Susan Philipsz, Kevin Harman and Anthony Schrag take art to the streets
The artists are staging outdoor works as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival's Festival Promenade
This article is from 2012.
'I’m checking them out / I’m checking them out / I got it figured out / I got it figured out / There’s good points and bad points / Find a city / Find myself a city to live in.’ (David Byrne / Talking Heads – ‘Cities’)
If Edinburgh’s town planners had had their way in the 1960s, the city would have been cut in half by a flyover that would have run the length of the Meadows and across Calton Hill, razing many of the Georgian Streets in their wake. Just as such a shock-of-the-new attempt at social engineering was being kicked into the metaphorical long grass where it belonged, artistically speaking, Edinburgh was in the midst of a more beneficial form of turmoil.
Art was breaking out of the galleries, onto the streets and into the pubs of Rose Street, then a bohemian enclave populated by poets and painters, or the old Laigh Bakehouse on Hanover Street, where plots were hatched and schemes dreamed. As provocateurs like Jeff Nuttall, co-founder of the People Show, the UK’s first experimental performance art troupe, noised up the Abbotsford, such activities became a form of late 20th century enlightenment that burst through the city’s old Calvinist facade with a sense of joy that didn’t quite fit in with its surroundings even as it reinvented them.
Much the same can be said about Festival Promenade, the Edinburgh Art Festival’s series of commissions, in which artists such as Callum Innes, Susan Philipsz and Anthony Schrag use the streets and landmarks of Edinburgh as backdrop, subject and inspiration. By tapping into the iconography of the original Enlightenment, Festival Promenade’s series of interventions, actions and events open things out for all the world to see beyond Edinburgh’s sometime penchant for staying behind-closed-doors.
These range from The Waiting Place, a summerhouse by Andrew Miller situated in St Andrew Square, to Tourist in Residence, Anthony Schrag’s series of guided tours, one of which will culminate in a game of football running the length of Rose Street. In The Regent Bridge, Callum Innes will give the old entry into Edinburgh on Calton Road a splash of colour; Emily Speed’s Human Castle co-opts the Royal Military Tattoo’s motto of Castellum est urbs (the fortress is the city) to inform a human pyramid that will emerge in West Princes Street Gardens, while the One O’ Clock Gun will reverberate in new ways around several sites in the city as part of Timeline, a major sound installation by Susan Philipsz.
The result of all this is a kind of Doors Open Day of the imagination, that offers up a freedom of the city reflecting what has been going on in the city’s grassroots arts scenes for the last few years. Both Edinburgh Annuale and LeithLate have focused on art as an event or series of events that are as civic and as social much as aesthetic.
‘We’re trying to get people to look at the city differently,’ says EAF artistic director Sorcha Carey. ‘On one level, Edinburgh and its architecture has a really rich history that’s very grand, but its only once you do things like the artists in the Festival Promenade commissions have done that your relationship with it changes.’
Schrag, who will use parkour techniques to navigate unique tours that will culminate in picnics in public spaces, concurs. ‘We look at the ugly side of the city as well,’ he says. ‘You can tell a lot about a city by what it’s trying to hide. Edinburgh’s a very controlled city. They started out building the New Town at the birth of civil engineering, which was also the birth of social engineering. So it’s an imagined city, but one which was trying to entice rich people back to it.’
While arguably all this current high-profile activity legislated by Edinburgh Art Festival could be said to have begun with Martin Creed’s marble deification of the Scotsman Steps – now part public thoroughfare, part living monument – such activities go back further.
When Angus Farquhar’s NVA organisation reignited the Beltane Fire on Calton Hill at the end of the 1980s, he probably wasn’t envisaging Speed of Light, NVA’s Edinburgh International Festival commissioned participatory spectacle that’s set to take place on Arthur’s Seat.
Of all the works commissioned for Festival Promenade, Kevin Harman’s 24/7 is the one most clearly borne out of the DIY pop-up events that have proliferated over the last few years. Harman’s degree show at Edinburgh College of Art saw him liberate a heap of door-mats from neighbourhood front-steps, then transform them into an installation in ECA’s sculpture court after popping invitations to see it through the letter-boxes of each address he pilfered from.
In keeping with such surreptitious manipulations of community, Harman can’t say exactly what this new work will entail other than that it’s a ‘David Attenburgh investigation of a 24-hour shopping culture.
‘I get far more satisfaction from being on the streets,’ he says. ‘Working in galleries is one way of doing things, and if you want to be validated by institutions, that’s fine, but working on the street there’s no need to sit around and wait. You’ve got to take the bull by the horns, because you can do something anywhere you want to. Why wait to be picked up? This is live, and anything can happen.’
Festival Promenade takes place as part of the Edinburgh Art Festival, 2 Aug–2 Sep. For full details see our EAF listings.
NVA: Speed of Light, Arthur’s Seat, Holyrood Park, 473 2000, 9 Aug–1 Sep (not 13 & 14, 20 & 21, 28). Guided walking groups meet every 15 minutes between 9.15pm–11pm, £24 (£18).