THERE are a number of ways a journalist might conceivably inflict undeserved damage on an artist: an injudicious word or two in print perhaps or a scathingly hostile review. But giving artists sunburn seems a cruel and unusual punishment.
It's a hot day in Dundee when I meet a cheerful sample of the artistic collective known as GANGHUT and they are just a wee bit – how best to put it – Scottish in their complexions. It seems like a nice idea to sit outside, but by the time we finish our chat there are blazing foreheads and burnt necks.
Doing anything with or about GANGHUT is a group exercise. When we meet to discuss their forthcoming show at Dundee Contemporary Arts – their first in such formal gallery circumstances since they formed in 2004 – I am greeted by a group of five artists. En masse there are a dozen of them, a group of friends who play together and occasionally work together.
All artists in their own right, the group – Stephen Murray, Jason Nelson, Kevin Reid, Suzie Scott, Derek Lodge, Amy Marletta, Sarah Forrest, Mark Hunter, Graeme Roger, Joseph Haughey, Abby Loveland Roger and Malcolm Cheyne – all studied at Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art, but there's a range of up to 15 years in their graduation dates. What they actually do together falls somewhere between work and play, constructing massive timber environments that evoke childhood memories of outdoor kingdoms, with raised platforms, huts and lookout towers, performing songs in their sprawling band GANGBAND and leading community events.
In one massive project at the Scottish Sculpture Workshop, GANGHUT went back to nature, setting up camp in the Aberdeenshire village of Lumsden where they worked with community groups, revived the village gala day and even raised their own food in the shape of two rather fetching pigs.
What lies underneath all the fun, however, is a more serious exploration of what it means to be an artist and a healthy disrespect for the individualism fostered in much of the art world. "There's just a distrust of that kind of system," says Derek Lodge. "We were never going to be the ones being picked up by Saatchi. It's both by chance and our personalities that we've ended up in GANGHUT."
From the outside, GANGHUT may at times look like a bunch of youngish men extending their adolescence, but from the inside they say there's a healthy mix of genders and attitudes, and everyone takes turns to cook the tea. "It's actually quite camp," says Lodge, "because we're so obviously not what we appear. Although obviously one of the requirements for being involved is that you quite enjoy building stuff."
The group grew out of a residency that the artist Kevin Reid undertook at the Spike Island studio complex in Bristol in the 2004. At the end of his stint, Reid, used to working in the close co-operative atmosphere, found he was a bit lonely. Not only that, he had a massive public space to fill. With his childhood friend, the artist Jason Nelson, Reid hatched a plan to create a "supercrew" of artists.
"We flew down on the last easyJet flight from Glasgow on a Friday night," says Steven Murray. "When we got there we were whisked to the venue in a cab, were disrobed and given our GANGHUT boiler suits and had to build our sleeping quarters, literally make our beds. The next morning everyone looked out of their studios and there were ten hairy and hungover Scottish artists. For ten days straight we didn't leave Spike Island. We had to build the whole show from scratch."
Spike Island had been a matter of spontaneity and of good luck, the biggest piece of which was probably the fact that the health and safety officer happened to be away that fortnight. Later GANGHUT solidified into something more permanent when they were invited to Melbourne in 2006 to participate in the cultural festivities around the Commonwealth Games.
The shows were to take place in a series of shipping containers and, while most participants turned up with air conditioners, DVD players and a film they'd made already, three members of GANGHUT worked in 30 degree heat to build their show from scratch. They had a cheap room next to a late-night club, and the DJ seemed to be right next to Jason Nelson's head, recalls Steven Murray. "We'd work all day, come home and when we lay down the music would start up." It was a noisy argument on the way home in a tram one night that helped them realise that things should become a bit more organised.
GANGHUT is still a place where debate is healthy. "Because we're all friends we can have those conversations where otherwise you might hold your tongue," says Lodge. "You can air your opinions because we all trust each other at the end of the day."
"Communal meals are a good way to do it," says Murray. "And we've got so much better at cooking over the years."
At DCA, GANGHUT have lost none of their spontaneous ethos, but now work with an architect and an engineer to ensure their constructions will be safe for the public. There will be a massive hut that acts as both shelter and gallery space and a series of watchtowers which act as "plinths" for other artist's works. There will also be a suite of screenprints, made in the DCA print studio, and when the team are not building they are rehearsing some new songs for a band performance on the opening night. When we go to look at the gallery space, though, it's still a mass of timber, bubble wrap and power tools. Many of the artists have worked in technical installation crews; including the team at DCA itself. "The whole point of installation teams is to work really hard to make it look as if you've done nothing. So we're going to expose some of that," says Murray.
In the meantime, GANGHUT have already created an outdoor work in a piece of waste ground outside the gallery. A raised timber watchtower hung with banners known as the Elevation Station, it was the work of a single afternoon, made by 30 volunteers and proving that anything can be achieved if you work together.
The whole thing is about having a "can do" attitude," says Lodge. "I think if you're brought up in Scotland you're often taught not to get ideas above your station. I remember telling my parents I was going to go to America the summer after my first year at art college. Immediately there were 40 questions. GANGHUT tries not to have that."
I can reassure the Lodge family that their boy is doing just fine. You might want to send him some sunscreen though.
GANGHUT, Hands Across The Fire, is at Dundee Contemporary Arts from Saturday until 30 August, www.dca.org.uk