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Nuart Aberdeen 2024

Nuart Aberdeen 2024 saw a fresh influx of public artworks appear on the streets of the Granite City.

Monumental and expressive, the painterly portrait by Case Maclaim (aka Andreas Chrzanowski); Cbloxx (aka Jay Gilleard) created their signature aerosol magic and mystery; HERA (Jasmin Siddiqui) delivered a truly towering artwork that nevertheless communicates care and tenderness; KMG’s bold, beautifully pared-down characters at the airport transformed non-descript buildings into visual clarions; Mahn Kloix introduced another of his ‘contre-feux’ figures that seek to give a voice to whistle-blowers, refugees, activists and the like; Millo (Francesco Camillo Giorgino) combined breath-taking detail, urban energy and subtle allusions to myriad hidden stories; Neil “Shoe” Meulman brought his distinctive ‘calligraffiti’ to the festival; Wasted Rita’s faux street signage seeded the city with poetic, wistfully critical comments and artist and muralist Molly Hankinson had the singular honour of marshalling Aberdonian ‘kids’ (aged 9 to 99) in making the mother of all chalk floor drawings.

Such are the new visual delights and provocations added to the ever-changing Nuart trail of public works. Weekly tours of the art continue throughout the summer months but as the curtains came down on Nuart Festival’s core weekend of films, lectures, presentations and panel discussions, it seemed a good idea to catch up with Nuart Festival founder and director Martyn Reed and Nuart Plus co-convenor and Nuart Journal editor Susan Hansen.


Words by Adrian Burnham

First, I wanted to explore how it all started?

Martyn: Yes. It was an electronic music festival. My background was in clubbing, DJing and club promotion before I went to London to study fine art. The relationship between music, design, fashion, clubbing and visual arts all coalesce in London in the early 90s. And it was a time, of course, when paradoxically the policies of Thatcher, the brutal attacks on the arts, and music subcultures specifically, gave rise to a huge wave of creativity and push back. And I kind of surfed that wave through my degree.

I ended up in Norway, started club promoting, working with artists doing club visuals. I established the festival Numusic in the year 2000 and in 2001 it seemed natural to include the visual arts. And that was predominantly club visuals, you know, new media, video art, the internet. It was a field that attracted outsiders and activist-prone artists because at that time the internet was still an unpoliced wild new frontier, not unlike street art when people realised they could make art freely on the street.

I was always interested in these concepts, not really the form that art takes, the form back then just happened to fit a club environment. So Nuart was established in 2001. We switched exclusively to graffiti and street art in 2005.

Martyn Reed London 2001 ©Nuart
Martyn Reed & Susan Hansen, Lisbon, Street Art & Urban Creativity, 2017 ©Nuart

You’ve always kept the music thread going though, inviting great DJs, etc.?

Martyn: For sure, and it ties in now, 25 years later with the work that you guys do at BUILDHOLLYWOOD supporting creative individuals and subcultures. And it’s not that well researched but all those cultures were linked in the late 80s & early 90s, promoting bands, clubs, raves… I think there’s elements there that are still really interesting and worth exploring now.

Susan: I wish I’d been there for the early music days! But I think that the original emphasis on music has continued in the energy of the festival – because it’s not run simply as a production in a utilitarian fashion, there’s some real joy there. The people that came together for the music and to dance til dawn, came to be part of this crazy collective creative energy – and this ethic of hyper-organised yet subversively playful co-production still informs the way the festival is run.

Martyn: And it was a conscious decision, you know, the fine arts and the music scene, they were so separate in that period. There was a shift with the YBAs (Young British Artists), getting in ID magazine, and The Face, but really, fine art was ‘serious’, still for the most a rarefied, elite practice. And I knew it wasn’t like that.  The people who were producing it were just as dysfunctional as the rest of us and full of joy. But there was just no real community about it outside of a small clique, and the end result of promoting a music festival, or a rave, or a party, or a concert is… Joy.

All the work leads up to this huge, joyous occasion. And as a promoter I think that’s in your body when you’re putting a poster up on the streets. I really made a conscious decision; I wondered whether you could use the tools of club promotion for visual art? And make it cool and relevant. It just coincidentally happened to be around the time when the first wave of street artists were coming through. And I thought, ah, there’s a relationship between these things. We can use the same promotional tools and get people interested in art events.

Bahia Shehab (LB-EG)

I’d say that, obviously street art has enthused both of you, but I also think that Nuart has had a considerable impact on street art.

Susan: Yes, I think it’s the way Martyn curates Nuart, and particularly Nuart Plus, it puts people in the same room at the same time who perhaps otherwise would never meet. And there’s artists who otherwise wouldn’t meet. And if you look at how these relationships form over time, people end up working together, people’s ideas shift through these collaborations, and that’s the broader project.

You seem to be constantly on the lookout for, at first seemingly quite marginal figures that you then draw into the Nuart family…

Martyn: Yeah, it’s an awful word but it’s a kind of ‘expanded’ street art, people who don’t define themselves as street artists. But going back to music, when you’re promoting a concert, it’s about the music, not about the musicians. And we have that at Nuart in spades. It’s about the art. And it might be a horrible thing to say, but for me personally I don’t care who makes the work, the personalities, whether they sign it or not, or whether anyone ever sees their face again. Fortunately, we have a team who DON’T think that way. They really care and they place the artists central to the event. For me it’s the idea of ‘art’, not the idea of ‘the artist’ that is key. It’s like when you read a book, it’s the content, you don’t start thinking about the author.

Susan: It’s an approach that combats the homogenisation of the genre. By keeping on reintroducing the wildcards and unexpected elements, it keeps the borders a little more open, so that when someone says street art, they don’t automatically think of just the stereotypical examples, muralism and so on.

Since my first visit to Nuart in Norway 2017 I’ve admired the breadth of work, the research side of things, the ambition. I remember seeing a yacht sailing past the Stavanger seaboard with a huge Snellen chart, the eyesight test, printed on its sail. The scale was impressive, the incongruity, the fun, but also the implied myopia regarding serious environmental issues relating to local oil production, etc. At Nuart there are always works provoking intrigue, that demand or invite us to look afresh, look more closely and more thoughtfully at our environments.

Martyn: Prior to 2010 I didn’t call myself a curator, it was a dirty word, Nuart wasn’t ‘curated’. It was established to reflect what was going on in the street art world.

But also, an energetic seeking out…

Martyn: Yeah, well that’s twenty-four seven. And I guess comes from having a critical theory background and also working with Susan. Tuning into different sensibilities, you begin to see more. And you eventually find the poetry in it. Addam (Yekutieli aka Know Hope) writing a text on a wall, and apparently simple work consisting of a line or a few lines, you know, people don’t regard it as street art. The municipality would never commission it. Maybe, at best, if you were in the right network, art of this nature might result from a long residency or some such but for it to just appear on the street, it’s poetry. And some murals have that ineffable poetic quality and some don’t.

Can we talk a bit about how Nuart has affected the two main cities hosting the festival, namely Aberdeen and Stavanger?

Susan: A tale of two cities!

Martyn: I think what happens is inspired by one of the foundational elements of Nuart, fantastical Italian writer Italo Calvino’s book ‘Invisible Cities’. Where Marco Polo’s going back to Kublai Khan after travelling the world, he’s coming back to the Emperor and telling him about the world and all the magical places he rules. It turns out he’s visiting just one city.

Cbloxx (UK)

So, in a sense, every iteration of Nuart is a new story?

Martyn: Yeah, there’s hundreds of cities in a city. I think it opens the city up to be more than what the bürgermeisters, what the powers that be think, those who define culture and say ‘Aberdeen is this’, or ‘Stavanger is this’, or ‘London is this’. There’s a thousand stories, there’s a thousand Londons.

I love the way that artists will use their various specific experiences of the cities, be they gained through research or incidental encounters, to feed into the work produced.

Martyn: Yes, and just jumping back to an earlier point, in the early stages we were originally just dedicated to reflecting the culture, but as soon as it started to be dominated by municipalities we had to start to redefine what the culture is for ourselves. If someone was turning police cars over in Moscow as part of their art practice, as people like Russian art group Voina did, then we’d have a responsibility to turn police cars over in Aberdeen. That’s a bit extreme, but I think we now have a real responsibility to constantly question and define what street art is and can be for ourselves. Because the forces working against the poetry in street art are really strong. It’s neoliberal gentrification, I mean, the sheer power of neoliberalism. But I think ironically you can challenge that with little to no means, just four words on the side of a building, or even a sticker, there’s a power in that.

Susan: Ultimately, attitudes are co-produced, and with the authorities you have to resist them, push back in such a way that they think it was their idea, that makes them proud we are pushing things in a particular direction.

Hera (DE-PK)
Cbloxx (UK)

That involves some canny diplomacy on your part!

Martyn: Yeah, because if you put this on paper no one would say, ‘Yes’. I mean for this current Nuart, for instance, in the publicity there is no mention of Israel, there is no mention of Palestine, but they’re themes people are tackling. There are also universal themes, in a humanistic sense, and they’ve always tackled these themes. This is what art is. So, yes, we have to step gently. That’s not to denigrate municipality murals, the large-scale colourful works that city councils want, because they’re part of the culture too. But they’re only part of it.

People often respond and connect more deeply to the smaller works that are more woven into the fabric of the city. With those works people are not passively applauding the technical skills of a figurative painter. Coming from art school we all know that it’s not that difficult to paint a mural. But the public don’t know that. So, there’s a danger that this whole culture becomes Disneyfied, where people just walk around the city like it’s a theme park. You know, going round looking at murals and applauding while their social services are decimated. We need to remind people of that.

Well, Nuart Plus especially, offers a counter narrative to that threat of Disneyfication doesn’t it? 

Susan: Well, I would strongly hope so. And now that we’ve started running things in the evenings, we’re getting a more diverse audience. It’s like this idea, the model of taking art out of the museum and putting it in the street, take the lecture out of the academy and put it in a bar. It’s an accidental education and accidental art jammed altogether so people who ordinarily wouldn’t walk into the museum, or a lecture theatre, are engaged.


Exactly, it happened at a street art tour yesterday with Stuart Holdsworth, an award winning ‘Inspiring City’ blogger, it was great to see him leading, what two hundred people? And talking eloquently about quite complex issues to a cross-section of the public. It’s been a mission of Nuart to bring together a broad range of practitioners, commentators, critics…

Martyn: Well yes, I was chatting with American culture critic and curator Carlo McCormick, and the idea that you can fly over this legendary character from New York, who was around in the late 80s and early 90s, in the company of people who are now revered, you know, as a really young curator, aged 17, 18, he was bouncing around with people like Keith Haring and Jean Michel Basquiat and renowned graffiti photographer Martha Cooper, etcetera.

And then last night to see him with this spangly curtain of white hair, in a little dingy brown pub, in the last city before the Outer Hebrides with this glowing fire on a screen at his feet, you know, just the whole concept of that is bizarre. A fireside chat on the festival theme of living heritage, exploring this notion as involving a kind of haunting, the measure of a persistent past ever-receding in the ever evolving present – like the way a ghost is said to be caught between two worlds, it’s unheard of! Where else would that exist? I’d say it’s a little bit like CBGBs in the early 80s, these are the sort of things that happened in the East Village back then. And I think to sort of recreate that here and now is quite significant. Particularly regarding this year’s theme.

The internationalism is impressive.

Susan: And, of course, there’s Bahia Shehab, she’s been one of the highlights this year. She made us all cry the first time we met in 2017, and her talk yesterday made us all weep again. She’s incredibly important internationally.

Martyn: Yet initially, you know, her earliest work on the street was an arguably insignificant intervention. I saw the stencil she was making during the 2011 Egyptian uprising known as the Arab Spring. There was an event in Tahrir Square where the state police had seized a woman and while assaulting her, they revealed her blue bra which is really sacrilege. And Shehab joined a collective action and made a stencil of it, a silhouette of a blue bra, you know, and sprayed it around Cairo. And for me, that was it. You can find examples across the Middle East, Iran, Syria. There’s graffiti and stencil art that’s been attached to all these movements in one way or another. And then to recognise that and invite them to a street art festival, we have the privilege and the luxury to be able to do that.


But you also have the credentials to do that. There’d be other street art festivals who might invite these more overtly activist artists and they’d say, ‘Well, why?’. But Nuart attracts artists who are pushing boundaries, posing difficult questions.

Martyn: Yes, there’s a lot of trust. I would never get an international flight on the strength of an email! I guess that’s the legacy of Nuart, it’s built up a lot of trust.

Susan: Which means you get what psychologists would call ‘swift trust’ where usually people would take a while to build trust – they’d meet, get a sense of each other, then engage, but at Nuart, it’s like bang they’re here on the ground, and because there’s strong trust within our networks already you can skip past that bit. And so nobody, not the artists nor critical commentators, produces mediocre work for Nuart.

Nuart tunes people into so many different registers of what we might notice, care about or appreciate in the city.

Martyn: Yes, and our ‘Chalk Don’t Chalk’ project for kids in the city gets them drawing in Marischal Square, surrounded by the bastions of power. It would be one thing to do it elsewhere in the city, in a shopping precinct or whatever, but to do it in that location, with that tower and the seat of power, it’s a compelling concept.

Susan: Those kids are going to feel entitled to make their mark!

Martyn: And I don’t think it would be approved, if you put that on paper, and said, ‘We’re going to challenge the bastions of power, we’d like to get all these kids to go wild in your hallowed courtyard.’ The fact that we manage to get things like that through is fundamental.

What about a last word on the future? Are there any things you haven’t achieved yet that you’d like to?

Martyn: You know one thing always leads to another. When I started Numusic, funnily enough, in 2000 or ‘99, it had the tagline, ‘From Techno to Stockhausen’. And when I worked with Stockhausen in 2005, that was the end of it for me, all the goals had been achieved, and in such a short period of time. And I was stuck, that was it. You know, that Stockhausen just ends with one pure note, it’s the end of music. So, I thought that was the end of that but then I discovered, through Stockhausen, electroacoustic composer Pierre Henry who goes the other way and invents musique concrete and sampling which just opens up the world of music again. And Nuart’s a little bit like that, we finish one year, and you think you’ve done everything but there’ll be something better or different or new, always, somewhere in the world.

Mentioned in the above interview but left off the celebratory roster at the top of this text, two 2024 contributors: Cairo based artist, activist and academic Bahia Shehab and American born Israeli Addam Yekutieli who works under the pseudonym ‘Know Hope’. Their communitarian energy, willingness to call out wrongdoing, injustice and perhaps that most valuable quality of all, it’s their engaged and critical compassion that epitomises the very heart of Nuart Festival. Long may it continue.

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