A Fair Land was developed over 2016 by socially engaged arts organisation Grizedale Arts in collaboration with IMMA. It manifested in as a visual and working installation in the IMMA court-yard in August. It posed fundamental questions about the role of art in society, activism, radical politics and how to establish community. Caitríona Devery spoke to Janice Hough, curator on A Fair Land and programmer of IMMA’s Residency, about the collaboration.
The project was part of the official Ireland 19 / 2016 cultural programming and echoed the radical artistic and social agenda of those involved in 1916 activities. The eclectic programme involved many partners, was set in a purpose built village environment, and featured amongst other things talks, installations, lunches, cooking demonstrations and exercise classes.
How did the project come about?
Sarah Glennie, Director of IMMA, and Adam Sutherland from Grizedale worked together previously on the fantastically titled Romantic Detachment over a decade ago when a rural/urban swap brought the Lake District to PS1 New York. Ready to go again and pairing the project with IMMA’s residency A Fair Land aligned itself perfectly for the creation of a collective society emulating a village in IMMA’s iconic courtyard.
Radicalism and reinvention are two prevalent themes running through programming for A Fair Land. Cultural and artistic activism were predominant in the creation of the political movement for 1916 and it was this gathering of energy, ambition, ideology and activism which A Fair Land sought to emulate, orientating the project towards a future vision moving forward in 2016.
People got involved through invited workshops all oriented around specific themes relating to the village such as sustainability, education, architecture, agriculture etc. Grizedale ran its regular volunteer programme which connects people for an average of a week working on the project following which people then become paid artist interns.
Other artists were invited in to get familiar with Grizedale and navigate their way through the project to find a useful context with what needed to be achieved, it was often quite a tricky and challenging process as it was a very different approach for IMMA and artists but it was an interesting process to go through.
This is an ambitious project with a lot of elements. How would you sum it up?
The project developed a system for living using basic and simple resources used in a creative way. We live in a professionalised culture that has moved to distance us from our inherent everyday creativity. Instead promoting systematised living, convenience and globalisation – all fundamentally based on the exploitation of ‘labour capital’ (other people’s labour).
Envisaged, enabled and operated by a collective creative vision A Fair Land looked at how self-determination and dignity can be delivered through the inherent human function of creativity, and how its use in the everyday is a means to enable change and empowerment. It was about connecting with people with an energy and excitement about what they can achieve and how they can improve the world around them through action. From conception to execution we had to stick to brief to keep ambitions focused, surprisingly not much changed.
This project seemed very much about creating a mini society, yet it’s also very much an art project. How do you see artists’ role in society?
This particular project opened an opportunity to work with artists in a way which aimed to bring together the collective and be quite open about leaving the ego behind, consider and engage the audience, make them be creative, start the dialogue, start the actions, start something. Yes, on this occasion A Fair Land was a chance to be quite pure about this function and role, it was not about what individuals generated for the Museum but was about what this project’s themes, ethos and materials can bring to an artistic community, a museum and a public audience in a meaningful and relatable way.
It is important that IMMA’s programme reflects the breadth of artistic practice. Artists can take many different roles within society and our overall programmer reflects that breadth – A Fair Land was an opportunity to highlight the work of artists who see their practice within the field of social change, education and activism.
If artists are involved in community and the organisation of society, do you see a potential danger in working within social power structures? For example, the danger of being used as propaganda?
Yes, I can see how this would be read and propaganda is a word often used by Grizedale to explain its activities, A Fair Land was an art project which emulated real life but will not replace it, it had a beginning and an end but there were moments in between where these power structures became tricky, on occasion it did feel a bit like having a picnic at the end of an airport runway.
Will there be a continuation of the project?
Yes there certainly will be, but I think we are still digesting a lot of this. It was a great opportunity to recalibrate the residency, try something completely different and use that chance to diversify IMMA’s public activities. A Fair Land made the invisible side of what a residency can achieve very public. Only with these resources were we able to bring Sweetwater over from Chicago and connect with the amazing team led by Emmanuel Pratt which instrumentalises aquaponics systems as a starting point for social change. Hosting Suzanne Lacy and her students to hold the weeklong workshop for revolutionary girls. Seoidin O’Sullivan making wheelbarrows with Karl O’Mahony and connecting this project with Sweetwater.
Working with Karen Guthrie and Andreas Lang on the straw bale field and barn, our straw construction expert Eoin Donnelly and his crew who stayed onsite to make the work, the amazing team from the Swiss Village of Leytron who helped with many aspects of bringing the project together. Rhona Byrne who connected activities to create costumes for A Fair Land, Marcus Coates and his amazing creatives exercises, Jonathan Meese and his manifesto for the dictatorship of art, Tom Watt and Tanad Williams creating the Village Hall, Deirdre O’Mahony and the Loy Association on the front lawn with their potatoes, Brenda Kearney, Francesca Ulivi and Niamh Doherty tirelessly exploring uses for the glut crop …..the list goes on.
When I reflect on what was realised over the last number of months, the level of connection and diversity is huge and there are definitely elements which we need to maintain to keep this institution very real for everyone living, working and coming here.
The possibility to socially connect all of these elements would have been way beyond the projects means without the resource of the residency programme. Having Grizedale and the artists team and many collaborators living, creating, making, eating and working onsite together for such a concentrated period of time in the one place, there is a lot of legacy here.
How does it connect the radical vision for society of 1916? A Fair Land references the arts and crafts movement and Ruskin, would it be fair to call it out for having a romantic or nostalgic attachment to the rural, small scale way of life? Is this radical enough for our urban futures?
It was perfect for Grizedale, considering where it’s coming from. The village of Coniston in Cumbria is steeped in this history and context and operating on an international stage from a peripheral location. There is also a focus on the domestic, the importance of this role and a reminder that the everyday elements in life are crucial, radical and creative. Is urban the future?