SJD8 #14: ‘Who is it For?’ Art, Life, and Politics in Dublin 8 and Beyond: A Conversation with artist Kate O’Shea (Part 2)

This is the fourteenth in a series of blogs on 'Spatial Justice in Dublin 8' (SJD8 #14), as a contribution to Maynooth University Social Justice Week 2022.

This is the second part of ‘A Conversation with artist Kate O’Shea’ (Figure 1), in which MA Spatial Justice, MA and PG Diploma Geography students at Maynooth University asked Kate about her work and 2020-22 Common GroundJust City-Counter Narrative’ residency.[1] Kate reflected upon a series of questions asked by the students; she also guided the students in creative writing activities as part of this conversation. In ‘Part 1’ of the conversation (see SJD8#13: ‘Art and Spatial Justice in Dublin 8‘), Kate introduced herself as an artist, discussing her original goals for her residency ‘HOW MUCH IS ENOUGH?’, and how Covid-19 restrictions changed how she had to work. She also explained why she became a socially-engaged artist, the fluid space of studio 468, and introduced the ‘Just City Collective’ as part of her residency.

In Part 2 of the conversation (below), Kate continues discussing these themes but also introduces what she learned as a result of working with a well-established community of activists in Dublin 8. She also describes the commodification of art, international influences in her work, the political possibilities of her printmaking and using different media in her practice, and the empowering nature of collaboration, including through local/global forms of solidarity. She explains how international networks and platforms — such as Durty Books, the ‘Just City Collective’, and ‘Networks of Solidarity’ — can create supportive spaces that allow people to think about and organise alternatives to neoliberal capitalism.

The conversation with Kate took place on 3 December 2021, at studio 468, St Andrews Community Centre, in Rialto, Dublin 8. For an introduction to the contexts of our collaboration with Kate as part of the MA in Spatial Justice at Maynooth Geography, see: Till, SJD8 #1: Sustainable Communities and the Publicly-Engaged University: An Introduction to the ‘Spatial Justice in Dublin 8‘ series, and Till, ed. SJD8 #13: ‘Art and Spatial Justice in Dublin 8: A conversation with Kate O’Shea (Part 1)’.

— Edited transcipt with introduction by Karen E. Till

Figure 1. Artist Kate O’Shea in studio 468, St. Andrews Community Centre Rialto (2022). Photograph by Patsy Tyrrell, courtesy of the artist.

A Conversation with Artist Kate O’Shea: Part 2

[Part 1 ended with Kate discussing her work in and with rural and urban communities.]

Isabelle Fitzgerald: How do you think your art has been influenced by Inchicore and D8? Has the physical space influenced you or people’s experiences or both? Also, do you feel more challenged by coming here compared to being at home in Kerry? Did you feel comfortable in a new space and new city? Do you feel like you were able to get more creative by moving to a totally different space and coming to an urban place where you said there are more intense experiences?

KOS: This is a savage question! Yes to all that! Working here has definitely been by far the most transformative experience in terms of my practice. It’s been instrumental in many ways. Initially, I was really nervous because in terms of relationships, I was starting from scratch. But because I build quite strong relationships, and thanks to the support of John Bissett, one of my mentors in the residency and part of the ‘Just City Collective’, my feelings of being nervous changed very quickly when I realised there was a mutual trust going on. It was brilliant in giving me confidence because this was the first place I’ve been where there was a complete critical understanding of class war.

Within community development work, there is also a high level of critique of the structural violence of capitalism and the state in Dublin 8. For example, John Bissett’s book, Regeneration: Public Good or Private Profit? (2008) came out of his activism with the St Michael’s Estate Regeneration Team, in addition to his training as a sociologist and community development worker. In contrast, I remember 10 years ago, in Limerick, a community worker asking me about my work. When I said I was interested in alternatives to capitalism, they said that was not “a thing,” whereas here, they see that interest as a given.

Art and life and politics have been completely embedded here in Dublin 8 for over thirty years. That is not a debate. Elsewhere, when I say, ‘I actually think art could be used for the revolution’, the response can be: ‘Yeah, that’s cute’, or seen as an add on. Such a response silences people. This happens so much that you need new forms of communication.

In Dublin 8, art and alternative forms of communication have come together because people have tried all the other ways of making political change, including talking to state officials, without success.

Being here has given me confidence in feeling that I am on the right track. People like John Bissett and Rita Fagan are heroes. When they start to respect you, you feel like you are OK personally and also in terms of your work.

When you’re in a space where no one thinks there are any problems, that everything’s grand, then the mentality is: get your job, buy loads of stuff, don’t worry about anyone else. If that is the norm – if everyone’s thinking like that – then it can be very hard to seek alternatives. You need networks of solidarity.

It was also groundbreaking for me because I had this studio (Figure 2). I had this physical space and was forced to work in a totally different way because of Covid. I couldn’t just start straight away by running massive food events and do the usual things I was doing. I had to be left alone with my own thoughts in a studio, which was terrifying to me! I had figure out new ways of working and building relationships, which included going to weekly meetings with six different community groups on Zoom. I couldn’t rely on parts of my personality in real life that helped me make friends. I was actually really quiet at first when everything was online. But I made stronger bonds with people than I would have if I hadn’t had the residency during Covid. It was such a difficult time, that if you got to meet the great people that I did meet, like through the ‘Just City Collective’ reading group, you and they created bonds for life because you were together in a mad time.

Figure 2. Kate O’Shea in studio 468. Photo by Gemma Dardis Sept 2021, courtesy of the artist.

KT: In the ‘Just City Collective’ reading group, we talked about important topics in a way that would have been otherwise hard to do in most ‘normal’ work or community group spaces. It was also great to read and discuss works with legends like Conor McCabe. (To the students: If you haven’t read Sins of The Father you must!)

KOS: Also, with the reading group, we were able to break down some hierarchies as well. People like you, Gerry Kearns, Conor McCabe, John Bissett – you all write books. I really liked that you knew so much in that way. But the group included friends who knew a lot in different ways, who didn’t see themselves as political or smart, but of course they were. The reading group allowed us to break down how we see intelligence, which is something that is important to me.

Something we discussed earlier when some of the students described why they do what they do, was the exclusions and injustices of school system, and how education needs to be turned upside down. Because you have a PhD does not make you smarter or better than someone else. My brother, for example, was dyslexic, but it was never recognised. Yet he’s an unreal poet. Nobody knows but he writes loads of poetry in secret. He’s one of the smartest people I know. But he did come every week to the reading group and started talking more, because everyone was really sound.

KT: We also read a range of works, including fiction, such as Ursula K. Le Guin and Octavia E. Butler. People shared their radical practices, such as Krini Kafiris, who, with others, in the context of economic crises and austerity, created radio shows that were alternative public spaces in the face of international and national financial corruption.

KOS: Yes, it was a mixing of the disciplines.

KT: And from different parts of the world.

KOS: Different parts of your life become transformative for different reasons. The reading group wouldn’t have been transformative if I hadn’t dropped out of college, lost my mind and started the café! They all led to the next thing.

KT: Should we do another writing activity?

KOS: Let’s write about spatial justice. We’ll do a minute and a half. Start with: ‘To me spatial justice means…’ For this one, just list words, not sentences. You can even do association.

[After a discussion of student responses, we returned to their questions.]

Liz Brophy (LB): You’ve mentioned that you’ve developed your work overseas. In terms of the places and people you’ve worked with, what inspired you to carry out your work there?

KOS: Your question relates to what we talked about earlier in terms of finding people that you can connect with, and in doing so, how you sometimes need to look very far away before you find what’s actually really near you. I really needed the international experiences to give me the confidence to do what I am now doing here. But now the local and international have blended, and I go between the two.

When I was in college, I was studying printmaking as part of a degree in Fine Arts. But art colleges had by then become so depoliticised that not many were doing political printmaking. Yet printmaking is intrinsically political. Its history is always political, not only because of the importance of newspapers and media to circulate information, but, when you look at the history of posters, you can see that every revolution has printed posters with very fine art.

So I looked to New York and the first political printmakers I found were ‘Just Seeds’. At the time, they were a group of thirty activist print makers from the States, Canada and Mexico. I am inspired by the idea that books can change the direction of your life. I first learned this from Signs of Change: Social Movement Cultures 1960s to Now, by Josh MacPhee and Dara Greenwald, a book given to me by my printmaking tutor Des MacMahon, when I was in my first year at Limerick School of Art and Design. The book is about the history of social movement art from the 1970s until the present-day. Josh MacPhee, who I now collaborate with on these posters, started ‘Just Seeds’, but also ‘Interference Archive’, which is an archive of the cultural production and social movements. They were the first to make me think that there’s a place for art and politics in a very tangible, on the streets kind of way.

I also worked on la ZAD in France, [an occupation] which resisted the grab of farmer’s land for an airport and worked because of a massive international network of solidarity. When I was there, there was 30,000 people and that was very influential, because often what you will get told is that you can’t scale up that kind of social change with so many people working together. But there were 30,000 people there on 4000 acres of land and it was completely self-organised and it worked! You also need to see the alternatives in practice, and that’s very inspiring.

These experiences led me to publish Durty Words (2018). Through reading for my Masters, I started to discover more people internationally that were saying deadly things. I later asked them to contribute to the book and that blew up the international side of things.

When I started publishing and creating books, I was able to create platforms of bringing the local and the international together. The ‘Just City Collective’ came from bringing together the people around the world that I thought were doing interesting work. ‘Networks of Solidarity‘ became a two-way thing, of changing how we value work. I found that because the community development and community resistance work in Dublin 8 is so intense, that the people doing it often don’t get the time to value how significant the work they’re doing is. By putting very local things on an international platform showed how important their work is. When you start to have a conversation between a community struggling here and a community struggling in Indigenous Australia, then you start to see the large differences, but also how the global hand of the market, or capitalism, or the neoliberal agenda, creates the negative conditions that we’re all in. The solidarity is there, a strength that comes from that shared experience. Also just putting people on a platform together empowers people to see that they’re class and the other people are also class.

In a way, we have to ask: ‘Who is it for?’ To start with, it’s for you, to get the strength to do what you do, and free yourself from the violence of capitalism. Asking this question leads to understanding solidarity is a collective strength. I guess I found my solidarity and strength to do what I do through international networks, and now I create spaces for international networks because those conversations are important.

KT: This is special – to create, supportive and caring spaces, where you can have local to local knowledge sharing rather than competition. ‘Networks of Solidarity’ rocked – it was nurturing, created excitement and love and joy! It was amazing. (Figure 3)

Figure 3. Networks of Solidarity 3: Through Our Stories (6 July 2021). Screenshot courtesy of Kate O’Shea.

Séamus Murry: What choices do you make when you use different media, and how do those choices affect access and reach? Printed types of magazines and newspapers, can easily spread a message. The printed posters, when they start getting to bigger scale, may be more difficult to understand. Short videos are great for going online. How do you represent something using a poster, like the one right in front of me, versus a short video versus space-based works? The media itself raises questions of who can access it — who’s it for? How do you balance all those different questions when you’re trying to choose what medium you’re using for a project?

KOS: That’s an excellent question and has been an important part of the two-year journey. I think the fun thing to remember is knowing that in two years’ time, I’ll think something totally different. I love that!

When I was a more militant printmaker, I rejected digital! But obviously that was not true because I’ve always organised on social media. So, I had this balance of using social media to get the humans to the place, and then the thing happens in the place with the two forms working together.

Obviously during the Covid pandemic, it all had to become digital. My work came through my struggles of figuring out how to communicate. After making things digitally, I wanted to physically give people things. I would get long rolls of poster paper printed or a plate made, and sent those to people’s houses. That works really well in terms of one-to-one relationships that you’ve been building at the local level.

At the international level, such as ‘Networks of Solidarity‘, you create an event that many people watched and even more now can watch because it’s available now on Vimeo. The work becomes a video piece that thousands or millions or whatever in the future could watch. That’s kind of a different scale of reach and accessibility. But they work together. The networks are built on the one-on-one relationships, such as with Enya Moore in Sydney, or say people in the say the plate, print, and poster world. Then these relations might be connected and reach out to others, such as through ‘Networks of Solidarity’, Durty Books, ‘The People’s Kitchen’, the ‘Just City Collective’. And when broadcasting and disseminating these networks online as a video to be shared, there are new connections. All these are interconnected and support working in solidarity with others.

Through the people I’ve been working with, I would discover new media and would then learn through it. In the last year, I’ve learned more about the power of radio and podcasts and short videos. I would have always liked these media but am only understanding their power now.

With screen-printed posters, you can be diehard when it doesn’t make sense. Here are thirty housing posters from around the world that are part of the print archive I’m working on with Josh MacPhee. It’s not going to make sense that these posters get printed on fabric if they are to be sent around the world. But to create a pedagogical teaching space, some people may want to have fabric posters. There’s more of a depth to it be printed on fabric, which is better for learning. When a poster is finished that we want to get sent out to the world, it can go in a book or it will be Riso prints, which are really inexpensive and fast to print.

In contrast, this print is an etching: it’s hand done, it’s steel, it’s etched. So, that’s not going to work for reaching the masses. But if I want to let someone know that I respect them, I may give them an etching. They will be surprised and happy to have received a handmade etching — they know the value of the print and know it means that I hold them in high esteem.

Each medium ends up dictating some possibilities, but it changes all the time. That’s why I think there’s a place for many forms of alternative communications.

For example, when working with young people, you don’t know what’s going to click with them. I was working with a group of boys in a school in Artane a few weeks ago, and I brought everything I could and put them up, prints and all the plates. These 16-year-old boys said: ‘These plates are the coolest things I’ve ever seen!’. Evelyn Broderick, who was doing the workshop with me, asked: ‘Lads, do you think it’s art?’ and they said, ‘Yeah, it’s brilliant!’

People can then see themselves in the work. It was their drawings and their handwriting, which I played with on Photoshop. I came back and showed them, and they could see themselves reflected back. That was a really big learning curve.

This print is actually from a ‘Manifesto’ workshop with students working with the artist Fiona Whelan, who coordinates the NCAD Studio+Dublin 8 Residency, supported by Create. This is the manifesto that they wrote. A collaborator Danny Brennan turned it into a video, where the print comes alive and mixes with their voices. The video work scans the print work, words and mixes with the audio of their voices because sometimes you do need to animate words in a video piece because people’s attention spans are so short.

Cathal Duff: What made you want to use such a complicated software as Geography Information Systems (GIS) and how does that take part in the work?

KOS: The key learning from collaboration is that I’ve learned what my strengths are, what I’m good at, and that’s why I work with people. I love data. I love GIS. I love understanding things. For a while I wanted to become unreal at GIS – I wanted to understand the actual politics of density and what that means in the cities in a real way, not just representationally. I work with an urban planner in Cork, Erin O’ Brien, who sent me some GIS work. During that stage of Covid, when everything shut down in the first lockdown, I thought I was going learn how to do everything! I soon realized learning how to analyze data and do GIS is a whole other spectrum. I now collaborate now with other people who use GIS for their work.

I did a panel recently with a Director of Cork City Council. I teased out my analysis of the Cork City Plan with Conor McCabe, who often provides me with historical and political information which helps make systemic violence visible – I did not want to be dismissed as an artist who doesn’t really know the real data. I like to be armed with information. Again this is the value of collaboration. When I work with Conor, I can visualize his work and vice versa. For me this an exciting space when you can collaborate across socially engaged art, critical history, planning and so on.

There were also allies on the panel. Cian O’Callaghan, a geographer at Trinity, who used to be at Maynooth and got his PhD at Cork, was beside me and provided a critical analysis of vacancy and dereliction. I provided a critical statement about the city after him.

That’s why I don’t really respect disciplines. It’s often the disciplines you would not normally be seen to be siloed in where the best people are. Geography is very good because you have quite a mix people and interests – a lot of radical political stuff comes from Geography. It’s similar to socially engaged art because you can’t quite pin it down.

It is good not to be pinned down. I watched an interview with Laurie Anderson, who said she calls herself a media artist because people don’t really know what that means. Whereas, if she said she was a sculptor or whatever, they could pin her down.

Nicola Whelan: In an article we read by Chantal Mouffe [2007, ‘Art and Democracy: Art as an Agonistic Intervention in Public Space’], she noted that some people argue that art doesn’t have the kind of critical power it used to have because it has become commodified. But Mouffe also described how some art can challenge capitalism and contribute to constructing new ideas. For you, do you feel your art is more critical of the current situation or do you think it’s more important to help people imagine alternatives, or a bit of both?

KOS: Yes, it’s both. I’m not in defense of all art. 90%, maybe 99%, of contemporary art is in the belly of capitalism. Artists are really pushing the capitalist agenda. One needs to be very critical of art and that critique is very important for me.

But my critique comes from the people that I make the spaces with, and that’s a constant process of learning. In general, it’s about creating spaces that allow people to think about and organise alternatives. It’s not saying: ‘This is the alternative’. Instead, I try to create a space that isn’t like other spaces in that people in the room are actually valued. From that space, we imagine something together. So yes, definitely both.

In terms of art being commodified, or pushing neoliberal agendas, I was in a recent debate, and other artists did not want to challenge the city council because artists have become so used to begging for money to be validated as humans – you feel lucky to get what you get. But city and art councils use art, including socially engaged art, to legitimate their agendas, such as in greenwashing.

You need to strong in your critique of neoliberalism and know that the state does not care, will never care, even as they say – ‘but if we just all work together …’.  Like at that panel, it would have been said that I was being difficult, that the council just wanted everyone be at the same table and talk about the issues. I argued that the communities in consultation have never ever been listened to, so why patronise people by saying they valued their opinion? To the city council, I said that all day, every day, they worked slowly in a comfortable office to organise their power.

Communities need to self-organise even more than before because the power relations are so off. At moments you can sit at a table, but the complete imbalance of power is being ignored. In that panel, I realised that the violence is often not what is aesthetically violent at the moment. What is really violent is disregarding how power works when people say: ‘Oh, if we all just work together this will be great!’ At the end, when they asked for any last words, I said: ‘Join the union!’ 

KT: On that great advice, I want to thank you for such thoughtful responses to the students’ questions. Shall we will end with a final writing activity?

KOS: Okay, someone pick a question — Who wants to do it? The first thing that comes to your head shout it. go on.

LB: What is art?

KOS: Excellent! So, begin with: ‘To me art is…’ Write for two minutes! And remember to send me photos of your handwriting, and I’ll turn ye into print! Don’t worry about legibility or finding the perfect part of your notes. I don’t like people to be able to read all the writing in my work – that would be too easy!

[The class ended with a final reflection on what is art and looked at some of Kate’s video work (Figure 2). Before leaving, Kate invited students to select a poster each to take home from the Celebrate People’s History series from the ‘Just Seeds’ poster collection (Figures 5-7). We also shared lots of cookies and took great pictures and selfies!]

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] 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); 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 (NW).

Figure 8. Kate O’Shea (2022). Photo by Dannielle McKenna, courtesy of the artist.

2 comments

  1. […] SJD8 #14: ‘Who is it For?’ Art, Life, and Politics: A Conversation with Artist Kate O’Shea (Pa…, edited and with introduction by Karen E. Till, with questions by MA Spatial Justice, MA Geography, and Postgraduate Diploma in Geography students […]

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  2. […] 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‘ […]

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