The way we work
A conversation between Michele Horrigan and Merve Elveren, conducted between November 10-December 15, 2020.
Merve Elveren: Michele, thank you very much for accepting my short conversation request. I feel that it is crucial to document and reflect on the current circumstances, specifically, our shared experience at EVA International’s 1st phase. As you know, the exhibition venues are now closed due to the Level 5 COVID restrictions in Ireland, the situation is pretty much similar everywhere in the world. The growing numbers in cases bring more uncertainties. I’m curious to hear what you feel about ‘today,’ what is changing, or has changed, around you?
Michele Horrigan: At the start of lockdown, I was on a residency in the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) in Dublin. The state re-acquisitioned the grounds and site, and I watched the museum staff clear out with their cardboard boxes. My family and I were stuck there, as I couldn’t stray very far from the National Children’s Hospital nearby, with my daughter being very sick, and so ended up being left at the site for two weeks. With no familiar faces around, getting a front seat view and bearing witness to a makeshift morgue being built for the predicted large death tolls. Construction workers, large trucks, refrigeration units, and army personnel invaded the view from our apartment and the studio. Transparency was muddy, to say the least—the museum wouldn’t even inform me what the function of the building was to be, and I had to read the details online in a newspaper.
After more enforced itinerancy during the lockdown, I’ve escaped Dublin and am out west in Askeaton now, with better health all around, and where I have a home and a studio. Luckily, the morgue was never put to use, but nobody could have predicted that in the first few weeks of the pandemic with the numbers rising and panicked stories being reported from all over the world. I find that I’m much more careful about entering into working relationships than I was pre-pandemic—due to cause and effect and knowing that many cultural institutions were exposed as unfit and so unprepared for this year. This is my sentiment now after the legacy of feeling so abandoned in that dustbowl of that museum. Slowly I’ve been picking everything up; exhibitions were opened in Tenerife Espacio de Las Artes with curator Catalina Lozano, and in EVA, in Limerick with you, with Temple Bar Gallery and Studios in Dublin soon. I’m finding a good studio routine and writing much more for future video scripts and publications for early next year.
ME: I’m happy that you mentioned Askeaton because I would like to ask about your experiences with the institutions as an artist, and your own experience in Askeaton, as a director and curator—especially in these difficult circumstances. What did you envision for Askeaton Contemporary Arts (ACA) when you first started it back in 2006 and were you at all ready for such difficult times. I don’t think anyone can be prepared, but I want to know more about ‘the possible flexibilities’ of an institution run by a small core team with limited financial resources
MH: I started Askeaton Contemporary Arts when I was a student at the städelschule in Frankfurt, as a very open-ended experiment in the collective making and showing of art. I was in the class of Simon Starling there, a situation that encouraged improvisation and curiosity in great measure. I’ve never formally studied curating, so the project has been more aligned to the traditions of artist-run initiatives rather than trying to exponentially grow and replicate already-existing institutional models, commissioning bodies, or similar.
Over fifteen years, various structures have emerged out of this impetus, from a summer artist residency programme, publications, and events in Askeaton and elsewhere to more long-term investigations with a solid focus on forming resilient connections for those we work with. Askeaton is a small town a half hour’s drive outside Limerick City, and I grew up there. There’s often a strong community involvement in the realisation of artworks; and the thematic of our programme regularly revolves around local concerns. These elements are very valuable resources and have sustained our existence here for these years. You asked about finance; there probably isn’t an art organisation alive that doesn’t need more finances! We’ve been fortunate, especially with the Irish Arts Council’s assistance, in 2020.
During the pandemic, ACA had two long-term ‘lockdown’ residents, artist Emma Wolf Haugh and curator and artistic director of the District in Berlin, Suza Husse. Emma made a new video helped out by the local swimming club here, and it was then shown in Graz and soon in Dublin in the new year. Suza certainly helped us align some of our future programming towards a more defined environmental direction, and we partnered with District and Project Arts Centre to make a new podcast that will be out soon. We’ve still been able to find various ways of continuing a presence, particularly with a newly revamped website and a media channel full of videos about multiple aspects of our programme. We’re releasing two new publications early next year too.
ME: So, with the ongoing pandemic, ACA continued its activities with the residency artists. Did you manage to organize public programs?
MH: Well, Emma and Suza were also on residency in Dublin pre-pandemic—IMMA ran out of options to relocate them, so I stepped in and offered them sanctuary.
Usually, I organise a series of events around the presence of artists here each summer, but none of this occurred this year. While we don’t have our own building in Askeaton, we rely on various community structures and a network of supportive individuals to give us access to different spaces in the town for this activity to occur—the core of Askeaton town dates to medieval times, and the footprint and shape of many buildings are compact and in the vernacular style of premodern Irish building—all hardly suited to moving fifty people in and out of with respective social distancing to see an installation or encounter an artist talk.
We did put an emphasis on accessible public artworks—pieces by Stephen Brandes, Ramon Kassam, Sean Lynch, and more, made over the years, can be seen on the streetscape here. All artists, we made a commitment to working with in 2020, received a fee even though they could not be here, while we pushed on with advancing plans or ideas for once we emerge post-Covid. I typically don’t get very long periods of time in Askeaton as I have since this summer, so that’s been useful to consolidate with what’s possible here in the next few years.
ME: It is great to hear that ACA had the opportunity to rethink and restructure its long-term programs and be responsive to the community of Askeaton. I would like to go back to my second question. What do you think has changed with the pandemic? In your curatorial work and your artistic production. This is a rather general question, given the ongoing restrictions as we speak. Still, I would like to know if your two professions—not completely separate from one another—face similar difficulties, or maybe you are more leaning to Askeaton programmes as they are more conversation-based.
MH: It’s still very early to proclaim what the medium to long term changes will be, to be honest. There are elements of how activities in Askeaton and my own work have developed over two decades that I’m sure will morph and change, but, like everyone practicing in the cultural field, I hope it will happen organically in the time ahead. I’m also aware that the state has—in the last months—invested more in the arts infrastructure in Ireland than they ever have before. Meaning that there’s a strong possibility that practices in the visual arts field might emerge in a robust and critically-led position if this infrastructure to support them functions relatively well and that more emerging artists can contribute and find a public footing.
It’s true, though, that the major disruption with the pandemic has been restrictions on any kind of autonomy, artistic or otherwise. The context seems more elevated now, rather than being the background hum for getting things done, and that’s an interesting situation for how art can more prominently function as a public and rhetorical voice. My contribution towards EVA International echoed this sentiment—looking at the history, and contemporary condition of the Aughinish aluminium refinery, Ireland’s largest industrial site with a dismal environmental record found just west of Askeaton. The displays in the Hunt Museum and Sailor’s Home featured various artefacts derived from an investigative path into this industry; varying from aluminium robot dogs in Japan and jet engines on Jumbo jets to mines in Jamaica, returning to the Shannon Estuary and fifty million tonnes of bauxite waste created in the making of these other places and objects. 30% of Europe’s aluminium is refined there.
Something else worth mentioning is “ACA PUBLIC,” a series of books generated as part of the Askeaton programme in the last few years. Men Who Eat Ringforts was released in early 2020, featuring environmentalist Sinead Mercier, artist Michael Holly and folklorist Eddie Lenihan exploring the scant protection of archaelogical heritage in Ireland, while new titles into 2021 feature a substantial survey on Ireland’s great conceptual artist John Carson, Deirdre O’Mahony’s paintings of the 1990s, and a new artist book by Adam Chodzko. Again, these projects are very collaborative and can take a few years to get together. I hope we can keep doing this post-COVID and find ways to contribute to a broader understanding of what artistic research might achieve.
How are you dealing with the changes that have come your way?
ME: Well, I think we are still struggling in the sense that we haven’t transformed the way we work. At the beginning of the pandemic, we read extensively on ‘slowing down’ and questioned the cultural institutions’ and organizations’ existing structures. I don’t think we are there yet. As you said, it is difficult to know about the pandemic’s long-term consequences, how it will effect the way we work; especially on unseen and unrecognized labor.
As the last question, I would like to focus on Stigma Damages, which you briefly mentioned as the work at 39th EVA International. It is ongoing work for you since 2011; you have been collecting and building the archive with various materials. And every time you show it, you rethink the display of it. What does it mean to show this work today, in today’s circumstances?
MH: Firstly, it’s appropriate to mention some geographical and regional circumstances, especially considering the exhibition thematic you’ve been developing around the Limerick region in the last years. Waste bauxite was back in the news here last week, with a final planning enquiry about building an incinerator on the edge of Limerick city. Proposing to burn animal carcasses and rubber tires to cut costs of importing fossil fuels, Irish Cement also had hoped to take truckfuls of the red mud to burn at high temperatures–an aim that they have had to recant on as the hearing went on, with the plant right on the door of a middle-class suburban neighbourhood. They still hope to be granted a licence by the EPA to torch everything else on their list, however.
There are more licensing issues with the Aughinish plant to be considered. The complex, Europe’s largest refinery of its kind, has no legal requirement to examine and report on marine life in the waters around the plant. No onus has been given to them to offer regular reports on their smokestack releases either, unlike other high emitters in Ireland such as incineration. In addition, subtle practices of greenwashing—conveying false impressions and misleading information that the refinery’s activities are, if you were to believe them, environmentally sound—are rife here.
I’m working on a new video examining this pretense. In the studio, I’ve been looking at the reception of Hans Haacke’s 1983 Voici Alcan work, a critique of the dire relationship between the company and apartheid South Africa made at the same time as Alcan opened the Aughinish refinery here in Ireland. Alcan executives were at various times contrary and coy about Haacke –some choice quotes were “We have been betrayed, by a pseudo-artist trying to make his reputation at our expense,” and “I would have preferred Andy Warhol to have chosen Alcan. Look what he did for Campbell’s.”
Over the last decade, Stigma Damages has gradually expanded a site-specific ethos, and this prolonged focus on Aughinish is one element of this. In another example, when Stigma Damages was shown in Scotland in 2017, it incorporated demolished fragments of a smelter complex outside of Falkirk amongst other elements completed from fieldwork around that country. Now, after some years of gathering, collecting, and growing this body of research, there is more scope for arcane connections to be made, for exposure of the long term effects on the industry, and for understanding a role art might have in taking on such problematic manifestations.