Filling The Void: Art in disused urban spaces in Ireland

One of the most notable visual effects of the international economic crash in 2008 on the western landscape was the sudden closure of hundreds of small and large businesses, and the emergence of idle business premises in urban centres. From factories to fashion boutiques, empty spaces corrupted the urban landscape and spread like a pandemic through cities and towns in Europe and America from 2008 onward.

In town and city centres the effect was most visible as large chain stores began to go into receivership and their commercial outlet units began to shut up shop. Usually located in prime areas, these vacated properties created trails of desolate spaces in urban areas. The result was for these spaces to lie idle, in some cases for the past four years. Although many were reoccupied by charming boutiques and craft stores that have been thriving in the “post-capitalist” atmosphere of the last four years. Others still were claimed by visual artists, who began repurposing disused urban buildings as temporary art spaces.

The recommissioning of industrial and commercial properties by artists was not a new idea in post-crash society. Buildings have often been repurposed as art institutions historically. The Irish Museum of Modern Art is a former hospital, and the Tate Britain was once the Millbank prison. Artist-led initiatives seemed to crop up in the late 20th Century as with Bristol’s Jamaica Street / Stokes Cross area, which swarms with artists who work from floor to ceiling in formerly disused buildings. It is difficult to pinpoint the precise beginning of post-crash “pop-up” art spaces, but the repurposing of buildings for artistic uses has flourished since 2008.

The first time I encountered the phenomenon was in early 2009, when I discovered numerous groups in England who were occupying vacant properties. The spaces became installations, art galleries, window displays or one-night art party hubs as the revival took hold and local artists began to rejuvenate areas of their towns.

Installation shot from the Surplus Value exhibition at Occupy Space, Limerick. Image courtesy of the gallery’s website – click for link.

The rapidity of the occupation of spaces by artists was overwhelming. Everything from abandoned petrol stations to decommissioned airports have been used to stage large art exhibitions and installations since the global crash. By 2009 Ireland boasted several semi-long-term art spaces in abandoned commercial units, most notably Occupy Space, Limerick and Pretty Vacant, Dublin. The former capitalised on disused spaces in Limerick City and established a city-centre gallery which is now one of Limerick’s primary contemporary art hubs. The latter stages exhibitions regularly in the Irish capital by gaining temporary control of vacant spaces and using them for pop-up shows.

I was involved in the establishment of two spaces in my native Sligo. Although inspired by research into the movements in England and the US, the initial proposal that I and others worked on was an organic response to the abundance of potential art space which had been so desperately lacking in boom times. Although both spaces have subsequently closed, both were largely successful and the experience has made the possibility of repeating the task far more achievable. The main instigator making the occupation of these spaces possible was the leniency of negotiation with landlords and property owners. In Ireland artists predominantly live below the poverty line from their artistic earnings, as shown in a survey from 2011 conducted by Visual Artists Ireland. When property was expensive in boom-era Ireland, there was no opportunity for artists to live and exhibit outside of the extremely competitive museum/gallery scene.

To gain use of disused commercial spaces deals were often struck with landlords. Artists often promised actions like basic renovation work in exchange for the opportunity stage exhibitions, etc. The use of the spaces also regularly led to the spaces renting commercially afterwards. The visual art lease of life helps to advertise and mark the space apart from surrounding abandoned commercial units, essentially creating a place out of a disused space.

Leeds group East Street Arts took the system even further by developing a scheme whereby landlords pay artists to occupy their spaces. The group capitalised on laws in place which offer reduced building rates to art spaces, and offered to take on disused spaces for a percentage of the annual rates, paying the rates themselves and using the rest for administration and exhibition expenses.

As the movement has become more mainstream, policy-makers like corporations and councils have begun to recognise opportunities in artists occupying disused spaces. I took part in a collaborative residency / exhibition, Creative Campus, held in Tallaght in 2011. On this project artists and digital media practitioners were invited to stage an exhibition in a council-owned space in the Dublin suburb. The space, known as The Big Picture, is a defunct technological centre that was built in 2008 as a three-storey multimedia tower designed to advertise the urban development in Tallaght. Three years on artists were granted access to the building to use the wide array of technology in the centre to create artworks that responded to the building and its surrounds.

Due to the relentless pace of technological advancement, the interactive screens and buttons in The Big Picture already seemed outdated when we began the project. The building itself is a monstrous failure. Inside, a pre-crash pipe dream of slick urban development was exhibited via looped videos on tall video screens. It is a perfect monument to the failure of the construction frenzy that swept across Ireland in the boom years. The construction work showcased in the videos was mostly completed, but the finished buildings form an abandoned wasteland in the centre of the urban area. The area is bizarre – the steel and glass town was never occupied and forms an urban ghost town that was built to exist as a ruin.

Although the project was initiated by artists, it was funded and monitored by South Dublin County Council. The artists were repeatedly restricted by interference from the council, who insisted the artworks not respond to the failure of the building. This was the first instance I noticed of corporate interference halting project work and disrupting artistic innovation – it seemed that the authenticity of the failure of the building and the development was to be avoided and that the exhibition had to focus on positives, presumably for publicity reasons. The overall goal seemed to be to reinstate the building as a functional utility rather than to use it as an artistic medium, and as a result the goal was not reached.

Although the proliferation of the economic crash has led to further closures in urban areas, the associated art movement has not halted. Negotiations have become more strenuous at times, as landlords have begun to expect some form of remuneration and the liberal attitudes taken toward artists in 2008 have begun to slide. However, initiatives are still starting. Recently Dublin City Council have put a scheme in place encouraging landlords to rent at low rates to artists in the city. This followed on from similar schemes in the UK and elsewhere.

It remains to be seen whether schemes like this may be detrimental to the overall movement. The artist-led initiatives may have sometimes lacked direction, but they were at least artist-led, allowing for substantial inquiry and visual response to the idea of the construction-led economic bust. If landlords begin to see a potential for direct profit from artists (as in the case of the Dublin City Council initiative), or councils see schemes as beneficial to their public standing (as with The Big Picture) the schemes may cease due to the ongoing problem of low artist incomes, or due to the lack of meaningful inquiry and debate that the artist-led initiatives bolster.

However, artist-led initiatives continue to crop up. Artist and facilitator Dan Thompson formed The Empty Shops Network in late 2011. Thompson had years of experience staging exhibitions in unusual spaces through his group The Revolutionary Arts Group. He found himself inundated with requests for information on using disused spaces since 2008, and formed the network in response. This network allows artists and owners of disused spaces to come together and discuss possibilities of using commercial units as art spaces, introducing an information pool that cites mutual benefits for both parties in getting involved in art spaces.

The economic crash shows no signs of halting, and disused commercial properties continue to crop up throughout Ireland and abroad. But the visual art movement capitalising on the crash also shows no signs of halting either, with groups becoming more organised due to the experience of the last four years. Although it still seems there could be a battle between policy and artistic inquiry at hand, as long as there are unoccupied spaces it seems inevitable that artists and creative practitioners will find a way to use these for creative output.

All photography is my own and subject to copyright unless stated. I don’t mind reproductions, but please credit them to this blog or contact (contactmoonunderwater@gmail.com) for more information.

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