Last year Ruth Ewan (born Aberdeen, 1980, lives in London) commissioned over 100 buskers, placed at different areas around London, to sing The Ballad of Accounting. The song was written in 1964 by Ewan MacColl, a leading figure in the folk revival, who was closely monitored by MI5 because of his communist beliefs. Concentrating particularly in the City, for one week the buskers sang MacColl's Ballad, posing passers-by the questions contained in the lyrics: Did they shuffle off the pavement to let their betters pass? Did they care if they made a difference? Did they kiss the foot that kicked them? The work, commissioned by Artangel and titled Did You Kiss the Foot that Kicked You? (2007), was as much a celebration of MacColl's political conviction as it was a staging of the mode by which beliefs circulate – a non-hierarchical communication that passes, at times imperceptibly, from person to person.
Protestors, socialists, Anabaptists, rebels, children, the socially-marginalised – these are the figures that populate Ewan's varied projects. Her work often addresses esoteric histories, particularly those of movements that emerge from a groundswell of discontent, nurtured among the people rather than handed down officially. As such the histories of these events remain accessible only to those 'in the know', as memories rather than proper documentation; Ewan's project is partly activist in that it seeks to recuperate these histories by placing them in the public sphere.
In Psittaciformes Trying to Change the World (2005–06), for example, which was staged at The Embassy Gallery in Edinburgh and Studio Voltaire in London, Ewan attempted to teach parrots protest slogans – recorded at the G8 demonstrations at Gleneagles in 2005. Ewan's Nought to Sixty project grew out of Did You Kiss the Foot..., concentrating on one of the buskers – a poet, musician and bird-lover named Fang. In collecting and recording Fang's ideas and memories (lyrics from the band Arkwright's Ferret, which he fronted in the 1970s; a Conceptual art advertisement for a floor-painting service; and a song he learnt from his father) Ewan has created a public archive of a life whose extraordinary creativity has gone largely unseen. The project, composed of a booklet, CD and video, is the result of long discussions between Fang and the artist – conversations in which he told Ewan of his various public art proposals (to make the Archway tower seem to disappear, for instance), of his snow paintings and his interest in magic.
Fang's memories, meanwhile, are inflected by the social history through which he has lived. A lullaby his father sang to him at bedtime – of which, at the start of the discussions, Fang remembered only a few lines – turned out to be Six Feet of Earth, a dark song that extols death for levelling the difference between rich and poor. Six Feet of Earth grew to represent not only a sentimental memory, but also an encapsulation of his family history and of his father's political beliefs. Rather than a portrait of Fang, Fang Sang (2008) is an attempt to bring his ideas into circulation.