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‘Lost In Leitrim: Is This Common?’, Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Visual Artists’ News Sheet, May/June 2011

May 2, 2011

A Report on ‘Commons’, Leitrim Sculpture Centre, 1st -25th February 2011

Sarah Browne, Bryonie Reid, Fiona Woods


Edited version published in Visual Artists News Sheet May/ June issue, 2011

http://visualartists.ie/category/van-ebulletin/

 

 

 

 

(Fiona Woods, Common 3, 2010)

They hang the man and flog the woman
That steal the goose from off the common,
But let the greater villain loose
That steals the common from the goose.
—English folk poem, circa 1764[1]

I have been reading a lot lately about this term ‘common’.  In general usage it refers to resources or spaces which are collectively owned or shared.  Historically the ‘commons’ became synonymous with land ownership, property, and the privatisation of public space.  However, according to political thinkers Hardt and Negri[2], this term is accumulating a philosophical currency and resonance in contemporary discourse.Where the ‘common’ of Ireland’s economic boom divided the land for private consumption, the post-bust ‘common’ considers new ways to re-engage with what connects us to the land and to each other.

Commons was an exhibition which activated the windows of the Leitrim Sculpture Centre between 1st and 25th of February 2011.  It was a point of convergence for artist-researchers Sarah Browne, Bryonie Reid and Fiona Woods, who worked in association with PS², Belfast[3], and Rhyzom – a collaborative research network funded by the European Commission.  Consisting of posters, projected images and texts, the assembled works offered an insight into each artist’s project, which shared mutualities of context and displayed various points of intersection.

It is preferable, firstly, to understand this research in the context it was originally developed.  The best place to start is with a book called Trans-Local-Art: Cultural practices within and across (available at http://www.rhyzom.net/2011/02/02/translocalact.pdf). This publication outlines the complex framework of the Rhyzom research network, mapping the scale, location, inter-relationships and focus of the research developed by each European contributory group.  As outlined in Trans-Cultural-Act, PS² developed a project for Rhyzom which brought together the work of eight inter-disciplinary practitioners; Bryonie Reid, Craig Sands, Sarah Browne, Ruth Morrow, Gareth Kennedy, Fiona Woods, Anne-Marie Dillon and Peter Mutschler.  The text Fields, devised by PS², conveyed a sense of the group’s collective interests, which were manifested through individual theory/practice based work as well as some collaborative activity.  In summary, this was an ethnographic exploration of land, culture and place, addressing thematic content such as conflict and contested spaces, cultural production in small border towns, and the concept of ‘rural’ (which is more than just a counter part for ‘urban’).

German flag flying in Glenboy, Co. Leitrim.  European Football Championships, 2008. Photo by Sarah Browne

Occupying the window, Commons was experienced from the outside looking in. Consequently it became necessary to consider the street-scape, and to reflect on visibility and location.  The window became a display space for public information, whilst providing a conceptual threshold between the bustling exterior, and the spacious, white interior (vacant, apart from a structure displaying copies of Sarah Browne’s publication Lebensreform in Leitrim).  As it got darker, the images projected onto the window become luminous, attracting curiosity from drivers and pedestrians as they passed.

Common?

Fiona Woods’ current work Common? was developed as part of her research during the Collection of Minds #1 project[4], facilitated by Rhyzom.  Employing a kind of mock D.I.Y, zine aesthetic, she produced a series of posters depicting animal/human hybrid figures and signage posing questions such as ‘Is this common?’

In the territory of artists such as Dermot Seymour or Janet Mullarney, Woods’ animals become metaphors for the human condition, almost bearing witness to our current Irish predicament.  Goats and frogs become symbols of consumption and evolution, promoting a reflection on human excess, and the ecological mismanagement of natural resources.

Common? (3), 2010, is a photographic triptych depicting a furrowed field, containing a sculptural figure, which has been constructed via the assemblage of cardboard maquettes, not unlike those used in architecture.  In the second and third frame the structure is set alight and destroyed.  Whether viewed as a scarecrow, or as a modern day Wicker man, this figure is a purgative symbol of what must be sacrificed when value of land is recognised only in economic terms.

In keeping with the artist’s commitment to creating “an interface between the lifeworld and the institutional site of art”[5], the photographic work has found ways to be inserted into the public domain[6].  In the window of the Leitrim Sculpture centre, Woods projected photographic documentation of her posters being placed in various locations around the world, from Doonbeg, Co. Clare, to Stockholm, Paris to Japan – the text on each poster was translated into the appropriate language.  Rhyzom aims to create platforms for “all contributors… to disseminate small amounts of material from other contributors in their own locality.”[7] Some of the poster distribution was facilitated by members of Rhyzom, for example, Ece Sariyuz put up posters in her native Turkey. Her documentation formed part of the archival process, constructing an assemblage of perspectives, displayed in Commons.

Fiona Woods, Common 4,

Distribution and Photo by James Merrigan, San Francisco, 2010

In many ways, this globalised approach to distribution ends up being more concerned with the ‘local’- the lamp post, the street, the passer-by – visually, the act of fly posting comes across as something quite territorial.  ‘Do we have this in common?’ The best thing about questions is that they command an answer, or at least a moment’s reflection on the part of the viewer.

Inclined to Wander

Bryonie Reid’s work Inclined to wander (Part 2), consisted of snippets of text projected onto the Sculpture Centre’s window.  The text was extracted from a body of her writing, which documented a number of walks through rural sites, on Coillte[8] land, in north Leitrim.  Reid’s contribution to the Rhyzom project was informed by her work as a cultural geographer.  Inclined to Wander explores the concept of rural psychogeography[9] , and in a wider ethnographic sense, considers how identity is formed via cultural association with “imaginings of place”.

Written in a prose which is vivid and quite poetic, Reid’s narration oscillates between physical description and internal dialogue.  Attentively she describes and names an array of plant life, outlining a botanical landscape that can only be Irish. Her account of the third walk concludes with a description of her finding an empty hazelnut shell, with no trace of a hazel tree.  In Celtic mythology, Hazel was traditionally the plant of knowledge, its nuts representing all wisdom, enclosed within a protective shell. Ongoing references to her feet land us back in the territory of the Situationalist ‘dérive’, which Guy Debord defined as “a drift; a technique of rapid passage through varied ambiances”.  Her journey through the landscape, down forestry roads which lead to ruined houses, provoke her to think of the Irish cottage as an enduring symbol of ‘Irishness’.  Historically, the political promotion of nationalism placed emphasis on the ‘family’ in defining the Irish nation as rural, self-sufficient, moral and wholesome.  In observing the way the Coillte plantations have impinged upon the domestic, Reid considers the shift in political priorities and economic power relations, which have impacted so dramatically on the cultural landscape of this terrain.   This process, she imagines, is “akin to the state swallowing itself ”.

Lebensreform in Leitrim

Sarah Browne’s book Lebensreform in Leitrim is the result of a body of research developed during a residency in Leitrim Sculpture Centre in 2009, and further supported by Rhyzom.  In essence it is a conceptual link between two periods of ‘counter cultural’ action.  Lebensreform[10] was a historical German life reform movement which promoted a ‘back-to-nature’ lifestyle. Browne’s research and publication provide a tentative link between this historical movement, and the influx of migrants to the Northwest of Ireland, with emphasis on escapist ideologies.

Sarah Browne, Reading the Monolith -1, Photographic Documentation, Leitrim Sculpture Centre, 2011

Lebensreform in Leitrim is a compilation of assorted narratives, personal accounts, poetry and transcripted conversations, which consider the impact and legacy of migrants to the area, specifically those people seeking an alternative lifestyle.  Leitrim, it seems, became “more like an idea than a place”[11] – a sentiment echoed by novelist DBC Pierre (a.k.a Peter Finlay) when he describes Leitrim as “your own personal Tibet, but with more lakes and craic, and no oppression”[12].

Those who settled brought with them skills and an ethos for self sufficiency; many of the personal stories articulated in the book indicate an initial curiosity, and a gradual integration of this knowledge and lifestyle into the existing communities. Ulrich Kocher’s insightful Immigrants: Entrepreneurs of the Future offers an illuminating account of the ‘informal labour’ which immigrants bring to a particular area. Architect Dominic Stevens attests to the fact that “the whole eco-thing has been really important to Leitrim”(p52).  Michael Harding’s Modern Moment chronicles the impact of the migrant population in shaping a new identity for Leitrim, as “an artistic province. A rural bohemia.”[13]

This amounted to a shift in how Leitrim was imagined and perceived, but inevitably was eclipsed by the economic boom, which devoured the landscape; its eclectic inhabitants became “the window dressing for speculators”[14] – rustic charm became the county’s selling point. Building became the new religion, as Alice Lyons described in Cootehall (p45);

I was waiting for the day

when the digger

would get higher

than the church

Amidst the writing, can be found some interesting imagery, which purposefully illustrate the sentiments alluded to in the dialogue.  The reproduction of existing, historical images as well as the artist’s own photographs, document shifting approaches to architecture and land usage.  Ghost estate imagery is contrasted with the unconventional self-build aesthetic. Ballroom and seaside nostalgia are depicted in their derelict, contemporary realities.  Underpinning the imagery is a persistent reference to collective action, resonating in images of buildings which were once hubs of communal recreation, and also evident in land art projects, as well as in the act of protest.  German encyclopaedic diagrams from the 1930’s provide the classification of accoutrements associated with alternative lifestyles, such as dogs and beards.  I like the fact that this book has an index.  I didn’t really use it as such, but treated it as an extension of the text which precludes it. This conjures up a prose which is punctuated with surreal alphabetical groupings such as; “Caravan, Cheese, Chernobyl, Cinemobile, Cloud appreciation society”… A thoughtful humour is at work in the composition of this book, as well as an incisive approach to research, with fidelity to context, offering a pace and insight that I enjoyed.

Publication Available for purchase here: http://sarahbrownenews.wordpress.com/2011/02/20/new-artist-book-available-lebensreform-in-leitrim/

The artist-researcher

Returning to the concept proposed by Hardt and Negri in Multitudes, ‘common’ becomes less about the ownership of material goods, and broadens out to include entities such as intellectual commonage, soft knowledge[15] production, and localised co-operative structures.  In short, “the common we share, in fact, is not so much discovered as it is produced”[16].

The re-emmergence of collective formats, has triggered an fresh engagement with ‘Communism as a philosophical concept’[17] in contemporary discourse, according to the Slovenian philosopher and writer, Slavoj Zizek.  In this context, the “philosophical obligation is to help a new mode of existence of the hypothesis, to deploy itself.”

With this in mind, I posed the question “What do you think is the role of the artist-researcher?” to each of the artists:

Sarah Browne’s response considered the perceived hierarchies of knowledge, which emerge out of discourse surrounding inter-disciplinary research.

“I’m quite ambivalent about the notion of the ‘artist researcher’ as it implies that;
a) not all artists are researchers (in my opinion whether you’re making paintings or explicit ‘research projects’ there is a serious and rigorous investigation underway),

b) the artist researcher produces a ‘special’ kind of knowledge that is subject to a ‘special’ kind of analysis.  Whether that is true or not, I’m never thoroughly convinced by disciplinary arguments. I think they often create unhelpful, competitive kinds of divisions that aren’t reconcilable with the position of genuine attempts at inter-disciplinarity.”

Bryonie Reid articulated the sense of mutual exchange which occurs when a “tentative, experimental bridge is formed between theory and practice”.  Firstly, theoretical research can strengthen the visual and “bring intellectual rigour” to the artist’s conceptual framework.  Secondly, theoretical research can be circulated to a non-academic audience via the creative process.

As a good concluding note, Fiona Woods considered knowledge production as something quite political.  She believes that artistic research should find ways to resist contributing to the Knowledge Economy.

“…anyone who has looked at the Knowledge Economy can see that it is a contemporary form of Enclosure, a way of creating new forms of ‘property’ from which to extract profit. …My artistic practice is research in the sense that it is a form of open-ended inquiry, where failure rather than success is the likely, and perhaps more desirable, outcome, where failure, rather than success, is seen as a node for the emergence of possible change.”


[1] Cited in Reclaiming the Commons, David Bollier, Boston Review, 2003

[2]Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri Multitudes: War and Democracy in the age of the Empire, (New York: Penguin Press, 2004), see preface – Life in Common, pp 6-18

[3] PS²= Paragon Studios / project space, is an artist collective and studio space in Belfast.  There is a core group of members, as well as associate members who work with the group on specific projects.

www.pssquared.org

[4] ‘Collection of Minds #1′ took place May 2009-October 2010.

[6] Previous sites of engagement include bike shelters in Galway during the Tulca festival (6th – 21st November 2010).

[8] Coillte Teoranta (from Irish language, meaning Forestry Limited) is an Irish, state-sponsored, commercial company operating in forestry, land-based businesses and added-value processing operations.  It owns over 445,000 hectares of land, about 7% of the land cover of Ireland.

www.coilte.ie

[9] Psychogeography was a concept developed by the Lettrist International movement, which explored the idea of urban wandering, defined by Guy Debord in 1955

[10] “Lebensreform is a term that originated in Germany in the mid 1890’s as a response to the attempts to renew the whole conduct of life, especially in the spheres of nutrition, clothing, dwelling and health…the Life Reform movements were certainly predecessors of today’s ‘escapist’ constructions of identity, formed via lifestyle conceptions.” – Lebensreform in Leitrim p5

[11] Ibid. Sarah Browne p 53

[12] Ibid. DBC Pierre p 13

[13] Ibid. Michael Harding p39

[14] Ibid.

[15] Hard Knowledge: Quantifiable knowledge which can be coded, translated or structured into a manual, text book or other structured data.

Soft knowledge: less quantifiable as it cannot be so easily captured or stored, often in the form of historical traditions, skills, internalised experience, or forms of cultural knowledge which are embedded in the practice of a given community.

[16] Hardt and Negri, p15.

[17]Conference “On the Idea of Communism”, Birkbeck College, University of London, 13-15 March 2009.

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