Tulca 2005 / 2006, Galway city, October – November 2005

This year's Tulca Season of Visual Arts in Galway, spanning a four-week period from 26 October to 27 November 2005, was particularly significant in that it emerged out of a period of heated debate and controversy in the West of Ireland arts scene. What began as an issue of internal conflict over visual arts policy and curatorial responsibility in the Galway Arts Centre (GAC), mushroomed into a larger political debate as four respected artists (Grace Weir, Corban Walker, Garrett Phelan, and Willie McKeown), programmed as one of the highlights of the Galway Arts Festival, pulled their exhibition Rooms for waiting in in support of Michael Dempsey's curatorial position at the Centre. Dempsey (chairperson of the independent Tulca Season ) ultimately resigned from the GAC, feeling his position was effectively neutralized, leaving him disempowered as a curator there. The intensity of feeling which evolved around this issue amongst those artists in Galway involved in creating and promoting contemporary art acted as an impetus to develop and support Tulca as a season with an even more expansive and experimental remit.


Dempsey, in his foreword to the Tulca programme, states that Tulca "aims to develop challenging projects that make us aware of uncomfortable issues in our communities... it aims at decision-makers in the cultural sector and at policy-makers in the economic sector focusing on possible social policy developments in Galway city". Its aims are ambitious from the outset, and the season places deliberate emphasis on artforms which, although well-established for decades in the art scene worldwide, would still be considered new and provocative within a Galway cultural context.


Tulca, rather then attempting a 'catching-up' process, is instead trying to challenge directly any existing complacency which exists in the Galway public's attitude towards less conventional artforms. It presented a programme which was innovative in its choice of exhibition locations and confidently confrontational in its inclusion of a wide selection of contemporary media.


Its attempt to reconfigure the perception of art and where it could be displayed in the city became obvious from the outset with the INTERIM: art in limbo show located in an industrial estate on the edge of the city. Curated by American artist Ben Roosevelt (based in the Burren College of Art) and Irish artist Emma Houlihan, its choice of location in the new Barons self-storage warehouse was inspired. The warehouse represents the 'interim' or 'in-between' status of individuals storing their belongings: a state of 'limbo' which can foster creativity.


The site offered two very different display/ interactive possibilities: a number of small self-contained cubicles functioning as individual units, or two huge warehouse spaces which were occupied by a selection of artists chosen for the Interim show, and by an independent exhibition of GMIT student work. The industrial atmosphere, with outsized lifts and labyrinthine corridors between units created an immediate frisson of excitement in those attending the opening. Barry Prendergast's sound installation drew one, as though in a maze, towards its unresolved conclusion, as eventually (after some serious orienteering with maps provided) one discovered the primary capacious exhibition space.


Ben Geoghegan's monumental photograph Reconstructed , of a degraded Connemara landscape, towered over the proceedings, and established from the outset that this was not the Galway arts scene as one would have known it. His image undercut much of the melodrama and sentimentality which can be found in the myriad landscapes produced ad nauseam with the tourist market in mind, and in the smaller photographs he exhibited in a separate show -scape in GAC - he used an almost abstract compositional format with images of intermediary zones of the Galway area shot with a detached urban sensibility.


Also at Interim , Austin Ivers's magnified iconic stereotypes, presented in the simplified form of a strange, child-like identity parade of recognizable institutional occupations (a postman, a doctor, a policeman, etc), had their signification transformed through scale and incidental marks, producing an unsettling but highly effective result - you felt you were being introduced to the 'people of your neighbourhood' from Sesame Street by David Lynch and Andy Warhol.[1]


Roosevelt's sound-based installation worked well in the dark confines of a storage cubicle, with his customized, Naumanesque amplifier suspended from the ceiling uttering the chilling platitudes of insincere condolences on someone's loss, interspersed with laughter, as the accompanying sound vibrations tossed tiny human figures mercilessly within the amplifiers concave bowl.


Greg Pond (art professor and director of the Fugitive Art Centre of Tennessee) played on the 'message in a bottle' theme, creating a sound installation using a series of glass sand-worn bottles protruding from CDs attached to the wall. These contained a variety of sounds capes, including birdsong and distorted pop anthems, on a loop.


Anne Cleary and Denis Connolly's Scenes from a boulevard , intimately observed video diaries presented in another prize-winning form at ev+a (2005), displayed meticulously edited footage; mostly real and shot from their balcony in one of the less fashionable quartiers of Paris, but sometimes staged to create a Busby Berkeley/ Jacques Demy-like montage of daily life with ideas of mirroring, sameness, repetition, etc, all sustained within a kaleidoscopic framework.


Emma Houlihan's Special offer proved so popular on the opening day that the queue for her 'offers' was thought by some to be a Roman Ondak-like intervention. Her work consisted of a catalogue of her personal belongings divided into sections such as 'bits and bobs', 'small plastic (and one rusted) animals', etc, accompanied by charmingly quirky background information. Items listed in the catalogue were stacked in numbered white boxes in a cubicle, ready for the taking but with one condition attached: that the recipient sign a contract accepting her 'terms and conditions', namely that the artist be allowed one future meeting to document the objects place in the person's life. In this the work resembled that of John Freyer, who in 2001 began selling all his belongings on e-bay (www.allmylifeforsale.com), rather than Michael Landy's, in that it sought to create a 'genealogy' of her objects rather than nullify them. It critiqued materialism and yet acknowledged how whimsical investment can transform trivial acquisitions into a type of subversive identity map (personally I was very happy with my copy of Dr. Paris's Thaumatrope - a monograph on pre-cinematic projection).


The excellent new gallery Ard Bia Arts Space in William Street [2] showed the work of three artists in Imagine I was there . Gabriella Kiss's installation with swings and projection managed to avoid na•ve romanticism through the divergent angles and fugue-like structure in which the projected group's swinging takes place; one wasn't oppressed by a sense of forced communality.


Paula Naughton's ghostly architectural drawings of New York and Roscommon gave the impression of delicate fossils of a bygone age as they floated in the heat from the ultraviolet bulbs illuminating them from below in the blacked-out gallery; their fragile luminosity creating a post 9/11 memorial of sorts.


Nicholas Golebiewski's four video pieces, again of New York, had an elliptical, edgy quality using Super-8 footage in a post-Brakagian style.


NUI - Galway transformed its subterranean gallery into a domestic cocoon exploring the different experiences of time involved in motherhood, in particular the act of breastfeeding, with Alannah Robbins's Between the sheets installation involving two projections: one of a nursing baby, the other a sleeping infant, hidden behind layers of suspended white sheets. Jim Vaughan's predictably high standard of photography in Chance encounter showed his ability, yet again, to capture elusive qualities in his portraits. His framework of informality and arbitrary context, when repeated in a series, becomes unexpectedly resonant.


This year's Tulca was most notable for its inclusion of an extensive live art programme curated by performance artist çine Phillips (also head of Sculpture at the Burren College of Art). The programme consisted of an impressive blend of live performances, video-based work and solo installations aimed at introducing the Galway audience to a cross-section of contemporary work in these media. Giving priority to such work in a Galway context was timely in that it is in this area that the most obvious shift has been taking place in the local art scene in the last few years, with the establishment of the young artist's group Enso who seek to facilitate alternative artistic networks based on experimental agendas.


Some of the work programmed for the live-art section, such as that of the Sacred sequin woman (artist Izzie Hall) which claimed to deal with her "internal beauty and divinity" was heavily essentialistic and overly dependent on what Catherine Wood of the Tate Modern has described as "the ideal of authenticity which haunts performance art, treating corporeality as the window to the soul... but authenticity is elsewhere" ( Art Review , Dec 2005).


Local artists Aideen Barry, Louise Manifold and Jacinta Fahy, in their solo performances, represented what could be called the endurance-based sub-genre of live performance and managed to achieve a level of self-reflexivity and conceptual resolution which enabled them to steer clear of bodily clichŽs attached to the notion of the 'feminine'. Paul Hegarty's installation Full of human provided an intellectual edge to the programme, with its dense experimental soundscape created in response to a series of eclectically chosen and enigmatic slides.


Enso initiated a Collaborative Laboratory ( CO - LAB ) over a period of a week, which sought to test the boundaries of the possible with a collaborative model inviting participants from every creative background (music, dance, film, etc) to develop projects in a "space of social experimentation where process is given value," culminating in a live event displaying the 'research' work produced. The concept managed to attract a virtual 'who's who' of younger Irish artists engaged in multimedia artistic practice but would have benefited from a greater level of critical engagement with some of the more problematic aspects of such an ostensibly radical manoeuvre. However, it was an audacious starting point and over time will probably evolve into a more substantial phenomenon.


Separate - a multi-media installation and performance piece addressing issues of homelessness and disenfranchisement - was a confrontational and technically challenging work which took place in the newly renovated Nun's Island theatre space belonging to GAC. A nude performer (Gearóid Dolan, aka ScreaMachine) dragged a burden over a forty-eight-hour period around the performing space, sleeping intermittently on a pile of newspapers. The struggle for survival became a struggle with technological complexity as represented in Dolan's sophisticated layering of visuals (including those from a projector suspended from his neck). These projected stark, Beckettian scenes of a homeless person wandering aimlessly in a desolate neo-realist landscape, converging on the surrounding walls with images of Dolan's live-action movements. The performance proved to be an intense climax to the season especially in its echoing of issues raised in Brian Maguire's Fairgreen project at GAC. Maguire produced a series of portraits of homeless men, some now dead, after an extended period of research in their midst at the Fairgreen Hostel in Galway. His drawings sought to be a symbolic gesture against the apagados (erasure) he sees occurring with such individuals in our society.


In the light of Tulca 's explicit desire to engage its participants and audience on a critical level with contemporary art and social issues, giving emphasis to dialogue and debate, it might be worthwhile to consider an important point made by both Grant Watson and Claire Bishop in their articles on 'Relational Aesthetics' in Circa 114 : that in aspiring towards new social models one has to ask "what are the effects of the interactions which take place within certain art practices?" and be wary, as they are, of the possibility of seeking a unified subject as a prerequisite for the notion of "community-as-togetherness."


If Tulca succeeds in embracing a more complex conception of individual identity - a fragmented, endlessly mutating subject in the Guattarian sense and seen in the work of artists such as Thomas Hirschhorn ( Deleuze monument etc) - then it might avoid some of the tendencies still prevalent in Irish art towards a reductionistic, psychotherapeutic model of the self and the community. Tulca has within a couple of years shown enormous potential and hopefully will do for Galway what ev+a has done for Limerick, albeit with a greater social agenda.


Katherine Waugh is a writer based in Galway.


[1] Geoghegan and Ivers also set up a gallery space within their modest suburban house ( 126ab laurel park ), independently of Tulca but coinciding with it, in an attempt to show the work of established artists not normally visible outside of the Dublin gallery scene.


[2] Opened last summer by Aoibheann MacNamara, who has established a strong reputation in Galway for her passionate support of contemporary art with exhibitions and performance/ video nights in her restaurant.