Art for All? Trajectories of Creative Space in Contemporary Dublin
In 2011, Michaela Dwyer traveled to Dublin, Ireland through Kenan’s DukeEngage Dublin program—a civic engagement project that collaborates with community-based organizations in the city grappling with issues facing the migrant and refugee communities. While there, she worked with Metro Éireann, a multicultural newspaper, and found her way to Exchange Dublin, a “collective arts center” downtown known for its inclusivity and democratic structure. With an abiding interest in the intersections of the arts and civic life, community organization, and urban development, Michaela returned to Dublin in June 2014 as Kenan’s Bear Postgraduate Fellow in Ethics alongside the DukeEngage cohort to investigate the news that Exchange had been ordered to suspend their activities following claims of “anti-social behavior.” The piece that follows places Exchange Dublin within a wider context of independent creative spaces as they’ve functioned in Dublin around and since the recent Great Recession.
I. To plot the bounds of Dublin’s Temple Bar neighborhood, start with its physical centerpoint, which is not a bar but rather a movie theater and film institute that serves alcohol, yes, but also pastries and Criterion Collection DVDs and a Japanese-language movie poster from the French film Amélie. For about €16 on a warm Friday evening in June 2014, you could buy a tea and a rhubarb tart and a ticket to an Irish film: the British-directed, Irish-centered Jimmy’s Hall, a romantic biopic that tells of James Gralton’s efforts to establish a community dance hall and arts center in County Leitrim in the 1930s, before his state-imposed exile from the country.
The half-full theater and lilted whispers create a warm buffer: between visitor and native, and, on a civic level, between government-funded arts center and pub after pub after pub, which radiate outward from the Irish Film Institute over cobblestone streets. The map this compass produces is one that is bumpy and uncanny: art galleries abut multi-story dance clubs; late-night tourist bacchanal bubbles over and obscures floor-to-ceiling windows and the artwork housed inside. They seem uneasy neighbors with different sleeping hours. Their existence is cultural diplomacy writ-large, the result of a circular handshake by the organizations, governmental and non-, that schemed the new city. The area’s streets, however, echo the layout of old-city Dublin (Dubh Linn; “black pool”): the Dublin City Council (DCC), which marks the farthest-most point of the neighborhood, stands cement-strong atop a Viking settlement.
To plot the bounds of Dublin’s Temple Bar, go on foot, down Essex St., which cuts East-West through the neighborhood. Notice the store signs, notice the pub signs, notice the lettering of arts venues: notice how their sans-serif fonts differ from the Gaelic script promising Guinness within. Notice the street names as you pass them: Eustace, Sycamore, Parliament, Exchange Upper. Each point marks an intersection: between your body, the buildings, the people, the air. These four streets flow downhill through Temple Bar, toward the River Liffey.
Exchange St. Upper is cool and shady, sheltered by stone storefronts that grow upward into modern apartments. (Dublin architecture is a dance between old rock and new industrial.) Its base hits Essex West, which trundles down and around into Essex East, and at that corner, as the street turns, all is curved and open. A short, flat-roofed old key shop gives way to the sunlight—often, in Dublin, the blanched white behind rain clouds—and the light spills downward into and onto this corner. This corner is the urban equivalent of a forest clearing. It is where you would stand, I imagine, with camera in hand or on back, in order to document the intersection of these streets to ensure their proper representation on Google Maps. The cartographer’s shadow would reflect off of each building in sequence, wood and rock and glass window sharpening or reducing the outline in turn. In June 2014, rounding this corner ever so slightly onto Essex West, at the golden hour, a couple pushes a stroller past, speaking quiet German. The shadow would find itself reflected back in perfect form. Straight ahead, floor-to-ceiling windows convey an empty expanse of wood floors and white walls. The image produced is one of said body: legs, and torso, but, with a Beckettian jolt, the head is disembodied and in its place is a yellow flyer taped to the window that reads, demands, Tell us YOUR vision for Temple Bar.
II. Depending on who you talk to, Exchange Dublin—the “collective arts center” that once occupied this tall-windowed space at the corners of Exchange St. Upper and Essex St. West, existed as either centerpoint or periphery. And depending on who you talk to, Exchange either existed—or exists. “‘Exchange Dublin’ is both a statement of intent and an invitation to the city,” the center’s website once proclaimed. The website has been updated—design, font, secondary pages—and now seemingly vanished since I tracked it daily last spring and summer, looking for archives, and for clues. More frequently trafficked during that period, I imagine, was Exchange’s Change.org petition: “Exchange has been asked to close. Help us to stop it!” The petition functioned, in a way, as invitation to testify. Anyone could comment—from long-time volunteers to foreign students or tourists who’d passed through during the summers or semesters abroad. It was an invitation bent toward inclusiveness. The comments went on, seemingly, forever. The diversity of commenters charted an urban, even global, network.
Walking into Exchange was “like walking into a quiet corner of public space.” This is Conor, the first Exchange volunteer I met last summer and one of its prime stewards since the venue’s closure. “The doors were wide open, and I suppose in some ways, it was a bit of a quiet bubble you walked into; it didn’t quite feel separate [from the street outside].” Many volunteers I spoke with echoed this sentiment: Exchange is open and fluid. Its name, taken from the street that housed it, speaks its truth.
In 2011, when I first visited Dublin, I moved easily from off the street in Temple Bar into Exchange. The center was then in full form; toggle back to June 2013 in Google Maps, and you’ll get a snippet; you can literally enter the space via its digital representation. Each room is full of, even bursting with art, people talking, big gestures. Mugs are drying on the kitchen counter; someone is manning the front desk, above which a whiteboard schedule announces weekly events: “Open Cinema,” “Kindness Café,” “Collective Meeting.” This image reflects the space I remember from two summers earlier, where I and seven other American students parked ourselves for a few hours with questionnaires about cultural integration in Dublin. (It’s a really cool space, one of our cohort, serving as location scout, informed the rest of us. Very multicultural, very artsy.) Once inside, there was never any question backed by hostility or suspicion as to why I, an American, was in the space. There was no angle but that of openness; no approach but that of gentle curiosity.
On centerpoints: 2011 marked the mid-point of Exchange’s tenure in its physical space on Exchange St. Upper; it also marked the tail end of the Great Recession and Ireland’s banking crisis. (I’d return to Dublin later that fall to find Occupy Dame Street, tents and tarps pitched, staking its home across the Central Bank of Ireland plaza, a large pedestrian space which bleeds into Temple Bar).
In June of 2014 I met a handful of Exchange volunteers in different spaces throughout the city. We could not meet in Exchange, because, as mandated by the Dublin City Council, the venue had been closed for five months following claims, passed on in part by nearby residents, of Exchange’s complicity in “anti-social behavior”: when “a person causes or, in the circumstances is likely to cause, to one or more persons who are not of the same household as the person: harassment; significant or persistent alarm, distress, fear or intimidation; or significant or persistent impairment of their use or enjoyment of their property.” That the “anti-social” charge was used to supplant Exchange’s communal, everyone-welcome approach was, and is, an irony not lost on its volunteers and supporters. Amidst hundreds of public comments on Exchange’s online petition is a short testimony by Rose Ni Cleirigh, of County Clare. It reads, almost, as incantation:
Because [Exchange Dublin] is a safe space for me and my friends to socialize. Because for many summers now, my friends have produced short films which were always screened at the Exchange; it has kept many young people I know from drinking on the streets, instead focusing their minds on doing something productive. By closing down The Exchange, Temple Bar will truly become the definition of anti-social.
As several Exchange volunteers pointed out, claims of “anti-social behavior” in Temple Bar often involve alcohol-induced harassment and defamation. That Exchange has always been alcohol- and drug-free is not coincidence; its founders set these rules in order to promote a safe space for, especially, young people.
Exchange’s probation, requested via email on Monday, January 27, 2014, was first set to three months, which sidled into five, which is when I arrived in the city: in the heat of high limbo. It turns out fluid spaces can be halted, too: suspended inanimation, as termed on the Change.org call-to-arms. I went to Dublin in the summer hoping to catch Exchange’s trajectory at a pivotal moment, and felt like I did. Despite the suspension, there was still a sense of movement, of open desire. Exchange’s weekly collective consensus meetings—trademark events that most embody its impulse of radical democracy—convened elsewhere. Some dance and art classes were meeting in pubs. But even now, in 2015, a year later, the shop’s been boarded up. New cartographies are being made, ones that no longer demarcate Exchange within the physical grid of Temple Bar, nor the furniture beyond its windows, nor the art on its white walls, nor the bodies and their gesticulations from room to inside room.
“[There’s a] wider sense of loss,” Conor told me. “[To] lot of people, [Exchange] was multifunctional; it served a lot of different communities.
One of the phrases I’ve always had in my mind when people ask what Exchange is—I flip that question back: It’s different things for different people. In the way any city center is.”
III. “This has to be the fourth time someone has brought up this movie to me this week,” Conor told me when I mentioned I’d just seen Jimmy’s Hall. On a Wednesday in early June of last year, I met Conor and his friend Philip, another Exchange volunteer, at the Fumbally Exchange, a sort of co-working space for creatives and innovator types about five-minutes’ walk through Temple Bar from Exchange’s previous location. We posted up in an upstairs room with a large window open to a parking lot and old buildings: some gray stone, some painted hot pink, some graffiti’d. It was raining, as it does in Dublin.
In Jimmy’s Hall we watch as James Gralton’s political leanings comingle with his passionate co-direction and defense of a community dance hall—called, simply, “The Hall”—in the rural townland of Effrinagh (in the northern portion of the country). The collaboratively run, inclusive venue offers free classes in music, dance, literature, geography, history, and the visual arts, among other subjects. It serves as a place for the town to congregate outside the influence of the Catholic Church—that is, until the venue is tipped off by the Church and then harassed and closed by the Gardaí. Gralton, as its leader, is deported, erased from citizenship—a negation of his belief that a country could, and should, blossom through the active participation of its citizens, through claiming their own education and creativity.
Conor and Philip chuckled at the uncanny similarity between film and reality, past and present. Then they shook their heads and sighed, scratched their beards, and looked downward in unison.
To say Exchange “started in” is to institutionalize something that has always resisted traditional institutionalization, to mark and pin down something protean. Around and during the summer of 2009, a group of students from the National College of Art and Design and a few from Trinity College Dublin banded together to create an extracurricular all-ages collective space in response to a perceived disconnect: the increase in the amount of arts and cultural events in Dublin, and the lack of physical spaces to support them. The venue on Exchange St. Upper—formerly an upscale furniture shop—was opened that year, and it became a new creative hub, and a multicultural one at that: visual art, African dance classes, recurring movie nights, writing groups, capoeira, a Moth-like live storytelling event called Milk’n’Cookies. “Some of the structures and teachers would’ve had links to the Africa Society at Trinity [College], or, independent of that, would be doing stuff on their own in little pockets in Dublin. [They would] find Exchange as a central space where they could book classes or dance events,” Conor said. Around this time, Temple Bar—once a prostitution hub and a site of urban decay—was enjoying its growing status as a commercial arts and culture destination. This momentum began around 1991, when the non-profit Temple Bar Properties was charged with regenerating the area. (Here it’s worth mentioning the complicated relationship between DCC and the Temple Bar Cultural Trust [TBCT], resulting in DCC’s recent move to sell off TBCT’s commercial assets.) “No other part of Dublin can boast the sheer concentration of cultural institutions to be found in Temple Bar,” TBCT’s website claims, and it’s mostly true; a quick scan of the website reveals a photo grid of 20 prominent arts venues scattered throughout the neighborhood. (Exchange is not included.) In the second row there is an image of a large, modular blue building; this is Project Arts Centre, an incubator for and presenter of innovative work in the performing and visual arts. Project Arts Centre incubated Exchange through its resource-sharing initiative, CATALYST, and managed the space until November 2011.
Conor began volunteering around this time, though his first encounter with Exchange was a year or so earlier, back when he was an undergraduate at Trinity College. One of the first Exchange events he attended was an art market; the proceeds were funding a recent college graduate’s move to New York City. (“There was nothing for her in Dublin as far as she could see,” Conor said.) In the fall of 2011, at the same time Conor became a more formal volunteer, it became clear that Exchange’s immediate future was uncertain. “A lot of people who’d first been involved [with Exchange] had left. Personal connections between Exchange, Project Arts Centre, and Temple Bar had begun to wane and were lost,” he explained. “[We were] two and a bit years into Exchange. I suppose what was really salient at this point was that pretty much everyone involved in starting Exchange saw it as a six-month budget.” In other words: Exchange’s original form was that of a pop-up: a one-off, fixed-term activity occupying a vacant space in the city center. But then it kept going, and going—and outgrew its existent funding structure, but not its space.
With ties severed from Project Arts, Exchange began to subsist on supplementary grants from the Arts Council of Ireland and Dublin City Council’s Intercultural Dublin Office, in addition to donations. Exchange also began to act on advice to form itself as an autonomous charity. The year of 2012 became, according to Conor, the year for Exchange to demonstrate “proof of concept.” Volunteers thought critically about the mission and acted in turn. The space began to generate more income through events; there was a greater influx of volunteers; the community was overall busier and more organized. “We really found ourselves being more productive and starting to feel much more like a cooperative as we intended,” Conor said. And all throughout, the “we” expanded: different groups continued to find the space, from independent artists, to multicultural dancers and choreographers, to hobbyists, to folks looking for spaces to hold conferences and political discussions. Taking a cue from its founders, Exchange became even more of a hub for students, both Irish natives and internationals. Volunteers established training programs and internship-like opportunities for transition-year and Erasmus (European Community Action Scheme for the Mobility of University Students) students. “Most transition-year job things involve packing shelves in a supermarket somewhere,” Philip told me. “We had these guys answering phone calls, doing emails with us, helping set up the space, [setting] up their own event.” This structure furthered Exchange’s ethos of collaborative ownership, allowing its participants to establish meaning-making practices on their own terms while still partaking in something communal. This process was, in essence, professionalization; it was radical because it was professionalization as dictated by those who made, and ran, the space.
Selected quotes from conversations with Exchange volunteers here referred to as A, B, and C:
A: A typical day at Exchange? I’m not sure that one exists, really.
B: A typical Exchange day is something that you refer to in a metaphysical sense. Because it doesn’t adhere to anything specifically but people who are in and out of Exchange.
A: [There were] these very informal, relaxed drawing groups, [for which we’d] just lay out tables with chalk, paint and pencils, and paper. People would just come in and draw and paint in their own head space. Once there was a string quartet that had come in to practice classical music, and this was all going on at same time.
B: We’d have awareness [events]…sometimes we’d host meetings of feminist or LGBT groups—[we were open to] absolutely everyone. We wouldn’t mind as long as they weren’t telling people what to think. We were like a palette, and anyone in there was a color or shade to be mixed up with whatever.
B: What we were doing was showing what people could do if we gave them the right environment. When you take away the incentives of money and drink…you have to innovate, [you have to] suddenly do something else. And it was always better.
C: Everybody understood [Exchange] was not working 100% correctly and efficiently, but at least it’s not, you know, like every other club, group, arts center.
B: The problem in this country is that everything is so static. Societies collapse and stagnate when no one does anything, when people just sit around expecting things to be done for them.
B: On the one hand, the dearth of opportunities means that we can at least—there’s nothing else to do, so why not try to get involved in things?
IV. “One young person leaves Ireland every six minutes.”
This figure, precise at one point between 2011 and 2014, has come to stand in more generally for the massive rates of Irish emigration in the mid-to-late aughts. It is a time marked by a murky sense of “post-,” if not fully in reality then in name: post-Celtic Tiger, post-Banking Crisis, post-Recession. It is a figure that stands in for a new phase in Ireland’s long history of emigration, this time marked in part by hordes of young people leaving for the lack of jobs, for the lack of opportunities at home. This figure is more than a staggering statistic; it also carries symbolic—visual, even artistic—heft. Seeing this figure incorporated into the exhibition text of Residency, a one-week art show up at The Library Project in late June 2014, felt more like an of course than an ah-ha. Residency represented the cumulative effort of a group of third-year photography students from the Dun Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, just outside Dublin. Next to darkly saturated images of teens and twenty-somethings were snippets of interviews in which young people, both Irish-born and not, discussed their reasons for staying in or leaving Ireland. The exhibition was, at heart, documentary; some pieces were more conceptual, others more realist. But that this exhibition—small but spry, and free and open to the public—existed in part to grapple with a historic amnesia, and did such grappling in the middle of Dublin’s cultural district, says something about the critical consciousness of many in Ireland today. When Philip and I chatted one afternoon in a cafe downtown, he drew out a more cynical view of the interplay of the arts and the economy in Ireland, both past—when literary greats like Oscar Wilde and Samuel Beckett left the country in order to make work elsewhere—and present: “People in this country pretend to care about poetry, but only care about culture insofar as they can turn a quick book to it.”
Like any figure, the “six minutes” must be contextualized, and in this case, it is a matter of accounting for the movement of opposite forces: for those who go out, some must come in, and between those departing and those arriving there is a set that stays put. Coinciding with Ireland’s economic boom and slow bust in and around the Celtic Tiger of the late 1990s, the country experienced a great influx of immigrants—from migrants and refugees leaving Western Africa and Eastern Europe to Americans looking to hit it big at tech companies setting up shop in the glassy office buildings of Grand Canal Square. While in Ireland in 2011, I heard references to the city’s demographic split marked, geographically, by the opposing banks of the River Liffey. To the south: Dublin’s city center, including Temple Bar and Grafton Street, St. Stephens Green, boutique grocery stores, embassies, Grand Canal Square and the Docklands (the latter of which until recently housed Mabos, a warehouse-based makerspace). To the north: immigrant neighborhoods, multicultural markets, hospitals, the Abbey Theatre, the Hugh Lane Gallery, and Seomra Spraoi, a former “radical social center” mentioned often by Exchange volunteers. Each day during the summer of 2011 I commuted across the river, from south to north, to buzz into the offices of a small multicultural newspaper situated above a computer appliance store.
Moving in either direction, you advance away from the city center, away from the commercial art venues and into areas that more fit the term “mixed-use.” As is the current trend in the United States and elsewhere, creative community spaces are emerging in these sorts of areas by recovering abandoned warehouses in underdeveloped neighborhoods through cheap(er) rents. (This is what drew artists and shopowners to Temple Bar in the 1980s, when construction plans for a bus depot made buildings downtown more affordable.) It’s happening so often that this out-migration has become pinpointable as a perceived solution to the booting of places like Exchange: If you can exist here, you can exist anywhere.
Exchange was unique in that it attracted folks from both sides of the river, and from the suburbs that expand outward from the center of Dublin. The space was begun by Irish college students frustrated by the dismal job market, and it remained open in part through the efforts of the non-Irish: expats, immigrants, migrants, refugees. Some would eventually stay in Ireland and some would return to their native homes, spreading the word elsewhere (many Exchange volunteers, I’m told, found the space through Couchsurfing recommendations). When I returned to the States last July, I still had text conversations lingering on my Irish mobile phone with Exchange volunteers past and present who were either back at home or on vacation in places like France, Portugal, Italy, and Greece.
I met one, a Greek woman, in front of a grocery in Grand Canal Square. After moving to Ireland, she found Exchange and began teaching folk dance classes there. In the shadows of monochromatic corporate digs—Grand Canal feels as though it drank from the San Francisco gentrification juice—we talked about the differences between the Recession’s effects on Greek and Irish creative spaces. We also talked about Exchange’s closure and its charges to professionalize its practices if it wanted to reopen, in the city center or elsewhere. She mentioned another arts-centered space in Dublin run by two foreigners called the Centre for Creative Practices (CFCP).
CFCP was founded in 2009—the same year as Exchange and around the time of wider post-Recession creative development in Dublin—as a space for migrant, experimental, and emerging artists. Aside from CFCP’s intentional curatorial efforts to support and showcase the work of niche artists, the organization also offers skills-training, mentoring, and other connective opportunities for artists and creatives. In order to exhibit at CFCP, artists must participate in the promotion of their own work. These practices of documentation and dissemination work, on the one hand, toward increasing sustainability in the arts. On the other, they also seem capable of inspiring a type of pride that is both functional and profound: these are actions that not only make visible creativity and art-making; they also declare that such practices matter—even, and especially, in the face of cuts to arts funding or government-mandated peripheralization of creative spaces. To do this as a migrant artist, or an emerging artist, or both, seems part of a greater fight to claim space. CFCP facilitates this through an education, consulting, and mentoring scheme; Exchange did so through similar programs and by serving as a hub that built its mission on welcoming everyone.
In January of 2015, almost exactly a year after Exchange was given the notice to vacate, I received an email newsletter from CFCP announcing the closure of their venue. The building was being sold; this would terminate their daily programming, and any other events tied to a physical space. It would allow them to continue their work on arts entrepreneurship initiatives, the letter said; “it also gives us a great opportunity to rethink our programme.”
If you Google “Centre for Creative Practices Dublin,” you’ll see a small map image on the right side of the screen. As in Exchange’s case, the image charts CFCP’s [now former] location: part-way down a one-way street, a few blocks southeast of St. Stephen’s Green. (Just outside of the Grafton St.-Temple Bar downtown loop, with a cozy basement spot barely visible from Pembroke Street, CFCP made its home in an area dominated by corporate offices and quick-walking well-suited men.) One image gives way to several more depicting a still-thriving venue; as with Exchange, you can look “inside.” There’s an exhibition in the foreground. In the background, a large dog sleeps on the carpeted floor. But, before you can virtually enter, you’ll see a thick red bar across the photos, atop it the words “Permanently Closed”—a barrier in cyberspace, and the Dublin streets in real-time.
V. It is one thing to learn—especially as an outsider—about creative spaces, to meet with their founders, advocates, volunteers, skeptics, acquaintances, and to ask them to recount stories of these spaces in full bloom. The contours of individual experience are what resonate: the particular joys or frustrations of a single event or exhibition, or an interaction, or a self-revelation. It is another thing entirely to learn about these different spaces and then to try to imagine your way into them, knowing, in many cases, that said spaces have been suspended or permanently closed. I had, while in Dublin in 2011, found my way into both Exchange and CFCP—different spaces with different foci, certainly, but both strong and active in their respective projects. I hadn’t stood inside Supafast, Dubsland, Mabos, The Joinery—all independent creative spaces, all since closed (the most recent being The Joinery, in December 2014). Their beginnings differ slightly from that of Exchange, with its early ties to Project Arts Centre; their missions differ as well, some geared more toward art exhibitions and musical events, others organized more as maker spaces.
“Other spaces, their origins were more independent, in the sense that a small group of people decided to rent a building—usually a dilapidated building—because they wanted something, some place to do things they wanted to do. Often it was just socializing.” I met Paddy, a sociologist, in the rose garden at Trinity College—an impossibly quiet, lush corner in the center of Dublin; this campus is where he completed his doctoral degree. He’s one of the founders of the Provisional University, an online “autonomous research project” that aims to work from the “precarious positions we find ourselves living and working in”—academically, professionally, creatively—with the goal of transforming them. “Research is not a privileged, academic pursuit tied to pre-existing goals,” the website further explains, “but a constructive process that we enter into with other people who share our problems.” One of their projects has been to document Dublin’s independent creative spaces, to figure out what qualities connect them and in turn what qualities connect this network to the cultural, political, and economic forces of Dublin and Ireland at large.
Paddy walked me through the trajectories of many of these spaces. Supafast, he told me, modeled itself on a particular type of openness: if you wanted to use the space, you’d pay €10 a month for a key. Rent, which was very low for a prime city center location, was paid in large part through a monthly community dinner; otherwise the space would hold drawing classes, exhibitions, markets, film screenings and the like. (Paddy himself had a desk there for a while.) The Joinery, farther away from Temple Bar in Stoneybatter, ran for five or six years primarily through one-off events. It was a “curated space” that opened its events to the neighborhood, often securing agreements with local pubs and cafes to offer discounted tickets to the public. “[The Joinery] is interesting,” Paddy said, “in that it trie[d] to integrate that space into the wider community.” Mabos, in the Docklands, emerged from a collective that ran a skateboarding festival. It became so successful that the group acquired a space in the same area. “It was the most incredible space,” Paddy said. “They had all sorts of building workshops, crate furniture; [they were] repurposing old arcade games, repurposing old computers, [holding] workshops, talks, classes, art exhibitions.” Mabos’s home was easy to come by post-Banking Crisis, but recently, Paddy explained, they got caught up in a dynamic bigger than their particular space: [the former] Mabos became incorporated into a “Strategic Development Zone,” defined as “an area of land that is proposed to contain developments of economic or social importance to the State.” These developments, in Mabos’s case, are residential and professional, designed to attract foreign investment. “[Mabos] was commercial, they were paying rent,” Paddy said. “But the landlord could get a better deal and that building is now going to be turned into offices.” It follows a pattern, according to Paddy’s research: the Celtic Tiger property bubble pushed up rents in the early 1990s, which commodified social life in the city center. Then, in 2008, the confluence of the Global Recession and the Irish Banking Crisis brought rents down, and suddenly there were “a lot of young people in Dublin with a lot of desire to do things.” (Young people, like Paddy, who wanted to go to “spaces [that were] less regulated, where there’s a bit more of sense of possibility, and more diverse people,” compared to a formal art gallery or concert venue.) And so these spaces came together, formed communities, and proliferated until the property bubble re-emerged and pushed them out. To an outsider—or even to an insider—this pattern can be mistaken as a tidy narrative, easily confined within Dublin’s stone walls.
“There has to be a recognition that [these independent creative spaces] don’t just operate outside of the city—that they’re caught up, whether they like it or not, in dynamics which are not just Dublin or Ireland, but are now bringing in bigger, [global] players.
And I think each one that closes has a ripple effect. I think that the kinds of people who may have been involved in one space lose energy and lose the drive to do it again. It’s that sense of each time [these closures] are not challenged, that defeat has some kind of insidious effect, you know? And that’s why some form of resistance to these external forces, whether it be the real estate market coming back or whether it be the City Council…if there’s no resistance, there’s not really any hope for the spaces, as far as I see it.”
VI. What kind of city does Dublin want to be? What kind of city does any city want to be? On my last days in the city last summer I did a lot of walking: from south to north; up and down Temple Bar; from gallery to gallery. I joined Conor, his friend and Exchange volunteer Jules, and Johanna, a representative from TURAS, an EU-wide initiative bringing together urban communities, businesses, local authorities, and academic researchers to strategize sustainable urban living solutions. As part of Dublin’s TURAS team, she was working with the Dublin City Council to study issues surrounding urban regeneration, especially in the context of Ireland’s recent economic history. We convened in Filmbase, a member-led organization supporting the Irish film industry. (It happens to sit a street over from the Irish Film Institute.) I listened as Johanna spoke with Conor and Jules about the fate of Exchange. The conversation continued as we ambled down Essex St., late-afternoon sun rays pooling between the usual mess of bodies packing Temple Bar. We ended up, eventually, at the former location of Exchange. Conor and Jules recounted the organization’s history in front of the big windows. Then I walked a few more blocks with Conor and Jules to TOG Dublin, a hackerspace completely funded by its members, who also have access to the space 24/7 to work on creative projects. (“Tog” is an Old Irish word, a verb meaning to hoist, to build, to excite.) Scattered throughout the cinderblock-walled warehouse venue are gadgets—a laser cutter, a 3-D printer—and projects in various stages of development, including a “Twitter-knitter.” The space is unvarnished: this is a place where you rely on a flat surface, material, and your hands in motion. I asked Jules about the difference between a “makerspace” and a “hackerspace.” He referred to a comment he heard once, issued perhaps partly in jest: “Makers will finish stuff, whereas hackers won’t.”
Whether implicitly or explicitly, we all have ideas about what a city could—and should—look like. When I began interviewing Exchange volunteers last summer, I asked them to either draw their “ideal community space,” or to finish this sentence: “My ideal community space would look like…”, encouraging either abstract or concrete responses. It should have sort of a magnetic pull—like a building that attracts and invites people into a community that’s open and welcoming and looking for new ideas. A space that’s self-generating or self-regenerating. I want a space where people can try to do different things, and be enabled to try to do different things. Implicit or explicit answers emerged elsewhere. From a DCC Community Development Officer: maybe we need to take creative spaces like Exchange outward, to the edges of the city, to a suburb. From an activist and organizer working with Anti-Racism Ireland: it’s about creating spaces where an asylum-seeker or refugee could walk in and feel safe—spaces where people can relate to one another as equals. I wondered, as I gathered these stories: is Dublin making a point to gather these stories, to hear its own residents articulate their desires? To provide and affirm spaces where its residents gather for the purpose of trying new things—and failing, and trying again—together? I think, now: Could the city itself model itself after a hackerspace? What if the city looked a little more like TOG and a little less like Grand Canal Square?
Over a year later, Exchange Dublin is still physically closed. Its Facebook and Twitter pages, however, serve as lively public archives of its activities and developments since closure. Over the course of a given week, there may be a post from volunteers clarifying the nature of the continued suspension or a photo of the abandoned storefront, with the “E” now absent from “Exchange Dublin,” accompanied by a jokey comment: “DCC took our ‘E’!”; the next day would be a post suggesting events to attend in the city, which could be as varied as a Butoh dance performance or a march led by students from the National College of Art and Design. As part of Exchange’s ongoing suspension, and partly as suggested by DCC, volunteers have had conversations with possible partner organizations in the city to satisfy DCC’s charges for Exchange to professionalize its operations. What have emerged are small, connective partnerships. Most recently, some Exchange volunteers have been working with Connect the Dots, an initiative that aims to bring together citizens and stakeholders—and their accumulated knowledge—over food and drink, and, more substantially, the issue of vacant city space. Connect the Dots is tied to a new masters program in design and visual practice called The Dublin Project. The one-year program is a collaboration between the Dublin Institute of Technology, DCC, and Design TwentyFirst Century; it combines research and practice specifically to “solve challenging problems facing Dublin City.” Reusing Dublin, a separate but thematically connected initiative through TURAS, is an online mapping resource through which users are encouraged to “tag” vacant spaces throughout the city and supply zoning, ownership, and heritage information (if applicable). That both these initiatives are in some way connected to DCC, who still at least partly control Exchange’s movements, can look suspicious; the cynical view is that this is a pernicious circle, a furthering of “suspended inanimation.” The more optimistic view, as Jules voiced to me, is that similar efforts may actually mark an “inflection point” in the city.
In Ireland, in 2015, a national popular vote made same-sex marriage legal. In Ireland, people are banding together and marching: against water charges, against the corporatization of higher education, against housing privatization. Connect the Dots continues to host dinners. Seomra Spraoi hosted an event gauging interest in a “new squatted social center,” now active “in the heart of Dublin.” Exchange asserts itself through different channels with uncompromised energy, and often hosts events—including drawing night—at TOG. As Paddy shared his research on Dublin’s independent creative spaces, he noted that few would deem their activities “political.” “But what they’re doing,” he continued, “is producing the city in a radically different way.”
On centerpoints: These spaces, many of which refer to themselves as “centers,” stake new physical centers in a city, and in a global culture, that at times seems bent on peripheralizing creativity. The preservation of community spaces matters because it says: by placing the arts in a continuum with civic life, this city prioritizes inclusiveness, this city acknowledges and supports its own diversity. The communities that emerged through and after their physical venues know this, and are taking steps together to organize beyond the specific, individual practices of each space. Their actions advocate as much for the material importance of arts and creative spaces as for the necessity of openness and transparency in city-wide decision-making processes. What does your ideal community space look like? Their actions advocate for a new politics of listening: over the din of pub glasses, over the hushed talking, and promises, and moneyed aspirations of a “new Ireland.” Their actions are saying, loudly: Eulogy is not enough.