Jonathan Carroll Talks To Jason Oakley About ‘Shop If Can, Look If You Want’ A Contemporary Art Trail Organised For Dublin’s 2010 St. Patrick’s Festival.
JO: How did the idea for ‘Shop if can, Look if you want’ come about?
JC: I had been involved the visual arts element of the St. Patrick Day Festival since 2007. Each year, I would begin putting together a variety of proposals from September for the following March. The sponsorship team and the festival’s CEO would basically act like door-to-door salesmen looking for partners to help fund one of my proposals. The difficulty of getting funding became the creative force behind the ‘Shop If Can, Look If You Want’ idea.
Temple Bar Cultural Trust liked the idea of using empty retail spaces for art; and my initial idea was to highlight the fact that there are always things to see and do in Temple Bar that do not involve alcohol or a deep wallet. TBCT additionally provided me with a small budget, which was matched by the festival itself (the festival does not ring-fence a budget for the visual arts but relies on outside partners and funders).
JO: What were the key curatorial ideas and themes?
JC: I stated the following in the press release: “the sites of commerce and culture find themselves in a moment of confused transition where the abiding sense is that of uncertainty of the next step. The exhibitions reflect this ambiance by occupying vacant retail spaces”. So I was primarily thinking of the experience of the expected audience. I had a desire to elicit the feeling that they were in an undefined space, a temporary mirage or oasis coming out of these recessional times.
Rather than exhibition invigilators, we had ‘non-shopkeepers’ who were general festival volunteers. I wanted to use their inexperience to my advantage, so I told them that the role they were to play was that of a shop assistant that works for a temp agency, they could have been sent to the Brown Thomas department store, but today they were sent to the Non-Car-Showroom, this confusion would equalize them with the visiting public rather than putting them in conflict with them or putting them under pressure to ‘sell’ the curatorial idea.
The Non-Car-Showroom, located in the former Cultivate retail space on Essex Street was the first space I wanted to curate. It’s a large interior space and I thought it would be a perfect venue to exhibit an artist’s work that dealt with the automobile. I had in mind an anti-Top Gear stage set, relating to a notion of ‘bottom gear, driving through the recession’. Therefore, underlying themes such as recycling and DIY along with the era when the automobile offered a bright vision of the future underpinned the recycling of space throughout the exhibition.
JO: How did you source the artists for the show?
JC: I chose all the artists starting with the notion of the theme for each individual space. I eventually had five different Non-Shops in mind: Non-Taxidermy, a Non-Gymnasium, a Non-Car-Showroom, a Non-Laundrette and a Non-Electricians. When I contacted one artist they would suggest another and when I described the idea to anyone else in the arts they also gave me some names. It grew organically from there. I don’t consider any exhibition to be definitive, but rather a starting point for many more projects.
JO: How did you secure the venues and staffing?
JC: TBCT gave me two spaces to use for free and they introduced me to the Gaiety School of Acting and Smock Alley Theatre. I negotiated a lease for the larger Cultivate space. I researched what a gallery of equivalent size would charge and thought of an offer that would suit what is only an empty retail space with no staff or gallery lighting. I had to provide copies of insurance cover, including public liability – fortunately the festival has this cover. The staff were sourced from the large number of volunteers that the festival attracts each year.
JO: The show was successful in getting media coverage in the Times and on RTE. Did you have a strategy to address wider audiences that the usual contemporary art constituency?
JC: The key to curating any exhibition is to know your audience and the strengths of the organization behind the initiative. Within the St Patrick’s Festival, the visual arts must compete to be noticed. The Festival is all about loud noise and the big picture, ‘Skyfest’ and Big Day Out types of things – parades and funfairs. You have to play the game that you are in. I liked having this challenge as a curator and think it makes for a more interesting career if you can balance this with the more concentrated conversation within the artworld.
The Festival does publicity very well – they are like a very colourful butterfly, they have only a week to express themselves and then they disappear for another year.
Firstly I had the chance to include the exhibition in a printed programme of 200,000 that is distributed with the Irish Independent and a website that receives one million hits from January to March. My publicity was also supported by the festival’s dedicated private PR consultancy whose sole job for a few weeks is to get you into the papers and onto television. To take advantage of this, I programmed the visual arts to begin before all other events and continue until the end of the festival. Nonetheless we had only a window of two hours to publicize our event before the Skyfest knocked us off our perch. In the end, we appeared on the RTE Six-one news but were replaced by Skyfest for the later bulletin.
JO: Are there particular steps you took to address the audience, in terms of this event being part of the St. Patrick’s Festival?
JC: The main challenge is to maintain some integrity for the artists. That is you must include some work that you have considered in advance as useful for the press and marketing. I would have to several times discuss what a TV crew would experience if they came to see the show “what is the picture? What is the headline? Where is the action?”. This entails a certain amount of ‘show-ponying’ of your artists, the performance/live element is crucial for exposure and attracting media, without this the rest of the exhibition is ignored.
JO: Could you briefly describe some of the key works in the show?
JC: Nevan Lahart’s 2:20 Horsepower Apocalypse was the largest work in the exhibition and was key to a lot of other work that was displayed with it. It was a full-sized hearse made out of black bin liners along with other various inventively-used throwaway materials. It was an eye-catcher, prominently displayed in the centre of the Non-Car-Showroom. It worked perfectly – both metaphorically and physically – as a symbol of the recession. But also offered a humorous and inventive possible future. Joe Stanley also responded brilliantly to the invitation to include his Auto-Geo Machine in the Non-Car-Showroom, by creating a revolving fluffy display case that would fit perfectly in one of the prominent windows in the exhibition space.
Joost Conijn’s Hout Auto / Wood Car video was a lot of people’s favourite work in the show. It was projected in a cupboard through a jungle hut like reed mesh that existed in the Cultivate space when we arrived. The video shows the artist travelling through twelve countries (from Amsterdam across Eastern Europe) in his hand-made, wooden, steam powered, wood-burning car. The idea that you can drive for free from donated wood through so many countries again offers an alternative route for our survival when oil runs out or we have to rely on barter again.
Amanda Coogan’s Adoration Live 2010 was also a key work, which encapsulated many elements of the exhibition and the effect of the recession on the arts. Amanda proposed a live performance of her video piece called Adoration. For a live performance, Amanda required six choristers and four soloists. As we did not have the budget to make this happen, Amanda came up with a new work that would change from a window display with mannequins to a work with Amanda taking the place of the mannequins and performing live. We then had three different ways of showing Adoration throughout the short run of the exhibition. The window display, with an inside and outside view of the work; as a video performance; a live performance by Amanda and the large projection of the work in Meeting House Square after dark. I had four nights of projections running during the exhibition; these complemented the main exhibitions and hopefully gained the interest of a different crowd, who only come into Temple Bar after dark.
Roisin Beirne’s work The Fall in the Non-Gymnasium was the most challenging piece we tried to include. This large performance / sculpture work had only before been tested indoors as part of her final year exhibition in NCAD. It had to be rethought and built from scratch in a very short time. The idea of commissioning new work in public spaces would be desirable for the Festival in the future.
Sonia Shiel had a solo space, which she transformed into her Non-Laundrette. What was important and different about Sonia’s approach was the underlying political reaction she had to the invitation. She made a large sculptural piece that showed the position of the arts in the greater scheme of things that is at the bottom of the pile, well below bars and cafe society and now on a par with the banks, which have just joined the estranged arts. I liked that Sonia was sceptical about celebrating the sudden availability of now devalued space. Like her, I agree that all is not all rosy in the arts garden.
One of the spaces that worked best in the exhibition was the Non-Electricians, where four artists installed themselves in a very complimentary way. Sharon White had been using the space (2 Saul’s Court; the former 2 Cool Design unit) as a studio to make new work for the exhibition, so she had a good sense of where she wanted to place her wacky and playful inventions (made from old wood and found objects). Gillian Fitzpatrick also produced all new work for the exhibition. She creates work that takes on the appearance of futuristic space age technology by making moulds from waste packaging and found objects and making casts in plastic and resin from these. The resulting objects appear to be mass-produced and machine-made. In fact they are unique and hand-made artworks. When she exhibits her work, she utilizes the infrastructure of the exhibition space. She often places her work in close proximity to existing signage, electrical points, fixtures and fittings.