Review of Trading Spaces by Ben Cooper

Copyright: Ben Cooper 2011


Located in the back of The New Dandelion on Meath Street, This Is Collective’s “Trading Spaces” exhibit is a collection of installations influenced by the art and allure of trade, examining the sights, sounds, smells, touch and (almost) tastes of five unique shops in The Liberties area of Dublin.

Commissioned by the Liberties Festival for the 2011 festival, “Trading Spaces” ran from Monday June 13th to Saturday the 18th, attracting a range of guests.

“We got a lot of local school-kids, a lot of arty folk, and people just looking for something different and fun I suppose!” Says Aine Kavanagh, one of the artists.

However the research and production of the gallery began in full swing nearly two months before it opened.

A group of Dublin-based interdisciplinary artists, This Is Collective is made up of Kavanagh, Dee Gavigan, Susan Walsh, Meadhbh Cooke and Camilla Kane.

“It [production] really was experimentation and thrashing things out until they started to look right,” says Kavanagh, “we just tried to stay true to our main focus, drawing in customers.”

In their research, the artists gained insight into the inner-workings of the five shops by spending time in each space, talking with shopkeepers and patrons alike. During group workshops in the studio room above The New Dandelion, they would host traders who contributed sketchbooks and photographs to the research. One of the most valuable means of research, they found, was from the white boards that they had installed in each shop asking customers to draw or write what attracted them to each market, aiding them in understanding the relationship between trader and client.

Specific elements of each trade were utilized and enhanced by This Is Collective for a final product that engages in a ‘trade of experience’ – “an exchange based not on currency, but on participation and interaction with the installations,” the group says.

This Is Collective portrayed five shops of the Liberties area: C&N Meats, Sandyz, Sweet Temptations, C&T Petfoods, and The New Dandelion. These shops are given their unique character in the form of creatively manipulated booth space and an ensemble of everyday materials, ranging from the obscure: hay, drumsticks, a wagon wheel, an apron, coke bottles and fabrics; to the technical: DVD players, live-feed audio recording equipment and a high definition video projector.

The shopkeepers themselves played a vital role in the evolution of the finished product. From the colourful humour of the butchers at C&N Meats, broadcast via live audio feed into the exhibit, to the advice and guidance of Cormac Butler, owner of C&T Petfoods, who’s early morning tips on Meath Street manifested into a video projection of the view from his work van, where the artists filmed the markets coming to life each day.

“The traders were all very happy with how everything turned out.” Kavanagh says. “We really pushed for their input in order to stay true to the term ‘collaborative’ and I think this helped ensure that they were happy – they were all up to see the space in the weeks before it opened, which was brilliant!”

In other booths, the materials more wholly depict the shops. For instance, the Sweet Temptations installation uses real life items as substitutes for candies.

“We were thinking about all the sweets of our childhood and making lists of them and asking people, and we just realized how many are based on real-life items – chocolate cigarettes, golf ball chewing gums, drumsticks, bulls eyes, fried egg sweets etc., so we decided to run with this theme, and get the actual real-life items.” Stated Kavanagh.

In representing each shop, the artists withheld themselves from simply replicating each store, one reason why they stayed away from using real sweets, or other pre-established shop displays.

However the elaborate window displays of Sandyz, a specialty dress shop, influenced the use of fabrics draped over the walls and ceiling of its booth, juxtaposing imagery of “pouffy and fairytaley” dresses with clouds.

“[Owner] Sandy herself customizes the dresses, which is rare enough these days,” Kavanagh says, “she has a real vested interest in the clothes and design, so we decided to do a roof installation for this reason, starting in dress fabric, but then using packaging material as well.”

“Value, not cheap” says Geoff Buckley, owner of The New Dandelion, who embroiders personal messages, from the joyful to the foul, on baby bibs and blankets at his card and gift shop.

“We wanted to play on this aspect of personalization, but also on the whole idea of gifting and exchange” says Kavanagh. “So we set up the booth so that people could write exactly what they wanted on cards, and then take one if they wanted.”

Now that the ‘Trading Spaces’ exhibit is finished, This Is Collective has been commissioned by De Paul Ireland, a charity that works with people who are homeless and disadvantaged, in a project focusing on the positive and negative effects weather has on people. The project, called ‘Life’s no Picnic on the Streets,’ will work with umbrellas, looking at function and form, with different materials from fabrics to industrial pieces to reflect participants’ personalities and their ideas on weather and security.

“I think it’s really important to see alternative commissioning opportunities for young artists to take place so that they get opportunities to work and live in Dublin City given our current economic difficulties” said Siobhán Geoghegan, Director of Artistic Programmes at Common Ground, a community arts organization that supports young artists with studio space and mentoring programs. “I believe that it’s vital for this type of commissioning initiative to spread nationally.”

Written by Ben Cooper,


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