Contour of the Commons

C.C.A. Derry-Londonderry

With the Centre for Contemporary Art Derry-Londonderry in the process of relocating to new premises, Contours of the Commons was reconceptualised as an exhibition woven into the fabric of the city, with its artworks dispersed over a large area. It was devised by C.C.A. curators Johan Lundh and Aileen Burns in collaboration with PLACE (Architecture and Built Environment Centre for Northern Ireland), and involved seven artists presenting projects in the public realm, along with architectural tours and a map cataloguing the permanent public artworks in Derry that ‘form the daily experience of place’. A small satellite space in the Craft Village on Shipquay Street functioned as a hub for activities.
From the outset my expectations for this exhibition were founded on misguided assumptions. I imagined Derry as a volatile city, a contested site. The enduring removal of the prefix ‘London’ on road signs proclaims entrance into a ‘Free Derry’. The city walls and the Peace Bridge straddling the river Foyle attest to the city’s merchant, industrial, and militarised pasts, while attempts to negotiate the emerging consumerist aesthetic of 20th century, ‘post-conflict’, urban regeneration, seem on-going.
In this post-financial-meltdown era of uprisings, protests, and riots, and the further blurring of protest with culture – Occupy biennials and post-feminist masquerades – the term ‘Commons’ has resurfaced, with political and ideological potential. Where Capital monetises property and privatises public space, the Commons, as theorised by Michael Hardt and others, proposes an alternative vision of shared, immaterial creativity.
I expected this treatment of Commons in Derry to be somewhat gritty, reactionary, and politically charged, aimed at reclaiming the public realm from the rhetoric of terror. Instead, the exhibition was unobtrusive and fresh, functioning as a silhouette, mapping various sites within the city, denoting layered and interconnected histories without disruption or agitation, and filtering them through the spaces where the Commons traditionally exists. The visual and aural environment, media, natural and man-made habitats, land and the public sphere, all featured within this sustainable approach to site-specific intervention.
Andrea Geyer’s billboard project entitled Spiral Lands / A place is not an object (2012) engaged with the visual Commons, specifically advertising space, in several locations around the city. This project began in 2008 as a photographic investigation into land and identity in the U.S, but offered a distinct resonance in the context of Derry city, where contentious territorial historiographies continue to frame (mis)understandings of identities and the daily realities of its inhabitants.
Amy Balkin’s project, This is the Public Domain (2003-2012), consisted of a digital stills projection and a vitrine containing a range of ephemera documenting her ongoing correspondence with the Bureau of Land Management in the U.S. In trying to turn her 2.64 acre site in Tehchapi California into a permanent international Public Commons, the artist encountered an array of legal constraints relating to public access, leaving her wondering rhetorically, ‘how can I find the public domain?’
Johan Tirén’s audio work When I closed my eyes all I could hear was the sound of the past (2012) struck me as being an arboreal sound-scape for ongoing conflict-resolution, a resolution formed out of an acceptance of history, allowing growth to take place in the present and continue into the future. Botanical inquiry played a part in a number of other projects. While Lara Almarcegui’s Enclosed Gardens (2004) considered the legacies of large-scale cultural events like biennials for the regeneration of urban wasteland, Andrew Dodds consulted with an ecologist to survey the plant-life growing on Derry’s city walls, producing A Pattern to Make the City by (2012). Both projects were formed out of a fidelity to local knowledge and an acknowledgement of the capacity of ‘non-spaces’ to ‘support unique demographics and life-cycles’, as Laura Britton comments on the Liverpool Biennial website. In imagining links between ‘habitat’ and ‘habitus’ that encourage social life to thrive and be self-sustaining, regeneration needs the right conditions to succeed. These are to be found at the level of ecosystems, of which the Commons is a particularly fruitful model.

Andrea Geyer: Spiral Lands, A place is not an Object, 2012. Billboard. Image courtesy of C.C.A Derry-Londonderry.
Andrea Geyer: Spiral Lands, A place is not an Object, 2012. Billboard. Image courtesy of C.C.A Derry-Londonderry.

In keeping with his interest in ‘over-looked, forgotten and highly layered narratives’, Sean Lynch conducted a research-based, archival inquiry entitled The Project (continued…). In 1988 American artist Jimmie Durham created a temporary, site-specific artwork within Derry’s city walls, based on local information gathered from the public. Reviving the intrigue surrounding Durham’s sculptural intervention, Lynch produced and distributed a publication featuring an assemblage of images from local newspapers portraying events that took place in Derry in the late 80s. In animating these forgotten fragments or frozen historical moments, ‘potential synchronicities are revealed’, as Lynch articulated in a public conversation with Declan McGonagle at the CCA.

For his contribution to the exhibition, Séamus Nolan facilitated View Points: a series of walking tours based on suggestions from participants about good vantage points in the city. It was an invitation to wander and to take in the sights (such as Austin’s department store, which provided a panoramic view from the 5th floor) but also to chat with fellow walkers, discussing the topics relevant to us as a semi-random gathering of strangers in an artistic context. Anyone who is familiar with Nolan’s previous work will know that he has a real skill for filtering complexity through blindingly simple channels. Like Francis Alÿs’ ‘simple acts’, this urban wandering – part flânerie, part dérive – leads to an experience of local insights and temporary or changing narratives within the city.
As a method of creative production, this model acknowledges the value in human interaction, and gathers inspiration from the digital commons (crowd sourcing, collective intelligence, user-generated content). Cultural theory, such as that surrounding the concepts of ‘social capital’ and the ‘rhetorical public sphere’, seemed to underpin much of the exhibition, with an emphasis on the interactive role of the audience in completing the artworks on a personal and collective level.
Seán Lynch’s conversation with Declan McGonagle, already referred to, provided a fitting close to the exhibition. McGonagle talked about his involvement in Derry’s Orchard Gallery in the 80s, which involvement issued from a sense of ‘responsibility to the locality’. In 1987 the gallery commissioned Anthony Gormley’s Untitled (Sculpture for City Walls), which remains Derry’s most culturally significant public artwork. Originally consisting of three cruciform cast-iron men, and symbolising divisions within the city, the sculptures suffered a turbulent history of graffiti, fire and vandalism. ‘The knowledge and meaning surrounding the city walls could only be generated from within Derry,’ stated McGonagle, adding that ‘the Peace Process was as much a cultural process as it was a political one – the division was not just about territory, but the identity that could be claimed, with a “cultural baseline” eventually being reached’.
Potentially the upcoming Derry-Londonderry City of Culture 2013 will be an extension of post-conflict regeneration. When asked how a role for art might be negotiated in relation to economics and culture-branding, Declan declared his faith that ‘art will always find a way to take the form it needs’. Perhaps all that is required is a vantage point, from which to negotiate, and to watch form unfold.
Contour of the Commons ran from 22 September – 28 October 2012.