Room to roam, artistically

THIS is a story about a pop star and a 19th-century poet, an artist from South Africa and a little town in the north-east of Scotland. It's a story about what contemporary art can do in a small community: some pretty odd things, and some significant ones.

Art is the reason Mike Scott, frontman of Celtic rockers The Waterboys, is giving a special concert today in the little town of Huntly (ticket-holders are invited to bring a musical instrument and their dancing shoes). And art is why – thanks to a visionary curator from Germany and an artist from Pretoria – the town has a new identity.

Huntly, population 4,200, is not famous for much, though it did snatch a few headlines when it became the centre of a turf war between supermarket giants Asda and Tesco. But it is home to one of the most interesting contemporary art organisations in Scotland: Deveron Arts.

You may not have heard of them. Although they regularly work with artists of international calibre – Kenny Hunter, Dalziel + Scullion, Roddy Buchanan to name a few of the Scottish ones – they rarely show work outside Huntly itself. Headed by German curator/director Claudia Zeiske, Deveron Arts is somewhere between an artistic experiment and a social enterprise company which happens to use art as its main tool.

For the past six years, the organisation has been offering residencies of several months to artists, with a very specific brief attached. Each project aims to engage with the community on an issue of local importance. Dalziel + Scullion looked at wind farms, David Blyth at the decline of farming, Eva Mertz at vacant shops. The work produced is primarily aimed at the local audience, to stimulate thinking and encourage dialogue.

The current project is one of their most ambitious: to unite a disparate set of interest groups and create a new brand for the town. Most towns would pilot in an expensive firm of marketing consultants, but this is Huntly, so they advertised for an artist.

The man who answered the call was thousands of miles away in Pretoria, South Africa. Jacques Coetzer fell in love with rural Scotland 12 years ago when he visited while exhibiting in London ("I managed to slip my motorbike into the container with the art"). He has been in the town since February with his wife and two small children. His son, Jan, went to school here for the first time.

"I think it's a brave thing to do, to ask an artist to come up with an identity for the place," he says. "I was interested to try to find the soul of the place, to be a bit more human about it than just a corporate branding."

In practice this meant meeting upon meeting, garnering views from the Community Council and the Ramblers' Association and the Girl Guides and the shoppers at the monthly farmers' market.

As he listened, he found that the themes formed themselves visually into a "constellation", then into an antler shape which he has represented on the new town logo, both in a contemporary graphic and a traditional heraldic crest. "My cottage is on the corner of Old Road and New Road, and that has become a theme for me," he says.

So far so good. Then serendipity set in. Coetzer discovered a poem by 19th-century Huntly-born writer George MacDonald called Room to Roam, which he felt conveyed something of the town's attitude to life. Thanks to Wikipedia, he learned that a musical version had been recorded by the Waterboys, a band he had loved growing up. Then he found that Mike Scott lived in the area. Soon the logo had a slogan, and the town had acquired a song.

Coetzer says: "Room to Roam is not only about being in this beautiful rural setting, it's also about the space that people allow each other to be individuals. Everyone is valued. It's about keeping the conversation going rather than having a very specific conclusion."

Today will see the formal launch of the 'Room to Roam' brand, and Mike Scott will "gift" the song back to Huntly as its anthem. Scott is delighted with the idea. "I think it deserves to be the town anthem because of MacDonald's lyrics, not my music," he says. "I set it to music because it rhymed and scanned, but what made me stick with it is what the lyrics are saying. It's a summing up of what it means to be a human being. Basically, it's saying that everything's ok, that we're all part of the same adventure.

"I'm honoured that my music's going to be involved in such a great project. It's great to see Huntly redefining itself with the help of an artist. I've loved working with the Huntly musicians and singers, they just took me as they found me. I'll be along with my guitar on Wednesday, giving it laldy."

That Deveron Arts felt brave enough to take on a project as politically delicate as town rebranding shows how much the organisation has become part of the community. Unusually for a project that has to please so many people, 'Room to Roam' has few detractors. Donald Boyd, Huntly co-ordinator for Aberdeenshire Towns Partnership, praised the brand for being "overarching and flexible": "It provides freedom for all kinds of groups and businesses to promote both themselves and the area."

Things have come a long way since Zeiske moved to Huntly 13 years ago and feared she had landed in "a cultural backwater". "I had been working in an international job in Holland. I didn't really know what to do with myself. I thought I might become a B&B lady."

Instead, she started Deveron Arts as a voluntary organisation putting on occasional events in the area. They won funding for a feasibility study for an arts centre in Huntly, but the results were disappointing. Downcast at the time, Zeiske is now relieved: a building would simply have been a drain on resources.

As the organisation evolved into one that focused on contemporary art residencies, they settled on their own slogan: "The town is the venue". Rather than simply run a gallery space in a vacant shop, Deveron Arts places the results of its projects wherever seems most appropriate, from the local library to the public toilets. The town's art collection is growing steadily (each artist leaves a piece of work behind) and is housed all over Huntly from the pubs to the swimming pool.

Gradually, the local people have opened their minds and hearts to contemporary art. "About five years ago, people were still asking if we did life-drawing classes," says Zeiske. "What some of the artists were doing was not what people here identified as art. Now they are used to having these people with strange ideas in town."

"I had the sense that the ice had been broken for me," says Jacques Coetzer. "People were saying, 'OK, what are you doing?' 'OK, how can we help?' I can see that people have been doing really funny things before me. I think I might be one of the more conservative projects. I'm called the town artist now, I have a role, it's like being the baker, or the court jester or the village idiot."

As well as getting the community accustomed to artists, Deveron Arts also had to get its artists to accept that this is no ordinary residency. You won't be given the keys to a studio and left to your own devices. The art must engage with the community without compromising its integrity. That means finding the right artist for each project is crucial. "It's very clear that we couldn't accommodate every artist," says Zeiske. "Even artists that I love would be completely inappropriate for Huntly, they have to want the challenge of working with the brief."

But they can benefit from Deveron Arts' extensive network of local contacts. When Glasgow-based Gary Williams arrived to work on a project called 'Music for Street Fights' (a some-time feature of weekends in Huntly) Deveron Arts was able to connect him straight away with the local police, social workers and publicans. Artists working on such sensitive material elsewhere could expect to find it much harder.

"What we really want to do is make Huntly a better place," says Zeiske. "We have built up a specialism in bringing together social, political, ecological issues with art, but it's important not to compromise either. It's important to me that the art is as cutting-edge as it would be in a white space gallery in the city."

THE proposed construction of several wind farms in the Huntly area inspired Deveron Arts to commission Dalziel + Scullion, who created a billboard-size image of a wind farm under construction. The artists said the image was not about expressing a view on wind farms, but "trying to make people think about the ramifications of our lust for energy".

German artists Boller and Brot worked with children from a local primary to explore how we have lost touch with the ingredients in our food. They attempted to make pre-packed snacks such as Mars bars and Frazzles, filming their work in the style of a TV cookery programme.

Teams of artist-footballers from Scotland and Denmark pitted their skills against one another in 2006 when Huntly became the venue for the International Art Cup. Roddy Buchanan captained the Scottish side, which included Jim Lambie and Graham Fagen, while their art was exhibited at the local team's clubhouse.

Kenny Hunter created a sculpture inspired by Lilith, the 19th-century fantasy novel by Huntly-born George MacDonald, which was unveiled in March 2007 at a weekend of events to celebrate the author's life and legacy.

Deborah Beeson took a fresh look at the North-East's favourite staple when she planted 12 traditional varieties of potato last spring. When the crop was ready, she invited the community to a "tattie tea party" using traditional recipes, and even brewed potato wine, drawing attention to the fact that today even the humble spud is subject to industry monoculture.