Wicklow Sudbury School is an experiment in Irish education. The first curriculum ‘free school’ in the country. A school where students spend all day long, pursuing their real interests. The Sudbury Valley model, pioneered in Massachusetts in the late 1960s, puts children in charge of directing their own education. A few years ago I organised some events along these lines in Dublin. Learning and teaching as self directed fun. Those experiences, and my time volunteering at Exchange Dublin – the democratically organised art space in Temple Bar forcibly shut down by Dublin City Council in 2014 – have shown me the power of learning as play. The importance of genuine ‘third spaces’, where people can explore through play to offer the kind of deep personal enrichment that bureaucratic curricula and educational measures cannot hope to define, let alone measure. These spaces are so rare in our contemporary societies, where every inch is commodified and defined, every intervention tailored, every creative work moulded and marketed to a constructed audience, that they can seem fantastical. They are spaces that literally remind us what it means to be human. Connection, creativity, love in action.
Last year I made a radio documentary, following a year in the life of the school – exploring in a small way the opportunities for more libertine forms of education in Ireland in general. This year, as I moved out of radio and into video production, I offered to head back to the school, to help with their crowd funding campaign. I spent a day at Wicklow Sudbury, shooting interviews and capturing the decidedly unconventional educational environment. I combined short interviews with three staff and five students with footage of the learning through play that makes this place unique. The end results are a ten minute mini-documentary and a two minute promotional video. Unlike the documentary this campaign is decidedly partisan. I’ve worked as hard as I can to convey the enthusiasm of staff and students for this new kind of education.
Hopefully these videos capture a little about what makes this school so different. This really is a place where kids can be themselves. A place to develop the kind of diverse talents that our rigid bureaucratic education system cannot accept, let alone promote. These kids are passionate, creative, and above all independently minded. They give me hope for a future less rigid, heartless and polarised than the present. This is the kind of place that any misunderstood, creative kid might have imagined into existence. It’s the sort of place that makes having kids worth considering. It’s that revolutionary. If you’re interested in learning more, Wicklow Sudbury staff frequently offer talks about setting up your own community school, and you can find information about these, and if you’d like donate towards the school (which naturally receives no government funding), at their website.
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.
Perhaps the most famous line in Portrait of the Artist goes like this: ‘Ireland is the old sow that eats her own farrow’. Some things never change. The ‘peace dividend’ of Brian Lenihan’s attack on the Irish economy, was a fall in rents. Dublin got something it had never had before, cheap unused buildings. This meant that artists, historically an embarrassment in the way of progress (see The City Arts Centre, the Temple Bar redevelopment, etc, ad nauseam), took an active unmediated part in the life of the city. Visitors to this years ‘Culture Night’ attractions, will have discovered that all that is done for. We have lost so much, so quickly. So much hope that the city could be a place for people, not merely a venue for business. A creative community, not just a pop-up cash register for green dollars. So many of my generation, and the cohort after me, have left. There was no room for us. This city killed the spaces we created, one after another.
Exchange Dublin, Mabos, Subground 43, Space 54, Dublin City TV, Supafast, Bluebottle Collective, the Factory, Moxie Studios, the Joinery. All going, going, gone. These were spaces where anyone could take part in making things. Art as expression and community, not just commodity. Each was systematically defunded, ejected, and shuttered. There are still arts spaces in Dublin, of course. Commercial galleries, artists studios, and the kind of businesses that don’t promise or threaten social change. I wanted to know why. Why have so many spaces that offered hope, connection, ingenuity and freedom gone? Is it a combination of rising rents, and unsustainable commercial rates? Or is this city and those who govern it, actively hostile to anything that doesn’t draw a buck.
I spoke with all the volunteers and founders I could find. Some of those interviews are compiled in the piece above for Culture File. Some I’m sitting on, waiting for the right outlet to tell this story. Because it’s my story too.
After I finished college in 2008, I found myself footloose and penniless. Ireland didn’t seem to offer anything in the way of meaningful, ethical work, and I couldn’t afford to emigrate. I discovered a place called Seomra Spraoi. A collectively organised space, for communities united by a rejection of capitalist realism: The dismal view that this is as good as it gets, and if you want more you’d better clamber over the guy in front. A few months later, I visited a new space, a friend from college was helping to create, Exchange Dublin. Volunteering at Exchange was to occupy three of the most creative, rewarding years of my life. Exchange was a collaborative community, like Seomra Spraoi run through consensus meetings anyone could join. It offered space, most often for free, to literally hundreds of groups, for exhibitions, meetings, performances and artistic expression of all sorts. But this space was in the heart of the city, with glass walls that invited visitors in. And in they poured, from all over the world, visitors of every age and ethnicity. They’d arrive, on a Saturday afternoon, stepping in for a tea, or to escape the rain, or to take part in a dance class they’d glimpsed through the window. Often they’d be back, volunteering the next day, and the day after. The openness of the space, it’s lack of walls, whether of glass, class, education, or appearance, made it utterly unique.
It was meeting so many marvellous strangers and artists, entering a world I’d never had access to, that gave me the courage to pursue comedy, performances, radio, theatre, video and performance art. Exchange Dublin gave birth to the education collective I co-founded, Open Learning Ireland.
All the marvellous adventures I’d admired, but never imagined myself doing. All of the things that make life more than series of days occupied by work and distraction. Exchange kickstarted the careers of dozens of comedians, visual artists, dancers, and activists. This January, the space was forced to close, accused by DCC of nebulous ‘anti-social behaviour’. Seomra still ticks on, just about covering it’s rent and rates from month to month. Day by day, week by week, more and more of my friends leave. Not because we loathe Ireland, or lack the courage to stay through a recession. But because every flower we plant is plucked out, and the soil that’s left behind is salted barren.
Quite a while back I wrote a post about places to write in Dublin. More specifically I was whinging about the poverty of writing spots. Sure, Dublin is home to hundreds of cafes, and if you’re willing to spend twenty or more euro a day, and able to write in frequently noisy, hectic environments, they’ll do in a pinch. But, more than a year after I asked the question, during the (pretty ironically titled for a variety of reasons) Dublin Writers Festival, the city still lacks a cheap place to write. There isn’t a single venue thats a) open in the evenings (when most people in full time employment are free), and b) actively tolerates (let alone supports) writers.
I’m in an incredibly fortunate position. I’ve made a modest living from my radio work for the past couple of years, and it’s meant that I’ve been able to afford to dedicate a room in my apartment to recording and editing radio programmes. Still, I find it almost impossible to get real creative work done at home. Editing, sure, blogging, certainly, but writing? Not a chance. Instead I’ve found that I write best in my old college library. This is an incredible facility, and one only available to those fortunate enough to have graduated from Trinity or be a post graduate student of another Irish college. Alas, like most Irish college’s, TCD’s library is closed in the evenings all Summer long.
That’s why I’m chomping at the bit at the news that the A4 art collective are offering cheap work spaces in Dublin. Starting from €50 a month for access to a shared workspace, A4 will let writers, musicians, performers and visual artists work cheaply in Dublin city centre. The importance of this cannot be overstated for the cultural life of the city.
Two things give a city a real creative life – a population with spare time, and low rents. For a few years, when the current Irish recession was at it’s worst, falling property prices and high unemployment satisfied both criteria. This led directly to the birth of a plethora of non-profit creative spaces in the city. Mabos, Exchange Dublin, Space 54, Subground 43, Supafast, the Complex, the Factory, Blue Bottle Collective and more, all grew out of the inability of rentiers to make money from commercial uses of their buildings. All allowed artists to create new work and the public to enjoy the fruits of that work, most often for free. They helped rebuild something Dublin had lacked for a generation, an artistic culture. They allowed thousands of young artists and performers to develop their talents, without the necessity for them to be immediately profitable.
To resort to business speak: As a creative professional starting a career without experience in a ‘sector’ with very low margins, there is literally no chance I’d be able to do the work I do today, without those spaces having existed, and without inspiration, camaraderie and support of the volunteers who gave life to them. They are all now gone. Not one failed to pay their rents, find an audience, or ran out of steam. Each was wholesale slaughtered by a Dublin City Council that has shown active distain for public arts; and developers eager to cash in on the faint flickerings of growth in the property market. In their place we have high priced private arts businesses, like Block T and the Centre For Creative Practices that have their place, but through their financial burden serve to cut the arts off from the life of the city.
One new arts space isn’t going to solve all that. But it does at least sort out the thorny issue of where to write in Dublin. Writers are poor. For many even 50 euro a month will be too much. The the rest of us, lucky enough to be able to live off our work or skating by on day job wages, finally have somewhere we can create!