Yesterday my friend C and I took ourselves on an excursion to Seafield – Edinburgh’s sewage plant.
C has been preparing work on a project for an art degree that she is beginning this autumn. The topic she has been asked to explore is “edgelands” – the point of departure being a book published earlier this year by Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley. The book explores “places so difficult to acknowledge they barely exist…. Passed through, negotiated, unnamed, ignored.” The project spec asked her to choose a landscape and to spend time there, to sketch drawings and to journal about her thoughts and experiences there, and finally to produce a costume that integrates images of the chosen space. All these together would create a first portfolio of work.
I’ve been one of C’s sounding boards throughout this project. Early in the summer, over cups of tea, we first chatted about the assignment and she confessed that the sewage plant had occurred to her as a possible location. She cycles past it occasionally, a landmark that exists in passing rather than as destination. However, she wasn’t sure about this idea, she felt tentative: would she want to go to the sewage plant, to sit and sketch there? Would it be awkward, with plant workers approaching her to query or mock her presence (“What’re you doing there, hen? Can’t you find something better to draw?”) Would it be smelly? Think about it: the sewage plant – yuck. But that’s the point, I said – venturing into a place that is uncomfortable.
The conversation turned to the book, and to the metaphors offered by the concept of ‘edgeland’ – metaphors about oneself and one’s inner landscape. We talked about ugliness of character and difficult emotions, those parts of oneself that exist but which polite society insists must be mastered, set aside, concealed, or transformed through a cleansing process of redemption. When I first brought this up, C asked me to explain further and I fumbled around with my words “You know, the parts of yourself that are unpleasant or stupid or brutal, when you’re being heavy and negative and depressing …” She interrupted me: “When you feel like shit?”
Since then C has coined a phrase that we use in shorthand together: ‘showing your edge’. This summer we’ve both of us grappled with some seriously challenging experiences in our relationships with other people, containing pick-a-mix assortments of miscommunication, egotism, anger, judgment, confusion, arrogance, resentment, exploitation, avoidance, ignorance – just lots of crap from everyone involved including ourselves. Our edges are sharp, all of us, and venturing into the edgelands sometimes draws blood. People hurt.
But not always. C told me later about an unexpected experience, a page for her project story. She had been feeling trepidation about asserting her lone female presence in Seafield’s industrial setting, where the plant workers were (all? almost all?) male. On this particular day, she’d gone to sketch and had settled down on a nearby hill, a scrub of grass and weeds overlooking a drive and with a view of the gates and the plant just beyond. While sitting there, a van drove past and pulled into the drive and parked away to the side. The driver got out and sure enough, he approached her, walking across the drive and up the hill to where she was sitting. She braced herself for the intrusion. “I’ve not blocked your view with the van, have I? I parked as far over as I could. I can move it somewhere else if you like.” This, followed by a brief easy chat – a friendly and curious inquiry about the drawing – and then he left her to it with a wish of good luck to her project.
Yesterday then: we took ourselves over to Seafield for a photo shoot. The final leg of the project was to create a costume designed to evoke the imagery of the site, and to take photos of oneself in the costume and within the chosen edgelandscape. C pointed out repeatedly the ridiculous nature of our excursion, how foolish she felt, and at the same time acknowledged that this is the truth of what happens when we venture into edgelands: we look and feel awkward and stupid. It was indeed ridiculous, and she was beautiful for it.
Here she is, all wrapped up in monstrous gear:
The mask and the tubes designed to protect one from all the crap, to divert it and convert it and make it endurable:
And here she is, unmasked and smiling, among the wildflowers that grow in her edgeland:
and enjoying the absurdity of all this ugliness and beauty together.