Alternative views of living in the city

A festival project has given pupils fresh perspectives, reports Denyse Presley

Heiner Goebbels's dynamic composition Surrogate Cities, which incorporates text as well as diverse musical styles to explore the phenomenon of cities and tell their stories, is the inspiration for this summer's Edinburgh International Festival schools' project and the most complicated it has undertaken, says programme development officer Audrey Grant.

The idea is that a series of workshops at six Edinburgh secondary schools will produce written and visual representations by teenagers of their own experiences of city life, which will be exhibited at The Hub on Castlehill.

The introductory session at Broughton High, with animateur Pippa Murphy, served as an ice-breaker, says principal teacher of English Ken MacAskill, and gave the group of 15 16- and 17-year-olds a chance to get to engage with a section of Surrogate Cities that uses mechanical sounds to represent a city's underbelly.

At their first workshop, creative writing tutor Sarah Colvin and photographer Kevin Low begin by playing a piece that portrays a battle between Rome and Alba that must be resolved by three individuals. It provokes an emotional response in the group, who recognise the individual as city metaphor.

Kevin asks the pupils to view themselves as the apex of a triangle. "Just as Goebbels connects with you, your work should connect with the person who sees it," he says.

For this workshop, the pupils have brought pictures that show aspects of Edinburgh they love or hate. Kevin is interested in the small things that makes cities work, or not, and talks about how Edinburgh both negatively and positively lives in the past.

He shows some photographs of his own. A teddy bear well worn on its back is complemented by a shot of his son holding the bear, which demonstrates why it is worn and discloses an aspect of his son's character.

"I present my pictures as they make sense to me and worry about the audience later," he says.

The teenagers are given disposable cameras to capture views of what matters to them. "It may be a collage of images that tell the whole or only part of a story," says Kevin, "but be prepared to provoke different responses in your audience."

At the second workshop at Wester Hailes Education Centre, the group of 11 S4 and S5 pupils says they feel that their community is on the sidelines of Edinburgh. Incomers from smaller communities complain of vandalism and racism within Wester Hailes, although unlike Sarah they don't see it necessarily as a characteristic of city life.

The teenagers have come with their photographs and the written exercises that Sarah gave them last time. They are reminded of the triangle and asked to focus on what is important to them. Sarah gets the group to think about what their story will say. She suggests that a picture and writing might tell different sides of the same story; while different subject matter may be used, it must reflect the individual. Visualising the chosen place or character enables the pupils to pinpoint details that will give their words depth.

The pupils are split into twos to ask each other questions from an interview sheet devised by Sarah. The idea is that at the end they swap notes and from them should be able to gauge what form and content their work should take.

While the group concentrates on finishing its written work, Sarah buzzes among them, suggesting improvements and picking up on their obvious enthusiasm.

"This group is different from the others we've worked with," she says. "They're bursting with energy; it's difficult to contain them. They've also had some help with their writing from teachers."

They study their photographs with Kevin and Sally Hobson, the EIF programme development manager. One boy's choice of six includes a photograph on the wall of his stepbrother which contrasts with a photograph of his sister taken in the living room where they both live.

Kevin and Sarah are pleased with the way the workshops have progressed. "They got personal, which is what we wanted," says Kevin.

Surrogate Cities, an Edinburgh International Festival schools' project exhibition at Cafe Hub, Castlehill, Edinburgh, September 20-October 6.For more information on the EIF education programme, contact Audrey Grant or Sally Hobson, tel 0131 473 20582057; audrey.grant; sally.hobson

The Inheritance

Archie. That was his name.

My Grandad, so they say.

I never met him.

Carpenter, good with his hands, His name carved on the ruler.

Created the doll's house for my mum.

A treasure. Made by hands long still.

Miniature furniture lovingly made.

I am good with my hands, Good at art, so they say.

Dead? Living?

Scott McDonald Year 3, Wester Hailes Education Centre

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