The next hurdle was funding. Being that we are in a crippling financial downturn and public funding for arts activities ranks somewhere beneath making tourist trinkets for the Olympics, it was clear from the outset that I might be better off self-funding the project with painful office jobs throughout the year. But when even these dried up and I began to feel the pinch acutely on my own food and rent bills, I decided to apply for the support that I deemed necessary and justified, for a project that would have almost limitless potential for both me and the Island. Key players for arts activities in Scotland (for anyone who isn't aware) are:
Scottish Arts Council
Hope Scott Trust
(and in Glasgow) Glasgow Visual Arts Grants Scheme
All of these are hard fought over. The Scottish Arts Council who gives out the most grants to artists, awards only 10 percent of the money they receive requests for, gulp. So I applied optimistically to all of them, but also I started to look elsewhere. One of the artworks that I wanted to create was an alternative audio walking guide. I imagined hikers listening to recordings of the locals talking about the island, the audio having been altered to draw attention to the subtleties and personal myths used by the islanders to describe their home. This wasn't just art, this wasn't just art about tourism, it was tourism itself! And there are bodies who create funds to encourage the growth of tourism on the islands. What better way to explore the impact of tourism than to create a safe little bubble of the stuff? Eigg is in Invernesshire and the council have just such a bursary. I applied as part of a complicated part funded proposal alongside the arts council etc.
I have also realised over the past five years, that when self-generating projects publicity is the most difficult matter to deal with succinctly. You want coverage, and media interest in order to generate an audience, but you don't want your work to only appear in local papers and on drive-time radio, though both of these are great places to start. You can aim for art journals, but it might also be fun to aim for general interest magazines and television. Or does publicising the event remove much of the mythos of art taking place there? Do newspaper articles simplify the nuances of work for only mildly interested audiences? Is artwork actually more successful if more people know about? I would hope not, but I have a chance here to reach a very large number or people with a good set of artworks in the making.
Anyway, the next challenge I am going to face is publicising an event that will not fit into any clear boxes…
It took until almost March 2009 to get a clear response from the Isle of Eigg, which as it turned out, was a resounding Yes. I was delighted and really excited about getting there and making the work.
It turned out that everyone on the island wanted the residency to go a ahead and they really liked my ideas, which was a relief and incredibly reaffirming. The issue had been that no one really wanted to supervise it or take responsibility, which is a common problem in approaching any institutional body. I made arrangements with the head of the History Society that she would be my point of contact and that the Trust secretary would act as liaison if needed. I would be ultimately responsible, and the matter was cleared up within a week. I asked for all of this in writing and (eventually) the residency was given the complete go ahead for six weeks over this summer, 2009. Hurrah! It would give me the complete freedom to undertake the residency in whatever way I wanted.
In the mean time I was by no means idle. The performance for the dead, that had somehow burrowed into my mind as "The Battle for Eigg", was developing. I started to create posters to represent the characters from the play as if advertising what audiences had missed, retrospectively. Then I began creating posters for fantastical future re-enactments of the play. One involved each character in the form of hot air balloons, battling each other high over the Isle of Eigg. Then the characters began to change, taking on more of the issues that had arisen in conversation with islanders about tourism, immigration and cultural appropriation, and the costumes changed to reflect this.
I got back to Glasgow, which was to be my new home, and started to draw together ideas for a project on Eigg. I spoke to representatives from the History Society and the Eigg Trust, who said they thought it was an interesting idea to have an artist in residence, but that they had hated one [not to be mentioned by name] large landscape sculpture that had appeared in the region a couple of years before. I was given a month to put something forward before their next annual meeting, preferably a project that did not "plonk art onto the landscape and ruin the view!". Everyone I had met liked to talk about the debates and their experiences, but few could see them becoming visual art.
I was a little nervous about the familiar pattern of support by groups up to a certain level like this, and I truly did not know if they would support me in the long run. I had previously done projects in museums and libraries and more often than not been given the cold shoulder by the institutional hierarchy. Recent No's included the prestigious Bodleian Library and the National Archives at Kew. Both had said yes until it reached the head of the institution who had the final say, which was No. When projects did get the go ahead (such as the Leicester Museums), they were often much reduced from my original proposals and their impacts' minimised by the needs of these institutions. I ended up conducting guerilla exhibitions, book projects on the side, and other ways to get a good project to emerge from the periphery of artistic constrainment. This, you might say, is fair enough. But in terms of aspiration and what I was able to actually make, I had reached a glass ceiling. Even the regional Arts Council in the Midlands would have thought twice about funding me to go back to a museum, knowing that what I could achieve there would be only a marginal step forward without the free reign given to more "experienced" artists, and other such paradoxes.
I highlighted several key locations on the island where both tourists and Eiggach got their information from, and developed ideas for interventions and performances that would link them together and explore the debates relevant to islanders. I put in the proposal for Eigg at the end of October 2008… and waited.
I spent a month on Eigg in 2008 talking to Eiggach and recording several interviews as part of preliminary research. I caught the very end of the tourist season and then stayed for a further two weeks at the end of September as the pier café shut up shop for the season, and I continued to go to the Eigg ceilidhs. I was doing all this on the last scraps of an artist fee left over from a previous project, and as I wanted to create something while I was there, just to make it feel like it wasn’t a wasted journey if they eventually said no to me working there. So I spent several days beach combing for colour strips of plastic which I wove into costumes. I found bottles and polyester bedding that I cut to make props and hats, and I used the black bin liners, rope and bed sheets to create outfits.
One incredibly misty morning, when I could not see the fields beyond the dry stone walling of the path, I worked my way around vast pitch stone mountain of Ann Sgurr (invisible in the sea mist) to the ghost town of Grulin on the windy south of the island. Here the inhabitants had been driven from the land by the sheep farmers in the 16-18th centuries, and with ten metre visibility I performed a curious Galloshing/Mumming style play for the long-absent inhabitants of Grulin. I wanted to begin creating connections between the contemporary and historical island and performing for the dead seemed like the best place to start. Plus my play deliberately referenced a whole host of folk play traditions, and the characters were cultural stereotypes which linked back to the contemporary island. I had four costumes and a camera on a tripod. I performed my play in four parts and a week later I left the island, having said nothing of the play to any living soul.
So yeah, I started looking into islands. Almost from nowhere I started dreaming about creating a residency on a small island that would examine how islanders relate to their contemporary and historical landscape. I imagined that island communities had a strong sense of identity and connection to their history and culture and I imagined (naively) that most of them would have lived there since the year dot. So I was intrigued to discover the Isle of Eigg in the Scottish Small Isles. An 87 strong population on a 3×5 mile stretch of land with forests, lochs, a plateau, a unique geological rock formation, and a largely immigrant population who had fought and won to own their own island just ten years ago. This recent history defined their identity, and other than two written histories of the island (which is how the tourists see the place) I believed that this is how they defined themselves. But when I began to make contact with islanders and then eventually went on a research trip, it became clear that they we a bit fed up with the disparity between the contemporary history of the buy-out and the complete history of the island. "Yes it was a great achievement, but its been ten years now, perhaps it's time to move on and have something new to celebrate?" I was told in one conversation. Debates were raging about whether or not to encourage a fledgling tourist industry (which is vital for revenue), put up signs (there are almost none), build a museum, encourage immigration and home building. All these elements were creating tensions between the islanders and tourists, and between the islanders themselves, some of which wanted modernization, whilst others wanted to retain their wild idyll.