....Research Topics and Speculation about Art and Public Space by Scottish Citizen and artist Matt Baker

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Scotland - The Big Project

I've recently become aware of a genuine reluctance, in me, to get involved with projects outside Scotland. The only answer I can find is that ‘Scotland’ itself has become the project that I am working on at the moment. When I commit myself to a project this always involves a place and I find myself quickly falling hopelessly and deeply in love with that place. It is important to say that this is not an unquestioning love but rather a love that is committed to its object becoming the best it can be – even if that means asking some uncomfortable questions along the way.

As a public artist, my stock and trade are questions of identity, belonging, aspiration, foundation and momentum…….to live in a country that is embarked on a national project about just these issues is an extraordinary feeling….why on earth would I want to work elsewhere??

What follows is my first blogpost about ‘the big project’ – as I try to play my part in this huge conversation by applying my own experience of processes of change to the idea of Scottish Independence.

'we must be crap because we are a colony of a crap country'

From the top
Beginning any project I have am used to explaining ‘who’ I am and how I came to be engaged in the work. I have an English father and a Scottish mother – I was born and lived to the age of 18 in the SouthWest of England……I have conducted pretty much my entire professional career as an artist whilst living in Scotland. As a child I was very aware that my mother was ‘different’ – when I first started living in Scotland I was quickly realised that this ‘difference’ was the fact that she was culturally Scottish. Settling in Scotland i found the first place in my travels that I felt fully ‘at home’ and ‘understood’ by those around me. I have married a Scottish woman and my daughter was born here and has lived her entire life in Scotland.
Let me be 100% clear on this – I am someone who has been committed to socialist principles of equality and comradeship across all peoples and nationalities. All nationalist projects through history that aim to establish the superiority of one group above another are abhorrent to me.

Still Game
So – what first?
I am interested in is what is best for a place called Scotland. When I start on a project I begin with a period of research – this takes the form of :
·      Reading historical information
·      Discussing with anyone I can find the current ’state of things’ and the things that folk (both within and without) identify with the place

Together with the above, I spend a lot of time walking and ‘being’ in a place and taking some sort of personal barometric reading of the currents of momentum at work in the place.
The next stage is to take some risks and feedback some (often provocative) thoughts about the place through some form of action or performance in the place.F

The ties that bind
Referring back to my comments on Nationalism? above, it is fundamental here to understand that what I am going to talk about are not shared values that are unique to ‘born and bred Scots’ – I believe that any group, any place is founded on a certain agreement on some core principles of how we behave towards to folk we know and folk we don’t. This is where the discussion of Scottishness begins and ends for me - I believe in a nation that is welcomes in all who are prepared to embrace these shared values and live by them.
I am happy to call these values ‘Scottish values’ and take part in discussions about how these differ from other national values….but always with the premise that I respect that right of others to live according to their own values (as long as I do not find their values to be contrary to basic human rights and principles of respecting the environment that we all share as human beings)

Rev I M Jolly

So what’s the problem?
Usually a project starts because someone has identified a need….so what is the need in Scotland?– why are we even having this discussion if we can all just live according to our shared values and get on with things?
The problem as I see it is that the distance (in every sense of the word) between Scotland and the decision making power that directs the future of Scotland has become unmanageably large.

Making it personal
‘the personal is political’ is well known as a slogan of the feminist movement – it is a useful reference here in outlining my first statement (‘action’) in the big project.

My contention is that this ‘distance from power’ is skewing one of the core Scots values into a cancer that is eating away at the nation and threatens to make it terminally ill.

We are familiar with modesty as a Scots value – a value that means doing your thing quietly and certainly not making a big fuss. In ideal circumstances this modesty is held in  balance with fierce pride/commitment in a universal right to exist and be heard….resulting in a potent mixture (that I understand to be) at the core of the independent spirit and fairness that underpins this country.

To maintain a healthy balance between these two key characteristics requires the ability to exercise a significant degree of control over one’s own personal and group existence.

The modesty that I have identified above also manifests as self-depreciatory (brilliant!) humour. However, without the balance of pride also being present this self-depreciation and modesty risks tipping over into a dangerous lack of self-esteem and resulting lack of confidence. In cultural terms, I would identify one of these tipping points in Irving Welsh’s ‘Trainspotting’ where some of the laughter is genuinely painful to anyone who cares about the people of Scotland.....are we in danger of crossing  over into a place where modesty has become self-harm and we have become unable to see the difference.


So many times have I been in meetings in Scotland when all of a sudden you are aware of an unstoppable group dynamic – the ‘someone else is in charge moment’ is upon you and the group will wallow for a good length of time in the comforting bath of ‘there is nothing we can do about anyone this….it is beyond our control’. For those who came to the meeting to try and make things happen – there is nothing to do but wait for this moment of collective ritual to pass….it will pass and you will move onto more positive ground – but at a deeper level, a little more self-harm has been inflicted and the place we love has lost a little more capacity to heal and grow anew.

This situation exists at the level of personal health also – Chief Medical Officer for Scotland – Sir Harry Burns talks about the ‘mortality issue’ with great erudition and compassion. It has actually become part of the self-depreciatory (harming) humour to take a grudging pride in the fact that parts of Scotland have a  life-expectancy that is the lowest in Europe and on a par with parts of the ‘Third World’.  Harry Burns punctures the myth that physical factors are the dominant cause of early death – he explains that the ‘West Coast Diet’ of alcohol, fried food and cigarettes is actually practiced elsewhere in Europe in even more extreme forms (he gives examples in some of the Slavic countries of the former Soviet Union) and yet in these countries people live longer than in Scotland despite a ‘worse lifestyle’…..so what is the difference?
Harry Burns identifies that in Scotland people feel less control over their own lives and the resulting mental and physical despair (coupled with lifestyle….and most likely contributing to the self-harm of bad diet) is the real cause of early death in Scotland.


This is the reason…..
that I am interested in the idea of Independence for a the Scottish Nation – because I believe that at a fundamental level of health and wellbeing, as a group of people, we need the opportunity to re-take the responsibility for our own future. I want to see that balance between modesty and pride restored from the looming spiral of self-loathing and paranoia.

Whats next?
Time is running out – there is a tipping point in the wellbeing of any organism beyond which it loses the belief in its own ability to restore itself (eg one of Irving Welsh’s junkies). Everyone who still believes in the potential in the worth of the people of Scotland needs to become a positive part of this debate –so that, whether we become an independent nation or remain part of the UK, then we are doing so for the good of all our fellow citizens and the experience of the next 2 years will be a platform from which we can all build together.

Doing nothing is NOT an option….the Independence debate  is NOT a distraction from the ‘real issues of the day’ it is clearly and fundamentally proposed as the means of dealing with the very biggest issues of the day….the future of our land and our children

F I have come to the conclusion that all the projects I am currently involved in eg Govan, Dumfries etc are all part of the ‘big project’ and the temporary actions I am making there are all probing at the question of Scotland….hence my reluctance to work elsewhere