20:20 Programme: A Look at the Role of Artists in Communities

There’s a mix of opportunism and luck to where an artist collective might be located, depending on an amenable landlord, basic facilities and affordable rent. In Belfast, this combination will be harder to come by the more its ongoing urban regeneration is realised. The city centre’s long-simmering redevelopment has been suddenly obvious in recent months in a rush of condemned buildings, formerly dismissed plans re-slated, and active demolition and construction, all accompanied by a trend of catering to the transitory needs of students and tourists over a more invested use of space.

The slow onset of regeneration, where demand for space is low and there’s uncertainty around a building’s future, often works to the favour of artists looking for a cheap place to work. Are eventual hikes in rent, or studios evicted to make way for more profitable clients in state-of-the-art buildings, an inevitable conclusion, with artists being the unavoidable stepping-stones toward gentrification? Or are there ways for artists to be present and active in a location that will not eventually leave them (amongst others) priced out, but key to an active and engaging area?


How artists work, use, and connect with place underpinned the 20:20 programme by Creative Exchange studios, staged in August to celebrate their 20th year of activity within East Belfast. Alongside the basic requirements of an artists’ space, being situated on the Newtownards Road is an active choice for the studio group, which was set up on an ethos of artist provision, visibility and engagement within the area. The different ways in which a creative exchange can manifest – and what can follow on from it in a long-term, space-shaping way – was explored through the different acts of exhibition and discussion this summer, with the growing development of East Belfast used as a jumping point for the programme.

The area has not undergone physical upheaval to the same extent as the city centre, but, as Lesley Cherry, artist within Creative Exchange and the chair of their symposium “The Real Cost of Regeneration” pointed out in her opening remarks, while creative energy increases and businesses venture further east, the question of how long artists can remain a part of the buzz inevitably arises.

Discussion focused upon how to take a proactive stance within the process of regeneration instead of defaulting to a position of powerlessness. Michael Corr, architect and creative director of PLACE, brought up the organisation’s ongoing dialogue with the Karl group property developer as one measure to encourage sensitive development, and felt artists should get involved in similar discussions with planners. Changes to council structuring throughout Northern Ireland create an opportunity for involvement in the planning process, and their visibility in urban space allows artists to more actively shape it – one outcome of PLACE’s “City as a Gallery” programme, albeit in a passing way, where artists use the makeup of Belfast as a medium for art intervention.

Paula McFettridge, creative director of Kabosh Theatre Company, also gave some examples of recurrent and ephemeral short-term projects that directly involve artists, increase their visibility within the area, and benefit local businesses, such as Belfast Bred, a walking food and drink tour mixed with theatre. Many one-off projects have no sustainability, or the insular troubles tourism that Katy Radford, project manager of the Institute of Conflict Research pointed out, has no cross-benefit for the businesses that people see from their taxi window.

For the mostly individuated practices of visual artists, however, engagement with place will typically have a less direct nature and audience than theatre. Noel Kelly of Visual Artists Ireland spoke most directly of issues specifically surrounding visual artists and practices, and cautioned against tokenistic approaches to artist involvement within regenerative projects – bringing to mind social landlords Poplar Harca recent attempts at soft-soaping their takeover of East London’s Balfron Tower, through an artist’s collaboration that made a video game telling the stories of the same residents they were evicting.

The line between positive involvement in sensitive regeneration and being complicit in more harmful processes is bound up in structures of conference and, less directly, funding. Being “consulted out of something”, as Kelly puts it, takes away the immediacy of artist’s response within space, produces unsustainable short-term engagement, and keeps within the rules and status quo too much. To put these values in practice, it seems that breaking dependence on public funding would require more fluid and ephemeral approaches to working in a locale, using existing structures in areas, with, one assumes, a group of artists collaborating at once. Along with this, increased recognition and co-operation from public and private bodies is needed so that visibility and thus positive pressure is applied.

The issues of a visual artist’s autonomy whilst working with, and perhaps in some way responsible for, its locale is clearly complex and difficult to account for. Projects that socially and spatially connect do not directly fit with every art practice, and shoehorning them in seems counter-productive, but nonetheless engagement is needed to some extent. This doesn’t necessarily mean community-based collaborative work, but an assertion of presence and faith in a local audience, and an implicit acknowledgement that place always affects practice to some degree.

The wish tree forest’s inclusion in the Art in the Eastside billboard project is an example of the former, collaborative approach melding with the latter assertion of presence. Four selected wishes from participants in the wish tree forest joined snapshots of twenty artists’ practices, blown up and installed onto a selection of billboards around East Belfast. These two approaches are not meant to operate as a “call and response”, but show how both straddle creativity and relation to the area. The billboards often correspond visually or geographically with their site, and contain no other information but for their image.

In its fifth iteration, the billboard project shows an investment in presence in East Belfast – it is focused on the unmitigated, personal practice of the artists, yet also leaves work vulnerable to interpretation without the support structures of the gallery. Emphasis on process over product is a typical facet of public collaboration, but the long-running process of the Billboard project is in fact inherent to its affirmation of coexisting value in a particular audience and a fluid set of practitioners.

In comparison to the neglected community art pieces that line the streets, short-term repeated projects like billboards or temporary installations seem more viable for artists to work in a sustained way with locale, but maintain the autonomy of their individual practices. The qualities of art more commonly co-opted in regenerative processes – such as beauty, memorialising, and emotive response – are set aside for stimulating visual intrigue and a collective voice of individuated concerns.

Alongside these highly visible interventions, Creative Exchange staged a pop-up members’ show in the engine room of Portview trade centre as a less public intervention that allows more intimacy with the artists’ work. Curated by Sara McAvera under the statement “under the same sky diversity manages to thrive”, the art is installed unconventionally: Heather Dornan Wilson’s void-like works are within the elevated windows and only viewable via the piece Ponder, a functional piece of mirrored work. The small pieces that make up Zan Dani’s map-like, pulled apart images like Scum Out, a photograph of urban non-space, and David Fox’s array of paintings like You Are Now Entering… and K.A.T. sit high above the viewer, relative to the cavernous ceiling of the former mill engine room.

There’s a wide span of intended audiences and artistic concerns in these collected practices, but a physical mirroring of installation and hanging across the three rooms gives it a spectrum-like rather than scattergun approach. George Robb’s photograph of uniformed blue legs of a marching band are given an installational feel with a low hang and a complementary yet offhand blue bulb, all within a small side room wrapped in white sheets; it’s entirely different yet adjacent to the flickering fluorescents and unsettled, internal structuring materials in Barry Mulholland’s Housing the Geometric.

Some of the works in the members’ show mirror or complement images in the billboard project – perhaps fleshing out from a detail to a full work, or two dimensions to three, or showing a vast difference in scale. By knitting together the 20:20 programme a wide-reaching exploration of public and private processes is afforded, and submissive positions of viewing and even creating in a locale are questioned. There’s no passivity here – what’s on the ground feeds into what’s made, and vice versa. When upper-class restaurants and blockbuster films remain widely touted as the cultural and commercial saviours of Belfast by both media and political rhetoric – and indeed, feed into those sites of short-term engagement and accommodation that are carved into the city – art’s vitality on the ground seems as crucial as ever.

Dorothy Hunter is an Artist and Writer based in Belfast.