Art reviews: Night Walk for Edinburgh | Below the Blanket

When is a smartphone like a magic mirror? Susan Mansfield on a couple of guided walks with a difference

Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller: Night Walk for Edinburgh PIC: Chris Scott

Night Walk for Edinburgh, Old Town, Edinburgh ****

Below the Blanket, Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh ***

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“There is too much to see here,” Janet Cardiff’s voice says in my ear as I’m toiling up Advocate’s Close. And it’s true. When you slow down, Edinburgh at night is full of discoveries: floodlit buildings, shadowy pends, snatches of the past carved in stone, glimpses of private lives through lighted windows.

Artists Cardiff and George Bures Miller have made night walks for cities all over the world, each responding to the character of the place. This is one commissioned by the Fruitmarket Gallery (where they showed in 2008) in partnership with Edinburgh International Festival.

Walkers collect a smartphone and headphones from Milkman in Cockburn Street and walk through the Old Town guided by Cardiff’s voice, watching the film the artists have made in the very locations through which they are walking. The film world – where you might see, for example, a magician, a violinist, or a pram suddenly hurtling down a set of steps – is overlaid on our world, while a bewitching soundtrack suggests footsteps and whispers just over our shoulders.

Cardiff’s Edinburgh is one steeped in history and literature, a city of visitors and ghost tours and fenced-off private spaces, but with aggression lurking just below the surface. There’s no strict narrative, but intimations of a violent crime are everywhere.

The trouble is the technology can get in the way, leaving us torn between absorbing the city and trying to work out what is “real”. The best moments are when we forget this and the brain responds to what we hear and see on the phone – approaching footsteps, say, or a ghoulish marionette. In those moments, Cardiff and Miller remind us of the magic technology can create, and the darkness just under the surface of the city we inhabit.

Theatre Cryptic’s Below the Blanket has no headphones or hand-held devices. It’s the simplest kind of walking journey: one in which we follow the (occasionally too discreet) orange arrows around the Royal Botanic Garden, and pause at marked points to listen or, occasionally, look. But it does require a leap of imagination, because the works you are hearing and seeing were inspired by the Flow Country of Caithness and Sutherland. This is a celebration both of the landscape itself – the largest blanket bog in the world, hugely important for wildlife and ecology – and of Theatre Cryptic’s 25th anniversary.

The individual works have little in common apart from their origins, ranging from Malcolm Lindsay’s choral piece, emanating from a magnificent cypress tree and beautifully sung by members of Dunedin Consort (who will sing live on certain nights) to a ballad by Karine Polwart and Pippa Murphy in the voice of the land itself. There are contemporary sound works by Luci Holland, using ultrasonic sensors which pick up on human presence, and Matthew Holden, who uses multiple speakers to capture something of how the bog ‘breathes’. There are kinetic sound sculptures by Kathy Hinde, visual art by Hannah Imlach and Heather Lander and a magic umbrella.

However, one can’t help but be conscious of the disconnect between the landscape the work is about (wild, treeless) and the one we are in (wooded, cultivated, man-made). Walking projects come alive when the elements – location, sound, imagination – come together, and somehow, here, they never quite do. Until the moment with the umbrella – but I’m not going to spoil the surprise. - Susan Mansfield

Night Walk for Edinburgh and Below the Blanket both run until 25 August. Below the Blanket is closed on Tuesdays. For more information and bookings for Night Walk for Edinburgh see www.eif.co.uk. For Below the Blanket see www.cryptic.org.uk/below-the-blanket