VAN January/February 2011: Airport Art

Mike Hannon - Terminal Convention
Production sill from Terminal Convention (working title), an experimental documentary by artist and filmmaker Mike Hannon.

Sara Baume introduces ‘Terminal Convention 2011’ an major international art exhibition that will take place on the site of the former Cork International Airport (17 – 27 March).

What do you get if you cross hundreds of empty baggage trolleys, a couple of stalled conveyors and a dehydrated fountain with a gaggle of international artists, musicians and speakers – then shuffle them all together in a tumbledown airport on the outskirts of civilisation across the St. Patrick’s weekend? It may sound something of an obscure joke, but suspend disbelief long enough and you might well find yourself revelling in just such an event throughout 11 eclectic days this coming springtime…

An initiative of Static Gallery in Liverpool, the shrewdly titled Terminal Convention 2011is set to take place in the former Cork International Airport, which was decommissioned in favour of a shiny new facility in 2006. It is the brainchild of Static’s director, Paul Sullivan, who has had links with the city since Cork was European Capital of Culture in 2005. At the heart of the event will be an exhibition installed throughout the abandoned building with Peter Gorschlüter (Deputy Director of MMK Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main) as curator. Terminal Conventionis also set to consist of a symposium co-ordinated by John Byrne (co-director of Static and Programme leader of Fine Art Liverpool John Moores University), an art fair and a major music event. While the line-up of musicians was still quite provisional at the time of going to press, the confirmed symposium speakers include George Yudice of the University of Miami, Charles Esche and Steven ten Thije of the Van Abbe Museum, Eindhoven. The list of participating artists is a more concrete cause for excitement – Douglas Gordon, Damien Hirst, Imogen Stidworthy, Frederic Pradeau, Diane Guyot, Juan Cruz, Padraig Timoney, Becky Shaw, Peter Norrman, Jacqueline Passmore, Ross Dalziel (Sound Network), Adrian Williams, Shane Munro and Le Pavillon (Palais de Tokyo/Paris). In addition, the National Sculpture Factory, as partners of the project in Cork, have selected three Irish artists – Seamus Nolan, Nevin Lahart and Martin Healy.

“I remember coming through the new terminal, knowing that the old building had been decommissioned and looking out at it, thinking, that would be such a great place to do a project,” Sullivan tells me. He is sitting on a window ledge upstairs in the defunct Departure lounge with John Byrne and Peter Gorschlüter on either side, and a picturesque setting of blue skies and runways in the background. It is the first weekend of official site visits and the terminal is variously scattered with artists, architecture students and other members of the organising team – each absorbed in their own explorations – taking photographs and making drawings as they go.

Airport Property Manager, John Bruen, seems happy to let me roam the strangely familiar building. Unlike mostly everybody else, I can remember when it was a functioning airport, when as a child, I was brought on annual visits to pick up my English grandmother. It is especially strange for me to see the escalators stalled, the lifts suspended in mid air, the fish tanks drained, the check-in desks deserted and everything eerily dwarfed by adulthood.

“The response I’ve got locally,” Sullivan says, “when we talk about the project being in the old terminal, is that people almost seem to automatically bypass the art bit and think, ‘well how do we get into the building?!’ They remember it as it was before and want to see it again.” It goes without saying that an event of this calibre will attract members of the art community from further afield, so it’s good to hear that the organisers are just as aware of the inhabitants of its host city and even those living beneath the flight paths in the surrounding countryside. “The range of events that are happening are going to attract a range of audiences,” he says, “there’ll be people flying in especially for the event, but I presume the majority of the audience are going to be Irish.”

Peter Gorschlüter mentions that they hope to organise a farmer’s market to run alongside the art fair ­– buttermilk scones and muddied turnips meets white emulsion and multimedia installation.  This is sure to attract a more diverse audience – above all other counties, Cork loves its markets. When asked about his role as exhibitions curator in such a multifaceted event, Gorschlüter stresses that “the art is everything, across all parts of the project.” He describes this weekend’s site visits as something of a “blind date” for most of those present, in terms of both meeting each other and encountering the abandoned terminal for the first time.  “The main idea was to bring together those that had a particular interest in making interventions in the space, in working site-specifically,” he says, “it’s not about taking art from all over the world and showing it in this particular place, but about inviting the artists to respond.”

It’s a risky approach for a curator – one that requires a certain surrender of control to the spontaneous, ambiguous relationship between artist and infrastructure.  But Gorschlüter’s calm and confident manner give the distinct impression that it will pay off, that his trust will ultimately allow for a more interesting exhibition. The list of artists is well varied – both in terms of country of origin and media of choice. When I ask Gorschlüter about the selection process, he says that “some of the artists were selected through my connections, some through Sullivan’s connections and others through the National Sculpture Factory.” It seems fitting that he expects “a lot of the work will be about communication, one way or another.”

Communication certainly is not something of a problem between the three main organisers – it’s clear from our conversation that Terminal Conventionis being driven by their overlapping interests and shared ideas.  The symposium, set to take place over a few days at the start of the event, will be a great way of examining these driving concerns in a little more depth. “All of those ideas about different kinds of audiences, local/national, are part of the whole context of the show and the conference anyway,” John Byrne says, “these kind of issues continually come up if you are going to site it in a place like this.” The idea of having such an integrated symposium is something of particular appeal to me – of being able to put the discussion into context by means of the living, original artworks and events that immediately surround it. “It’s really important that the conference doesn’t just end up sitting on top of the exhibition like some kind of an alienated dialogue,” Byrne says, “that it works with the space and the issues, that it picks up from some of the things you will have heard before about ‘airport art’ – that kind of bland and ubiquitous art that one tends to associate more with the art market.”

Gorschlüter reflects Byrne’s views when he criticises his own overuse, as a curator, of the word ‘international’ in the writing of press releases, and when he talks about how tired he is of constantly encountering the same type of artwork the world over.  He sees the exhibition as an opportunity to create a discussion around “difference and diversity” in a strangely appropriate, almost ironic situation.

In terms of the artists themselves, I got a chance to hear Adrian Williams and Shane Munro talking about their respective practices the following day, as part of a seminar for students in the Crawford College of Art and Design.  While cautious to reveal specific plans for Terminal Convention, both describe examples of existing work that nicely shows why they were invited and how suited they are to the project as a whole.

Back on the window ledge in the decommissioned terminal, soundtracked by the occasional low growl of ascending and descending aeroplanes, I feel it only right – considering the existing economic straits – to bring up the question of funding.  Sullivan explains that “funding is coming from a handful of places” – mainly from Static, also from the National Sculpture Factory as cultural partners in Ireland and from John Moores University in Liverpool and CIT in Cork as academic partners.  He is keen to emphasise that “Static’s model is not to be reliant on public subsidy in any way”, and that “a lot of the money for Terminal Convention will come through the music event – revenue generated from ticket sales and sales of alcohol, with our partners who are running the bars.”

Sullivan isn’t shy to admit “the whole thing is a complex web that needs to be navigated to get it through to March.”  In the aftermath, there are plans for a publication, plus re-presentations in CIT Wandesford Quay Gallery in April and Static in September.  “That’s a whole other kind of curatorial challenge,” Sullivan says, “how does this huge project then move to a space the size of a regular gallery, and not even a large one at that…”

In order to record the challenges at hand, a filmmaker has been selected as one of the participating artists. His brief is to follow the project through from its shaky beginnings and make some kind of a documentary-style work to be screened at the re-presentations. On my way back out of the abandoned terminal, I bump into Mike Hannon, the appointed filmmaker, and he is happy to discuss some ideas. Although still in its earliest stages, Hannon is clear that the finished piece will have more of the art film and less of the straightforward documentary about it.  He describes, with compelling enthusiasm, his interest in subtle details – in crinkled calendars, strands of drifting spider-web and in the pervading ghost town atmosphere.  When he uses the term ‘apocalyptic’ in relation to how everything is still modern and familiar, yet simultaneously switched-off and abandoned, he captures the place exactly.

Unlike everybody else I have met who is involved with the project, Hannon is a native of Cork and still locally based. I am glad to have found someone who actually remembers the terminal as a operating entity, with whom I can authentically reminisce about the welcome fireplace and the Jack Charlton bronze, about a time before air travel was humdrum and there was still a sense of excitement and anticipation about spaces and sights like these, about Baggage Reclaim and Foreign Exchange. At least we can take solace in the fact that Terminal Convention is set to bring the building back to life again in such an innovative way, and that we will have the chance to remake our childhood memories out of an event so unexpected and extraordinary.

Sara Baume

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