As part of this year's Look Again Festival, artist Gabrielle Reith created and curated the Unreal Estate Aberdeen exhibition which reflected on and redressed Aberdeen city through new artworks and writing about 10 buildings on its iconic Union Street. I was commissioned to write new pieces for five of the buildings focused upon in the exhibition which were displayed in the Bon Accord shopping centre between 28 May - 2 April. Below you can read each piece, learn more about the research and writing process for it, see the piece of artwork created for each building and listen to new music created by Fitlike Records for the project.
At the start of my research, I took a walk up and down Union Street, taking note of the aspects of each building that I found interesting: architectural details, information plaques, how folk interacted with them, what I could see through their windows... For The Tollbooth, I decided to take a visit inside as the building is now a museum displaying various exhibits about its history as a tax office, its later use as a wardhouse, the prisoners it held within, and the architectural changes the building has undergone. Although I've visited the building before, I'd never had a proper tour around the exhibits and was lucky to have my own 1-1 tour with one of the guides, Doug Strachan, who delighted in telling me more about the building's history as well as some great anecdotes about his time working there. I took a ream of notes by hand, trying to capture all the details I'd noted about the building itself (the wee windows, the narrow spiral staircases, the crumbling sandstone) and the stories Doug told.
A few days later, I picked out words and phrases from my notes that still resonated with me and typed them up in a document. I wanted to get the sense of crampness you feel in the building (and the prisoners would have felt when up to fifty were held in one cell!) as well as comment on what little light gets through the building through the small openings in the sandstone. A series of haikus seemed a natural fit, which is surprising as I don't normally write in the form. It really felt like it came together though, when I shifted into using Northeast Scots (Doric) to capture the voice most prisoners would have spoken with over the Tollbooth's use as a wardhouse. The final touch came when I realised that, forming part of an art exhibition, it wouldn't be too bad a thing to play around with the form and layout on the page, and so the haikus zigzag as you read through them, capturing the sense of the spiralling of both the narrow staircases and the prisoners' minds.
For this building, I did a fair bit of reading on the life and works of Aberdeen's most acclaimed architect, Archibald Simpson. I knew he had a massive impact on Union Street, but I was unaware of just how much work he'd managed to produce in his relatively short life across the Northeast of Scotland and beyond. The best resource I came upon was Archibald Simpson, Architect by David Miller, which gives a thorough overview of Simpson's career and, particularly important for my fabricated letter, a great sense of Simpson's bold, yet charming character. For the final draft of the piece, I looked at examples of letters from around this time to ensure I used a plausible register and the correct salutations.
The building went on to play a central role in the wider Look Again festival, as the launch took place in the basement of The Athenaeum building which now houses Brewdog's first nightclub, Underdog.
Esslemont & Macintosh
It's strange now to think that this is the only proper prose piece I wrote for the exhibition given that this is the form I work in most, but it's not so surprising that it turned out to be my favourite to write. I gave myself a bit more leeway with this piece in terms of how much research I did as I wanted to be a bit more playful, rather than sticking too closely to facts. I did sift through various images of the former Esslemont & Macintosh department store, which now sits empty except for a Jamie's Italian on one half of its first two floors. However, what caught my attention was a news article about a lift operator named Charlie Gordon who worked in E&Ms for over 40 years, and who passed away only a few months after the store closed its doors in 2007 after around 134 years in business. Given my recent involvement in the National Theatre of Scotland's Granite production, I was also inspired to make reference to this industry as well as Aberdeen's former textile mills, and the beginnings of a certain industry that still dominates the city now.
Given there are on-and-off plans to convert the former E&Ms building into a hotel, I love mixed-media artist Caitlin Hyne's vibrant piece which encapsulates what she'd rather see in this relatively massive space.
The New Market
From David Miller's book on Archibald Simpson, I also learned a lot about this former Victorian Market which was knocked down in the 1960s and involved the destruction of one of Simpson's most extravagant works: an Egyptian temple-like facade on its Market Street entrance. While I ultimately chose to write a fake news paper article about a lost building and many lost opportunities, I did come across a brilliant STV article about the inShops Market which currently stands in its place; if you want a laugh and a great example of the 'truth is stranger than fiction', have a read here.
Given that the colonnade is a decorative work (a 'funcy dyke' some might say), rather than a building, I decided to focus on its form and neoclassical style. Reflecting on neoclassicism, I was soon reminded of Alexander Pope's 1712 mock-heroic narrative poem, The Rape of the Lock, with its satire on Pope's society through the recalling of heroes from ancient epics, and decided to do something similar for present-day Union Street.
I'm not usually keen to write in strict poetic forms, and while the piece did require the most editing and fiddling to fit a primarily iambic pentameter metre scheme (10 syllables in tee-TUM rhythm), I'm glad I persevered, particularly for the resulting musical take by Fitlike Records, which brings out a very different, unexpected feel to the piece I think.
I also collaborated with Fitlike Record on the following song to reflect number 520 Union Street, the final building on the street which is currently sitting empty. It features the vocals of Katie Buchan from one of my favourite Aberdonian bands, Best Girl Athlete.
The Unreal Estate exhibition was visited by 3170 people across the Look Again Festival weekend, which speaks volumes for the success of the Festival and the cultural appetite of the city. Besides this exhibition, I had great fun playing on Assemble and Simon Terrill's Brutalist Playground, and being a tourist in my own city on Doug Fishbone's Boomin' Bus Tour of Aberdeen! Check out my Instagram for my festival pics.