Paul Tarpey examines how artists and activists are dealing with the idea of the non-place – a space with which we have all become unconsciously familiar.
Pound shops, petrol stations and piss-stinking out-of-town shopping centres. This is the sprawl of the post-apocalypse we call ‘after the Tiger’. The unplanned, the undesigned is our new state. We no longer blink as we pass ghost estates and cow-shit stained forecourts. These non-places have fused Ireland’s rural and urban edges.
It is tolerated space, mostly ignored by its residents, yet functional enough to host identity-trawling events such as The Gathering which lean on anything suggesting visions of the old sod.
The unregulated desires of the previous decade left us and our environment bruised. There is a weary acceptance of the visual pollution that masks newly-built shop space. Tack.
The Irish carvery lunch banners clog buildings and motorway roundabouts every bit as much as their cholesterol clogs our unemployed builders’ arteries.
Details are everywhere.
As visitors passed through Enniskillen on the way to the G8 conference, they were presented with a Potemkin Village of bustling shops. Large photographs in the shop windows gave the impression of thriving businesses. These visuals come from a UK government-funded scheme called ‘flat packing’ in which disused space is filled with bright images for imaginary commercial potential.
But the people are filling these spaces too, with politicised art.
In a bog in Achill stands a Stonehenge of grotesque slabs of concrete. This pre-fabbed monument to Bertie Ahern’s unreal terraforming is one of a series of protest acts undertaken by Joe McNamara. The property developer constructed Achill-henge as the ultimate metaphor for his own failed dealings in Ahern’s property bonanza and the irony of his gift to the nation was duly received as intended. The tale of Achill-henge featured prominently in Michael Lewis’s seminal 2011 Vanity Fair article on the factors that created the Irish collapse.
Achill-henge is of course, unique. More common to us all are the combinations of failed retail sites and those non-spaces that survived the crash. Factor in the increasingly ramshackle appearance of SALE-driven bargain units that surround towns such as Galway, Castlebar and Sligo and we see the mismanaged prefab future we have settled into. Showing their age, in towns beyond the Pale, are developer-led examples intended to support imagined retail traditionalism. The fake small shop fronts bolted on to the super pubs and carwashes are now unmaintained shrines, curious frontages surrounded by German discount stores.
Not all town centres should be written off. They have weathered more than one recession and show resistance in a variety of ways.
Limerick City council has followed the lead taken by Dublin City Council’s encouraging urban artists to work on street furniture and ESB boxes. This is the yin to the yang of graffiti, representing a generation left to deal with the landscape. In the middle of this ongoing conversation are other instances such as the Temple Bar installation maintained by Mannix Flynn who used the site to construct a large bulletin board for his ongoing work, a history of institutional abuse.
Since 2008 our centres have become forums for exceptional citizen commentary. We see this in one level on Exchange St (Flynn’s piece) and another in the confrontational design and activity of Joe McNamara’s painted concrete mixer jammed outside Leinster House. The Interventionist contributors operating in these centres and unfinished sites include both the unofficial and grant-aided artist. They have a desire to conceptually reclaim the nation’s hijacked territory from a post-crash culture of speculation.
Some artist-activists concentrate on specifics. The group Uncommonland has questioned the legitimacy of a failed property developer’s vague ownership of what is now the NAMA-fied space of Tallaght Cross. The Tallaght Cross intervention involved a photo flash mob to confront an absurd rule of forbidden photography imposed by caretakers. Connor McGarrigle’s NAMAland project seeks to illustrate the physicality of abstract finance by creating an app to visualize data generated by the collapse. Citizens can map their own routes or join McGarrigle’s own NAMAland walks. He has publicised this project as a political critique.
The conventional appears in physical reaction to some of the sixteen hundred ghost estates as art sites. Last year Jochen Gersz took on an unsold holiday-home development in Sneem Co Kerry as a project. He directed 57 school children to place painted images in the windows. Explanation text on site reads “Where Has The Tiger gone?” and the range of imagery includes the uncomfortable, icon of the crane in the landscape. In Leitrim, in 2010, Elaine Reynolds on an Artist-in-Residence scheme modified an unfinished Nama-house to flash the signal SOS into the sky.
These and dozens more intensive projects show the territory is now active enough for groups such as Anglo Not Our Debt to insist on delivering their message through various ‘art’ designed projects and events. This multi-platforming taps into a range of socially-engaged seminars such as the recent ‘Arts & Activism in Times of Austerity’ in Dublin’s Project Arts Centre.
For the foreseeable future a combination of both unauthorized and officially sanctioned artists will continue to patrol this particular landscape as political geographers offering creative commentary and potential new narratives salvaged from these post-Tiger non-spaces.