‘By believing passionately in something that still does not exist, we create it’

Democracy in action at one of the first Exchange meetings.
Democracy in action at one of the first Exchange meetings.

The Dublin Enquirer has a new article about Exchange Dublin today. Alas it takes the standard Irish journalistic route where ‘both sides’ (in this case DCC vs a couple of ex-Exchange volunteers) are presented as representing fixed positions that each have merit. Specifically an ‘assistant city manager’ is quoted as saying, “It became clear that they were not in a position to develop an appropriate governance structure which would allow for a return to the premises… This was made clear at meetings.”

Let that sink in for a second… Imagine the monumental arrogance of insisting that a private institution close because a public body dislikes its organisational structure. It’s like telling a business owner they have to close shop, because no one at the council likes their manager. What made Exchange unique was it’s organisational structure. This wasn’t ad hoc, lax or ineffectual – it was considered, highly developed, unreasonably effective and democratic to an unparalleled extent. Every meeting was open to anyone to not only attend, but to participate all decisions affecting the space. Every event, every publication, every decision was made through the consensus of those most interested in its outcome. Exchange was genuinely democratic – in stark contrast to Dublin City Council, which outside of it’s elected counsellors is a bureaucracy wildly hostile to community initiatives. In fact describing the council itself, representing a pitiful 42% of the electorate as democratic, stretches the word to the point of parody. While it makes sense that appointees of a state bureaucracy would dislike dealing with democratic decisions, would be naturally hostile to having to engage on an equal footing with a rotating cast of actual human beings, the certainty behind this clerk’s dismissal of an institution which had a positive impact on the lives of tens of thousands of people – before being crushed out of existence – is grimly amusing.

The idea that the city should dictate the management of a private institution is the issue. What made Exchange work so well was its democratic management, and what ultimately led to it’s disillusion were the moves forced on it by the council to adopt a more conventional, top down management style. This isn’t a business vs idealism thing. Exchange always paid its rent, and after the first few months, was entirely self funded through events and user contributions. The non-heirarchical organisational style is actually on the rise in progressive multinational businesses like Valve, Semco and Zappos. An unelected bureaucracy couldn’t be expected to have an informed opinion, either on the Exchange in particular, or the efficacy of running institutions democratically. Exchange didn’t need to change it’s management style – the city authorities needed to tolerate diversity. Imagine if rather than blaming problems like youth drug use on the few spaces that provided an alternative to delinquency, they’d encouraged and supported the project!

Ironically – Exchange really did have a number of structural issues. These were a direct result of the city’s insistence on specific points of contact with persons with specific responsibilities. What ultimately killed the space, as much as it’s direct shut down by the city, was the departure on mass of most long term volunteers about a year before it finally closed. A direct response to the concentration of control of the space into a couple of volunteers who served as de facto points of contact. Gradually Exchange drifted away from being democratically run – in exactly the way the city insisted it must, losing much of its good will and inclusiveness along the way. A process which seems to have occurred numerous times in the Dublin arts scene, as once democratic galleries were compelled to become professional bureaucracies.

On a more positive note, I’d like to talk a little about some of the things Exchange did achieve in it’s short life. I’m quoted briefly in the piece, but I thought it was worth posting the complete response I sent to the writer, Louisa McGrath.

“Exchange was a place that had a profound impact on my life. When I left college in 2008, Ireland seems a pretty hopeless place. The boom had served to make rent unpayable to a recent graduate. While there were some jobs available, they seemed to be exclusively in sales and marketing, advertising and clerical tasks – empty uncreative, bureaucratic busywork: What the anthropologist David Graeber calls ‘bullshit jobs’. It seemed that doing something meaningful in Ireland, connecting with people on anything other than a directly exploitative and insincere level was impossible. At the same time, emigration was prohibitively expensive, and as a mature student, I’d aged out of most of the ‘kick them into the sea’ alternatives for dealing with unemployment.

Then the recession hit, and things got better quickly. A group of young NCAD and Trinity Students announced they’d be holding a public meeting to open a community art space. I heard an old friend from college was involved and dropped by in the weeks before the meeting. I started clumsily helping out with renovations. Rather than squatting or occupying a space, the group – Roisin Byrne, Jonah King, Andreas Von Knobloch, Anna Wu and Dylan Haskins – had applied for, and miraculously received, a small grant from the young ensemble scheme. With the money they’d begun renting a space in Temple Bar, with the blessing and moderate oversight of The Project Arts Centre. That space would become ‘Exchange Dublin’, and over early months of experimenting with various models from ‘open space’ to project groups, it became the first ‘consensus run’ art space in the city. This meant that Exchange was entirely governed by the decisions of its users – anyone who went along to weekly meetings could decide what events, activities and renovations would take place.

Exchange served as a beacon of hope in the city. It’s impossible to describe exactly the feeling of the space. Institutions have their own timbre, like pieces of music. We all know what an office feels like, a restaurant, a pub, an art gallery. But the atmosphere was different from all of those. It was open, and non-commercial, relaxed and energising. It attracted tens of thousands of people – from locals to tourists, professional artists to the homeless. Visitors were not passive spectators, they made things, put on events, learnt how to dance, paint, tell stories. After a couple of years, as the recession brought down commercial rents still further, other similar galleries – none quite as open, but all sharing an ethos of community over profit, a belief in the necessity of a real ‘third space’, sprouted up. Some of these spaces were glorified gig venues, others commercial galleries with a community touch – what mattered was that they opened up possibilities in the city. The possibility of ordinary people engaging in the creative arts, the possibility of sitting down and talking without needing to be able to pay something. The possibility of a democratic use of space, in a city that lacks even basic street furniture.

Unfortunately, Exchange was always in conflict. Temple Bar Cultural Trust quickly decided that a space it could neither understand nor completely control was unwanted in Dublin’s largest supermarket. After the Cultural Trust imploded amidst allegations of mismanagement and outright theft, Dublin City Council became our landlords. DCC too, couldn’t quite come to grips with a collectively run space – and over time imposed increasingly strict conditions on Exchange’s continued existence, from documentation which had to be filled in every time furniture was moved (which happened dozens of times a day in a multiuse space), to mandatory volunteer training, to requiring the name of every visitor. A mountain of bureaucracy was piled on, and relations quickly deteriorated. The institutions of the city took a ‘ah here now’ attitude to a place which didn’t need them, but over which they unfortunately had power. This wasn’t an isolated incident, literally dozens of similar spaces have been shut down in the city in the last two years including Mabos, Subground 43, Space 54, Dublin City TV, Supafast, Bluebottle Collective, the Factory, Moxie Studios, the Joinery, and even Semora Spraoi, the longest running democratically run community space in the country. Some of these spaces were forced out by rent increases, others by reductions in public funding, others through over zealous policing. Ultimately, all the closures had the same effect – to make the city less creative, less hospitable, less culturally diverse, and even more rapacious.”

Exchange’s lifetime may have been brief, but it wasn’t without impact. For me, learning to run events, host gallery shows, perform comedy, teach creative writing, and simply be involved in a real creative community, changed my life completely. I wasn’t aware it was possible to live a life surrounded by people who spent their days exploring what it meant to be alive, rather than being fixated on trudging toward retirement in the certainty that nothing better or more interesting than office life is possible. Exchange gave me the confidence to pursue radio production, comedy, writing and film making. It made me understand a little more clearly that things our culture values, are all too often worthless status symbols and vapid entertainment. It made me realise that people are able to incredible things when all the barriers between them – be they money, degrees, or self importance, are for a moment dropped. I was better person in that space, and I keep a little of it with me. I know so many people who do what they do today – whether it be graphic design, fine art, standup, music or dance – because Exchange let them release their potential. Not in a ‘look at how much you can make’ kind of way, but in a ‘look how real life can feel’ way. Spaces come and go, and ruthlessly commercial cities like Dublin will always seek to extinguish any unprofitable distraction, but Exchange was and is proof that even a place as cold as Dublin, and be the warmest city in the world.

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