Art for Arts Sake?

I recently gave an email interview, the answers to which were included in a feature on arts funding in Ireland. The article, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ was published in the January 26th edition of The College Tribune (not yet online), a University College Dublin publication. Perhaps like everyone who’s ever been interviewed, I feel the quotes chosen for the piece slightly misrepresented my answers. This is first time I’ve written at length about my involvement in Exchange Dublin, Exchange Words and ‘the arts’ in Ireland generally, so I’m pasting the full text of the interview here ‘for the record’.

Tell me about Exchange Dublin and your involvement in the organisation.

Exchange Dublin is a collective art centre in Temple Bar. It was established initially by a group of artists involved in something known as ‘The Office of Public Works’. These were Jonah King, Dylan Haskins, Rosin Beirne, Anna Khan and Andreas Von Knobloch. The initiative grew out of their interest in creating a non-profit, youth orientated space to facilitate the creation of innovative, publicly accessible art & music initiatives in the city. Exchange Dublin is part of a new, perhaps recession driven interest in non-profit, collective arts in Dublin. Longer running initiatives in the same vein include Seomra Spraoi & The Shed.

I got involved in the Exchange on 15th August 2009, at the first Exchange general ‘open space’ meeting. I’d become interested in storytelling events by listening to podcasts from ‘The Moth’, a US storytelling organisation which along with shows like PBS’s ‘This American Life’ has done much to drive the current revival of the American oral tradition.

I had the idea to do something similar here, though in a more collaborative, less exclusive way. My experiences visiting Seomra Spraoi, and personal disillusion with authoritarian styles of organizational structure drew me to the Exchange initiative; and have been key in my approach to helping to organise the Exchange Words group.

Exchange Words is the group that ultimately developed out of these disparate interests. We’re an open group meeting weekly in the space, who’ve so far put on three events at monthly intervals; featuring a mixture of spoken word theatre, standup comedy, poetry and more experimental work. We’ve also helped out with other spoken word initiatives in the space, like the enormously successful ‘Milk and Cookies’ storytelling group. Currently we’re focused on organising a series of free writing and performance workshops.

It’s been a very strong emphasis on my own personal involvement in the group from the start to document the group process. Both in order to make it as accessible for new members as possible, and to provide a record of what we’ve done. To do this I’ve implemented a website (, making all our meeting minutes public; and more importantly making available (as audio podcasts and streaming video), as complete as possible a record of our participants participation in Words events.

Outside of Exchange Words, I also volunteer on a weekly basis in the space; greeting new arrivals, making tea, and helping with general upkeep. I also attend the weekly Exchange Counsel meetings which govern the running of the space as often as I can.

What obstacles have you encountered in establishing yourself in the arts? How much of this can be attributed to your recent graduate status? Do you find youth a help or a hindrance in this way?

My main interests career-wise are in creative writing and standup comedy / sketch comedy performance. I started standup in August, and I’ve been writing since secondary school. I’m not sure how to quantify difficulties encountered… In terms of standup, getting paid work would be the most important problem. There’s a sort of virtuous circle in Ireland, where TV appearances and competition victories land you paid spots in comedy clubs. Right now I’m working for free. Because of the limited size of the audience here (and the poverty of televised and radio comedy), pretty much every Irish comedian plans to move to England at some point; and I’m no different. It’s just a reality of the business that even moderate success here doesn’t provide a living; and ‘big’ success on the Irish scene doesn’t translate abroad. To make it comedians have to go to England or the US.

I don’t feel that my graduate status impacts this at all, and my youth even less so- As a 30 year old former mature student, I’m at the older end of the ‘amateur’ comedy scene.

In terms of writing, I guess the difficulties would be getting published. Fortunately with publication, location is less important. It would be difficult for me to quantify initiatives to make the ‘life of the writer’ easier, beyond grants and residencies, which wouldn’t be granted to someone at my stage of career in any case (one story published, one novel seeking a publisher).

I got my start writing attending free writers groups run in Balbriggan library in the early 1990’s. Initiatives like this- to provide a dedicated, low or no cost opportunity for writers to meet, write and compare their work are incalculably valuable. I’m still trying to organising similar things at an informal level to this day.

In the current climate, is it more difficult to establish yourself in the arts sector? What do you make of the state of health of the arts in Ireland?

I don’t think the health of the arts in Ireland is very measurably related to the economic climate. At least not from my worms eye view. Funding for the arts didn’t swell to useful levels during the economic boom, and haven’t yet dropped to calamitous levels. Due to the lack of government support (beyond capital investment and a few tent pole institutions like the National Museum of Modern Art), my perspective would be that most arts institutions in the country are heavily private financed, and extremely commercially orientated.

That said, an initial grand from the Project Arts Centre, and subsequent grants from a variety of institutions (including the Arts Counsel), were vital in establishing and purchasing equipment for Exchange Dublin. Although the venue itself covers ongoing costs primarily through low price, all ages concerts.

Again- completely from my personal perspective: It’s only when you go abroad that you realise the poverty of visual arts institutions in Ireland. Our galleries and museums are a joke next to British or American institutions like MOMA, the Pheonix Art Museum, the Tate etc. There are of course economies of scale at work here; but Ireland has been supremely ineffective at providing public access to the treasures of modern art. In terms of classical art, the National Gallery has some decent dutch masters and a Caravaggio. Hurray.

In terms of the performing arts, it does seem like (especially in Dublin), there are a variety of initiatives of worth; promoting theatre especially. However, without going into libelous detail, often access to and participation in these initiatives is effectively exclusive to clique of kids that have come up through youth theatre programmes; rather than writers and performers from outside the theatre world. I know comedians in general feel completely excluded from the theatre world. At the same time, I know folks in the theatre world who are all too keen to get more comedic shows into the various theatre festivals. As in all these things, the perception of exclusivity is as important as the reality.

What are your ambitions for the future? Do you see a way to actualise them in Ireland, or is a move abroad necessary?

I think I answered this partly above. Basically I would like to work as a writer of literary and science fiction, and perform as a comedian. Most of my comedy heros got their big break writing and performing on shows for BBC Radio 4, and that channel, together with the BBC digital TV channels, still commissions more original content (especially in comedy), than anywhere else in the world.

I do see traveling as a necessity at some point. It’s something I should probably do sooner rather than later… However it’s hard to see when would be the right time. I’m just starting to get a decent name with promoters over here, and traveling would mean starting again.

I’m trying to keep my ambitions as open as possible so that I don’t turn away from any opportunities. I’m also using this time to try to develop ideas that I could potentially use later in my career when I have more opportunities. I’m still a novice live performer, and I’m looking forward to developing these skills (possibly even in a theatre setting), this year. Personally, the attachments I have to Ireland are financial and interpersonal rather than anything else. I have almost no ‘national pride’, and very little attachment to the ‘imagined community’ of the Irish nation state. This kind of pretentious pomposity is endemic to comedians I’m afraid. Possibly if I do travel I’ll experience that paradoxical exaggeration of ‘national’ characteristics common to ex-pats.

What would be your advice to the current government in the light of the reduction to arts spending?

Spend money on smaller initiatives. Give money to individual groups and artists rather than swollen bodies which sit parasitically on the artery of arts funding. Make ten thousand tiny grants available, with the qualifying criteria bring past and current work- not renown, prizes won, or the current commercial value of an artists output; and you’ll see ten thousand talented artists spring up.

Encourage initiatives which build self efficacy and core skills in the production of visual, written and performance art.

Allow groups to design their own structure and don’t drown them in paper work.

Fund self organised, genuinely open spaces, which place no limits on their use beyond the consensus of their members.

Fund free seminars, masterclasses and courses.

Put money in primary and secondary arts education- I never held a paint brush until secondary school, and by that point Art Class was a glorified crammer for the junior cert.

Offer writers living in the country incentives to teach; and support the initiatives they’ve already started (like Roddy Doyle’s Fighting Words group).

Contradictorily, don’t focus all your funding on using art as a method of attenuating social inequality- a vanishingly small number of deprived kids will climb out of poverty through this method.

‘The arts’, whatever that means should be open to everyone. Funding should ideally be meritocratic, and put where it provides most creative freedom, and facilitates the production of the most interesting work.

Create the equivalent of an Open University for visual and performance arts, writing and music.

How necessary is art in the current economic climate? What creative possibilities do you take from it?

How necessary is the current economic climate in the light of art? To me, creative work is the whole point. Consumerism, a fixation on GDP, the exploitation of natural resources, ‘building infrastructure to facilitate long term economic goals’: These are the distractions. If our lives are to have any meaning, then what we achieve and create is all that matters- and here I mean achievement in the largest sense: exploration of space, scientific comprehension of the fundamental structure and processes underlying cosmology and subatomic structure, psychological investigations into meaning and identity.

The arts provide the lens through which we can evaluate the necessity and purpose of our lives. It’s specious to put things the other way around. We should be moving toward a society in which information technology is used to expand the public debate and the public consciousness, to facilitate complete direct democracy and the maturation of our adolescent society. Literacy- be it written, audio-visual or affective, is the core skill set in divining purpose. A skill set fed and watered by the creation and appreciation of art.

What advice would you give to other young graduates who wish to work in the arts in Ireland?

Do the thing you do. If you’re an actor, act. If you’re a writer, write. If you’re a painter, paint… And so on. Don’t get a job in arts administration where you help to facilitate the distribution of funding determined by long term strategic blah blah blah blah blah. That’s how you become a clerk.

Meet people, work together on things. Don’t take it too seriously. Try to survive from the products of your creative labour, but do it even if you need to do something else to pay the rent. It’s the whole point.

What is for certain is that the skills you develop playing- busking, making podcasts, painting, messing around with electronics, writing stories at 4AM in your bedroom; will be the basis of the person you become, the people you meet, and the cool stuff you get to do for the rest of your life.

Oh and don’t get a mortgage. It’ll eat your soul.


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