“Actions taken. That is what the city, the country, society needs. Activity. Activity’s good.”
By all outward appearances, Unit 44 seems to be another store that has closed for the evening. It is before 7pm on a Sunday in Stoneybatter. The shutters are down. Most of the neighbouring businesses in the Park Shopping Centre are either off today or on the verge of clocking-out.
Then, the black steel security curtain rolls up, revealing a dark room lit by a projector. Hanging from the ceiling is a semi-translucent white sheet. On its surface, indiscernible pale blue shapes billow like smoke, while a distorted wind howls from a set of speakers.
Behind the sheet sit two artists, Cliona Ni Laoi and Alfred Brooks, known otherwise as All Times Now Nothing. Brooks is on his laptop. Ni Laoi fiddles with an iPhone hooked up to the projector. She puts her smartphone camera up against a small television’s fluorescent screen on the Oireachtas channel. Moving the phone about, her action produces the bright, jarring images that illuminate Unit 44.
The audio-visual set is billed as a dissection of television. Ni Laoi calls it “expanded cinema.” Through the combination of three tracks from their LP and the live sampling of TV shows as they are being broadcast, effectively the duo reimages the experience of gathering around the box on a Sunday night.
As the crowd comes in, the ghostly electronic winds blend with the noise of cars zipping by and busses rumbling up Prussia Street. After several minutes, a high-pitched tone whistles from the amplifiers. An English shopping channel appears on the suspended sheet, and the presenter proceeds to talk about one of Southend-on-Sea’s most prolific “scent doctors.”
“These are fragrances that Perry has put together for some very big names in the past and I’m talking ones we pay £70, £80 for.”
His vocal pitch is raised and lowered. His sales pitch is looped. A sorrowful industrial groan weaves around his promises of a bargain. In one moment, the audience is silent and hypnotised. In the next, they are in fits of laughter. The performance is unlike anything that would be greenlit in any conventional space outside a gallery.
“The only spaces that we can do it in are DIY spaces,” Ni Laoi says. “That was only the second time we’ve performed it in Ireland, though we’ve been doing it since 2017. We’ve done it a load in Berlin. But there isn’t that opportunity to do it here.”
“I think that was a real testament to the space, in terms of how well set up it is,” says composer and general manager of the Kirkos Ensemble, Paul Scully as he reflects on the show several weeks later.
“We’ve had multimedia stuff before. But I guess that was the first time where everything just slotted into place super easily, even through it’s quite a complicated set up.”
Paul and I speak in Unit 44, while his colleague, the Ensemble’s co-director, Sebastian Adams calls in via a webcam from a snowy Paris. Strewn across the venue’s black-and-white tiled floor are various cables. On a desk are fresh copies of the A3 riso-printed Ecliptic Newsletter, featuring said tiles and wires on its cover.
The Newsletter lists some of Unit 44’s many upcoming events. There will be an all-female improv comedy troupe, a collaborative project for victims of power abuse in the arts, and a monthly improvised jam with two rules: all may participate and “no audience.” Unit 44 is a blank canvas for outsiders.
“There is a community coalescing around it,” Scully says. “I get so many emails from people looking to put on events. It really feels like a scene is forming.”
Opened in July 2021, Unit 44 emerged from a desire to organise “lower pressure events”, Adams says.
“There are almost no cheap spaces around. So normally, people can only put on concerts if they have some way of paying for it. Either it’s commercially viable or they have Arts Council funding, and this starts to discourage ideas that aren’t completely worked out yet.”
Its roots lay in the creation of the Kirkos Ensemble. Formed in 2012, the contemporary classical group was made up of students from the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Over time, however, their music became increasingly experimental, improvisational and collaborative as they merged projects with theatre and the visual arts.
“We tried to work with a lot of different people,” Adams says. “As we got more experienced, the projects that seemed to be the most artistically fruitful were the ones where we were trying to facilitate other artists to do what they wanted.”
In 2019, the Ensemble received the Incubation Space award, and with this came a residency in Unit 3, a studio space on James Joyce Street. There, they developed an opera, The Buffer Zone, composed by Yannis Kyriakides. But, during pre-production, Adams recognised an opportunity.
“When I got there, I started to think, ‘this has a lot of the ingredients that you need for a DIY concert space.’ It was low key. We weren’t expecting people and we were able to do it without having to sell tickets. No pressure. And I just invited people to come, ‘would you like to do a gig?’”
What previously felt impossible in Dublin, according to Adams, now felt doable on a larger scale if they applied for funding. In March 2020, they sent in an application and sixteen months later, Unit 44 was open.
“Community was the driving force behind our decision to do this,” says Adams. “It’s not necessarily a sensible decision to stay in Dublin if you’re a musician or an artist. We want to help make Dublin a worthwhile place for people interested in the arts.”
A very real sense of despair had emerged around 2018, as the efforts to preserve the city’s cultural life seemed to become an ever more hopeless cause. The first of the pillars to be chipped away at was the nightlife. This began in May when the warehouse venue Hangar was demolished. Then, in April 2019, the Tivoli Theatre was pulled down, followed by the original Bernard Shaw pub six months later.
The almost fatal blow, however, came in April 2021, when news broke that Jigsaw, a trailblazing all-purpose community space was to close. Jigsaw had been a starting point for Dublin Digital Radio. It was a venue for alternative music and arts, and during the Take Back the City protests, a space for anti-eviction training workshops.
“Without spaces such as Jigsaw, that give refuge to the counter currents, there will forever be a [stranglehold] on new ideas, movements and organisations to find their feet in the early stages,” wrote DDR in response to the news.
Smaller artist-run spaces, in general, Cliona Ni Laoi says are scarce. “I’ve tried to set them up, wrote to the Arts Council about the fact that there isn’t anywhere, especially for work that is experimental or avant garde. But the rent is insane.”
While not the first or last, closure of Jigsaw was arguably the most symbolic. It represented the destruction of Dublin as a social organism and its reconstruction as a transient zone between the airport and tourist spots elsewhere. The capital was, to use a decades-old criticism levelled against it by Lewis Mumford, on the brink of becoming a “non-city.”
“When I was in college, the DDR parties in Jigsaw were just a new thing,” says Tadgh Kinsella of Dublin Modular. “I would have had a few friends in the classical music world who were very into electronics, and we just went, and that’s how we met people. It was a way of finding out about things.”
Kinsella came from a classical music background. He learned the cello at age five and classical percussion in his teens. Then, in university, he veered into modular synthesizers. “Me and one of my friends, Gabrielė Dikčiūtė, we started an electronic duo and a collective called Akkord. We were messing around with acoustic instruments and feeding them through different electronics.”
There were not however, many accommodating venues for electronic music, he says, “unless it’s at 4am.” “There’s the mentality of, ‘you have to be out of your mind late at night or on a night-out to listen to electronic music. But that’s not the case at all.”
His response was to create Dublin Modular, an organisation that hosted modular synthesizer workshops, listening sessions and talks. Over time then, its scope quickly broadened to encompass visual arts too. “The main idea was for it to be based around community,” Kinsella says.
Kinsella credits the Kirkos team for helping him build a foundation for his own organisation. Before it had a space of its own, Dublin Modular would host events in Unit 3 and later, Unit 44. Then in late 2020, after winning the Incubation Space Award, Dublin Modular was given a neighbouring space on James Joyce Street, Unit 4.
It is a community space, not just a place for electronic music, he stresses when we speak in Unit 4. That which expands its function is welcome, and so far, this has included a film club, a fine art exhibition and vinyl-mixing workshops.
The space is a unifier, Kinsella says. In the world of electronics, it is a cohesive between previously disparate, smaller groups.
“That was our big thing with doing Modular, just to have one space for all these groups,” he says. “This is an open, free, accessible space, with the main thing being, it doesn’t matter if you’ve played one day, no days or your whole life. It’s primarily electronics, and it did start as that, but it’s a community where everybody’s helping each other.”
When the Kennilworth Motors showroom in Harold’s Cross closed in the winter of 2017, the site was quickly purchased for re-development.
Initially, it was slated to become either student accommodation or apartments. But, in 2020, plans were submitted to construct a build-to-rent co-living block. The proposal drew backlash as out-of-touch given both the pandemic and the housing shortage, and in the end, An Bord Pleanala refused permission.
For another year, the lot remained vacant, with its windows covered by white spray paint and faded old posters for the Circus Extreme World Tour. Today, however, the site is borderline unrecognisable. The exterior is painted black, and over the entrance is a brief declarative statement:
‘THIS IS AN ART GALLERY.’
What grabs the eye of passers-by is the vast and vivid mural in the wide front window. Consisting of horizontal rhombuses each containing the full colour spectrum, this work by KAMBO is what announced Mend Hx’s opening in June 2021.
The collective is made up of artists who have worked in Ireland for the past ten to fifteen years. Their objective is simple and has been painted on one of the walls. They are here to realise “cultural potential in forgotten spaces.”
“Despite little resources,” it continues, “all it takes is some creativity, hard work and dedication to take responsibility for our public spaces.”
From around the corner of the building, one of their members appear. He is terse and asks not to be named. He refers to the space as an evolving organism. It has, so far, staged KAMBO’s debut exhibit SPKTRM and the first Irish non-fungible token showcase. Presently, they are in a state of flux, with a new, equally ambitious event scheduled for the summer.
We go to a coffee kiosk, which alongside a pizza truck and a churros van, operate out of the carpark. “They supply a great amenity to the locality,” he says. “They’ve built up a good customer base from building a rapport with the community.
“We’re all trying to build a community and help each other create a sustainable life through these different endeavours, be it food, painting, sculpture, sound, digital. They’re all just the expression of a crew trying to make their vision a reality. And hopefully that’s interesting for the neighbourhood to watch unfold.”
Their time in the space is limited, he says. Eventually, the building will be knocked down. Until then, their chief concern is to “set a bar” with the next show, and “use it as a stepping-stone to take further action in the context of art and culture.”
“For us, definition has not really been a friend,” he says, speaking slowly and with precision. “We don’t actually have a clear definition as of yet. We’re still figuring out our fundamental motivations, aspirations, vision. When the time is right, we will. But right now, we’re focused on the activity at hand and the actions we are taking. Conversation is great but it can become tiresome without progress.”
“A community hub for Dublin, in our eyes.”
Over a couple of days in February, wheat pasted A4 posters began to appear across the city centre, and which were attributed to a group called DLRM.
In black text on a tie-dye background, they out the call out for creative people to help realise “a space where people of all cultures, backgrounds and creative interests can share experiences, further their knowledge, and congregate together.”
As he sits outside Metro café on South William Street, he dismisses the idea of cultivating a community online. He was online long enough during the lockdown. It’s not something he’s keen on doing any longer.
Ackerman is a “meet and greet” person. When he DJs, he uses vinyl. It’s tangible, he says. “I like the physical aspect. I’m very hands on and I would much rather go out and paste things all over walls rather than do some post on Instagram. It feels a lot more effective and shows that you care.”
“Analogue promotion,” he jokes.
The sole motivation of DLRM, he explains, is to create a communal space. Not a nightclub, he insists. Somewhere that can compensate for the dearth of venues and public amenities around currently.
“I’m just disappointed in the city,” he says. “For young creatives that live here, we want to develop something for them, so they don’t go to another place where art is more supported.”
“With everything demolished or closed down, there aren’t places where young people – regardless of whether they’re creative or an artist – can meet unless you’re loitering.”
He lists off a string of ideas. Art exhibitions. Yoga classes. DJ workshops. A café. “We just want somewhere that’s welcoming and where anything can happen.”
So far, their efforts have concentrated on fundraising through live events. “It’s looking at how to get an initial lump sum for rent and upkeep, because once the space is open, the interest is there.”
“I’ve gone in and out of being optimistic,” he says. “But where we are now, I’m definitely optimistic. I feel like it’s a movement that’s happening in Dublin. Everyone’s been deprived of space, of the ability to express themselves. They’re just looking to link, to make connections.”
Words: Michael Lanigan
Photos: Catherine Walsh