Work In Progress: Alishia Farnan, Social State

Social architecture is the conscious design of an environment that encourages a desired range of social behaviors leading towards some goal or set of goals. Alishia Farnan’s practice involves an accumulation of photographs of the interior spaces of social architecture: doctor’s waiting rooms, hospitals, public bathrooms and social clubs. The photographs are made steadily over time and organised retrospectively into meaningful groupings. The social clubs however have emerged as a special category. Farnan began this series in 2012 and now purposefully pursues it as her only clearly defined project, Social State.

In the context of social architecture, social clubs contrast with corporate and state sponsored structures in part because they are designed and sometimes built by the very people who will use them, the members. Bowling clubs, working mens’ clubs, ex-service mens’ clubs have long acted as hubs for local working class communities. They are gathering places for social functions both regular and special: Friday and Saturday night drinks, Sunday roast lunches, wedding and christening receptions, Gala days and wakes. Many of these places are now in rapid decline. When heavy industries died out in the West of Scotland so too did the material basis of their existence. In the eighties globalisation and robots were replacing our physical labour just as now they are replacing our intellectual labour. Coincidentally the Internet opened up very different means of social interaction and entertainment. One thing that is noticeable in visiting those social clubs that remain, is the absence of youth. Farnan herself is just old enough to remember going with her grandparents to clubs in Motherwell and Burnbank when they were still full of life. Now membership numbers are dwindling and the average age is increasing.

Farnan feels motivated to document what she sees as an important part of Scotland’s social history as it slowly vanishes before her eyes. There are a few city based bowling and tennis clubs that still thrive, but one of the places she recently photographed, Wishaw ex-serviceman’s club, closed in March. Farnan wrestles with how to position the work. Is it purely documentary, does it have any artistic merit? In the end, does it really matter as long as people engage with the work? It is a project that will appeal very differently to those who have experienced these places as functioning venues rather than as spectators. It is a matter of locale and it is a matter of class. The near term aspiration for the project is that Farnan will make a book of the photographs and ensure that each of the clubs she photographs will receive a copy. She ruminates on the fact many archival photographs of these spaces show only their construction and or their sad demise. What Farnan wants to show is their life’s blood. On first thought, it is perhaps surprising then that she chooses to photograph the spaces without any people present.

Farnan feels these places are beautiful and that they reveal themselves and the lives lived there through their very fabric. Function wins out over form every time. The tables and floors of the clubs are hard-wearing and easily cleaned. There is an odd poetry in the visible impression of bum cheeks on a seat made over years by a body in the habit of occupying the same favourite spot over and over again. Natural light is in short supply within the halls. These places were always intended as an escape from the outside world. By photographing bars, games rooms, board rooms, and toilets in a personal typology Farnan draws attention to this uncelebrated everyman’s social architecture. The same building and furnishing materials are used repeatedly, with colours clashing almost as much as the pictures on the walls, where the queen might rub shoulders with trades unionists and heroes of both sporting and historic Scottish variety. 

Farnan photographs Social State as a labour of love. She travels by public transport and patiently returns to the same venues until she has made the photographs the way she wants to see them. She waits for the right light or for permission to photograph in specific areas. Some venues are free and easy, others quite restricted by the rule of committees. Farnan bides her time and builds her archive. She does not believe that Social State will end for as long as some of the clubs are still around and she herself is still able to catch a bus.

All Images © Alishia Farnan

Note: Photographs from Social State will form part of a group exhibition (with IIise Stacks and Declan Finn Malone)  Fotografische Parallelen at aff Galerie, Berlin, October 14th– November 4th 2018. Part of a cultural exchange programme jointly organised by Street Level Photoworks 


  1. Great to read this insightful essay on Alishia's series, it's an important body of work as well as a cultural topographical record of the West of Scotland.


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