Life’s a riot in 'The Fearful Part Of It Was The Absence', Joey Simons’ new presentation, which forms the latest edition of Collective’s Satellites Programme of work by upcoming artists, provocateurs and other practitioners. Simons draws his title from the journals of Henry Cockburn, the Edinburgh born nineteenth Solicitor General for Scotland, author, conservationist and Edinburgh Royal High School graduate.
Cockburn wrote in his journals of a ‘terrible silence’ and ‘fearful absence of riot’ at demonstrations in Scotland in support of parliamentary reform. These protests nevertheless helped lead to the introduction of The Representation of the People Act 1832. More than a century and a half later, as riots swept across England in 2011 after Mark Duggan was shot and killed in London by police, Scotland again seemingly remained passive.
Drawing from his observations of such apparent cross-border differences, Simons was informed in part too by artist Jimmy Cauty’s The Aftermath Dislocation Principle (2013-2016), an apocalyptic model village in the back of a shipping container, which toured sites close to where riots took place across the centuries. Venues for the tour included Platform arts centre in Glasgow, where Cauty and the tour’s producers flagged up the 1919 Battle of George Square, aka Bloody Friday; and the Grassmarket in Edinburgh, where the 1732 Porteous Riots took place. Simons continued his interest in Cauty’s work with SCHEMING (2021), a publication he wrote and compiled to coincide with a Platform run of Cauty’s follow up to The Aftermath, ESTATE (2020-onwards). This followed an east coast residency at North Edinburgh Arts.
The result of Simons’ assorted lines of inquiry is a mix of video and audio works flanked in Collective’s Hillside space by an array of photocopied historical documents laid out on tables. These are surrounded on the walls by a frieze of associated texts and images. Together, they gather up research materials for Lying Storms and Mild Storms, a forthcoming publication that aims to reflect on the significance of riots past and present, with possible nods to the future. With pencils and paper left out workshop-style for anyone wanting to take notes, the display more resembles a reading room than a formal exhibition.
Simons’ background as a Workers Educational Association tutor is telling here. On one level, this laying bare of source material is akin to DIY zines and record labels publishing how-to guides to show others how they too might seize the means of production. By juxtaposing long existing archives of hidden histories with accounts of more recent events, however, the trick is to try and work out, not just which is which, but how – if at all - things might have progressed.
This is done in part through oral history in It was always around us: interview with Dee (2021), a thirty-eight minute recording of a conversation with a friend of Simons’. As Dee relates her experience and observations of how “rioting starts in the playground” through teenage gangs and territorial turf wars, her accidental soundbites point to social inequality perpetuated by a divide and rule mentality manipulated from on high. ‘The gangs hate each other far more/than they want a free pair of trainers or a telly burning’ reads a poem pinned up as part of the wall frieze. And, as Dee says, “see the effort it takes to throw a brick.”
Simons’ textual cut-ups are best expressed in The Scotch are bad mobbers (2021), a thirty-two minute twin-screen video of Simons and several of his comrades reading assorted texts in seventeen bite-size clips. These are filmed at sites of historical significance to riots in Glasgow, from Gallowgate to Govanhill to Glasgow Green and beyond.
As filmed by photographer Jack Wrigley, these deliberately unrehearsed ad hoc presentations recall the scrapyard scenes in Jean Luc Godard’s 1968 film, One Plus One. Godard’s more artfully realised polemic features members of radical black power organisation the Black Panthers reading tracts by key players in the movement astride a mountain of rusting cars. These scenes are juxtaposed with footage of the Rolling Stones recording their song, Sympathy for the Devil, which gave the film its more commercial alternative title.
The script in hand presentation of Simons and Wrigley’s video also recalls the presentational techniques used in George Byatt’s play, The Clyde is Red (1979). Glasgow born Byatt’s dramatic meditation on an imagined people’s uprising in George Square was last performed during the 1988 edition of Glasgow’s trade union backed arts festival, Mayfest. A radio version of the play was produced by BBC Scotland the year before.
With the second screen of Simons’ installation providing captions for each clip, Simons and co are effectively gathering up the unedited material of a finished article in search of itself. As they stumble over the words on the page, the performance becomes one big Brechtian device as it fuels a wilful act of self-determination and power. Where Godard’s freedom fighters toss around machine guns, Simons’ holy trinity throw stones, possibly at ghosts of barricades past. Outside Police Scotland HQ, as Simons reads a court report, a slapstick take on a police beating is acted out behind him.
Given its Edinburgh location, Simons’ exhibition might be viewed as either infiltration, contradiction, or both. Calton Hill, after all, is an increasingly gentrified UNESCO World Heritage Site awash with monuments and follies that have become must-see stop-off points on Edinburgh’s tourist trail, as well as for more clandestine after-dark liaisons. The area around it also has a long history of insurrection. This has been the case from the Royal High School Riot of 1595, to the reconstitution in 1988 of the annual Beltane Fire Festival, which made an explicit political statement about the right to free assembly.
One theory running through 'The Fearful Part Of It Was The Absence' regarding a lack of rioting in Glasgow points to the pacifying effect of the weather. ‘Rain and radicalism cannot co-exist’ reads one quotation, captured on the wall in poster form like a leftover Situationist slogan from Paris ’68. As true as such sentiments might be in Simons’ eternal work in progress, the winds of change sometimes blow in mysterious ways. The rain never stops.
Joey Simons – The Fearful Part Of It Was The Absence is at Collective, Edinburgh until March 13th, 2022