‘Is it comin’ back next year?’ asked the little girl on her bike beside the 40-foot shipping container in the car park beside North Edinburgh Arts in Muirhouse, where it had mysteriously arrived off the back of a lorry at the end of May.
It was her fourth or fifth visit to ESTATE, Jimmy Cauty’s dystopian model village housed in the container, and she brought a different friend every time.
‘Is it scary?’ asked her pal. The girl shook her head wisely, confident of her own experience, despite the rumbles coming from inside the container as smoke billowed out.
‘How come you keep coming back?’ I asked her.
Her face lit up.
‘It’s something to do!’
ESTATE consists of four model tower blocks built to 1:24 scale and standing about 2 metres high. Uninhabited, these less than des-res constructions have previously been appropriated in different ways. One was made up of ‘Residential Live-Work-Die Units’ ‘Owned by the Residents, Controlled by the System’. A second was a multi-story children’s prison. Another was a care home where old people are sent to die. The fourth appears to be occupied by the Iceni Tribe, aka the Children of the Aftermath, a gang of teenage pagan rebels led by their lemonade-swigging queen, Brenda, and who are ‘the orphans of the state’.
Seen up close in the confines of this ghost town twilight zone, the detail of more than a thousand ‘ painstakingly vandalised’ rooms tell a million stories.
ESTATE is the third and final part of a trilogy of works by Cauty. The trilogy began in 2014 with A Riot in a Jam Jar, a series of 58 miniature models based on scenes from contemporary British riots, contained in jam jars. The poses of the figures looked like something from French Revolution era paintings, but featured British coppers wielding their batons over anti Poll Tax protestors and such-like.
The Aftermath Dislocation Principle followed the jam jars. This featured a more expansive model village ripped asunder following an unspecified apocalypse. Like ESTATE, ADP was contained inside a shipping container, but with visitors viewing it through portholes from outside.
ADP toured sites of historical significance regarding riots, and in Edinburgh was set down in the Grassmarket, site of the 1736 Porteous Riot, when the people of Edinburgh dragged the city’s corrupt sergeant at arms John Porteous to the gallows after the government of the day quashed his conviction for murder. ADP then went to Platform in Easterhouse.
ESTATE invites viewers to step inside the container, where they can peer in, around and–if they’re tall enough—over the tower blocks. The sensation, for those inclined, might be somewhere between God and Godzilla.
Or so, more or less, went my spiel to visitors before they entered. Except for the God and Godzilla line. I nicked that from a Twitter post made by someone during the Edinburgh run. There was a health and safety spiel as well, about flashing lights and earplugs, and a bit about masks and Covid compliance too, all of which seemed inadvertently to give things an extra frisson of drama.
For the six minutes viewers were inside the container, either by themselves or in a pandemic induced social bubble, they were confronted by extreme sensory overload, bombarded by the sound of a Chinook helicopter while swamped by a dense fog of smoke. As this happens, the hectoring tones of former UK Home Secretary Amber Rudd issues hostile diktats while the Chinook attempts to round up any stray members of the Children of the Aftermath.
With the real life Rudd now cast out and replaced by Priti Patel, there is something quasi-Proustian in hearing her brought back to life like some Spitting Image wicked witch of Westminster. In many ways, then, ESTATE remains what some might call an immersive experience.
ESTATE was being minded by myself and others who had come forward in response to a public callout to host the Edinburgh leg of what its producers L-13 had dubbed the Municipal Disaster Zone (MdZ) tour. We decided from the start that we wanted to take it beyond the city centre facades of Scotland’s capital, and put it somewhere it might more readily call home.
When we approached North Edinburgh Arts, they offered heroic support. The area around the arts centre has been a frontline of social deprivation in recent decades. While as imperfect as anywhere else these days, a tangible sense of community has developed nevertheless. And, as the building sites are testament to, the area is in the throes of its own epic transformation.
Maybe it was this mutual sense of tectonic shifts that took us by surprise. We arranged a formal visit from students at the nearby Craigroyston High School that went down a storm. Art students from Edinburgh College, and community groups, including a writers group connected to North Edinburgh Arts, also visited.
Beyond the organised trips, three easy-to-spot types of visitors turned up. The first were plugged-in arty types who booked out the free Eventbrite slots and took the bus or a taxi from town. The second were hardcore fans of the KLF/K Foundation, the ‘heritage rave’ duo turned art agitators Cauty was one half of alongside Bill Drummond. They often arrived wearing K t-shirts and spent a lot of money at the merch stall.
The third, which we hadn’t predicted, were the real life children of the aftermath who lived nearby. The car park where the container sat is a thoroughfare, with new housing being built on one side, and soon to be demolished blocks on the other. This meant a busy passing trade, with the kids in the vanguard.
This was evident from day one when a pre-teen high school guy rolled up on his scooter and asked what was going on. With my spiel barely developed, I muttered something about a model village at the end of the world, and the kid entered the unknown while I kept an eye on his scooter. He came out beaming.
‘Can I come back again with my mum?’ he asked, before scooting off to spread the word.
It was the same story pretty much every day; a quiet start, followed by a steady stream of booked in visitors. Then, once school was out, they came, in pockets of twos and threes, then little gangs forming a disorderly queue for the final hectic hour.
With Cauty a kind of absentee post-apocalyptic Pied Piper, the volcanic quake of ESTATE proved an irresistible attraction. By the end of the month more than 700 visitors had spent time in the container.
With all this in mind, it was somehow fitting that the final long weekend of ESTATE at North Edinburgh Arts coincided with One Britain One Nation Day, the UK government induced initiative that encouraged schools to get pupils to trill a jingoistic mini anthem in praise of all things British.
More significantly, our final weekend also fell on the last day of term at Scottish schools. This allowed a freedom of movement that made ESTATE the anti OBON. Not that anyone appeared to be remotely aware of it, anyway. Nor did the kids who gravitated towards it care whether it was art or not. They’d just found a brand new novelty on their doorstep and they were going to make the most of it while they could.
To them, ESTATE was a fairground attraction, a walk-in ghost train where zombies might lurk. It was something that made a loud noise and blew smoke out its back doors. It was an adventure playground, a fun palace, a part of the furniture and a place to run riot. Above all, like the girl on the bike said, it was something to do.
Responding to this sense of ownership, we handed out homemade ESTATE badges to those who showed up. We told they were now members of the Children of the Aftermath, and how it was up to them to fix things. If they seemed a bit wary, we told them they shouldn’t be scared, because, even though they couldn’t see her, Brenda was in the container watching over them. We told them how she knew they were brave, and would make sure they came to no harm. And we told them how they, Brenda, and other Children of the Aftermath would one day rise up and save the world.
Some might call this manipulative propaganda. But then, One Britain One Nation day—and not everyone bought into it, anyway. Some of the older kids looked down their noses at such idealistic rubbish, and just wanted to run about and make their own noise. But others, the younger kids especially, became a newly inaugurated loose-knit Muirhouse chapter of the Children of the Aftermath. And when they ran off after the 6-minute adrenaline rush, it was clear that, however briefly, they had become rebels with a cause. After that, seeing pretty much every kid in Muirhouse walking across the car park wearing a badge felt like mission accomplished.
When Cauty came up to Edinburgh to do some necessary repairs, he dubbed the assorted pre-teens who had latched on to ESTATE ‘the dystopian Tufty Club’. Conversely, he observed how, unlike other legs of the MdZ ESTATE tour, North Edinburgh’s Children of the Aftermath had been almost disappointingly well behaved in not filling the side of the container with graffiti.
Just as any notions of ESTATE as art were meaningless here, neither did Cauty and co set out to make their creation in any way worthy. And yet, without drawing attention to itself, ESTATE arguably does something much more vital.
It certainly inspired some kind of creative thinking. This was evident from two wee guys, who, like the girl on the bike, kept on coming back for more. One had asthma, so couldn’t go in for the full smoke-riven bombast. We kept the sequence off for what Cauty called lockdown mode, which made for a less urgent and more ambient experience. This allowed them more time to peer into the rooms of each block.
The two wee guys took to hanging around at the end of the day as we packed up, bombarding me with questions. What does this button do? Why is there a skull and crossbones on one of the stickers? What’s in that box?
As they helped unprompted with the cabling, I asked them what they thought of ESTATE. One suggested it could be improved by having one of the blocks fold in on itself to indicate its collapse as the Chinook came down.
Over to you, Jimmy.
On the final weekend, I received an email from someone a family which explained how each member had very different experiences of ESTATE. They talked movingly of their 12-year-old, how they’d suffered from anxiety and become withdrawn over the last year. After the visit, they’d apparently spoken about it for some time. ‘It was good to see their enthusiasm again’, the email said.11.
Only once—as far as I’m aware—did we get it wrong. Again, it happened that last busy end of term weekend. A tiny boy turned up holding the hand of a woman, possibly his grandmother. As I discovered when I started my spiel, she didn’t speak English.
The boy did, however, and as I talked, broke off sporadically to explain to the woman in what was going on. It was a responsibility he was clearly used to. Beyond that, I don’t think I’d seen anyone so excited to go in to ESTATE as he was.
A gaggle of other kids were hanging about the container as I kneeled down to talk to him, about Brenda and the Children of the Aftermath, and how he shouldn’t be scared of the smoke and the loud noise. I gave him a badge, and told him Brenda was watching out for him, and that she knew how brave he was, before he all but dragged the woman into the container.
He barely lasted a minute of thick smoke and deafening Chinook noise before he came out of the container, the woman following behind. Where he’d been so desperate to get in just a few minutes before, now he looked like he couldn’t get away quick enough. I knelt down and asked if he was okay. He shook his head, and said he didn’t like it. He wasn’t crying or anything. He just dealt with it as matter of factly as he had when explaining to the woman what was going on.
I told him again how brave he was, but he didn’t care about any of that now. The woman he was with was almost apologetic as she took his hand and led him away. . The other kids were getting rowdy at the entrance of the container and I was distracted. When I looked back, the pair had gone.
It was only when I’d let some of the other kids in that it dawned on me that, wherever the little boy and the woman had come from, putting them into a dark confined space full of smoke and loud helicopter noises might not have been such a good idea. Whatever had happened, I suspect that little boy was the bravest of all the Children of the Aftermath.
On the day the haulage company returned to literally pick up the container, the duo who had suggested the collapsing towers turned up. I’d mentioned to them this would be happening, and promised them something akin to an aerial ballet.
While we were waiting for the lorry to arrive, I asked them what they liked about the show.
‘The detail’, said one, ‘and the way it simulates everything.’
His mate chipped in.
‘You don’t know what the end of the world will be like, but it imagines it.’
The lorry arrived, and the boys barraged the driver with questions as he set the lifting operation in motion.
‘What are you going to do now it’s gone?’ I asked.
‘We’re going to chase it.’ one said. And, as the lorry made its way out of this barren thoroughfare, that’s exactly what they did, their Butch and Sundance moment, riding off into the sunset until they couldn’t keep pace anymore.
When they eventually came back, their final question echoed that asked by the girl a couple of days earlier.
‘Is it comin’ back next year?’
The car park was deserted. No noise or smoke, just an empty space where the container had sat for the last month, gathering squashed-up beer cans and paper coffee cups beneath. But despite the mess, it felt now like something other than just a car park. It was a blank canvas waiting to be subverted some more.
Whatever happens next with ESTATE, in North Edinburgh at least it feels like the Children of The Aftermath are rising. Amber Rudd, Priti Patel and all who fly with them should be quaking in their Chinooks.
Neil Cooper is a writer based in Edinburgh.
ESTATE is in residence at Platform, Easterhouse, Glasgow until 30 July 2021. Booking essential at www.platform-online.co.uk<… information about ESTATE can be found at l-13.org/projects/jimm… ESTATE Edinburgh archive will shortly be available at estateedinburgharchive.co.uk