Augere is the Latin root of both ‘author’ and ‘authority’. Despite its initially positive grounding – meaning to increase, originate, promote – this connection shows the implicit hierarchy within the act of information. A division of power appears between those that propagate and those that consume, be it conscious or otherwise.
As information both originates and increases in this etymological foundation, its influence is found somewhere between building upon what is already known and long-applied, and rearrangement into something slightly new. With nothing completely novel, authority comes from established informational structures rather than individuals, giving information and ideas the clout of an implied long-term perception.
The backbone of past-knowns and the institutions built around them are a welcome framework for some ideas, and an overbearing and invalidating obstacle for others. ‘Knowledge and other myths’ by Saoirse Wall, Tara McKeon, Kerry Guinan, Avril Corroon, Eimear Walshe, and Renèe Helèna Browne, exhibited at Platform Arts, Belfast in February, is based upon the experiential knowledge de-legitimised by such structures. Co-opting the voices and material makeup of authority to undermine them from within, their work navigates the perceived solidity of what is known, and giving an askance look at its formation.
They met as students of NCAD in Dublin. “Our main reason for coming together was a recognised and shared criticality in each other’s works,” says Browne. “There was an institutional lack of critical discourse, but it could be recognised in each other’s practices.” The artists staged their first exhibition, ‘setup, a device’ a few months before their degree show. This exhibition was an act of setting themselves apart from NCAD, taking control of the presentation of their work as a foil to the homogenising conditions of the degree show format. “There was an element of (our coming together) that had to do with defining ourselves against the institution”, said Walshe, “not wanting to be subsumed within it and have that as the primary, overarching institution that your work is associated with.” Their grouping allows them to work away from the prescript and diluting structures of art, or in this case, navigate an institution without being defined by it.
‘Knowledge and other myths’ emerges from their ongoing work as an artist group. “I feel like our group operates as a support network and a safe space for us to not only develop our work, but develop ourselves politically and otherwise, away from the dangerous structures of the art world, “ says Guinan. “I feel in approaching this show we were mirroring the way we try to operate and the carefulness we have with one another in solidarity and support of one another, and that the works are doing that as well.”
By bringing their practices and research together without the strictures of a formalised and over-arching collective, the artists maintain their autonomy whilst acknowledging the impact of each other in their individual practices. “Part of that has to do with how informed we are of each other’s practices and so when we are working together, or critiquing each other work, it’s in mind of the person’s practice in a relational sense,” says Corroon. “[Our work is] quite entwined, but respectful. When we work together we try as much as possible to speak as individuals and not speak universally for the group.” “We share a lot of theoretical touchstones, and a similar ethos and politics,” adds McKeon. “We agree on a lot of core things. It’s a process of respecting things as they go forward, as I respect everybody’s work within the group and that respect is a process. Especially when you’re work about difficult things or experiences, and then it’s trying to create that openness when you can talk about it but also critique it.”
Their group has no name, and for both of their exhibitions so far, the artists’ work is individuated but accounted for in a collective sense. Instead of an explanatory statement of their work, the most recent exhibition catalogue is a collection of the artists’ personal responses to invalidation of their work and experiences. With each response unattributed, the artists and work have a solidarity in shared experience.
Re-directed cultural and personal narratives feature in three film pieces in the latest show: one by Tara McKeon, one by Saoirse Wall and one by Renèe Helèna Browne and Avril Corroon. The former work Weejy Weejy uses the creature – a bird with one wing that flies in tighter and tighter circles, until it disappears “up its own fundament” – as a touchstone for exploring the capitalist and normalising associations of a variety of cultural motifs such as circus acts, exercise, spinsterhood, rice at weddings and the Roman goddess Fortuna. The approach is detached in its almost ethnographic take on these snippets of knowledge and their cumulative effect, with the artist creating a new theoretical hypothesis of the mythological bird and its actions.
Wall’s work Sticky Encounter, based on the dismissive and impersonal attitudes in healthcare, is perhaps the most intimate, which paradoxically takes place in a large projection. A one-sided conversation begins between the patient, dressed in pastel blue and sitting vulnerably, and the audience, taking the implied role of doctor. The dynamic shifts to an attempt to convince, with the patient approaching the camera and cutting to cavernous flesh and popping air of an endoscopic film – the doctor having been swallowed by the patient, prescript roles are altered by the bodily hierarchy being reversed.
How to Make a Masterpiece and 8ft Yellow is a film and sculpture by Browne and Corroon, playing on a facetious act of instruction and its fulfilment. A glossy yellow chair, resembling an oversized high chair crossed with a lifeguard’s station, sits in dramatic light across from a how-to style video on creating a masterpiece, being the chair in question. A fantastical recipe for its surface coating are played straight, and the slippery combination of voice and visuals is toyed with, attributing Michaelangelo’s David to a story of a snowman the same artist once built. This overt pursuit of validated work readily sacrifices any concept behind the supposed masterpiece, replacing it with going through the motions for validation, regardless of their absurdity.
The weight of objects is present in both the work of Eimear Walshe and Kerry Guinan. Walshe’s work, Window Restoration, is based on a purportedly salvaged piece of pub stained glass inscribed with the Latin neutra. It toys with the idea of suppressed or secret histories behind oppressive practices – that is, suggesting there once was an alternative “neither” demarcation during the time public houses were segregated by gender. The stained glass, erect on steel and spot lit in the gallery, is in perfect condition, yet the accompanying booklet speaks with an easy authority on the subject that makes the reader’s belief falter. Guinan, meanwhile, uses the gallery as a physical presence in her campaign for the 2016 Irish General Election in the work Liberate Art. The bastions of brass fixtures and dark wood support the yellow flags that flank her information stand, with the forms and election literature based upon her sole electoral policy separating class structures from art. There is no distinction of performativity in this act or the things that physically supplement it; those reading are challenged to think about the restrictive structures in place behind art and take its value into their own personal and political consideration.
Co-opting these long-established structures of historicisation, politicization and truth allows those engaged within them to be complicit in new ways of reading and evaluating information. In the collectivity of these alternative rationalist discourses and new validations, the lower tier of hierarchy in information’s authority is undone.
The writer was in conversation with the artists on 19th February 2016. All direct quotes and paraphrased information about the artist group and their activities are from this conversation.