The red on white sign was adopted by Judith Liddle, Programme Co-ordinator at Edinburgh Printmakers to be displayed outside their building on Union Street for the whole of 2016. At the end of the year, the sign continued north to Deveron Projects in Huntly, to be displayed outside their office throughout 2017.
Edinburgh Printmakers is housed within a building of heritage importance, the old Union Street Washhouse in Edinburgh, one of only two washhouse buildings left in the city.
This building was originally used as a ‘steamie’, otherwise known as a washhouse and crèche, for the local community. The cleaning and drying of clothes was a massive problem for those living in 19th Century Scottish tenements, many of which did not have a clean running water supply or access to a drying green. The rise of the domestic washing machine and the advent of the commercial launderette spelt the end of the communal, publicly-run steamie. There are still several original features in this building such as the red-brick chimney outside and the glazed bricks in the studio.
This building was built in 1933 to replace a smaller community facility. Currently and similarly, Edinburgh Printmakers is in the process of a major capital development project redeveloping Castle Mill Works, a major heritage industrial site in the west of Edinburgh. Castle Mill Works once stood as the headquarters and registered office of the North British Rubber Company.
From 1894 the factories regularly employed around 5,000 local people from the densely packed streets of Fountainbridge and the surrounding working class areas of Gorgie and Dalry. Adjacent to and fronting the Union Canal was the main factory complex, which housed primary rubber processing and test laboratories and which produced a range of goods, from tyres, footwear, sports equipment to hot water bottles.
The factory closed after a disastrous fire in 1969 and after lying derelict for years, the building stands now as the last visible reminder of an area that less than a century ago was the city’s industrial powerhouse. It is an important message not to lose, especially as professional historians frequently neglect the industrial era in the city’s history and jump from the Enlightenment to the birth of the Festivals.
In this way, our Early Warning Sign acts as a rather poignant statement for us as creative people and as an organisation. As we plan and programme, we feel very strongly and tangibly how our current actions straddle both the past and the future. Our current location was once a hub for the community, discussion and co-operation, a socially-run organisation dissimilar to many current business models. Our future location, once a centre for community and industry (although unpleasant and pungent), now stands an “encyclopaedia of rot” and a ghost of a once thriving industrial community. I am inspired to question why we choose to maintain and preserve, and why we sometimes choose to abandon and forget.
The sign is a perfect indicator for discourse about environmental sustainability and climate destabilisation. These issues have been ever-present in our minds as we design and plan our new space, which will be the biggest centre for printmaking in Europe, to be as ecologically sound as we can. It is very evident that 2016 has been a politically potent year, particularly with regards to sustainability and policy-making. As we stand on the edge of impending social, political and ecological change, this sign has acted as a gentle ever-present reminder of the impact of our lives and actions on those around us and those who will follow.
We applied to adopt a sign after having found information about the project online. Upon informing my colleagues about the sign, every single person recognised the signs from their own travels and cultural visits around the country. The signs have seeped into our consciousness, quietly making their presence known, and lightly provoking introspective contemplation.
Our sign has now left us. It’s been packaged up, shipped off and now finds itself on its way to its new adoptive home. Over the last year, we have grown attached to it and its occupancy of the area outside the building. Edinburgh Printmakers is on a fairly steep hill and so we built a platform to help the sign withstand the gradient. Initially painted white, we then choose to repaint it black, as the initial display aid felt too conspicuous and stereotypical of exhibition furniture, especially in contrast to the gently aged appearance of the sign. In this way, our Early Warning Sign really became part of our surroundings and everyday space.
The sign did not easily achieve a regular smooth spin, and needed to be closely attended to at times to ensure a proper and silent momentum. Due to the weight and cumbersome nature of the sign, bringing it in and out of the gallery every day did pose difficulty on occasion.
To receive the red on white sign was quite serendipitous for us as we underwent a rebranding during this year. Our external banners were replaced with new ones coloured in bold red and white in line with our new guidelines, which complemented the sign very well – colour co-ordination by chance.
In its position at the top of a hill overlooking the Firth of Forth, the sign became subject to many extreme weather conditions – high winds, vicious rain storms, hail-stones that felt like the size of grapefruits. There have been a few occasions when we have had to remove sign completely as it was no longer safe to display. It has already been noted that weather is not climate change, however, on these occasions the poetic irony was not lost on us.
As I previously indicated, I presume that for many people, the experience of the sign is somewhat subconscious, however those who commented about the sign had very strong points of view.
One visitor came in specifically after seeing the sign outside, asking if it was part of a bigger exhibition and wanting to see more. For others, it led to conversations about the terminology of “Climate Change”, what it means, when it should be used, and alternative words to inspire discussions and define climate concerns. This was a very divisive topic for some!
We are positioned within an area of residential housing and some neighbours voiced concerns about the noise of the spinning sign during the day. In response we upped the anti to make sure that the sign could continue to spin in a way that was as close to noiseless as we could muster.
There were also countless times that the sign became an object of fascination for children who would play with it as they passed by, or as they entered or left the gallery.
The Early Warning Sign complemented our exhibition Rhythm in Research by Rachel Duckhouse beautifully. The show explored the artist’s longstanding interaction with bioscience experts and much of the work acts an artistic representation of data collected by these scientists in relation to global warming and water flow. The sign acted as a great point to supplement these conversations. Similarly, in our public artwork commission Rust Garden by Donovan & Siegel, in which we worked very closely with community gardeners and place-makers to encourage local people to think about how they interact with the spaces around them and how we can recycle existing materials and waste into meaningful additions to public spaces, the sign was a useful symbol for how we can frame these discussions and activities.
In hindsight, for more impact, an increase in active interpretation engaging with the sign itself would have given audiences a better understanding to unpick the conceptual implications of the work.
It has been a fantastic opportunity for Edinburgh Printmakers to be part of this nationwide project, and to begin conversations with other host venues. Our programmatic considerations of the interplay between climate destabilisation and contemporary art practice (and all aspects of our existence), particularly in light of recent political developments, feels more pertinent than ever.