And out the window we have this lovely Kirsty Whiten,” says Morvern Cunningham in her best nasal estate agent’s voice, “that’s another five grand on the house.” She’s just been accused – not seriously – by Whiten herself of only running the LeithLate arts festival to drive up property prices and get a good deal on her flat. Cunningham likes the sound of this, because this year she’s commissioned Whiten to create a new mural for the area on a wall opposite her own flat, next to the Out of the Blue drill hall, where the three of us are sitting right now.
When Cunningham held the first LeithLate event in 2011, it was a one-off, single evening art and music crawl around the shops and art spaces of Leith Walk and its environs, with each venue holding pop-up performances and exhibits. By 2014 it had stretched to two days, but this year has brought a quantum leap of ambition. For 2015, the now Creative Scotland-funded LeithLate will span a four-month period across the summer, taking in exhibitions, gigs, guided walks and site-specific art happenings; Cunningham also runs the Shutter Project and the Mural Project, which see commissioned artists creating semi-permanent landmark works for shopfronts and blank walls across the old port area.
“The reason I extended it to a four months was that it seemed easier at the time,” she half laughs, half sighs, “but it’s just prolonging the pain, constantly having to be aware of stuff. I think it’ll work more like a festival. One thing people have said in the past was that there was too much, they couldn’t get round all of it. Now people can pick and choose, and there’ll be a prolonged period of cultural activity in Leith.”
The programme begins with Whiten’s new exhibition Wronger Rights: The Quing of the Now Peoples at the Whitespace Gallery off Gayfield Square on 13 June, and will also involve the unveiling of her mural (one of two Cunningham has commissioned this summer; the other is by Fraser Grey and Ned Fist and is being installed at Abbeyhill near the Palace of Holyroodhouse). Then at the start of July, much-loved Leith Walk second-hand record and book shop Elvis Shakespeare will celebrate its tenth birthday with a day of in-store performances and an afterparty in Pilrig St Paul’s Church Hall across the road, featuring Broken Records, the Fnords, Wounded Knee and more.
“The party’s a celebration of a business which LeithLate wouldn’t have happened without,” Cunningham says, “because Dave [Griffin, the shop’s owner] has been really supportive, he encouraged me to do the first one.” There will also be a short season of feature and short films made in Edinburgh screening at the Destiny Church off Leith Walk, a walking tour of Leith’s old and new murals in August, and an open studios event in September taking in St Margaret’s House, Edinburgh Contemporary Crafts and WASPS studios on Albion Road.
“LeithLate transforms spaces with art,” says Cunningham. “The idea was to turn things on their head a bit, like maybe just put an art exhibition in the window of a local business, and people could walk down Leith Walk at night and see it, and maybe feel a bit differently about the area. When you know a place well you don’t actually see it any more, but when we put a mural on Origano (a long-empty Leith Walk unit which has recently been taken over by the pizza restaurant), people were getting angry it had been derelict for decades. It was only with the artwork there that they noticed it.”
“You reach a whole new audience who wouldn’t be looking to see a painting when you just put it in their way,” continues Whiten. “I think you get a really meaningful connection as an artist with random people who can see your work stotting home from the pub, or whatever. Plus the artist has actually been there and made the work on that spot, there’s a kind of mystique to that which you don’t get when someone’s just pasted something up.”
Both Whiten’s show and her mural will contain the mythical half-human, half-animal creatures that are a recurring theme in her work. “I’m going to do something botanical, its actually rowan, to ward off evil spirits,” she says of the latter, showing some mesmerising ideas and sketches on her phone. “So I’m going to put that all the way along in bright colours, then include these sacred, ceremonial kind of characters – I have a monkey priestess, a horse headed man in high heels... I’ve been working on a lot of ritual, rite-based figures, I wanted to have something ceremonial and mysterious going on. I’ve found that people respond to the animal/human hybrid, and I believe it goes back to classical, ancient, even primitive art.”
Many of them are quite fearsome, I say. “Good!” she laughs. “My intention with all of this work is it’s quite universal, and it’s about humans marking their lives and finding meaning, because that’s why we make rituals. It’s something I’d hope anybody would be able to respond to at some level. Plus I’ve got to think about what would give the best feel to the person walking across on the other side of the street.”
Cunningham says the purpose of art at LeithLate is that “they can still ignore it if they want, but it might brighten up their day.” She and Whiten (who lived by the Shore for a decade, but has now relocated to rural Fife) are very much artists in appearance, and representatives of the “new” Leith we hear about, no longer Trainspotting country but now an emerging artistic bohemia. But lately another Leith has arrived, a district of fast-growing student accommodation blocks and chain supermarkets.
“LeithLate started as a celebration of the grassroots arts spaces in Leith, a lot of which we don’t have any more,” says Cunningham, “which is a slight concern to me. We don’t have the Old Ambulance Depot, Superclub, Sunbear. It was a celebration of the Leith that I knew and I’ve tried to continue that, but Leith is definitely changing and I worry about community cohesion and whether artists will be priced out of the area.”
She and a friend have joked about doing “a non-hipster trail for the non-hipsters”, a half-pint pub crawl around traditional pubs like the Spey Lounge, Robbie’s and the Strathie. “I want to support and celebrate these places, they make Edinburgh unique. The process of gentrification wants to make everything similar so you could be anywhere in the world. If something isn’t done artists will be heading off to Granton soon. Granton’s fine, I’ve nothing against it, but Leith needs to retain something of its identity and integrity. Then again, you can’t guard against gentrification. Maybe I’m actually gentrifying the whole of Leith just to turn it into a prime development site?”
“You are resisting it, though,” says Whiten. “What you do may be part of this process, but it’s stuff that’s got heart and stuff that’s connected to people, to their identity and their pride in their space. You’re not doing this to... well, maybe you are doing it to sell your flat.”
This is where we came in. Cunningham smiles. “LeithLate isn’t a billboard that’s hiding a myriad of sins on the development behind it,” she says. “It’s just a genuine, honest approach to make my and everyone else’s environment a bit nicer. If that contributes to gentrification, then so help me god, I can’t help it. Just don’t call Leith a ‘cultural quarter’, whatever you do.”
• LeithLate 2015 runs from 12 June until 27 September at various venues around Leith. Kirsty Whiten’s Wronger Rights: The Quing of the Now Peoples is at the Whitespace Gallery from 13 to 27 June. The Elvis Shakespeare 10th Birthday Party and Afterparty is at Elvis Shakespeare and Pilrig St Paul’s Church on 4 July, www.leithlate.co.uk