With the Festival of Architecture about to kick off with Hinterland, Rattle spoke to the creative director of NVA Angus Farquhar about the performance in St. Peter’s seminary and his thoughts on creative confidence in Scotland.
Angus, NVA are not only about to do a show in St. Peter’s, but also make the building a permanent base for creativity – what’s the idea?
It has taken eight years to develop our plans for the St. Peter’s seminary. It’s fifty years since the building was built, and 150 years since the estate was established. But it’s also year zero if you like, in that we have just spent the last year moving asbestos and hazardous materials from the site – it’s the first time we can safely access the building with a large audience. It also marks the opening of the Festival of Architecture.
This is something of a departure for NVA?
We have done a lot of ephemeral and time-based work in unusual locations – on top of mountains, old factories or in sections of cities – but we took a decision to do permanent work eight years ago. We did the Hidden Gardens in reaction to the Iraq war and that is a work we are very proud of – it’s gone on to have its own life, with its own trust and team – 25,000 people visit a year. So we had that experience, but this was a life decision – before we fall apart in the next twenty, twenty five years why don’t we dedicate what we’ve learned towards doing something permanent and to really think about the kind of art we make and the way we work with people. Ours is a very collective experience and the idea of doing something permanent with that in such an important building nationally and internationally – that felt like the next step to take.
If I can divert you back to Glasgow of around 1990, and you were enjoying your first success – in retrospect that seems a very special time, as if it kick started confidence – what are your thoughts on that?
I moved back from London to Glasgow at the end of the 1980’s because we knew that something was happening in Glasgow. I grew up in Edinburgh which has always had this sort of completeness, you know what to expect, even in the Fringe, it’s a known force, but Glasgow from the 1980’s onwards, in the folk scene and theatre and public arts, it really felt that something serious was starting – and given full voice in 1990. Perhaps we are unusual in that NVA is in its 24th year, but we grew out of that energy, and particularly Bob Palmer who set up the Year of Culture, and Neil Wallace who was the first director of Tramway – they had real vision, and they behaved in a very un-Council way – with flexibility and freedom and risk – they understood what made great art – they gave it free reign. Now everything is driven by instrumental agenda – everything has to prove itself ten times over before it is allowed to breath. My dictum is that great art will do those social and environmental things automatically – it will inspire – those were formative days, and there is a generation who found a voice, and felt confident about speaking back out to the rest of the world.
We used to hang out together in dank flats in the West End in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, there were lots of people with ideas around, but not all have been as successful as you – and that is a privileged thing for you – I would have loved to have lived your life – I think – you got to do interesting projects – does it feel like a privileged life?
Yes. The pressure in my life is due to decisions I have made. There are not many people who have been able to pursue their projects. We have been quite strong as a company never to give in – so when we do a lighting festival, we don’t just roll it out, but we fight to make it authentic, and involve artists and the public in a profound way. Those things don’t come about through luck – if you take any one of the projects, the fundraising and planning takes at least three years – there is a huge drudge element, when you have to keep the passion high. As with St. Peter’s, nothing comes easily – it is a continuous effort, but I’m very proud of it and still working on our own terms.
Do you think we have become more confident – or not?
The whole cultural scene took a real knock with the creation of Creative Scotland – it wasn’t well managed, and we are only just getting our feet back – it created enormous and unnecessary pain, people had to shoulder pain and financial difficulty, and it led to competition between companies which we hadn’t known.
Good work will always find a way – when we did work with the Test Department in the 1980’s it was virtually unfunded – good creative energy also finds a way out.
I’m really conscious of this discussion about confidence – as if we are not confident and political change will somehow transform that – but I’m not sure we lack confidence in the first place.
It has been well acknowledged that the arts community was vocal in the Referendum and led discussion on the more utopian aspects – and I’ve been thinking about this recently because artists are not great earners – they don’t do what they do to generate profits – sure, there are economic benefits from arts, but that’s not what drives it – artists don’t earn a lot of money – so they were driven by ideas in that debate. They are capable of leaps of imagination – and not being scared to leave certainty behind. That was powerful and I don’t think it would have come about if we weren’t already confident.
For me and many others the debate was intoxicating and I don’t want to recover from it. St. Peter’s will have an art function and a social function, about furthering that debate. It is an inspiring location and can pick up on the positive aspects of our profound national discussion.
The temptation is to describe your work as ‘cinematic’ but this feels wrong, it is as if there should be a specific adjective for what you do, because that’s what you do – you don’t make cinema, you make happenings.
I absolutely don’t mind cinematic, but what I hate is spectacular, because I think, well, so are fireworks which last for ten seconds. Cinematic is much better – if you think of a large scale film, with many actors in a big landscape, an epic, often our work has that epic quality – but instead of extras and actors, this is more like being inside a film, a beguiling sense of it happening around you.
I have a philosophical position, but the dreaming part often comes in large images. I’ve got more in common with the Russian directors of the early 20th century than I do with written work in the theatre.
You are Scotland’s Tarkovsky (both laugh)
I’ll take that. He’s a great deal cleverer than I am. When I first went to London as an 18 year I would travel to all the independent cinemas, traveling for hours between the Brixton Ritz and the Everyman in Hamsptead, travelling to the to see a Herzog film or Fassbender film of a Cocteau film. I saw them all, it was obsessive – that created a set of visual references which are still playing in my mind years later.