What do you get when you put together the medium term closure of a city’s art gallery combined with a sharp, sustained plummet in the product that keeps a city’s economy afloat? An upsurge in creativity it seems.
I’m fresh from the first Nuart festival and feel, well, refreshed.
We all know what power looks like, right? Power is a middle aged white man in a business suit. Aberdeen’s city centre tries to wear that suit. Its walls screamed this is what affluence looks like, this is power, this is a serious business. Even when the oil price plummeted and we found ourselves having to look to other sources of sustenance we desperately clung to the facade, new office blocks were still springing up above a decaying high street full of pawn shops promising pay day loans. But from scorched earth comes new growth. The urban interventions of Nuart brought a much needed costume change. The man in the business suit suddenly turned up in a sequinned dress and high heels and, “it feel fabulous darling!” it’s brought about a sudden activation of public space.
My first taste of the festival was the Fight Club a discussion inspired by Greek symposia (The format for the discussion was simple, three artists either side of a facilitator and one question, deliberately divisive - ‘what is better for the city, small scale interventions or grand stand murals?’ The polarity of the debate forces people to pick a side. As a community worker I found this interesting as, in my experience at least, it’s quite unusual to host a discussion in this way. It’s counterintuitive for me to insist that someone picks a side, to pit one against the other. Community work practices, I feel, are less inclined to encourage this dualism preferring instead to consider an issue in its whole, the end game is not to win the argument but to leave the discussion more informed and more certain of your own position. But the resultant conversation actually achieved both ends. The question was phrased this way because murals and small scale interventions are not mutually exclusive and of course the artists don’t really believe that their work was any better or worse than their colleagues but framing a discussion in such a way allows us to pretend, allowed us to play and to act, to throw all these ideas about the city into the air and see what comes down, and that environment is a safe space for dialogue.
The next day I joined Julien De Casabianca and some school children for an aspect of the Outings project. Julien and his assistant led the kids through the city searching for the perfect wall on which he can paste-up these life size figures that can usually be seen in the art gallery. An aspect of De Casabianca’s method is to visit a city’s major museums, to photograph works and to then walk the streets searching for the ideal wall on which to paste the figure. A city’s art collection belongs to everyone, the local authority may act as its conservator but the works belong to the people, and herein lies the rub, the collections are housed in spaces where the public don’t feel like they belong. Street art counters that. Part of its beauty is that it invites interaction. It reminds us that these belong to us, that we do have a stake in what is public, that we are citizens, that we can exercise our voice, that our experiences matter…When the visual experience of a city is concrete, glass, adverts and granite street art reminds us that there is an alternative, another dimension way out beyond the market and the economy. Street art widens our aesthetic lens to include culture.
On Sunday I joined a group for the Nuart walking tour. Now I’ve lived in Aberdeen a long time, more then three decades and never, in my experience of the city, have I been one of over three hundred moving together, listening togethers, sharing an experience and collectively satisfying our deeply human need to be curious, to feel inspired. It is most uncommon! We were led around the works for two hours. I was with a group of residents from Torry, an area of Aberdeen which borders the city centre. Residents of Torry are looking to regenerate their high street and we gathered together to discuss how street art and creative pursuits more widely might be a way for us to make an impact simply by enriching people’s everyday experiences of their lived environments. But this brings me to another questioning strand of discussion, street art as a moevemnt sorted as a series of illegal acts and now it’s being commissioned by the state, or at least the local authority, which is the mediator of the people and state. It’s an interesting sea-change and I wonder, by moving from the peripherals to the centre like this, what does street art stands to lose? When the product is the same does permission still matter? And are we witnessing the gentrification of a movement?
Meanwhile my head is a-whir with new ideas about how I can bring critical questioning to the streets, I do believe it is within our gift to make these walls talk.
Whats going on?
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