Wednesday, 23 March 2011

"Nothing to See Here" in "Run Down Aberdeen"

Other Aberdeen is not, of course, a review column. But, over the last week, we've attended a couple of events (for want of a better word) which chime with our desire to to see the creative and arts sector help lead in the regeneration of Aberdeen's built townscape, business landscape and political mindscape through grassroots bottom-up inclusive creative initiatives. Whatever that means!

Well, impressions of what that might mean began to flit across our minds at last night's premier screening of "Run Down Aberdeen", a new documentary film by Aberdeen video-artist Fraser Denholm (we've linked to his blog once or twice before), and at the performance of "Nothing to See Here", a unique piece of site-specific interactive promenade theatre by Extreme Aberdeen - a collaboration between Aberdeen City Council and the National Theatre of Scotland in partnership with extreme-sports social-enterprise "Transition Extreme". (We saw "Nothing to See Here" at the weekend, but have embargoed our review, because it would be full of spoilers for anyone who has not yet seen the 'performance'. The run is now finished.)


Fraser Denholm's documentary film "Run Down Aberdeen" was commissioned by the creator of the Facebook community group which shares the documentary's name. The film rolls our sleeves up for us and does the necessary job of setting the terms of reference by which we might, with eyes open and the spirit of steely realism (which will be vital), begin to grasp the future in our medium-sized northern town, out on the edge of Britain. The documentary does an exemplary unflinching job of investigating the reactions, impacts and causes of our current condition. For a backdrop to interviews with politicians, writers and citizens [picks up own trumpet - the author of this blog being one - puts own trumpet down] Fraser uses contradictorily heartbreakingly beautiful photography featuring our egregiously dilapidated built environment. Fraser asks the right questions of his interviewees, the backing music woozily plink-plonking an atmosphere of unease to accompany the soft-spoken understated voiceover.

Last night's screening was followed by an open-floor panel-session, the film-maker flanked by local politicians. We were unsurprised that - having just watched the film - Deputy Leader of our local council, Cllr Kevin Stewart, said that he "didn't like the title". We feel that this is typical of the reality distortion field which sometimes characterises discourse in this town, and was at sharp variance with the realism from which the documentary does not flinch. Timely and relevant to the state of our town, Fraser has demonstrated - by examining the political, economic, commercial and creative background (psychogeographical) context - that our town is, indeed, run down. And he has done so in a technically excellent, flawlessly paced and balanced way that reflects the "grey strangeness" (per Betjeman) of our town; the edge on the edge.

Mentioned both in Fraser's film and in the floor discussion afterwards was the hope that a grass-roots creative sector movement might have a pivotal role to play in the regeneration of Aberdeen. Clearly, there is no amount of capital which can be mobilised to comprehensively recondition the built environment (the townscape, if you will) any time soon, but in the engagement of the audience and in the unflinching eye of the documentary maker we perhaps begin to discern the mobilisation of creative capital which might bring about the right conditions to recondition the mindscape of our town - something which we think is a pre-condition of future social (as well as commercial) sustainability for Aberdeen.


Another creative initiative operating to modify the mindscape of Aberdeen is the Extreme Aberdeen initiative; a grass-roots project involving more than 250 young people, the project has sought to inhabit the edges of our town to create an "adrenaline fuelled mix of worlds". We mentioned their "By Order of Me" project last month. In the finalé event "Nothing to See Here" we are audience and player in an interactive site-specific theatre performance art event.

This promenade-theatre production is a phantasmagorical journey through the soon-to-be-demolished Linksfield Academy and Community Centre building. The audience is split into groups of two or three and propelled physically and mentally through the building. Themes of loss, trust, betral, confusion, lack of control, injustice, wrongful imprisonment, surveillance, inspiration, celebrity culture and triumphant redemption are explored via a series of dream-like tableaux; now visiting a man on his hospital death-bed, then being hooded and kidnapped out of a van by baseball-bat-wielding balaclava'd thugs, next participating in a rigged game-show, finally redeemed as a rock-star singing solid-gold soft-rock High-School-Musicalesque to a crowd of ecstatic and adoring fans. (No, really.)

The production uses a mix of professional actors, student actors, schoolkids, young musicians and extreme sports like parcourt and BMX to create the immersive scenarios which don't so much require suspension of disbelieve on behalf of the audience/participants as de-condition us from normal reality in favour of the non-linear dreamscape which becomes our lives for an hour or so. And, all the while in the production we find echos of the way we live today and of our own lives. The specifics of certain of the episodic elements continue to swim unbidden into our minds for days afterwords. We suspect that this may continue for some time to come. This production is truly transformational - not just for the lives of the young participants who will retain this experience and gain strength and inspiration from it forever, but also for us. We will never forget it.

"Nothing to See Here" perhaps goes part of the way to answering the implicit question of "Run Down Aberdeen"; that question being what happens next? The obsolescence and decrepitude of the site is one of the themes of the production, and the building itself is one of the 'stars'. The site-specificity of "Nothing to See Here" relies on the fact that a derlict and condemned building gave the producers the once-only chance to create something huge and something unique - something unrepeatable and special for the community which shared in the production on all sides - in front of and behind the curtain and also behind the scenes, the edges between all three aspects of performance being is intentionally blurred, indeed - demolished.

In projects like these, both the documentary film and the site-specific theatre production, we begin to see that grass roots creativity - the kind which involves people and improves lives - does not require a "big name arts and culture brand" as some believe they should attempt to attract to Aberdeen rather than support home-grown arts organisations. Likewise, the kind of creativity which is inclusive and innovative does not require any new-build "iconic" building in which it would be stultified and suffocated behind figurative and literal glass screens. Creativity is always and everywhere something for everyone. Creativity has no boundaries, no walls. The whole of Aberdeen is our playground, it's one big edge...

You've just got to get out there and be in it, live in it.

[edit: We just learned the spendid news that Cllr Stewart has requested that a special screening of "Run Down Aberdeen" be arranged for Aberdeen's Councillors.]

Here's Fraser's film, pass it on:

Run Down Aberdeen from Fraser Denholm on Vimeo.

And here's cast and crew (and maybe you) on an "All Time High" at "Nothing To See Here":

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Audio of the Run-Down Aberdeen post-screening discussion is now available here :