VAN January/February 2011: Architectural Essence

Commonage exhibition
Commonage exhibition - Old Co-op, Callan

Cliodhna Shaffrey profiles ‘Commonage’ a project merging art and architecture that took place in Callan, Co. Kilkenny during 31 JULY – 8 AUGUST 2010

The Arts Council recently published a study into public engagement with architecture in Ireland, written and researched by Alan Mee and Richard Wakely. The authors acknowledge that public engagement with architecture is a relatively recent phenomenon in Ireland and must therefore start from “a low base”. The study identified a range of actions, which the Arts Council might wish to consider as a means of enhancing the level of supports for engaging the Irish public with the art form of architecture. Mee and Wakely recommend the facilitation of a broader approach encompassing the wider built environment and giving opportunity for the public to be exposed to, become aware of, appreciate, and participate in the creative endeavour associated with architecture.  Commonage – curated by Rosie Lynch, Tara Kennedy and Jo Anne Butler for the town of Callan, County Kilkenny was funded under the Arts Council’s Touring and Dissemination Architecture Award, 201. It was an exemplar of a broad approach – as well as being a beautifully pitched and curated experience.

Commonage was conceived as a distinct strand of the Callan Abhainn Rí Festival – a community festival based on inclusion and participation, initiated by Patrick Lydon of Camphill and organised by Callan Community Network. It was devised as a week-long event, which provided opportunities for a small group of artists and architects to undertake “a radical exploration of the built environment of Callan”; and as a basis to make new work and situate it throughout the town. The curators also selected a number of existing artworks.

The spaces used (both inside and outside) were back lanes, hill tops, public spaces and empty buildings  – the Co-op building on the main street, the Pumphouse at the end of Clodeen Lane, The Moat, Fennelly’s bar on Bridge Street. The project involved major clean ups of large and vacant spaces, undertaken in collaboration between the festival staff, curators and local people. For Commonage these spaces were either re-opened to the public or opened up for the first time. The sites in combination with the works situated in, offered visitors a very particular experience of the town of Callan. The works, in a sense, offered a means to connect people with public spaces and architecture, and in turn to link up more the architecture of the town and its public spaces. The impressive – and little changed over the years – urban structure of Callan acted as ‘frame’ for the commissioned and selected artworks.

I began my own visit at Fennelly’s on Bridge Street, where HURL (Home University Roscommon Leitrim) had presented a series of audio recordings made with local people about their town’s histories and imagined futures – voicing an odd mix of knowledge and idiosyncratic information from several residents’ perspectives and passions inclusive of that for the local rustic loaf.  HURL is Ireland’s newest university and was set up by a group of individuals dedicated to the exchange of soft knowledge so the subject matter that is of interest to them is wide-ranging dealing in current and critical material to methods and rituals for living that are quickly disappearing or easily lost.

Fennelly’s house and pub combined the remnants of a farmhouse out the back.  It is the sort of building that was one time very common in towns throughout Ireland, but very few of them now remain in their original form. Its new owner Etaoin Holahan is giving it a new lease of life by using it as place for ‘pop-up’ events as well as her home. We were allowed to ramble around the house, freely  – up and down ladders and through empty rooms and downstairs to the little pub – where the audio recordings were set up for listening and Gerry Cahill’s picture postcard sketches of the town could be bought.  Unfortunately I didn’t make it to the Workhouse Test – another ambitious project space in Callan in which Etaoin is involved. Curated with Bridget O’Gorman and Kate Strain, Kinetoscope Parlour showcased video works by Matt Calderwood, Eilis McDonald, Tessa Power and Brad Troemel.

Culturstruction (Tara Kennedy and Jo Anne Butler) built a viewing platform of charred timber at an overlooked place on the river – presenting the possibility for a picturesque moment in a non-picturesque site.  It’s a place where a lot of local kids hang out and to get there you have to walk down a small back lane and, when you get there the river is small and shallow and the landscape is overgrown and weedy. Culturstruction’s interventions often operate at the intersection between art and architecture and offer a small-scale improvement for better social environments. Their bespoke platform for the teenagers was beautifully crafted – with the help of local skilled labour – its geometric form was built firmly to jut out into the river.

In the Co-op building – an impressive agricultural and industrial complex and a key building on the main street that is no longer in active use – I saw Rhona Byrne’s video Model Town,  – commissioned for Commonage and made earlier this year while on a residency in the Mattress Factory, Pennsylvania, USA. It was projected onto stacked bed heads making a unique installation space for this projection. The video focuses on the miniature village made by Laurence Gieringer from Pennsylvania, who made a model village over a 60-year period. Documenting this lifetime of work, Byrne illustrates how ‘one man’s passionate commitment to envisioning a bigger picture than the world he knew and how, with a do-it-yourself mentality, he shaped a dream into a sustainable reality’.

Also in this complex was a work by Gabriella Kiss, 15 people swinging and more (2005) a video installation celebrating how people come together and enjoy themselves. Katie Managan, exhibited her a recent graduate work from NCAD – including a kinetic sculpture made out of strips of film reel and a spinning wheel. This impressive modernist sculpture glistened as it whirled  – witty and surreal. First-year architectural students from UCD were set the task to design a house and garden for Camphill Callan as part of their course work. This was exhibited alongside Dominic Lavelle’s graduate thesis of a similar theme. Models and drawings from a selection of the students were upstairs in the loft and presented using the building’s structure and found furniture for their display. There was an immediacy in the pragmatic and cosy way the architectural models were displayed in this spacious agrarian interior that seemed to aid readings of architectural proposals for Camphill and underline a desired connection or rootedness to place.

Camphill – for which the young architects proposed their interventions, is an organisation and charitable trust working with people with special needs. The Camphill Communities, of which there are quite a number now in Ireland and around the world, was established first in Scotland, by a group of Jewish refugee doctors, who after the Second World War wanted to do something positive for the most vulnerable people in society. Their vision inspired by the philosophies of Dr Rudolf Steiner advocated for becoming creative with one’s own human potential.  KCAT Art & Study Centre, another organisation in the centre of Callan is established as an environment in which artists and students from different backgrounds and abilities can work and create together. These two organisations seem to have seeped into the very spirit of Callan. Tony O’Malley also had his home and studio here  – now a facility for artists’ operated by the RHA.

Perhaps there is something in this mix of the 19th century vernacular architecture (agricultural and industrial buildings) built on medieval foundations, farming communities and presence of artistic and alternative communities and the feeling that the Celtic Tiger only tinkered at its fringes that combines to make Callan the place it is today. Credible and appealing, because it is authentic and not clichéd or a facsimile, nine miles outside the sophisticated Kilkenny city, Callan is not over polished and is simple enough. But all over Ireland, we might say there are towns like this, what sets Callan aside is that the people here sense an essence of architecture in their immediate surroundings; it’s not as if it has a hotlist of architectural highlights, but that somehow the streetscape and buildings add up and it is, as the curators and so many of the local community, so astutely considered a good place to start a conversation about place and thereby get to the root of what might be considered the most profound ambition for architecture  – to create place.  And, it is perhaps, as the curators suggest that small towns like Callan, “away from the bustling cities and the hubs of the global financial industry, where ordinary residents experience the vagrancies of the global economy and the impact of global changes…. [is] where we can learn to develop a sustainable future”. (1)

At night-time the moat in Callan was lit by the Good Hatchery artists Carl Giffney and Ruth E. Lyons. Their installation Missionary 52 – 7 comprised of temporary architecture and high-powered lights and was ambitious – romantic and dreamy – staged between the trees, drawing our attention to the skies above. Their research uncovering the Callan motto ‘Keep Watching the Skies’ suggesting a greater connection to the celestial influences on the world around us.

While a week can be a short time in the life of any project, especially where so much hard work is invested in its realisation, the curators took good care to document Commonage by commissioning artist and documentary photographer Henrietta Williams. William’s tracking of this event has produced a particularly original series of photographs, which certainly bring another dimension to revealing the experience through her camera’s lens. Lisa Cassidy’s  Prologue was a small printed zine, also presented as a personal response to Callan where she set about “pulling things out of context, like a tiny museum made just from my point of view”.  It responds to Callan with ‘total delight’ picking up in outline sketches and small texts details that have captured her. “To dwell is to leave a trace” – she writes, quoting Walter Benjamin, and we sense this everywhere in Callan, a town that hasn’t changed that much, where traces are everywhere.

Cliodhna Shaffrey

(1) Small town sustainability, Heike Mayer and Paul L. Knox, Birkhauser (2009)

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