New Gold Dreams (84-94-04) | Collective Gallery

High Street Fighting Years 

The Collective Gallery has its roots in a tradition of independent and artist-led activities in Edinburgh that can be traced to 1960s organisations such as the New 57 Gallery and protests led by Alexander Moffat and John Bellany against the conservatism of the Royal Scottish Academy. The eventual canonisation of these artists and New 57’s transformation into the Fruitmarket Gallery in 1984 created a cultural vacuum that younger turks simply had to fill. The Artists’ Collective was born on the High Street, just above the Clamshell chippy. But what of the pyrrhic dreams of young Edinburgh artists eager to behead the establishment of subsequent decades?

Real To Real Life Cacophony  

The Collective’s Gallery’s 10th anniversary in 1994 was met with a surge of activity in Edinburgh. The Cracker Factory, a studio and exhibition complex in Newington, had played host to a large Burroughsian group show organised by Mark Hadden featuring key Edinburgh artists such as Jason Malcolm-Hertzmark, Chad McCail, John Ayscogh and Dr Neupop (aka Andy Anderson). “It was a big messy building off a mews, a rough and raw roll-up smoking place that smelled of oily rope; a Trustafarian affair” remembers Robert Montgomery who, with Ayscogh, was competing his Postgraduate Diploma at Edinburgh College of Art (ECA) at the time. In 1994 Out of the Blue established a studio, gallery and night-club complex (The Bongo Club), generating a sustainable income from the club sector as a means of supporting art activities and a making them more accessible. Under the Directorship of Sarah Monroe, the Collective was playing catch up with Glasgow’s Transmission, establishing links with weegieceptualists and building up the programme around the emerging generation of Edinburgh artists.

Ayscogh, Montgomery and Elaine Spears had already caused something of a stir at ECA. Disheartened that nobody mentioned the fact that the anatomy room was once stage to performances by Joseph Beuys in the early 70s, Montgomery produced a survey of ECA to see how many people had heard of the artist. Out of 500 interviewed only 220 had. Montgomery wanted to remember such highly ambitious, politicised practices. Without indicating that they were students, Montgomery, Ayscogh and Spears proposed a series of exhibitions for the large Sculpture Court in ECA. An impressed Peter Pretzel handed them the reigns to organise exhibitions by a circle of artists including among others Ayscogh, Montgomery, Spears, Keith Farquhar and Paul Carter.

Noticing their potential, Andrew Brown, Director of the 369 Gallery in the Cowgate, gave Ayscogh and Montgomery the keys to his gallery for six months gratis. Another series of exhibitions ensued featuring Farquhar, Carter, Spears and Andy Smith. It was at 369 that Edinburgh’s largest public art event was planned. Aerial (which was originally to be titled Arial in ode to the washing powder) was a held in sites across Edinburgh from 22nd July to 15th August 1994. Supported by over 20 unpaid volunteers, the charitable limited company orchestrated 26 artists[1] from around Scotland to occupy a number of sites in ways that would now be called ‘ambient’, inhabiting public spaces in ways that jammed the psychogeography of the city.[2]

The works were as diverse as the locations. Ambient sound was a key feature of many projects. Farquhar played a series of audio tapes of dogs barking on the in-car stereos of cars in the Midas Motor Company in Dundee Street, leaving the windows slightly ajar.[3] Detourned street signs were also popular. Carter juxtaposed neighbourhood watch and local gang signs. David Fryer, best known for his fake TWA Bomb Bag, produced a series of blue and white road signs pointing to emotions such as ‘liberation’, ‘complacency’, ‘understanding’, ‘despair’ ‘hatred’ ‘death’ and ‘optimism’. One sign fell and hit an American tourist on the head. Lawyers were put on alert until all was forgiven when Fryer made a gift of the offending sign.[4] Otto Berchem’s examination of the etiquette of urinating in public conveniences, installed in the Gents toilets on the Mound, was not so lucky; it was removed by a worried Edinburgh City Council.

It should come as little surprise to find that the Situationist International (SI) and Alexander Trocchi had a great influence on Ayscogh, Montgomery and peers such as Carter at this time. “Unless you own the media you can’t change reality said the SI”, asserts Montgomery. In this sense, certain members of Glasgow’s Scotia Nostra were seen by Edinburgh artists as “apolitical, neat, tasteful, and very prissy.”[5] Others were not, notably fellow pro-situ traveller Ross Sinclair. It was for Aerial that Sinclair produced the seminal mini-retrospective Museum of Despair at 248 Cannongate, an oasis in the heart of the Royal Mile tourist trap selling self-aggrandising emotionally engaged pop memorabilia. Fittingly, Museum of Despair was where ECA’s dadaist art historian Professor David Hopkins gave one of his infamous drunken recitals of Hugo Ball’s Karawane. Aerial, however, was far from being a pirate culture jam. This was not a guerrilla event; it cost lots of money to pay for 40 billboard ads, ad spaces on 60 Lothian Buses and for Sinclair’s shop rent. The professional proposal netted around £20,000 support secured by Andrew Nairne at the Scottish Arts Council, funding generously matched by around £10,000 by supportive Labour Councillor Geroge Keraran. In total Aerial ended up costing nearer £37,000, leaving Ayscogh and Montgomery with substantial debts and no money for a catalogue.

The debts coupled with the massive drain on their energy greatly contributed to the disappearance of Ayscogh and Montgomery from Edinburgh and their project from the mythology of Scotland’s independent art history. Carter and Farquhar also departed the city, leaving a gaping vivacious wound.[6] Montgomery and Ayscogh differed in what they wanted from Aerial. While Ayscogh saw the project as a pilot for an annual event and a sustainable limited company, Montgomery professes to having been determined not to become a bureaucrat of “community art hell.’[7] There were many obstacles to contend with. With the departure of Andrew Nairne funding might not have been so likely. It was difficult to fill out the post project report. How could what Montgomery intended as a deliberate assault on a dominant culture that he regarded as idiotic be of benefit to the community?[8]

Promised You A Glasgow Miracle?

The Edinburgh Annuale held in August 2004 featured a number of artist-led organisations including Kim Coleman, Annette Knol and Lucy Sacker’s Brunstfield flat-based Magnifitat (June 2002-), the café-based art collective Total Kunst (2003-), Ruth Beale’s roaming Aurora (February 2004-), committee-run gallery The Embassy (May 2004-) and Sophie Rogers’ flat-based venture Wuthering Heights (2004).[9] These organizations replaced others founded in recent years including Billy Clark’s Tag Team Experiment (September 2002-March 2004) and Grace Maran and Paul MacGee’s Djinniditto (2002), which alongside ECA student collectives such as Vague (2003-), a spattering of large group shows at The Roxy Art House and Naomi Garriock’s laboritory space Cell 77 (October 2004-) began to generate a renewed sense of vibrancy in the city. Following in the footsteps of Edinburgh’s infamous Shaver’s Weekly, free independent publications such as One O’Clock Gun, Dodelijk, Butter and The Scorpion[10] have also all launched in these recent years.

As in 1994, much of this activity has stemmed from a core group of ECA students united by an Epicurean sense of purpose – Astrid Johnston, Ruth Ewan, Craig Coulthard, Tommy Grace, David MacLean, Cathy Stafford and Kate Owens. In May 2003 this group curated Win Together Lose Together Play Together Stay Together, a former bookies at 28 Leven Street in Tollcross.[11] Rather than the SI, these artists could be said to be loosely connected by a utopian neo-romantic sensibility and a common interest in ritual, myth and heraldry. Owens’ Divine Geometry was a decorative window display made from unfashionable reformed potato snacks such as Mini Chips, Monster Munch, Space Raiders and Discos, a formidable challenge to the baroque sensibilities of Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. Coultard painted a commanding series of defunct mediaeval heraldic shields used to represent the old Scottish counties before they opted for dreary corporate identities. Grace’s beautifully distressed Paulus Group photoprint represented a quasi-Masonic checkerboard of Renaissance tiles disappearing infinitely into the painterly horizon. Using plastic beads and glue, MacLean conjured an intricate image of Christ playing dice, a blasphemous emblem of the triumph of chance over divination, and an excellent metaphor for the show as a whole. Along with new Edinburgh zines, this art was marked by a distinctively home-grown Edinburgh sensibility (literary and gothic). Was Edinburgh finally experiencing its own minor miracle?

It has long been argued that Edinburgh has much to learn from the ‘Glasgow Miracle’, a myth coined by curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. Obrist’s blessing joined a long litany of mystifications of Glaswegian culture, such as “Glasgow Smiles Better”, “There’s A Lot Glasgowing On” and “Scotland with Style”, slogans that patronisingly imply a cultural year zero with each ‘reinvention.’ This disingenuousness is not something that Glaswegians or Edinburghers should welcome. Culture isn’t a genie in a lamp; it’s omnipresent. The production of such myths may benefit some, but the trickle-down effect of hype doesn’t materialise since what hype promotes is an image of a culture viewed through the wrong end of a telescope. Thankfully, visibility, a key trope 90s pseudo-corporate aesthetics, is not something that keeps newer Scottish independents awake at night. Lacking the major Eurocuro and media connections that put Glasgow on the map in the 90s, Edinburgh independents work with nascent organisations in cities such as Glasgow, Aberdeen, Manchester, London and Athens. Just as importantly, they often work with each other.

Does this mean that there is a self-consciousness in terms of how new institutions have positioned themselves in Edinburgh? Are they learning from Glasvegas? Magnifiat and Aurora both unquestionably took their lead from Marianne Greated and Sorcha Dallas’ Switchspace (1999-2004) although Aurora can often more closely resemble one of Lucy McKenzie’s Flourish Nights (2002-03). The Embassy has adopted the same legal and committee structure of Transmission. Total Kunst could be an elder sister of Glasgow’s Chateau. Yet in each case there are differences in terms of the work shown and the cultural and educational allegiances spawned. Total Kunst in particular has to orientate its curatorial agenda around the ethical consumerism of the independent Forest café. The model of one-night video and performance is more common in Edinburgh than in Glasgow, a result of the difficulty of obtaining spaces in an over inflated property market (and devoid of a contemporary sympathetic voice such as Councillor Keraran). Working with Jenny Hogarth as Magnifitat & Sons, Coleman has programmed a regular series of video and live art events at ECA’s Sculpture Court since November 2002; events that are now organised by the seven members of The Embassy committee as part of Sculpture and Drawing & Painting’s professional practice course.

Recently established organisations can just as easily be seen to have their roots in the history of Edinburgh independents. Architecturally and structurally speaking, Total Kunst echoes the organised shambles of the Cracker Factory, Out of the Blue and Neupop International; The Embassy the New 57. Aurora has staged two events at 159 Great Junction Street in Leith, a gallery space donated by Ayscogh’s multimedia marketing firm smithandjohn. Aurora could be seen to follow in the footsteps of Djinniditto, which had a promising plan to use a monthly Friday club night at Edinburgh’s Club Ego as a means of financially supporting slide projections around the city in 2002. Resonant of the art night club mix of Out of the Blue, they also seemed to be taking on the ambient mantle of Aerial. Rather than the expected cross between culture jamming, guerrilla advertising, the well-established tactics of 80s artists such as Krzysztof Wodiczko and a touch of VJing, the art element mainly incorporated a slide show of figurative paintings and drawings, newly deceased art that would look at home in any New Town gallery.[12]

Beuys will be Beuys. Ideas rooted in Fluxus have been cropping up since Richard Demarco brought Beuys to Scotland. In 1994, Montgomery and Katrina Moorhead staged a bed-in at the Collective gallery, then newly located in Cockburn Street, as part of Karaoke Fluxfest. The idea was to stage a democratic event in which anyone participated with their own Fluxus inspired performance, “with the irony that we knew we’d just be doing karaoke versions. I thought that was funny in terms of what was going on at the time in Scotland…”[13] In 2005, The Embassy will stage its own Fluxus show demonstrating the city’s long standing engagement with such independent spirits. The myth of an Edinburgh Renascence is sustainable only with selective memory. However, if independent Edinburgh artists and writers remain willing to embrace (relative) autonomy, parochialism, syncretism, idiosyncrasy, absurdity and caustic dourness – all key attributes of Scots culture devalued by the faux-internationalism of this country’s mainstream arts bureaucracies – then the city has at last found a critical mass to fuel itself. Pax Edina!


Neil Mulholland

Tollcross, Edinburgh

February 2005

[1] John Ayscough, Emily Bates, Otto Berchem, Will Bradley, Paul Carter, Keith Farquhar, Patricia Fleming, David Fryer, Mark Haddon & Sean Watson, Alex Harris, Maggie Hills, John Keiller, Claire Lewis, Michael Lindley, Chad McCail, Andy Miller, Robert Montgomery, Emma Neilson, Ewan Robertson, Michele Rosaus, Susannah Silver, Ross Sinclair, James Thornhill, Fiona Wright, Martin Young and Anon.


[2] Such projects have arisen again in more recent years, notably in October: Contemporary Art in St. Vincent Street which featured the work of 31 Glasgow-based artists in the city-centre during October 2001. Artranspenine03 took this a stage further, introducing viral works by artists to locations across the north of England to produce the largest public art festival staged in the UK.


[3] Interview with Keith Farquhar, Edinburgh, February 2005.


[4] Interview with John Ayscogh, Edinburgh 2005.


[5] Interview with Robert Montgomery, London, February 2005. Ayscogh and Montgomery were more than aware of warehouse show precedents such as Frieze (1988) and Windfall 91 but rejected their white-cube ethos. Montgomery continues: “Windfall 91 looked like something that was happening in London. It didn’t seem political. Nice Blinky Palermo looked good in the architecture. Paltry middle class ambition.”


[6] With the exception of Montgomery, who now lives in London, all have since returned.


[7] Montgomery ibid.


[8] Montgomery produced a leaflet ‘Campaign Against Boredom’ during Saturday 23rd July 1994 as part of Aerial. While both continue to practice as artists, they also now both work in the cultural sector of the media. Montgomery is an editor at Dazed & Confused while Ayscough founded the media company smithandjohn in Edinburgh in 1998.


[9] Although listed as a series of fringe events in the inaugural Edinburgh Art Festival in 2004, the Annuale received no support from the Festival. This echoes the Festival’s treatment of Aerial which was shunned in 1994.


[10] The Scorpion is designed by Sam Okley who worked on design of Aerial publicity in 1994.


[11] Minus Ruth Ewan and Astrid Johnston, this group went on to form The Embassy the following year with Kim Coleman and Jenny Hogarth.


[12] This raises questions regarding history and memory in Edinburgh’s artworld. Had there been an historical account of 90s Edinburgh art practice, this retrogressiveness perhaps would have been unimaginable.


[13] Montgomery ibid.