Unravelling Developments // Sligo County Council 2003-2009
49 Signs of Painting
Value for Tax Prayers Money Mobile Sculpture
Tax Prayers Money
IN 2003 I sent in a proposal for Unravelling Developments, a series of Percent for Public Art Commissions run by Sligo Local Authorities. I sent in some samples of my work and a direct response to the Curator’s text calling for submissions. I outlined some potential work that I might make which was related to my then current work practice, video flash animation. I was fortunate and was awarded a commission.
For various reasons outside the control of the arts office, the money was not in place – until 2008. As a result, my practice had moved on to other territory and mediums. In a peculiar way, the wait worked out, as the initial brief was ‘Unravelling Developments’, and I found myself in amongst developments about to unravel, left right and centre. I reworked my initial proposal in conjunction with the arts office to tailor it to the new situation.
It was decided to rent an old pub premises on Markievicz Rd for the month of August 2008. It was an empty space that could function as a temporary studio for a sort of artist residency. ‘Tax Prayers Money’ was a line that was rolling around my head.
I found the position of making work for the public quite daunting. Firstly I had no objective, other than to make the best work I could and I didn’t want to dip into local folklore. I did not want to collaborate with people but to use the opportunity to develop my current studio practice for a public space. I felt a bit rudderless and slightly anxious about using taxpayers’ money. I might be a smart arse, but I did not want to do something that was mean spirited in nature, but to make something that had a generosity of spirit.
I loaded my car up to the brim with tools and equipment that I might need and drove up to Sligo on the last week of July, to spend 6 weeks living and working in Sligo.
I set about getting comfortable in the space and trying to gather my thoughts on the situation I found myself about to make work in. I hit the wall of what to do. I always feel that work begets work i.e.; don’t think too hard but start on anything and the work will come. If not, use retail therapy and buy stuff to make stuff, which is what I did and I quickly got going clobbering things together. I had decided earlier on to engage the collaborative assistance of two artist friends, with whom I had previously worked, to help me during various stages of the works development; Thomas Marcus Schumann (+ me = Paintaholics) and Terry Blake (+ me = 2 Bit Part Time Amateur Productions).
Young Model, a local art group for young people run by the Model Niland Arts Centre, came to the studio for a couple of Saturdays afternoons to help me make some work, hang out and eat some sandwiches.
One of the most interesting aspects that this commission brought up was, what is possible in the realm of a public art commission. Early on I had decided to involve the Borough Council as little as possible, in an attempt to avoid red tape. I felt that if I said, I want to do such and such, then I would be faced by a large amount of bureaucratic obstacles, from health and safety to all kinds of potential objections. I did not plan on making dangerous work but felt that anything I could envisage would have caused difficulty from the Council’s perspective.
The arts office asked did I want to make a public announcement that there was an artist in town making public work. I felt that any such mediation would take away from the experience of the work being found on the street with no clues or reference. For me publicly calling something art is a bad move and is only setting the work up with an excuse or for public contempt. Work should be allowed to wander off in the real world and do its own thing, like grown up children.
With this project, I wanted to operate on the principle that, we are the government, we own the streets and the roads (sometimes we do hire/purchase). For me it was better to put the work out in the public sphere and let it take its own course in regard to the noise of life.
I began by making some paintings, in the form of street signage. The subject matter was a personal mish mash of feelings, ideas and whimsy that I had about the previous 10 / 15 years of prosperity that Ireland has just experienced and where that might have left us, culturally, socially and economically. I made a total 49 signs. The plan was to hang them out and about the town’s environs, on public railings, signposts, etc. All the paintings had ‘PROPERTY of SLIGO BOROUGH COUNCIL’ spray painted on the back of them. Whilst out putting up some paintings, I saw a guy from the council using a craft knife to cut down the portrait of the mayor, which I had previously hung outside Borough HQ. He looked a little bewildered by the spray paint job on the back of the painting. He showed it to a woman sitting in a car and lifted his shoulders in the ‘I haven’t a clue what these are’ pose.
Most of the paintings that were centrally located disappeared in a day of two. Those on the outskirts of town fared a bit better. The missing paintings may have been borrowed/stolen/dumped by locals, blow-ins, passers through or whoever. It’s outside my hands but I should state that they are the property of Sligo Borough Council.
I also made a memorial for all the Builders and Builder Supplier Workers who lost their livelihoods in the Bust of the Irish Boom. It consisted of a 3D line drawing of a skip on top of a memorial plinth. I wanted it to be a ‘Value for Tax Payers Money’ sculpture, so I mounted the sculptural plinth on the roof rack of a car and drove it around Sligo town for a day. I attached a speaker to the plinth, which played an ice cream jingle. When I was finished I took the sculpture apart and stuck the 3D skip component directly into the riverbed in the centre of town.
The last piece of work I made was ‘Debt Raft’, a folly in the shape of a raft, which I planned to float in the centre of the river. It rained for most of the time I was in Sligo and as such, the speed of the river’s current was too fast and high to place the sculpture. I had to alter the plan as it was too dangerous and relocated to a calmer place in the river. All went according to plan, the raft floated, and I got lovely photos. I was sent an email three weeks later with a photo of the said ‘Debt Raft’. It’s a brilliant piece of public intervention. Give a look at the photos and see, it tells us a lot about where we’ve come and gone.
I found the process of making public art very difficult and a challenge to my art practice. Most of the difficulty emanated from my sense of moral responsibility with regard to spending taxpayers’ money on art. Once the project got going, I was happy with the ground that I covered , with regard to content and material placement / distribution of the work. It gave me a platform to get a lot of my feelings about the state out of my system.
Thanks to: Sligo Borough Council, Sligo Arts Office, Mary McDonagh, Joe Lee, Terry Blake, Thomas Marcus Schuman, Alex Conway and John Mulhall.