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It’s the worst disguise ever. Basqr is wearing a sticker that says ‘HELLO, my name is BASQR’. Though that’s not his real name, it is the tag of the graffiti artist that police are looking for at his exhibition. His friends come up to give their congratulations, but he shushes them before they can identify him and gives them all identical looking stickers. Soon the entire audience (half glamorous Galwegian artistic community, the other half are made up of grungy looking friends of the artists, coaxed here by the promise of free wine) are wearing these ‘BASQR’ badges – all claiming to have created the massive spray paint murals that adorn the back of the Rosin Dubh. It’s very ‘Spartacus’.

The exhibition which was held at the Galway arts centre last February isn’t the only time the city has celebrated this suburban outlaw’s work. More recently he has featured in ‘Space Invaders’ – a series of exhibitions held in vacant lots and storefronts.

It sounds odd, like graffiti artists breaking into abandoned buildings and setting up shop. But it’s not. The property owners give them permission, they’re glad to have them there. “It’s a good advertisement for the space” Basqr told me, “We make it look very appealing. People have a reason to come in and look at the place from the inside without needing an appointment. There are 96 empty units in Galway which are getting damp and rundown and broken into but, by having us in them, we can clean it up and create a buzz around the area and make it a lot more appealing to potential renters.”

Their latest show, which opened last Thursday, features Basqr and is headed by Galway council’s Artist-in-residence, Margaret Nolan. It’s being held at the Corn-store in what was once a bike shop. “It’s a bit like the ‘Broken Window Theory’” Basqr says “when one place shuts down it makes the whole area look more derelict. The empty units were very depressive looking. Now, you see people walking in and looking about, curious. It also benefits the surrounding shops by keeping people around. For us, it gives us a chance to break into the art scene and teaches everything a young artist needs to know about making a show. And we pay no rent.”

In Dublin there used to be a furniture shop so posh that you needed an appointment to enter. Now, the Exchange, across the street from the Czech Inn, paints the walls with handprints and wallpapers the toilets with the pages of paperbacks.

After months of building, safety checks and red tape, the Exchange opened in August of last year to become one of Dublin’s busiest arts spaces. Funded in part by the ‘Young Ensemble Scheme’ and overseen by the ‘Project Arts Centre’, all the organisation and labour was done by unpaid and unregistered volunteers.

Everything is run on goodwill and trust; finance, bookings, admin and PR. Their money is raised from donations and shows. When someone donated a big slab of Oak, they turned it into a kitchen countertop. They show me the calendar in the meeting area where all the events scheduled for the next month are listed. Anyone can submit their artwork to the gallery and volunteers decide on the most interesting pieces to be displayed. I’m also shown around the kitchen and the stage, fully equipped with projectors and lights. Lastly, they have their own library; anyone is free to take a book provided they return it or swap it for another.

I notice the place is mostly populated by hip, beardy mid-twenty year olds and pretty foreign girls. They tell me, though, that everybody is welcome and that there’s usually also people in their teens and thirties hanging around.

The youngest there, a 16-year-old called Niamh, says “I like the fact that, in here, everyone’s equal. In a lot of places my age has been a real issue, you got put down.” Part of the appeal for teens is that the Exchange is an alcohol-free space, something that many of drinking-age also seem to enjoy. Rui, a Portuguese man, tells me “The big attraction to me is that there’s no alcohol or drugs, it’s very rare you can find somewhere to come in and have a constructive conversation with strangers”.

Image by Elly Friel

And, as I’m told by volunteer Tom Stewart , “there’s enough places to drink anyway”. Tall, thin and intense, Tom would sound radical reciting the alphabet. He says “This is the situation. We have all these buildings that are empty, kept at artificially high prices and we have loads of very talented people sitting around, staring at walls. What we’re doing is opening up spaces for them to do things, things that they want to do anyway” The idea behind the Exchange is that they simply provide groups with a time and a place. They host Capoeira and Italian folk dancing and social groups for enthusiasts of cameras and comics and comedy. However, what they seem most proud of is how the exchange is run, “Anyone can be involved, there’s no hierarchal structure” I’m told by Stephen, a volunteer for over a year, he helped design the, frankly, excellent website. “There’s no boss, there’s no manager, everyone’s on the same level, everyone’s opinions are given the same weight. The thing is though” he adds “the place works. But you have to see it in action with your own eyes instead of me telling it to you”. I planned to.

I first hear of Louise Marlborough through a group of DIT Photography students for whom she had curated an exhibition. Crowded around a cold canteen, they told me she was “freakishly organised”. Then, mumbled more to herself than to me, one said “No one should be that organised”.

I meet Louise at a coffee shop on the corner of Georges’ St. Arcade. The windows are misted against the blizzard outside and steam rises up from Louise’s Tibetan-style hat when she takes it off. With her dark hair and calm smile she looks the archetype of an art curator.

After travelling for three years, Louise returned to Ireland just as the effects of the recession began to be felt. “I was just responding to something that was happening at that moment. There’s so many uses for empty buildings, I just happen to have an arts background”

As far as she knows, her organisation ‘Pretty Vacant’ is the only mobile ongoing art exhibition in Dublin, all others have been held in fixed spaces. However, she says that the idea is nothing new, they’ve been doing it in New York since ‘73, not to mention the ‘Creative Limerick’ and ‘Space Invader’ schemes.

She’s held 6 exhibitions so far, showcasing t-shirts, video, drawing, printmaking and projection, as well as photography. She tells me of two shows done in Sandymount, in a unit between a plastic surgeons and a café that until then had been unused. The property is still today advertised as vacant online. This empty building was good for her – an entirely blank canvas – but a waste for the developer. “In Sandymount we noticed that people were never able to look inside the building. They were interested in art, but also interested in just seeing the building from the inside.”

She finds artists through open calls and exhibits in empty shops “If they could have found someone they could charge to use the space, they would have”.

She sounds like Basqr in her reasoning, telling me that an empty space is a bad advertisement for both the building and the area. “When we held an exhibition in the Ilac centre, it was like a little community. The Dunnes there was such a large unit to be empty, it drove people away” The exhibition, which was open for less than a month, drew over 1,300 visitors.

Unlike the Exchange, ‘Pretty Vacant’ survives by selling paintings, they get no funding from the Arts council, though Louise tells me she did receive support from the then-mayor Costello who was working on putting a Dublin equivalent of Creative Limerick in place, “Property owners can be wary, but they would feel more comfortable and confident if the council was involved.”

When I return to the Exchange they tell me that this is probably the quietest meeting yet. With about ten volunteers around at any one time, they’re right, it is quiet. It’s been snowing heavily and outside the window looks like a sleepy Christmastime Guinness advert.

Before the meeting starts I talk to two guys who they tell me they were just to keep warm and kill time but, like me, have heard about the how the meetings are run and are staying around to witness what it’s like.

It’s a strange sight, half the meeting is held in a form of sign-language so that participants don’t speak over each other. You make jazz hands if you agree and a fist like a black-power salute if you don’t. If you think the current speaker is rambling, you make a reeling motion, and a ‘T’ made with the hands means that someone has made a minor, technical mistake.

People walking past, cottoned up in scarves and hats, stop to look at the group gesturing madly at each other, surrounded in the gallery by the self-portraits of troubled teens. Latecomers slip in and throw their jackets and hats onto empty chairs and quietly take seats or help themselves to coffee.

The meeting deals with what events they’ll allow be advertised and whether, in the future, they will allow the artworks on display be sold through the Exchange. They decide that, due to the tendency of commercial events to cancel without notice, they’ll have to ask for deposits in the future. Apparently a lot of the local businesses don’t take non-profits seriously.

During the discussion I find out that the Exchange is hitting capacity and they are struggling to find space for new activities to take place. Largely, the meeting is logistical. To my left a big, bearded man takes minutes down on a laptop. In fact, what strikes me most is how bureaucratic the whole thing is. They talk about ‘horizontal promotion’, ‘Crowd-Sourcing’ and ‘maintaining price points’.

Though they whisper to each other throughout and laugh at inside jokes, the vibe is that of a semi-formal office meeting. At the start an agenda was written up on a big white-board and everyone was asked to add items for discussion. The few times someone rambles onto a different topic, a T-sign is made and everyone is quickly roped back in line.

Unlike an office meeting they’re efficient to the point of making these meetings obsolete. They resolve their problems with phrases like “Tomorrow morning I’ll have it done”, thrown about by people who freely take on extra work and responsibility. People are here because they want to help, so there’s little issue of trust or incentive.

From December 2010

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