On the Rocks is now, according to its promotional material, the UK’s largest student-run arts festival: it’s become something of a St Andrews institution, and its events calendar, covering more than a week in the second semester, takes in every art form that this small but lively town has to provide. With theatre, music, cinema, art, and more, it brings a cascade of offerings so torrential that it’s impossible to even consider attending more than about half. It is simultaneously both a microcosm of St Andrews creativity, and an artistic crescendo to fever pitch, a time in which the geode-decorated jumpers become nearly ubiquitous on the streets, and almost every venue seems to be hosting an event almost all the time. But all that’s in second semester.
On the Rocks’ sole event in the first semester has, for the past few years, been an interactive murder mystery play. A short-lived tradition, it’s gone down well; the use of the castle’s ruins, in particular, has proven as good a choice of setting as you might expect, and the reliable sell-out performances have testified to the appreciation of St Andrews’ play-going population.
This year, with a new Head of Events — Ollie Savage — at the creative helm, On the Rocks elected to depart from its beaten track for its first event. Boldly promising an ‘immersive art exhibit’ occupying the top floor of the Union, the exhibition’s titular subject matter of “Life in St Andrews” was intriguing: after all, we all of us live in St Andrews and know what life here is like. I attended not knowing quite what to expect, but hoping for an attempt at a new perspective of the town and its quirks.
Coming up to the stairs to the top floor of the Union, event-goers were greeted by a cheerful On the Rocks person, and told about a scavenger hunt taking place across the whole exhibition: little plastic dim sum, the smiling dumpling for which Hong Kong is famous, were hidden in every room and waiting to be photographed. This did not seem particularly characteristic of “Life in St Andrews”, but if it was not immersive, exactly, it was at least interactive. The winner of this scavenger hunt was to win one of those On the Rocks jumpers, a chance to join those throngs in second semester; perhaps the immersion is a delayed reward. I asked Ollie later why dim sum, of all things; he suggested that they’re cutesy. Fair enough. They are.
Omnipresent throughout the exhibition was a multitude of origami cranes: hundreds. I am told that this was a reference to the story of Sadako Sasaki, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima when a child and subsequently attempted to make a thousand paper cranes, on the basis of a tradition that a thousand paper cranes grant a wish, in order to survive leukaemia caused by the radiation. I don’t believe that the On the Rocks committee had quite managed a thousand cranes, but there was certainly an impressive number. Immediately upon entering the exhibition, the first sight was of a wall of paper cranes suspended in the air on strings, directing you on a path through individual rooms. Slightly perplexing — had the title of the exhibition been forgotten? I struggled to recall when in St Andrews I had encountered several dozen cranes of any sort, and the story’s associated anti-war message seemed laudable but misplaced — it had, at the same time, a beauty to it.
The rooms were each given to one member of the festival’s Events Committee to populate. The first was predominantly filled in collaboration with Transition. Against one wall leaned an old bicycle, painted a vibrant ultramarine; on a table, several environment-conscious sculptures were sat, faces and abstract shapes constructed out of twisting and rusted metal, repurposed gears, and other mechanical equipment. Most appeared to have been created by local sculptors and artists, and several had been made — their artists proudly declared on little placards beneath — by eleven-year-olds. This, I thought, was great; On the Rocks is a brilliant opportunity to bring town and gown together, and with this as the first room, the exhibition was off to a successful, if slightly muted, start. There was also, at one of the pieces, a chance at some mild viewer interaction, with the chance to cut out and write on leaves to be strewn beneath a little paper tree. The fact that the little paper tree was placed atop a desecrated Bible — spread-eagled, it was visible that it had had chunks gouged out of it as part of the sculpture — seemed questionable and unnecessary; in an exhibition purporting to give a unified view of a town unified in creativity, for what purpose had one faith had its holy text vandalised? — but placing that aside, the room was pleasant.
In the room opposite, the Persian Society was running a workshop on calligraphy when I arrived. Heads were bent over tables, tongues slightly stuck out in concentration, and pens were held in careful grasps as new calligraphers attempted to get to grips with the flowing shapes of unfamiliar letters. Speaking to participants afterwards, the workshop was by all accounts a great success. By the time I left the exhibition, two hours after I arrived, that room had held two more events in addition to the workshop on calligraphy — a very well-conducted lesson in watercolour painting by a student teacher clearly passionate about the subject, and a seminar on jewellery-making — and had been home to what stood out as one of the most successful elements of the exhibition. The opportunity to unwind while learning something new and engaging in communal creativity was clearly hugely enjoyed.
Across the corridor from this room of art ongoing, art already created was displayed in a small gallery of paintings by both students and local residents. On the floor was a large cloth-based painting of St Andrews and the sea; on the walls were some impressively charming paintings by a first year student, blending together an Asian art style with images of St Andrews life to comment on the meeting of cultures taking place in our cosmopolitan town, largely focused on the eye-catching red gown.
Further down the corridor, its extremely chilled-out music softly filtering into the gallery, was a room dedicated to creative writing. Upon four tables were placed sixteen boxes, each placed amidst a scattering of paper cranes and decorated with a chaotic collage of leaflets from past On the Rocks events; as you raised the lid of a box, a poem was revealed underneath. Some of these poems were very readable; others, in the tried-and-tested manner second nature to young poets the world over, embraced a slightly embarrassing sense of angst. Perhaps that’s a good thing; after all, an exhibition entitled Life in St Andrews should not be expected to pretend that everybody is always happy here, and as these often rather distressed poems were not slow to remark, that is indeed not the case. In a table by the corner, beneath literary bunting supplied by Inklight, was the traditional Inklight “eternal typewriter”, inviting exhibition attendees to type whatever they wished. The thoughts veered from the pseudo-profound to the more mundane: “It is a nice day today; do i want to work?” Also available was the chance to take part in ‘redaction poetry’, eliminating words from the pages of works including Childe Roland and The Odyssey with a Sharpie to create a new work within confined parameters. As elsewhere in the exhibition, however, the sense of ‘immersion’ was lacking: interactivity was abundant, and there was ample opportunity to create something of your own, but the sensation of being shown new angles on the town, or in fact almost any angles at all, had not yet been encountered.
Adjacent to the creative writing home of zen was an exhibit devoted to the creations of the amateur fashion designers of Fife and its marginally wider environs. The work of current and past St Andreans, in addition to local designers and the handiwork of a group of Dundee secondary-schoolers, was on display in an eclectic mix of styles and materials. At the centre of the room was a rather impressive metallic gown, long train billowing behind in frozen motion, the creation of the Dundee secondary-schoolers and the winner of a Scotland-wide fashion upcycling contest. It was easy to see why it won. Elsewhere in the room was a collection of embroidered plates and various other fashion-related items; but it was difficult to see why this was a part of an exhibition entitled ‘Life in St Andrews’. It was an interesting exhibit, and it had connections to a few St Andrews individuals; but immersive it was not — it was more like being in the as-yet-unopened Dundee V & A — and above all, it felt a disjointed part of an increasingly disjointed whole. What was the viewer supposed to take from this about life in St Andrews? Beyond being arguably aesthetic, what did these items have to say?
Echoing into the fashion display came the sounds of the large room next door. Filled with rows of empty seats, one wall was devoted to a projection of two student-made films being shown on loop. The films presented an immediate contrast. One tracked the life of a glass throughout a night of drinking and partying, with a lot of loud music, flashing lights, and lingering time-lapses of a piece of glassware surrounded by other pieces of glassware; the second was a grainy monochrome montage of happy times in St Andrews, backed by pleasant acoustic music and saturated with nostalgia. If the previous room did not say a great deal about St Andrews, this room was at the other end of the spectrum; it said a great deal. The balance, or imbalance, of the two films — it felt a pity that they were played consecutively, rather than simultaneously — was startling, and the divergent visions of a shared place was fascinating.
The adjacent room was perhaps the most intriguing of the exhibition, and certainly the most immersive. A small space, it was used throughout for live rehearsals of theatrical pieces. The first was a monologue about a man attending a date, and the second a practice of a Black Box production, another project run by Ollie Savage. In such close quarters the fourth wall came and went from moment to moment, its opacity reduced: the acting was far more vulnerable. When I first arrived, the only members of the audience were myself and a photographer from the Courier; sitting alongside us, however, was the director of the small production (Ollie himself), taking notes, occasionally delivering instructions, and once even striding across the ‘stage’ to retrieve his bottle of Coke from a windowsill. The informality of these moments blurred the line between seating and stage, extending the reach of the performance by refusing to place it within parameters. It was immersive; it was interesting; it was something created by St Andrews students; and if it still didn’t quite feel like there was a coherent vision of the exhibition into which this not-quite-performance fitted, it was an excellent experience.
Next door, blinds drawn and dimly-lit, a table was festooned with fairy lights loosely arranged to delineate the three streets of St Andrews. Handwritten cards marked the locations of such hubs as the Buchanan Building, the Byre Theatre, and Taste. In the room next door Taste made another appearance on one of three blackboards, this one marked “Favourite Place?” Next to the three blackboards was a collection of pens and post-it notes: nominees for Favourite Place included, in addition to Taste, the Cathedral, the quads of Sallies and St Mary’s, and My Bed. “Life in St Andrews,” another blackboard proclaimed, “is Busy, Like No Other, and consists of “wonderful people” and “Dervish chips at 3 am”; memories, meanwhile, include lying on the beach, On the Rocks, and Raisin.
On the Rocks does produce memories: it does a fantastic job of bringing together the almost super numerous artistic societies in one great celebration of St Andrews’ creativity. This exhibition seemed to be attempting to force into one place the whole On the Rocks experience, but under the guise of an overview of wider life in St Andrews; and while the problems besetting its lack of immersion and coherency may be fairly put down to a split between the event’s branding and its actual content, it is equally fair to say that it didn’t quite live up to its promise. That said, it was a very enjoyable exhibition: disjointed though it was, each of its constituent parts had at least something about them that was of interest, and several were excellent experiences. On the Rocks remains, on this showing, something to be looked forward to with great appreciation.