Art of Becoming Civil



In 2007 Ian Banks was commissioned by Art & Architecture Journal working in conjunction with the US publication Public Art Review to write two articles for Issue# 37 – Fall/Winter 2007 Volume 19 Number 1 THE PRESENT STATE: England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The writing of both articles was co-funded by Arts Council England, under its Grants for the Arts funding programme. The two articles were:

  • The Art of becoming Civil in Northern Ireland: Practice-Based Research at INTERFACE (Interview with Declan McGonagle, Director of INTERFACE, the Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design at the University of Ulster – page 40)
  • Artists Taking the Lead: Visionary Shift in U.K. Arts Policy or Just Cultural Spin? (page 50)

Public Art Review is a publication of FORECAST Public Artworks and is the main American magazine covering public art activities. A catalog of their past issues  dating from 1989 (and including this issueare) are available online through the University of Minnesota’s UMedia Archive.

Scroll down to read: The Art of Becoming Civil which explored the work of Professor Declan McDonagle, Director of INTERFACE at the University of Ulster, and his call for a more civil art of power-sharing in Northern Ireland.

The Art of Becoming Civil – Practice-Based Research of INTERFACE: the Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design at the University of Ulster

by Ian Banks

The origins of the term and use of ‘constructive ambiguity’ is widely attributed to Henry Kissinger. It refers to the political art of circumnavigating sensitivities through a deliberate ‘fudging’ of issues in order to advance a political purpose. Nowhere could its use be more true perhaps, than in the ever-complex and sensitive area of continuing Devolution in Northern Ireland. Here, in the Belfast Agreement,1 even the fundamental first section on ‘Constitutional Issues’ is seen as a masterpiece of such non-specificity – challenging all rules of legal drafting and testifying to its politically expedient nature. Thus it is that Irish Nationalists get their reference to the mutual consensus of “the people of the island of Ireland alone” whilst British Unionists get reference to the “consent of the majority” of the people of Northern Ireland. Each side knows that this is a ‘fudge’ but can live with it, and ‘sell’ it to their own constituents as victory – or at least not a defeat. The classic problem with constructive ambiguity, however well-meaning, is that it postpones real agreements until some future date, when ‘differences’ can be aired without prejudice.

Professor Declan McGonagle – Director of INTERFACE, 2 the Centre for Research in Art, Technologies and Design at the University of Ulster, believes that ‘power-sharing’ like this is also in a sense ‘power-splitting’ – essentially ‘divide and rule’, one might say. However, such compromise can also be used positively as a creative collaboration, when brokered after careful research and negotiation with all parties. Launched in November 2004, INTERFACE stands on a platform of such historic research excellence, but now concerns itself additionally with practice-based research exploring the healing of community tensions as well, including the creation of something McGonagle is calling a “new civil society”. INTERFACE is a new interactive ‘hybrid’, concerning itself now with research into both fine art and textiles, and as its very name implies, bridging the process between art and design, theory and practice as well as art and social space. McGonagle sees its fine art strand as having a contemporary link to the current ‘lived experience’ in Northern Ireland; whereas he sees the textiles dimension rooted very much within the cultural identity of the Province historically.

One of  INTERFACE’s recurring themes of investigation is for contemporary art to respond to the idea of social citizenship, and to increasingly explore the notion of our ‘public space’ as ‘civil space’. It is also a strand that has been woven through much of McGonagle’s work since both graduating from Belfast College of Art in 1976, and being appointed the first Organiser of the Orchard Gallery in Derry in 1978. As well as being curator at the Orchard Gallery, his subsequent practice also involved working at the ICA in London and the Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin. He was eventually short-listed for the Turner Prize in 1987 – to date, one of only two curators ever to have been – for ‘making the Orchard Gallery an international centre for the artist’. More recently, in 2004, McGonagle completed the Dublin City Arts Centre’s ‘Civil Arts Inquiry’, 3 which was a two year review to explore the bases on how the City Arts Centre had operated. Through a series of public consultations and discussion the Civil Arts Inquiry opened up further questions on the role of arts and culture in society.

McGonagle firmly believes that public art in Northern Ireland must now begin “moving beyond the physical aesthetic”, and leave behind an obsession with the notion of ‘permanence’. He believes that major public art budgets are too often controlled by large public procurement funds, and that curatorial vision needs to be shifted back to the cultural organisations or a “professionalised arts unit”. The irony, he says, is that often “Roads Services have more to say on public art spending” than arts professionals. With ambitions of Belfast City Council and the ‘Department of Social Development’ to spend £400,000 for example, on ‘roundabout art’ for the Broadway Junction, as main gateway to the City from the South, this could become a dangerous norm if left unchallenged. Of course the constantly rolling National Percent for Art Schemes 4 seen throughout the Irish Republic are a constant reminder to the Province of this regeneration-led public art approach, although McGonagle maintains that some Percent for Art projects – like those commissioned by Ballymun Regeneration as part of the ‘Breaking Ground’ 5 programme – can facilitate very “creative interventions” of artists and craftspersons.

The problem McGonagle believes is that “we behave as if we have a consensus over what the term ‘public’ means” and thinks that this is a huge oversimplification. Undoubtedly, like much of the rest of the UK, Northern Ireland has quite some way to go on this cultural journey. However, whilst programmes like Belfast City Centre’s ‘Public Realm Improvement Strategy’ with its Action Plan of ‘Belfast: Streets Ahead’ 6 are undoubtedly engaging and visionary, they are still not perhaps exploring the degree of civil considerations that INTERFACE aspires to – although perhaps Belfast’s recently launched ‘Integrated Cultural Strategy’ 7 will help in this regard. Such integration is important, as McGonagle believes public art should not be driven by any one single agenda. He believes that there are very few models to look at currently with a meaningful degree of true collaboration, and feels that this is the key to success. As an example, he cites the recent Arts Council England publication ‘Art of Negotiation’ 8 and its exploration of 8 artist-led collaborative projects at different sites across England. Arts Council of Northern Ireland also articulates its own policy through a Public Art Handbook, 9 published in 2005 by Paul Harron the Architecture & Public Art Officer. This also supports a dedicated Public Art Programme, designed to aid the commissioning of new art for public places throughout Northern Ireland, and funded out of the National Lottery Programme.

So where does INTERFACE’s ambition for a new civil society fit into all this? When setting out his vision for the research unit at his launch speech in June 2006, McGonagle quoted A C Grayling 10 – Professor of Philosopher at Birkbeck College – speaking in Dublin in 2003 on Ancient Greece – where “society valued the warrior as the person who could protect society”. Grayling outlined the moment of shift in that social context where the civilian or ‘civil man’ began to become valued. Nowhere is this better showcased than in the 3-year Arts Council Northern Ireland funding scheme ‘Re-Imaging Communities’, a programme to help all communities in urban and rural areas focus on positive ways to express what culture means to them artistically and creatively. As a result, in West Belfast, it has helped engage a transformation of the mural tradition into something more civil, 11 effectively mirroring that same shift from warrior tradition to civilian tradition that Grayling alluded to. In Greece this shift was assisted by the artform of culture – in particular theatre – where the collective of the chorus began to gain a more influential voice. McGonagle believes that this provides a powerful metaphor for Northern Ireland as well. As a result, and following representations by community organisations and the Department for Social Development’s Belfast Regeneration Office has since commissioned INTERFACE to research and develop an over-arching Public Arts Strategy for this highly complex part of the city. INTERFACE also join the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, who have been working here since 1988, in the slow ‘incremental practice’ of helping the development of the thriving, unique community of West Belfast – the largest designated area of social need in Northern Ireland, and also containing a growing number of hard-to-reach migrant workers to boot. Parallel to this, Channel 4’s Big Art Project 12 is also currently working with the community in North Belfast, around the Waterworks Park, to create a series of new artworks in the park, based on negotiation with the communities who live there. Community representatives proposed the park as a setting for art interventions as part of a longer term community driven reclamation of the park as a shared ‘civil’ space. The Big Art Project sees itself as helping to raise the difficult but important question of: “can art build bridges?”

McGonagle certainly believe it can, and thinks the same questions of bonding and bridging civil space are also exercising the body politic generally. INTERFACE’s intention is to produce a user friendly working document which will set out clear mechanisms, opportunities and processes for Public Arts programming across these areas of the city, with a high level of community involvement. It is intended also to link new public arts programming to parallel activity in the City Centre and Laganside, and will take full account of other overlapping strategies, supporting community development, arts provision, economic and social regeneration. The preparation of this strategic working document, and its subsequent implementation in the context of existing programmes, has the potential to provide communities with a means to raise the pure quality and extent of public arts provision. It will create new ways of working and developing art in context to enhance environment and quality of life over time, and also begin to create opportunities for active participation of communities in the process. The Strategy document is due to be completed in  2007, and will then form the basis for the development of Public Arts initiatives in the medium and long-term development of West Belfast and Greater Shankill areas.

Alluding to Joseph Beuys’ most famous phrase, McGonagle believes that “everyone is an artist”. Beuys talked of art as a true social organism which had an “evolutionary-revolutionary” power to dismantle and then rebuild, and so it can be on the Shankill and Falls Roads where McGonagle hopes for a required “shift in society and shift in culture”. To aid this he visualises a “permanent programme of temporary projects” and the idea of the “City as a Gallery”. Crucial however, is his central idea of the artist as negotiator as well as producer, forming a ‘new deal’, between artist and society. In this aim, technology is not an end in itself, but a means to helping achieve larger social and civil goals, through which creative industries are prized not just for their economic potential but for their values of engagement and participation. The power to “connect communities of interest to communities of place” McGonagle calls it, whilst being “placed locally but connected globally.”

INTERFACE has tuned into an opportunistic moment of change in both academic and broader contexts of Northern Ireland. McGonagle sees it as being the potential catalyst for a “seismic shift” in the inherited assumptions of values which underpin the nature and meaning of art and practice more broadly. He believes that these assumptions have depended historically on a separation of the ‘artist’ from ‘society’ and that this separation of “arts-aesthetic responsibility” from its “ethical, social and moral responsibility” needs to be liberated from the publics mind. He believes that there is no better place to explore such ambitious aims than in a post-conflict Northern Ireland, although the scale of the task at hand, as well as the length and intensity of peoples memories can never be over estimated here – as the trials and tribulations during the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly following the Belfast Agreement testify to.

In that respect, McGonagle quotes Sir Nicholas Fenn, the ex British Joint Chairman of Encounter 13 – the independent organisation established by British and Irish governments to “contribute to the improvement of relations” – as once saying that ‘the Irish remember too much… and the English not enough”. Indeed, perhaps the big mistake of any engaged cultural strategy here is trying to cover too much ground too soon, and to attempt to provide all the finished solutions over night. In that regard, perhaps a more fluid organic policy of ‘creative ambiguity’ or artistic licence is needed to buy the much-needed time to rigorously research, explore and engage with the complex social issues and deep-rooted historical scars that places like West Belfast hold. INTERFACE certainly has the potential to build on its innovative programmes of action research, but no doubt does not expect quick wins in turning ‘public space’ into ‘civil space’ overnight. McGonagle talks of a much-needed “art of negotiation” here, and accepts and embraces the complexities by making reference to a poignant popular saying in the Province: “if you are not confused, then you don’t understand”.

Architect Ian Banks is the Director of Atoll Ltd, a collaborative art + architecture practice.  He is also the part-time Consultant Director of Public Realm at Beam, the Yorkshire-based centre for art and architecture –  + The writing of this article has been co-funded by Arts Council England, under its Grants for the Arts funding programme –


  • The Belfast Agreement – also known as the Good Friday Agreement or Stormont Agreement – was reached in Belfast in April 1998. It set out the plan for devolved government in Northern Ireland on a “stable and inclusive basis”. The Agreement proposed an inter-connected group of institutions drawn from three ‘strands’ dealing with relationships to internal affairs, the Republic of Ireland and mainland Britain respectively. The resulting power-sharing Northern Ireland Assembly, was established as part of this Belfast Agreement in November 2003, but had been variously dissolved or suspended since – until Devolution was finally restored to the Assembly on 8 May 2007.
  • Quoted launch Speech by Professor Declan McGonagle is included as the Foreword to the publication ‘INTERFACE Research in Art Technologies and Design – Report No. 1: 11/04 – 05/06 – Editor Sarah Pierce. Published by INTERFACE, University of Ulster 2006 – 120 Pages: ISBN 978-1-905902-00-2

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