Report: Manami Sato’s one week site-visit in Aberdeen (EN)

The one week site-visit in Aberdeen by Manami Sato from Shimizusawa Project in Yubari in Hokkaido has been successfully finished (13th-19th November 2018). To form their town and community, Shimizusawa Project hosts a number of community based activities highlighting Yubari’s coal mine heritage.

This site-visit was organised in response to Aberdeen-based Japanese curator Naoko Mabon’s short visit to Yubari in early June, where she gave a public talk at Shimizusawa Project to introduce the art and cultural scene in Aberdeen. It became possible because of support from Peacock Visual Arts, Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen City Council.

Both Yubari and Aberdeen are cities that rely or have relied on one fossil fuel-driven energy industry. Coal for Yubari and oil and gas for Aberdeen. Having the common background as a starting point, this exchange aimed to: research the historical context or issues of both cities through fieldwork; exchange views; deepen the relationship between two cities; and see the possibility of developing an art/cultural exchange project into the future.

It was a short stay but we managed to visit places and meet people to exchange views.

Day 1: Walked around Aberdeen to grasp the ideas of the City geographically, culturally, physically.
– Torry area, Aberdeen
– Peacock Visual Arts
– Old Aberdeen area, Aberdeen
– ‘Underpinning_how to be closer’ by Juliane Foronda, Curated by Kirsty Russell

Day 2: Visited Hospitalfield in Arbroath, where the main industries – textile and fishing – have now gone. Within the similar narrative, we exchanged views on how we can live with local community, culture and heritage.
– Hospitalfield (tour and presentation)

Day 3: Studied maritime history and affairs in Aberdeen with an expert. Also had the main public event at Peacock Visual Arts
– Aberdeen Maritime Museum (with a commentary by Dr Leslie Mabon of Robert Gordon University)
– Interview by local TV ‘That’s TV’
– Public event of presentation and discussion with Dr Leslie Mabon at W OR M, a project space of Peacock Visual Arts

Day 4: Joined another ‘Associates’ Social’ event with international guests, and learnt a different approach of making a ‘community’ from Yubari
– ‘Associates’ Social: The Palace Arts’ at W OR M

Day 5: Visited Deveron Projects in Huntly. With the main focus ‘The Town Is The Venue’, Deveron Projects has been hosting numerous international projects acting locally including residencies, workshops, lectures and so on in the former industrial Aberdeenshire town of Huntly. They have been developing a ‘Town Collection’ for 25 years – through which Huntly now has 80 artworks installed within various sites in town.
– Deveron Projects (joined ‘Town Collection Guided Walk’)

Day 6: Learnt some cases of community-led projects and strategies of how to negotiate/communicate with local authority on issues of a certain area of the city
– Had a meeting with Rachel Grant and David Fryer, who works on several projects in the Torry area of Aberdeen city with its community. Learnt especially about their air quality monitoring project, as well as the activities of the Trust that David established with Torry community members

Day 7: Held a discussion at Robert Gordon University, which has close connections with the oil and gas industry. Exchanged views with academic experts on how we can imagine our city after the industry is gone through sharing examples from Yubari.
– Presentation and discussion at Robert Gordon University as part of Dr Mabon’s lecture series ‘Daily Life in Northern Japan’
– Looked around the RGU Garthdee campus

It was a packed but fruitful one week to learn more about each other’s activities and views as well as situations and plans of the community or city of both Yubari and Aberdeen.

Although a number of artists have visited Shimizusawa Project and worked in Yubari City in the past, Manami’s area or background is not in visual art, but in geography or tourism utilising industrial heritages. My initial suggestion to her was ‘to explore the possibility to develop a future artist exchange project between both cities’, however, a lot of discussions and meetings within the site-visit were art or culture related. What I explained to her was also something to do with Aberdeen’s current situations and issues in art and culture. These topics might have been outside of her field, but Manami, who is a geographer reading the environment and culture through terrain or river streams, listens and thinks carefully as a third person taking a lot of notes. ‘Perhaps there is no fertile soil in Aberdeen.’ said Manami in the evening of day 6, towards the end of the visit. So simple but I thought this words sum up where we are, too. Yubari emerged because the coal mine was opened – hence there is no soil as history either. Probably this was felt by Manami as she works in Yubari.

Aberdeen is a Medieval city having an old history of production. Shipbuilding, fishing or agriculture were the main industries before North Sea oil was discovered in the 1970s. The shift and impact that the discovery brought to the city was so high in speed and powerful – and I personally see something American and masculine in the dynamic – and it might have shifted – or reset – how people value things completely. The City has been developing over time a habit to judge things based on how useful/convenient it is or how much commercial value it could bring. This means that the City has equally been losing over time the original feature of quiet yet hardworking North East Scots – such as an interest or support towards something small or slow or an attitude that is modest and down to earth. The problem is that this new habit is penetrated not only into the heavy industry but also into daily life and artistic/cultural activities in the City. There is no patron system in art world like a few centuries ago, very few related jobs out there, and cultural funding opportunities are hyper competitive. Especially contemporary art, which won’t often appear in a familiar artistic format of paintings or sculptures, is very difficult area to make money. Aberdeen, which has a habit to judge things based on the functionality or capital productivity, has indeed no fertile soil in which art and culture – contemporary art in particular – can be able to take root. To convince the City, we have to propose and demonstrate its positive capital value or economic effect to the City with numbers with many zeros.

Quite many commonalities can be found between Yubari and Aberdeen, but the biggest difference is that whereas all the mines were closed by 1990 in Yubari, the oil and gas industry in Aberdeen is still very much active. During the period of 2014-2015, the oil price went down significantly. The result was that many companies left, many people lost jobs, many property sale signs were put up, and people started talking about the end of the industry with a fear and urgency. However now in the end of 2018, the oil price has gone up again and the optimistic idea has been coming back gradually also – ‘there is much more oil out there in the North Sea which should last 40 years’. In Scotland, however, it is also true that a number of people have a viewpoint where they think relying on fossil fuel for energy, which is definitely ending at some point in the future, is not a relevant direction if we look at the Scottish Government’s target of shifting to 80% renewable energy source by 2050, our future generations, or the current global issue of climate change that requires urgent action. In Yubari, also, I have heard that many people say ‘coal mines were closed by there is much coal still out there’.

But arguing that sourcing fossil fuel is not good for the environment is different from rediscovering with pride the culture or heritage of the industry relating to fossil fuel, and repurposing it. Manami also mentioned ‘people I met didn’t seem to have sympathy towards the idea of having pride for the mining heritage’. Unfortunately we didn’t have a chance to meet with anyone who is actually working on an oil rig. No idea how those who work on an oil rig actually feel about their jobs, but there must be people who are attached to or proud of their jobs, even though unlike Japan, people often see jobs as just a method to earn a living. Rather than thinking about the industry as a failed, old-fashioned, or not eco-friendly thing and forgetting it, erasing it or moving on to the next thing, we can look back the good and bad things came out of it, experiences of the community, memories of the people involved, and heritages left in the area, as it is true that the industry after all brought a life to us and developed our country or region. Having these points as a starting point, we can expand the discussion in many different directions – economy, tourism, culture, industry, etc. (Especially memory or experience will likely disappear if we don’t try to keep them somehow.) The discussion will let the local area learn more about itself, and is possibly bringing up in the area the most suitable future vision of itself. Personally I trust that art and culture – particularly contemporary art – is good at making a trigger for a discussion like this so there are things to make them useful…

But how exactly we can move forward? What is the best format to make an art/cultural exchange possible between Yubari and Aberdeen?

We have to discuss more, but what Manami and I talked was – we can leave the possibility open and don’t probably need to decide the shape, size or area of the project now. For instance, if we could do an exchange of people (e.g. artists) the impact and effect of it would be the largest. However moving people will cost money and time in both host locations and we are a little anxious about its sustainability. It is maybe too early to restrict the area to visual art, too. We confirmed that we are on the same page in feeling that perhaps the most important thing for now is trying to keep continuing this exchange and discussion initiated by Manami and I for a long time, even though the scale is modest. We try not to overextend ourselves, keep it small and slow but with a great care and continue for a long time. This approach is the same approach that I take within my curatorial practice, so I am glad to share this crucial point with Manami. But we still need to have a number of discussions from now on – with Manami, people in Yubari and Aberdeen – on what is the best shape that we go for. In a text form? Email? Photograph? Movie..?

After Aberdeen, Manami visited the National Coal Mining Museum for England in Wakefield and The Ironbridge and surrounding Eco Museum in Shrewsbury, before she flew back to Chitose Airport in Hokkaido. I feel grateful for Dr Leslie Mabon and my husband who connected me to Manami. I would like to express my gratitude to all the people who we met or spoke during her stay, in particular Peacock Visual Arts, Robert Gordon University and Aberdeen City Council for their support, and to British Council and Creative Scotland for their financial support to make it possible.

Can’t wait to see how our development will take shape..!

Naoko Mabon, Independent Curator