Cork Caucus and a Proto Democracy

Steve Duval, artist and member of Protoacademy and René Zechlin, curator at the Lewis Glucksman Gallery in Cork, Ireland describe and compare Protoacademy and Cork Caucus and discuss the possibilities of these concepts in an international context.



I suppose for the sake of the reader I should give a little background to my involvement here. Protoacademy was a project that was funded by the Edinburgh College of Art and conceived of by Charles Esche as a research fellow there. Activity started as simply as having drinks in a pub after an artist’s talk. The people at these meetings were all MFA students at ECA. I was fortunately one of them. After a few of these it was easy for Charles to figure out that our knowledge of contemporary art and it’s models was limited and so that summer of 98 he educated us over two weeks in what we called summer sessions. A lot of interesting, pro-active, emerging and established people were invited to stimulate and educate us. It worked. We all had the energy and excitement to start our collective experience. After this session we did more of them: First in Edinburgh again then in Stuttgart and then in Malmo. Each session was different and had a different agenda but the thing that holds them together was that they were a gathering of young artists mingling with more established ones who were learning from each other and of course creating networks.


In between these events and over the course of time we moved our activities out of the art college and from apartment shows to doing biennales. We eventually got our own space and created projects, parties, theoretical discussions and workshops there. We also created exchanges with artist groups in Frankfurt and the Art Academy in Malmo. We were very proactive and we did a lot of projects. I think most of the participants have gone on to have careers in the arts. Many of the opportunities that came our way individually were because of our involvement within the collective. The group’s relationship lasted for six years with the art school. Most of the members have gone their own way and when Protoacademy is invited to do a project and like before, the people interested will do the projects.



Following your description, Protoacademy moved from an attempt to develop alternative ways of education to the field of “exhibition making”. What are the reasons for that development? Has it something to do with the participants of the Protoacademy has finished college in the meantime? Or

would you trace it back on the form of invitation of the Protoacademy?



I would say that most of the members did leave college around 1999 but we all had our practices and some of them were progressing well. The chance to work in a reputable space is allure for most artists and unfortunately some of our members thought they had been personally invited. I don’t think group exhibitions were our strong suit as we were joined together collectively and though there is some similarity in our works collaboration were always problematic. Many of the projects we made within the local were about exploring practice through activity and discursiveness. Some of these were with students but I think that we viewed all of our activity as educational.


I think it is important to say that on a formal level the work that is encouraged by this model is one with a conceptual, project based approach to art. That is to say that the work made by most members of Protoacademy had more in common on a conceptual level than the devices used to achieve concept. We were also fortunate enough to be able to work for three years with a doctor of cultural theory, Shep Steiner, who opened up many of the currents debate for us. Numerous projects done by the group used the different bases of knowledge in the city and are something that is carried through to our individual practices. We were also inclined to a certain political thread that is also seen in the caucus outline. I think that if you look at the writing Charles did during his involvement with Protoacademy it uses the language of a committed city councilor or activist.  This is also carried out in the CorkCaucus lecture he did in December 2004. I don’t think that this is a negative thing and in the current climate where a good portion of the art world is retreating back into the elitist realm of the private art gallery it is important that someone carries on the debate.


For me the question of sustainability and resonance is important in a project like Protoacademy and Cork Caucus. It is good to be at the table of debate but how long will the artists in Cork stay there is up to them and the institutions in that city. Although Edinburgh is a capital city with money to spend on culture it never really embraced our project beyond the artist run spaces in the city, which came down to the conservative nature of the cities institutions. I hope that this will not be the case for Cork Caucus in the years to come. T he success of a “city of culture” is to be able to change the culture of a city from one that invests little into the local art community into one that fosters an interesting local and internationally relevant art community. That is a tall order and one that cannot rest on Cork Caucus alone. The great thing about a project like Cork Caucus is that it will energize local artists in a way that can only happen when you get a group of diverse, pro-active, intelligent people together.



The problem of talking about Cork caucus is that it hasn´t happen yet. At the time of our conversation it is in its preliminary stage and will develop in 2005 as part of the capital of culture program in Cork. I’m personally not directly involved in the Caucus project as organizer or pro-activist. I’m a constituent in the sense of Cork Caucus or a participant of the events and belong probably to the supportive sphere. The fact that Cork is the Capital of Culture in 2005 was certainly the initial point of the Caucus project. The idea was driven by the same concern you mentioned at the beginning: It is great being the capital of culture, but how to get a long-term effort out of the event? Is it possible to develop the discursive culture within the artistic community of Cork?

A big difference between Cork Caucus and Protoacademy is their origin and aim. Protoacademy came out of the context of an academy and tries to open the static model of “normal” academies. Cork Caucus did not arise out of the context of the college. It is directing on the artistic community of which the art college is part of, but only one part. The reason for that lies I think in the minor role that the Art College plays within the Cork cultural scene. This wider focus makes the project in Cork even more difficult as it already is in a context of an academy.

The Project is developing itself on three parallel levels (Cork Caucus is not using the word “level” but I think it is quite helpful to describe). One level is the grassroots activity, which started at the end of 2004. In different information events the idea of Cork Caucus was spread out and ideas for artistic projects were collected.. Integrating the community from the beginning and making the project accessible for everyone at any stage of the project is another important point. Information events were also held in Limerick and Dublin to integrate a wider public already on the grassroots level. The Grassroots level continues at the moment, in spring 2005, within reading groups discussing texts in cultural theory and a development of the proposed projects.

In parallel to the grassroots activity internationally known artists and important thinkers were invited to come to Cork to hold lectures, develop new projects or even stay for a longer time period to accompany the whole project. The variety of these so-called “Candidates” is quite wide which promises an interesting discussion and a lot of different possibilities of intersections between candidates and delegates, as the “local” artists participating with projects on grassroots level are called. This international level will already start in February with lectures by Bik van der Pol and then Vito Acconci for example. At least in a three week “summer-academy” the two levels, the international and the local will come together and create a new connection and create the third level which hopefully continues in different ways after 2005.

Interestingly enough the different levels are also presented by the curators and institutions that initiated the Cork Caucus. Charles Esche and Annie Fletcher are bringing in international artists and representing the outer view on Cork, while Fergal Gaynor and Dobz O’Brien (Art/Not Art) are developing the Grassroots level. Tara Byrne and Sean Kelly from the National Sculpture Factory are the institutional hinge between both. I think if you would ask them separately on their opinions about Cork Caucus all of them would stress very different aims. This seems to create a very good framework for discussion and participation within Cork Caucus. Furthermore the program of the NSF in the last years built also a kind of base for the project. They invited international artists and theorists to Cork and put their ideas up for discussion. Well, what I want to say is that I think that Cork Caucus has the right preconditions to be not only one of thousand events in year of the Capital of Culture.


Having said that there’s no connection between the art college in Cork and Cork Caucus, I realized that the participants of Cork Caucus are not coming out of the sphere of the colleges at all so far. You named the Protoacademy as artist group. Do you think that this point is important for the practice of Protoacademy? Is there, in your personal opinion, a difference between the early practice of Protoacademy and other curatorial or educational projects?



Most of the participants were artist but there were curators and writers involved. I would say that we were using a model that has been used before. What was different was that we were learning by doing and we were making projects with people who have more experience in contemporary art practice. We were talking with people who had practices we admired but we were also working with other art students from different countries that were dealing with similar issues. It wasn’t reinventing the wheel but everyone’s practice improved. Which is why we were eventually invited to make collective exhibitions.



So how did the practice of the Protoacademy work out at an event like the Gwangju biennial?



Gwangju was a very interesting model for how a biennale could be run and there were many good things and questionable things about being apart of it.  Internally it is also a good project to show the internal workings of the group. The structure that was presented to us was that we as an artist group were invited to recreate our physical exhibition space, with other artist run spaces or collectives, within the framework of the larger exhibition space. We were also invited to participate in a weeklong discussion with other artist groups.  This gathering would happen a month before the opening of the biennale, not in Gwangju but Seoul.

We had many meetings to discuss what we were going to propose.  In the end we settled on small teams of people to create and control different parts of the project.  A group of two people were going to make the presentation for the gathering in Seoul and we split the exhibition into two groups, one to make a pavilion structure and one to create the works within it. By chopping up the project each group was made up of a different faction and some members of the group were busy with another project in Vienna. This was probably when we had our largest active group of people and for a project that tried to maintain a democratic decision making policy it wasn’t easy to keep everyone happy.

We wanted the project to maintain a thread throughout the process and the way we did that was to use theoretical discourses we were investigating at the time around ideas of hospitality, ecology and dwelling.  These themes seemed highly appropriate as a western group addressing a mostly Korean audience. We wanted to create a project that would open up our group dynamics as a metaphor for a larger group dynamic.

The workshop in Seoul was brought about by a group there called Forum-A who we had contact before this project. Most of the groups there were Asian except for us and two other European groups (Superflex and Foksal Gallery). We presented a walk through Edinburgh that described the institutions and places that were important to us as well as a series of interviews by members of the group not present. Verbal and artistic language issues hindered the discursive nature of our presentation but it started a dialogue.

The Pavilion structure was a collaboration we initiated with some students from the architecture department at the art college. The idea was to create a platform for pause (the official theme of the show), contemplation and conversation. This structure was designed over 4 months in Edinburgh. We felt that this was more representative than our exhibition space. It housed a video work by Laura Quarmby that played out different collaborative scenarios and another by Nina Toft that explored the contemplation of waiting. I also had three vinyl works that dealt with issues of mental, environmental and social ecologies.

This venture into exhibition making was quite successful but though there was a lot residue afterwards.  Did we just umbrella into another cultural discourse? Was our foray into the international biennale circuit compromising our local idealisms? Were we the smaller cultural producer being subsumed by the bigger? I suppose the answer is yes to all of those questions but a qualified yes. I’m not so sure I see these things as negative because one the most effective ways of critiquing the institution or system is to be within. It is good to have a voice.  I think these questions can also be asked within the context of a city of culture.



I don’t think “critiquing the institution” is the right expression. If we understand critique in a productive sense as a progression and development I would probably agree. Interpreting your descriptions, I think Protoacademy and projects like Cork Caucus are not changing institutions and don’t intend to do so. All the mentioned projects are based on institutions. It doesn’t matter if the institution was the Art College in Edinburgh in case of the Protoacademy or a mixture of institutions like the National sculpture factory or Cork2005 (the title of the Capital of Culture in Cork in an institutional sense) in case of Cork Caucus. The great possibility of these projects is to open institutions and to develop alternative and additional forms of learning and the creation of knowledge; of education so to say. As you already described, Protoacademy created an environment in which young artists were put on one level with more established ones and theoreticians to learn from each other. These projects are trying to eliminate the borders between “Knowledge” and “Non-Knowledge”. The term “Knowledge” is replaced by terms like “experience” and “experiment”. In this point both participants, the local student and the global theoretician can meet. Global theory needs the local background as the local student needs the global long-sight. The one-directional relation between “teacher” and “student“ is replaced by a multi-directional open process based on pro-activity and discussion.

But, to come back to the statement at the beginning, these examples won’t change institutions and I strongly put into question if they should replace more classical forms of education. I think both forms support each other as they need each other as well.



It is funny that you would mention the relationship between the teacher and student and our attempt to break this down. This philosophy carried over into the work in Gwangju which came out of Guattari’s notion of transversality as opposed to transference, the teacher/pupil relationship not unlike the doctor/patient one or more importantly for us the artist/viewer relationship. A Kingsley Hall of Art. In terms of our relationship to the academy I think we acted more like an antibody to the larger organism. I think that that is all an individual or group can do with the hope of making things better.

There was a diverse group of people in Gwangju from different parts of the world. There was a serious effort to not umbrella in contemporary art from the west but in the end it was an international biennale and it is hard to say what was successful with the local audience. There were a lot of other western grassroots organizations there and through interaction with similar Asian groups a dialogue began that was continued in Indonesia the year afterwards. For me this continued activity is a sign that the biennale was a catalyst in fostering relationships between various groups and that, like Cork Caucus is a worthy endeavor.