This article originally appeared in the Nov/Dec 2009 issue of the Visual Artists’ News Sheet, published by Visual Artists Ireland. The news sheet is sent to VAI members and is available free of charge at selected distribution points in galleries and arts centres around Ireland.
Damien McGlynn discusses DIY initiatives and other artist-led solutions and responses to current economic conditions.
My challenge, should I choose to accept it, is to get through this article without mentioning that thing that has been mentioned in every article, love letter and pasta recipe you’ve read in the past 18 months. Rather than dwelling on what’s gone wrong or might happen, I want to look at how artists can and have adapted to the new playing field.
All around the country the recent mobilisation of groups working in a range of fields towards the methods and ethics of DIY counter-culture can be seen bearing fruit. Some of the most successful ventures have been in the music world, supposedly an industry on its last legs as it is ravaged by illegal downloading. Using non-conventional venues such as houses, parish halls, art galleries and warehouses young gig promoters are bypassing the licensed premises hurdle while dodging the overheads involved with traditional venues.
In Dublin, we have seen in the past few years several venues which sprang up in unconventional locations and mixed art exhibitions with gigs with varying results. There was The Shed on Foley St and Seomra Spraoi, who have operated in various locations and are currently in Belvedere Place, while some of the newer art galleries on the scene, such as The Joy Gallery and The Joinery found considerable success in staging sound art events and gigs. Model Arts in Sligo have also been involved in staging unique gigs in off-site locations around the city as part of their ‘New Spaces For Music’ series. It has become apparent that people are looking for a greater sense of involvement or community in these cultural spaces. Rather than simply presenting work for the public to view, it is more important for these spaces to cultivate an atmosphere of participation and a diverse range of activities with which the public can genuinely engage.
The Oh Yeah! Music Centre in a former bonded whiskey warehouse in Belfast was set up in 2007 to provide a space for young people to congregate, rehearse, perform and learn about music. Gary Lightbody from the band Snow Patrol initiated the project in 2005 and it is now a recognised charity which is managed by chief executive Stuart Bailie from BBC Radio. The operation is also run by a large team of volunteers and has received grants from Belfast City Council and others; along with sponsorship from HMV and Carling. They also manage to generate some income from the use of the building and also held an exhibition ‘20/20’ in the space last year. Another venue in Belfast, Space Delawab, has been staging exhibitions, music and spoken word events in a listed Victorian home since 2008. The large house off the Lisburn Road acts as “a testing ground for artistic expression and endeavour” and recently held an exhibition of work by Aoife Desmond.
In every corner of the country, new spaces and groups are appearing – as recent Cork start-ups, The Black Mariah and Basement Project Space show. Basement Project Space is the just one of the latest groups to take over a disused building and set about turning it into studio spaces and a gallery. Limerick also has seen new developments with groups like alternative promoters Chain Reaction Promotions staging gigs in housing estates and the impressive set-up at the SpiritStore Art Café. Situated in an abandoned pub opposite the Hunt Museum, the SpiritStore is fast becoming a focal point for underground artistic endeavours in the region and they recently held a talk entitled Art in Slack Spaces looking at “a brief history of arts practice in shops and office buildings, while also addressing the issue of short term supports for contemporary art and artists and longer term sustainability”.
One of the recent recipients of a relatively new Arts Council grant (the Young Ensembles Scheme) is Exchange Dublin, an all-ages arts centre in Temple Bar. The operation is run by a team of young volunteers with a democratic decision-making policy and several autonomous groups, which look after different areas of their output. One of the key people behind the venture, Dylan Haskins, sees the space as a hub or a springboard for ideas rather than being a controlled space concerned with ownership. Haskins has previously been known for using his home in Deansgrange as an all-ages gig venue known as Hideaway House. During this time a documentary on his experiences within DIY gig culture entitled Roll Up Your Sleeves was also produced in collaboration with Project Arts Centre who are assisting in the set-up and running of Exchange Dublin.
During the past number of years there have been countless gallery / studio start-ups around the country which aimed to use the individual studios’ rental income to fund the tenancy of the overall building and the operation of a gallery space. This model seemed to be taken up by huge numbers of young artists and recent graduates and a new space or collective was born every other Thursday night. But as the studio rents steadily increased to almost prohibitive levels and the supply began to exceed reasonable demand, particularly in Dublin, the number of vacant studios started to mirror that of half the apartment block developments in the city.
A strange time then perhaps, for Bombhouse Gallery & Studios to enter the fray in Dublin’s north inner city. The venture came about when Eric Walsh discovered that his landlord also owned the former pottery workshop next door and the two agreed to see how a studio facility would work out. After joining up with a group of IADT graduates, they began renovating the space and planning for the future. Walsh says their focus is on creating a sustainable studio facility for individuals to work in rather than being a collective or becoming a well-known gallery. They have had two large shows in the space so far this year, including ‘Scribble Box’ in July, which sought to connect the group to other galleries and collectives through an exhibition inspired by cryptic crossword clues. Plans are afoot to expand the space’s programme with new events as well as the recently completed rehearsal space for bands. With no outside funding or assistance so far, the group are concentrating on long-term goals such as greater integration with the local and art communities and hopefully becoming a self-sufficient operation.
The Good Hatchery in County Offaly was set up in 2007 as an attempt by recent NCAD graduates to find a way to forge a path in the art industry without being financially crippled by the demands of living in the capital. After acquiring the abandoned hayloft for free through Freecycle, the artists continued to use such websites to accumulate art materials and other necessities for free. Ruth Lyons and Carl Giffney, who live in and administrate the Good Hatchery, believe that their project proves that young artists can simply maintain contact with the art world online while taking advantage of free spaces and cheaper living in rural areas to make work.
Commandeering empty spaces or altering the defined use of existing spaces are now popular options for those wishing to get a foot on the cultural property ladder. Now, exhibitions in houses are hardly ground-breaking as we’ve seen plenty of that sort of thing in Ireland over the years. Often it has been a starting point for students and recent graduates and, in the case of a place like 126 in Galway, a stepping stone to a recognised gallery space.
In the course of researching the current trend of DIY culture, I’ve attended more talks and debates than you can shake an ill-informed rant at. There was the week of brilliant, lively discussion as part of ‘Change?’ in Project, Dublin in January, ‘The A–Z of DIY’ at Banter in the Twisted Pepper, Dublin (15 Aug), the masked debate in Meeting House Square, Dublin (19 Aug) and the ‘Opportunity Knocks’ talk during the recent Dublin Fringe Festival (9 Sep). At each of these events – bar the show-and-tell Fringe talk – there was an overwhelming feeling amongst participants of there being too much talk and too little action.
Rumblings and mumblings about revolution and change are perhaps quickly forgotten however, once the crowd have departed. But there’s already enough action being taken in our little country to instill some confidence into potential DIY-ers. New groups and individuals have begun to find ways to get work done, to get their message across and create their own cultural environments without worrying about receiving permission or the financial constraints they may find themselves in.