Dermot Bolger

Dermot Bolger answers questions on the public art process from a writer's perspective.

How do you approach making a proposal?

There are practical and artistic considerations behind the decision to make any proposal, because I am in the business of trying to make art and also in the business of trying to make a living to support my family. 

Therefore I would look at any proposal carefully to see 

a) if the remit is sufficiently artistically wide enough to allow me the freedom to create something that is creatively challenging and stimulating for me as a writer  

b) if the conditions are sufficient to allow me to financially justify 'buying' myself the time away from other writing projects and other commitments to be able to create the mental and physical space to do justice to the project. 

Therefore, although the proposal may come out of the blue and may, on the surface, at first appear to be based around very different ideas than the ideas that I have been working on, I have found as a writer that interesting thoughts can start to occur when you begin to think about these two contrasting needs and trying to find a way to marry these opposites. 

My first approach to any proposal is to simply let the general remit lodge in the back of my mind and to see if, within a week or two, a new thought occurs that feels like a spark that would start something different, that would allow me the mental space to blend my own ongoing artistic ideas within the general framework of what is required. 

Only then do I think of applying if I am sufficiently excited by the thought that this juxtaposition is challenging enough for me to feel that I may be able to create something that fits into the remit of what the commissioning body requires while at the same time becoming an integral part of the ongoing journey of my own writing.     

What elements do you consider to be important - e.g. developing ideas, the relationship between the commission and your own practice, connecting or communicating with an audience(s).

First and foremost in my mind I need to be sure that I am embarking on an artistic journey that I will be able to stand over. This is never certain because when you start a novel or play or poem it is always a journey into the dark where you can never be sure of the outcome. 

But the first vital step for me is finding that imaginative link which binds the requirements of the commission with my own artistic impulses. The second stimulus for me after that is the possibility of finding a new way to communicate with an audience. I grew up in an environment where I felt that my experiences weren't reflected in literature. Therefore as a writer I have always tried to write in a way that touches upon hidden lives. 

I began as a teenager by selling photocopied broadsheets by local poets around Finglas pubs in the late 1970s, hoping to reach a readership who rarely encountered poetry. Now ' though Ireland has greatly changed' I have found that some public art project, like the In Context 3 Programme with South Dublin County Council, allow me to create a deliberate echo of my teenage activities by initially displaying new poems in unexpected locations where people may rarely encounter poetry. 

The In Context 3 poems were first published as posters or as wall murals in places as diverse as the Belgard Luas stop in Tallaght or the gable of the Cunas and Cairdeas Centre in Neilstown - which houses the local Drugs Task Force and where the poem Neilstown Matadors is set. 

It allowed me the rare privilege of being able to sometimes position poems in the very locations that inspired them. I am not naíve enough to imagine that poems by me or by anyone will ever affect a broad constituency when displayed in any public space. But always I was seeking the one person in five hundred who turns a familiar corner and is surprised to see some hint of their own experience reflected back at them from a wall. 

These posters and murals became my way of leaving the sort of sign which I had longed for as a disaffected youth, a glimpse into another way of seeing things, an affirmation of the validity of thinking in a different way, or 'perhaps even better' a sense that the current writer has got it wrong and that a young person passing might feel that they could find better words to capture the experience being described. 

So, yes, for me, it is very definitely about the chance to communicate with people and to make people feel a part of the process, which is why in a play like Walking the Road, we had the initial rehearsal in public so that interested members of the public could feel that they were part of the start of something instead of merely seeing the end product. Indeed several suggestions that arose in the audience discussion after the first rehearsal were incorporated into the text.


How do you best represent your work when making a proposal?

I come up with an idea that I feel is original and hopefully has artistic integrity and if the selection committee like it they like it and if they don't they don't. People can't be expected to like all your ideas. A writer does need to think more about how a work of literature can be deemed to be public art. 

Public art is not new in Ireland, but it has often focused on sculpture or other site-specific pieces displayed in an obvious public arena. It is clear to see how a bronze sculpture by the side of a motorway or in a public park relates to that place. Passers-by may love it or disliked it, children may playfully clamber over it or youths choose to vandalise it, but generally there is a sense that it fits into a public space. 

Poems, by their nature, can rarely form part of any visual landscape. They are private acts, generally about personal emotions. My challenge in working within the sphere of public art is to create literature that was both public and private, that operates on those two levels. In some ways this process cannot be explained in the proposal, it is something that needs to be worked out during the creation of the work itself. 


Are there general comments you would like to make about artists' brief for public art projects?

There are some times when I am not sure that the local community who are paying for the projects are well enough represented in the selection process. To set artistic standards is vital, but once or twice I have found myself on selection panels or in meetings where almost everyone present is an art professional from a fairly similar background and with fairly similar values and beliefs. 

I think that there would be a lot to be said for ensuring that somebody is present during the selection process who is from the area and who really understands the context of the world into which this artwork is going to be placed.


What do you feel are the scope, opportunities and barriers to creating new music within a public art context?

Music is not an area in which I have any direct experience of working, but I think that the remit of public art should be wide enough and exciting enough to encompass new music or any other art form, once there is some integral factor, starting point or inspiration that links it imaginative to the world into which it is going to be placed.


Dermot Bolger is a poet, playwright and novelist. He is the author of nine novels. 
His many plays include, The Lament for Arthur Cleary (premiered by Wet Paint at the Project Art Centre, Dublin) which received The Samuel Beckett Award for best Debut Play performed in Britain and An Edinburgh Fringe First Award; Many of his plays were published by Penguin Books (as A Dublin Quartet) and by Methuen (as Plays 1).

In more recent time Bolger has been involved in a series of plays which were both set in and performed in the Dublin working class suburb of Ballymun. The first part of his Ballymun Trilogy, From These Green Heights, received the Irish Times/ESB Prize for Best New Irish Play of 2004. In association with the In Flanders Fields Museum in Ieper in Flanders and as a writing commission under South Dublin County Council's In Context 3 Per Cent for Art Scheme, Bolger's staged a re-imaging of the life and death of the poet Francis Ledwidge in the play Walking the Road.




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