Article in Sunday Herald, July 15, 2007
by Paul Dalgarno, author and journalist
When Danish artist Eva Merz was invited to live and work in Tillydrone for six months, she wasn't sure what she could do to justify the commission, or to help the residents of this particularly run down part of Aberdeen. That uncertainty was soon compounded by feelings of depression and loneliness, which she says had nothing to do with the place itself. Tillydrone is home to 4000 people, and the neighbourhood ticks all the requisite boxes for a regeneration project: high rates of unemployment, drug-related crime, domestic violence and vandalism. (Merz's commission was in fact the first of three planned for the area by the Scottish Arts Council and Peacock Visual Arts.) Merz says: "It was great living there. There's an amazing community spirit that you don't find in the city centre. You notice it immediately, even just walking to the local shops."
Another noticeable feature was the forest of council signposts, which seemed to have been erected on every patch of open grass. Armed with a camera, Merz tracked down more than 70 - one for every 50 or so residents. "Mostly they were No Ball Games signs, but also No Skateboarding, No Cycling, No Golf, No Parking," she says. "People are used to them but, when you ask, they still find them quite offensive.”
Inspired by the signs, and the greyness of the houses, Merz bought a roll of red vinyl, from which she cut large love hearts. The night before Valentine's Day, she stuck them on some signs. The response, she says, was "fantastic". "People got the point immediately and thought it was a lovely idea".
Merz, who terms herself a "social artist", previously worked with Aberdeen street beggars, and at a drug rehab centre in Norway. Conscious that her stay in Tillydrone might be seen as a middle-class hobbyhorse, she decided to record the opinions of residents, with a view to writing a book. The result - called Tillydrone - includes monologues from local women, a shopkeeper, a community worker and a drug dealer.
Some of the voices are preoccupied by the council's plans for the area. "The regeneration is all public appearance," says hairdresser Louise. "They think that by dressing the area up they will deal with the problems, but they are skating over the human issues. They don't know anything, and it seems they don't take the views of the people into account."
Tracy, a mature student, talks about "coming out" to her tutors and classmates about her address in Tillydrone, and the gulf between Cults, in the west of the city - where the average house price is £224,000 – and Tillydrone, where the average is £24,000. "The regeneration is a personal thing to people here and you can really feel their emotions," she says. "So far, all we've seen are buildings coming down. I don't know how that's regeneration."
Having recently completed her residency, Merz would have no qualms about living in the area longer-term, and says that many residents are concerned about the possibility of being moved elsewhere. "There's a perception that people who live in Tillydrone are just waiting for the day they can move out," says community worker Lorna McAndrew. "That's not the case at all. People have grown up here and want their children to grow up here. They don't want the problems to stay but by the same token, they will say that the folk with problems are residents of Tillydrone as well."
Merz's main aim was to inspire those around her, to inject a sense of fun back into the community. One of those who got the message was local teenager Bobbi.
"Bobbi came to me with the idea of painting one of the signs pink," says Merz. "I thought it was an amazing idea.”
"Ironically, given that the sign in question was 30 years old, it stood for only two weeks after we painted it before it was cut down by the council."
She is not sure what impact her stay had on the community, but says the experience had a lasting effect on her. The launch of Tillydrone, the book, at Aberdeen Lads' Club attracted a sizeable crowd. More than 300 hotdogs were eaten, and 1000 books given away, which, as locals might say, was nae bad.