Nicky Bird & Art Walk Projects, Portobello

How much do we really know about our surroundings? Living in towns and cities, there are fragments of past lives and clues to how the environment has changed scattered all around us, if we look carefully. That careful looking, backed up by detailed research is how artist Nicky Bird is spending her LAND MARK residency with Art Walk Projects, based in Portobello. The starting points for her project are the two bottle kilns close to the shore (dated 1906 and 1909), the only fragments left of the large Buchan Pottery complex, which dominated the area close to the shore, but closed in the early 1970s.

One of the bottle kilns, an alien industrial fragment adrift in a sea of new builds

Portobello is a seaside town between Leith and Musselburgh, east of Edinburgh city centre. It’s a beautiful walk along the promenade, more a place of leisure than of work, but until relatively recently it was an important industrial hub – there was a paper mill and a chocolate factory all within easy reach of the Pottery.

Today a small group, led by Bird, helped to revive a memory of that recent industrial past, through a walk event which told the decorators’ stories. These were the women who painted the ceramics before they were fired in they kiln, who occasionally raked through the spoils to try out their own designs and have them fired on the sly. Like a band of investigators searching for clues we walked around the area and examined maps from different phases of the area’s history.

Classic Buchan Portobello pottery, set against the backdrop of the beautiful kiln bricks

We also looked at examples of the pottery the women had decorated, and two fellow participants told me they recognised the design – it used to be sold in all the tourist shops in the 1970s, but they had never realised it had been made in Portobello itself. It felt good to participate in reviving that part of the town’s story, and I’ll be keeping an eye out for pieces of Buchan pottery in Edinburgh’s shops from now on. Even the most everyday objects can be brought to life through giving a voice to their past, which is why art projects like this one, which evoke memories that have been lost, are so important, especially for communities that have changed as much as Portobello.

Nicky Bird’s residency with Art Walk Projects is culminating with an event in February, so this walk was really a launch for her project. The completed work promises to be one that shakes off the dust that has settled on Portobello’s recent history, and I’ll look forward to seeing what else is revealed.

Night Walk for Edinburgh, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller

On Sunday night I took part in an art experience that had been intriguing me since I first saw it advertised as part of Edinburgh International Festival several weeks ago. It fell into the category of “must go” because it sounded unique (commissioned especially by the Fruitmarket Gallery), immersive and slightly odd, making the perfect cocktail for someone who likes thinking, writing and talking about art.

Starting at the bottom of Cockburn St near the Royal Mile, the Fruitmarket staff gave me a short briefing (which made me ever more intrigued and slightly trepidatious about what was coming), armed me with a pair of headphones and a small screen, and away I went. What followed was a cross between virtual gaming, crime drama, ghost tour and art piece.

Edinburgh’s Old Town is the stage set for this discombobulating drama

Janet Cardiff’s voice whispers in your ear, half talking to you, half musing to herself. The walk winds through the backstreets, closes and alleys surrounding the Royal Mile, strangely empty, dusty and damp compared to the garish, touristy brightness of the Mile itself. Arrows on the ground sometimes indicate the way, but mostly you are guided by Cardiff’s instructions, enhancing the sense that you are taking part in a game in which your own agency is reduced to zero.

The narrative weaves in and out of fiction and reality, with the film element of the walk emphasising the idea that the city is a canvas or a stage, and we as its residents, its visitors, its participants, are part of the multiple layerings that make up its history, and its identity. Marks on the canvas are left behind by former inhabitants: chewing gum pressed into the crevice of a wall, string delicately tied around a lamppost, pieces of scattered clothing lost, left behind. The work delves into Edinburgh’s macabre history, but is also rooted in the banal fabric of the city itself, drawing attention to air vents, street signs and shop windows.

The walk draws your attention to all sorts of details, making the banal into something noticeable

The sound effects, with snatches of conversations, song, sirens, and the noises of city life unfolding around you make the stories of the walk all the more convincing. I can’t count the number of times I turned around to check whether the footsteps approaching me were part of the fake cinematic narrative I was immersed in, or belonging to life itself. The artists play with the uneasy gesture of looking over one’s shoulder, the sound of footsteps is inherently creepy and unnerving and puts the participant/viewer on edge throughout the walk, in a way that is both thrilling and memorable.

Weaving their way through the city, Cardiff and Bures Miller have made a fascinating and haunting piece that interweaves history, the digital, magic, reality, memory and storytelling. If you’re interested in any of the above, this is something you won’t want to miss.