Putting locals at the heart of public art

Art Feature in the HERALD by Jack Mottram. 18 Jan 2008

Last night, inside Abbeyview Community Centre, Dunfermline, resident community artist Nicola Atkinson Does Fly channelled the spirit of ballerina Moira Shearer, tapping out a rhythm with her feet to accompany viola player Aby Vulliamy, performing her score based on Shearer's finest hour, when she played Vicky in the Powell and Pressburger masterpiece of cinema, The Red Shoes.

The evening also saw attendees biting into oranges as they watched a slideshow by "cultural broker" Ben Spencer, whose installment as part of an ongoing series of public art gatherings, dubbed Clock People, was entitled What Is Beautiful?

Not, you might think, typical entertainment offerings on a rainy Thursday in Fife, but almost run-of-the-mill for the residents of Abbeyview, who, since last March, have been working with the artist who goes by the nom de guerre Nicola Atkinson Does Fly (adopted after she made a video about a fly, chosen because it is "irritating and essential") and also with a brace of invited artists.

"I almost see it as like working in a band of musicians," Atkinson says, explaining her collaborations with artists and community alike. "We all have our instruments - our artistic forms - and we're working together as a collective, but still distinct."

It's this sort of approach that marks out Atkinson as a sensitive, engaged practitioner of public art, a mode of working that can all-too-often see an artist descending on a community with a set project in mind.

"My approach is always very gentle," she agrees. "There might be a lot of work going on, but I'm not interested in just parachuting in. For a piece called Dwellings, I had the idea of making little cardboard houses, based on the houses that are going to be knocked down in Abbeyview. I presented them to the school so the students could put them together, but they did everything you could imagine with them. I ended up with hundreds of different crazy houses.

"That was interesting. I'd presented them with something that was complete to me, this really beautiful aesthetic piece, and they really matched it. Another example would be Belle & Sebastian guitarist Stevie Jackson's songs - he wrote two inspired by Abbeyview - and the school music department said, We can do this song', so they took it away, worked on it, and presented it back to him."

Such easy interactions are matched by the use of happy coincidences and a free-wheeling approach to fresh ideas, tactics that Atkinson has developed under the banner of Random And Dynamic Art Risks - or Radar.

"The Radar project is about doing something slightly mad, and about taking risks," Atkinson says. "With public art, there is an unpredictable aspect, and that's exciting. You really get into a zone, and begin to have an intuitive trust in what you are doing."

That intuition binds together the wide array of events taking place at Abbeyview. Clock People earned its title when a clock was suggested as a useful piece of public art, and Atkinson joked that residents should just ask other people for the time. That simple concept - of people as the focus of projects - now informs the regular gatherings, which seek to define the future of public art in the area by discussing allied ideas - from last night's meditation on beauty, to November's edition, The Importance of Time.

Atkinson's performance in the guise of Shearer grew in a similarly organic fashion.

"I was researching Moira Shearer for another piece," Atkinson explains. "I knew that she was born in Dunfermline, but when I saw that the event, What Is Beautiful?, was planned for her birthday, I just had to do something involving her. These sort of serendipitous things just seem to happen."

And they keep happening, spreading Abbeyview art around the world. For instance, a project that saw Atkinson drawing the stock of a local hardware store, selling her efforts for the price of the goods drawn, was mirrored in New York by artist Sophia Pankenier, and Stevie Jackson performed his Abbeyview songs earlier this month at the Walt Disney Concert Hall, Los Angeles.

"Things can reside here and start here," Atkinson says. "But the work has to have a life outwith the place. I like the idea of it being a worldwide thing - but an intimate worldwide thing.' In its quiet way then, Abbeyview is making its mark on the wider art world, and looks set to continue to do so with Atkinson's light hand on the tiller, generating oblique strategies and working towards, ultimately, a public sculpture in the area.

Before the Abbeyview artist enterprise draws to a close in March, though, there is much to be done. For instance, artist Luke Fowler is preparing a film for a Clock People event entitled Permanent vs Temporary, a Cabinet of Curiosities, which is touring the country.

It seems safe to say, the public art scene in Abbeyview will remain in rude health, long after Atkinson flies on to her next project.

The Cabinet of Curiosities is at Fife Contemporary Art & Craft, St Andrews, until Jan 30. For information on past and future events in Abbeyview, visit www.nadfly.com.

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