Daniel Jewesbury visits Abbeyview

As we stand waiting for the bus to Dunfermline the snow is getting heavier. We are caught in a pretty hefty moment of indecision as to whether to chance the roads - Nicola's heard that the motorway was blocked with an overturned truck - or to play it safe and take the train. We deliberate.

Hanna arrives. She is running and out of breath. This is a good way to meet someone for the first time, in a bus station in the snow when they're out of breath and you don't know whether to get the bus or the train. It stops you from standing on ceremony.

The bus is now late. We decide to get the train and cut our losses.

Then the bus arrives. We get the bus.

I'm fairly ignorant of the east coast of Scotland and the flames atop the refineries are pretty interesting to me, very dramatic, dark and satanic, but understandably not especially wonderful once you've seen them once, twice or ten thousand times, so i'm the only one staring at them. I tell Nicola that apparently the suspension cables on the Forth road bridge are starting to break. That's my store of local knowledge exhausted.

Nicola calls Dunfermline 'Dunfernland' and one of the things I hope to discover, during the course of my explorations of Abbeyview, is whether anyone else says this or whether she has a particular reason for pronouncing it that way. This I intend to find out indirectly. Perhaps I will start using it myself when i'm over next, and see if people start staring at me, or maybe treating me like one of their own (unlikely).

First impressions of Abbeyview are mingled in with the feeling of an initiation, or the conferring of membership in a society. I'm introduced to a number of people quite quickly and before I know it I'm having lunch in the bowling club and holding forth on public art, and community, and commitment and involvement, and trying to find out where everybody stands.

My own position on public art is that there are many people and interest groups who misuse it. Governments and local authorities have instrumentalised 'culture' to the extent that they often only see an appropriate use for it, in public contexts, in achieving specific policy goals (under the broad heading of social inclusion). This means that 'culture' as something that doesn't have definite, measurable 'outcomes' is seen as a bad thing, or even as elitist. Meanwhile, libraries are closed down and access to galleries, theatres and so on is ever more restricted. Where I live, in Belfast, public art is usually of the classic 'sticking plaster' type - intended to distract attention away from the terrible conditions that continue to blight everyday life here. There are lots of sticking plasters being put up in Belfast right now. They're all pretty ugly.

I know that Nicola's approach to public art, and to working with artists, is very subtle and that it avoids at all cost patronising those who might see it. All the same, at this stage, I know very little about Abbeyview, and I'm meeting the funders of the project for the first time. Are they sympathetic to her way of working? Are they in on it?

Nicola seems to have won them round fairly early on. In fact she seems to have given them something that they could never have asked for, which they could never really have known was exactly what they wanted. I guess this is because it's not a project 'aimed' at anyone, certainly not at some sort of half-imagined 'community'. It doesn't presume that art has to be compromised or reduced when you present it outside of a gallery, in the places where people actually live. Over several years of living in Belfast I've become very wary of that idea of 'community'. More often than not it's a handly way of keeping people in their place, and I really hate the idea of people having a 'place' that they're not expected to move beyond, whether that's a real place, where you live or work, or a place that you go to in your head. I've never really had a place myself so I tend to keep on the move.

By the end of the afternoon I've been given the guided tour and left to have a wander on my own. I come across a large main road just beyond the high school, and I realise that the estate has very clear boundaries. I wonder how much people respect, or observe these boundaries and what they really mean to anyone. A couple of desolate pieces of street furniture appear to be attempts to make the dead space somehow meaningful but i can't imagine anyone ventures down here for any reason, except perhaps to walk the dog late at night.

After only a little while I've left Abbeyview again, and as we pass the refinery flames I'm wondering what I might find out about it over the next couple of months.

by Daniel Jewesbury, 24 Jan 2008

Photographs © Nicola Atkinson Does Fly

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