Skip to content

Report – ‘The Workers’ Syposium, Visual Artists’ News Sheet, September/October 2014

September 11, 2014


‘The Workers’ symposium was presented as the closing event of ‘The Workers’, an exhibition at Roscommon Arts Centre (24 May – 18 July), featuring work by three artist participants in Roscommon Arts Office’s pioneering residency programme Art@Work – Michelle Browne, Gareth Kennedy and Elaine Reynolds. Interestingly, all three were recent graduates of NCAD’s Sculpture Department when they undertook their residencies – and Gareth Kennedy remarked during the discussion that a “strong socially-engaged orthodoxy” was emerging out of art colleges at that time. The symposium and exhibition were part of a programme devised Linda Shevlin, curator-in-residence at Roscommon County Council Arts Office. The symposium, chaired by Katherine Atkinson, Project Support and Professional Development Officer at Create, aimed to explore how each artist’s practice has developed since their residency, and to mark the “contribution that collaborative practices have made to the individual artists”. The event was supplemented by a comprehensive reading area.
Residency Models
The Workers Symposium provided an insight into best practice artist-in-residence models, highlighting collaboration as an important feature of rural arts programming. The morning session commenced with an overview of the residency programmes Philip Delamere has devised in his capacity as Arts Officer for Roscommon, and subsequently Leitrim county councils. The five different programmes he discussed fell broadly into two categories: those that promote methods of engagement with a ‘non-art audience’, and those which forefront artistic practice through mentorship and / or networking.
These various programmes have been subject to change over the years, evolving to embrace shifting priorities and artistic outcomes. Devised in 2001 in response to a perceived gap in local audience engagement, Art@work aimed to bring artists and their processes closer to the public through residencies in businesses across the county. Art@work (residency no longer running) connected almost 40 businesses and 63 individual artists (extending to include dancers and musicians) allowing them to act as ‘quasi-ambassadors’ for the arts, while making visible their working processes. The three artists exhibiting in ‘The Workers’ took part in a panel discussion during the seminar, chaired by current artist-in-residence Niamh O’Connor. Occurring in the middle of Ireland’s property boom, Gareth Kennedy used his 2006 residency at FTK Engineering (fabricators of stainless steel street furniture) as a way of registering the massive and unprecedented socio-economic change in Ireland, while forging links between ‘social agency’ and the making process, which still constitute the main threads of his artistic practice.
Similarly, Elaine Reynolds (Molloy’s Bakery, Roscommon, 2009) recounted the bakery’s multicultural labour force, reflective of the inward migration occurring in Ireland at the time, as a result of globalised labour processes. Michelle Browne (Molly’s Bakery, Roscommon, 2008) stated that, as an artist undertaking a residency in a business setting, it is necessary to “insert yourself into [a] place that’s already running”, while observing ‘the everyday’ in a new way – a sentiment which was echoed by Declan Molloy, owner of Molloy’s family-run bakery, who described the benefit of an outside pair of eyes to see beyond the “day-in-day-out”. Molloy’s motivation to host residencies for young artists came from his desire to “put back into the local community”, admitting that his “definition of art” had changed as a result. Art@work subsequently morphed into another residency programme entitled SPARK, which aimed to engage not just staff but whole organisations, during a six-month-long residency programme. Initiated in 2012, this new format necessitates a ‘dual proposal’ outlining the benefits to both artist and company, with artistic collaboration as a central concern across the two residencies offered each year.
Focusing on the artist as primary stakeholder, the Artist as Traveller project emerged in 2004 to address the challenges of maintaining a vibrant arts practice in rural areas, encompassing a small travelling exhibition and one day seminar. This activity in turn led to the development of TRADE, a two year residential programme, whereby international practitioners were invited to mentor local artists. Drawing on the success of these previous initiatives, LOCIS was developed in 2012 as a two-year residency programme hosted in Ireland, Poland and Sweden. Aimed at forging cultural exchange partnerships within Europe, LOCIS champions sustainable, context-specific practice and aims to provide knowledge, resources and opportunities for artists to engage internationally.
Art on the Rural Frontier
Colorado-based artist Richard Saxton was in Ireland over the summer as part of the ongoing collaboration ‘Collection of Minds #5’ with artist Fiona Woods. The duo made a joint presentation outlining their approaches to art-making in rural contexts. Richard is co-founder of the M12 Collective, an interdisciplinary group that develops site-specific artworks in rural communities. Saxton recently co-edited the book A Decade of Country Hits: Art on the Rural Frontier, which documents 10 years of his collaborative projects across the world, including M12’s annual project with a Fort Morgan family who have strong generational ties to dirt-track racing. During the project, a racing car is designed and built. The car, while functioning as an artwork, also becomes an object of social engagement, and the racetrack becomes a site of social production. This recalls Beuysian notions of “social sculpture”, highlighting art’s potential to shape “new ways of being” through human activity.
Correspondingly, Fiona Woods described a paradigm shift in rural economics in Ireland. Arising out of her many collaborative projects – including the ‘Ground Up’, a programme of temporary public artworks she established in Co Clare in 2003, and her global poster campaign ‘Common?’ with Rhyzom research network – Fiona has observed an “ad hoc architecture”, a kind of “aesthetics of make-do”, characterised by salvaging and “cobbling together” local materials in the production of “vernacular rural structures”. Often these ‘objects’ are re-appropriated, conjuring a ‘post-art condition’, with examples including ‘Folly’ (2009), a sculpture which later became a chicken coop. Fiona probed collaborative practice in order to counter the heavy individualisation of society. Failure is as important as success, and she shows ambivalence towards urban-centric, art world practices and agendas. Despite being “totally fucked off with art”, she concedes that art is still one of the few remaining places to be critical.
Framed by her wider practice, which investigates politics, activism, ecology and the “post-natural world”, Deidre O’Mahony described her self-initiated Arts Council-funded project ‘X-PO’ (2007), which she developed in Kilnaboy, Co Clare  in response to questions that arose from her previous project ‘Cross Land’  for ‘Ground Up’. Based in a former post office ‘X-PO’ examined the history of the space and its significance to the local community. Exploring cultural, agricultural, sociological and anthropological knowledge and practices, Deirdre reactivated the post office as a place of social exchange, which continues to be a self-sustaining resource and community hub. She spoke of the complexities of rural life, isolation as a paralysing factor and the role of socially engaged artistic practice in facilitating utility, relevance and a durational responsibility to place. This is summed up by her phrase “In it for the long haul: living slowly in the infinite present”.


Strength in Community
Located in the UK’s Lake District, the curatorial project Grizedale Arts promotes the importance of working locally to “make art useful”. Citing John Ruskin’s ideas about the social function of art, Grizedale’s director Adam Sutherland described a shift in their residency programme, moving away from “helping artists make art”, towards “helping art make a contribution to the community”. This has encompassed farming, ecology, ‘Monday lunch’, the ‘Honest Shop’, youth clubs, school plays and revival of the village library. Such activity has reaffirmed a civic role for art, reminding artists that they can enjoy contributing to the rural community while also retaining a relationship with the contemporary art world centred in urban locations. Notably, an array of high profile artists have previously been involved in Grizedale’s programme, including previous Turner Prize winners Laure Prouvost, Mark Wallinger and Jeremy Deller.
Workhouse Assembly is a research initiative based in Callan, Co Kilkenny, which explores the history and development potential of a semi-derelict wing of a former workhouse situated in the town. The project emerged out of Commonage Callan, a five-year art and architecture research platform which utilised the expertise of locals to assist in developing temporary interventions in the public realm. Workhouse Assembly’s co-founders Hollie Kearns and Rosie Lynch spoke reflexively about the ‘workhouse’ as a loaded term in Ireland’s colonial history, and the gradual transformation of Callan’s building into a modern-day hub for civic amenities. Rosie described the pride she felt working as a curator and citizen in the town she grew up in – a sentiment which characterises many of the projects discussed during the seminar, while offering a suitable concluding thought.
The concept of artists living rurally and contributing to their community, has the potential to highlight an important civic role for art, increasingly characterised by intervention in non-art realms including horticulture, food production, local history, architecture and enterprise. This ‘aesthetics of the everyday’, underpinned by emancipatory forms of Marxist theory, is arguably a favourable bi-product of an increasingly theory-dense art college education. Such revived emphasis on praxis through reflection and social action, is pitched in opposition to other seemingly insufficient models, including Romanticism’s artist as ‘creative genius’, and the contempory ‘festivalisation of culture’, which permits short-lived exchanges and reductive notions of what art can do. Critically, it seems, richer engagement, brought about by artists navigating multi-faceted careers and durational relationships with place, has the potential to create genuine long-term economies across the rural / urban divide.
Joanne Laws is an arts writer based in Leitrim. She has previously written for Art Monthly (U.K), Art Papers (U.S), Cabinet (U.S) and Variant (U.K).

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: