Have you heard of Neustern? Not many have. It’s an autonomous coastal city-state founded in 1983 (its exact geographical location matters little). Its rolling boulevards boast such idiosyncratic names as Espionage Avenue and Somnambulist Paradeway, while its noble public meeting areas are loftily dubbed “Ron Paul” and “Christ Almighty” Squares. Like any functioning nation, Neustern has a public transport system, a governmental system, with multiple parties vying for the public’s approval, a national airline, and reams of data on matters such as crime rates and land usage.
But it has one particularity that distinguishes it from other nations: Neustern is Irish artist Gary Farrelly. That is, if Gary were an agglomeration of roads, buildings, laws, data and a fully-fledged political system. In Neustern, Gary has taken elements of his personality and events from his life and transposed them onto a city structure. There’s one gaping absence in Neustern though – a population. Or rather, it has a population of one: Gary. Though can it be called a population when the sole resident has taken the form of the infrastructure of the city?
At a moment when the European Project is quivering on a tightrope of uncertainty (at the time of writing, the Brexit referendum is days away), it feels like a headily meta voyage to be visiting an artist who conducts his life as a microcosm of a utopian society in the heartland of the EU itself. Gary lives in Brussels, in a squatted building that was formerly the home of a government ministry. The different rooms in the building are former offices. It couldn’t be more apt a setting for a man with his kind of mind.
The squat has official status and is, in some way, sanctioned by the council. “We now call it ‘The Occupation’,” says Gary. This is typical of Gary’s vocabulary, which tends towards the official always. An email he sends after my visit to confirm the details of his various projects has the subject line ‘Operational Data’. “I’m just trying to put a structure on my own internal power organisations and distribution of effort at the moment,” he says at one point in our conversation, meaning he’s trying to describe his current artistic practice.
Gary has lived in Brussels for the last three years. A visual artist whose practice echoes bureaucracy and administration, whose interests lie in utopian architecture and the social democratic ideals of the mid-20th century, it makes sense that Gary would have gravitated towards the EU’s capital, where the Union’s pen pushers flail in a blizzard of red tape and progress is mired in the shackles of procedural pageantry.
“A skyline of potential boyfriends,” Gary says, viewing the topography of Brussels’ monolithic, Brutalist buildings with satisfaction. He’s taking myself and photographer Marcus on a tour of his favourite architecture in the city; all austere, cast concrete, sullen structures that Gary feels a flirtatious affection for. Another typical Gary characteristic: anthropomorphising utterly expressionless objects. Some of these buildings, such as the former Dexia bank headquarters, are now derelict and are being slowly dismantled (one of Gary’s numerous projects is a sort-of band called Dexia Defunct, a collaboration with Berlin photographer Chris Dreier). As buildings whose forms champion rationality and progress, logic and organisation, their gradual disintegration reflects what Gary sees as the inevitable decline of the European Project.
“I think we jumped ship on the best deal we had going which was a kind of later-modernist, social democratic, post-war principle, 50s/60s/70s idea that somehow economy, science, academics and politics should align and can deliver a much more horizontal society.”
“Rational” is a word Gary uses a lot. He talks about rational architecture, rational people, a rational society. He’s scathing about excessive sentimentality or new age touchy-feely thinking.
“Frequently people take words like emotional and spiritual and they make work about those words and about those experiences. So, when somebody makes work with chakras or you listen to Christian rock, or when somebody makes work with hearts or platitudinous love expressions in squiggly writing… those works are taking emotionality or spirituality as subject matter, but they’re not really dealing with it. But I think that when you actually, in quite a rational way and quite a direct way, really start to bump up against aspects of reality, that yeah, you’ll experience emotions and you’ll experience spirituality. But it won’t be the clichéd facsimile of emotionality that we’re frequently exposed to or frequently conditioned to believe is emotionality… I think the economy is emotional, I think that roads are emotional, I think that airports are emotional, I think that cast concrete is emotional, I think that plants are emotional… and I think we’re supposed to believe that flower arranging is emotional, but I don’t see any emotion in a flower arrangement.”
Gary has exhibited work in Dallas, in Wuppertal (Germany), in Berlin, in Dublin and in Brussels itself. He’s lived in Paris and Dallas, been awarded multiple residencies, sold his work to private collectors. He has exhibited solo and in groups, often working with long-time collaborator and fellow NCAD graduate Oisin Byrne. But exhibitions are only a minor expression of Farrelly’s work; his life is an ongoing bureaucratic performance, a curiously self-regulated society in miniature. Living in the EU’s administrative hub, Gary executes his own daily administrative rituals, parsing his existence in the actions and language of officialdom, as though it’s the only way to make it intelligible to himself. He apportions his life into two-year development plans, outlining goals for the betterment of the State of Gary. We’re in Bureau 304, Gary’s room in The Occupation, following our tour of Brussels’ finest Brutalist architecture. “I’m the only resident who uses their original office number in their address.” I ask him how his fifth two-year development plan went.
“Living space: increased. Revenues: considering the economic climate we’re in, didn’t decline, which is good. Overall masturbation: didn’t decline. Sexual activity: increased… yeah, no, it was good, it was a good plan. I’ve always been very hyperbolic – ‘great development’ and ‘fully transformative in 2 years’, like a real politician, ya know? I mean I sell myself the same lies that politicians sell people. Like, ‘A week! To become David Hasselhoff!’ – that’s not going to happen. But the lies in themselves are compelling.”
One of Gary’s ongoing performative works is his postal correspondence with both individuals and institutions around the world, some of which is reciprocated, and some less so. “I’ve sent unsolicited post to the Museum of Science and Technology in North Korea – it’s a weird institution.” An avid fan of analogue modes of composition, Gary uses stencils, carbon paper, and typewriting to make pieces, often relating to architecture, which he then pastes onto slabs of cardboard, addresses and dispatches open-faced into the postal system. The addressing is as much part of the artwork as the image on the reverse side – the artist uses rubber stamps and a consistent system of itemisation to number every item posted. Each has a serial number, an indication of whether the recipient is known or unknown to Gary and the artist’s signature. The lack of envelope or covering is likewise a key feature – Gary hopes to encourage what he calls ‘procedural molestation’ of his postal works, relishing the possibility of an accretion of official markings and comments on his art. In a body of work that apes government administration, his postal series transcends the boundary between fictional and actual bureaucracy, making the state an unwitting participant in its own imitation.
Gary has reserved, as a special treat for Marcus and myself, four of his postal works to dispatch in our company. Their destinations are diverse and intriguing. One is bound for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Bosnia and Herzegovina (an institution Gary describes having a “bilateral agreement” with – meaning, I think, that they pay him for his art); another is destined for a fellow artist in Texas who will modify the work himself before sending it back to Gary; a third is winging its way towards the Arrow Factory in Beijing (an independent arts space that also isn’t expecting Gary’s correspondence – “They haven’t agreed to it yet, but I’m going to build a show there”); and the final piece is headed for Parking Projects in Tehran, another arts institution that knows Gary’s work. But the performance of bureaucracy doesn’t end with the addressing and rubber-stamping of these works – the serious business of administration begins when Gary sits down to itemise his post. A sheaf of slightly dog-eared, hand-ruled A4 pages clamped to a clipboard represents the only existing record of years of Gary’s work. He meticulously measures and records the dimensions of each artwork, noting its destination, its recipient, the type of artwork it is; and then, he signs his name. Auto-confirmation. He’s approving himself to himself, accounting for himself to himself. Some of the items on the list are described as “auto-post”, works Gary has dispatched to himself. The curiously self-referential act of signing his own name to his own record of his own activities is mimicry of one of Gary’s favourite administrative memories: monitoring the gradual completion of the bathroom cleaning roster in the toilets in college, the same signature repeated over and over until it dissolved into an abstraction.
Watching Gary record this data is oddly soothing. I ask him if he finds it comforting to be placed in a self-devised administrative context.
“Yeah, I do. It’s self-institutionalisation and I really feel comforted by it… My relationship with bureaucracy hasn’t always been comforting. I think that implicit in a bureaucratic transaction, when it’s with the state, is your annihilation – that is the proposition. The bureaucratic experiences I enjoy most are the ones I generate for myself… the state’s bureaucracy is usually you mediating in some way the state’s threat of violence against you. When it comes to taxation or when it comes to some time limit the state has imposed on an action – non-compliance will result in a letter and ignoring that letter will result in a second letter and ignoring that letter will result in a court summons and ignoring the court summons will… there is violence implicit in that transaction, so there’s always something a little bit sweaty palmed about real bureaucracy, though I do enjoy it, whereas with my own bureaucracy, it’s got just as much transformative in the proposition but there’s no coercion involved, or if there is coercion it’s coercion that I’m exercising on myself.”
There’s something a little off about Gary’s work – it’s a slightly enlarged, slightly exaggerated, cartoonish version of bureaucracy, colourful and somehow charming. His pieces are handcrafted, one-off semblances of procedures that ordinarily apply to millions of people. The administrative reach of his rituals does not extend beyond his own life and the institutions he has correspondence with. “My work’s got Stockholm Syndrome. I over-identify with the oppressive version of the state and generate my own version of that, that’s a little more benevolent and useful to my own needs.”
“I think that this very aggressive, progress-orientated, and yet nostalgic thing that I do in my discourse has moderated a lot in the last few years, so now I’m working a lot with embroidery…” Embroidery. This seems antithetical to the dry, bureaucratic focus of the rest of Gary’s work. Gary disagrees. “Sewing and administration aren’t that far from each other. They’re both repetitive forms of work. And I like repetitive work.” In 2013, Gary was awarded a residency at TAMAT, the centre for contemporary textile art in Tournai, Belgium, where he was fascinated to find there was a register of every single type of stitch that had ever been used in Belgium – “a Walloon stitch, a gypsy stitch, an oyster stitch, a diamond stitch, a spinster stitch, a Catholic stitch, a heretic stitch, a Bosniak stitch, a Jewish stitch”, he spiels them off while Marcus and I reel at a whole unsuspected world of obsession opening up before our eyes. “Who knew there were so many stitches?” says Marcus, stunned. “My idea for the residency was to invent an entirely original stitch, one that hadn’t been done before, but that would have some practical use and that would also represent my values and world view. Which I did, and I ended up calling it the ‘quasi-autonomous stitch’ – it’s a phrase I use a lot because I think quasi-autonomy is the most we can ever hope for.”
The quasi-autonomous stitch has made repeated appearances in Gary’s work since, most often as a means to introduce into his canon elements of reality he finds boring, like football. Unlike utopian modernist architecture or bureaucratic procedures reminiscent of state control, sport holds little allure for Gary. “The work is all about encoding bureaucracy into my reality. So let’s see, is it possible to encode something that doesn’t belong in my world into my world and therefore make it part of my world, and that’s what I’ve really tried to do here and I think that those two boys look perfectly like they belong in The Gary Show, am I right?” he says, indicating two quasi-autonomously embroidered postcards depicting nude young men.
The Gary Show. The State of Gary. Rather than encoding bureaucracy into his reality, the embroidery theme seems to be about encoding reality into bureaucracy, or applying the same administrative glaze to diverse realities, which is what bureaucracy does. The pornographic imagery Gary embroiders is neutralised by the quasi-autonomous stitch, glossing it with a veneer of convention.
On a large board in one corner of Bureau 304 is a series of cards of different colours, all reading YES in capital letters. It’s a jauntily affirming motif and one that many of Gary’s postal works bore. What’s with the YES?
“YES YES YES is a response to this American political positivism that I find very seductive because I do think it’s beneficial, but which I find kind of gross at the same time. This idea that by being positive and being really helpful and productive that you will facilitate, and only facilitate, positive outcomes in your life. Which, to some degree, may or may not be true, but when you accept a proposition like that you really have to accept the inversion of that, which is implicit, which is if you’re depressed or unhappy or alone or handicapped or just downright unattractive, that in some way, you’re responsible because you have a bad attitude and a bad frame of mind and that I don’t agree with. The moral consequences of accepting the fullness of that proposition are just impossible. So I wanted to make an artwork that was about reducing that political positivism to its very base element. Over two years, every day, I just manufactured a ticket that said ‘YES’, because that’s essentially what Chicken Soup for the Soul and all these self-help books are all about. It’s all about saying yes and the proposition is ‘yes’ and giving yourself authorisation to proceed. So I manufactured a ticket every day – the first thing I did in the morning. Stencilled the word YES, put the time, the date, the location, stamped it, signed it and put them into sequences.”
I spend 12 consecutive hours with Gary, inspecting the architecture of the city, talking in his office-room and drinking rosé (something I never drink) while a thunder storm rages outside, eating in a Turkish restaurant, and visiting an exhibition he’s part of in a tiny gallery adjacent to somebody’s bedroom on a quiet residential Brussels street. On the way to Clovis (the gallery) he brings us through the European Quarter, the cluster of EU buildings in the city; they’re all shuttered up for the evening. It’s like any other business district in a major city – empty, echoing and sanitised in the aftermath of COB. It’s started to rain. Gary points to and names the homes of the various institutions. “There’s the European Commission,” he says glumly.
What is this man doing rattling around despairingly at the administrative coalface of an institution he seems to consider dead on its legs? Well, he’s an irrepressible idealist – only idealists are demoralised. He says “I live in a dystopian office block and I’m not comforted to see soldiers in the street and I’m not always comforted by my engagement with the state bureaucracy, but these things are confirmation of a dystopia that I expected to come anyway and there’s a certain smug gratification in seeing the world turn into the prison I thought it would turn into”, but I don’t think he means it. In the great conflagration of personal freedoms Gary sees happening all around, he’s valiantly putting out fires, one administrative ritual at a time. “If an artwork is functioning properly, it should be a policy document.” This is closer to his real party line. I’m glad people like Gary Farrelly exist – in the State of Gary, the only limits are self-imposed.
Words: Rachel Donnelly
Photos: Marcus Cassidy