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The Vacuum Issue 11 spacer Issue 11
A.R.E. - Acronyms, Community Arts and Stiff Little Fingers
by Chris Coppock
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Art & Research Exchange (A.R.E.) was always a mouthful. But at the time that the organisation was formed in Belfast in 1978, conceptual art and rigorous theoretical debate were very much the guiding principles that dominated the vanguard visual arts, certainly amongst the younger generation of artists and the more radically-minded veterans. In no small way the name reflected and symbolised that ethos. Looking back, the designation appears and sounds absurdly portentous.
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Nevertheless for me personally, 'radicalised' by the simultaneous indoctrination and enlightenment from the teachings of the Fine Art course at the College of Art in Belfast, ARE seemed a natural and timely vehicle for driving forward a set of philosophical and theoretical propositions that had been distinctly lacking in the mainstream arts infrastructure that permeated the city in those pre-Thatcher years.
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So what was Art & Research Exchange. Originally the organisation materialised and made its presence felt as the Northern Ireland workshop of the Free International University (F.I.U.), established in Germany some years earlier by the artist, Joseph Beuys and the Nobel Prize winning author, Heinrich Böll. The FIU, as its title suggests, had aspirations to become a global network of creative groups and individuals involved in interdisciplinary research and creative development; crossing boundaries between art and community, politics and economics, history and culture.
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ARE was to be the FIU's outpost in Belfast, and initially, as I understand it, the workshop operated as a standing conference, where events took place peripatetically; generating debate, agitating for bureaucratic change, and generally getting involved in 'consciousness-raising'. In the context of the growing war pervading the North and with the Arts Council of Northern Ireland (A.C.N.I) doing everything, it seemed, to studiously avoid embracing the conflict as a politically-charged source of artistic inspiration for the visual arts, the intellectual work of the FIU/ARE was, for me, a very welcome initiative.
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As I remember it, there were three key figures in the evolution of ARE, and without whose dedication and doggedness I would not be writing this short article. In my mind, the most prolific was the indomitable Belinda Loftus. An English woman, with good old socialist principles, she was a fastidious researcher and energetic writer with a passion for social anthropology and vernacular culture. Her unflappable energy in those early years, and belief in making the impossible attainable, resonates with me now. Alongside Belinda, came the Scottish artist, Alistair MacLennan: one of the most extraordinary individuals I have ever had the privilege to be associated with. Where Belinda was the pragmatist, Alistair harnessed the ideological rudder of the ship, and in the dark days when resources, moral support and conviction were low (especially when Belfast was being literally ripped apart and art seemed an irrelevance), this guy, with his quiet humility, provided the sense of purpose. The third protagonist that I recall, was the German artist cum community activist, Rainer Pagel, another interloper, who had taken to the politics of Northern Ireland like a fish to water. Rainer was a great fixer, both in a practical sense, when it came to things like the electrics in a building, but also as an intermediary, talking to funders, community workers and a whole host of opinion-formers across the political, cultural and bureaucratic divides. I think it was his detached Germanic perspective that allowed him to trespass on the complex cultural sensitivities in Belfast without any self-consciousness or cautionŠ
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So what did ARE do. When I became involved, first as a naive but enthusiastic volunteer and then as its first director in late 1979, the organisation had not long acquired the second and third floors of 22 Lombard Street as a base(An awkward and, on reflection, totally unsuitable premises in the centre of town). But that aside, there was a real energy to the place.
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The artspeak said "ARE promotes an integrated programme of exhibitions and workshop activities that contextualise contemporary art practice within the framework of local, national and international cultural developments." In reality, the organisation housed two unexceptional exhibition spaces - which intermittently were used for seminars, conferences and rehearsal space for wonderful bands like the Idiots and Stiff Little Fingers - a screen printing workshop/design studio, photographic darkroom, two artists studios, and eventually the first headquarters of the Artists Collective of Northern Ireland (A.C.N.I) and Circa contemporary art magazine (C.C.A.M).
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The exhibition programme was very much glocal in its orientation. On one hand, showcasing the work of emerging Irish artists working in more traditional media, like Micky Donnelly, Dermot Seymour, Fergus Delargy and Locky Morris as well as those artists committed to more expansive uses of performance and time-based media, including John Carson, Alistair MacLennon, Willie Doherty and Adrian Hall. Complimenting this plethora of work by resident artists, (a number exhibiting in a one-person context for the first time) ARE was dedicated to providing a platform for many UK and international artists whose work - once again operating across a broad range of media - resonated with the organisation's sense of purpose and place. Significant performances were staged by Dale Franks (Australia), Zbignew Warpecowski (Poland), the collective - Mutus Liber (Italy) and various UK artists including Mona Hatoum, Slivia Ziranek, Richard Layzell and The Bow Gamelan Ensemble. This time-based work was complimented by exhibitions and events by many other leading artists included Barbara Kruger (USA), John Blake (Netherlands) and UK artists, Helen Chadwick, Tony Rickaby and James Reilly. Punctuating this work by individual artists was a regular programme of exhibitions and events which explored more popular and, arguably, more accessible takes on visual culture including, for instance: a major survey of image-based political propaganda in Ireland; American movie posters of the 1950s; a review of comic culture; an exhibition of Irish Trade Union banners and a survey of poster works for bill-posting.
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The idea, in essence, was to work across artistic disciplines, but just as importantly, to forge some kind of dialogue between the apparently disparate worlds of fine art practice and community-based art and culture. Certainly, artists used the spaces and community groups and individuals used the spaces - to great effect - but in reality there was little cross-fertilisation. Generally speaking artists, especially those older-generation artists cultivated by an ultra-conservative Arts Council, viewed ARE's forages into community art and politics as a contamination of the artistic canon. Conversely, community groups hardened by communal conflict and the inevitable disenfranchisement that political violence brings with it, were, for the most part, hugely suspicious of bourgeois artists making indulgent art while Belfast burnedŠ
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In my view, these polarised circumstances weren't helped either, with the symbolic introduction of state subsidy, which appeared to be a belated effort by the Labour government to mollify dissension and invigorate 'community-relations'. In 1978 Lord Melchett, the then Minister for Education, announced a paltry new fund of £100,000 per annum for the development of a programme called Community Arts. Of course this term had been widely used - and funded - in Britain for a number of years, but like all 'mainland' success stories, Northern Ireland was also to be subjected to this exciting and ground-breaking initiative.
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Melchett said of the new phenomenon: "I have a feeling that trying to define community art is about as difficult as defining art itself, but I see a need for two related developments. First to encourage existing artistic activity, exhibitions of the visual arts, concerts, plays and so on, to expand into the more deprived and isolated areas of Northern Ireland where they would not normally be available and to do so in a way which encourages people who would not normally go and see or listen to, to start doing so. Second I believe the need to do more to encourage the artistic efforts of people living in deprived areas, particularly where the artistic activity, where ever it is, is especially relevant or linked to the lives and experiences of local people". Laudable stuff. But consider the riposte from the then Director of the Arts Council: "The concern of those who may feel that these advances have taken place at the expense of quality in the existing institutions can be allayed. They have been made possible by the provision of new money from the Department of Education specifically negotiated for these purposes: none of the major institutions have been curtailed to facilitate them". The de facto mantra had now been officially formalised; there was to be community arts for the lumpenproletariat and high art for the cultured few.
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Against this backdrop, there is no doubt that the long-term aspirations and financial security of Art & Research Exchange were significantly compromised. The organisation inevitably got locked into an ideological battle with the Arts Council as to where its funding should come from. The Art Committee, led by the Art Director, Brian Ferran was only too pleased to palm ARE off onto the Community Arts Committee, and the Community Arts Committee, serviced by their hapless new Development Officers, John Morrow and Imelda Foley were determined that if funds were going to be forthcoming, ARE would have to demonstrate its 'community' credentials, in terms of bums on seats and geographical catchment. Fuck the art content.
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So it was in a climate of attrition and institutional wariness (and weariness) that, I would argue, ARE articulated its portfolio of activities, propped up by a revenue funding base which was tiny by comparison to the resources that were made available to those arts organisations which followed mainstream models.
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Yet, for me, it was in this uncomfortable space - this falling between two bureaucratic stools - which ironically strengthened ARE's dynamic and philosophical prowess. It was also this dissenting framework which created the energy to enable the organisation to programme some very interesting and occasionally memorable, vanguard exhibitions and events, intimated earlier; bringing to Belfast for the first time a wealth of alternative visual art practice in mixed media, installation, video and live art. Equally significant, ARE was one of the first spaces in the country to stage a coherent series of exhibitions which foregrounded more popular artforms such as photography, comic culture, poster art and other community-based practice, in a serious and curatorially uncompromising way.
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Just as importantly, the organisation was the galvanising force behind the establishment of the Artists Collective of Northern Ireland and Circa art magazine. The former, a democratic artists support and lobby group, and the latter, a pan-Irish art journal that provided a critical context in which to examine contemporary visual culture. These two platforms were significant catalysts in driving forward a new agenda for the visual arts in Northern Ireland: one that was not predicated on personal connections and patronage; one that recognised that social and political imperatives were an essential part of visual arts discourse; and one that offered more democratic and transparent opportunities for the growing number of artists emerging in the city.
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How any of this stacks up now I have no idea as I have not lived in Belfast for 15 years, but in the spirit of the premature death of a significant icon, perhaps ARE's greatest attribute was that it was short-lived. It did not last long enough to become institutionalised. Mischievously speaking, if it did achieve anything beyond an artistic legacy, it was as a conceptual and irritating thorn in the butt of an arts establishment, which had long since given up caring about the aspirations of its non-aligned constituents.
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A.R.E. - Acronyms, Community Arts and Stiff Little Fingers
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