theatre maker; the girl at the box office ended up running huge, high-concept club-fashion shows with theatrical sets; the barman who’s now a successful DJ. I can’t think of anywhere else offering that easy point of access to the arts, should it be wanted; I can’t think of anywhere else that will let people fail quite so spectacularly, and help them up again and on with the next show. There have been mutterings – I was going to call them rumours, but that would suggest at least a tiny basis in fact – that a new licensee will be able to take over the building and set it going again. Whoever that new licensee is, they need to understand what made the Arches special. And not be in it for profit. Fingers crossed, eh?
ANYWAY. My quintessential Arches tune. Jackie, LJ, Niall, Bratchy, Andy, Al, Sacha, Jean, Angie, Abby, Blair, Chris, Miranda, Tiernan, Michael, Mandy, Eric, Jacqui, Rosie, Sinclair, Julie, George, Johnny, Martin, Jess, Rob, Bamford, Maggs, Sarah, Sarah, Quango, Davey, Liz, Andy, Mark, Toni, Julienne, Eilidh, Stevie, Janette, Darren, Jaz, Lynda, Joe, Jen, Lynne, Mark, Michelle, Rosanna, Katie, Nic, Drew, Jason, Kieran, Georgie, Jill, Rachna, Alan, Francis, Andrew, Laura, Neil, David, Catriona, Caroline, Jim, Brian, The Wee Man, Sharon, Iain, Sam, Nicola, Willie, Iain, Anne, Lesley, Sam, Julia, Cora, Aly, Will, Adrian and everyone else I’ve forgotten – this one’s for you, pal.
Arches memories, which I’m going to add to over the next few days:
- That time in the summer, when the bricks do their best impression of a pizza oven, and an overheated staff fight ended when the techies played Robert Miles’ ‘Children’ on a home-made sound system, cranking the volume up so loud that we could hear it at the other end of the building, and the office became a rave.
- When we took over an edition of the List for the venue’s fifteenth anniversary, during our celebration season ‘Fifteen Years, Two Fingers’, and thought we were radical for swearing in our editor pictures.
- That time Andy decided to put on a theatre show in the toilets. I think it was called Spend A Penny.
- Lying on the corridor floor modelling for the iconic Death Disco flyer (those are my legs under that huge mirrorball) while The Levellers passed by on their way to soundcheck.
- The blaze of action, noise, colour and ridiculous boozing that came with every theatre festival.
- That time I got a phone call from Derek Acorah’s production team, who had heard that we had some good ghosts and wanted to spend a night in the building.
- I Confess, which used the dingy, cramped basement nooks underneath the south arch for one-on-one theatre: every five minutes you’d move to a new space and hear a new confession.
- When we set up the Scratch Nights, giving people ten minutes to try out a new idea and get feedback.
- That time we convinced a lazy clubbing reporter that Tiernan and Mandy were actually a pair of DJ brothers from the ‘architectural techno’ scene in Mannheim, Germany.
- The Glimmers mixing in Sons & Daughters to their set and the local crowd going wild.
- That occasionally someone would walk into the office on stilts.
All flyers designed by Niall Walker for Death Disco.