It’s a grim picture, representative of much of the nation’s main shopping streets at the moment: a cityscape of glass and concrete shells, designed with perpetual earners and spenders in mind, displaying blank nothingness as you pass by, unable to venture through the shop-fronts even just to shelter from the rain. You wander about bored and then angered by all this spatial injustice, when suddenly you catch a glimpse of something in the window. Hang on. Not mannequins this time, but sculptures. Not logos and prices, but minimalistic trees delineated in black and red tape, sprouting new branches every now and then. And spaces begin to re-open, but instead of dressing rooms you find geometric light projections, instead of high street advertising campaigns there are hand-printed posters, instead of racks of clothing, you encounter galleries, studios and exhibitions.
Welcome to the world of “slack spaces”, the numerous commercial units – often bright, spacious, and centrally located – that proliferated during the construction boom and which are now playing host, often at reduced rent or for free, to various works of local “creatives”. On many levels, this development makes a huge amount of sense; we have hordes of young, extremely motivated, enthusiastic individuals with no serious employment prospects but with strong backgrounds in fine art, performance, and music, and an abundance of newly constructed buildings that are just sitting there, empty.
Dylan Haskins, one of the founders of collective arts centre “Exchange Dublin”, points out that “residentially and commercially zoned properties no longer have the same economic power” that they once did, and it is therefore wrong to continue to treat them as such because “a city needs to be constantly redefined”. The recent history of the Exchange Dublin site, which is rented at a reduced rate, exemplifies this; not too long ago, the Temple Bar retail space was a shop named “Object Haus”, where customers were buzzed in and where sofa prices reached the fifty thousand euro mark. Unfortunately, these types of overhauls, however positive from a cultural point of view, can be a bureaucratic nightmare. According to Haskins, even the most enthusiastic of individuals might be put off continuing with a specific project in finding that the thick layers of licensing, zoning, and planning legislation can make for “too big a hurdle”. Even when a space is up and running, it is still vulnerable to objections based on planning permission grounds; Exchange Dublin is currently prevented from hosting gigs, for example. All this is a great shame; contemporary art is suited to unadorned shell-like spaces, and so the physical transformation of disused outlets into studio or gallery spaces doesn’t require much, and it is something that should be facilitated rather than complicated by urban authorities – perhaps even made the responsibility of a specific departmental body.
In Limerick City, this has actually been happening. The “Creative Limerick” initiative, spearheaded by architect Lise-Ann Sheahan of Limerick City Council, acts as a sort of intermediary between artist and landlord, taking care of the planning and insurance issues that can hamper efforts elsewhere. Bang in the city centre, artists are using large bright spaces as studios and galleries – all rent-free; the main overheads are utility bills. You wander off the street and end up before rows of limited edition screen-printed t-shirts, wrapped in fast food packaging, and get invited by graphic designers to reach into a toilet, take out a sparkly marker, and graffiti the lid. In more flush times, that place was a shoe shop. Then you go up a street and reach a gallery appropriately named “Occupy Space”, where multimedia installations are being set up – it’s enormous, and painter Ramon Kassam explains that the initiative is encouraging recent graduates of the art college to stick around. Furthermore, provided with such ideal and central gallery spaces free of charge, artists can be their own curators, leading to greater artistic freedom and experimentation as there is little need to accommodate the curatorial considerations of more established institutions in order to get displayed. Around the corner at Faber Studios, sculptors and recent LSAD graduates Chris Boland and Clive Moloney agree that these kind of free spaces are ideal for those just finished up with college – lack of financial pressure allows for more time to focus, and having access to your own studio allows for the build up of experience and output that might, in the long run, help out with securing funding for further projects. The studio and gallery, which features primarily glass facades, is jokingly compared to a “fishbowl”, with the sculptors themselves on display to the busy street as they work. This high level of fenestration, extremely common in retail spaces, admits a great deal of natural light into working and exhibition spaces, while simultaneously providing exposure to the works themselves and incorporating artistic activity into the everyday lives and scenery of the public at large. The whole scheme seems to assert that economic decline does not have to be manifested by dilapidated premises and cultural stagnation – here, what might be a fairly dismal environment of vacated and dilapidated buildings instead appears to be undergoing some manner of urban redefinition; the large art college community is now far more visible than it was even a couple of years ago, and the ever-changing installations and exhibitions bear evidence of a creative pulse that could never before have been detected at a superficial level. City councils across the country would do well to follow suit and, rather than letting them fall into grubby disrepair, seize these windows of opportunity with both hands.
Published for Trinity News Two, October 2010