HOW I BECAME THE SECRETARY

– Emily Hair

 

One Wednesday near the beginning of last summer, Joe Caslin came over and asked me to come with him on an adventure down to Kings Stables Road (next to the Grassmarket in Edinburgh). He wanted to paste a large copy of one of his drawings to the wall under the tunnel down there. A drawing of a teenage lad. Having two pairs of hands makes it easier to deal with paste and pastey brushes and a pastey bucket plus a camera, so he asked me to come. Although it was holiday-time, I was spending most days in the studio experimenting with painting. It was quiet in the studio. I was always around. I had a lot of space to myself. I wasn’t particularly interested in Joe’s work but I love to be given a job, so I went along to carry the bucket. It was an orange bucket. Together we pasted the picture to the wall, and then Joe knelt in the middle of the road photographing passerbys’ reactions to the picture. Some people glanced at it. This excited Joe. I didn’t think any of their reactions were very interesting, but Joe was pleased. We stayed there for about another half an hour. Joe wondered if I was bored, but I didn’t mind at all. As an accomplice I often feel like a dog or an R2-D2. I like to come along just to look at things. In the weeks following that first Wednesday, Joe got himself involved in a project with the street artist JR. The JR project involved pasting very large portraits to the walls of the city. At the same time, Joe was becoming increasingly interested in putting up some large-scale portraits as part of his own work.

Soon, Joe asked me to help out on another pasting adventure. He explained to me about JR’s previous work and I didn’t really care about it because it was too far away. But I liked the idea of making something in Edinburgh and I liked the idea of wallpaper paste.

Around the same time, I was introduced to Mr. Stephen Wolfstanley. Stephen Wolfstanley started out as a model for Joe to draw from, but he, like me, became much more involved in the whole thing in multifarious ways. Stephen likes doing things. He has a brilliant energy. It was a drawing of Stephen that Joe wanted to put up first of all.

Joe and me would walk around the city looking for where would be good to stick a really big picture. I don’t know if Joe will print it if I tell you it was me who asked whether we could slice the picture up and attach it to the front of a set of steps. As time goes on, I feel less sure which one of us mentioned it first. Whichever it was, the idea stuck and we thought more and more about a steps picture. Cutting a picture into the steps was more tricky and risky than pasting it to a wall, but both of us were carried away with how fun it sounded. We were a bit worried about the practicalities of the idea. For example, we were worried about trying to stick something to such a dusty muddy surface. One night we were walking around weighing up possible staircases. We walked across the city and the whole time, Joe talked about possible problems, other possible locations, and other possible problems. He was thinking out loud. I noticed that my role had grown slightly from bucket-carrier: I was now the big ear that listened while Joe worked things out. We chose a set of steps – Warriston’s Close, off Cockburn Street. We worked really hard in preparation. We’d be in the studio until 3 and 4am. We wouldn’t leave until we were hysterical with tiredness. Amongst other tasks, we sliced the giant copy of Stephen into 5 vertical strips, and then we sliced those 5 into about 63 horizontal strips each. We rolled up the 5 sets and gave each set a silly name so we could tell which set was which. The day before we went to paste, the two of us scrubbed the best part of 50 steps, because we were still worried about pasting to such a dirty surface. While we were scrubbing the street, I noticed that Joe has the right kind of spirit. We had chosen something which was almost too much for 2 people to accomplish in 1 evening. We looked mental. People who walked past were a little worried for us. So, the right kind of spirit. I think we egg each other on. That evening I had a feeling that neither of us would give up because each of us was too stubborn to be the first one to say ‘I cant’.

The next day, Stephen came through from Glasgow, and we were off! Somewhere in between cleaning the street and the silly names, I had become really excited. I didn’t feel much attachment to the image, and I didn’t have any interest in trying to talk to strangers, but I knew Joe wanted to put up the picture and that made it important.

One of the best things about that work was that I was the one who really knew which order the strips should go onto the steps. I was the key to the information. I was well on my way to being called secretary. Towards the end of the work – maybe around midnight – Joe and Stephen wanted to go and find JR at a party, to bring him back to look at the big picture which was new on the steps. They worried that it was unfair to leave me to finish the job while they went to the pub, but I only wanted to make sure that the picture got completed. And I was well aware that I was the best person for the job, since I was the one who knew how to finish putting it together. I thought I am the best person for this job, and that made me inexpressibly happy. Joe and Stephen came back with JR and various other visitors. The visitors were in the city in order to take part in the TED conference. The street became noisy because the visitors expressed their appreciation of the work and began to take photos of each other in front of the steps picture. Suddenly, it all seemed like bullshit to me and I wanted to get away. I longed for the part where there had been a particular task for me to do. Joe was in his element, he was the king of bullshit. Me, I couldn’t find any way to express to these people what it was that I had enjoyed about helping to make the work. So I ran away. I wanted to get to the Banshee before 3am, get a pint and contemplate the night’s activity. I didn’t get to the Banshee before Joe rang me up and told me in no uncertain terms to come back to the steps. The visitors were gone. Stephen and Joe and I sat on the pavement at the bottom of Cockburn Street and looked at what we had done. I had already begun to feel the desire to make something else.

 

HOW THE SECRETARY WORKS

– Emily Hair

The first time I ever heard Joe speak about his work – in a crit when we first started our illustration course, and before he knew very much about what he wanted from it – I admired him because he was bringing up something so serious in what otherwise felt like a discussion about drawing flowers on teacups. The boys he was talking about were about the same age as my brother. I already had a sense that my brother was one of a lot of surplus people: they were things that there was no space left to put. And me too. As a teenager, I began suppressing the dread that leaving education is a dead-end. I mean I believed that when you are in education you get to practice the skills you are good at, and when you leave education you no longer get to. I am frightened and ashamed about this impression that I have. I thought Joe was brave for a moment, and after that I thought about painting and forgot about him for the rest of the first term.

So, in the autumn after the steps, Joe wanted to do a pasting adventure all over again, except this time he wanted to ask for planning permission and this time he needed to ask for a grant. We sat down in an empty studio with some blank sheets of paper, and Joe was feeling a real sense of frustration about trying to explain what he was trying to do – and even worse, to fit it into that awful shape: to fit it into a form. He was angry and he said “I cant do it”. My main job that afternoon was to remain calm. In the following days, I found something which is surprising to me now that I look back at it. I found I knew the subject matter of Joe’s work very well. In summer, I had been concerned solely – or so I thought – with the physical actions of the work, and I didn’t think much about the content.

Was it my own personal grievances that taught me the content of the project? Or had I somehow absorbed the information while spending time with Joe? When we came to fill in that first grant form, I actually knew many of the answers, and I helped Joe choose sentences.

We didn’t get that grant, and it took months of negotiating with Edinburgh City Council to get somewhere. Much of the year, from September to March, was filled up with trying to get people to consider pasting up big pictures as a realistic idea. The council has no standard answer for this question. For a while, people simply don’t know what you’re talking about.

At some point, I wondered how anyone ever gets a grant, if Joe couldn’t do it. If I don’t feel like talking to someone, I make it apparent that I don’t feel like talking to them. But Joe says thank you to everyone. Meanwhile, I was making my own pictures. This year, me and Joe were sitting next to each other in the studio so that we could form a ramshackling office of junk between our two desks. Joe would come back from his business meetings rabbiting on about how he had managed to charm someone else. Sometimes I would try to ignore him, but most times I listened to him. When I listen to Joe, he gives me orange juice. I began to remember names and dates for Joe. I remembered where things were and I sometimes finished his sentences for him. Joe found me a filing cabinet and a diary, since by now I was well and truly the secretary.

The most exciting meeting for Joe was going into the school just across the road from Edinburgh College of Art, Saint Thomas of Aquin’s. He spoke about his work with lads about 16 to 18 years old, and invited them to get involved. He came back from this meeting absolutely buzzing. He brought back a list of eight lads who were interested. He read through their names for me and said soon I would get to meet them. I was looking forward to it. Me and Joe used our secret method to pick out what to call the group of new guys. We thought about “Apprentices”, we thought about “Tenderfoots”, “Johnny-come-latelys”. In the end we decided on “The Tyros”.

The Tyros are funny, kind, and interesting. They are proper into helping out, but that definitely doesn’t stop them staying out late the night before. These guys are what the project is made of. They share their ideas, and they also share the physical workload. One sunny day in March, the council finally decided to back the project. They would grant planning permission, allowing the pictures to be pasted on council property, and they would grant some money to cover the costs. It was a brilliant day, it was really exciting. Joe felt that finally he was able to do the right job. Joe was the best person for this job. It was happy for me, too, because if Joe had a job, that meant I got to keep my secretary job. I had my own MFA to complete, but didn’t see Joe’s project as a detriment to my other work at all. I had become serious about Joe’s project, and although, of course, I didn’t have as much ownership over it as Joe himself did, I had begun to feel that some of it was mine, and that some of my time belonged to it. That is not to say it hasn’t been difficult learning to balance multiple projects. Every now and then, I wished I had an actual contract, so I could finish what was required from me and go home for the day. But mostly, I like that my role isn’t rigid. People ask me what my role is and I don’t answer their question. Once the council said Joe was allowed to put a picture under George IV bridge, the other sites snowballed more easily from that. Other organisations within the city saw that someone finally believed him, so now they started believing him, too. Humans.

When we pasted on Warriston’s Close steps, the real core of the group was just three people. Now the whole city was involved. One day as a couple of the Tyros went off to speak about the project on film, out of mine and Joe’s sight, Joe admitted that he felt a little bit odd giving away control, inviting everyone in. I was a little bit surprised to hear he felt odd. The discomfort I feel at letting go of my own pictures was, I believed, a sign of immaturity. I thought this discomfort might be something Joe didn’t have. Just like last summer, we stayed late at school to cut up the giant pictures and label the pieces in order. Joe insisted on giving me back the task that I had so enjoyed last summer: knowing which piece of the picture to stick up next. But I realised straight away that I didn’t want that task to become strictly mine and mine alone. I was more interested in making a non-rigid role. That is how the secretary works. There is nothing special about the individual tasks that I perform. An individual task could be taught and delegated to someone else, and so they are, all the time. We have the Tyros to help us.

We were a bit nervous about the first 2012 pasting, the Luke picture, because it was much bigger than any we had pasted before. It was the first time we were going to use the scissor-lift, and it was our first time pasting with the Tyros, so there were a lot of new things to think about. The secretary can be a second head. Last summer, I knew where the pieces of the picture were. By this summer, I knew the contents of all of Joe’s pockets.

I still do not deal in international affairs. The Luke picture went up, then you get a wide audience of passersby, and the media starts getting involved. When everyone starts talking about it, I sometimes struggle to see my part in it. I mean I feel like there’s nothing left for me to do. Then I get a weird feeling that Joe has forgotten where the keys to the city are. So I ring him up to check, and sure enough, Joe’s forgot.