Past Projects

Inner Art

Introduction written by Tony Sheehan and Brian Kennedy

Inner Art took place in Dublin’s North East Inner City, in September 1997. The project evolved from a concern to encourage and develop art in the community – one of the key policies of the Fire Station. The area itself had just come through one of the most fraught periods in its troubled history. Drug dealing which was taking place openly in the streets had been stopped by local people who, driver to despair by the rising death toll due to heroin, were forced to tackle the problem by a series of silent marches and protests. By 1997, open drug dealing had ceased, and local community workers and organisations had gained significant victories in their fight for prevention and treatment. It seemed appropriate therefore that any project designed to encourage and develop art in the community should be mindful of the context of all that had happened.

Inner Art started with the premise that the work should not be compromised by its situation. Too many projects that are well meaning in their extent to “help” particular areas end up with the artist being little more than a teacher in an extended classroom. By not extending their target audience, they also run the risk of being condescending to that audience.

For Inner Art, the artists would be expected to make actual works of art out there in the environment that was used daily by people who would become the main audience for the project. The artists would be expected to work in an uncompromising but relevant way. It seemed clear from the beginning that the relevance of the works to the people and the area would be crucial. To this end artists were given a political and geographical background of the area before being asked to submit proposals.

More crucially, once at the Fire Station, artists were given access to local people themselves through liaison – so that the works grew out of a process of discussion between the artists and the “audience”. In the case of Shane Cullen’s work, a vote was taken by the residents of Mountain View Court after discussion about the wall mural with the artist, with the majority voting in favour. Andre Stitt met with anti-drugs groups to explain his performance work and his own perspective on addiction. Pauline Cummins’ video “Good Confession” directly illustrates the project’s focus on discussion and collaboration.

As the project progressed the artists drew strength and confidence from the community. The community in turn become more integrated with “their” exhibition.

It was the strength and critical awareness of the audience combining with a growing confidence in the artists that was the most memorable and for satisfying thing about the whole project.

 

Art in Marginalised Communities

The seminar discussion held on the 13th September 1997 at the Lourdes Parish Hall was a significant opportunity to evaluate the Inner Art project. Speakers responded to the theme of ‘art in marginalised communities’ stimulating debate and discussion on the value of public art projects such as Inner Art located, as it was, in the north inner city of Dublin for the month of September of that year.

Martin Drury chaired the discussion introducing Mick Rafferty, community activist, Medb Ruane, art critic, Judith Bowles, community arts worker, Mick Wilson, artist and lecturer, and finally Shan Cullen, artist and participant in Inner Art.

Mick Rafferty saw the Inner Art project as a continuation of a tradition of community art projects in the north inner city over the past twenty years. He identified Fire Station Artists’ Studios as an important facility for artists and for the wider community. Quite a few artists, as he pointed out came to live in the area after their residency ended at the Fire Station and continued to contribute to the community. Inner Art was devised to extend the relationship between the work of artists and the people of that part of the inner city. Artists were asked to respond to what they felt or saw in the area, to make their work site-specific in every sense. Community art as Mick Rafferty sees it is a circular process by which a group of people explore issues together, feed those issues back to the community and carry on. He said the importance of community art was that it never becomes a commodity, that it is positioned outside the market. He concluded that, as a result of the intervention of community art, people of the locality saw different possibilities for the landscape they lived in and will develop a new relationship with the space.

Medb Ruane placed the emergence of the public art project in the context of history and politics exploring the relationship between art, community and democracy. She pointed out that the idea of ‘art for arts’ sake’ never existed, and was a notion to facilitate division between different kinds of art, the divisions fulfilling the needs of power. She recalled that thirty years ago, art was seen as a product for a particular class in society. She identified Inner Art as a start to the process of re-negotiating the place of art and the role of the artist in society.

Judith Bowles was interested in the Inner Art project in its stated attempt to use art as a means of dialogue. She recognised that art can work in any number of directions: to enlighten, build identity or raise questions. She also pointed out that art can equally be the tool of prejudice and complacency. She observed that the radical potential of art depends largely on the structures that surround it, the reason it is being made and the purpose behind it. She asked is Inner Art a dialogue or a cultural narcotic? She saw evaluation as an essential element of any art project that aimed to set up a dialogue with the community. Putting in place clear and unambiguous ways to measure, trace and evaluate the quality of that dialogue and the ways it can be improved next time was for her of crucial important. She suggested questions for the evaluation process:

  • What is useful?
  • What needs to be improved on?
  • What gaps did the project identify within current cultural provision in this community?
  • What issues did the event raise?

Mick Wilson pointed out that project which claim to be ‘art in the community’ must be much, much more than merely changing patterns and types of audiences. They should bring about changes in patterns and types of participation. He admitted an unease with community art which he pointed out as not based on some notion of artistic standards or the purity of art. He grappled with the question: Why should an effort be made to make a relationship between art and marginalised communities?

He quoted a recent report by Combat Poverty and the Arts Council to get the official line on that relationship: “Poverty in Ireland is an extensive and deep-rooted issue affecting many people… All sections of society have an entitlement to engage in the process of making meaning through the arts…It is essential that forms are provided for those affected by poverty and disadvantage to explore their distinct cultural identities.”

Drawing on the conclusions he pointed out that barriers to access to the arts were more than just financial. Exclusion from the political process created barriers to access. He recognised, through exchanges with artists and other working with marginalised communities, that participation in art projects directed at promoting community development, individual development and extending participation could be very important experiences for participants. He still felt that there were common problems raised in relation to such art projects. The problem he was interested in raising was that if art was a basic human right, why was it then not available, why was that right denied? He suggested, in the context of the report, that people from marginalised communities found themselves excluded from arts activities because such activities were not intended for them. He looked to art historically to suggest that art had been elaborated as a significant way of marking out class difference, justifying claims to social, political and economic prestige, privilege and power. He registered unease with the language and practises of community art that tended to obscure the systematic condition of oppression. He said that he was alarmed at how easily the language of community art obscured the language of class.

Mick Wilson quoted Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator, from his ‘Pedagogy of the Oppressed’ to illustrate the systematic methods of repression which take varied forms from government bureaucracy “to the forms of cultural action with which they manipulate the people by giving them the impression that they are being helped.” He pointed to Freire’s analysis of oppressive cultural action in the form of Community Development projects which actively broke down regional areas into local communities which intensified rather than alleviated alienation: “One of the characteristics of oppressive cultural action, which is almost never perceived by the dedicated by naïve professionals who are involved, is the emphasis on a focalised view of problems rather than seeing them as dimensions of a totality.” He continued to suggest that if the notion of community collapsed the social, economic and cultural down tot eh local fixed point of reference and left it there, this obscured the systematic dimension of how people end up living in particular situations with inherited structural problems. He pointed out that you cannot give people liberty, you cannot give them back their rights in such situations. Explanations have to be found to legitimate the allocation of State funds for art and these take many forms including economic regeneration plans and community development enterprises. With no appropriate reason, in terms of State ideology, he concluded that various reports were invoking the notion of ‘community’ in relation to art to obscure the structure of a system that generated poverty and exclusion.

Shane Cullen spoke as a participant in the Inner Art project. He said he treated it as he had treated similar invitations to show work as part of a gallery exhibition. He felt that the process of making the work had not really enlightened him as to how art finds its position within such debates about the relevance of art to marginalised communities. He suggested that art sustained itself by functioning to provoke thought and debate. He suggested that producing work within the context of it being community art compromises its aims. He recalled that when he first saw the bare wall at Mountain View Court, where he completed his mural. It was not devoid of information. Two messages already there announced DRUG FREE ZONE and GARDAI STOP HARASSING ANTI-DRUG CAMPAIGNERS. He saw the process of making the work as an education as he initially felt he had limited awareness of what the local community ha been through. He wanted to avoid making work which gave the impression that he had some profound understanding of how people in the area lived their lives. He said he did want to make a contribution to a shared experience of trauma and grief in this part of the city. He suggested that his choice of text reflected the language of his parents’ generation, a structure of language informed by strong religious belief. The source of this text was a communiqué from an H-Block hunger striker in 1981. He went on to suggest that the language in the text provided a bridge between communities in trauma in Northern Ireland and those in inner city Dublin in their experience of being embattled. He pointed out that he could not have made the piece without the process of consultation with the local residents and their eventual support. He concluded that the experience had exploded the idea that forever his work would be imprisoned in galleries and was more interested in expanding his work in future into other areas.

To sum up, there seemed to be a lack of discussion from a floor on the value of ‘art in the community’ activities. This pointed to an unwillingness to discuss the tricky aspects of Inner Art of any such project. Most seemed to view the project as worthwhile, but caution was advised by Judith Bowles in relation to meaningful evaluation and Mick Wilson in relation to the inadequacy of the word ‘community’ to describe socially engaged art. It emerged that artists wanted opportunities that projects such as Inner Art afforded them to move their work out of the gallery. That move, if it happens in a significant way, will generate much controversy and debate as it will completely change the role of the artist in society.