Every now and then, when a mainstream newspaper decides they need some good news to counter the overwhelming gloom and endless, downward spiral of the economy, they turn to the arts. Barry Semple is not impressed.
They usually run along a line that the economic disaster we find ourselves drowning in isn’t so bad after all; at least it provides the opportunity of relatively cheap rent in former offices and warehouses that are becoming the homes of creative projects and spaces. But there is never a thought given to why these spaces are being set up. What are the motivations behind all these studios, galleries and project spaces? Phrases like ‘self-organised’, ‘DIY’ and ‘collective’ litter the conversation, to the point that they lose all meaning, in much the same way a dodgy estate agent would describe a manky damp flat with black mould growing in the shower as ‘quaint’.As the meanings of the words we use are diluted, they cease to have any basis in reality. The more bullshit we swallow the less we taste it and language that once described something radical and vibrant is blunted and deformed into yet another branding tool.
There has been an exponential rise in the number of creative spaces and groups operating all over Dublin in the last few years. It would be a lazy analysis of what’s going on to be completely uncritical, or to be dismissive. We should get beyond “isn’t it great that all these young people are so creative” and start to really look at what their function is.
A lot of the mainstream media interest in these spaces assume there is an egalitarian, altruistic nature to these organisations, without ever considering the fact that they differ wildly in their choice of organisational models. Contrasting some of the organisations behind well known spaces in Dublin can be like comparing Tesco to the corner shop. Some are organised and run on a genuinely not-for-profit basis: collectively maintained, financed and managed by the users of the space.
Others are businesses pure and simple, capitalising on the aesthetic of self-organisation. Sub-letting studio, exhibition and event spaces can be a lucrative business. Say you rent a warehouse for a grand a month, then split it into ten studios and charge €200 a month per studio. Does pocketing that extra grand make you a self-organised cultural instigator or a cynical opportunist?
What if you get the use of the building for free through a grant from some gullible cultural institution under the auspices of using it as a creative hub. Then proceed to charge rent to the users of the space? It depends on your perspective I suppose, but it sounds like exploitation to me, especially if you get a few unpaid interns to sweep the floors and do some tedious administration work.
Just like when renting residential property, there are some people waiting with sweaty palms to exploit a genuine need. You can go to the Smithfield ghost town and pay E2500 for 12 days use of an empty concrete-floored warehouse that’s owned by NAMA. The plot thickens deeper as you look into how some spaces are organised; by entrepreneurs and chancers.
On the other hand there are those genuine spaces, run by and for their users without attempting to make it a financial investment or business. These spaces are inevitably the most dynamic and exciting because their primary concern is culture, not the cash that can be squeezed from it. So much of what we now take for granted in our cultural and community lives was planted and nurtured in cheap space by unpaid volunteers organising together around a shared passion.
But when we hear about the cultural value of all this activity it is only filtered through an economic lens. According to Minister for Arts Jimmy Deenihan (that dude in the picture) ‘The arts underpin policies in attracting foriegn direct investment, in the creation of an imaginative labour force, in establishing an innovative environment in which the creative and cultural industries can thrive and in cultural tourism’. Its belittling that the work and energy of people committed to creating positive spaces is usurped by profiteering.
People get fed up with putting so much time and effort into projects only to be ignored or co-opted into some government propaganda to sell to tourists. And so cultural tourism has also led to cultural emigration. Moving to Berlin or some other city with a reputation as an ‘alternative’ and creative place seems like an easy option, and a lot of talented people have done just that.