Freedom of movement matters to Suzy Glass, the arts and events producer currently overseeing the second edition of Message from the Skies. This animated literary derive around the city forms part of this year’s Edinburgh’s Hogmanay programme, and runs right through till Burns’ Night. Glass’ concerns are inherent in the event itself, which has commissioned six writers from different disciplines and experiences to each pen a love letter to Europe. Each writer has then paired up with a composer and visual artist or film-maker, with the results of each collaboration projected in monumental fashion on the walls of one of half a dozen of the capital’s most iconic buildings.
With venues stretching from the south side of Edinburgh to Leith, and with one city centre stop requiring a walk up Calton Hill, there is considerable legwork required to complete the circuit. It shouldn’t be considered a race, however, and audiences are free to move between venues at their leisure, visiting each site on different evenings between dusk and 10pm to suit their schedules as desired.
Unlike last year’s inaugural event, when novelist Val McDermid charted the life and work of neglected nineteenth century novelist Susan Ferrier through various Edinburgh streets, there is no continuous narrative in this year’s Message from the Skies. This makes each work akin to a set of site-specific installations and environmental interventions that transform their immediate landscape.
Such reimagining of the city capitalises on the recent epic-scale opening events commissioned by Edinburgh International Festival, and featuring overwhelming sound and light shows created by 59 Productions and projected onto the Usher Hall and Edinburgh Castle. Unlike those spectacles, words are the primary focus of this year’s Message from the Skies, which looks set to be a more reflective if not always meditative affair.
“It’s very different this year,” explains Glass. “We’ve got six very different writers, and each one has taken a completely different approach to the brief they were given, which was simply to write a love letter to Europe. I suppose that’s made for more free-expression than last year, which seems only fitting just now given everything that’s going on, and it’s been really gratifying as different drafts have come in, and incredibly emotional as well. It really feels like this is what art should be doing right now.”
The writers include historian William Dalrymple, who takes an impassioned look at Scotland’s relationship with mainland Europe against the backdrop of the Tron Kirk, brought to life by bespoke projection company Double Take Productions, and featuring a score from composer RJ McConnell. Bulgarian born and Highland-based non-fiction writer Kapka Kassabova will explore the origins of Europe alongside the even more dramatic Scottish Monument on Calton Hill. This will be accompanied by a score by Pippa Murphy, which is inspired by Greek, Mesopotamian and Gaelic female chanting, while images from Susannah Murphy and Cristina Spiteri of Bright Side Studios dissolve into the ether as time moves on.
Leith Library is the setting for poet William Letford’s touching reminiscences, with artist James Houston taking a typographical approach to illustrating the story. At Custom House, also in Leith, journalist Chitra Ramaswamy’s letter looks back to her childhood, holidays in Spain and life in Scotland with roots as a second-generation immigrant. Daniel Warren’s accompanying film will mix archive footage and animation, and will feature a song by Emma Pollock.
Up at the Cowgate, at the Bongo Club, playwright Stef Smith joins forces with composer
MJ McCarthy and artist Eleanor Meredith for a moving tale of separation and broken hearts set to McCarthy’s ambient score and Meredith’s vivid watercolours. Over at the Tech Cube in Summerhall, fiction writer Louise Welsh pares things back to explore the international language of words themselves, with designer Emlyn Firth using typography to illustrate it.
With a total of sixteen artists working on Message from the Skies, this multi-media fusion of form and content is itself an illustration of what might happen if shared experience is used for the power of good.
“The collaborations were the fun bit of it,” says Glass. “I spoke to each of the writers very early on, and started to ty and get a feel for how they were thinking, and how they formally might approach things. Listening to that, you start to see and hear things that makes you think about what the end result might be, and to keep the authenticity of that you start to think about people from other artistic disciplines who might sit well within what each writer is doing, and you try and pair them up. People just wouldn’t have come into each other’s spheres without this project, and you start to see and hear the words differently.”
Glass doesn’t mention Brexit by name, but the shadow of the UK’s forthcoming departure from Europe looms large over Message from the Skies. Run in partnership between current Edinburgh’s Hogmanay producers Underbelly, Edinburgh City of Literature and Edinburgh International Book Festival, and enabled by the Scottish Government’s Festivals Expo fund, the initiative also points up some of the problems which have already arisen regarding bringing artists from abroad to these shores. While the writers weren’t asked which way they voted regarding Brexit before they were commissioned, that should become clear from the work itself. There is little in the way of tub-thumping on display, however, with each piece humanised by the deeply personal tone of them all.
“Didactic is word that’s been used a lot when we’ve talked about some of the big polarisations that exist when we’re talking about Europe just now,” says Glass. “A lot of those conversations have been about the role of writers and artists in managing those conversations, and what’s happened as we’ve gone along is that it’s become okay to make statements that are hard. There may be people who disagree with what’s in a letter, but I think it’s still important to be able to make the space to have that conversation.”
The words written by the six writers taking part in Message from the Skies will live on regardless of what happens next, and can be published in book form if desired. The assorted artworks that bring those words to life have also been created with the same sense of love and care, and given the scale of the event, it is hoped that they too might have another life, crossing borders with their own unique sonic and visual languages as they go.
“Wouldn’t it be brilliant if this could go across the world and other people could see it?” Glass muses. “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if it could travel?”
Message from the Skies, various venues, Edinburgh, today-January 25, dusk-10pm.
The Herald, January 1st 2019