Parley. Forms for Gathering, by Sorcha Carey

Posted on Friday 2nd August, 2013


vi to speak with another; to confer; to hold discussions with an enemy.
n talk; a conference with an enemy; a conference.[1]

Parley (still familiar in contemporary vocabulary thanks to Pirates of the Caribbean) means in its simplest sense ‘to speak’ (from the French parler). But, as its dictionary definition makes clear, the word encompasses the full range of possibilities contained in speech, from conversation and friendly consultation, to debate and the formal discussion of terms with an enemy. We might imagine a vocal (and emotional) range stretching from whispered confidences to raised voices, cool detachment to heated exchange. Crucially, Parley presupposes the engagement of or with another, whether an audience, an alternative viewpoint, an opposing side. Parley, then, is most definitely not a monologue. It is a negotiation, a discussion, a debate.

Art has always engendered debate, and publicly sited work perhaps more than most. Developing an artwork outside the gallery, requires a level of discussion and negotiation not generally required within the sanctified enclosure of the exhibition space – with the processes which govern the use of any public space, as well as the public itself, many of whom will encounter the work without any prior intention. The 2013 festival commissions programme considers artists whose work thrives on this ‘parley’; those whose practice embraces, generates or depends on debate for its creation; who seek in their work to provoke or facilitate conversation and discussion; or to describe or articulate a form in which this might happen. Like the multitude of possible nuances for ‘parley’, the commissioned works adopt a range of forms, from sculptural and film installations, to performance and process based work. As new commissions specifically invited for Parley, they have also involved a considerable degree of ‘parley’ in their creation.

Parliament shares the same root as ‘parley’ (parlement, talking/speaking) and it has long been recognised that the design of a parliamentary debating chamber can help to define and determine the culture of debate contained within it. The ranked rows of seating set in direct opposition to one another in Westminster’s House of Commons reflect and support a political culture which is notoriously combative. The more inclusive, less oppositional, semicircular chamber adopted in Miralles’ designs for the new Scottish Parliament building, is but one of the ways in which the architect’s vision to create ‘not a building, in a park or garden, but rather the form for gathering people’  is manifest.

Krin de Koning: Land

Krijn de Koning’s Land, a giant stepped platform spilling out of Edinburgh College of Art’s Sculpture Court, articulates a range of possible architectures for parley. Elevated soap boxes for energetic declamation sit alongside more intimate theatre-like settings, where the speaker stands at ground level at the heart of his/her audience. De Koning has described the extension of the platform beyond the columns of the Sculpture Court as a deliberate attempt to ‘act against the architecture’, to transform the imposing space of the sculpture court into a ‘large generous space’ for debate, conversation and discussion.[2]

Buried deep in de Koning’s extraordinary construction are nearly twenty casts from the art college’s significant collection of ‘casts from the antique’. Reminding us of the roots of democratic debate in Classical Greece, de Koning invites us to experience these iconic works in ways that were never intended. The Nike of Samothrace’s wings poke through the platform, while the interior cavity of a sculptural group from the Parthenon, normally hidden from view, becomes a grotto in de Koning’s architectural landscape.

The work plays host to a series of conversations and debates during the festival, (including two ‘parleys’ on identity, personal/artistic and national, specially devised by artists Ross Sinclair and Rachel Maclean) in a live testing or excavation of the conversational forms already latent in the architecture. In its deliberate quotation of the ruined remains of a classical past, Land proposes new possibilities for debate and contestation, rising directly out of a recasting of familiar forms.

Sara Barker

Sara Barker’s fragile sculptural creations are a far cry from the scale and sheer solidity of de Koning’s platform, and yet Barker, like de Koning, is profoundly interested in the relationship between architectural space and the conversations it allows (or prevents).

Barker’s work has always engaged in conversation with the spaces in which it is exhibited, often reframing familiar architectural forms such as doors and windows as delicate constructions which acquire an almost human scale and fragility. Patterns, Barker’s new work for ‘Parley’, marks an important departure for the artist, her first work to be made for an external site. Specifically conceived for the woodland setting of Jupiter Artland, in a playful reversal of the nineteenth century practice of landscape painting produced en plein air, Barker has carefully painted the surfaces of the metal structure in the studio, for exhibition outdoors.

The relationship between the Scottish Parliament building and the land (both physical and metaphorical) was a critical one for its architect, Miralles:

‘The building design should be like the land, built out of the land and carved into the land…. We hope that from this emerges a series of identifications between the building and the land, land and citizens, citizens and the building, not just because of an “image”, but physically shaping the act of sitting together.’[3]

Barker’s Patterns too depends on a close relationship to the surrounding landscape. Made from interlocking forms in brass, aluminium and steel and set within a glass pavilion, the delicate glass and metal construction mirrors and reflects the ever-changing light, weather and temperature of the surrounding landscape. Echoing Miralles’ ‘form for gathering’, Barker sees the work as providing a place to gather, shelter, a place to pause’, a three dimensional drawing, marking out a space in the landscape for us to enter and inhabit with our mind’s eye.

Barker’s ‘form for gathering’ is as much a site for the mind, as a physical space to inhabit. Tellervo and Oliver Kochta Kalleinen’s Complaints Choir project offers another form for ‘parley’, in an invitation to city-dwellers to come together and sing their complaints out loud. First conceived in 2005 as a literal expression of the Finnish phrase Valituskuoro (or, its English equivalent, a chorus of complaints), the artists have worked with communities around the world to realise Complaints Choirs in Birmingham, Helsinki, St. Petersburg, Hamburg, Chicago, Singapore, Copenhagen and Tokyo. The project begins with an open invitation to inhabitants of a city, to join a choir, submit their complaints, and then participate in a series of workshops led by a composer, who works with the choir to compose a new song for live performance.  Since the initial conception, 100s of DIY complaints choirs have been established around the world. The Edinburgh Complaints Choir led by composers Peter Nicolson and Daniel Padden have met regularly over the past two months to share complaints, and develop a new piece of music together.

Complaints Choir

‘Complain’ comes from the Latin complangere, meaning to lament (plangere), with or together (com-). The Complaints Choir like ‘parley’ itself, depends on this process of coming together, a gathering expressly to vent and share. The process is deliberately democratic, encouraging novices, amateurs and confident singers alike to participate.

Through Kalleinen and Kalleinen’s four screen installation, as well live performances of the Edinburgh Complaints Choir, we encounter the complaints of ten cities from around the world. Some of the complaints are uniquely specific to their place, geography or culture – the Finns complain that ‘they don’t ask before they throw more water on in the public sauna’; Chicago bewails the fact that they have no mountains, St. Petersburg, the ‘pestilent mosquito ridden climate’ chosen as the location for their city. But what is striking is the number of complaints which recur the world over – buses, dog poo, rubbish, too much advertising – and the universal experience of small day-to-day personal frustrations – nobody shares the biscuits, I can’t grow a beard, there is always a tall man in front of me.  All of the songs are united by a sense of celebration, a deep pleasure in the opportunity to complain out loud, and in having companions in the complaining.  In this collective complaining, we come not to an agreement, but to an understanding about what drives us, those irritations, those stress points which define our boundaries and make us who we are, as individuals, cities and nations.

Sarah Kenchington: Windpipes for Edinburgh

Some of the earliest public concerts ever to be held were given in London by the violinist John Banister in 1676, and advertised to the public as ‘The Parley of Instruments’ – one presumes to describe the conversation between individual instruments speaking or playing together.[4]  Sarah Kenchington’s latest project invites us to a new ‘parley of instruments’ at the heart of Edinburgh’s Old Town, but here the parley resides in multiple players making music on a single instrument.

An artist and musician, Kenchington’s work gives a voice to materials which have been discarded or abandoned by contemporary society. Bicycle spokes, typewriters, the inner tubes of tractor tyres (or in the case of her 2009 project with Modern Art Oxford, a house scheduled for demolition) are combined to create unique musical machines which emit a discordant array of moans, squeaks and chimes. While previous instruments have been constructed solely for the artist to play herself, Windpipes for Edinburgh is a profoundly social (and sociable) construction. The six console instrument, made from combining salvaged organ pipes with pipes and fittings more commonly used in plumbing, needs six people to pump the bellows, and a further six to play the instrument itself.

Fundamentally democratic in its configuration and construction, Kenchington’s organ is designed to be played by amateur and professional musicians equally. The artist has evolved a simple colour coding system, to allow those who have no experience of music to play alongside professionals.

A musician and accomplished improviser herself, Kenchington has never learnt to read sheet music. Instead her ability to make music comes from an instinctive and experiential relationship with her instruments, an understanding of their capacity to make noise.

Kenchington has described her performances on earlier instruments as akin to playing an improvised duet with another musician. Windpipes expands the conversation significantly, inviting multiple participants to play and produce together.

Peter Liversidge: Flags for Edinburgh

From the earliest times (as the recent exhibition, Ice Age Art – arrival of the modern mind demonstrated so cogently), art has proved an essential means by which humans communicate to and with one another. Peter Liversidge’s new work for Parley explores how we communicate on a citywide scale.

For the duration of the festival, Edinburgh’s skyline will be punctuated with more than 50 white flags bearing the simple text HELLO. Flown by buildings ranging from the civic to the national, religious, commercial and even a small community garden, the flags communicate a collective welcome from the city, at a time when Edinburgh’s population doubles in size, as it plays host to festival visitors from all around the world.

The flags fly as the direct result of Peter Liversidge’s simple proposal that all the buildings, institutions or organizations in Edinburgh who have a flagpole, should fly a flag saying HELLO. All of Liversidge’s artworks begin like this, with a proposal, typed (complete with spelling mistakes) by the artist on his typewriter. Not all of his proposals are realized – some for quite understandable reasons (‘I propose to dam the Thames and flood the City of London), others because in ‘the discussion of terms’ required to make them happen, no agreement or resolution could be reached.

Collectively, then, Flags for Edinburgh represent not just Edinburgh’s conversation with the rest of the world, but a host of individual conversations across and within the city, between the artist, festival and each individual institution, about why they choose to fly a flag at all.

Edinburgh’s experience along with the rest of Scotland and much of the United Kingdom, of an extended period of peace since the conclusion of the Second World War, has meant that, for some citizens, flags can seem rather redundant as symbols, a statement of institutional tradition which holds little relevance to contemporary society.  In contested environments (like the North of Ireland) flags still have the capacity to become highly charged as visible symbols. And, as the response to the First Minister’s recent prominent sporting of a Saltire at the Wimbledon final demonstrates, they will undoubtedly assume a new charge in the Scottish capital and beyond in the run up to the 2014 referendum.

Liversidge’s choice of a white ground is deliberately non-confrontational, a friendly wave across the parapets; but the white ground also allows the HELLO to come to the fore, to assert the basic quality of a flag as a form of language. Through the simplicity of their greeting, Liversidge reflects on and reanimates the flag as a tool of communication.  Hello is the ‘calling attention’ which prefigures conversation; the wave which allows the ‘parley’ to commence.

Robert Montgomery: Edinburgh Fire Poem

Flags for Edinburgh plays with the longstanding military convention of raising a white flag in order to request to parley or discuss terms. Robert Montgomery’s work considers instead, a refusal to discuss terms, drawing on what is (for the artist) a particularly Scottish romantic tradition, of the flight from capture, the choice of freedom at all costs.


Installed in the shadow of Edinburgh castle, Montgomery’s poem sculpted from oak is part performance, part sculpture. Designed to be set alight on the opening night of the festival, the work then remains as a charred relic for the duration of the exhibition.

Language becomes a profoundly physical object in Montgomery’s work, often initiating a direct conversation with the site in which it is displayed. The artist has made an ongoing series of poems in light. Powered by solar panels, he enjoys the way in which the poem directly reflects the weather which has preceded it. This ephemeral quality  – the poem at once present and absent – is pushed to the limit in his fire poems, where the artist quite literally sets fire to his work, enabling a poem to burn more brightly and intensely, before being entirely consumed by the flames.

Fire Poem for Edinburgh differs from these earlier works in a crucial respect.  Carved out of oak, the text will survive the flames, remaining as a charred monument to its own burning.

Montgomery has a profound belief in the capacity for ideas to speak beyond their own time:

“….it is this idea of recurring beliefs, echoes of philosophies that occur centuries later, as if these ideas are written in a spiritual rather than intellectual realm, that intrigues me.”[5]

Fire Poem for Edinburgh incorporates numerous historical references (personal, social and political) from the Celtic Beltane fire, to childhood memories of fire torches carried in the annual Bathgate parade, and classes conducted amidst a fire damaged primary school; but the message is a profoundly contemporary one. In an earlier (2011)work, Montgomery reminded us that ALL PALACES ARE TEMPORARY PALACES. Here, his work celebrates the rejection of the castle, the deliberate choice of freedom in place of power.

Christine Borland and Brody Condon

Christine Borland and Brody Condon’s first jointly authored artwork is born out of a lengthy process of parley. Their individual practices are quite distinct – Borland rooted more in the object, Condon in performance. Since 2011, they have been working together on an interdisciplinary research project which has seen them undertake performative test pieces informed by each others’ practice. Their installation for the watchtower at New Calton Burial Ground represents if not the culmination of, then  a moment in, this extended (and ongoing) conversation between the two artists, to identify where, or indeed whether, their interests intersected enough to require a work made by both of them together.

Suspended through the three stories of a derelict watchtower in New Calton Burial Ground, The Daughters of Decayed Tradesmen is created from hundreds of punchcards laced together to form a series of looping arcs, each one nearly 15 metres long. First invented in the eighteenth century as a means to store digital information, punchcards (stiff card perforated with holes) continued to be used in the weaving industry right up to the twentieth century. As objects, the cards represent an important meeting point for Borland and Condon – for Borland the cards carry strong childhood memories of visiting her father at his work in the Darvel Lace Factory; for Condon, who first came to critical attention for a series of works which modified computer games, they are the foundation stones of modern day computer programming.

At the crossroads of craft and modern technology, the punchcards are emblematic of a series of elaborately interwoven narratives which populate Borland and Condon’s collaboration, a richly associative exploration of the intersection of history (personal and social) and the present day. Encoded in the punchcards, are the oral histories of the last surviving alumnae of Edinburgh’s Trades Maidens’ Hospital, an institution founded in 1704 by Edinburgh Trades (the society representing and controlling the interests of the Artisan Classes) to provide board and education for the daughters of “decayed” tradesmen, and which finally closed in 1971 (although the foundation continues to exist as a grant-giving body).

It is to hard know precisely what the word ‘decayed’ would have conveyed to an eighteenth century ear – did it simply mean ‘deceased’ (certainly all of the surviving alumnae of the hospital were orphans), or did it also encompass other less final forms of deterioration – unemployment or bankrupty, for example? Borland and Condon are drawn to the multiplicity of meanings couched in the term, and the site chosen for their installation offers a resonant context for an extended reflection on decay and dereliction. The structure which houses their work belongs to a type of architecture which emerged in the early nineteenth century in an attempt to address a growing problem with body snatchers. Until the passing of the Anatomy Act in 1832 (which put an end to the lucrative market for bodies), the building allowed the resident caretaker to watch over recently interred bodies until such time as they were sufficiently decomposed to be of no use to anatomists.

Graveyards are contradictory places, simultaneously sites of decay and preservation – the place where our ultimate dissolution takes place, and where (we hope) we will be remembered. New Calton Burial Ground belonged to the Society of Incorporated Trades of Calton, a plot of land given to them in compensation for the loss of a portion of their original burial ground (Old Calton) to make way for the building of Regent Road. The headstones proudly declare a lifetime dedicated to honing a particular skill (‘upholsterer’; ‘jeweller’; ‘tanner’), as well as the shifting status of individual generations (a builder whose son becomes a stockbroker, for example). In contemporary society, the relative seclusion of graveyards (and this is especially true of New Calton) means that while they might no longer attract bodysnatchers, they continue to play host to illicit activities.  In the present day, the watchtower, last occupied by a caretaker in the 1930s, stands as the derelict witness to those who have chosen the graveyard precisely because they don’t wish to be seen.

Borland and Condon’s installation draws on all these associations to remind us of the essential relationship between decay and a profoundly human urge to record and preserve. A beautifully unravelled scroll, their installation bears witness to an institution that no longer exists; it records a history that is yet to be written, using a technology evolved for weaving, once one of Scotland’s most important industries, now all but defunct. As artists, Condon and Borland feel a profound connection to the performative action of making something with your hands; and the way in which the crafted object (as much as any headstone) can stand as a testament to an individual’s actions, as well as human existence itself.

Katri Walker: An Equilibrium Not of This World

If Borland and Condon’s newest work has emerged from a lengthy process of conversation with one another, then Katri Walker’s work too is the direct result of series of conversations and collaborations beyond the world of art. In 2012, as part of NVA’s extraordinary Speed of Light project, Walker was invited to develop a new piece of work which explored the culture of endurance running. Walker collaborated with a range of specialist disciplines in order to make the work – cardiology, microscopic imaging, Muybridge inspired stop frame animation, timelapse photography and steadicam technology. The resulting dual screen installation, An Equilibrium Not of This World, is a profoundly visual and sonic experience, framed as a conversation between internal and external observation, human and machine, body and landscape.

The work takes its title from acclaimed geographer, Yi-Fu Tuan, a pioneer in the field of ‘humanist’ geography, a discipline which marries conventional geography with philosophy, art, psychology and religion, to explore how humans relate to and perceive the space around them. In his celebrated book, Topophilia, Yi-Fu Tuan describes an endlessly negotiated dance between two poles.

Human beings have persistently searched for the ideal environment. How it looks varies from one culture to another but in essence it seems to draw on two antipodal images: the garden of innocence and the cosmos. ….So we move from one to the other; … seeking for a point of equilibrium that is not of this world.’[6]

From the beginning, the formal presentation of Walker’s work establishes a strong sense of two very distinct points of view. Split across two screens, and counterposing extraordinary microscopic timelapse images of the interior workings of the body, with views of the Scottish landscape as perceived by a hill-runner, the film installation immerses the viewer in a succession of dualities: inside/outside, human/machine, body/landscape. And yet when viewed side by side, the oppositional qualities of Walker’s poles begin to dissolve. Photographs of the interior workings of the body can equally read as abstract images of the landscape; views of the Scottish landscape convey the profoundly interior experience of the hill runner. Walker’s rich visual counterpoint enacts Yi-Fu Tuan’s journey between two poles, dissolving polarities to allow an intensely symbiotic relationship between man and environment to emerge.

Kenny Watson

Kenny Watson’s contribution to Parley too draws on two visually divergent approaches, to reflect on how a city talks about and amongst itself. Visitors to the unoccupied retail space on Rose Street walk through a giant hoarding created by Watson specifically for the site. At first glance the work seems to speak the language of Jackson Pollock and ‘action painting’, a vast abstract expanse of meandering lines in green, orange and black. But Watson’s painting is anything but intuitive or accidental. The final image has been painstakingly created from multiple layers of text successively applied one on top of the other. Watson’s palimpsest brings together a familiar advertising slogan (Apple’s Life is Random), with a quote from the cult American writer and chronicler of urban degeneracy, Charles Bukowski ‘even the saints are demented. The original context is as nihilistic as Watson’s painting:

but the world makes madmen (and women) of us all, and even the saints are demented, nothing is saved. [7]

Watson’s hoarding, obsessively writing itself out of existence, enacts a cogent critique of consumer society.

Walking through the hoarding into the interior, the visitor is surrounded on all sides by bill posters, charting a year in local news headlines as told by the Edinburgh Evening Standard. ‘I can’t escape the Tabloid headlines’ sings the Helsinki Complaints Choir. If the word parley can accommodate a range of tonal registers, then Watson’s The Days is definitely a bellow. Individually each headline is deliberately sensational, the block capitals enforcing a distinctly polarised view of the world, where the day to day is lived in a wafer thin margin between triumphant survival (LUCKY ESCAPE FOR CLIFF PLUNGE BOY; MISSING DOCTOR FOUND SAFE) and utter chaos or destruction (CAPITAL SET TO FACE MORE TRAFFIC CHAOS; 22 CITY SCHOOLS FACE THE AXE; SWANS DIE IN POISONED LAKE). In Watson’s The Days these life and death moments, individually critical, dissolve into white noise.

Watson first realised a version of this work in 2009, having spent the previous year carefully retrieving bill posters from newsagents around the city.  Here, specially reconfigured for Parley, the work initiates a strong conversation with the exterior hoarding.  Together Watson’s installations offer a provocative portrait of a city’s way of talking about itself.

Ross Sinclair: Real Life in Auld Reekie

Ross Sinclair’s Real Life in Auld Reekie uses the spaces of advertising and consumer culture to bring his own special brand of parley to the streets. In a series of lists distributed throughout the city (on billboards, poster sites, beer mats, postcards, badges, bags, signs, and a limited edition record) Sinclair presents us with a range of different views of the city. Edinburgh’s great architectural landmarks, famous writers, painters and poets all feature, alongside top tens drawn from popular culture – best Edinburgh bands, footballers – and even a top ten Kings and Queens (out of a total of 50). But the work also touches on some of the less comfortable aspects of ‘Real Life in Auld Reekie’ – a list of the ‘top ten’ most recorded crimes, the drugs most commonly cited as a cause of death; statistics for suicide and the different methods chosen, details of the ‘schemes’.

As the lists, ‘Fictional Scots’, and ‘Capital-ism’ (with instructions to ‘abandon history’; ‘shun the shortbread’ and ‘tear up tartan’) reveal, the work does not simply intend to create conversation about those things which we generally prefer to brush over; it explores how identity itself is a carefully crafted construction, born as much out of the what we choose to exclude as those things we happily celebrate.  With an iconic castle perched on a rock, a conveniently placed backdrop of picturebook Scottish landcape, and a railway station named after a fictional character in Walter Scott, Scotland’s capital city (or Scott-land, as it appears in one of Sinclair’s lists) provides a particularly rich context in which to reflect on what constitutes ‘real’ life.

Sinclair’s search for Real Life in Auld Reekie exists not in the individual lists, but in their collective and recurring presence through the city, in pubs and glamorous bars, on postcard racks and poster sites, on people’s lapels and in their heads. The heart of Sinclair’s Real Life in Auld Reekie project rests in the conversations it requires, the debates it will undoubtedly generate, the thinking and talking which ensue from multiple encounters with his graphics. In a highly poetic text created to feature on the cover of Sinclair’s vinyl recorded for the festival, Sinclair imagines a real life lived in ‘Parledonia’.

Citizens, he declaims

  1. Gather together
  2. Levitate culture
  3. Celebrate sculpture
  4. Venerate thinking
  5. Eulogise singing
  6. Glorify drawing
  7. Dignify dancing
  8. Rejoice in writing
  9. Proselytise thinking
  10. Parley ….

You couldn’t ask for a more powerful statement  of art’s capacity to stimulate, provoke, require, and provide space for the conversations and debate on which society depends and through which the future is formed.

Sorcha Carey
Director, Edinburgh Art Festival

[1] The Chambers Dictionary, Twelfth Edition, London 2011
[2] De Koning  Krijn in Black, Dutch artist brings a slice of mischief to Edinburgh, The Herald, 14th Jun. 2013.
[3] Enric Miralles – Benedetta Tagliabue EMBT, New Scottish Parliament Conceptual Memory, Available from:
[4]  John Spitzer, Neal Zaslaw, 2005, The Birth of the Orchestra: History of an Institution, 1650-1815: History, Oxford University Press, USA, p. 271
[5] Montgomery, Robert in Polla, Robert Montgomery: Fire Poem in Berlin, DROME Magazine, 24th Jul. 2012, Available from:
[6] Yi-Fu Tuan,Topophilia. A Study of Environmental Perceptions, Columbia University Press, 1974, p. 248
[7] Charles Bukowski, Notes of a Dirty Old Man, 2008, Virgin Books, London, p.34


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