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May 2, 2012

Govan time warp

Anyone out for a quiet walk along the banks of the Clyde last weekend could be forgiven for thinking that they had slipped back in time.  Giant medieval trebuchets (catapults to you and me) firing specially designed missiles across the water at Govan and an armada of ships (albeit very small ones made from locally collected flotsam) were just two of the treats on offer.


A wave of communication washed over Glasgow’s River Clyde on Saturday 28 April when a major public art event harnesses the power of mediaeval catapults, St Kilda mail boats, a soundscape of sea shanties, extracts from Upper Clyde hero Jimmy Reid’s speeches, and a Govan Armada, to blur the natural and man-made boundaries between both sides of the river.

Led by artists Matt Baker and t s Beall as part of The Glasgow International Festival of Visual Art 2012, Nothing About Us Without Us Is For Us, was a two-way dialogue of friendly fire across the Clyde, which deploys obsolete technology and even flotsam and jetsam to build a bridge of communication across the Clyde.

Part action and part experiment, the free event was the culmination of six weeks of collaboration between Baker and Beall with artists, local multi-generational groups, and cultural organisations from both sides of the Clyde and the Parish of Govan, focusing on the theme of long-distance (particularly maritime) communication.

On Saturday 28 April, these workshops culminated in a community celebration day when all the different forms of communication were put into play in an attempt to convey messages across the river; the event was hosted on both sides of the river by The Riverside Museum.

The raw materials of the project are fragments of language that at different periods of history have claimed to represent Govan and is part of larger effort to join up Glasgow by reaching across the city’s majestic natural boundary.

“We are excited and honoured to be working with so many wonderful individuals and organizations,” the artists explain. “By using layers of Govan’s rich ancient history and contemporary culture, this experimental event aims to bring people to the Clyde, as well giving them fresh opportunities to understand and appreciate this amazing asset in our city, plus have some fun at a free event that’s open to everyone.

“More than anything Nothing about us… is an experiment, an exercise or action in communication, and an attempt to consider art and the role of artists in thinking about places. The project is a day where the reality of failed communication will be both celebrated and transformed.

 Three golden ages of Govan

‘Govan has had two eras of greatness – that is two more than most places.’

Professor Stephen Driscoll

Time was when both sides of the Clyde could be forded, and it’s not too much of a stretch to say that Govan was once Scotland’s Camelot, as the first golden age refers to The Early Mediaeval period when Govan was home to the royal court of the Ancient Kingdom of Strathclyde.

Next came the glorious era of the Shipyards spanning 19th and mid 20th century when Govan was one of the major shipbuilding centres of the world. Now Govan is contemplating its third golden age age with the new Riverside Museum designed by Zaha Hadid, and the Science Centre, as well as being a media hub with the BBC and STV HQs.

Ian Pattison, the creator of Govan’s most famous fictional son Rab C Nesbitt, is one of many Govanites who welcomes the Nothing About Us event: “It’s great to see local Govan people reclaiming the river in an imaginative way as part of their daily cultural landscape. 

“As kids we would travel on the two ferries, the passenger ferry at the foot of McKechnie Street and the traffic ferry at Water Row, over the ocean to exotic Partick. Back then, the river seemed as busy as Sauchiehall Street.”

On the day, there were several boats on the water including the Kelvinhaugh Ferry and the GalGael’s timber birlinn. Nothing for about us without us is for us is an ongoing project that will manifest over a period of time, as Govan is re-asserts itself in more creative ways while remembering its past.

The Govan Armada

Location – displayed near to Ferry Pontoons (on both sides of river) before being launched The Govan Armada is a fleet of small model boats made from ‘redeveloped rubbish’ (flotsam) collected from the Clyde and each carrying a message should someone find the boat washed up. The boats were made by young people and community groups from Govan, and visitors to GI festival, with help from artists Martin Campbell, t s Beall, and Matt Baker.

Trebuchets x 2 (mediaeval siege catapults, aka ‘The Charm Offensive’)

Locations – On former slipway of H+W shipyard (Southside) on main river concourse Riverside Museum (to eastern edge)

Glasgow Museums specialist Grant Leckie oversaw the building of two machines at The GalGael Trust and their operation at the event. The largest Trebuchet has a range of 180m and was launched special ‘art cargo’ (created by Colin Begg and Belinda Gilbert-Scott) towards the opposite bank. Visitors were invited to ‘fish’ for the cargo and/or see it retrieved by boats.

Marine Signal Flags


Locations – Govan New Parish Church, Water Row, Showpeople’s Site, The Tallship During the week leading up to the event, messages were exchanged across the river via marine signal flags displayed on two prominent buildings in Govan and the Tallship on the Partick side of the Clyde. Flags were constructed by three local groups in collaboration with artists Alex Bowie, Fiona Fleming, and Geraldine Greene.

On the 28 April the flags were visible on buildings and Tallship – but smaller versions were also run up and down the flagpoles by the river’s edge.


A synchronized performance of human voices involving members of several local choirs, led by artist Steven Anderson.

Past Patter: Voices of The Clyde

Locations – Harland Way (Southside) and on main river concourse Riverside Museum Archeologists from Northlight Heritage had a number of ‘translation stations’ each manned by interpreters of different languages from the past and present on the Clyde (Brythonic, Urdu, etc.). Visitors were offered the chance to translate messages into a new language and then to be part of communicating this across the river.

String and Cup Telephones

Locations – Harland Way (Southside) and on main river concourse Riverside Museum Funnel sculptures temporarily fixed to the railings – with a lightweight cord running across the river and connected to similar funnels on the opposite bank, made by artist Kate V. Robertson.

Visitors were encouraged to use the String and Cup telephones to send messages across the river.