Owen Boss | Owen Boss is a visual artist, co founder and co-artistic director of ANU. anuproductions.word-press.com
In 2009 after five years of working together in a community context myself a visual artist and theatre maker Louise Lowe decided to start ANU. ANU develops and produces work incorporating theatre, visual art and dance in off site contexts. Since our inception we have produced 15 full-scale works and in 2010 started work on the Monto Cycle, a four-part project produced over five years in which we were located in the North Inner City of Dublin.1 This area of Dublin has a community deemed at risk due to its socio economic status. This can be demonstrated from the fact that this community has 11 DEIS2 schools, the highest number in the country. (Department of Education and Skills, 2015).
The Monto Cycle was a geographical project exploring the quarter mile history of North Inner City Dublin and its environs over the last one hundred years. A vital part of Dublin’s lost history and heritage, the comprising works were: World’s End Lane (2010), Laundry (2011), The Boys of Foley Street (2012) and Vardo (2014).
Each work spanned a specific period of intensive regeneration from 1925-2014. Immortalised as “Nighttown” in James Joyce‘s famous work, Ulysses, World’s End Lane was an intimate one-to-one exploration of the notorious Monto area in Dublin’s north inner city. The work was sited in and around the Lab, Dublin City Council’s arts office. Housing almost 1,600 prostitutes this was the largest and most prolific red light district in Europe, up until its dramatic closure in one night by one man (Frank Duff, founder of the Legion of Mary) on 12th March 1925, (Pierce, 2002). Told in multiple tenses through the eyes of five pivotal real-life characters, audiences of 3 were divided and taken on a rotating journey where they got to experience the area as a punter, tourist and complicit worker. The audience were managed by the performers and brought to three areas. The punter to a purpose built room in the Cube Gallery of the Lab, the complicit worker to the mezzanine level of the building which overlooked the area and the tourist out onto the street and around the corner to a local flat complex.
Following on from Worlds End Lane, Laundry focused on the period from the 1930’s to the 1960’s. Laundry was a large-scale durational site-specific installation that forensically examined the site of the Gloucester Magdalene Laundry in Dublin architecturally and spatially. Magdalene Laundries were institutions operated by catholic religious orders. They were used as a space to house women that were ‘in moral danger’, which generally meant single mothers, but not exclusively. Behind the laundry walls the women would spend the day in extreme hardship praying and working to fulfill contracts for washing the laundry of hotels, the prison service, the Irish President and many others. The Gloucester Laundry was the last to operate and closed its doors in 1996. The production focused on witnessing the female body in a closed punitive space, in a quiet and constrained manner. It reinstated the reality that their lives were quiet hidden lives with no access to political power or opportunities to communicate.
In an Ireland whose collective consciousness was reeling from the exposition of state endorsed catholic institutions, the issues of naming, identity, freedom, remembrance and criminality were at the heart of this work as they are at the heart of the Magdalene Laundries history. Distorting the canvas of the building, it jolted the viewer from the created world back to reality in unexpected moments. We worked onsite and in the community to generate a very real, physical, in-depth, and site-specific response to the building and its environs. To do this we responded to the architecture of the building and residues of the space, but we also explored true-life stories of the women who lived there and the effect that the building has had and continues to have on the local community.
The following year we made The Boys of Foley Street a large-scale durational performance, presented as part of the 2012 Dublin Theatre Festival. This has been one of our most ambitious projects. Performing to over 1,850 audience members in 456 shows over ten hours each day of the Festival, and exploring the third regeneration of the area, it was a breathing, living exploration of the decade 1971-1981. Taking its lead from a seminal radio documentary made in 1975 by Irish broadcaster Pat Kenny in which he interviewed four young boys about their lives, families, ambitions and their involvement with petty crime, we worked closely with the local Neighbourhood Youth Project 2 (NYP2), and the North Centre City Community Action Project (NCCCAP). Working with both youth projects on a weekly basis at our local studio we explored and interrogated the community of the 1970s and the seminal events that would come to shape the area today. We also worked with four teenage boys and re-made the radio documentary asking the same questions as asked in 1975. We produced a new sound piece that intertwined both of these interviews, and this sound piece formed the start of the production. Also findings from both documentaries were used as a framework for our larger exploration.
We also worked with the fours boys to produce a video piece (through the use of a large-scale projector), that was publicly installed on the wall of what was the old cinema. This site was very significant as it was here that the original interview was recorded in 1975, but also because it is a building that can be seen by a large population from the nearby Connolly Station commuter platforms, and from each train that passes by (average every 7minutes approx). The platform footfall (between 18:00 – 23:00 when the projections were visible) was 17,250 daily. This means that over the eighteen days of the production, over 310,000 commuters saw the installation.
The production staged experiences of masculinity characterized by ‘rage and oblivion’ in Foley Street and the surrounding neighborhood, looking at the area throughout a period of immense change, the demolition of tenement housing, the impact and rise of heroin, the Dublin / Monaghan bombings, the Concerned Parents against drugs movement and ultimately a community imploding in on itself. It explored a geographical and social space where a multitude of interconnected crises have become, to an extent, systematic. The lack of social change and welfare offers scope for crime and hidden ways of living to become rooted and fester. Multiple civic failures to combat this range of crises have affected the area spanning over a century. This continual stagnation and social strife results in normalised experiences of crisis, chipping away at community confidence and self-worth, leaving an underlying ideology that tough times and rough living are unavoidable. These crises include the continual destruction of a tight-knit community by poverty, substance-led crime and neglect. The community responds by being simultaneously self-protective, preservative and implosive.
The Boys of Foley Street operated in real time around two concentric circles, which facilitated us being able to create 4 distinct narrative journeys running simultaneously and durationally as part of one event. In making this production we thought a lot about technology and how it has changed our cultural landscape. We embeded Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) technology into the show, creating a space whereby the audience curated and cued the performance based on the personal decisions they made. Mini computers captured an audience member’s movement, and based on the choices made by the audience member they then triggered sound, light and projections.
Vardo was the final part of the Monto Cycle. Looking at contemporary statistics we saw that 70% of the local community was made up of non-indigenous Irish and yet as far as we could see this was not reflected on the street. This research brought us to looking beneath the city’s surface at an army of undocumented workers that fuel a thriving invisible economy. These workers were transient, temporary and ultimately: traffic. Vardo took audiences on a stimulating and intimate journey to explore first-hand the present day underworld of Dublin’s north inner city.
ANU have built a strong track record of taking major artistic risks. With our work we attempt to reveal the interpenetration of space, place and culture. Placing the viewer at the very centre of our practice, there has been a marked recognition of the importance of our thinking around performativity, geography and site specificity. Our multi-layered projects allow the audience to at once watch it, reflect on it, and live it simultaneously. Ultimately, we create environments where history can fold, clash, interact, contradict and tell its own story in its own way.
1 Over the five years of work, The Monto Cycle was funded and supported by The Arts Council of Ireland, Dublin City Council, Create – The National Development Agency for Collaborative Arts, Dublin Fringe Festival, Dublin Theatre Festival and the people of North Inner City Dublin.
2 DEIS stands for ‘Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools’ and focuses on addressing and prioritising the educational needs of children and young people from disadvantaged communities.
Pierse, M 2002, ‘The Miracle of Monto? A Chequered Past, from prostitution to Pilgrimages’, An Phoblacht, 5 September. Available at: http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/9168 [29 March 2015