If you visit the Douglas Hyde Gallery this month, you might become a guest on Free Thought FM, a new exhibition by conceptual artist Garrett Phelan that tackles the class system and inequality of access to education.
“Free Thought FM gives people ownership of the space. It changes the methodology of how the gallery is used.”
The genesis of Free Thought came from Garret Phelan’s previous project. Heed FM was a sound portrait broadcast over the course of a month in which Phelan talked to Dubliners aged between the ages of 18 to 25. Topics ranged from accents to political activism to dog breeding.
That project was initially sparked by Phelan’s concern about homelessness, but over the course of his research he realized that the focus needed to be tightened. “The subject was so huge and expansive. We could have been researching for years to come. So I asked one of our mentors at Crosscare what she thought would be of value to the situation and she said that advocacy for young people aged 18-29 is non-existent.”
Heed FM was an attempt to share young people’s voices and experiences. Over the course of recording the segments, Phelan became increasingly aware of the class stigma and financial differences that made higher education difficult for people in working class areas.
“I was self-educating myself when talking to these young people and seeing a huge disparity. So I finished the project and it went out as one thing but I was left with all this other stuff which became Free Thought FM.”
Though it may share DNA with his previous work, Free Thought FM is an even more ambitious project. The exhibition can be split into three levels; the marketing materials, which Phelan and his team have disseminated over Dublin city with the aid of a top class marketing agency; the gallery space, which is adorned with vinyl replications of Phelan’s artwork, and of course, Free Thought FM itself, a live broadcast radio station that Phelan will man six days a week for a month.
It’s rare to find an exhibition in which the marketing materials are an integral piece of the work, but that’s just what Phelan and company have done. Instead of putting Phelan’s name front and center, the posters and online advertisements offer useful advice on SUSI grants or the CAO application process, as well as the frequency for the station.
“We put a lot of energy into doing that” Phelan says. “You can purchase ads and use your advertising procedures and algorithms to get directly into people’s houses. So rather than selling them Coca-Cola or Nike, you can sell them good information that can help them. Our campaign is about giving not taking. It’s information that the government has prepared in a very jargon-y way that we put back into simple language.”
The broadcast itself will find Phelan conversing with people in the gallery about Ireland’s class system and the resulting disparities in higher education. Sometimes he’ll be talking to well known city advocates like Emmet Kirwan or Andrea Horan. More often, Phelan will leave the confines of the gallery to talk to people on the streets of Dublin, or on Trinity Campus.
Though it might seem like a caustic critique to mount a project about class division in the heart of Trinity College, Phelan has chosen the venue because of his great affection for the area. He’s loved the Douglas Hyde Gallery from an early age, and finds its location to be a fascinating bridge between Trinity and the city at large.
“I didn’t want to use Trinity as a space to look at in the negative and how the education and curriculum system has been developed in the country, because that would be too easy. It’s important for people to know that it’s well within their means to come here, regardless of their level of financial income or how they interpret themselves. I think people who come here feel special and in one way that’s not a bad thing, but I think everyone should feel there’s a possibility of studying here.”
It’s not just education that Phelan wants to bridge the class divide on, but art spaces too. Every day, thousands of people pass the Douglas Hyde Gallery, and Phelan aims to get more people walking through its doors. He sees the open and participatory nature of Free Thought FM as a way to encourage engagement.
“I want people to know that I am accessible, and that art should be accessible for conversation. Usually all the accents you hear in an art gallery are middle class. Free Thought FM gives people ownership of the space. It changes the methodology of how the gallery is used.”
There are some that may wonder what part the gallery has to play when Phelan will be elsewhere, looking for a conversation on the streets of Dublin. As Phelan himself admits, “some people have said that the art has been reverted into marketing for something that’s moving beyond the space.”
“The gallery exists in the tradition of the gallery experience” Phelan continues. “Terrestrial radio exists as a sculptural form for me. It travels out into the abyss forever, into the otherness. It goes through our bodies and the walls of the gallery and becomes symbolic for many things. It exists in there even though you’re not aware of it because all the equipment is in there transmitting.”
“I suppose the gallery is the brain or core of the piece. But we can still move outside it just to illustrate to people that the art can go beyond that space.”
When we meet in Trinity campus on a Tuesday afternoon, Phelan is incredibly excited for Free Thought FM to begin broadcasting. He doesn’t show any hint of trepidation in hosting over 100 hours of live radio.
“I just take it one day at a time, one moment at a time” he says. “You have to accept that what you set out to achieve might not necessarily be what you achieve, and that’s fine. Failure has to be a part of big projects. It has to. If you’ve endeavoured to do absolutely as much as you can possibly do to bring people to the water trough and they don’t drink it, that’s perfectly ok. You just try to understand why that’s the case and you move forward from there.”
The radio broadcast will run until April 23rd on 105.2FM.
Cork rapper and beatmaker Spekulativ Fiktion will be one of those joining Garret on Free Thought FM during his stint in the gallery.
How did you get involved with Free Thought FM?
A great Cork man, Fintan O’ Callaghan, discussed the project with me and I was glad to be involved.
What attracted you to the project?
A number of things attracted me to the project. In my music, I have often dealt with social and political topics and I suppose I have opinions worth contributing to the conversation. On top of that I’m an art fan. I enjoy visiting galleries and getting inspired so becoming part of this art piece sounds cool in itself
Can you tell us about your experiences trying to pursue higher education?
I am lucky in that I was in a position where I did not have major difficulty with getting into college. In the end, I actually spent eight years studying between graphic design/art and then music, areas I continue to work in today
Is there any particular aspect of these issues that you want to highlight during your time on Free Thought FM?
With education in Ireland, in general, I feel a lot of people get left behind. No two of us think or work the same. If someone struggles, with the way they are thought and expected to learn, that can seriously hinder their life path.
There is that quote attributed to Albert Einstein: “If you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree, it will spend its whole life believing it is stupid.”
Words: Jack O’Higgins
Photos: Andres Poveda