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July 1, 2009

Huntly aims to slow down

The people of Huntly took to their bikes recently to create a town-sized piece of public art. Using specially converted water bottles to dispense coloured chalk, the cyclists created a multi coloured trail which snaked through the town.  The project formed part of the Go Slow Festival organised by Huntly Development Trust which aims to encourage people to use their cars less, walk more and generally lead healthier lifestyles

Susan Mansfield, Scotsman

SOME artists like to think big, and some like to think monumentally, but not many get the chance to make a drawing the size of a whole town. That’s what Jackie Donachie hopes to do on Saturday in the North-east town of Huntly – with the help of a dedicated team of cyclists.
Thanks to a clever device made from a recycled water bottle filled with coloured chalk, the cyclists will leave a multi-coloured trail for three miles around the town, creating a giant artwork. The project is part of a three-day Slow Down Festival, organised by Huntly-based Deveron Arts, which aims to get people thinking about the issues of car-free living.

Donachie arrives to meet me outside the library in the town square on her bike. She has been living in Huntly for three months on a residency with Deveron Arts, along with her husband, the artist Roddy Buchanan, and their three sons, aged nine, six and four. All five have been getting around by bike.

“Before the residency I came up for a few visits,” she says. “I had to sort out childcare, I had a lot of running around to do. Someone said: ‘Do you want a bike?’ It was great to be able to zip around.”

Deveron Arts, run by a visionary German curator, Claudia Zeiske, engages international-level artists in projects that explore issues relevant to the area. There is no gallery, projects happen in the community for the community. The Deveron Arts slogan is: “The town is the venue”.

Dalziel + Scullion created a billboard artwork about wind farms, South African artist Jacques Coetzer devised new branding for the town and Buchanan took part in an earlier project here running the Art Cup, an art-and-football event in which teams of artists from Scotland and Denmark competed against one another on the pitch.

This time, local development organisation Huntly Development Trust wanted an environmental focus, homing in on issues of transport. Donachie’s project will highlight some of the issues around creating cycle lanes on the town’s streets. “There are some horrible corners here, some real rat-runs for cars. Huntly does need some safe cycle lanes,” Donachie says. “It could be improved, it wouldn’t be that hard. The problem for cyclists isn’t traffic, it’s parked cars. People support the idea of safe cycle lanes in practice, but not if it means being told they can’t park outside their house.

“I’m not in any way trying to enforce that in the town. I’m starting a discussion and doing something that’s very much an artwork.”

A range of other events will take place tomorrow, Saturday and Sunday, all easily reached on foot (or by bike). Donachie will serve tea from her camper in Battlehill Woods, while acclaimed Celtic harpist Catriona McKay will give three performances of a new work, A Sea of Green, made collaboratively with electro-acoustic composer Alistair MacDonald. On Sunday there will be an international symposium on the subject of car-free towns.

Donachie hopes the people of Huntly will see their town differently, even if just for a day. In order to launch the Cycle Drawing, she has organised the partial closure of the town square to cars. Grandly designed in granite in the Victorian era, the square’s main function today is as a pay-and-display car park. On Saturday, it will be returned to a civic space, with hotels and cafés encouraged to set out tables and chairs, and with deckchairs instead of parking spaces.

“I have a long-term interest in public space, how people socialise together, how social things happen. The square seems like the natural place for people to do that. Artists are very good at noticing things, and often as an outsider you can notice how something might be done differently.”

But it has been far from straightforward. While few would dispute the obvious health and environmental benefits of cycling, most people in Huntly, as in many rural towns, rely on their cars. The town-centre shops, already suffering the double whammy of two major supermarkets competing with each other on the outskirts, were concerned that any restrictions on parking could affect their business.

“My first week here I was on the front page of the local paper, with ‘Glasgow artist aims to shut down Huntly to cars’. All the shopkeepers were up in arms, we had to act fast to consult with them. There were some valuable discussions. Saturday morning is one of their busiest times, but they were much happier with us doing the Bike Ride on Saturday afternoon.”

Outside the former grocer’s shop used by Deveron Arts as a studio, the pavement is patterned with brightly coloured lines where the cycle device has been tested. Donachie is running the studio as a bike repair shop and organising the refurbishment of old bikes donated by local people. She hopes that several dozen local cyclists will join the parade on Saturday – “a gentle meander, not a race”. The parade will be led by a piper, sitting on a platform supported by two bicycles, and will be accompanied by cycling policemen. It might not be everyone’s idea of art, but it makes complete sense to Donachie, a graduate of David Harding’s Environmental Art course at Glasgow School of Art.

“I don’t work with communities, I think that’s a bit of a misnomer. I use people to create works. It’s a wee bit anthropological. I come and look at what people do and then say, ‘Come and do this for me’. I think that’s a good way to make work. People get involved. They don’t always like it, but they engage with it directly because of the involvement.”

Does she mind that in a few days her artwork will probably have washed away? Not a bit of it. “I’ve just come out of doing several long projects for public buildings and museums. It’s nice to do something temporary, an intense short project. If in five years’ time a bike lane happens, that would be a good artwork to leave.”