If you’re after a cultural hit in Scotland, the places that immediately spring to mind are inevitably the big hitters of Glasgow and Edinburgh, with new contender Dundee now also proving a strong draw, particularly since the recent opening of the stunning V&A outpost in the city. Less commented on is Scotland’s third largest city, Aberdeen, which is perhaps better known for oil and granite than art.
Yet a quiet artistic revolution is slowly taking place in the city, changing perceptions of Aberdeen for those who live there, as well as attracting visitors. The annual Look Again Festival, as its name suggests, aims to encourage people to think afresh on what the city offers, and in five years is having a noticeable creative impact.
Look Again was first devised following a marketing initiative in 2014 to bring a series of festivals to Aberdeen. Initially the proposal included no visual arts element so founder Sally Reaper pushed to add this strand to the offering. Now Look Again operates all year round in the city, hosting pop-up events and exhibitions, as well as the main festival, which takes place each year in June.
According to Reaper, the festival’s aim from the start was to “get people to respond to the urban environment in which we lived”. “A lot of the cultural assets, the history, the heritage, the place and its people, in our eyes had been slightly forgotten,” she continues. “There was a real negative chat at that time around the city about how things always happen in other places, nothing ever happens here. It was like, ‘well things do happen, you just need to maybe seek them out a little bit more’.”
Unlike many cities, Aberdeen doesn’t have a huge amount of cultural spaces for the team to work with, and there’s not a plethora of disused spaces hanging around waiting to be used for artistic purposes either. This has led to the festival having a particular emphasis on art displayed in outdoor, public spaces, which also fulfils its founders’ aims of “bringing art to the people”.
“It’s all been about rethinking,” says Hilary Nicoll, who joined Look Again in its second year. “There’s a different set of circumstances in this city, because it’s not post-industrial, there aren’t large empty units or warehouses, it’s still very much industrial. So it’s about how do you work with those factors and use them to the advantage of the creative sector?”
This year’s festival, which runs until June 16, features a mix of work from North-East artists and creatives as well as internationally renowned artists who have created works responding to the city. Of the latter, designer and artist Morag Myerscough has created an eye-catching installation at Mercat Cross in Castlegate – the city’s traditional meeting point – which features her signature text-based works and appealing brightly coloured imagery. The work, titled Love At First Sight, references the story of Myerscough’s parents, who first met in the city, and the artist also worked with local poet Jo Gilbert (who works in part in the Scots language of Doric) to create the text for the work.
Over in the spectacular architectural setting of the Marischal Quad, John Walter is showing an impressive artwork in VR. It is one of the first truly compelling and successful artworks I have experienced in the medium, and takes viewers into Walter’s distinctive and bonkers ‘maximalist’ world. Particularly impressive is also his attention to detail in turning the VR experience into something fun to watch while you’re waiting in line to view, by decorating the otherwise dull looking headsets with masked faces and also having an expertly trained set of helpers on hand to guide visitors through the process, who are all dressed in brightly coloured tabards.
Other highlights from this year’s festival include Craig Barrowman’s Mobile Ploposal Machine – a giant sculpture of the head of Aberdeen’s pre-eminent architect Archibald Simpson, which can be wheeled around the city; a poignant photography and audio exhibition documenting the changing life of Aberdeen Market Village by Steve Smith and Ian Grosz; and the Caro&Karo Taxi by Polish audio-visual artist Zloto, who now lives in Aberdeen. For Look Again she has shipped a traditional Polish taxi over to the city, and is picking up festivalgoers and ferrying them around the streets, offering an art experience as they ride.
Look Again is now based at Gray’s School of Art, Robert Gordon University, and has close ties with the students there. The festival has also played a key role in building a creative community that encourages those who come to study in Aberdeen to stay in the city after graduating. “Over the last five years Look Again has managed to build up that collective framework in which to bring lots of people together, and bring in people, which has equally empowered and built confidence in individuals to step up and do their own stuff,” says Reaper. “We can claim now that lots of people have stayed because of the opportunities that we’ve created.”
Reaper stresses that the mix of showing both local and international artists together is vital to the festival’s unique atmosphere, and that showing work from established and successful artists is particularly inspiring to younger artists in the city. “I think it’s about showing them the possibilities of who you can be in the art world, and where you can be, and the fact that you can be like that individual,” she says.
Look Again now has a designated project space in the city where it can hold exhibitions throughout the year, and will continue to host pop-up events elsewhere too. Over the past five years, the team has worked hard to develop strong links with businesses and officials across the city, in amongst a challenging backdrop of cuts in spending for the arts.
Through the wider festival programme, Reaper has also seen barriers come down between different art sectors in the city, which is all helping to foster a creative community. In addition, two major cultural spaces in Aberdeen have undergone significant refurbishments in recent years, with the Music Hall reopening in December last year and the Art Gallery due to open later this year.
In the middle of all these cultural developments, the Look Again Festival is slowly succeeding in its aim to get Aberdonians to think differently about their surroundings. “It’s about being very experimental and it’s about challenging people,” says Reaper. “Getting them to see the city afresh.”
Look Again takes place across Aberdeen until June 16; lookagainaberdeen.co.uk