VAN March/April 2012: Trade Secrets

Ruth McHugh Profiles ‘Trade: Artists in Conversation’ Seminar

The DOCK, Carrick-on-Shannon, Co. Leitrim, 1 – 3 December 2011

TRADE, a unique pedagogical device facilitated by the arts offices of Leitrim and Rosommon, evolved in 2005 out of Cliodhna Shaffey’s ‘Artist-as-Traveller’ curatorial initiative.  Underpinning Shaffrey’s original paradigm was the notion of mobility and fluidity for the artist and the premise that,

the periphery or the margin is a powerful space and not secondary to the centre. It is critical to it because the centre cannot exist without the periphery and only in such space, in confrontation with the mainstream, the local can successfully be defended”.[1]

The first TRADE event took place in the newly opened DOCK arts centre in Carrick-on-Shannon in 2005. Since 2006, the operational format has been a process of two elements: a residential programme, and a seminar event. The ethos of the TRADE event is exchange across borders in both a geographical and metaphorical sense. The ongoing outcomes of the first residential programme, with Alfredo Jarr and Rebecca Fortnum, are proof of the catalystic quality of such engagements. Gareth Kennedy’s Inflatable Bandstand, a result of Alfredo Jarr’s TRADE residency, was illustrated in the publications that accompanied Kennedy’s participation in the Venice Biennale 2009. At the time of the TRADE 2011 seminar, both Angie Duigan and Róisín Loughrey, previous residency artists, were exhibiting in the V&A Museum of Childhood at the invitation of curator, Rebecca Fortnum.[2] Likewise, those who experienced ‘Marathon Monk’ by Darren Almond, during the 2009 TRADE event, were witness to a preview of his 2010 New York exhibit ‘Sometimes Still’ at the Matthew Marks Gallery.

2011 saw expansion on the work of Linda Shevlin, and her compilation of the invaluable TRADE resource room. This year the TRADE event was extended to three days; the first day included ‘Focus on Funding for Culture,’ presented by Cultural Contact Point Ireland. A number of case studies provided an insight into funded projects in Leitrim and comparable or relevant models.  The first speaker, Anne Marie O’Rourke, is associated with innovative cultural developments such as Visual Leitrim and The Leitrim Design Centre, and was also one of the initiators of TRADE itself. Her presentation clarified the way in which projects must respond to the constantly changing parameters of cultural funding. She was echoed in this by Johnny Gogan of Bandit Films. After lunch, Cultural Contact Point Ireland introduced the complexity of a number of European funding mechanisms for which they are an Irish contact-point. Representatives from two projects, who had answered the criteria, demonstrated the funding mechanisms: ‘Co-partners in Third Countries,’ led by Ian Joyce of Clo gCeardlann na gNoc in Donegal; and Rhyzom, led by PS2 Belfast, in partnership with the Leitrim Sculpture Centre. The international networking involved in setting up the partnerships for these projects, especially between peripheral and culturally distinct partners, was relevant to the concept of TRADE, though the structure seemed  daunting in comparison to TRADE’s open format.

David Michalek in conversation with Declan McGonagle © Padraig Cunningham

The next day, Declan McGonagle introduced the 2011 mentor, David Michalek, with the question, “you said you came to art by a strange route…how strange a route?” (Travel metaphors such as this abounded in the mediation of the weekend.) Michalek told an almost Siddhartha-like tale, in which he rose from janitor in the studio of celebrity photographer Herb Ritts, to protégé, to celebrity photographer in his own right.[4] A pivotal point for him was a confrontation with theatre director Peter Sellars, whose course, Art as Social Action, he had taken. Sellars’ disinterest, or outright scorn, for his glamourous photography, led him to question his direction. As a consequence, on Sellars’ recommendation, he engaged with a theatre project called LAPD (The LA Poverty Department) in skid row, at night, while still playing the role of celebrity photographer by day. Eventually he reached a crisis point. He abandoned his successful career.  During this transitional period, a series of unconventional exchanges and dialogues, transgressing the boundaries of social norms, led to a new artwork: Becky. The work is a portrait installation which transported the private language and private space of the subject (Becky), into The Kitchen – a public art space in New York.[5] This was a very different kind of collaborative exchange and portrait. Subsequently, Michalek began to do more collaborative and community-based projects, and now builds a course at Yale Divinity School around his practice. The question of beauty in relation to contemporary art is central to his practice. In 2009, his hyper-slow-motion video, Slow Dancing, was shown as part of the ‘Sacred’ exhibition at The Dock. More recently, in 2011, he exhibited ‘Portraits in Real Time’ at the Lincoln Centre, New York.

Slow Dancing, 2009 © David Michalek

Michalek’s TRADE residency was tied in to the beauty of the Leitrim landscape. The theme adopted by his residency group was the potential threat of ‘fracking’ to the Leitrim landscape and way of life. A new term for many of the audience members, ‘fracking’ describes a process by which gas is extracted from shale rock. On 4 January, a month after the event, it was revealed that “An exploration company wants to drill up to 1,600 wells in Fermanagh and Leitrim in a bid to find shale gas.”[6] Two members of the residency group, David Spence and Brigitta Varadi, were already concerned about ‘fracking’, and they persuaded Stephen Rennick and David Pierce that the group should work with the issue. For the residency exhibition, the artists approached this in several ways: textile artist Varadi devised an engaging ‘fracking’ animation, illustrated by two children; David Spence manipulated archival photographs into cautionary, disintegrated landscapes; Stephen Rennick visited and recorded previous sites of exploration to ascertain if they had been returned to the condition in which they were found, as promised; and finally, David j produced posters of untainted landscapes, and an animated video. In keeping with the global emphasis of TRADE – on ‘the freeflow of ideas and opportunities for local artists to engage internationally, as well as international artists to participate locally’ – David Michalek produced a series of portraits of local people to be used as campaign posters and postcards.

The dialogue of TRADE was expanded by the participation of Philip Napier, whose recent exhibit at the Dock, ‘Unpacking the Terror’, addressed issues of the “social, political and economic implications of global trade”. Napier unsettled the audience by striding about as he spoke, literally performing mobility. The current exhibitor at The Dock, Audrey Reynolds, represented a more meditative position of reflexivity, of the artist as auteur. Sarah Searson, Belinda McKeon, Eilish Lavelle, and Declan McGonagle guided the discussions towards interrogating the varied positions of those involved.  In conversation with the panel of Michalek, Napier, and Reynolds, McKeon observed that Michalek had found himself “in confrontation” with someone (Sellars) who impressed him deeply, and asked if confrontation was a model for artistic exchange, and why artists should participate in exchange. She continued by asking if dissonance or disagreement were important in artists’ exchanges with other artists. In response, contradictory positions, all valid observations on the expanded field of the arts, were delineated. Napier asserted that dissonance is critical, Michalek hoped to engage in an adversarial process full of mutual respect, while Reynolds thought it too easy to find adverseries. The conversation shifted to the question of whether art was a verb or a noun. Michalek referred to how Plato might speak about art, locating art within the maker where it presents itself as a verb. Napier thought of art as a doing-word, a process-based thing. Reynolds considered it a noun. An audience member suggested that you can say ‘I love you’ but you can’t say ‘I art you.’ In terms of the paradigm of TRADE itself, the idea of art as active, as verb, as process, seemed quite apt. Notions of confrontation and dissonance were also relevant to the residency artists’ engagement in modes of social activism. There were potential pitfalls to be encountered in crossing the boundaries between art and political campaigning. Shaffrey’s premise, that “only in such space, in confrontation with the mainstream, the local can successfully be defended,” soundly resonated.[8] During the event, the complexity of constructing such a negotiation revealed itself through some confusion around the representation of the artwork produced for TRADE, and the development of a website for the dialogue on ‘fracking’.[9] As a part of the process these issues were addressed.

TRADE 2011 also provided a platform for two international curators, Rafael López and Dobrila Denegri, to introduce their curatorial positions. Then, on the final day, came one of the most revealing exchanges: a retrospective review of TRADE by previous residency artists, Anna McLeod, Angie Duignan, Róisín Loughrey and Anna Spearman. Alfedo Jarr’s mentorship was described as didactic, comparable to an MA programme, whereas Rebecca Fortnum had been concerned with the “documentation of process”, and John Gibbons encouraged “quite a deep dialogue”. Most interestingly, in terms of travel, mobility, and globalisation, Róisín Loughrey – a trained filmmaker – described feeling “a little like a tourist in a new world” during TRADE.  After their TRADE residencies, three of the four speakers completed or are undertaking MA programmes, a confirmation of the pedagogical trajectory of the process.

[1] Cliodhna Shaffrey, ‘Artist as Traveller: A Seminar and Travelling Exhibition’, Leitrim Arts News, Issue 34, October / November 2004

[2] The Imagination of Children, V&A Museum of Childhood (London), 15 October 2011 – 5 February 2012

[4] The novel Siddhartha, by Hermann Hesse, deals with the spiritual journey of an Indian man named Siddhartha during the time of the Buddha


[6] Valerie Robinson & Simon Cunningham, ‘Fracking in the Spotlight,’ The Irish News, 4 January 2012


[8] Cliodhna Shaffrey, ‘Artist as Traveller: A Seminar and Travelling Exhibition’, Leitrim ARTS NEWS, Issue 34, October / November 2004

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