Preview: Static Terminal Convention

Cork Airport Old Terminal Building

The old Cork Airport terminal at Farmer’s Cross, on a hilltop south of Cork City, was a mile and a half up a country road from where I grew up, and often felt like a ‘parish airport’. Locals included the avenue on their walk with their dogs, or dropped in to watch a football match in the airport bar. A neighbouring family made up much of the security staff, along with an old drinking buddy who had previously looked after Cork post-punk band The Sultans of Ping FC. More than once I’d shouldered a haversack and headed uphill on the wooded Famine-road, crossed the roundabout and checked in for a flight. Then the new building appeared, in 2006 (just before the economic boom began its logical reverse) on almost twice the scale, with woodsoftened, Scandinavian-feel interiors, and it felt like the closing for good of a human-sized back-door into the global. This remnant of the local had gone the way of walking as a primary mode of travel. It didn’t help that the boom-time airport business park had turned my Famine-road into a rally-track for commuters from the burgeoning dormer estates.
Something similar had been felt on a national scale with Ireland’s self-exposure to the credit-flows of free-market capitalism in the previous decade, though most of the population, in true provincial manner, had experienced the process of erasure of the local as a relief from international embarrassment. There was a general sense of being ‘up there with the big boys now’. The local itself, what remained of it, reacted in more and more embarrassing forms: the Gaelic Athletic Association, for instance, one of the few remaining forces for communal cohesion in rural areas, imitating the hype and media techniques of Sky Sports and the Premier League, while in country discos young supporters mixed Red Bull, dance music and aggressive factionalism under the slogan of ‘passion for the jersey’. It had all the appearance of Joyce’s ‘nightmare of history’: worship at the altar of various national essences co-existing with chronic deference to, or cute practice among the representatives of Greater Powers. Compounding the nightmare was the general conviction that what the boom represented was, in fact, our ‘awakening’; and acclamation across the globalising world for our feat of economic magic.
In other words, for the proximate viewer, the old airport terminal is a site of tensions, between local and global, rural and greater urban – the marker of a historical transition, even the bearer of old colonial traces. It is likely, however, that Terminal Convention, organised by Liverpool’s Static art group and directed by Paul Sullivan, will reflect few of these tensions, despite Sullivan’s links to West Cork and regular visits to the city since his involvement in the Cork Caucus in 2005. If international biennale and biennale-like events have often tried to avoid the effect of ‘parachuting in’ to a locality by various strategies (through the Caucus’ anticipatory local gatherings, for instance), ‘parachuting in’ is precisely what Terminal Convention is all about. The empty terminal presented an opportunity to Sullivan to give a mise-en-scène to certain concepts of fellow Static member (and manager of Liverpool School of Art and Design’s ‘Site Project’) John Byrne. These revolved around the idea of ‘airport art’, a characterisation of certain dominant strands of contemporary art (particularly biennaleart) in terms of their sharing with the constituents of the airport environment an internationalist, branded, easily consumable aesthetic. Even ‘local specificity’ can be assimilated to this apparatus of homogeneity, the equivalent of the Delft chinaware or ‘Royal’ biscuit tins on offer at Schiphol and Heathrow. To stage an example of the international contemporary art event at a site that tested and stressed this resemblance was Sullivan’s basic, open-ended concept. Terminal Convention would be a biennale with a feedback loop built in, the activities of the artists and participants mirrored back by the environment.
Sullivan’s structuring of Terminal Convention, in particular its financial underpinnings, reflects the same forthrightness as the event’s relation to locale. Static, which operates from a small red-brick warehouse building not far from Liverpool’s city centre, has committed itself to financial independence over the years, entering into arrangements with private and state patrons only on the understanding that the organisation’s autonomy is not compromised. It can do this because Sullivan uses one part of the building as an architectural model-making business, which covers rent and overheads – in other words, the organisation is partly commercial, but separates off its commercial from its artistic interests. Nevertheless, Static has in the past found itself involved in institutionally-sponsored projects, and through Becky Shaw’s work in particular, developed strategies of internal or institutional critique reminiscent of those of other visitors to Cork in 2005, Bik Van Der Pol and Maria Eichhorn, but often involving an understated performative dimension. More recently the acceptance of part-dependence on commerce has expanded, with the Static space hosting a Korean noodle bar and gigs by local bands. The same ethos underpins Terminal Convention, with sponsorship not only coming from public and private bodies, but with a major part of the financial burden being offset by commercial activity: an Art Fair, representing the increasing dependence of contemporary art on this union of art event and market and, again, live music (either in the terminal or, should licensing, insurance and the like unfortunately prove prohibitive, at a city-centre venue). The particular forms of commercial representation are not entirely arbitrary – socialising has become an intrinsic part of much biennale culture, for instance, and the inner, international Art Fair will be matched by a farmers’ market outside – but they simultaneously remain an exercise in basic fundraising, a simple dependence on small-scale commerce that guarantees independence. In such terms Terminal Convention’s implicit politics would be worth extrapolating.
Alongside the Art Fair, Farmers’ Market and Live Music events the central activities of Terminal Convention will take place: a symposium and a set of sponsored projects leading to exhibitions. The names associated with these are an interesting mix: a number have been to Cork before (Séamus Nolan, Becky Shaw, Nevan Lahart among the artists, for instance, Charles Esche and Annie Fletcher among the speakers – again there is a certain lineage with the Caucus evident); some are closely associated with the city (Mike Hannon and Martin Healy); a number are well-established British figures (the inclusion of Turner-prize winning Douglas Gordon, and one of Documenta 12’s most memorable exhibitors Imogen Stidworthy represent a real coup for Static); a few are associated with the Liverpool art scene (Hannah Pierce and Juan Cruz); and finally there is an impressive representation from the international art and critical scene, including the ‘art laboratory’ group associated with the Pavillon of the Palais de Tokyo in Paris. This latter name acts almost as a brand, and in the Art Fair section, at least, other globally famous names have been circulated as possible participants, all of which has done no harm to the event’s advance publicity (which has succeeded in making Terminal Convention one of the Irish Times’ twenty-five cultural highlights of 2011 – the Dublin-based paper also admitted that the judgement was made despite a lack of hard information).

Image © Paul Sullivan / Static
Image © Paul Sullivan / Static

On the basis of this line-up it must be admitted that Terminal Convention will indeed be a, if not the major art event this year in Cork, at least. The premise, that a biennale-like event can be staged in an environment that, in theory, mirrors its activities, by means of commercial supports that operate in plain view of the event’s participants (that are, indeed, integrated into the event’s working), seems no less practical and inspiring for its opportunism. The event will be blind to many aspects of the building’s individual character and its relation to its locale, but then again, the old Cork Airport terminal, despite its parochialness and the bizarre sample of a gas fireplace that used to greet passengers in the baggage retrieval area, remained that exemplary social space, the international airport.

How exemplary was made clear to me as I sat in the waiting area of Heathrow’s Terminal 3, one afternoon in the busy Christmas period. The place was crowded, and in constant motion: a complex of commercial, biological and practical flows. In short, it was a largescale, enclosed organisation of people, a working, upto-the-minute social model. Its troubling aspects were easily discerned: the serviced democracy within was rigidly exclusive, citizenship here was offered only after intense security screening and credit approval – we were those who had submitted to examination of our identity and possessed, at least temporarily, a certain level of affluence. This ‘affluent’ status was reflected everywhere by the outlets for global brands, especially those dealing in luxury items. On the other hand it was hard not to perceive a utopian dimension to the same space: all the races and nations of the earth appeared to be represented, co-existing peacefully. More than that, a disproportionate number of the travelling families seemed to be of mixed-race: outside the Slavic-serviced Italian café my own Fenno-Hibernian trio was trumped by a South American-English quartet at the next table, and across the way a white North American with a partner from India tried to entertain two American-accented children. In this enclave of internationalism old identities seemed to be in flux, unforming and reforming. It occurred to me that my surroundings amounted to the imaginary of the nomadic contemporary artist, those who follow the credit-flows to their biennial poolings, maintaining studios in Jakarta and Berlin.
It was a space with a starkly functional, ahistorical shell, brought to social life by ubiquitous instructions and directions, post-literary symbols and slogans and the punctuation of identity by advertisement images: a supremely visual zone, in which the slippery, critical nomadic artist would have all the expertise of the ‘native tracker’.
Is this a ‘coming community’, to borrow Agamben’s phrase? Of course between the police-governed perimeter and the utopian congregation was all the banality of airport culture, the twin of biennale art in Byrne’s account. But I cannot imagine that such speculative thoughts will not also arise among the visitors to Terminal Convention – about a future that has been in operation in the present since at least the post-war construction of Idlewild. And what about the present possibility of the ruin of that futurity? What makes Terminal Convention possible, after all, is the redundancy of a building that, despite its parochialness, was once ahead of the contemporary.
Terminal Convention ran from March 17th – 27th 2011.