Brief Encounters

What’s the benefit to a city of a public art festival? It very much depends on how – and where – you do it

By Veronica Simpson

AFTER 11 YEARS and five Art Night festivals – four of them held in London – this biannual art event’s artistic director declared: ‘Dundee’s was the best.’ Helen Nisbet, the person who has steered this entity through its lifecycle so far, was speaking the day after the streets, museums, car parks, public gardens and other assorted corners of this gritty Scottish city were filled from 7pm to 2am with performance artists, musicians, singers, gardeners and happy festival followers, enjoying unusually balmy weather, When looking for its first outpost outside of London, says Nisbet – the festival’s artistic director and a Scot herself – she felt if any place could pull it off, Dundee was the one.

Between the institutional skills and talents of the excellent Duncan of Jordanstone Art College at Dundee University (DJCAD), its Cooper Gallery, the outstanding independent contemporary gallery Dundee Contemporary Arts (DCA) and the V&A Dundee, she knew there was a bedrock of institutional clout and enthusiasm as well as a rich ecosystem of local artists and activists – many graduates of and teachers at DJCAD and other contributors to the city’s ongoing cultural life – to help create and activate a programme that would articulate something of the spirit of the city and of our times.

The Whoosh Flower Show, where visitors share food, drinks and prizes.

Among Dundee’s regular cultural venues there were standout offers, including Heather Phillipson’s Dream Land installation in the Cooper Gallery. Last seen filling the huge Duveen Gallery at Tate Britain, Phillipson’s work here explored our fragile relationship with nature through a collage of vintage BBC nature films with a surreal voice-over from a shape and species-shifting narrator. At DCA, Moroccan- Scottish artist Saoirse Amira Anis was evoking myths around water, inspired by both parental heritages, and, for Art Night itself, enacting a spooky and seductive ritual walkabout. Dressed as a fictional water spirit, in an extraordinary red out_ t woven out of ropes and fabric, like the pied piper she trailed a large crowd of eager followers out of the gallery, down to the Tay waterfront and around the V&A Dundee. Next to the V&A Dundee, the decks of the RSS Discovery played host to an evening of live music from haunting saxophone ballads fused with folk to a mash-up of world and classical strings. Judging by the enthusiasm of the crowds spread throughout the city until the early hours, you could tell this experience was conjuring an evening to remember.

But this particular Art Night brought with it a tinge of sadness, as it is likely to be the last. Getting funding for this festival, Nisbet knew, in post-Covid, austerity Britain, would be a huge struggle. She told me: ‘Up until about three months before it kicked off, I wasn’t sure it would happen.’

Seeing the crowds out enjoying live art and music on the street, and late openings and free, evening access into the museums, you might wonder whether the city could just declare one night a year (or more) open access, and keep all the venues’ doors open for a late night art/street party. Yes, they absolutely could, says Nisbet. But what we didn’t see was all the work that had gone on behind the scenes: the festival had done a huge amount over its two-year gestation to activate spaces and communities that don’t normally host or access this kind of creative interaction, including schools, youth groups, choirs and gardening communities. They are now infused with that knowledge and an ability (as well as a desire) to do this again, should the opportunity arise.

That’s one key role for this kind of festival. It also includes seeding into the public consciousness spaces for creativity the locals may not have known about. I, as a five-time visitor to Dundee, certainly didn’t know about Generator Project, an artist-run space in an old industrial building that started in 1996, or the city-wide web of community gardens that are now all laid out on a map, printed specially for the night. Their fans and participants were gathered together to praise the volunteers’ energy and talents in a wheelbarrow-based display of plants and produce in Millers Wynd Car Park, where a kiosk hosts a regular community fridge. Calling themselves the Whoosh Flower Show – a ‘portable version of the Chelsea Flower Show’, as a pal quipped – they shared food, drinks and prizes. Even one of Dundee’s municipal car parks stepped into the arty limelight, with Emma Hart’s unusual ceramic celebration of rave culture (with special DJ set until 2am on the night).

And the Baxter Pavilion, a historic, glass-fronted building in Baxter Park – gifted to the people of Dundee in 1863 by prosperous mill owners, the Baxter family – sprang to resonant life on the night, with performance pieces composed and conducted by Richy Carey, combining recordings from the city’s old printing presses (Dundee is famously home to the still thriving Dundee Courier and DC Thompson comics) with live local choirs from across the city. That particular performance was described by one of the most feted art critics present in the 50-strong media entourage as ‘the standout moment of the festival’. Sadly, I missed that event, but my personal standout moment was listening to Balladeste, comprising violinist Preetha Narayanan and cellist Tara Franks, performing their seductive, hypnotic duet on the deck of the Discovery to a quietly entranced crowd of mostly local revelers.

Moroccan-Scottish artist Saoirse Amira Anis dressed as a water spirit for Dundee’s Art Night. Image Credit: Erika Stevenson

A festival like this is also great for getting local people through the doors of existing cultural hubs they may rarely, if ever, visit, such as Dundee Rep (where artists Maria Fusco and Margaret Salmon showed their 45-minute film History of the Present) or The Little Theatre, where joint Turner-prize winner (2019) Tai Shani showed a fantastical ‘filmic tableaux’ collaging horror and surrealist narratives. Or the Arthurstone Library, one of five Carnegie libraries built in Dundee (only three of which remain active) where artist Danielle Brathwaite- Shirley had created an interactive and very atypical kind of large screen video game exploring issues of diversity and self-expression in a ‘mid-apocalyptic resetting of the world’. For the youngsters and locals who participated in the artist’s community-led workshops, it will have given them a very different idea of what a library can be as well as what art is and who it’s for. And, as Nisbet says, ‘It has shown the Arthurstone Library what the benefits are of hosting an artist.’

This particular Art Night will leave a legacy, Nisbet hopes, not least showing Dundee what it is capable of when united around a common purpose. As budgets for the arts are slashed nationwide, this endeavour makes a strong case for more free-to-access, life-enhancing, collaborative arty experiences to keep us sane through this cost of living (or ‘cost of leaving’, as one comedian recently quipped) crisis.

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