4 August 2020
Fleming Collection

HELLO. It’s a simple enough greeting to usher you into Edinburgh Art Festival’s response to the cancellation of this year’s physical event due to the fall-out from the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, but it works. Especially when the word is laid out in understated black letters on a series of white flags draped from various sites around an infinitely quieter city than usual as Peter Liversidge’s contribution to the programme. These aren’t flags flying with triumphalist symbolism, but are a peaceful greeting of welcome, inclusion and surrender of the most romantic kind.

Like the other nine works on show, Flags for Edinburgh (2020) revisits work first shown at a previous EAF. This isn’t so much a greatest hits selection as a reimagining of each work and the resonances they might have in this brave new world since Covid-19 changed things forever.

In Liversidge’s case, this was in 2013. The welcome the flags implied then was just as warm, but, unlike now, as they flapped in the wind above the hubbub of packed Edinburgh streets, might well have gone un-noticed by the throng in a way that is unlikely to happen now. If the work now has greater visibility, the viewer has been granted more pause for thought. As you drift around town and hopefully stumble on the series of poster works that make up the rest of EAF’s physical programme, there is infinitely more space to breathe it all in.

Attracting major attention on Middle Meadow Walk is The Hand Made Map of the World (2014), Tam Joseph’s geopolitical reimagining of old borders, which redraws nations great and small to suggest alternative ways of being. Here, what used to be the UK is now Cuba, the USA has been occupied by China and the former Brazil is now the Russian Federation. As passers-by from home and abroad huddle round, they point out where they’re from and where they may yet end up.

Shrouded by the scaffolding outside the long neglected old Odeon cinema on Clerk Street, Rae-Yen Song‘s Song Dynasty (2018) project is brought to life with a poster resembling a still for a heroic family adventure. songdynasty.life (2020) is the trailer for Song’s online film, in which the same characters go round in circles in a very personal ritualistic pageant full of colour, noise and the sort of life normally seen on Edinburgh’s streets at this time of year.

Ruth Ewan has similarly built on already existing work from her Sympathetic Magick project. Worker’s Song Storydeck (2018) is a short film made with close-up magician Billy Reid that uses a deck of cards to map out an entire history of working class culture set to a Dick Gaughan soundtrack. Magic Words (Ian, Margaret, Peggy) (2020) is a series of new poster works made with the hand-writing of socialist magician Ian Saville, Ewan’s mum and her 7-year-old daughter. Placed around the city, they are a call to arms for a new society based on human need rather than profit.

Ellie Harrison’s new poster, Tonnes of carbon produced by the personal transportation of a ‘professional artist’ (2020), situated at Meadowbank Stadium Hoardings, looks to a similar ideal in a graph which documents her carbon footprint over the last few years. Looking like a series of medal-adorned ship’s funnels, this follows Harrison’s Glasgow Effect project, which enraged some as she underwent a project not to travel outside the city boundaries. This can now be seen as an accidental dress-rehearsal for how everyone other than Dominic Cummings has lived over the last few months of lockdown. The long line of emptiness that marks out Harrison’s 2020 travel-wise sums up this year’s enforced stay-at-home stasis.

The Meadowbank hoardings are also a home of sorts for Edinburgh’s graffiti art community. Since February, this has showcased a mural of sonic alchemist Andrew Weatherall which appeared a couple of days after the untimely passing of one of the great architects of collage-based modern music. Alongside the recently convened nationwide Black Lives Matter Mural Trail, remains one of the most significant public artworks in the city. While not part of EAF, Shona Hardie’s portrait sits well alongside Ewan and Harrison’s work. One hopes the Scottish National Portrait Gallery might purchase it and give it a permanent home before it’s painted over.

With live performances online providing some kind of solace since lockdown, EAF too has embraced what might yet be a new artform. While Tamara MacArthur’s It’s all Over But the Dreaming (2020) was a one-off affair that will feed into a new video work set to be shown later in the month, Calvin Z. Laing is presenting Calvin & Jogging (2020) twice a week throughout August.

Laing’s piece sees him rock up to Drylaw, the Edinburgh suburb where he grew up. Filmed on the hoof around his former ‘hood, Laing opens proceedings limbering up in the middle of the road. What follows is anywhere but. As Laing combines psycho-geographic derive with straight-to-camera monologue, he makes a prodigal’s return before jogging on.

MacArthur’s performance is a touching display caught in the eye of a storm on a fairy-tale style set that sees her cling tightly to something magical. This comes in the form of a life-size doll that she cradles in her arms, whispering sweet nothings in what might be a final fond farewell before everyone finally goes under. As the interplay of a brief one-to-one interaction makes clear, the doll is more flesh and blood than you might think in what is essentially a metaphorical hug of the sort that’s been all but lost over the last few months.

Shannon Te Ao‘s beautiful heartache of a film, With the sun aglow, I have my pensive moods (2017) takes this need to hold each other close even further in its poignantly choreographed study of everyday intimacy in an otherwise barren landscape. Where before the film’s parallel narratives were shown on two different screens at either end of the room, watching them side by side on a laptop haunts even more.

The simple pleasures of shared experience are there too in the online archival screenings. This is particularly acute in Rosalind Nashashibi’s two-part film, Part One: Where there is a joyous mood, there a comrade will appear to share a glass of wine, and Part Two: The moon nearly at the full. The team horse goes astray (2019). At first, it resembles a verite style home movie about a family at play on holiday, before opening out during its 45-minute duration into a speculative fiction narrative about the need to write one’s own story, to transcend the everyday and take a giant leap somewhere beyond.

Finally, Hanna Tuulikki’s SING SIGN: a close duet (2015) shows just how powerful human interaction can be. Tuulikki’s film posits her and composer Daniel Padden at opposite ends of assorted Edinburgh closes, where a wordless call and response is accompanied by mirrored gestures drawn from British Sign Language. The result is a mediaeval pas de deux that uses its immediate environment to resonate somewhere beyond.

Seen as a whole, the ten works form a living retrospective of times lost. They look back with longing to how things used to be even as we sit in limbo, awaiting some unknown new tomorrow. By utilising the most immediate means of expression – posters, flags, online vid-clips, billboards, only t-shirts and badges are missing – these signs of the times ramp up the basic human need to share, to commune, and to connect, both with ourselves and others. Ultimately, what shines through is a collective yearning to be a part of this big, messy, messed-up world once more. Welcome back.

All online and Around the City works are available on the EAF website until August 30th. Calvin & Jogging by Calvin Z. Laing is performed live online each Thursday at 7pm and each Saturday at 11am. A new video work drawn from It’s All Over But the Dreaming by Tamara MacArthur will be available from August 10th-30th. A live online performance of SING SIGN: a close duet will be performed by Hanna Tuulikki and Daniel Padden. Details to be confirmed.

Neil Cooper