On Friday morning, the water and the clouds are drawn so near to each other and to the shoreline that nothing else seems tangible.
The title of this year’s curated Art Walk programme is VESSEL. A useful container; submerged in water, scooping up a little of it, then carrying it around.
Seafield Wastewater Treatment plant has a particular smell, both rotten and bleached. The council has a dedicated phone number via which especially strong-smelling days can be reported. I don’t know what they do with the data.
Sitting in the window of the Art Walk Hub, is a bushy tomato plant. Because humans don’t fully digest tomato seeds, tomato plants often grow around sewage treatment plants. This plant is here with its fruit and its own particular, greenhouse smell—which could be the inverse of the pervasive Seafield smell—to represent the cultivation of a handful of projects by Tonya McMullan. In the coming weeks, she’ll lead drawing tours of that other plant, Seafield, as well as Conversing with Tomatoes, an evening of sharing tomato-based foods on the beach. In a series of events that go from fertiliser to fruit and back again, the tomato plant on the windowsill has been set down momentarily to say that these processes are living and moving and maybe art can be too.
Slowing down amongst the already gathering heatwave crowds, individual droplets of mist are visible, suspended and glowing. LED signs on the prom report that the water quality is predicted to be good today.
The assurance of water quality feels pertinent when we know that all over the UK, those in control of the infrastructure have simply given up on trying to prevent effluence from entering rivers and coastal waters. Murray Morrant is an architect by training, and the weekend previous had led members of the public in manufacturing toilets out of sand on the beach. Pinned to the door of the Art Walk Hub, are snapshots of the finished structures, their outlines just about visible in the low contrast instant photo prints. One is a hybrid of toilet and holiday sandcastle. In the exhibition, there is also a cob-built toilet bowl on a white-tiled plinth. They seem more connected to systems and infrastructure than Man Ray’s urinal ever did.
The horizonless glow and unseasonable heat feels like one version of the end of the world. But I can always seek familiarity in the smell of chlorine and the structure of swimming lengths, followed by showering in evenly portioned bursts. A sign on the Baths noticeboard asks, ‘Can you turn people into fish?’
I will think about this apocalypse and immersion and the noticeboard sign again the following evening at the far end of the prom, as Joanne Matthews’ film at first, and then, pink and fizzing, slips in and out of lucidity on the cinema screen, the gable end of a block of flats, whispering about a future where humans have developed an amphibious slime coat to live in a submerged world.
Looking towards Fife, a cruise ship with pointed snout. By the afternoon, the heat shimmer is gathering pace until it vibrates like a tuning fork. The horizon is visible now but too bright to look at.
Several of the VESSEL projects concern journeys on foot, along coastlines and waterways; Jonathan Baxter’s Braid Walk, Lucas Priest’s expeditions as The School of Pedestrian Culture, Claudia Zeiske’s Slow Coast 500 walk from Dunnet Head to Berwick-upon-Tweed. Moving slowly and on foot feels like a tentative but meditative response to anxious times and a rebuttal of more polluting and detached forms of tourism. Vira Putri’s installation Tired Water contains rice water vibrating to the frequency of a folk song, the surface breaking in tiny waves, answering back to those in a glass of wine on deck, vibrated by cruise ship engines.
Despite this, out in the world, time moves, or maybe I move, in a holiday drift. In this version of the end of the world, everyone is here on the beach, and everyone is very relaxed about it.
Some answers to the question of how to possibly find relaxation in the worst-case scenario of the future are offered by tools and device: Survival kit for unprecedented times, created by participants in a workshop run by Jenny Pope. Assemblages of discarded objects include an ‘optimism fan’, a ‘planetary positivity prober’, ‘Climate Activists’ Song Catcher’. The care and fussing that’s gone into binding together the colourful bits of packaging and fabric scraps is self-evident and comforting.
Seafield Wastewater Treatment Plant emits a high-pitched whine, not constant but stopping and starting, close enough to the edge of audibility to make you question whether it’s an environmental sound or just tinnitus.
The exterior of Pipe Street Toilets is already pretty for a public toilet block, decorated with mosaic tiles in striped and floral patterns. Framed by those mosaics is Quota, poster prints of photographs by Christina Riley that almost recede into the pattern and decoration, camouflaging like a reef-dwelling fish. Out of the stippled colour and texture of the seabed emerge delicate and soft marine bodies, threatened by scallop dredging but here tentacular and beautiful.
By Saturday evening, the fish and chip van has run out of both fish and chips. This provides an opportunity to opt instead for prawn toast from China Express, at the Joppa end of the prom. It is emphatically the best prawn toast around, the pleasure of the combination of textures far greater my mostly-vegetarian tendency to worry about where something came from.
HAAF, a short film about Haaf netters on both sides of the Solway Firth by Heather Andrews and Julia Parks is full of swirling currents and talk of back in the olden days. These men, up to their chests in tidal estuary waters, with nets that look a bit like 5-a-side goals, are some of the least optimistic protagonists I encounter over the weekend, despite their love for what they do and the environmental soundness of their thousand-year-old fishing method. In the context of an art festival that looks for solutions to environmental crises, Haaf netting is an answer, an alternative to industrial fishing, but out by themselves in the Solway, the netters predict that in ten years’ time, the practice will have died out.
Intermittent lighthouse sweeps of car headlights illuminate the film screening’s audience, seated on rows of wooden benches. There are fires dotted along the beach and people wearing swimsuits and shorts appear and disappear in and out of the gathering darkness.
The last film of AFLOAT, a programme of films screened outdoors on Portobello Promenade, is Juliana Capes’ Milking the Dark Rainbow. In a series of vignetted close ups of petrol on wet tarmac, combined with ardent descriptions of its colours, it deliberates through environmental guilt, shame, beauty and weather, all running into each other and pooling together.
Rain and leaves gathering on the cycle path on the journey home feel more real than what has preceded them.
Timothea Armour is an artist and writer based in Edinburgh.
Art Walk Porty 1 to 10 September. VESSEL has an extended showing, including an installation by the artist duo Huniti Goldox, at mote102.com in Leith (21 to 27 September) and in commissioned texts published by MAP in the coming weeks.