Justine McDonnell, Breaking the Rule of Silence, 2016. View of performance. Photo: Laura Skehan

Artists at the Heart of the City: Grangegorman Public Art (Part 2)

“the lives we live” Grangegorman Public Art aims to engage artists and communities with “ambition, innovation, and relevance.” In Part One of this article, public art coordinator Jenny Haughton discussed the program’s unique philosophy and approach to public art, and how it has contributed to a larger regeneration effort. Here, in Part Two, three commissioned artists—Trish McAdam, Justine McDonnell, and Clodagh McEmoe—reflect on their projects, explaining how they responded to the history of the area and its not-so-distant past presided over by penal, welfare, and mental institutions, as well as its present-day character and population and its hopes for the future.

Trish McAdam, Confinement, 2019. Film, 34 min. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Brian McAvera: Could you each describe your project and some of the concepts behind it?
Trish McAdam: My 34-minute film, Confinement, was supposed to be six minutes. The site visit screamed “mental health issues” at me, but I felt better after visiting Jenny Haughton’s office in the old prison where marks of the ghosts of the past were still evident. The line of the project map came close to Henrietta Street [a famous Georgian terrace street with many artist’s studios] where I’d lived for nine years, not 100 yards away. I had never visited the King’s Inn (law) or been aware of the proximity to Grangegorman, which was cut off by the railway lines (technology). The story I needed to tell grew through the process. The narration came from a dead artist who had lived in Henrietta Street, from conversation after conversation with psychiatrists, patients, and people in the King’s Inn.
Clodagh McEmoe: Crocosmia × is a participatory project that brings together art, poetry, and horticulture. It aims to cultivate Crocosmia × crocosmiiflora (also known as Montbretia) as a metaphor for diversity and inclusion. This wildflower found all over Ireland is a hybrid that originated in South Africa. Crocosmia × was realized in collaboration with individuals seeking asylum, and it connected with local primary and secondary schools and gardeners all over Ireland. Our gesture of planting these beautiful wildflowers transformed previously neglected areas around TUD Grangegorman and the IMMA into places where people might sit and gather. These sites, with their accompanying signs, invite reflection on the metaphor of Crocosmia × as “a symbol of hope and a gentle reminder of the challenges and obstacles endured by those displaced by political, social, and environmental issues.”
Justine McDonnell: I did a 20-minute performance called Breaking the Rule of Silence. It came out of research into the culturally acceptable narrative. My focus was on the female voice: the resilience of a voice against power structures.

BM: What was your creative process like? 
Trish McAdam: My initial idea was like mental archaeology. In the process of digging, things came to me that I hadn’t anticipated. I researched maps and thought of building a time-space map. I followed land ownership law as it changed with regimes, urbanization, and the interaction of economics and politics. I looked at the buildings on my time-space line: Who had what? Why? When? And what was the philosophy behind it? It was a history of outsiders: rebels, prisoners, migrants rubbing up against oppressive power. Even now, as I learned during my time in Henrietta Street, we artists are seen as being “mad”—just like the people of Grangegorman. My meetings with people who had been in St. Brendan’s confirmed the urban myth of the brutality of confinement. I investigated photographs in the prison archive. Then I discovered that there were some photographs that weren’t so easy to access. I felt a responsibility to bring these fading photographs, with their powerful emotions, back into the present, to bring these faces out into the public.
Clodagh McEmoe: Crocosmia × developed out of The Plurality of Existence…(2015–17), a collaborative project with individuals seeking asylum that began in the garden of Spirasi (Ireland’s only organization for survivors of torture). Gardening forged the first form of collaboration, creating a shared space where tacit knowledge could flourish. This collaboration built on support, understanding, and trust encouraged individuals to find their own unique voices, which in turn evolved into the groups completing a body of poetry. The Plurality of Existence… resulted in a series of site-specific audio works transmitted over rivers in four cities in Ireland—Dublin, Cork, Carlow, and Galway—featuring poems written and recited by the collaborators in their native language and in English. The poems quietly revealed the profound experience of this group. The same process of gradually building up a group through collaboration and exchange was used for Crocosmia ×.
Justine McDonnell: It was research, looking at archives, documents, individual testimonies—a traumatic narrative and history. The space of Grangegorman was really important. I invited the audience into the physical space, one that holds so many voices, so many narratives, and I was trying to bring them to life.

Papy Kahoyo Kasongo, Clodagh Emoe, Mohamad Fadie, Romeo Kibambe Kitenge, and the children of D7 Educate Together planting on site, TU Dublin, Grangegorman campus, 2018. Photo: Courtesy the artist

BM: What guided the making of your final work? And what was it like realizing your ideas within this framework?
Trish McAdam: It was a complete change of process for me. I come from a film background—a structured, hierarchical system. A lot of money has to be raised before you begin. This was the opposite. It was a great freedom. My conversations with Jenny about what I was doing were really helpful. She gave me permission to inter-react as I chose, so I had to learn not to censor myself. I’d feared both the law and psychiatry, yet, through this work, I realized that these people are at the coalface of what is rejected by society—we have left them to deal with it, out of sight. It was a further opening up of my work.
Clodagh McEmoe: For Crocosmia ×, there is no final or finished work; it’s impossible to set boundaries for a work that operates through metaphor, that seeks to engage and empower through the cultivation of a wildflower. Although the siteworks at TUD Grangegorman and IMMA are significant, the work does not finish there. Papy Kahoya Kasongo, a project participant, extended it further, working with fellow residents to transform the entrance to the Mosney Direct Provision Centre with an avenue of wildflowers. The primary and secondary schools that participated in the project also have their interventions on their school grounds. Exchanging poems for corms and specimens of the Crocosmia × crocosmiiflora with gardeners all across Ireland extended the metaphor further. I am guided by my understanding of art as an open process—the process of creating a space of inclusion and belonging is not just a methodology of practice. The experience of coming together, the profound feeling of connection with others and nature, and the thought this inspires are all part of the work.
Justine McDonnell: It’s the physicality of voice. I was very conscious at the time that the process was long, research-based (the Magdalen Babies, Grangegorman itself), and I was also looking at how performance itself can hone a sense of urgency and activate a space. Having access to the space was very important. I activated a site of history that can also point to the future.

BM: Would you approach a public art project using this method of working again?
Trish McAdam: This project advanced my way of thinking a lot. Projects are as much about the people you work with as the subject, so yes, I’d do it again, but I’d be careful about what I was expected to deliver. Jenny was not prescriptive. I was invited to inter-react. The power of that concept is extraordinarily enabling, and the project was better for the freedom given. I’d be wary of anyone saying, “This is what we want out of this.”

I love the specificity and the scope, and even hope to change the site’s future architecture—to ask the architects, “Have you done your research?” 

Jenny and I have a dream to project the faces of the pre-1900 patients onto the exterior walls of what remains of the original hospital.
Clodagh McEmoe: Collaboration and participation have been a critical methodology of my practice for almost 15 years, so yes, I will continue to work in this way. I have always approached art as an open process and a form of inquiry. This understanding has motivated me to work with others, extending the explorative process. My projects do not focus primarily on the site of the artwork, but on the dynamic, experiential moments that arise throughout the process (in the making, and also through our encounter with the artwork), where ideas of connection between ourselves and the natural world are cultivated, explored, and felt.
Justine McDonnell: I learned a lot. I do believe that artists play an important role in society. Working in this way activates encounters. You bring the invisible into light. I have continued with live performance, but, for me, working in this space, and then collaborating with writers after the performance, was another way of looking at the world.

Justine McDonnell, Breaking the Rule of Silence, 2016. Detail of performance. Photo: Laura Skehan

BM: Have you learned anything new?
Trish McAdam: I have a lot of ideas that have come from this, particularly about diversity and getting humans who don’t talk to each other to talk. If I pick the right subject, it creates interconnections. Any space holds stories, even a small garden has layers of occupants—humans, plants, animals, birds—different communities that inter-react with each other, some dominating others.
Clodagh McEmoe: I am always amazed by the potential of collaboration and how ideas become realized through collective engagement. I have also learned that collaborations need not be large; instead, they are more powerful in intimate groups built on mutual understanding and support. I have experienced the energy created by small groups and have witnessed the expansion of this energy as it filters out to others. What I have ultimately learned from this project is the human capacity for resilience, forgiveness, and love. The courage and capacity to participate, share, and create work by those who have no fixed status as Irish citizens was truly inspiring and humbling. 
Justine McDonnell: I’ve learned a lot. The installation/performance was about confirming that there had been a policy of secrecy, and I was activating that history.