Inside the Hidden Door Festival’s new venue

The Hidden Door team in the Peely Room. Picture: Contributed
The Hidden Door team in the Peely Room. Picture: Contributed
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ONE of the joys of knowing a city well is discovering every so often that there remain parts you walk past every day that you knew nothing about; cut-throughs, gardens and pockets of dereliction that somehow make themselves invisible. There are few cities on Earth better at hiding secrets like these than Edinburgh, and the unexpected revelation of them is part of the joy of the Hidden Door festival.

Founded in 2009 and first staged the year after at the perfectly well-known Roxy Art House on the Southside, the Hidden Door came into its own in 2014 when the team of volunteers who make the event tick opened up the hitherto unexplored Market Street vaults for live music, art exhibitions and performance happenings. With the vaults now slated for redevelopment, the festival has moved on for 2015.

We call it a “spare time festival” because we’re all sorting things out on our lunch breaks at work

Unlike the Market Street vaults, whose Nessie-like succession of humpbacked old wooden doors were a familiar feature to anyone taking a short-cut away from Waverley Station towards New Street’s current gap site, this year’s Hidden Door really is hidden. When Hazel Johnson, one of the team coordinating the DIY development of the site, meets me for a visit, it’s through an unprepossessing arch under a block of tenement flats on King’s Stables Road, beneath the castle.

What awaits through that arch is so spacious, however, and so central, that it’s a surprise it hasn’t been developed long before now. The Hidden Door team began their clean-up five days ago, and now the long, open, cobbled courtyard is freshly weeded and ready for the food and craft stalls which will populate it while the festival is on. Underneath the tenements, a series of brick-arched industrial vaults have been swept ready for exhibit installation (the Glaswegian Beck’s Futures prizewinner Toby Paterson, whose work deals in supposedly uninspiring architectural tableaux, will show in one of these), while the site office is in a room bearing two horse stalls.

Across the courtyard is the old street lighting depot which the Hidden Door team have named the site after, an urban explorer’s dream of darkened storage halls (one still contains a couple of heavy old streetlights, which will be used as a feature alongside the stage) and stripped-out offices above. One contains a series of eerie wood-and-mesh cages which look like they were used to keep pigeons, although Johnson thinks they might have been for chemical storage. “And this is what we call the Peely Room,” she says, as we move into a hall whose paintwork is fragmenting into thousands of hanging flakes across the walls and ceiling. “We’d love to leave this one just how it is.”

All of these spaces will be used for live music, visual art – including work from Rhona Taylor, Mark Doyle, Katie Bootland and Dougie Strang – and a greater repertoire of theatre than last time. Friday’s opening party features live music from Manchester’s breakthrough queen of DIY indie-pop Lonelady and Scotland’s own Jonnie Common and C Duncan, a showcase selection from Edinburgh Short Film Festival, Ludens Ensemble’s Macbeth In Silence reinterpreting Shakespeare for movement, and Siege Perilous performing Maxim Gorky’s The Lower Depths.

Later in the week there will be a Song, By Toad label showcase featuring Numbers Are Futile and Supermoon, a gig curated by local music night Limbo featuring luminaries Woodenbox and Pumajaw, an alternative orchestra night, the Filmpoem Festival of film and poetry, a KinoKlub retrospective of filmmaker Maya Deren’s work and a closing set from Glasgow house-pop group Errors. The programme has been devised with the Bongo Club, which will be hosting tie-in gigs at the other end of the Grassmarket, creating a mini city festival vibe.

“Hidden Door is an attempt to bring together people who are breaking through with their creative work, whatever that might be, and show it in a way which really engages the public,” says Hidden Door’s creative director David Martin, who first envisaged the event as a means of showing the work of his painting students at Leith School of Art. “It’s intended as an alternative to the standard ways people usually encounter the arts. Visual art in particular is quite staid in the way it’s presented to the public.”

The idea for the eventual manner of Hidden Door’s staging was inspired by Martin’s travels in Eastern Europe, where he would see pop-up cafés built in ruined buildings in cities like Berlin. Last year was a steep learning curve – the lack of interconnection between the majority of the smaller vaults in Market Street meant “it felt more like a street festival, and the weather wasn’t so great. It was tough to keep our morale up for the full nine days in those circumstances, but people’s enthusiasm for it afterwards kept us going. To be honest, I’m an artist myself and I want to see things like this in Edinburgh.”

The whole endeavour is a triumph of hope and hard work over the difficulty of the challenge. Hidden Door has no external funding and the team of directors and helpers are all equally voluntary. “We call it a ‘spare time festival’ because we’re all sorting things out on our lunch breaks at work,” he says, “but of course we’d love to be able to do it as a more formal, professional thing, to employ a core team.”

There’s an element of strategy to Hidden Door’s progress, Martin says, of spotting a space before Edinburgh’s property development culture overtakes them. Market Street awaits extensive refurbishment right now, and not long after Hidden Door moves out, King’s Stables Road is being redeveloped into apartments, a boutique hotel and supposedly some art studio space. If this year works and the festival goes ahead next year, Martin’s already identified many more sites with the help of the Council.

Does he worry that the festival might be seen as a link in the chain of gentrification, if their sites keep being snapped up by developers? “Not really,” he says. “It’s not like the clearance work we do is that much compared with the effort and money they spend on these sites. Festivals like ours show a city’s alive, that interesting things happen there, and that’s the kind of place people want to live.” n

This year’s Hidden Door Festival will be at the Old Street Lighting Depot on King’s Stables 
Road, Edinburgh, from 22-30 May,