What’s really going on?

Martin O'Neill

Martin O’Neill

Artistic Director, The Stove

“For at the most operational and practical level, after all the thinking about policy, strategy, mission, and milestones, it gets down to this: How are we going to be when we gather together?”

Peter Block

The Norwegian town of Rjukan (pronounced RE-GOO-KHAN) lies at the bottom of a valley oriented east to west, with Gaustatoppen (1883 metres over sea level) and the other surrounding mountains immediately south of the town rendering the city sun free from September to March.

The town’s founder Sam Eyde long held the idea of a ‘sun mirror’ to allow residents a glimmer of Vitamin D, as a salve from the shadows that lingered in the town (something us Scots can well relate to). In 1913, the town instead chose to spend the allocated funds for public transport and the opportunity to leave the darkness and soak in the rays elsewhere.

In 2002, resident and artist Martin Anderson picked the idea up again. The process towards its installation was more than fraught, many of the townspeople decreeing it an abysmal waste of public funds and the money could be better spent on new equipment for the local hospital or better roads (sound familiar?). Yet the ‘sun mirror’ or ‘solspeil’ was successfully installed in 2013, 100 years on since the idea first was dreamt.

The Solspeil now bathes the town’s central square in a pool of light during the shadowed winter months, an effect as close to magic as public art can get. The townspeople’s attitude soon changed, with one remarking “…living in the shade must make you afraid to dream of the sun. That’s the only way I can explain the resistance: like the valley walls, minds without sun become somehow a little bit narrower.”

The Rjukan solspeil

At our inaugural ‘Gaither Inn’ event, a free evening of food, conversation, and drink for Doonhamers to put the world to rights (normally reserved for the ‘whisky stage’ of the Friday night pub jaunt), we looked at the example of Rjukan. During the evening, we created our own Solspeil. One too bathed in light, though admittedly not as dramatic. We used mirrors, LEDs, and candles in the Stove Café and created a ‘Sunlight Manifesto’. Ideas ranged from ‘buddy benches’ to ‘bloody benches’ (a ‘ranting’ bench for the disgruntled), to simple acts of kindness. But beyond the ideas themselves, the act of gathering once more, after the trauma of the pandemic, was as powerful as the reason we were brought together. To connect people and focus the conversations around our town, to dream again and imagine a future we all want, was something we had all missed.

The act of gathering, of eating and conversing with one another, from stranger to stranger, was as valuable as protest

This theme of ‘connection’ runs through our Culture Collective initiative What We Do Now. The project launched with a hunger to draw the curtain back from the pandemic and dive headfirst into a new experiment. There were visions of mass gatherings and collective yet what emerged proved gentler and more gradual. It became evident early on that the artists and communities needed to reacquaint themselves with these spaces once again. The impulse to re-invent became one of re-connecting, and with that, re-building.

To be confronted with the idea that ‘art can’t solve the word’s problems’, believe it or not, is something a lot of artists struggle with. Creatives are dreamers, well adept in believing that the solution to many of society’s woes lies in the act of creating. Rather than raise new questions of our places, the artists had to nurture existing spaces for people to come back together. Their offer was simple. Whether circus, photography, theatre, or painting, their invitations to new experiences were gentle, steady, and straightforward. However, these small and nuanced acts of gathering and connecting became the project itself. And with that, the questions of ‘what do we want to build now?’, became tactile, we are now doing it. The old adage ‘be the change you want to see in the world’ feels right enough.

This principle is too reflected in our new ‘Open Hoose’ project, inviting proposals from anyone in our community to launch new events or projects through our community café. Over 10 new events and projects have started, supported, and facilitated by the Stove team. From climate kitchens, and jam nights to de-growth clubs and writing workshops. This model now serves as the backbone of our work in the town centre, pivoted against the values of connection and possibility.

People will always question the role of art in the wider economic and social landscape. Rightly so, its appeal has often been resigned to factions of people ‘in the know’, or at worse has been void of any meaningful engagement with communities it is there ‘to serve’. Perhaps in the re-interpretation of its outputs and processes, in its alignment with community models and values of empowerment, of re-connection and possibility, its purpose, like the Solspeil, is to shine a light in the shadows of the day-to-day. For a moment at least, to get people together, in thought, in chat and in joy.

For after all the thinking of the possibilities, is the very act of bringing people together, reason enough?

We might as well try.