SJD8 #13: Art and Spatial Justice in Dublin 8: A Conversation with Artist Kate O’Shea (Part 1)

This is the thirteenth in a series of blogs on 'Spatial Justice in Dublin 8' (SJD8 #13), as a contribution to Maynooth University Social Justice Week 2022.

As mentioned in the first blog of this series (SJD8 #1: ‘Sustainable Communities and the Publicly Engaged University’), Maynooth Geographers regularly engage with artists in a number of ways, such as by organising symposia and the annual series of ‘Art and Geography’ paper sessions at Conference of Geographers; curating exhibitions; networking through the Space&Place Research Collaborative and Mapping Spectral Traces; writing and publishing works; and other research and collaborative partnerships. Drawing upon traditions of the arts of map making, ‘humanistic geography’ and literature, and more recently ‘GeoHumanities’, these critical and creative geographies have become an even important part of our discipline’s contributions to spatial justice in recent years.[1]

Nonetheless, many people are surprised to learn that geographers collaborate with artists as part of their work. Such a reaction I think stems from many people not knowing about the expanded fields of both geography and art.[2] In addition, those not familiar with either may all too easily dismiss our diverse approaches, by, for example, associating geography with rote memorisation (such as locations of national capitals) or simplistically relegating art to an ‘object’ located in a traditional gallery. However, when someone says art is ‘not for me’, including geographers, this is a great loss, for art as a practice of world-making can enrich all people’s lives in unexpected ways.

As a species, humans are reluctant to enter into the terrains of the ‘unknown’ and to ‘let go’ enough to try new experiences. Yet when we do, our sensory bodies and feeling minds become open in new ways to our immediate environments, allowing our embodied selves to come into contact with past/present/possible worlds. Artists create spaces and environments that invite curiosity, welcoming audiences and collaborators to feel and think differently about their immediate surroundings. Artistic invitations encourage us to pause from our routine space-times and enter into new and unfamiliar realms. To experience wonder, be inspired, and come into contact with new aesthetic worlds is to imagine ourselves and others differently. Such encounters may even result in a transformation of the self, including critically reflecting upon how we connect with others and what we might be capable of achieving. If we can imagine who and where and what we are differently, we can enact and create better places to live and healthier, multi-species worlds together.

Bringing artists into geography classes or geography classes into artists’ studios and/or fields of practice remains, nonetheless, relatively unusual and hence many students may be initially a bit wary. Most students have never met or spoken to an artist. So I try to emphasise to my students how much we – geographers, scholars, students, mainstream society – can learn from artists. Although the outcomes and processes of an artist’s work are often distinct from than those of an academic, we both do research: we are inspired for various reasons to ask questions that we don’t know the answers to, and embark on a journey of learning, critical self-reflection, being open to unexpected connections, and finding new perspectives on existing forms of knowledge. As artists are better communicators than academics, we can learn from them how to depict urgent critical issues in ways that can reach broader and more varied publics. In addition, creative practices enable us to experience and think differently about ourselves and our place in the world, so I encourage students to be open to learning about different modes of writing and expressing their ideas.

When working with an artist as part of my pedagogical practice, I have to remind students – and myself! – that being more flexible and trying out new ways of approaching topics and learning practices are important life skills. Artists are not content with staying in taken-for-granted comfort zones of how people learn, especially if the media and/or processes they use are more interactive and experimental. Unfortunately, students and instructors at the University have become more rigid than we realise, being bound to our academic timetables and obsessed with marks; I suspect teaching online during Covid has only exacerbated this, even as it has opened up other opportunities. It may be unsettling for some students therefore to accept that the content and teaching/learning process are moving targets, as the artist and instructor are themselves not entirely sure of what to expect. But it is healthy to call attention to the limitations of the familiar social spaces, routines, sites, and materialities of the university — the classroom, instructor/student relations, lectures, books – as well as expected forms of knowledge production and communication.

Keeping this in mind, and the ongoing limitations due to Covid-19, I was especially delighted to be able to bring MA in Spatial Justice, and MA and Postgraduate Diploma students in Geography to visit artist Kate O’Shea at her studio to learn more about her practice. Last semester, for our last class of ‘GY607: Field School’, the final unit of the class focused on ‘Community Activist and Artistic Geographies’. I assigned required and optional readings relating to spatial justice, debates about the right to the city, art and activism, and about pressing related issues in Dublin 8. The unit that also included guest lectures and conversations with local experts Joe Lee, a Dublin-based filmmaker who collaborates with the Family Resource Centre; Rita Fagen, community worker, artist, activist and founding organiser of the Family Resource Centre; and John Bissett, community worker, activist, and co-founding organiser of Housing Action Now (see blogs by Duff on ‘#9: Activism and Housing In/Justice‘, by Brophy #11 ‘Geographies of VAW and Creating Safe Spaces in Inchicore’, and by Fitzgerald #12 Art in the Face of Urban Trauma). In advance of our meeting with Kate, students were asked to read and listen to/watch videos about the the artist’s work, especially in relation to the communities and contexts in which she worked for her residency. They also had to prepare questions in advance, which I selected and sequenced to frame the conversation that follows.

Bringing drinks, cookies, and questions, we were welcomed by Kate at studio 468, next to St Andrews community centre in Rialto (Figure 1). After the students had time to explore the studio (Figures 1-2), Kate introduced herself, including her proposal ‘HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?’ for the 2020-21 Common Ground ‘Just City-Counter Narrative’ residency. Following that, students asked questions and were guided in some writing activities.[3] The following edited transcript emerged from this conversation, and given its length, we have split it into two parts. We hope you enjoy our exchange as much as we did.

— Introduction by Karen E. Till

Karen E. Till is a Professor of Cultural Geography at Maynooth University. She curated and edited the ‘Spatial Justice in Dublin 8’ blog series co-published with Maynooth Social Justice Week 2022 and in partnership with Common Ground.
Figure 1. Artist Kate O’Shea at studio 468, St Andrews Community Centre, Rialto, Dublin 8. Pinhole photo by Gemma Dardis 21 September 2021, courtesy of the artist.

Conversation with Artist Kate O’Shea: Part 1

Kate O’Shea (KOS): The reason I ended up becoming an artist and a socially engaged artist is because I first set up the NomNom Cafe in 2009 in Kerry (which ran until 2014). When I was 19, I decided to leave college and I turned the family farm into a cafe, which then evolved into a social space. The basis of what I do comes from learning through these experiences – how to make a space that brings very different people together, how to make spaces nurturing, and how you make politics happen collectively. To do so creates the conditions for another way of organising outside of capitalism, so that people decide what they do rather than to be told what to do from above.

When I applied for the residency, I had been already working for ten years as an artist. One of the projects I proposed was called The People’s Kitchen, which is a project I do in Cork. This is something I developed with artist Dawn Weleski who mentored me through Create’s ‘Artist in the Community Scheme’. This is a project I will return to in 2022.

My proposal for ‘The People’s Kitchen in Dublin 8’ was to use it as a platform to figure out what people were interested in and get to know them by doing this project in their homes. The idea was to arrange a people’s kitchen with one person in their own home, and then that would lead from one person/home to the next to the next, to the next.

The other part of the proposal was to set up a poster workshop here, in my studio with New York-based cultural worker Josh MacPhee. My studio was always intended to be a social space because the best relationships and things happen by accident, so I wanted to create the environment for those connections to happen here.

Obviously, that is the worst proposal for a global pandemic!

Later in the residency, when I did get access to studio 468, I started to create a social space here, initially in a lonely way, of buying the armchairs and the couch — it was a prefigurative thing of creating the social space without the humans, which is bit sad! Soon I would be printing everything from cushions to plates to glasses to blankets with the collective knowledge that was building through the meetings with the community workers I was meeting with.

Only now, over the last few months and between lockdowns, my studio has become a space that feels a little bit more, like one of you said, like a café. It is a nurturing space that has value as well because I work with people in the community who do very hardcore, great, intense work. So, this is a space where people come to chat, engage with an archive of artwork and ideas, and it is comfortable and enjoyable (Figures 2 and 3).

In the studio, the printed plates (Figure 4) and the posters and other things you see resulted from my learning to make printed works in a digital way, which came from not having access to making things materially, from both the mountains of Kerry and the studio days. Many I designed during lockdown through working with people and groups on Zoom, when I was in Kerry or here in Dublin, and I sent away the designs and got them made in London materially. Whereas before, I would have made the works, such as what you’re seeing there – the screen prints and works (Figure 5) — would have been the result of being in the workshop. For me, what is most important about these printed objects is how they embody and value the labour — the invisible work — that goes into community care work that is so evident in Dublin 8. Lots of these prints are the result of the numerous minutes in conversation with people over many, many Zoom meetings.

The studio itself now physically changes all the time. Friends and artists and people that I’ve worked with come to work with me or visit, and the space changes to accommodate them. It’s set up now the way it is, for example, because I was working with musicians last weekend; we were chilling and writing, with two people around those tables. We were recording sound which changes the set-up of the space. So what is happening here dictates the space. It’s fun because you just transform it every time.

That is my biggest learning — in activism, work needs to be enjoyable! Of course, activist work is also hard, but it needs to be nurturing too, because that is how you get more people on board with the necessary but difficult labour involved in changing the world. You’re not going to ask someone: “Would you like to come and have a really horrible time?” That is not going to work!

Karen Till (KT): Thank you for that great introduction to your work and your studio. The students now have a series of questions for you that include some of the topics you have already raised, which is great!

Dáire Cahill: I wanted to know more about your understanding of spatial justice: When were you made aware of or became passionate about spatial justice and how would you define it?

KOS: That’s a really good question! So often, I have found in life that the language for what I’m interested in or doing comes after the practice. In other words, I’ve learned more sometimes by initially not understanding words, or worrying about what words I should use to describe my work. With the cafe, I can now describe it as an ‘anarchist autonomous social space’. But at that time, I didn’t have the academic or social movement history language to situate my work using those words. I just wanted to create something with people, and bring people together. Later, when I did my Masters, I figured out the formal language to describe my artistic process.

When I applied for the residency in Dublin 8, I was not really certain what Common Ground meant by spatial justice. But I understand now better how processes of oppression in cities, such as displacement, function having worked here. I also know that whatever those two words mean, they have to be about the connection of all the things that make a city happen, including what makes a city unlivable or livable for a few people. Now that I’m at the end of my residency, I have a very definite idea about spatial justice. For me, spatial justice has to include the critical intersection of addiction, housing, suicide, domestic violence, class, race, and so on.

So to return to your question: sometimes words are brilliant as a way of understanding why you do what you do. But then they can become a paralysis, especially when you study for a Masters or Postgraduate degree. You may get stressed out by understanding or not understanding concepts. I generally figure it out through practice. Generally, my work is just one big project, but gets framed differently.

KT: On that very helpful insight, can we do a little writing exercise similar to those you facilitated with our postgraduate students last year? Thinking and writing using academic prose requires precision, and often takes a more hierarchical and logical organisational structure, which is a strength. But there are strengths in artistic ways of using words to make unexpected lateral connections, imagine alternative ways of thinking and doing, communicate with diverse publics. Kate, would you mind explaining and facilitating some short exploratory writing sessions so the students can get a sense of the different ways you use writing to free up thinking?

KOS: Yes! I use different ways of learning how to think through concepts and ideas. Thinking through academia and research is obviously brilliant, but there can be an element of paralysis if you just are at the table or your computer. The writing exercises I now do with artists and people and students developed when I was in my MA. I had to figure out ways of getting through feeling like I didn’t know anything! It’s just that you may feel stressed out by hierarchical ways of thinking in academia.

These exercises are simple ways to figure out what you want to say and clarify what your ideas are actually about. I’m also very influenced by the kind of writing exercises the artist Fiona Whelan uses with people in her work. Also, when I was mentored by Krini Kafiris, she would use similar exercises with me. I use them for myself and with others as a way of realizing that a lot of the knowledge is in you. For example, a friend of mine who is doing a PhD and I do this by using a WhatsApp called ‘Research Vomit’, where she actually gets out of her paralysis and thinks about an idea that she had, she puts it in the chat.

Since we started today’s workshop with my talking a little bit about why I do what I do, that’s the question that I always start with and that will be our first writing exercise of the day. So the question is: ‘Why do you do what you do?’ I always start with the ‘Why do you do what you do?’ question because it becomes more clear how different things interconnect and make sense.

Start your answer with: ‘I do what I do because …’ and then if you get stuck, you just can keep writing: ‘I do what I do, I do what I do, I do what I do …’ until things just get going. It could be: ‘Why would you study spatial justice?’ …It can also be: ‘I do what I do because I like working with people’. ‘I do what I do because I want to make space …’.

Remember there is no wrong answer! You just have to start writing straightaway and stop when I say stop (Figure 6).

Figure 6. Geography postgraduate students engaging in a creative writing process with artist Kate O’Shea in studio 468, Rialto (3 December 2021). Image courtesy of the artist.

[After two minutes, students shared their answers, with Kate positively responding to them. We returned then to the student’s questions.]

KT: As so many of our postgraduate students this year will go on to work with younger people as teachers, can I ask you what has been your favorite workshop or project with young people? You’ve done online teen zine workshops in Dublin, cool youth projects in Cork, and other projects. Is there one that stands out?

KOS: I never do a project just for the sake of it. I always wait until people bring something or want to do something together. So, the best moment that stands out for me is during the first lockdown, when I was on a farm in Kerry and I worked by computer at home with young people in Cork. After the shooting of George Floyd happened, teenagers with the Cork Migrant Centre and Cork Printmakers approached me stating: ‘We want to do something — we want to do something now!’ I told them they didn’t really need an artist to come in and sort out a project for them, that they could do it themselves. So, first I had to negotiate with them, stating that while I have a skillset to help them make something, it needed to be their thing. After that, we worked together quickly. We did one Zoom call and there was just an incredible energy! They wouldn’t talk initially because they were too shy, but they ended up saying everything they felt through that Zoom chat. I just copied down what they said, and they sent me drawings and texts by WhatsApp. I put it together on Photoshop and sent things over, and they sent things back. The large printed vinyl banners were placed in the big glass windows of Nano Nagle Centre in Cork. After we came out of lockdown, they did performances and spoken word in front of the printed posters that emerged from our conversations and Zoom workshops and videotaped that. So, it became its own space, full of their voices, and for me that’s when collaboration works.

KT: The artwork, their words in print, transformed the space.

KOS: Exactly! When the two align – when there’s an energy and a moment – and you have a skill set, you can collaborate to transform the city.

Historically, I am interested in a specific moment in the community when the working-class struggle and the counterculture movement align. These two movements saw a need for each other, so I like to do work that highlights what Marx describes as ‘use value’, as opposed to capitalist ‘exchange value’.

Patrick Gifford: You’ve worked in Kenmare, where you started with the first space, and then Cork, Limerick, and now Dublin. I’m interested in the creation of community spaces, and their uptake and engagement in the cities and towns you have worked and lived in. Have you noticed any stark differences between urban and more rural experiences? Or is it all much the same? Also, can you imagine yourself returning to the rural?

KOS: Often, as the culchie, you may reject the rural by thinking ‘It’s all happening in the city’. At the NomNom cafe, there wasn’t the kind of the urgency of struggle or politics within it that I have experienced in Dublin, but it still had some aspects my practice in cities have, such as relationship building. There’s an understanding that comes with my work: if you keep the relationships, you keep the things beyond the physical building. But I never thought really of spatial justice in terms of the rural until my residency in Dublin 8. When I was at college in Cork and then Limerick, I thought of spatial justice more narrowly in terms of gentrification and displacement.

As part of the early part of my residency, I organized the ‘Just City Collective’, which began as a reading group in April 2020 that ran over 35 weeks and included about thirty people from Dublin, Limerick, New York, Sydney, Cork, Helsinki, New Mexico, Barcelona and Berlin. Some I knew from my previous work, such as Conor McCabe, who wrote the book Sins of Our Father (2011). Conor politicizes Irish capitalism by linking it to our history of agriculture and the rural. After my conversations with Conor, I started to talk to my mother to think more deeply about the politics of the rural. I find it fascinating that you can ignore a large part of your own story, your own history, but then through understanding that, you understand the other problems that cut across rural and urban spaces.

At one level, there’s more evident violence on community spaces in the cities because the land grab [by private capital] is much, much stronger. The sense of community and working together is always much stronger in communities that struggle. Where I was in Kenmare, I created a community space by bringing people to the farm from all over. Whereas when you’re in working class and marginalised communities – they have been neglected and rejected by the state – people have had to create these spaces and relations themselves. As a result, they have a much better understanding of community, spatial justice, and structural violence.

For this reason, I have learned much more in the work here in Dublin 8 than I would have anywhere else thus far, because the community here as experienced and survived more extreme circumstances. Whereas in Kerry, it felt like it was grand because it was a small town. However, now I can look back and obviously see that the level of addiction and land wars is also chronic in rural Ireland. I would have never thought that until maybe this year.

If I do go back and set up somewhere in the rural, where it’s more likely that I can get land and build something, it will still need to connect into the cities. I guess I already did that when I had the cafe and social space in Kerry. I brought people that I was working with in Limerick and Cork to the cafe in the summer, because the cafe was just a seasonal thing. I was mostly in the city in the winter, and then the countryside in the summertime.

Because I get really invested in a place, like here in Dublin 8, I can’t imagine leaving. Because I only have the studio space until March, right now I feel like I don’t have anywhere to go after that. So, I actually don’t know where I’m going end up. In connection to burnout – I do think the level of work I’ve done here in the last couple years is not sustainable. In terms of slowing down, it’s easier to do that if you actually are rural some of the time.

But I’m definitely less of a snob about rural Ireland now. Revolution can be rural because we’ve all been kicked out of the city anyway!

Part 2 of ‘A Conversation with Artist Kate O’Shea’ is now published! See: SJD8 #14: ‘Who is it For? Art, Life, and Politics in Dublin 8 and Beyond

Kate O’She is an artist working across printmaking, large-scale installation, performance, and publishing. Her collaborative practice builds spaces of solidarity to explore alternative modes of community and dialogue. Kate O’Shea is currently ‘The Just City/Counter-Narrative’ Neighbourhood artist in residence awardee for 2020-22 for Common Ground, Dublin 8, and was artist in residence with the MA in Spatial Justice at Maynooth Geography for 2021. 

Kate’s project HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH lies at the intersection of art, collective care and activism, and includes collaborators from all around the world to explore ideas and practices which make visible structural violence within our cities, and to support and create open spaces for collective organising and building alternatives to capitalism. In 2019 Kate co-produced SPARE ROOM Art Architecture Activism with Dr. Eve Olney in Cork. In 2018 she founded the publishing house Durty Books with graphic designer Victoria Brunetta which provides a critical space and platform for emerging and prominent voices across art, design, academia and activism who challenge and offer alternatives to hegemonic social and political structures. Durty Books has four upcoming books in 2022-2024, including a major publication on The Artist-Led Archive. Kate has a Masters by Research in Printmaking as a space for solidarity and dialogue from Limerick School of Art and Design. She is a recipient of the AIC Scheme Bursary Award 2021.

[1] Selected readings to introduce this rich and growing field include: Dear, M., Ketchum, J., Luria, S., and Richardson, D. (2011) GeoHumanities: Art, History, Text at the Edge of Place. London: Routledge. Hawkins, H. (2013a). For Creative Geographies: Geography, Visual Arts and the Making of Worlds. London: Routledge; Kearns, G. (2015) The Geographical Turn [Webpage]. Available at: https://geographicalturn.wordpress.com/ (accessed 25 March 2022); Till, K.E. (2008) Artistic and Activist Memory-Work: Approaching Place-Based Practice. Memory Studies 1(1): 99-113.

[2] Hawkins, H. (2013b). Geography and Art: An Expanding Field: Site, the Body and Practice. Progress in Human Geography 37(1):52-71.

[3] Our final class for ‘GY607 Field School’ last semester was held on 3 December 2021 at studio 468 in Rialto, Dublin 8, and included: artist Kate O’Shea (KOS), instructor/collaborator Karen Till (KT); and MA Spatial Justice, MA Geography, and Postgraduate Diploma Geography students: Liz Brophy, Dáire Cahill, Cathal Duff, Isabelle Fitzgerald, Patrick Gifford, Séamus Murray, and Nicola Whelan.

2 comments

  1. […] SJD8 #13: Art and Spatial Justice in Dublin 8: A Conversation with Artist Kate O’Shea (Part 1), edited and with introduction by Karen Till, with questions by MA Spatial Justice, MA Geography, and Postgraduate Diploma in Geography students […]

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  2. […] she also guided the students in creative writing activities as part of this conversation. In ‘Part 1’, Kate introduced herself as an artist, discussing her original goals for her residency ‘HOW […]

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