The program looks fantastic! What was the starting point and how did it come together?
It’s the second year of the festival’s Associate Artist Program and they’ve invited me to respond to the context of the Union Canal, which is a huge piece of infrastructure running between Edinburgh and Falkirk. I found the space really compelling and got there not knowing much about the history of the canals in the UK. People often think of canals as natural structures, but they are industrial, man-made sites.
The Union Canal was built with the labor of Highland people and Irish brought in to dig. It enabled passenger transport, but became superfluous after 20 years due to the railway and then fell into disrepair. The history of the Union Canal is a cycle of industry and renewal, indicative of the difficult contemporary situation we find ourselves in today.
Before taking on this project, I worked with Atlas Arts on the Isle of Skye on a project exploring intersections between local and global environmental issues and social justice. The Leading Edinburgh Art Festival’s Associate Artist Program allowed me to reflect on how this works in an urban context. I chose artists who dealt with social and political contexts and didn’t want to work in isolation, but wanted to work collectively and collaboratively. It was a great process of learning together. We end up with four new commissions (from Hannan Jones, Maeve Redmond, Amanda Thomson, and Janice Parker) and a radio station. The talks and radio shows related to the work of art are an integral part of the program.
Canal developments are often part of hyper-capitalist renewal, in places like Manchester or East London. The program makes an interesting, provocative intervention in a post-industrial place that seems to have largely resisted gentrification. Was the commercialization and gentrification of public space something you and the artists thought about a lot during the planning and research phase?
Art has a lot to answer for when it comes to gentrification. I really wanted to get into this conversation and hear what the locals are doing and what they think. The artists also deal with these questions. Janice Parker is genuinely interested in the ungrified movement and the politics of being a moving body in the public sphere; Amanda Thomson ponders why certain plants ended up on the canal. Much of her work also deals with what is known in botany as an “immigrant plant” – why do we still use these forms of categorization? What is “native”? We are all products of so many different things.
This is also expressed in the art of Hannan Jones, the idea that we all have multiple identities. The artists and I didn’t see this as an opportunity to put some nice artwork along the canal. It was important that we grapple with class, space, labor issues, challenging pernicious capitalist structures—and getting others to question them as well. That’s what art is about, questioning the status quo. The radio station Background Noise will deal with such political debates. It is a place for members of the local community who have witnessed so many changes along the canal to talk about how they are responding to this ever changing landscape.
Amanda Thomson and Hannan Jones both explore the non-human worlds that coexist around us, worlds that we don’t always pay attention to. Was the climate catastrophe the focus of your programming or did these issues arise naturally?
These issues should be the priority for every responsible person. We will not have a world unless we think of these things. Listening to and engaging with the local environment is at the heart of the program. Some of the inspiration comes directly from my work with Atlas Arts’ School of Plural Futures on Skye, but I also chose to work with these four artists because issues of sustainability, social justice and the environment are at the forefront of their art. In different ways, they have all thought carefully about the sustainability and long-term impact of their work around the canal.
They have put together such a wide ranging program, addressing so many issues and diverse groups, that it was clearly a huge undertaking. What were some of the key learning curves during the process?
I didn’t have much experience with public art before, so it was a huge learning curve. I’m excited to see what happens when we hand off the work to the community and visitors. I was surprised how receptive and positive the local community was, they really wanted to work with us. They’re an incredible group of people – they really understand the importance of engaging with the heritage of the canal and its use. People were really willing to share their experiences and that led to an inspiring engagement. There’s a tendency to think people will say no, but I’ve found that if you state your intentions clearly and honestly, they’re usually willing to commit.
I found the dialogue with the four artists and the Edinburgh Art Festival so interesting. Each of the artists works in an incredibly interdisciplinary way, so I’ve learned a lot about how people in different fields approach ideas, think about schedules and work together in an interdisciplinary way. I am very grateful that the festival and the community have welcomed us, it has been a real privilege. The festival was very open, accommodating our needs and encouraging the questions we wanted to raise with this year’s programme.
The Union Canal is an ambitious place for your first public art programming experience! How challenging was it to work with such a large public space?
Installing work in a public space is completely different than installing work in a gallery. The practicality and limitations of the situation must inform the work – none of the pieces in this program would have been made for a gallery context. They’re releasing the work to the public, and that raises some very interesting questions. What happens if the work is smeared with graffiti? Whose artwork is more valuable in this case? In terms of background noise, what volume can we go to and when should we turn it off to respect the people living around the canal? What traces, if any, will the artists leave behind in the environment?
I congratulate all artists for facing the challenges of public art head on and being flexible in their process. I encourage audiences to think about these questions as well: what we value and how it was constellated in these works. That’s another interesting thing about public art, everyone has an opinion!
Canals featuring the work of Hannan Jones, Janice Parker, Maeve Redmond and Amanda Thomson can be found at various locations along the Union Canal during the Edinburgh Art Festival (28 July to 28 August).