This review is the winner in Circa’s critical-writing competition for undergraduates in Ireland.

The theme of ‘place’ oscillates between the international and the local, the rural and the urban, the constructed and the organic. In the context of contemporary Ireland, it is the changing relationships between these factors, and the wider discourse of development and socio-economic effects that are reflected by contemporary artists. Change is the key motif in the unfolding plot of contemporary Ireland. Between 2004 and 2006 Sligo County Council commissioned a series of public works, Unravelling development . Aptly, this project explores the paramount themes of change and development in Irish society, especially in relation to the changing use of place. Urban regeneration must be seen in the greater context of the changing mentality towards land and the use of space in Irish society.

As part of Unravelling development, Dara McGrath created his photographic documentary project Plantations . The term ‘plantation’ has immediate historical connotations of land ownership. Bearing in mind this ambiguous implication, McGrath “explores the actual physicality of the planning process and how it is reflected.” [1] Using site-specific land installations, he reiterates the link between social concerns and land, “putting forth the social concerns of the wider sphere back into the public realm for re-negotiation.” [2] Through his juxtaposition of images of nature and the evidence of human intervention, the artist documents perspectives on landscape that we generally overlook. He traces the remnants of the rural in areas marked for development, and in this distortion of our expectation of land he articulates the transformation of our received or traditional ideas of place, that were once so much of our heritage and identity. As McGrath notes himself, “This exploratory work highlights the fact that the destination of the landscape is never certain, and examines the influences of political, social and personal factors,” [3] on the outcome.

While the destination of the landscape is never certain, McGrath’s exploration of the social concerns embedded in land and its development reflect the wider discourse of urban regeneration in Irish society. Urban regeneration, or the rehabilitation of the city, combines McGrath’s theme of human intervention and the new emphasis on the role of the urban in Irish society. Beginning with Dublin’s Temple Bar and Docklands, urban regeneration took the byroads to Belfast, Limerick and the regional provinces, before driving down the nearly completed M/N 8 to arrive in Cork. The Cork Docklands were originally the hub of shipping activity in the city, but the water is now too shallow to serve this purpose; consequently a large expanse of land is open to development. A substantial plot of vacant land adjacent to a city provides the perfect credentials for the business of urban rejuvenation, and ‘art’ and ‘culture’ are its new buzzwords.

There is a renewed emphasis on the architectural legacy of these areas and how the “space between buildings” [4] will be managed. Civic responsibility dictates that private and public developers must pay greater attention to the area where people interact, in the hopes that it can provide a better quality of life and help foster a sense of community. The Cork Docklands is just one of the projects that utilise the potential of culture in the wider discourse of urban regeneration, but culture is summoned to function in contradictory ways, as a catalyst to both community well-being and economics. The rhetoric that planners wield suggests that culture “encompasses intellectual, spiritual and aesthetic development as well as works of intellectual and artistic endeavour….. [to become an] essential part in everyday life.” [5] However, this definition does not marry well with the economic needs culture must meet. Market forces dictate that culture lend itself to the elevation of property prices and the prestige of place. Place has become a “privileged instrument.” [6]

This model of large-scale urban development has been studied by Erik Swyngedouw, who found that in a European context these projects were predominately state-led. [7] While urban regeneration has the Dáil stamp, unlike its European counterparts it is only in the last 15 years that Ireland has become primarily an urban society as opposed to a rural one. The higher percentage of funds distribution to urban centres lends itself to the dialogue of urban revamping in city-council chambers. The intonations of this chatter are culture, arts, community and sustainability, but their manifestation in practice is often lacking. The power of local authorities is bound by the circumstances they work in, especially the relationship between public and private enterprise.

Press releases and local media seem to portray the situation in the Cork Docklands as very similar to the Dublin Docklands; however, the circumstances in the two areas are dramatically different. The Dublin Dockland is Directorate-owned land, strengthening its position in this quasi public-private relationship, and uniquely has powers of planning. In six weeks with no appeals, planning could be granted. By contrast, the majority of the Cork Docklands is privately owned. Howard Holdings have already positioned themselves in a prime location, following their acquisition of some of the docklands’ most important lands, including the former site of Southern Fruit along Centre Park Road and the Ford Vehicle Distribution Centre site of eleven acres.

Nonetheless, these private owners must apply to the usual protracted planning process; therefore private and local-council cooperation is needed to fulfil the aim of using art and culture as a forum for rejuvenation. In both Cork and Dublin, private development was legislated to create architecture that would have a cultural legacy, but “of all the arts, architecture is the closest constitutively to the economics, with which, in the form of commissions and land value, it has a virtually unmediated relationship.” [8]

In lieu of public-owned land, the Draft Public Realm Strategy examines how the “space between buildings” will be used. They define this as “the area where people interact with each other and it will be the major influence on the image of the South Docks and the quality of life for those living and working there.” [9] In Cork, ‘the space between buildings’ will be developed with the implementation of a sub-regional Marina Park, a public walkway along the waterfront, and an extension to Kennedy Park. It seems that even at the planning stage culture has been ostracised to the public realm.

Art or culture’s position in the public realm is deeply embedded in the issue of the point of insertion of art into urban regeneration. Obviously the actual infrastructure needs to be implemented first. Per contra, this often leads to the exclusion of land or space for artists. This problem of exclusion has already occurred in Dublin, which made the public realm the only accessible area for artistic endeavour. Without actual land for the artists in the docklands, it can be hard to promote long-term sustainability and community involvement.

To try and tackle this issue, the Dublin Dockland Directorate issued a cultural infrastructural survey. For the first time in Ireland, artists were asked what type of space they needed. With the absence of artist-owned space, Mary McCarthy, Artistic Director of Dublin Docklands Directorate, set about using the public arena in the most efficient, accessible, and innovative ways. In any area the Directorate still had power, public sculptures were included. They called it ‘collecting icons’ for a new age. However, these new icons were constrained by the limited land that they still owned and often needed the cooperation of nearby private enterprise. So to counteract the inherent problem with the lack of definite space/land for the arts, the Dublin Directorate created trusts, in hopes they would ensure the continuation of artistic endeavour even after the Directorate had been disbanded.

This spirit of artistic endeavour continues down south; however, the fuelling force in Cork is the artists themselves. Groups such as Art Trail, the Sirius Arts Centre, Backwater Artists Group, and the National Sculpture Factory are championing the opportunity art could have in the new dockland development. Already these organisations are working at micro levels, home-root projects, in hopes of being able to achieve their macro level in the realisation of actual artistic residency and space in the new docklands.

Already, Cork City has seen the creation of Listening posts, the first permanent sound installation on Penrose Wharf near the gates of the docklands. Boomerang Productions and the Triskel Arts Centre produced a multimedia art installation in the historic bonded warehouse on Custom Quay, aptly titled The eye of the Docks, and Harry Moore’s black-and-white pinhole photographs nostalgically document the docklands as they are now, the remnants of a blue-collar industry. Art Trail organised a one-day seminar on the subject of the Cork Docklands that “intended to inform arts practitioners of potential for creative engagement with Cork Docklands.” [10] Howard Holdings sponsored the event, while speakers such asPat Ruane of Cork City Conservation Architects, Liz Meaney, Cork City Arts Officer, Harry Moore, photographer, Sarah Iremonger of Sirius Arts Centre, Tara Byrne, Director of the National Sculpture Factory, and  Mary McCarthy, Artistic Director of the Dublin Dockland Directorate, were invited. The majority of the work so far has been driven by local artistic co-operations and organizations, and while presently they are backed by the local authority, it will be interesting to see if any friction emerges between the aims of the artists and the institutionalised aims of local authorities.

This dichotomy was manifested in the rejuvenation of Belfast’s Cathedral Quarter. Perspective ’98, backed by the needs of culture in urban regeneration, was billed to launch the Belfast art scene onto an international stage, while Resonate emerged as a corresponding artist-led endeavour. As Derval Fitzgerald wrote in Circa, the “artist run project in Belfast was set up, at least in part, to supercede the kind of send-in competition/exhibition of which ‘Perspective’ is a (slightly) updated version.” [11] Perspective ’98 had to mediate more than just the artists’ needs coupled with the needs of urban regeneration; it also had to walk the tightrope of the international versus local divide. Yet despite their contradictory functions, many artists in both Perspective and Resonate, homed in on the theme of place.

Presently, the docklands in Belfast are a dead space. With their proximity to the city centre, they will be developed. However, the degree of inclusion of the arts in this plan is debatable. While the words ‘art’ and ‘culture’ will be thrown about liberally, their actual incorporation into the dockland project depends on the ‘influences of political, social and personal factors’, primarily the co-operation of private shareholders. Arts and economics make for uneasy bedfellows. Space for artists takes up space for development. Once again, I believe artistic endeavour will be curtailed to the public arena. Whilst the inclusion of art in the public sector is of paramount importance, I fear that without adequate funding and designated long-term artists’ space, sustainability could be an up-hill battle. For success in the “Symbolic Economy of the City [the] intertwining of cultural symbols [within] entrepreneurship” [12] is capital.

Gemma Carroll is a third-year Art History student in UCC.

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