‘It’s not my job to provide answers. It’s just my job to provide questions.’
I met artist Anthony Schrag this week in Cupar’s Haugh Park to talk about his upcoming project for Cupar Arts Festival, provisionally titled ‘What Lies Beneath Cupar?’ and inspired by the hidden waterways beneath the town. The interview followed a photo shoot, which saw Anthony get up close and personal with the murky depths of the Lady Burn.
What do you do? What does art mean to you?
I think art is the thing that challenges perceptual habits. So, art is the thing that makes us think differently about the world we live in.
What do I do? I work with people, usually in a community context, to ask questions that are hopefully important to them. That can take the shape of performances, publications, meetings, events, dances – anything. I suppose all of my projects try and leave a question for people to ask themselves. I don’t have answers – it’s not my job to provide answers. It’s just my job to provide questions.
Why do you do it?
First of all, I have no making skills. I remember during my Master’s degree, I was talking about this and one of my tutors said, ‘Work with your strengths.’ I thought, well, I can’t paint; even my photography skills aren’t that great. But I like people, I’m good with people – I’ll work with people.
People are interesting because they’re not me, because they have different ideas about the world and because they see the world differently.
What do you have planned for this year’s Cupar Arts Festival?
Well, what I have planned is very different to what the ideas are. I think it’s easiest to start with the ideas. I got attracted to this idea of looking at the hidden spaces of the river as liminal places. I like the idea that throughout human history and mythology, we’ve been very interested in the boundaries between the living and the dead, between gods and humans, between countries, between lovers.
So, I want to do a project that explores how the Lady Burn is a liminal edge. I see it as a research process where the questions I ask, such as ‘What things hide in those spaces in the Lady Burn?’, can be a place for people to explore the psychology and the identity of Cupar. Whatever those stories are, they will guide the final outcome. I’d like the final outcome to be something performative and participatory, but that’s going to have to develop over the next three or four months. I don’t know for certain what it is.
Last year you walked over 2500 km to the Venice Biennale from Huntly in Scotland. Was the fact that the Biennale is a big, prestigious art event part of the reason why you decided on the project?
That was the reason, to look at the Biennale as a site of pilgrimage, as the grand art festival of the world. Artists see it as a sort of sacred place – if you make it at Venice, you make it anywhere. So it started off as an exploration of how the more ephemeral, more socially engaged and participatory artists are and are not welcome in Venice. How do artists like me get there? How do we get accepted, when we don’t make the things that you stick on a wall? Do we want to be accepted? Is it important to go?
It was 2638km, 88 days of walking, with an average of 30/35km a day. But the weirdest, most difficult thing was the loneliness. Because so much of my work is done with people, to suddenly find that the vast majority of the time I wasn’t just alone in a town, I was alone with nothing, was difficult.
You also uploaded blog posts throughout the walk. Did you feel you had a whole host of other ‘virtual’ companions along the way?
I felt that I didn’t have as many discussions over the blog or Facebook that I was hoping for. But, because with a blog you can see how many people visit and how many people read it, I didn’t feel alone, because I knew people were reading it. It was as though I wasn’t yelling into the void, even though I wasn’t getting the responses I wanted. That felt really helpful.
How do you work? Is there such a thing as a typical day?
There’s never a typical day, and there’s never a normal project. Because my work is responsive to a place or a site, it’s different everywhere I go. Someone asked me, ‘How do you know whether you’re a good socially engaged artist?’ Well, if you’re a good painter, you can paint well. If you’re a good socially engaged artist, you socially engage. The way that you talk to people, who you’re talking to, in what context – that is the work.
Anything else to add?
It’s exciting to work with people like Cupar Arts Festival, because they get it, they’re supportive and they’re interesting. That makes a really big difference to how much you want to make it good.
Anthony Schrag was interviewed by Jenny Messenger.