Scotland's Rich History of Using Surprising Spaces as Temporary Arts Venues


Head and shoulders shot of Ashley smiling. She has blonde hair and a black top

Ashley Davies is a freelance arts journalist, writing mainly for Alba (The Times Scotland) and Metro

Twitter @msashleydavies

Instagram @ashleyruthd

This post is the first in a series of articles covering the arts in Scotland beyond Edinburgh Fringe. Click to read our other posts by Karl Taylor and Arusa Qureshi.

A few months ago I was being shown around a fancy hotel in Glasgow and, while letting me look around the unused upper floors, the concierge asked if I was a Stephen King fan. You can’t not have a follow-up question to a prompt like this, so I followed him, eyes widening, as he showed me the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen.

It's known by staff as the “razor room”, and it’s a tiny area (you’d have to crouch to enter, and you certainly wouldn’t stumble upon it) with hundreds of razor blades stuck into the walls and ceilings. He told me nobody knew how it got there (he was obviously playing with me, but I didn’t know this at the time) and my subsequent tweet about it went viral.

It turned out that this eerie little space beside the former staff quarters at the Voco Grand Central Hotel had actually been used for a spooky happening in 1990 by NVA, Angus Farquar’s audacious organisation (now sadly closed) which specialised in interesting public art. This particular event was timed for the year in which Glasgow was City of Architecture and Design, and used the derelict top floors of the hotel for a variety of scary installations, from the projection of a crime taking place across the road to flashes of a naked chess player appearing from behind the walls.

Scottish cities have a rich heritage of using unexpected spaces for interesting artistic expressions. Earlier this summer the multimedia arts festival Hidden Door took over the unused Scottish Widows building in Edinburgh’s Southside. It’s an unusual series of connected hexagonal structures that lent themselves perfectly to this atmospheric celebration of music, visual arts, poetry and more.

Hidden Door has an inspiring track record of galvanising local interest and volunteers to make the most of special spaces. Last year they opened up the glorious Old High School, an imposing building that sits up on Calton Hill and which hardly anyone had been in since the 1960s. It won’t be accessible for many more years now that it’s in the hands of property developers.

Before that, Hidden Door transformed the old Leith Theatre from a pigeon poo-strewn dustbox into what is now a working venue – for music, theatre and more –all using the power of enthusiasm and a collective sense of will.

Knowing you’re absorbing artistic expression in a space that’s normally used for something else can truly heighten your experience. There’s a sort of distillation of purpose and excitement, too, when everyone involved knows it's temporary. On 24 June, for example, the first ever Art Night to take place outside of London happened in Dundee, where, as well as traditional spaces (such as art galleries and art schools) exhibitions and performances took place on ships, in car parks and even in a bin.

And then, of course, we have August festival season in Edinburgh, where all kinds of spaces get creatively commandeered for performances. In the past we’ve had toilets, department stores, gyms, buses, an allotment, cars, a caravan, a strip club, a chicken coop, a swimming pool, an island and even a lift and the inside of a zoo enclosure. The ingenuity is thrilling, and the memories never leave you.

And, festival or no, site-specific specialist theatre company Grid Iron never fails to thrill with its ambition. In 2006 they persuaded the authorities to allow Edinburgh Airport to be used as a venue for the play, Roam (I remember some befuddled looking observers that night), and before that they put on Douglas Maxwell’s Decky Does a Bronco on and around swings in playgrounds.

Wide open spaces also make for thrilling canvases in Scotland. A couple of years ago Julia Taudevin’s extraordinary Move, inspired by Gaelic keening rituals (singing for the dead) was performed on a beach on the Isle of Lewis. And Salisbury Crags in Edinburgh was the site of another captivating work by NVA in 1012. For Speed of Light, hundreds of runners wore wireless-controlled light suits and moved about the space in the dark.

For those mourning the loss of NVA, there is reason to be cheerful. Under the umbrella of Aproxima Arts, Farquar is in talks with the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, Glasgow Cathedral and the Necropolis (for those not in the know, this is aca about a new live project for next year.) Watch this space. And savour all spaces.


With the festival season fast approaching all eyes tend to be on Edinburgh in August, if you're working on or experiencing any new and exciting projects in the rest of Scotland's huge and varied cultural space we'd love to hear from you

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