VAN March/April 2011: Responsible Driving

Mercedes Fire
Mercedes Fire

Ruth E. Lyons profiles ‘Mercedes Fire’, an artist-led seven-day touring summer school.

As it becomes increasingly the norm for more art colleges to offer the continued study of visual arts practices at masters and doctorate level, there is a greater demand on artists to obtain higher levels of academic qualifications. I am interested what effect this increase in time spent by artists in development within institutes of education has on the character of contemporary art.

Colleges can provide a shelter for artists – giving them space to develop – but these institutions also inform, passing down knowledge and perpetuating schools of thought. Past a certain point in the development of one’s art practice, I’ve been wondering if the shelter of the art college actually encourages a shirking of responsibilities? Shouldn’t artists claim independent agency over their own learning?

In light of these questions, I have become interested in alternative models of learning and peer critique – that can offer an alternative to formal education while still providing a sense of community and collaboration. As I personally experienced in the course of the ‘Mercedes Fire’ summer school 2010 (1), there is an amazing sense of generosity and camaraderie within the art community in Ireland, which openly invites the free formation of alternative models of social engagement and learning within it.

‘Mercedes Fire’ was conceived of by Claire Feeley (now assistant curator in the Serpentine Gallery) and myself in the winter of 2009, at a time when neither of us had any major prospects on the horizon. The inspiration for the project came from Claire Feeley’s experience of a summer school in Estonia in 2008 (2) and my vision for the development of projects at the Good Hatchery – an artist-led project I co-direct with Carl Giffney in Co. Offaly (3) – combined with a shared interest in notions of monumentality. In light of the amenities we considered to have at our disposal; a residential studio space (the Good Hatchery), two cars and lots friends throughout the country working as artists or in art institutions we decided to combine all these elements into a touring summer event.

‘Mercedes Fire’ took the form of a seven-day touring summer school, with three nominated UK based artists and invited Irish participants under the theme of ‘monumentality’. It was out of a desire to make connections between activities in Ireland and elsewhere, that we invited artists from the UK. The selected artists were invited in light of nominations from various organisations that we admire currently working in the UK. These included Situations in Bristol; Cerbyrd in Wales; Ganghut in Scotland and Nottingham contemporary.

In their application to the summer school the nominated artists were asked to consider “how an event, history, person or ideology can be represented in the name of a public? Has the age of permanent sculpture past? How does society represent itself and its values through public sculpture? What would a monument for the future look like?” Their responses to these questions, along with presentations and workshops on the theme formed an integral part of the week’s schedule.

The week-long tour began in Cork and then followed a deviating route to Dublin – informed by art events and spaces along the way, including a two day stay in the Good Hatchery. For the most part, the tour participants consisted of Claire Feeley; the three main fellows: Megan Broadmeadow (4), Samantha Donnelley (5) and Helen de Main (6): and myself packed into the confines of a golden Toyota Yaris – as we sped from one destination to the next, taking in a transient views of roadside sculptures and the Irish landscape along the way. The schedule of the week included visits to various art spaces, both established institutions and artist led, meetings with other artists, curators, writers and institution directors along with presentations by the fellows and other invited artists. We were interested in providing the fellows with a broad view of artistic activity in Ireland, while also exploring the theme of monumentality in its widest terms.

In Ballymore Eustace our meeting with the group of some 20 or so artists and writers was entitled ‘Mercedes Fire V’s Radical Love’ – which took the form of a gathering under a tarpaulin in the forest – sheltering from a sudden down pour. During the ensuing discussions, what became most apparent was a shared belief in the importance of collectivity; whether that be in the sense of working together to create a monument, or simply working together for the sense of sharing and an ‘ideal of love’.

‘Radical Love’ was organised by artists Joseph Noonan Ganley and Sam Keogh; and took the form of a three-day camp out on a friend’s land for invited artists and writers. During their stay each of the participants presented a contribution to the proceedings in the form of a written paper, an artwork or an action related to the theme of ‘radical love’.

In Callan we visited the Workhouse Test (7) and their video show ‘Kinetoscope Parlor’ featuring work by Eilis MacDonald, Brad Trummell, Matt Calderwood and Tessa Power. Artists Kate Strain, Bridget O’Gorman and Etaoin Holahan direct the Workhouse Test as a space for experimentation in contemporary art practice and virtual interactivity. As its name implies it is located in a former famine workhouse that is also home to Endangered Studios. Down the road from the Workhouse Test, also in the unlikely location of Callan town we visited Fennelly’s Pub for an evening of food, music and film screenings. Fennelly’s is a former multi-purpose pub that is now owned and run by artist Etaoin Holahan as an event-space.

During the weeklong tour, it was our encounters with other artist led groups that had the greatest impression on our invited fellows. It opened up interesting discussions on the comparison between activities in Ireland and those in the UK. What each of the fellow’s noted after our meeting at ‘Radical Love’ and our visit to Callan, was the sense of camaraderie and openness that exists in the art community in Ireland. The UK artists were struck by the self-sufficiency of the artists that we encountered; and the fluid relationships that exist between artists, curators and writers – as demonstrated through the welcome reception we received at each of the art institutions and during our visit to and involvement in a discussion group at the ‘Unbuilding’ project in Bray (8).

Throughout the tour, we invited artists that we met to join us for the two days of presentations and discussions in the Good Hatchery. A group of some 25 or so artists arrived equipped with tents and sleeping bags and set up camp in the yard. The group also included Guest Fellows James O’hAodha, Angela Fulcher, Carl Giffney, Mark Clare and Paul Timoney – who along with the three main fellows and myself each gave a presentation on their work and its relationship to monumentality. These two days were split between discussions around the campfire, artist’s presentations and listening to excerpts from the book Magnetic Promenade and Other Sculpture Parks by artist Chris Evans.

Within the theme of monumentality, what became the dominant concerns were collectivism, representation and responsibility. In relation to learning, by failing to recognise or counter the increasing academicisation of art practice, do we risk allowing a dominant structure to become representative of the art scene as a whole? In my own work my concern with these themes lie in viewing utilitarian structures in our landscape – such as pylons, communication devices, etc –as monuments to our time, from a hypothetical anthropological perspective. I am interested in questioning where our responsibility lies in relation to these structures? What claim if any do we have on these ‘monuments’ that we allow to stand for us?

Our 2011 summer school will be based on the theme of ‘Islands and the Leviathan’. It will take place in July / August. The school will be based on the west coast, with a specific focus on the seascape of Clew Bay and its numerous Islands.

‘Mercedes Fire’ was an unfunded project. An artist fee of €100 paid by each of the main fellows, which covered the costs of food, petrol and hostel accommodation in Dublin. Claire and I would like to thank all those who made Mercedes Fire possible: Mick O’Shea and Irene Murphy, Chris Clarke, Catherine Harty, Stephanie Hough, The Basement Projects, Matt Packer, Eamonn Maxwell, Sam Keogh and Joseph Noonan Ganley, Kate Strain, Bridget O’Gorman and Etaoin Holahan, Clodagh Kenny, Mark Clare, Peter Prendergast, Angela Fulcher, James O’hAodha, Paul Timoney, Carl Giffney, Eilis Lavelle, Cliona Shaffrey and Rosie Lynch.

Ruth E Lyons

(4) Megan Broadmeadow –
(5) Helen de Main –
(6) Samantha Donnelly –
(7) The Workhouse Test –
(8) Unbuilding project –

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