A secretive new collective has sprung up! The Underground Rooftop Collective (or URCollective) held their first performance this autumn in a secret location in Dundee city centre – performing to an audience of none in line with the Covid-19 restrictions.
On a rooftop overlooking the Tay, Katherine Allan & Haig Massie, Cheryl McGregor, Chloé Segall, Ed Smith and Steph Fraser performed the collective’s first show: Volume 1: Vertigo.
Cheryl, occasional contributor to Artificial Womb and recent graduate from the University of Dundee’s English Literature course explained their thinking. She said, “We have all felt the absence of our creative outlets since the pandemic. So when we got back into the pub the ideas started flowing and we were forced to think about unorthodox venues to showcase our work and keep us inspired. The pandemic has forced everyone to realise how much they need art and to be with each other.”
Red hair and red lips, Cheryl is all confidence and swagger – one poem after the other with barely a breath. Her lines bite, “You people work hard for your money? What the fuck are the rest of us doing?” and “Have we reached the part of the evening where the real accents come out?” Her pieces have a weariness to them, a cynicism that gives her the kind of smile that doesn’t reach her eyes. In ‘A Mistake’ she paints herself broken, “I set boundaries and all the accounted for sheep just jump right over them, I make terrible decisions when I’m tired or hungry or awake. I’m sorry I missed your phone call.”
Her most fitting piece, though, is ‘Poem For The Fellow Poets’:
Avoiding Freudian potholes,
The chaotic collectives conversation careens between sex and death
We break spines and cross lines with a vengeance
We’re multiple drafted
Many of the members of the collective met while working at Dynamo, a craft beer pub on Union Street which has become a meeting place for artists and bohemians in the city. Last year Katherine founded Not On Draft gallery there. She said: “I was tired of looking at the same posters day in day out and decided to use the space to showcase some of the best contemporary art happening in the city and also to provide a platform for emerging artists in Dundee. One of my favourite things is that it’ll be a Wednesday and people will be in the pub talking about art. Craft breweries and artists are united by the love of what they do, also, of course, booze and art always goes well together.”
The latest exhibition, featuring Kris Thomassen’s allegorical prints, sold out and more exhibitions are being planned. Currently Not On Draft is trying to find a way to navigate this new, post-Covid world and provide art to the general public safely and responsibly, while also providing a good opportunity for artists to share their work with a different audience than might necessarily be found in the white walls of contemporary art galleries.
Katherine said, “I shared some poetry. I am an artist and poetry is a medium for me to process and to self-reflect while making work. I read poetry that came from a book that I made after a loved one passed away and I’ve never read from it before with anyone, this was the first time I shared it.” She tells an anecdote about lending a friend a sketchbook which accidently contained some of her poetry, only to hear someone else quote a line of her work a few days later at a party. “He had been sharing the poems with other people,” she recounts. “It was surreal because they were private thoughts and private poetry, but hearing other people recite them made me want to share them more.” Asked to share the line, she says, “My insides they leak out like golden honey”.
Katherine started the night with her boyfriend Haig on acoustic guitar. Dressed in black with her long ginger hair flowing in the cold evening breeze, she tells of holding a loved one’s hand as they lie dying in a hospital bed. In intimate second person she says, “Her skin is as soft as her grasp. You hold her gently because you’re scared to break her. Your eyes trace her blue veins wondering if they still work, they still move, and they still replenish. You kiss them. And the monitor kindly beeps.”
She says, “The poetry was being written the summer after I finished art college and I was working as a waitress at the Edinburgh Fringe and it was written as a desperate attempt to make something and to process.”
Although there were intentions to stream the event live on social media, the collective decided instead to record the performance and post it online.
Ed, hunched in a black hoody, performed a freeform spoken word piece entitled ‘Sitting at the buffet, I put the ‘ate’ into Late Capitalism’. The work is typical of Ed, who regulars at the Hotchpotch monthly poetry night will recognise him as the intense one with the poems that seem to lack full stops. He reads his poetry as if his life depends on it, Allen Ginsberg in flesh and blood howling at having to “send an email to ask to go to the toilet”, holding a mirror up to the absurdities of life. The piece features lines like, “I’m hooked on that style that’s too miserable to eat koala bear, too sensitive, in fact, for bushmeat of any kind, it’s just a case of being a banquet for fleas, until you fall to mulch and maggots, but you’ll still be trapped in that contract with e.e.”
He’s difficult to interview, initially insisting Cheryl answer his questions for him, but eventually he starts to talk. He says, “My poems help me express a level of inner rage and they, my poems, are often inherently political when they aren’t transcription, and this pandemic is political. Windows into the gloom and paranoia we are all feeling during Covid.”
Steph Fraser played two songs on acoustic guitar – ‘In The Line of Fire’ and ‘American Association’. The collective is Union-Street based, with Steph having joined from across the road at Bank Bar, where her boyfriend runs an open mic in non-pandemic times. She says, “It’s just nice to play again. The last gig I played was in Conroy’s Basement in February or March. I’ve not had any opportunities, usually I’d be playing every week. So it’s such a nice thing to get behind.”
Weilding a baby pink electric guitar, Chloé Segall brought some Riot Grrrl style attitude to the event, with anti-capitalist spoken word accompanied by, what she called, “little funky bits”. She says, “We can’t really see a way where we can perform how we used to perform. You can’t stand around waiting for shit to happen, you have to adapt, you have to make changes. If you’re an artist and you want to perform you have to re-think how we did them before and do them in a new way.”
“My first song was written at the beginning of lockdown, when I perform it now it takes on a different meaning. I’m singing about the streets being empty and people not having things to do, but things have changed so much, we’re actually doing something. It’s called ‘I Got Dem Ol’ Revolution Blues Again Mama’. The second piece is called ‘Nothing’s Been Calm Since I Was Born’ and that’s more of a personal reflective piece.” “Frightfully catchy,” chimes in Ed. They laugh, “I think the night went really well,” continues Chloé. “It was great just to be with people and making something and recording and hearing other people’s work, but in a way that follows Covid guidelines, which is something that artists are going to have to do if they want to keep rocking.”
“And we had a gorgeous sunset, the sky was clearly on our side,” says Cheryl. They all laugh and take a swig of their beers, because of course we’re in the outdoor seating area of Dynamo – household with household, so you’re shouting across three tables or making the ‘lets have a cigarette’ gesture wildly. Letting summer give way to autumn and feeling hopeful.
Volume 1: Vertigo can be watched on the Underground Rooftop Collective Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/undergroundrooftopcollective.
Words: Ana Hine
Images: Holly Quinn