The past couple of weeks, since Array Collective’s Turner Prize win, have been hugely overwhelming. (You can read more about the evolution of our work together here.) I have an awful lot more posts to do, and no time in which to do them. I thought that perhaps I didn’t have any more words left to offer, but then Ciara Hickey (of Household and PS²) and I were commissioned by Elephant to respond to the media coverage of Array’s exhibition at The Herbert Museum and Art Gallery. You can read the piece HERE, but here is an extract:
The original press reviews of the exhibition railed against the concept of rewarding collectives whose work was deemed more social work than artwork, deeming it “an embarrassment”, with even some reviews lauding 2021’s shortlist as the prize’s “most virtuous ever”. Array were generally given an easier ride for the charm and authenticity of their síbín. However there was next to no critical engagement with the content of the installation, deemed little more than a theatre set by some critics.
This is particularly frustrating as the folksiness of the Array aesthetic is representative precisely of its responsiveness to local conditions. Their city-centre location enables them to turn up at protests with banners on which the paint hasn’t yet dried. Far from having only the “thinnest smear of artistic meaning”, this work is not anti-intellectual: it’s anti-imperialist. It is richer than most will ever know. This “stuff” is the fabric of our lives; the “relentless yapping” the inconvenient truth of our existence.
Tell us again that it’s “fun” to create a pub mop bucket in the shape of the ferry which takes our pregnant people to Scotland for healthcare that is still illegal in Northern Ireland. Array’s description: “Soaked in shame by a country that loves to export our discomfort”. Tell us that sticks, called Bata Scór, which were worn around the neck and used to record instances of children speaking Irish instead of English so that the appropriate number of punishments could be administered, contribute to an “imagined spiritual past” in the context of a UK collecting institution. Tell us that a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Eire Says Relax” (a paraphrase of the banned 1983 Frankie Goes to Hollywood song), referencing both the subjugation of women and of LGBTQ+ communities in Northern Ireland, is “weak”.
I’ve also just realised – a bit late in the day – that my second cousin also wrote a riposte to the UK-centric view of Array’s win, which you can read here. (His has much fancier words in it!)
If you’re into me getting ranty on the internet, you can also find a recent article HERE about the precarity of the studio sector (also featuring Array) in Belfast, which is the focus for my PhD research. Thank you to the lovely team at Arts & Business NI for inviting me to contribute to their blog series.
A few factors, in particular, amplified these organisations’ precarity: firstly, the concentration of artists’ studios in Belfast (some 17 organisations, host to an estimated 450 artists; accurate numbers for which are difficult to gauge because they are in constant flux), as well as the severity of the issues they faced (extremely short-term tenancies; enforced moves further away from the city centre areas they had both established and been established in; a steady stream of artists leaving their studios to pursue their careers elsewhere, or leaving the sector entirely; and whole swathes of particular practices dying out due to a lack of facilities). Where other cities might include provision for visual artists’ studios in their larger, flagship/capital build arts centres, that didn’t seem to be the case here. Where studios in other cities could perhaps occupy former schools, some factors around schools’ religious designations here complicate any such further, adapted purpose. Most significantly, a particularly fraught and risk-averse funding climate has led to organisational funding being withdrawn if any insecurity around premises is mooted.
In one interview that I conducted, a representative from Arts Council of Northern Ireland reports feedback from a member of the public questioning why studios exist at all, especially when we don’t fund workspace for writers or businesses or anything else. I don’t know what their answer was in response, but mine is this: artistic production, simply because it doesn’t yet have a public, is no less valuable than that which does. And that is the very core of supporting the arts, because otherwise then we end up in very murky territory where absolutely everyone is encouraged to make art and be creative… except the artists. To some extent, I get the point that the person who challenged the Arts Council was making, particularly in light of the pandemic – we are all questioning the nature of all workspaces, for all sectors, and how they contribute to our urban landscapes. However, if the public want the end products – the quality of life that art demonstrably offers, and the social, environmental, cultural, and economic growth of your city – then the seeds – the space for production, for trial and error, for honing a practice – have to be nurtured.
I usually keep other bits and pieces of writing – mainly reviews – HERE. And there’ll be more coming up in early 2022. (I’m never finishing this PhD, right…?)
Also, just for the craic, if you want to see my big weepy face as captured by the BBC News on the night of the Array win, click here.