A fearful public gallery of rebellion
Writing: Max Hunter
Photography: Madoc Brophy (Instagram ~ @artistjeans)
Many of us pass under Potterow Port on a daily basis: we curve down that path segregated by metal railing and enter momentarily into a space given over to largely anonymous, collectively owned and propagated media. We might be buffeted by that sadistic Edinburgh wind, stressed about essays and running wired on too little sleep and too much caffeine. It’s an inherently hectic space, designed for the passage from one place to another. We might not take the time to stop and look properly at the writing on the wall. But if you’ve got a minute and don’t mind looking a bit like a weirdo, this is something I would very much recommend you do. Despite its utility as a passing place, the Port plays host to the work of modern-day pamphleteers, who have taken up the task of converting it into an exhibition of persuasion. The busy student, commuter or shopper passes briefly into a tight, dark space whose walls are screaming their name and begging them to change their ways.
The slanting diagonal walls are literally lit up like an exhibition: lukewarm, electric light flows downward from neglected plastic encasements, themselves wrapped up in generational cobwebs. Veganism is the overwhelming message of this perpetual, multi-author exhibit. The walls are plastered with exhortations to give up meat and dairy-
“humane meat is a lie”….
“not your mother, not your milk”…
“would you eat your dog too?”
Still more encourage you to go and watch documentaries that will scare you out of meat consumption, such as Dominion, Factory Farm and Land of Hope and Glory. It can all be a bit overwhelming: this intense, microcosmic cacophony of preaching voices. A tag nearby declares it the work of Student Voice for Animal Welfare. The writing is in chalk and spray paint, with a wide array of colours dancing across the sides of this claustrophobic little tube. In some ways this can be a hysterical echo chamber: with a multitude of voices all in earnest agreement, all rising to fever pitch and directing their angst towards ordinary members of the public just trying to get on with their day. The confined nature of the space, the intensity and superficial uniformity of the messaging all combine to deliver the visitor into a state of guilt-ridden anxiety, only dispelled when they finally break out into the world.
So should we dislike this use of public space? It is by definition invasive. It represents a well exploited opportunity for animal rights activists and for proponents of a plant-based diet to fill your ears whilst they have your attention. Attention not freely given and not based on anything other than unavoidable, momentary physical presence in a tight space.
In short: no. We should not resent this use of public space, for two very good reasons. The first is that the climate crisis represents a threat so existential and our action so far to prevent it has been so underwhelming that invasive messaging is called for. Indeed, it is probably all that can succeed. Busy commuters and meat eaters (myself included) need to be aggressively shaken out of our complacency. We need to be shaken by the shoulders, slapped in the face and made to watch videos of baby calves being slaughtered in an industrial processing plant. Call me a millennial enviro-masochist if you want, but we could all do with feeling a bit more shame. Walking under that gate is like being hit with weaponised anxiety- and we deserve it.
The second reason is that the messaging is not as uniform as it might appear. Look slightly closer and you realise that this is- to quote every wanky art critic ever- a contested space. The vegan words might scream the loudest, but there is intense diversity in the communicative eco-system that sprawls over those walls. It is a tapestry in constant evolution, with words scrawled in pastel fading with time, and new slogans inserted in their place. There’s a bit of advertising: not just for Mash House but also for the social media of some person called hueyRC. The visitor might be thinking- what am I being asked to do here? Should I transfer to a plant-based diet or slide into hueyRC’s DMs? Or both? And which task is more urgent? The messaging isn’t just one-dimensional, its collaborative and reacts against itself.
It is a public space given over to anxiety. In that sense, it is one of the few public spaces in existence today which demonstrate a mood of collective climate realism.
Student Voice for Animal Rights were asked for a comment but did not respond, you can find them on Facebook here: https://www.facebook.com/svaredinburgh/