Flogging off Edinburgh’s public assets to corporate interests is neither moral nor practical, writes Neil Cooper
March 3, 2017
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Last Friday night, Neu! Reekie! hosted an event at Summerhall in Edinburgh called Neu! Reekie! say Where Are We Now? For those who maybe aren’t aware, Neu! Reekie! is a night run by poet Michael Pedersen and founder of ’90s lit-zine Rebel Inc, Kevin Williamson. For the last five or six years, this dynamic cross-generational duo has presented a series of increasingly ambitious events which have mixed and matched bills of spoken-word, music and experimental, mainly animated short films. Neu! Reekie! initially put on shows to audiences of a couple of hundred or so, first at the Scottish Book Trust, then later dove-tailing between Summerhall and Pilrig Church. As success begat success, the events grew bigger and the performers included more high-profile names, including two makars. Somewhere along the way, Neu! Reekie received funding from Creative Scotland. By that time, it had become a thing. There were Burns Nights and a road show around Scotland that involved a lot of whisky. Primal Scream played to less than 100 people alongside American underground iconoclast John Giorno at artist Jim Lambie’s Poetry Club in Glasgow. Pedersen and Williamson released a couple of records and launched two poetry collections on the Neu! Reekie! imprint, all featuring artists who had performed for them at one venue or another.
In June 2015, the Neu! Reekie! gang took over the church-run Central Hall in Tollcross for #UntitledLive, where Young Fathers, FiniTribe and Andy Weatherall played to an audience of 1,000. Last year saw child diva turned fearless chanteuse Charlotte Church and her Late Night Pop Dungeon – a riotous party band backing the Welsh singer performing her favourite cover versions – headline a N!R! special at the National Museum of Scotland.
At the end of 2016, Neu! Reekie! took a mini-bus to Hull, where they launched a weekend-long festival called Where Are We Now? With a title taken from Bowie’s single from his 2013 album The Next Day, Where Are We Now? will take place in June this year as part of Hull’s tenure as UK City of Culture. In a showcase of contemporary counter-culture from England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales, the line-up will feature a collection of radical provocateurs drawn from Neu! Reekie! alumni. Young Fathers, Stanley Odd, FiniTribe are all on the bill, as is poet Holly McNish and Charlotte Church again.
There will also be contributions from Bill Drummond and film-maker Mark Cousins. Artist Jamie Reid, whose designs for the Sex Pistols defined punk’s original cut and paste visual identity, has done the poster.
Given that Where Are We Now? is talking place in a city that voted almost seventy per cent in favour of leaving the EU last June, Neu!Reekie!’s stance is wilfully provocative. As was last Friday’s event, which set out its store before an audience of seventy-odd in Summerhall’s tiny Red Lecture Theatre. The sense of intimacy was deliberate in what, as the name of the event implied, in a post-indy ref, post-Brexit and post-Trump world, was a kind of taking stock.
With Pedersen and Williamson ditching their usual wise-cracking routine as ring-masters of a multi-media circus, things took a more urgent tone from the off. Pedersen introduced the night with a quick run through Neu! Reekie!’s back pages, followed by a very grown-up love poem. Williamson broadened out the context for the night by contrasting poetry anthologies from the last twenty years with Neu! Reekie!’s own collections, and how divorced from politics the old stuff was compared to the more engaged work today.
As one of two invited speakers asked to give provocations, writer and former director of the Edinburgh International Film Festival Hannah McGill spoke on bullshit in all its myriad and often personal forms. Artist Kevin Harman gave a slide show presentation on plans for a forthcoming show in Leith Harbour that looks set to noise up the art establishment on a grand scale. As with every Neu! Reekie!, short films were key to the night.
The first of these was Now, a 1965 five-minute piece by Cuban film-maker Santiago Alvarez, which cut up documentary images of American police doling out punishment to black civil rights marchers with images of a legitimised Ku Klux Klan and Nazi Germany. Sound-tracked by a reconstituted version of Hebrew folk song Hava Nagila as sung by jazz legend Lena Horne, this made for a powerful and timely statement.
This was followed by a trailer for the Hull event, which showed off Neu! Reekie! in all its glory at the Central Hall. Prior to the headline act 131 Northside and their mates briefly transforming the Red Lecture Theatre into a giant youth club, the spotlight fell on the audience, and with Williamson passing round the microphone, it was down to us to ask where we are now.
This prompted a variety of interpretations. Film producer Paul Pender suggested Edinburgh should embrace a new Enlightenment just as it had sired the first one. Artist Rabiya Choudhry spoke about how much Neu! Reekie! itself had changed her world-view. New director of the Scottish Poetry Library Asif Khan mentioned Scotland on a wider scale.
Director of LeithLate Morvern Cunningham spoke of the absurdity of it taking two years of discussions for Edinburgh Licensing Board to sanction the smallest of changes in the wording of a clause that previously decreed that live music must by law remain inaudible beyond a music venue’s four walls. This was a long-standing restriction that was both unworkable and, in a capital city that claims to pride itself on its culture, ridiculous. Put on the spot by Williamson, City of Edinburgh Labour councillor Gordon Munro spoke of arts and culture needing to go underground.
There wasn’t time for everyone to have their say, and Munro’s comment was the last before 131 Northside performed their set of hip hop and rap-inspired fizzy electronics. The duo’s explosion of sound and vision was as much a statement about where Edinburgh is musically and artistically as anything said by those a few years – or in some cases a couple of generations – older than them.
The fact that such a mix of art cabaret and political discussion in its broadest sense happened at all is a small wonder, especially in Edinburgh, where what looks increasingly like a culture war on a global level is already in full acrimonious swing. For a city which arguably invented the world’s now-burgeoning arts festival scene with the creation of the International Festival in 1947 and the Fringe that followed in its wake, this might sound like a strange thing to say.
It sounds even odder when you consider that for the last two years a group made up of various ‘arts leaders’ called Desire Lines has attempted to protect and develop the arts in Edinburgh, while City of Edinburgh Council has recently set up an arts taskforce to do something similar. Except that while all these talking shops have been ongoing, there are things happening in the city on their watch over which they have no control.
Last October, as readers of Product will be aware, Inverleith House, the world-renowned contemporary art gallery housed within the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, was closed without notice and without any public consultation. RBGE’s Regius Keeper was quoted as saying Inverleith House was unable to ‘wash its face’ financially. The language used seemed to be describing a business rather than a major public asset.
Elsewhere, on Calton Hill, developers Duddingston House Properties Ltd and hoteliers Urbanist Hotels Ltd have submitted their latest proposal to turn the long neglected former Royal High School into a luxury hotel. Their last proposal was rejected by CEC, while a counter proposal for St Mary’s Music School to take over the building was accepted. As long as Duddingston retain the lease on the building, however, which they have held since winning an open competition in 2010 (and which they claim gives them until 2022 to come up with an acceptable plan) the music school proposal cannot be acted upon. While Urbanist have claimed there will be arts provision for locals in the hotel plans, the best they are known to have come up so far was that they once hosted an arts awards ceremony in one of their London hotels, where cabaret acts have also performed.
Duddingston and Urbanist’s latest wheeze, according to the Edinburgh Evening News, is to have hired the same legal team which acted on behalf of US president Donald Trump when he succeeded in getting the plans for his Aberdeenshire golf course called in by the Scottish Government. Using these means, the two companies backing the hotel plans are hoping to bypass CEC entirely and do something similar with the Royal High.
Meanwhile, as the Edinburgh festivals prepare to celebrate their seventieth anniversary, Essential Edinburgh, the cartel of businesses who manage St Andrew’s Square Garden, have effectively evicted the Famous Spiegeltent, a much-loved and long-standing Fringe institution, from housing their programme of shows there. This follows a 2016 Fringe which was arguably the most overtly-political in terms of the themes of many of the hundreds of shows that appeared beyond the festival’s high-profile commercial lines.
Possibly most ludicrous of all, there’s a serious proposal to silence the fireworks that light up Edinburgh’s skies during festivals season. It’s unlikely any other city in the world would entertain such a proposal, let alone commission a report looking into how this might happen, as CEC have done.
Bear in mind, once again, that all of the above has happened while Desire Lines has been in operation and since CEC’s arts and culture taskforce was set up. Paved with good intentions as both bodies may be, it’s noticeable that they are made up in the main by bureaucrats, bankers and business types, with representation from actual artists thin on the ground.
Yet, at grass-roots level, and despite every effort to flog the city’s public spaces off wholesale to whatever hotelier, developer or big business makes the highest bid, there’s more artistic activity in the city than there has been for years. You may not necessarily hear about it, because artistically and culturally, Edinburgh remains a Jekyll and Hyde city, and, apart from the odd infiltration a la Neu! Reekie!’s National Museum of Scotland show, it won’t be happening in the institutions that form the city’s official cultural facade.
Rather, it happens in the back rooms of pubs which may well be crippled by extortionate increases in business rates that only the blandest of pub and club chains and multi-nationals can afford. It happens in the social clubs and churches designed for social gatherings, and now being reclaimed by Neu! Reekie! and assorted fellow travellers. It’s this sense of reclaiming which has to continue.
For every art space closed by cultural philistines and establishment thugs who only understand the language of commerce, more artist-run shop-front galleries will open. Every big business which attempts to steal or close down public spaces, must see those spaces defended and their real value, which is about beauty and transcendence more than hard cash, made clear to those who would bulldoze them away. Those defences must be made at every level, be it through seeking representation on CEC or the Scottish Government, or by becoming active on the community councils, a network of misleadingly-named bodies, some of which are controlled by cliques of mortgage-protecting NIMBYs.
Given some of the things that are going on in the world right now, all of this may sound like relatively trivial first world problems. Look closer, however, and such local issues are a microcosm of a bigger picture that connects up with how big business runs the world. It connects as well to how dissent is stymied as educational opportunities and exposure to art and ideas are erased for anyone who can’t afford them. Closing libraries, art galleries and music venues, and putting up soulless concrete boxes in their wake, is the first hostile action by social engineers attempting to rip the heart out of Edinburgh and every major city in the world.
Last Friday, Neu! Reekie! asked Where Are We Now? The answer is we’re right here. For now, at least, the idiots may be winning, but the battle lines have been drawn. The closure of Inverleith House is cultural vandalism, just as turning the Old Royal High School into a hotel for the rich would be cultural vandalism. Both are symbols of a culture that only cares about money, and reflect attitudes that prevail in Westminster, the White House and in Holyrood too. Where Are We Now? is a call to arms to rise up against all that, and to reclaim back everything the idiots have robbed from us and are selling off to the highest bidder. Unless we do something about that pretty soon, they will continue the fire sale until there’s nothing left to sell. Where Are We Now? was just the start. The resistance has begun.