Salt is vital to life—it is in the earth, the air, our bodies (250 grams per person on average), our language (words like ‘soldier’, ‘salary’ and ‘salad’ are all etymologically salty). When I think of salt, it’s seaweed and rock pools and the saline tang of coastal places. According to some estimates the salt in the ocean weighs as much as the moon—a whole natural satellite dissolved in water.
SALT is the theme for a new one-year programme of process-led artist residencies and outdoor public art commissions commissioned by Art Walk Projects in Portobello to connect Edinburgh’s coastal ecologies with the global climate crisis. Ahead of the annual Art Walk Porty (1-11 September) I spoke with curator Rosy Naylor about the importance of salt, the role of contemporary art in a public context, and Art Walk Project’s new editorial partnership with MAP (which I’m helping with).
The text below has been woven together from several conversations with Rosy, walking the promenade from Portobello to Joppa, sitting in cafes and galleries, speaking via Zoom, phone, email.
Tom: What prompted you to choose SALT as the theme for this year’s Art Walk Porty residencies and festival?
Rosy: 70% of the earth’s surface is covered by the sea and yet we still know so little about it. At a time when issues around climate change are so necessary to discuss, I felt it was time to turn our focus to the sea.
Over the past few years Art Walk Projects has worked with lots of different sites and subjects that seem relevant both locally and globally, but, surprisingly perhaps, we’re yet to really address the sea itself. From conversations with a number of artists, I felt now was the right time to take a more overtly environmental focus.
I love uncovering things and working with hidden spaces and under-visited places. Unless you’re a marine biologist, it’s hard to know what’s really going on under the sea so I wanted to bring that to the surface and make it visible. I’d been reading about how salt affects water density and the deep currents of the sea. I became interested in salt as a signifier of bigger stories, how it opens conversations about food production and preservation, about changing salinity levels in the sea, what causes that and what it means, and what these changes can tell us about climate change—both in terms of changes that have already taken place and the possible futures that await us. Some scientists are already looking into correlations between climate change and ocean salinity but I wanted to raise those questions in an art context, to encourage artists to explore the materiality of salt.
In Portobello, salt connects to the salt pans that were once such an important industry along the coast here. Today their presence is all but invisible, but local people know the history, especially further east in Joppa and Prestonpans.
The focus on salt has also led me to introduce a much stronger scientific element to the programming. I’ve been testing seawater with Keira Tucker at ASCUS Laboratory in Edinburgh and having conversations about coastal erosion and future planning with biogeomorphologist Larissa Naylor (no relation!). Their thinking infuses the programming in several ways.
Thinking about salt leads quickly into thinking about food. I’ve always been interested in artists who work with food as part of their practice. It’s such a great way of relating to different communities and engaging people in different processes in a unique way. I’m interested in food and the culture of food and its connections to climate change. We’ve programmed food events before but this is the first time we’ve commissioned an entire food residency. Artist and baker Mahala Le May has been looking at the role of salt in food, especially processes of production and preservation, but also how salt connects to questions relating to food supply chains, labour and land rights.
Tom: Art Walk Porty started in 2016 as a weekend of events and happenings. Since then your work has expanded to encompass not just this two-week festival but a whole year-round programme of events, walks, workshops and other goings-on. How has this way of working developed?
Rosy: This way of working as a curator stems out of my practice as an artist. I’m not so interested in setting specific outcomes but rather to set parameters that artists can work within. It’s a responsive way of curating, enabling specific responses to sites. I’m interested in embedding artists in a place and in its community for longer periods of time. It’s not just about results, it’s about the process and the conversations you have along the way.
I enjoy developing relationships with artists over an extended period of time. For example, this year one of the SALT artists in residence is Joanne Matthews. I worked with Jo in 2021 and during that process felt that there was potential to work together further, develop that relationship between us and also between them and places and communities here in Portobello.
It’s also a slight resistance to the idea of the ‘festival’, which tends to imply a concentrated period of highly visible activity and nothing in between. I’m more interested in developing long-term forms of artistic engagement with place. For example, Tonya McMullan’s project will continue through the autumn. She is working towards creating a Seafield scent, starting with a workshop during the festival to build a group of people who will continue to work with her over that period of time.
I’ve always been interested in showing the process—I believe it makes the work more accessible for people, hopefully to be able to understand and be involved in a project. Several of the projects in September’s programme are about starting a longer process and getting people involved from the beginning. For other projects, that can be more complex. If the focus is more about outcomes then it can be hard when you bring visibility to the process.
Tom: Portobello is a unique place, with its own specific geographies, histories, communities, and discussions about what the future might look like. What role do you hope to see art playing in this context?
Rosy: Art Walk Projects began with a real belief in connecting people to place and making work in an outdoors environment as a way to bring people in. It’s not about grand public art but about more about transient experiments and the conversations you can initiate. Permanent work doesn’t necessarily resonate with people as powerfully as temporary projects can. I’m interested in projects embedded in a place and its communities that aren’t always that visible. I’m interested in projects that evolve over time, that respond slowly to a site and the communities around it. For us, this often results in temporary installations, interventions, live art, events, walks, film screenings.
Our work is often very zoomed-in, collaborating with artists who notice the overlooked details or histories of a particular place. This year, we’re focusing attention towards two sites in particular: Seafield and Joppa salt pans. But I’m also interested in seeing Portobello as a hub, connecting out to other places—not to the city centre so much, but to other places, especially those on coastal edges. For example, the ongoing PORT project connects five artists to five locations: Holy Island; Scapa Beach, Orkney; Seafield, Edinburgh; Swalecliffe near Whitstable, Kent; and The Lagoons, Musselburgh.
I’ve also been working this year with Natasha Thembiso Ruwona who has curated a film programme and a series of micro-commissions that connect Portobello to global questions in other ways. Her project, ENDLESSS/BELLY, addresses Scotland’s role in shaping the Black Atlantic, while also thinking through the experiences of being Black in Scotland.
Tom: You’re showing your own work too as part of Art Walk Porty. How has ‘Alarm’ developed?
Rosy: I was interested in thinking about danger and the future, connecting these symbols to do with the sea, with marine locations, with shipping. The idea came when I was in Whitstable, where there are buoys on the beach to demarcate defined areas where you’re not allowed to swim. The signs are everywhere. There are coast guards too—we don’t have coast guards in Portobello, which in itself is a bit alarming. You would think there would be signs here—it’s a managed space. Maybe it reflects Portobello’s position on the edge of the city.
I was looking at different shipping symbols, signifying nuclear waste, or person overboard, or vessel in trouble. I was looking at different coastal hazard codes (red, yellow, green) and other colour-coded messages, such as a purple flag, which means ‘dangerous marine life spotted’.
I’m using the bright colours and the graphic signalling language to wrap the legs of Portobello bandstand, bringing attention to these symbols and their lack in Portobello. It links to how we guard our seas, how we consider the sea in the future.
Tom: You’ve lived in Portobello for over twelve years. Before that, you grew up in Whitstable and studied in Brighton. What keeps drawing you back to these coastal places?
Rosy: There is something about the pull of the sea, of the coast. It feels like an unfathomable landscape. You can never look at the same sea twice—it is always changing. I’ve always been drawn to the edges of places. I’m especially interested in the edges of cities and how cities manage their edges. When I visit a city I always want to walk the edges in search of lost spaces. I feel at home there. There doesn’t always seem to be much awareness that Edinburgh is by the sea. Portobello is Edinburgh’s coastal edge, and the fact that it remains an edge—and so maybe a little wilder—makes it a place of possibility.
Tom: Part of my involvement with Art Walk Projects has been around commissioning writers to respond to SALT. Each commission pairs one writer with one artist to slowly develop a text or series of texts through sustained conversation, culminating in the publication of a book in spring 2023. What interests you about this editorial partnership?
Rosy: It gives each artist a real opportunity. I love collaborations and giving context to something through adding some slant, whether that’s a connected talk, a walk or a workshop. The programme is all about collaborative ways of working and this is another layer to that. I hope the artists feel that working with Art Walk Projects is a nurturing process, that we create a supportive environment to work within, and I think the writing is a really valuable part of that. I also think that for the writers to be involved in an open-ended, durational process is a really important opportunity. We will be publishing the texts in a book in spring 2023 and also on MAP over the coming months.
Tom Jeffreys is a writer who lives in Edinburgh. His writing has appeared in ArtReview, Frieze, The Guardian, The Independent, Monocle, New Scientist and The World of Interiors. He is the author of two books:The White Birch: A Russian Reflection (Little, Brown, 2021) and Signal Failure: London to Birmingham, HS2 on Foot (Influx Press, 2017).
Rosy Naylor is a freelance curator and artist who lives in Portobello, Edinburgh. She set up Art Walk Projects in 2016 commissioning social practice and environmentally-based public art projects around Edinburgh’s north eastern coastline, often working with lost, forgotten or under-visited outdoor sites. Rosy’s background lies in site specific art and walking. She graduated from MFA Glasgow School of Art in 1998.
Art Walk Projects and MAP are delighted to embark on a new editorial partnership, working together to support contemporary art writing through experimental approaches to commissioning and publishing.
Harvey Dimond responds to work by artist Natasha Thembiso Ruwona
Sean Wai Keung responds to work by Mahala Le May
Rowan Lear responds to work by Joanne Matthews
Jan Uprichard responds to work by Tonya McMullan