A manifesto for a ruined agora

Angus Farquhar, Edward Hollis

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

Abstract / Description of output

In 2016, during Hinterland, a night animation of the ruins of one of Europe’s greatest modernist buildings, the arts organization NVA (Nacionale Vitae Activa: The Right to Participate in Public Affairs) unveiled, to an audience of 10,000, a manifesto.

It called for “Freedom of thought, and the capacity to empathize with difference; to remake an Agora, a neo-Socratic space for debate at a time (post economic crash, in the middle of two referenda) of the widespread failure of a long-held (in Scotland anyway) social democratic and national settlement.”

It was also a manifesto for the reoccupation of a place that attested to that failure. St. Peter’s Seminary, built in the late 1960s at the high-water mark of postwar modernist optimism, was abandoned after just thirteen years as a college. Three subsequent decades of indecision about its value and fate had led to dereliction, arson, and ruin. As a shattered and overgrown concrete skeleton, it didn’t look, or feel like a place for optimism about the future.

But difference and disagreement require open agorai rather than a closed, imperial fora. Holes in walls admit the uninvited, and broken spaces are ones in which no one quite knows where to sit or stand. No one knows in advance what to say, or the right way to say it, and, in consequence, all speech is possible. St. Peter’s as a ruin invited more debate than it ever could as a working building. As a place for instruction in religious doctrine, it was never designed for Socratic uncertainty anyway.

The Hinterland Manifesto was not a call to restore, to complete, or to perfect the building, but instead, to occupy: to turn up uninvited, to leave half the site an unfinished ruin, asking to be completed in the mind’s eye through utopian speculation, or temporarily, in the creation of ephemeral public artworks. The Agora of this manifesto was always going to be a ruin.

Since then, the manifesto for reoccupying the ruin has, itself, become a ruin. NVA abandoned their plans in 2018 and, in the aftermath of that abandonment, closed the organization after twenty-five years of work in politically and socially engaged public art.

Today, St. Peter’s remains unoccupied, surrounded by security fencing—in which holes endlessly appear and are hopelessly repaired—as the building itself crumbles away in the rain. No plans for either its occupation or its destruction have been put on the table. It remains, in the words of the artist Emma Cocker, “No Longer” and “Not Yet”—the “yet” receding ever further out of sight.

The Agora as an idea about debate has, apparently, transcended the Agora as a place for debate. Indeed, the determinacy of a finished, enclosed, restored place—St. Peter’s restored to being the modernist machine it was originally designed to be—would probably have rendered its speculative function impossible. Perhaps, what looks like failure might actually have been an ironic form of success.

This graphical work tells the story of what happened: about the conception, development, and abandonment of NVA’s manifesto for an Agora. Like its subject, this project has been created as a sort of textual ruin: the original text of the manifesto is interpolated—occupied, one might say—by ghostly ruminations, arguments and commentaries, rather as classical texts (records of words orated in the Athenian Agora) were ruined with rubrics and palimpsests by monks in their medieval scriptoria. This layered text, unresolved, and irresolvable—a dialogue about a dialogue—is an attempt to manifest the cognitive dissonance between what was hoped for: a future for a ruin in perpetual construction and what came to be—a construction in ruins.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)116-129
JournalPublic Art Dialogue
Issue number2
Early online date5 Nov 2020
Publication statusPublished - 2020


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