The Brough of Birsay from Orkney, August 2011 (photo François Matarasso)
In 2011, I was commissioned to research cultural life in Orkney, for a report that was published the following year. It was one of the most interesting and rewarding tasks I’ve undertaken, and I have vivid memories of the people I met during my time in the islands, several of whom I am still in touch with. It’s an unusual, somewhat intimidating task, to come as a stranger and tell people about themselves, The attention of an outsider can offer fresh insights, provided it’s done with respect, and even humility. Like much of my professional work, it’s not a role I sought, just a door that opened when I pushed. And like other things I’ve been paid to do, I’m well aware that I do them without training or accreditation. I have learned by doing and the work must stand or fall on its own merits.
A couple of years later, I was invited to back to Kirkwall to give a talk about my research. That always seems tricky, because what I have to say is in the report, so I felt I needed to find another way of telling the story. I found Kirkwall. and with a little distance, I found it in a poem by Robert Rendall, one of many fascinating and impressive cultural figures who have flourished in Orkney. A poet, businessman, naturalist, and archeologist, Rendall was largely self-taught, and that too was a bond I felt. At the heart of my thinking about community art is the defence of alternative forms of knowledge and meaning-making, so I was naturally sympathetic to Orkney’s self-reliance. I don’t undervalue universities, cultural institutions and other centres of knowledge production: I just think it would be dangerous if they ever gained a monopoly on meaning making, so that the rest of us had only to admire their work or join them. Orkney’s thriving culture shows how wrong, and unnecessary that would be.