VAN September/October 2013: ‘Institutional Impermanence’ | Bryan Birtles on 20 Years of Catalyst Arts

Sinéad Bhreathnach-Cashell, Catalyst Camp Site, 28 February – 10 March 2013



It’s a pretty simple exercise to sum up the legacy of Catalyst Arts and its two-decade contribution to Belfast’s artistic community: there is no artistic community in Belfast without Catalyst Arts. I think it’s only 30% hyperbole to say so.

There’s something Brian Eno said about the Velvet Underground which I think is worth paraphrasing here – that everyone who bought a copy of the band’s first album started their own band. Catalyst is like that. Its reach extends far beyond its vast and adaptable space on College Court. It’s a breeding ground for doers. Past directors don’t simply slink off into Belfast’s dark corners (of which there are many) never to be heard from again. They go on to start their own organisations, to be instrumental in the propagation of visual culture throughout Northern Ireland and the world.

Catalyst’s tentacles extend into the Golden Thread Gallery, Belfast Exposed, The MAC, the Ulster Museum and the University of Ulster, as well as into studios and workshops, galleries big and small across Northern Ireland, Europe and America. Catalyst is the womb from which Belfast’s art scene emerged 20 years ago.

The History
Catalyst opened in 1993 with no building. It responded to a vacuum in Belfast’s cultural landscape that could be filled with a not-for-profit, artist-run space. It modeled itself on Glasgow’s Transmission Gallery, 10 years old at the time and offered real-world experience to artists and curators through rolling two-year directorships. These co-directors continue to plan the gallery’s programming, take care of administrative tasks, help mount shows and drink cheap beer at openings while covered in paint and dust.

It isn’t a precious place.

Despite this, Catalyst almost died. As recently as 2006 the gallery was on its last legs, down to a single director (the constitution allows for up to 10) and in danger of becoming irrelevant. It has moved spaces five times, four in a two-year period. It has never had the money to hire a team of movers so its directors – aided by shopping trolleys – carted computers, equipment, paperwork, books and artwork from one space to another. It has had its funding cut, reinstated, cut again, reinstated again, threatened, left alone, cut, and reinstated. Each time it goes to the brink, Catalyst manages to pull itself back. Now the organisation seems stronger than ever: this year, for the first time, Catalyst will have had all 10 directorships filled.

Catalyst’s main strength as an organisation is that it has almost no memory. It exists in a city that stubbornly refuses to forget the past, yet it functions in a state of permanent amnesia. The rolling directorships, the absence of hierarchy or continuity in its structure, the institutional impermanence of Catalyst Arts means the organisation makes the same mistakes over and over and never learns from them. Not ever.

This puts Catalyst in an interesting position within Belfast. On one hand it’s a 20-year-old institution that deserves (and sometimes garners) the respect that such history engenders. On the other, its curatorial practices are defined by the enthusiasm of novices, whose skills are refined for two years at a time and no further. Catalyst walks the line between institutional respectability and anarchy.

This lack of memory does, however, make Catalyst a site of great experimentation, and allows it to expand the definition of artistic practice, to take risks that other galleries couldn’t afford. To date, Catalyst has been a cinema, a radio station, a jumble sale, a wrestling ring and a bakery. Its outsider status allows it to tell stories that go beyond the commercial or institutional spaces in the city. Within its walls is fostered a spirit of collaboration, where artists have control over their work and freshly-minted curators are given an opportunity not afforded to them in other cities: to jump into the co-directorship of a fully-funded gallery without any previous experience. It is a place of constant change, beholden to no one but its members.

The gallery is committed to promoting emerging artists and providing opportunities for them. Catalyst is involved in more than 15 shows per year and endeavours not to show the same artist twice. A members’ show and four open calls take place during the year. It’s open to new ideas and new people, in a state of constant flux, and it hopes to never change.

The Legacy

Inside the small, cluttered office off to the side of the gallery lies the only thing ‘institutional’ about the place: the archives. Scattered across 16 cardboard boxes perched precariously on a high shelf – as well as another two-dozen or so currently being digitised and preserved at the University of Ulster – the archive is the only real proof that the gallery has existed for two decades.

If you speak to the current team of co-directors, none seems eager to discuss the legacy of the organisation. They choose not to focus on the shows that have come before, the successes or failures that preceded them. It’s a struggle even to elicit the fact that Turner Prize winner Susan Philipsz and Turner Prize nominee Phil Collins are both former directors. A David Shrigley solo show held in 1996 gets mentioned, but glossed over. When discussing how they’d like the legacy of Catalyst Arts to be framed, the career outcomes of people who spent formative years there is something nobody wants to dwell on. Even mentioning it seems gauche.

For the current crop of directors, like those who came before them, moving forward is the only option. It’s interesting to note, too, that the largest survey of Catalyst’s history won’t even be held in its own gallery, nor will it be curated by any of the current directors. Instead, the most comprehensive exploration of Catalyst Art’s legacy will be held on the other side of the city centre at the Golden Thread Gallery from 17 October until 30 November, and will be curated by former Catalyst director Cherie Driver, whose interest in the archive and academic rigour won her the job at a gallery run by former Catalyst director Peter Richards. Current directors – in an effort to present an impartial show, one that reflected the gallery’s complete history instead of its most recent years – decided it would be better to remain on the outside of the process, despite being invited to participate. The group will join a panel discussion and have assisted when called upon but, curatorially, they haven’t been very involved. None of them seem fazed by it.

A birthday celebration is planned however, which will take place in August. Entitled ‘I Heart Catalyst Arts’, it will be a black tie event with cocktails and dancing. Previous exhibitors and directors from the past 20 years will be invited to submit a small, A5 sized piece of work before the party. Partygoers will then purchase the work by raffle tickets sold for £15: each numbered ticket corresponds to a number on the back of each piece, but ticket buyers won’t know which one they’ve bought until the end of the party.

When Catalyst thinks of the best way to celebrate a significant anniversary, it doesn’t root around in the boxes for old posters, it doesn’t survey the work that went on across two decades, five addresses and more than sixty past directors. It asks for new work. It moves forward.

That is Catalyst’s legacy, the thing it can offer and has offered Belfast’s artists for 20 years and will do for 20 more. (And 20 more after that.) Catalyst is the place for artists to make mistakes on a larger stage than inside a lonely studio where no one can see; it’s the place to revel in camaraderie and prop oneself up on the support that the gallery offers emerging artists. Catalyst is a place where new galleries are incubated, to fan out over the city and the world. It began in a cultural vacuum, out of nothing, and it sits at the centre of an art scene that learned to punch well above its weight – an art scene it taught to punch that way.

That’s what Catalyst did. That’s what Catalyst does.

Bryan Birtles is an arts journalist from Canada. He currently lives in Belfast.


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