The decommissioned Cork International Airport terminal
17 - 27 March 2011
By Michaële Cutaya
‘An art and music festival that will leave you questioning your next destination'
The undisguised commercialism of the slogan heralding the website of Terminal Convention – an event compounding art fair, farmer market, music festival, art exhibition and symposium – announces an open if somewhat facetious approach to the relationship between artistic ambitions and mercantile activities, a perspective re-asserted in the opening paragraph of the symposium presentation‘art is now a commodity like any other’.
This positioning toward the market is developed in essays published in the Autonomy Project Newspaper by Paul Sullivan Terminal Convention’s director and John Byrne, symposium organiser. In ‘Autonomy’ Sullivan wonders about the possibility of:
A form of explicit autonomy which does not necessitate the traditionally flawed assumption that one has to somehow step ‘outside’ of the market/art industry to launch the most effective critique?’1
Which picks up from John Byrne’s own essay ‘Critical Autonomy, “Inside out” and “outside in”’:
‘I would like to propose the possibility of Provisional Autonomous Community as sites of fluid resistance.[…]… I would argue that critical art practice(s) within a globalised neo-liberal economy now necessitate the continual negotiation of shifting relationships between artists, curators, critics, thinkers, radicals and audiences who come together at particular times in particular spaces (as provisional autonomous communities) in order to actively produce a culture of critical opposition and engagement.’2
As many Terminal Convention’s participants are involved in the Autonomy Project it seems pertinent to consider the event as test case of sort to constitute a ‘Provisional Autonomous Community’ in the old terminal with the added mirror effect on ‘airport art’, commented upon by Fergal Gaynor:
‘To stage an example of the international contemporary art event at a site that tested and stressed this resemblance was Sullivan’s basic, open-ended concept […] The premise, that a biennale-like event can be staged in an environment that, in theory, mirrors its activities, by means of commercial supports that operate in plain view of the event’s participants, seems no less practical and inspiring for its opportunism.’3
The symposium was framed by a set of questions revolving around the art market, such as: ‘What are our assumptions of the art world/art market? What are the complex relationships and partnerships that allow and facilitate art to happen? How do we all position ourselves within that? What are the terminal conventions?’ and was organized in three parts over three days: day one, Napster Moment (Byrne’s concept: ‘a way of re-thinking and re-routing the circuits through which art is produced, distributed, evaluated and consumed’), day two, Market and day three, Alternatives/ways forward. The invited speakers reflected the intention to bring together actors from different spheres of the art world; the commercial with Christian Viveros (Dublin Contemporary) or Amanda Coulson (Volta Art Fair), the experimental/alternative with Alistair Hudson (Grizedale Arts), the institutional with Charles Esche (Van Abbe Museum) or the academic with Stephen Wright (European School of Visual Arts) or Dr Aislinn O’Donnell (GRADCAM).
How well did they come together is difficult to assess, but Stephen Wright’s ideas on art usership were certainly better received than Amanda Coulson’s repeated apologies for her mercantilism. But, however unequal, the quality of the contributions was probably less relevant to the project’s aims than their connections to the site, the audience and the art exhibition. Regardless of how discursive art events have become, the performative object remains the ever so elusive subject.
The artworks of the seventeen or so artists commissioned by Peter Gorschlüter were the necessary other to the talks and felt, in the image of Nevan Lahart’s social structures or Sullivan’s ébauche of an art fair, a rather frail frame to uphold and vindicate the hovering mass of words. Or would have if the penetrating atmosphere of the building hadn’t weighted on the phenomenological side. The decommissioned terminal was easily the most arresting feature of Terminal Convention – and the most commented upon – a fact acknowledged by both commissioner and artists in their desire to fuse rather than compete with the site. Gorschlüter described the result as ‘Intangible to a great extent, the new commissions manifest themselves in the air, in sound, through light or in economic and interpersonal transactions.’
Indeed artworks seemed to compete for inconspicuousness, strategically using existing features and found objects such as Public Announcement system, neon lights, digital display, phones, light boxes, lost properties, signs and so on. If some were flirting with intangibility such as Shane Munro’s alternating cool white and standard strip lights or Adrian Williams’ ringing phone, others did not eschew monumentality, albeit a disproportionate one; Frederic Pradeau’s bunch of gigantic blue and red ducts irrupting through the first floor glass panel effected only a minimal drop of temperature between hall and lounge; Rosa Barbra’s massive 70 mm Sculpture only projected the dimmest light onto the tarmac and the efforts necessary to remove the two Cs signs from the roof to relocate them in the entrance hall far prevailed over the resulting presence.
Imogen Stidworthy’ series of three found lightboxes (300 x 121 cm) in the baggage reclaim area, scaled the whole spectrum of visibility: the first was stripped from the wall, stood upright and displayed a ‘high resolution museum photograph’ of a brick – a 200 cm high brick – the second, occupying the wall between two baggage belts, showed an aerial view of a demolition site in Liverpool and might pass for an original feature; the last lightbox, in alignment with the second, was open, its inner tubes exposed and would have been overlooked as part of the decaying environment if a sound piece had not drawn attention to it.
Truly and spectacularly monumental was Douglas Gordon’s pyramids of second hand TV monitors in the duty free shop. The videos, with their charged sexual content, at times verging on the pornographic, presented an appropriate counterpoint to the adds still on display: juxtaposing the explicitness of fornicating hands to the hypocritical suggestiveness of the soft eroticism of the perfume images, or to the ethereal beauty of photoshopped models, the rudeness of an elephant skin or the shouts of a snake charmer. Less felicitous, the long drawn out title: Pretty Much Every Film and Video Work from 1992 Until Now To be Seen on Monitors, Some with Headphones, Others Run Silently, and All Simultaneously, had the effect of wrapping the artwork back on itself, drawing the viewer towards a psychological reading of the artist persona and disrupting the connection with its surroundings.
Seamus Nolan’s Flight NM 7104 became the most emblematic project of the exhibition as, by a twist of fate, it was promoted to the status of an event. The original project which consisted in having volunteers book up a flight between Belfast and Cork and not show up, was questioning our power as consumers on flight organization as well as challenging its administration with an alluring riddle: should the fully booked plane fly? The project was to culminate on the 18th of March at 12:10 when ‘The arrival or non arrival of flight NM 7104 can be viewed from the departure lounge.’ As it happened the flight was cancelled because the line between Belfast and Cork was disrupted following the 5th February crash at Cork airport. The vast black outline of the aircraft painted to scale by Nolan on the hall floor instead of shadowing the empty plane was recast as a moving memorial for many visitors of the exhibition.
The terminal was at times addressed as a generic airport; in the wordplay on ‘airport art’; in Jacqueline Passmore’s documentary No Mirror Ever Became Iron Again, musing over the idea of freedom associated with flight and that of free market as in the standardized exoticism of the in-flight catering industry; or in Nolan’s questioning of the logistic of flight accountability. At other times it was as a place of memories and nostalgia; in Hannah Pierce tracing back the owners of found cameras in Lost and Found; in Diane Guyot re-enacting the artisanal making of Cork’s emblematic stout in Beamish/Be Amish and in the fond recollections of passing visitors. But it was as a disused place that it most forcibly struck the imagination, at once imparting an exhilarating sense of freedom from all the usual constraints associated with airports and one of irretrievable abandon or in Peter Merrington’s words:
‘Striped of its function and control, the space is deadened and immobile without the continuous hums and flows of international travel. The description ‘decommissioned’ implies something more than simply the staff moving out and locking the door – the building has been stripped of all its symbolic authority. The new freedom to roam, unchecked, through the once tightly controlled spaces provides a small thrill, the ‘no entry’ signs remain in place, but are now rendered obsolete.’
This atmosphere was perhaps best evoked by Martin Healy’s camera following the perambulations of a fictional airport janitor in a post-air travel time in Last Man, but was also captured by Juan Cruz in his minimal but perfectly pitched inscription on the destination display at the departure gates of the musical term ‘perdendosi’ which signals a dying away. The theme of obsolescence echoed through the work on demolition and ruins by Stidworthy and Peter Norrman’s reconfiguration of decommissioned technology for his ‘cine-sculptures.
One can’t but question the pertinence of Gorschlüter’s description of the exhibition’s aims: http://www.terminalconvention.com/exhibition/
‘Turning decay and absence into prospect and presence, the exhibition wakens the decommissioned terminal building to become, for a short moment in time, both an autonomous place and a place where autonomy is negotiated.’
It seems as if it was the stubborn presence of the decaying building that thwarted the ambitions of the organisers and that the decommissioned terminal was not congenial to a ‘Napster moment’ denying possibilities of new communities or as Brian Dillon concluded his review:
‘Then again, we were all clearly seated at Gate 5 in anticipation of a future we ought to have known was at least delayed, very likely cancelled.’
The impression of disenchantment is not alleviated if we consider Terminal Convention and its attempts at effecting critique from within the art market through the legacy of Cork Caucus 2005 whose publication was titled: Cork Caucus: on art, possibility and democracy (National Sculpture Factory 2008). If an alternative is to be found it is no longer in the egalitarian ideal of the democratic rights but within the competitive rules of supply and demand of the market.
Walking around the terminal and questioning all encountered object as a possible artwork gave particular resonance to a recent essay by Boris Groys on the installation mode of spatiality:
‘The material support of the installation medium is the space itself—though this is not to say that the installation is somehow “immaterial.” On the contrary, the installation is material par excellence, because it is spatial—for being in space is the most general definition of being material. The installation transforms the empty, neutral public space into an individual artwork—and it invites the visitor to experience this space as the holistic, totalizing space of an artwork. Anything included in such a space becomes a part of the artwork simply because it is placed inside this space. One might then say that installation practices reveal the materiality and composition of the things of our world.’
Having been designated as an art space transformed the building into a de facto installation, a magical effect which is described rather dismissively by Stephen Wright:
‘In the absence of a performative frame, objects and actions are ill inclined to change their ontological status and to become art; only the presence of that frame can coax them into being something other than the “mere real thing,” as analytical philosophers rather facetiously put it. It is tempting to see this sort of frame-legitimized sea-change as one of the last remaining acts of magic in an otherwise thoroughly rationalized society – so counter-intuitive it is that something, anything can change its ontological status at the snap of a performative finger, upheld by the presence of the frame, however broad.’
And thus it was that the disproportionate number of airport security guards started to look very conspicuous. Not only did they seem superfluous within an art context, not only did they look overly important in their uniform, but they adopted the art visitor leisurely pace, curiously peeping in to watch videos and so on, so incongruous in fact that quite a few visitors started to wonder and other were convinced that they were part of a performance for Terminal Convention. As it turned out they were not, but the doubt once raised could not be dispelled, their ontological status had been changed ‘at the snap of a performative finger’ and they were no longer the oppressive presence of security and control, but rather grotesque and over-acting performers. Later in the Bodega downtown, the exact same looking security men looked like a running joke.
- Paul Sullivan, ‘Autonomy’, The Autonomy Project Newspaper # 2 Frameworks, p.24
- John Byrne, ‘Critical Autonomy, “Inside out” and “outside in”’, The Autonomy Project Newspaper # 1 Positioning, p.14
- Fergal Gaynor Enclave review issue 3, Spring 2011