Out of the Blue is buzzing. It’s a bright Tuesday lunch-time in the former army drill hall turned nouveau arts lab just off Leith Walk in Edinburgh. While the main hall is alive with the chatter of an informal gathering of the city’s various festival organisations, upstairs in the balcony offices and studios, meetings and other day to day business of more grassroots arts organisations are in full swing.
In the busy café area, venue manager Rob Hoon is reflecting on Out of the Blue’s twenty-five-year existence, which began as a shop-front gallery space on Blackfriars Street before it gave rise to the Bongo Club in an old bus shelter on New Street. While the Bongo provided a focal point for the city’s thriving underground music scene, the artists’ studios within the building made for a healthy cross-fertilisation of practitioners and forms.
This was the case until the developers moved in, and the two wings of the Out of the Blue organisation were forced to relocate in separate premises. The Bongo went first to the old Moray House student union, then, after being evicted by the University of Edinburgh in 2013, to the spaces under Central Library used during the Edinburgh Festival Fringe by the London-based Underbelly organisation. By now operating as a trust, Out of the Blue itself took a mortgage out on the drill hall, where it has become the centre for community arts activity it remains today.
“It’s sometimes hard to explain to people what Out of the Blue actually is,” says Hoon. “We have all these different things going on here, but people like to pigeon-hole you as being one thing or another. But we have various training schemes, arts projects in the park and so on, plus people coming in to do their events, and all the artists here as well. The most frequent thing that people say to me is that they didn’t know something has anything to do with Out of the Blue.”
Out of the Blue was founded on a wing and a prayer by graduates Anne-Marie Culhane and Trudi Gibson, who, inspired by alternative cultural scenes abroad, wanted to do something similar in Edinburgh. At the time in the mid-1990s, there seemed to be little or no independently run year-round artistic initiatives in the city, and the Blackfriars Street space provided a natural home for artists working outwith the institutions and festivals that appeared to monopolise the capital’s cultural life.
Things have changed since then, with Out of the Blue and The Bongo Club helping foster a thriving set of DIY scenes in a speak-easy environment where things could happen in an organic way. As proof of the latter, it was at the Bongo where contemporary music ensemble Mr McFall’s Chamber was formed. Then there was the Tap Water Awards, a cheeky riposte to the more corporate inclined Perrier Awards. An immersive revival of the stage version of Irvine Welsh’s Leith-set era-defining novel, Trainspotting, found a perfect home there.
More recently, the likes of Strange Town and Active Inquiry theatre companies have taken up residence in Dalmeny Street, while Out of the Blueprint is a social enterprise based print studio specialising in bespoke eco-friendly printing processes, with all profits generated into supporting young trainees. This is model is also applied to the Drill Hall Arts Café, where permanent paid posts have resulted.
“It’s culture in its proper sense,” Hoon says, “and rather than just being about us putting things on, is about people being creative and trying to make things happen themselves on very little funding. About ninety per cent of our income is generated ourselves. We’ve got a few different training schemes on the go, and we generate money through lettings and through the café.”
Hoon joined Out of the Blue in 1999, standing in for Gibson while she was on maternity leave. Working alongside John Molleson as chair of the board of trustees, Greg Molleson as building manager and Ally Hill managing the Bongo, Hoon was thrown in at the deep end.
“Pretty much my first job was to try and find new premises,” he says.
Since relocating to Leith, Out of the Blue has seen the immediate landscape on their doorstep completely transformed. In a positive sense, this has seen spaces open up for kindred spirits including LeithLate, Hidden Door and Leith Depot, while the phoenix-like resurrection of Leith Theatre has seen the likes of Edinburgh International Festival take note.
On the downside, ongoing gentrification has seen property developers circle the area in much the same way that Out of the Blue was forced out of its New Street home following what turned out to be a protracted development that left the site of the original Bongo Club as a gap-site for more than a decade following the financial crash.
“We’re very aware of the tensions that exist,” says Hoon, “and are careful to try and make Out of the Blue a place for everyone.”
To this end, a forthcoming project by community-based theatre company Active Inquiry will look at the thorny issue of gentrification and the effects it has had on the local area.
While the Dalmeny Street premises remains at the centre of Out of the Blue’s work with more than 70 cultural tenants in residents, and with the Bongo Club its beating heart, the organisation’s activities have expanded across Edinburgh. Between 2006 and 2014 the trust opened workspaces for artists in Portobello, and between 2015 and 2017 ran a similar venture as Leith Walk Studios. Along the way it opened Out of the Blue Music Studios, where Mercury Prize and Scottish Album of the Year winners Young Fathers recorded after initially forming at an under 18s club at the Bongo.
More recently, Out of the Blue established Abbeymount Studios as a centre craft and design-based workshops, and in 2018 created studio spaces in disused buildings in Craigmillar and in the disused former tram depot on Leith Walk. All of this is done on a relative shoestring, and Out of the Blue continue to exist on a hand to mouth basis.
“It’s hard going sometimes,” says Hoon, “and it could have just ended when New Street came to an end, but there was enough people around who said it had to continue. Now here we are all these years later, and we’re still doing it. We want to continue to develop things the way we do now, and to continue to make connections, and to continue to do it well. About 98 per cent of our income comes from us generating it, so we need to change that ratio, so we can do more with a bit more security to keep on doing what we do well.”
Full details of all events at Out of the Blue and The Bongo Club in Edinburgh can be found at www.outoftheblue.org.uk and www.thebongoclub.co.uk.
The Herald, May 24th 2019