Waterford Walls: Re-Capture, Re-Imagine, Re-Claim Urban Space

Urban space is unique in that the visual landscape is made up of privately owned buildings, yet the streets – and the views from the streets – are the most public of spaces. When these spaces fall into disrepair, a tension is revealed: who is responsible for the upkeep of public visual space when it’s made up of privately owned buildings?

A group of people in Waterford City answered that question last year when, led by primary school teacher Edel Tobin, they launched Waterford Walls: a street art festival that brought 25 artists from around world to Waterford to stencil, spray, draw, and paint on 25 unused walls and buildings.

“I’m constantly baffled,” says Edel, “that you could own a beautiful piece of architecture, and that you think its ok to even walk by your building and see it derelict.”

This year the festival is expanding, and from the 25th-28th of August, 40 artists will descend on Waterford to work on 40 walls spread across the entire landscape of the city, not just a designated area.

“There’s international mural festivals everywhere, all over the world,” says Edel, “but what makes us stand out from everybody else is basically the buy-in of the whole city. If you look at any of the other ones, Art Basel, Montreal, Poland… they’ve just been given one area that is obviously due for demolition…Nowhere else in the world does a street art festival get this kind of access to an entire city.”

Photo Thomas Grace; Mural by DanLeo

Photo Thomas Grace; Mural by DanLeo

Such access is not surprising when one considers the hollowing out that has taken place in Waterford City centre over the last few decades. Suburban development policies drove large private housing estates, each constructed with their own shops, pubs and pharmacies, further and further out towards the coast. Wide roads connecting the suburbs directly to national motorways soon followed, each lined with cheaply built, aesthetically unimaginative, but easily accessible box stores: Tesco, Harvey Norman, Woodies DIY, PC World. The population, and thus daily life, was slowly sucked from the city center.

The extent of this trend was not fully revealed until the years following the Great Recession of 2008. An over-reliance on a few major industries left Waterford over-exposed to the crash. Call centres found cheaper labour elsewhere, construction dried up, factories ground to a halt, and Waterford was left with one of the highest youth unemployment and emigration rates in the country.

“It just was annihilated,” according to Edel. “The city center was annihilated. The social life was gone. People were very depressed. Just…it seemed hopeless here.”

Waterford City became a kind of ghost town: quiet streets haunted by physically present but spiritually empty buildings. Vacant factory sites, boarded up shops and unused office blocks – the most visible signs of a city’s declining fortunes – were common sights. Waterford appeared unworthy, and became, in parts, uncared for, and thus, unwelcoming. Without ever choosing to, people in Waterford turned away from the town center, pushed away by a convergence of forces.

Waterford Walls is reversing this trend; it’s pulling people back in.

On the surface, the festival is bringing brightness, colour, and beauty to an old industrial town. Warm blues, bright greens, deep yellows, and brilliant reds fill huge faces, shapes, and patterns across a city skyline formerly dominated by dull greys and browns.

But it offers more than a face-lift: it is re-energising, re-imagining and re-claiming the shared public space of Waterford City. It is giving people who have spent so long looking outward – to Dublin, Cork, Galway, London, Australia – a reason to look inward again.

Edel first made the realisation that we can and should be active in shaping our shared environment in 2014 with The Newstreet Garden project, a prequel of sorts to Waterford Walls.

“One day I was walking through Ballybricken, and I thought, ‘What a pretty little green…what a pretty little bandstand’…and then looking at the history, how the place used to be mobbed with people. And I was just like, ‘Oh my goodness, how could we just do something small?’.”

Gathering the support of over 700 volunteers, she decided to transform a nearby site of rubble and concrete into a lush, leafy urban garden. The site had been bought as part of plans to construct a huge shopping centre, but when the crash came the site was left in ruins, plainly visible to anyone strolling through the city. Now, instead, it’s a welcoming space for pop-up events in music, art, theatre, food and film.

The success of this urban renewal project “created a sense of mutual trust between myself and the local council, which opened them up to the quite fantastical and progressive idea of handing the entire city over to a group of artists,” says Edel.

Irish and international artists, such as DanLeo, Joe Caslin, Rask, DMC, Le Bas, Louis Masai are all returning for their second year. The large number of vacant buildings explains this, in part, but also a profoundly welcoming and open atmosphere.

“We were instantly greeted with so much love it was a fantastic first impression. I’ve been back loads of times since,” says DMC, who’s work for Waterford Walls includes a quiet, sad female looking down the quay. “I like the idea of real faces making connections with painted faces in the street. It was called ‘Infinite Tenderness’…a thing I now have for Waterford”.

DMC Infinite Tenderness

DMC Infinite Tenderness

An old, boarded-up, De La Salle community centre, directly opposite a De La Salle primary school, no longer infiltrates young minds with coded messages of idleness and dilapidation. Instead, a mural of intricate, swirling patterns by Irish artist Eoin communicates a sense of movement and dynamism.

Photo: Shane O Neill; Art by Eoin

Photo: Shane O Neill; Art by Eoin

The art of Waterford Walls is re-engaging the people of Waterford with their physical place, and with each other. An art-trail on the festival weekend allows people to wander through streets often left unvisited, and observe artists as they work from ladders and scaffolding.

It is not long ago that street art was hardly considered art at all, more like vandalism: the illegal defacement of private or state-owned property. Thankfully, this is no longer the case. Place-marking has always been a fundamental form of human expression. From pre-historic cave-drawings, to Egyptian hieroglyphics, to frescos in ancient Rome, people have always made a place their own by making their mark.

For too long this tradition has been dominated by a visual culture of commercial interests and private ownership. “The visual landscape of cities is full of forced advertising; we don’t ask for it to be there at all” says DanLeo, a Kilkenny-based artist, renowned for painting large, flat, colourful, animals, with geometric shapes and soulful eyes. “When it comes down to it, the places are ours, so why shouldn’t we get to do nice art for people to see? Ultimately, it’s a layer of paint, not a permanent fixture, so why not have some fun with it?”

Mural by James Early

Mural by James Early

Rather than trying to make us feel bad so we will buy some product to feel better, the art of Waterford Walls treats us like human beings. “One of the most interesting and surprising aspects of the project” says Edel, “is that hardly any of the art works have been damaged or defaced since last year, even though they are on ground level and easily could be.”

Over the last number of years Waterford City has been going through an identity crisis. The two pillars on which it built its name – as Ireland’s oldest and busiest port town, Port Láirge, and as home to world-renowned crystal maker, Waterford Crystal – have each been reduced to peripheral supports.

Attempts are being made, with some success, to rebuild the image of the city around The Viking triangle, a tourist trail which includes Reginald’s Tower, Christ Church Cathedral (the site of the marriage of Aoife and Strongbow), Blackfriars Church and a new, smaller, artisan Waterford Crystal trail.

But what makes Waterford Walls so valuable to the city is its attempt to create an identity in the here and now, without looking back into the distant past.

One often hears of Waterford Walls that it is transforming the city into a canvas. The metaphor is fitting: a canvas symbolises a space of pure potential, a space defined not by what it is, but what it could be. And this is what Waterford is becoming: a place defined not only by its past, but by what it could be. 

Legalising Abortion: A Choice Between Compassion and Neglect

The possibility of finding a consensus in the public debate about abortion often appears hopeless. Deeply held beliefs about a woman’s bodily integrity and her right to choose what is best for her life clash with deeply held beliefs about the precise point at which life and personhood begin, and what protection such life deserves.

These are difficult philosophical questions that deserve thoughtful and nuanced treatment, aimed at mutual understanding.

While we do that, however, Irish society is faced with a pressing choice: how do we wish to treat Irish women who choose to have abortions? With judgment, blame and neglect? Or with compassion, understanding and care?

This is our only real choice because Irish women, in significant numbers, already choose to have abortions: about 4,000 women every year, and at least 177,000 Irish women since 1971. That is almost one in 10 women between the ages of 14 and 64, which is a lot of grandmothers, mothers, aunts, sisters, daughters and friends who, for myriad reasons, have made this choice.

So far, Ireland has chosen the course of judgment, blame and neglect. In maintaining a ban on abortion (unless the mother is in danger of death), we have collectively told those who make this choice that we are not willing to care for them. Instead, we let someone else do it.

In so doing, Ireland is engaging in a large-scale act of brushing the issue under the rug; the rug being our European neighbours, and the brush being the Constitutional amendment of 1992 that explicitly allows women to travel to another state for abortion.

This not only displays our indifference to the needs of our citizens, it also forces them to carry the heavy weight of our neglect. Women must travel out of the country in shame and secrecy, at a time of great stress. They must risk dealing with unknown doctors and clinics.

Those who can afford it are left with the expense of travel. Those who cannot travel risk criminal penalties if they undergo illegal abortions or take the abortion pill at home. All of this culminates in the psychological toll of being rejected by the State.

Those who wish to keep the present arrangement and maintain an outright ban on abortion may be doing so from a place of genuine faith and belief. But they must realise that they are engaging in a futile attempt to project their specific, idealised and simplified version of how things should be on to a messy and complicated reality that is shaded in grey.

Making abortion illegal doesn’t stop it happening. It only serves to satisfy the ideologically motivated conscience of those who disagree with it, while hurting those who make the choice.

Supporting the legalisation of abortion, on the other hand, does not imply that you morally agree or disagree with it. It is merely an acknowledgment of the reality that it happens, combined with a commitment to show compassion to Irish citizens, even while disagreeing with their choices.

There is space – often hidden by oversimplified, oppositional public debate – to be against abortion, to believe it is wrong, and still make the choice to treat women who make that choice with care and understanding.

If those on the pro-life side want to reduce the number of abortions, their time would be better spent ensuring that Ireland is a place where women can have babies in the way they want, at a time of their choosing. They could lobby for increased distribution of contraception, fundraise for more sex education, protest for better financial support for mothers, examine the causes of rape, incest and abuse, and fight for economic equality and raised education and living standards for all.

Here lies an opportunity for differences in opinion to be united in a national consensus of compassion.

The tragic instances of Ms Y, the X case and Savita Halappanavar highlight the absurdity and cruelty of our current legislation. Yet there are thousands more untold stories happening every day, which should inform how we deal with what seems to be the next big issue for Irish society.

Choosing compassion, understanding and care does not have to undermine strongly held personal beliefs. It shows courage to bridge the gap between how things are and how you’d like them to be.

This article was featured in The Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/rite-and-reason-making-abortion-illegal-doesn-t-stop-it-happening-1.2406568

"Abortion On Demand" - a dishonest, misleading phrase.

THE PHRASE “ABORTION on demand” has taken a central place in the debate surrounding the Eighth Amendment in Ireland. It is used most often by those who do not wish to repeal the amendment for fear it will lead to “abortion on demand”: a situation we are to assume is to be avoided.

It also invoked by those who wish to appear somewhat understanding about complex cases, such as fatal foetal abnormalities, but make it clear that abortion should only be introduced in cases where certain criteria are met.

Again, we hear the refrain that while there are many grey areas, we do not want Ireland to become a culture with the “floodgates opened to abortion on demand”.

A phrase left hanging in the background

The phrase does a lot of heavy lifting for those who use it, without actually saying anything specific. It is left hanging in the background of debate, casting a vague and supposedly scary shadow over the future.

We are left to infer from the way it is used that abortion on demand is a bad thing, something to be avoided.

The words “on demand” are most often associated with contemporary, technology-driven consumer culture: tv on-demand, films on-demand, printing on-demand, banking on-demand. It’s a phrase that encapsulates the goals of modern consumerism. We customers should get whatever we want, as soon as we want it, even if it’s something we don’t really need or will soon get bored of, as we tend to do.

So when it is used, it conjures in the mind of listeners an image of impatient, demanding consumers who want their products or entertainment whenever they feel like it.

By using this terminology within debate on abortion, all of these negative associations are subtly dragged into the discussion. A linguistic trick takes place where the policy of providing safe, legal abortion services to women, becomes associated with a culture of impatience, laziness, selfishness, thoughtlessness: all the worst aspects of consumer culture.

This is the implicit meaning behind “abortion on demand”.

In literal terms, stripped of the consumerist overtones, the phrase merely describes a situation where abortion services are safe, legal and available to women who wish to make that choice, for whatever reasons they deem fit. There is no specific criteria to be met, beyond term limits.

Not trusting women

One would only assume that abortion on demand was to be avoided, because one does not trust women to make the choice with the requisite thought and consideration it deserves. And so, arguing that this is a bad thing comes from a lack of trust and respect for Irish women.

The use of the phrase “abortion on demand” perpetuates a misplaced fear that if we (our government) don’t decide exactly when it’s OK for women to make this choice, there is a risk that Irish women will suddenly reveal themselves as silly, thoughtless, selfish, lazy, impatient, demanding people and start getting abortions with the same amount of thought involved in selecting a movie on Netflix.

But this image doesn’t match with the women we all know in our lives. Irish women are well aware of what is involved in making the choice to have an abortion. They make that choice in significant numbers every year and do so from a place of consideration and responsibility, with the added weight of rejection

What’s needed in this debate is something to bridge the gap between the women we know, respect, and love in our lives, and the public perception of women that is subtly sustained by the use of “abortion on demand”.

Stories like Roisin Ingle and Tara Flynn are so important

This is why the stories of Roisin Ingle, Tara Flynn and others are so important to the debate we are having. Coming forward publicly with such stories is not something anyone should be forced to do, but in order to show that the Irish women who make this choice are ordinary, intelligent, responsible people, it is necessary. The X-ile project is building on this work by creating an online gallery of people, from all walks of life, who have had to access abortion services outside of Ireland.

Even if these stories leave you unconvinced that Irish women can be trusted to make this choice themselves, then banning it is still not the answer. As has been repeated ad nauseum: making it illegal doesn’t stop it from happening, it merely piles shame, guilt, and rejection on top of an already difficult

“Abortion on demand” carries a dishonest implication about the possibility of free, safe, and legal abortion services in Ireland. And when viewed through a lens of trust and respect for Irish women, is not something to be feared. It is something to be embraced.

This article was featured in The Irish Times: http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/phrase-abortion-on-demand-has-dishonest-edge-1.2702041 and The Journal: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/abortion-on-demand-2652781-Mar2016/

Obsessively creating images is producing a culture that is turning in on itself

We live in a culture that pathologically captures and records our lives in the form of images. Billions of photographs and hundreds of hours of video are uploaded to the internet each week.

These days, the vast majority of the images we create are not necessarily part of artistic or creative projects, but are of everyday life experiences.

It’s now thoroughly familiar to witness people on the street, in coffee shops, in bars – alone or with others – preoccupied with posing for shots, or holding up a phone to capture some moment.

Part of the explanation for this explosion in image-creation lies in the availability of affordable, high-quality cameras (in smart phones and other devices) along with the public platform for display. We are seduced by slick gadgets and the validation of others.

Yet there is more to our obsessive attempt to record our lives in images than convenience and narcissism. The sheer volume of images in circulation, and the huge amount of time we spend consuming them, is altering our relationship towards reality. We have become a culture that not only captures the experiences we have, but treats experiences as if they exist to be captured.

Our first instinct when confronted with anything out of the ordinary is to take out our phone and create a small, 2D, digital representation.

The default way, as a tourist, to experience iconic buildings and sights is to take a photo. Doing so has become more important that actually experiencing it directly.

Experience vs image

The same goes for concerts. Much of the audience spend their time holding up a small, bright screen, struggling to record (badly) as much of the gig as they can. This absurd behaviour confirms what Susan Sontag warned in 1977: life is becoming not a series of experiences, but a series of photo (or video) opportunities.

Creating images has always had a magical quality. We take pictures because certain moments are special to us and it gives us the feeling that we have captured these moments, forever. We look forward to trips and gigs, and think it sad that they will inevitably end.

Technology gives us a sense of control over that which is most uncontrollable: the passage of time. We get the comfort of knowing that in the future we will be able to look back and relive the moments we once so enjoyed.

We create images to snatch moments away from the fleeting nature of time and all that it brings with it: ageing, decay and death. In our youth-focused consumer culture, with an increasingly unpredictable political and economic future, this need to transcend time has become all the more pressing.

The irony of this attempt to hang on to moments is that we end up robbing ourselves of the only real measure of control we have over reality: the intensity with which we experience it.

By trying to control and capture the experience of a gig by reducing it to a flat, moving image, we lose the opportunity to live it with as much awareness and intensity as we can.

Reality, unlike images, is in 3D, has smell, touch, and taste; it is multitrack, has surround-sound; it has atmosphere, a sense of your body in a place, and other people sharing the same experience.

Part of experiencing moments with intensity, however, is the ability to let them go, to allow them pass away. Doing so encourages us to create new moments.

Obsessively creating images and nostalgically reliving them is producing a culture that is turning in on itself, rehashing the same moments over and over. Hence the surge in remakes of old movies, sequels and nostalgia-based online content. Images of loved ones and happy times will always be special to us. Yet we need to re-establish our relationship with them. We need to learn to let moments pass, create new ones and experience them intensely.