Just when committed contemporary artists in Aberdeen were on the verge of talking themselves into a terminal state of creative inertia, debilitated by their own paranoia that progressive artistic activity only ever happens somewhere else, UrbanNovember staged its volatile Urban Atlas at artists’ collective space, Limousine Bull.
Nobly conceived in November last year as a gathering of artists and activists with the express agenda to imaginatively counter the planned-then-banned National Front march in Aberdeen, UrbanNovember has quickly become an effective nexus, linking organisations and individuals in a democratic ‘celebration of urban culture’.
Devised and energised by ps-culture.net orchestrator Peter Troxler and the New Social Art School’s Eva Merz, while supported by a reawakened Peacock Visual Arts, UrbanNovember encouraged Situationist strategies of critique in order to momentarily redeem an urban landscape, freed from NF hate pedantry maybe, but notoriously delineated by the straight lines of conservatism and consumerism.
At the same time as temporarily enlivening Aberdeen, importantly for the future of contemporary arts practice in the city, the weeklong project killed off any lingering complacency on the part of its willing host, Limousine Bull—too long a timid, hierarchical holding-centre for worried newly-grads; now a credible artists’ group with a developing track record. For the first of the seven daily events, Eva Merz and Andy Dobson, as the New Social Art School, installed their invitingly hideous ‘Tribute to the Monkey’—a disgusting variation on that instrument of juvenile management which is the games console: bovine controllers lay in front of a smashed VDU, the corporeality of the abattoir brutalising the duhreality of the computer game world. This piece and its complementary video—a recording of the public flogging of the television set—served as non-site access points to Merz and Dobson’s roon-the-toon critical drifting.
Peter Troxler made a direct, deferential link to Situationism with ‘Sous les Pavés’, an unearthing of Aberdeen’s original master-mapping. The utopian vision once harboured for the ‘Garden City of Torry’ functioned as touchstone for the deadening nowhere/everywhere spaces of Aberdeen’s retail megaplexes as well as for today’s Torry. Too much attention to theoretical mapping, Troxler evidenced, generates hopelessly hopeful civic administration, which, in turn, indefinitely defers promised urbanlands, bringing about instead substitutive social limbo zones.
Commendably impatient Gray’s student Qas Ashfaq showed guerrilla tendency by spraystencilling his Beuysianesque declaration, ‘I heard someone say that anyone can do what I am doing; that’s the whole point, I am just anyone after all’. This he did adjacent to his miniature graffitied wall, the writing on which informed us that he had divinely received the gift of painting that very day. Amidst the sarcasm, Ashfaq’s timely axiomatic observation was: although anyone can, few actually do.
Not to discuss the other artists involved in Urban Atlas (Lim Bull trouble-shooters Jim Ewen and Justin Orde, Charlie McCulloch, Duncan Hart and doctoral composer Bill Thompson) gives room to note that there appears now to be the chance in Aberdeen that artists of all media will actually do in response to UrbanNovember’s exemplar and Ashfaq’s particular rallying cries.
Crucially for this possibility, which even a simple exercise of psychogeography tells us, the city is not the familiar post-industrial case study waiting to be beneficently mapped out by culturos in the image of a blessed Newcastle, informed on the journey ‘back up north’ by the culture industries of Glasborough. Aberdeen’s is an extant industrial-financial urban landscape being imaginatively explored and charted by the creative vigour of those artists who have resisted expatriation by recognising that the politicogeography of the city presents one of the remaining urban spaces in Scotland which can be work-lived according to the rambling lines of an artist’s napkin map without the proprietary blueprint of culture managers or even insistent critics.
Ken Neil is a critic, artist and director of the MFA Course at Gray’s School of Art