Social Practice and Public Art: A survey of socially engaged art in Dublin City Council’s Public Art Programme

Gráinne Finn  |  Gráinne Finn is an independent curator and programme manager with the Irish Landscape Institute


Dublin City Council’s Public Art programme aims to reflect the diversity of art practice and the variety of ways in which it can be produced in the public realm so as to represent the ‘epic scale of urban drama’ alongside elements of ‘fragmented personal experience.’ (Philips, 2013). This essay considers a selection of work produced under the remit of the DCC programme. The origins of the programme and its development into its current form are considered. Selected works commissioned under the scheme are described with a view to illustrating the range of socially engaged practice supported by the Council.

The Per Cent for Art Scheme was first established in 1978 by the Office of Public Works, and was later adopted by other state bodies and local authorities, including the then Department of the Environment, who launched the ‘Artistic Embellishment Scheme’ in 1986. Not surprisingly, art works commissioned under these schemes were typically envisaged as artistic adornments or sculptural adjuncts to new institutional buildings and developments. As the general perception of public art broadened to take in other forms of practice such as performance, theatre, sound, and collaborative or combined practices, the scope for a more complex interfacing between artist and public, and between artist and commissioning body increased, presenting new agendas for experimentation and dialogue.

The late 1990s/early 2000s is taken as the beginnings of this expanded field. Conceptions of public art had moved on from turn of the twentieth century commemorative monuments and per cent for art sculptures in plazas and atriums, to works that navigated a new kind of relationship between artist and non-artist in the public domain. More sophisticated briefs enabled the development of a variety of collaborative and socially engaged projects.

The practice of socially engaged art within a public art framework raises questions about visibility and invisibility, single versus collective authorship, permanence and temporality, ethics and aesthetics, forms of living and ‘living as form,’ and the ‘social turn’ in art practice generally. To a degree, public art is still seen as having a place-making remit and a physical or spatial substance, despite its ever more permeable borders. Socially engaged practice does not have this expectation, being less about visibility and  ‘more about people than objects,’ moving towards ‘art without artwork, without authorship, and without spectatorship.’(Sholette, 2013).Embracing this invisibility, artists in socially engaged practice are free to bypass prescribed aesthetics and the policing of artistic borders, and connect directly with cultural “usership.” (ibid).

DCC’s public art programme accommodates this diversity in practice via four commissioning strands which, combined, are intended to offer a cohesive approach to the management of art in the public realm. The programme supports artists whose work is personal and created in solitude, as well as those whose practice is based on collaboration and community engagement. Not surprisingly, commissioning processes associated with collaborative social practice tend to be more challenging and complex. Most projects that could be described as operating within a social context fall under Strand 2: Interaction with the City. These projects are intended to create links ‘between artist, public and city’ and ‘between communities and localities.’ (Dublin City Public Art. 2011) ‘Community’ is open to broad interpretation, from de facto interpersonal relationships between Dublin citizens to specific communities of place/interest. 

In the commonly held view of community art, ‘community’ is understood as shorthand for under-represented communities, often in disadvantaged circumstances, people who tend not to ‘participate in the social process’ and seem almost to be ‘eavesdropping on their own realities.’(McGonagle, 2011). Collaborative projects that respond to these conditions do so by means of a sustained conversational exchange. The sustained engagement aims to create an ‘embodiment of actual relations’ between artist and non-artist – as in Rhona Byrne’s Balcony Project (2011) Christine Mackey’s Tidings – from here to there (2006) and Chris Reid’s oral history project Heirlooms and Hand me downs. (2009)

Heirlooms and Hand me downs, located in south inner city Dublin, attempts to amplify unheard voices by borrowing from commemorative art forms and making ‘monuments to the ordinary.’ The physical work consists of 21 bronze plaques located around Bride Street, engraved with the texts of family histories and stories. These texts were excerpted from recordings made over a four year enagement with residents of the area. The plaque, or counter-plaque form is also used in an earlier project by Ronan McCrea to refer to ideas of power and representation in civil society. The Twentieth Century (2005) is located in a residential area full of plaques in honour of famous former residents. McCrea’s two plaques are located on a building that is home to a supported housing project for men with a history of homelessness. The first is blank, referring to the residents’ need for privacy, and the second is like a long ruler, into which the years of the twentieth century are engraved in a random sequence. ‘Insinuating’ these place-markers into the built environment fabric in this way, McCrea’s project draws attention to the purpose of plaques and commemorative memorials, and the nature of anonymity and prominence in public life.

Christine Mackey’s Tidings – from here to there addresses the idea of home in terms of the relationship between community and locality, looking at specific experiences of settlement and resettlement. Tidings was made through a series of conversations and an exchange of gifts with a group of people from Ballybough in North inner city Dublin who moved with their families to Co. Leitrim in the Northwest of the country. In this situation, home is considered both as a physical place – a house, a flat, a street – and as an ideal of sanctuary and comfort, and an aspect of personal identity.

In submitting to Strand 2 of the public art programme, artists are encouraged to engage with the Council and with the mechanics of city management across institutional boundaries -trains, schools, universities, parks, waterways, health centres and so on – as contexts or as resources. This engagement can illuminate networks of relations between city, partners and stakeholders for artist and public alike. Among DCC commissioned projects that work in this context are Theresa Nanigan’s Travelogue (2012) and George Higgs’ Lost and Found Sound Assembly. (2013)

Working with a local authority offers tangible benefits for artists. Links to planners and area managers for example, can enable ‘a continuous advocacy for the inclusion of art in other initiatives.’(Seville, 2013). The partnership can help point the way towards a strategic view of nationwide public art programming, and how it fits into the wider context of local and national planning policy. For the artist, this can facilitate more holistic thinking in relation to political and infrastructural frameworks, and longer term practice development instead of production on a project-by-project basis.

Travelogue (2012) was a temporary piece inspired by and located in Dublin’s public transport system. The project shared personal stories collected from public transport workers across Dublin’s commuter belt, bringing to light a treasury of ‘undocumented dramas’ from the city commute. Nanigan worked with people from Dublin Bus, Iarnród Éireann, Luas, Bus Éireann, taxi services and dublinbikes, and the stories were presented via billboards and posters at stations and stops around town as well as on posters on the trains and trams. Linking the public art programme with Dublin City Council Waste Management Services, composer George Higgs’ Lost and Found Sound Assembly was inspired by an interest in creating music in unexpected places. Over the course of a two year residency at St. Mary’s School for Deaf Girls in Cabra, North Dublin, Higgs worked with a group of student musicians to create a performance piece for a new instrument. Higgs designed the instrument which was built with the help of the girls using bike wheels, wavin pipes, kitchen tins, wood, old steel boilers and other recyclables collected from Bring Centres around Dublin. The Lost and Found Sound Assembly was performed at the Bring Centres in 2013 with an ensemble of deaf and hearing musicians.

In order to work towards ‘a responsive, thoughtful and diverse culture’ and reflect the breadth of contemporary artistic practices, DCC Public art programme supports work from established and emerging artists, and from artists generally associated with public art as well as artists who do not usually work in that context. Public art commissioned and produced along these lines can inform and change peoples’ perception of art generally, as well as influencing how they feel about their surroundings. In these terms, socially engaged art projects within the public domain represent a key aspect of Dublin’s ‘cultural ecology.’