Community Arts in Dublin – Culture File

Exhibition party for Franck Omer, a French artist I invited to show at Exchange Dublin in 2012.
Exhibition party for Franck Omer, a French artist I invited to show at Exchange Dublin in 2012.

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.

Volunteering in Exchange Dublin, circa 2011
Volunteering in Exchange Dublin, circa 2011

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.

The audience at one of the early Milk & Cookies events in Exchange Dublin.
The audience at one of the early Milk & Cookies events in Exchange Dublin.

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.

No Signal, experimental audiovisual collective. Exchange Dublin.
No Signal, experimental audiovisual collective. Exchange Dublin, 2009.

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.

Download: Unlikely Spaces

Finally a place to write in Dublin!

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.

The volunteers of Exchange Dublin, Halloween 2009

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!