VAN July/August 2015: ‘Circulation & Exchange’ by Cliona Harmey

Cliona Harmey, Dublin Ships, installed February 2015, North Wall Quay, Dublin, photo by Ros Kavanagh


Installed during February this year, Dublin Ships is a temporary public artwork commissioned by Dublin City Council as part of the Dublin City Public Art Programme. The project was a response to an open call for public art under the theme ‘interaction and the city’. Dublin Ships was one of a series of commissions initiated by Dublin City Council Public Art Office under the Per Cent for Art scheme, with funding from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government.

My initial proposal was shortlisted and recommended for a research and development period with an award of €5,000. The research and development contract was drawn up in discussion with Public Art Manager Ruairí Ó Cuív. It listed all the elements that needed clarification and required additional research. As the projected costs of the commission were over the maximum limit in the call for proposals, it was also necessary for us to source some external funding for the commission.

At the time of submitting the original proposal, I had a clear idea of the general format of the work. It was to be a generative systems-based work, which displayed the name of the most recent ship in and out of Dublin Port in real time on a pair of screens in a public space. I had suggested a few different locations but not one definite site. The work itself grew out of a much smaller work, Dublin Port, which used the timetable from the Dublin Port Company website and was as part of the exhibition ‘Unbuilding’ at Mermaid, Bray (23 August – 17 October 2010), curated by Cliodhna Shaffrey, Rosie Lynch and Eilis Lavelle.

Photos by Zak Milofsky
Installing Dublin Ships, photo by Zak Milofsky

For Dublin Ships we used a technology called Automatic Identification Signal (AIS) to receive real-time information from ships at sea. Onsite, the work comprises two custom LED screens, attached to the obsolete Scherzer Bridge at North Wall Quay. Also housed onsite is a networked computer and signage controller. Information is fed to the screens via an antenna, which receive signals from ships almost as far as Holyhead and Scotland in order to get their International Maritime Organisation identification (IMO) number. The IMO numbers are then exchanged with AIS database, which provides the ship’s name. All this happens in a few seconds. The technology is commonly used by hobbyists and the website receives data feeds from volunteers all around the world.

In exchange for our data, kindly agreed to allow us access to their data at no cost. In terms of testing the technology, I got some help and advice from Dan Cussen at TOG hacker space ( who showed me how to set up an antenna and how to begin receiving data.

When considering a site for the work, it was important that it was in a location with a direct connection to Dublin Port and with a high footfall and passing traffic so that viewers would see it over a prolonged period. We also needed permissions and access to infrastructural elements like power. At the end of the research and development period, I submitted a detailed report to Dublin City Council’s Public Art Advisory Group with a view to the project progressing to development and completion. Luckily the advisory group approved the project and the next phase began.

Working on a project like this was made a lot easier by the types of supports offered to me via Dublin City Council’s Art’s Office – particularly Ruairí Ó Cuív and his then assistant artist Niamh O’Doherty. Ó Cuív set up valuable meetings and helped communications with Dublin City Council officials (Roads and Traffic, Heritage, Waste Water). He also brokered meetings and essential partnerships with Dublin Port Company and Dublin Docklands Development Authority (DDDA), both of whom were very open and provided additional types of support. The Dublin Port Company part-funded the project and DDDA gave us support in kind by allowing the use of their property, the Scherzer Bridge, and access to an electricity supply.

As an artist who works mostly in a gallery context, I was quite daunted by the idea of public art, and had never really had an idea for a piece to be shown in a public context before. Whilst the initial research and development study was helpful, most of the real learning happened in the more concrete production and installation phase. I spent a good bit of time ringing, checking, emailing. There was a lot of administrative and organisational work.

The main thing I learned in the process was not to put things off: just do it now and just keep calling people until you get the information and details you need. A really good part of the project was actually working with other people: the creativity, valuable problem-solving skills and suggestions of the signage contractor, the electrician, the programmer, and the traffic management companies and hoist operators were really the best bits. Working on infrastructural elements like the power also had an element of industrial archaeology about it, finding out who owned which power box etc.

The work was installed a week ahead of the launch, overnight on a very cold night in February. For the first week we had no mediating signage – so I hope that it may have been a bit of a mystery for commuters! In terms of reception of the work, I’ve received many anecdotal accounts of people who enjoy seeing the work on their commute or as they cross the city. A really nice surprise has been the popularity of the Twitter feed, an automated mirror of the text content of the signs. There has been quite an active and growing following with regular favourites and retweets.

We built an information site – – that explains the background, the technologies and includes a number of texts including one by Eamonn O Reilly, CEO of the Dublin Port Company, in which he writes about how the visual connection of port to city has diminished over time. He mentions how at the time of James Joyce, about 100 years ago, the port had a closer connection to the city. Yet he states that the port is a very important connection to the city both practically and imaginatively. Francis Halsall wrote a text that relates the work to the ubiquitous systems of circulation and exchange in which we’re enmeshed (1).

In terms of media coverage, Luke Clancy’s Culture File recorded a programme with us on the night of the install. (2) Gemma Tipton also visited the port and wrote a full-page article for the Irish Times, who also did a video feature. (3) Belfast-based online magazine Collected published a comprehensive article by Sara O’Brien. (4) The commission has also been reported in press outside of the cultural / art press, such as Business and Leadership (5), sailing and boating magazine Afloat and shipping trade magazine Trade Winds.

We ran a small engagement programme in local schools devised by Liz Coman in the Arts Office with Martina Galvin, Katy Fitzpatrick and Aislinn O’Donnell. Katy and Aislinn opened the engagement project with a discussion around philosophy and different forms of art. The children talked about their conceptions of art and how it might also be an instruction, an activity or an upside-down chair. The children’s response to the Dublin Ships project was very positive; many had already seen it and were aware of it. As part of the engagement programme the children got a chance to visit the port and control room. One group was very excited to see the large cruise ship Caribbean Princess up close as she arrived and docked. The children processed this experience in the classroom through drawing and discussion, elements of which we hope to use to form a small online publication, which can be used by other schools.

Technology-based works have their own particularities and need specific maintenance and care. I check this work periodically – remotely via an online interface and also via an opportunely-placed DCC traffic camera. Like most systems it’s had a few small hiccups along the way but has largely been stable and working to plan 24 hours a day. Professional programmer Ruadhan O’Donoghue, who is based in Berlin, did the programming work for the whole project and most of our communication was done online via email.

Managing a budget of this size and staying on track time wise were some of the challenges I faced. I’m glad to say things balanced budget wise, though I was definitely glad of the percentage contingency we included as I think there are often unforeseen costs. So far it has been a very positive experience and a kind of thrill to temporarily leave the space of the gallery.

Cliona Harmey

1. Francis Halsall, ‘Systems at Sea: on Cliona Harmey’,
2. Luke Clancy, Culture File, Lyric FM, broadcast in February 2015,
3. Gemma Tipton, ‘The shipping news: Dublin is reacquainted with its docks’, Irish Times, February 2015
4. Sara O’Brien,, May 2015
5., February 2015

By continuing to use the site, you agree to the use of cookies. more information

The cookie settings on this website are set to "allow cookies" to give you the best browsing experience possible. If you continue to use this website without changing your cookie settings or you click "Accept" below then you are consenting to this. You can review our Privacy Policy under the menu above: About VAI > VAI Privacy Statement