Create Collaborative Art and the City

Ailbhe Murphy  |  Ailbhe Murphy is an artist and Director of Create, the National Development Agency for Collaborative Arts in Ireland


Create is the national development agency for collaborative arts in Ireland. As such it nurtures, champions and considers various modes of artistic collaboration, development and exchange. As a resource organisation, Create provides advice and support, as well as training and development opportunities for artists and arts organisations. Through various artistic programmes, Create sets out to encourage new artistic and critical formations that bring to the fore modes of collective and collaborative production. In addition, Create promotes understanding and best- practice and works closely with communities of interest and place to expand people’s experience of, and participation in the arts.

Create has a national remit but it originated in Dublin in the early 1990s. Emerging from the activisms and aspirations of the late 1960s in England, community arts in Ireland in the early 1980s took its lead from the explicitly political concept of community arts, reflected in the influential writing of Owen Kelly and the cultural activist group Another Standard among others. Much of community arts in Dublin in that formative phase evolved directly through the youth and community development sector or what in the US would be broadly termed social justice and activist organisations. The North City Centre Community Action Project was one such example of a community development project, which initiated and supported a wide range of community-based arts projects in response to local issues. In 1982 they organised the seminal Looking On Festival. The festival brought a lot of positive attention to an area of the city that was experiencing significant social and economic marginalisation due the decline in the manufacturing base of the inner city. In addition, the erosion of the economic base for the surrounding dockland communities meant that considerable areas of the north inner city were in real decline. NCCCAP and City Workshop1 are just two examples of how community-based arts became the principle mechanism for presenting working class narratives and cultural responses to the economic and social changes in Dublin in the 1970s and 1980s (Fitzgerald 2004).

The sense of community arts as a movement became more explicit when the first ever gathering of a loose coalition of community arts groups, initiated by City Workshop, took place in the North Star Hotel in the north inner city in 1983. Following that seminar these groups formed an umbrella organisation for community arts in Ireland called Creative Activity for Everyone or CAFÉ. In 1984 CAFÉ organised the first ever conference on community arts in Ireland. The conference was chaired by Michael D. Higgins an elected representative at the time and now Ireland’s ninth President. Creative Activity for Everyone or CAFÉ grew out of a collective sense of commitment to the empowering potential of the arts and cultural democracy. In 2003 Café changed its name to Create and was at the forefront of many pioneering initiatives such as the 1993 Community Arts Pilot Programme with the Combat Poverty Agency.2 This programme was significant as it represented one of the largest state investments in community-based art. From its origins in working class culture the community arts movement in Dublin expanded over the years and transformed towards engaging with a range of social, cultural, geographical and political issues.

In contemporary art more generally, and over the last two decades in particular, we have increasingly seen forms of practice which have been identified (or self-identify) as socially engaged, as art-in-context, as community-based, as participatory, as collaborative and so on. The diversity of approaches to engaged practice is reflected in their attendant frameworks of legitimisation which include relational aesthetics, new genre public art, activist art, connective aesthetics, dialogical practice and social practice among others. Create itself has evolved along with the field of socially engaged arts practice, encompassing new territories, new cultural frames and new publics. In the context of Dublin, Create supports a wide range of projects, artists and collaborative alignments, which respond to the political and cultural landscapes of the city. Recent examples include a public art commission entitled The Prosperity Project by Dublin-based artist Jesse Jones. The artist was commissioned in 2013, by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and the Convention Centre Dublin (CCD), a landmark building in Dublin’s Docklands area. The commission is funded under per cent for art and supported by Create.

Jesse Jones conceived The Prosperity Project as a nine-month long durational ‘conference’. Over the lifetime of the project, Jones has engaged with the Convention Centre Dublin site, the residents in the surrounding Docklands area and with the broader urban community to interrogate meanings of prosperity and scarcity and the historical parallels and resonances which are interwoven with narratives of Irish deprivation, past and present. Jones has sought to interrogate the assumptions about ‘prosperity’ that grew up during Ireland’s boom years. Debate has played a crucial role in the durational conference, with leading thinkers and writers invited to contribute and part-take in mini residency exchanges. In addition, Jones initiated a series of live research events which included, The Green Machine Cycle Tour a local history cycling tour through the city of Dublin with oral historian Iain Boal; Them and Us: a performative reading of the financial crisis and group research event which examined the politics of austerity through the use of verbatim scripts as an exercise in experiential research. Them and Us started with a performance of The Power of Yes by David Hare delivered by actor Niamh McCann and research contributors. This event was preceded by an embodied research phase led by Dr. Anna Furse. In addition, Dawn of the Truth Wizards by Loitering Theatre, was a research discussion with speakers Alexander Galloway and Franco Bifo Berardi. This discursive event focused on capitalism and its emergent desire to capture the truth of the soul from emotion capture systems to corporate mindfulness. The final, permanent artwork Prosperity draws from the collated research process. The artwork, constructed by Jones, will be installed in the Convention Centre with a specialised installation team in mid-2015 as the final moment in the project (Create website www.create-

The changing demographics of the city, in particular the formation of new communities in Dublin, means that visual artists, theatre makers, musicians, dancers filmmakers and co creators have contributed to an evolving contemporary collaborative arts practice that seeks to reflect nuanced realities for an ever-changing population. Museum of the Refound, (2013) was a collaborative project by artist Laragh Pittman and the International Women’s Group at the Lantern Centre, Synge Street in Dublin’s south- inner city.3 While some of the women are originally from Ireland, others came from England, France, India, Sri Lanka, Columbia, Uganda, Somalia, the Lebanon, Syria and Palestine. The women made a series of explorative journeys to various locations in the city including the Iveagh Gardens, City Hall and the Irish Jewish Museum. Together with the artist they constructed a makeshift museum room where they displayed a wide range of artifacts they had gathered on their city journeys. In addition to the artifacts the room held a selection of books and maps as well as digital examples of various designs on wood, tiles and fabric, emphasising the influences of Classical, Medieval and Eastern styles in Dublin’s built heritage. The women constructed a new map of Dublin, laid out in various patterns and in vivid colours on a series of nine low-level tables, which the visitor could walk around. Artist and writer John Gayer describes the map as follows:

The map proposes an amalgamation of the fanciful and real and comments as much on the ways people might envision a city, as on the ways that city can evolve. It, for example, represents St. Stephen’s Green as a micro version of the map itself in which the park’s verdant appeal has been reduced to a green abstract floral motif set within a nine-square grid. Moreover, not all of the names on the map seem familiar. The fact that there is a waterway called ‘El Gran Canal’, some street names have been translated into Tamil or Hebrew, and Cork Street has been replaced with ‘Somalia Way’, speaks about the changing face of urban neighbourhoods. (Gayer, 2013)

Picking up on the theme of the changing face of urban neighbourhoods, many artists have worked collaboratively in areas of the city, which have experienced profound social and architectural change in the last twenty years. Outlandishtheatre platform’s debut film Come into The Gardens (2012-2014) is a short film consisting of series of moving portraits of residents of St. Teresa’s Gardens in the south inner city of Dublin. St. Teresa’s Gardens is one of a number of social housing complexes in the city, which were earmarked for regeneration at the height of Ireland’s economic boom. Many residents were moved out to make way for the demolition of some of the housing units. However, as that economic situation reversed in the mid 2000s the promised regeneration of St. Teresa’s (along with a number of other flat complex communities in Dublin) was not realised. Maud Hendricks, artistic director of the film lived close by and over time she became aware of the slow process of de-tenanting of the estate. With Kilian Waters of Shoottokill and the residents of St Teresa’s, outlandishtheatre created these intimate film portraits against the background of what remained of the housing estate.

Strong connections to place and to particular areas of the city come through in a number of other projects, which involve collaborations across artforms. Experimental performance company ANU Productions’ Monto Cycle (2010-2014) explored 100 years of history in one working class area of Dublin, using both a professional and community cast.4 The film ‘Area’ (2013) made by dancer Ríonach Ní Néill and filmmaker Joe Lee with the Ciotóg Dance Ensemble and the Dublin-based Macushla over 50’s Dance Club, is an exploration through movement and dance of the group’s relationship to the Dublin 1 area of the city. Digital, interactive and live modes of participation form part of a collaborative, cross artform public art commission, which will explore the Tolka River.5 The multi-disciplinary artist team led by Dr Matt Green will engage with a number of communities along the river. Over what will be a year- long exploration, using image, video, audio, performance and interaction, the Tolka, its people and the life that it nurtures will be spotlighted and celebrated.

In this brief account, we can see that the notion of community has expanded far beyond its origins in working class experience in the city to incorporate a whole range of new territories. The framing of artistic practice has also evolved into a rich contemporary debate about the nature of engagement itself and where it lies in the broader landscape of cultural practice. In all of this we are at an interesting point in development where we see the possibilities of new dialogues between artists and the places, organisations and situations in which they engage. This brings with it certain critical challenges, not least the possibilities within collaborative practice to create interdisciplinary forms of critical reflection and evaluation which can take into account the multiple individual, organisational and disciplinary perspectives and interests which become activated in cross-sectoral collaborations. Writing in the Create News, art historian and critic Grant Kester reflects that new approaches in art criticism are needed in order to address collaborative practice:

This work requires new modes of reception capable of addressing the actual, rather than the hypothetical, experience of participants in a given project, with a particular awareness of the parameters of agency and affect. (Kester, 2013)

Create is interested to explore questions of agency and affect in the context of being the lead partner in a major European project supporting collaborative artists’ development. The practice-based research strand of the four year Creative Europe COLLAB Arts Partnership Programme will explore modes of participation6 and questions of representation in touring collaborative practice. The research also sets out to identify critical frameworks, which can take account of the complexity of the collaborative networks that become activated when artists and communities of interest and place work together over time.



1 The City Workshop drama project, run by playwright Peter Sheridan, built on the strong tradition of oral history and drama in the city. City Workshop involved local men and women in researching and devising drama pieces based on their own lives (Fitzgerald 2004)

2 This programme was supported by EU Horizon and represented a valuable partnership with an important state agency. In more recent times these kinds of partnerships with state agencies are becoming more difficult as we have seen the elimination of a number of key state agencies concerned with social policy such as Combat Poverty (2009) and the Office for Active Citizenship and the National Economic and Social Forum. We have also seen serious funding cuts such as the Irish Human Rights Commission, which has a 35% drop in Funding from 2008-2010 and the Equality Authority whose funding fell by 45% in the same period with the government announcing the merger of these two agencies in Autumn 2011. The community development sector is also facing considerable challenges under the government’s current ‘Alignment process’ where a number of very experienced projects have been closed or are facing mergers with local government structures, thereby weakening their autonomy and effectiveness.

3 Museum of the Refound was exhibited at the Bayno Liberties College in June 2013. The project was funded through the ‘Artist in the Community Scheme’, which allows communities of interest and place collaborate with an artist for a period of 6 to 9 months. Create manages this funding scheme for the Arts Council of Ireland. See

4 ANU’s The Monto Cycle: World’s End Lane, Laundry, The Boys of Foley Street and Vardo were supported by the Arts Council’s Artist in the Community Scheme managed by Create See http://

5 This is a Per Cent for Art commission, relating to the creation of flood defense systems along the river Tolka. The commission is funded by the Office of Public Works (OPW) and the three local authorities Dublin City Council, neighbouring Fingal County Council and Meath County Council. Managed by Create, the commission will take unfold along the river in each of these three catchment areas.

6 See Chrissie Tiller’s The Spectrum of Participation in Create News 17, October 2014


Fitzgerald, S, ed. (2004) An Outburst of Frankness: Community Arts in Ireland-A Reader. Dublin: tasc at New Ireland.

Gayer, J., Paper Visual Art Journal 2013. Available online at http://

Kester, G., Collaborative Art and the Limits to Criticism. Create News 14, May 2013