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The Role of the Collective Noun

By Declan Mallon

Art is best thought of as a collective noun. Associated with that little three-letter word is a myriad of ideas about what it means and how it might be practised. A lot of effort has gone into figuring out what art might ultimately be, while significantly less time is spent extolling its virtues in human society. 

Among the varied virtues that spring to mind, art is central to therapeutic treatments, advertisement, pedagogy, personal development, architecture, and design. It is found in caves and in gilded frames, it is created by amateurs and professionals, children and adults, it is performed on stages and in streets by individuals from every imaginable walk of life. 

Its methodology and its practice are no less diverse and contentious. Art has inspired many ways of doing and perhaps even more ways of seeing. The practices of collective making have been central to the ethos of Upstate Theatre Project in Drogheda: a collaborative, participatory practice that allows for an assortment of approaches which enhance the contribution of the many towards the realisation of a collective vision. Alongside this central tenet, stands a desire to connect with other disciplines that are equally diverse in their methodologies, and to understand the value of collaborative and collective processes of discovery and making. These ideas, in turn, introduce an anthropological flavour to the creative process, integrating the science of human beings, their physical characteristics, their origin, their environment, social relations, and their culture. The ways of making art and practising art are as numerous as the multitude of art works throughout the world. 

One such theory and practice, “social sculpture,” is an intriguing place to start. Developed by the artist Joseph Beuys in the 1970s, “social sculpture” was based on the premise that everything is art, that every aspect of life can be approached creatively, and that, as a result, everyone has the potential to be an artist. Beuys’ theory has produced a range of influences. One of the most enduring legacies in which he was directly involved was the “7,000 Oaks” project in Kassel, Germany. The project began with seven thousand pieces of black basalt stones piled outside the Fridericianum Museum in Kassel. Beuys (also a founding member of the German Green Party) insisted that each stone could only be removed if its removal accompanied the planting of a new oak tree. This was the artist's response to the extensive urban development of the city. The project was large-scale, long-term and, as you would expect, controversial.

People thought the stone ugly, a waste of money, and the whole project inefficient. For Beuys it was an artistic and ecological intervention with the goal of permanently altering the living space of the city. The project relied on several hundred volunteers for its realisation. Gradually it was embraced and today is a tourist attraction which became a listed monument in 2004. The change achieved by this piece of art is inspirational. The project’s main objectives were for an “ongoing scheme of tree planting globally to effect environmental and social change, the growth of awareness in urban environments of the human dependence on the larger ecosystem, and an ongoing process whereby society would be activated by means of human creative will for social sculpture.” This piece of art was not only realised through the vision of the artist but the collective action of the volunteers.

In an interview Beuys said, “I think the tree is an element of regeneration which in itself is a concept of time. The oak is especially so because it is a slowly growing tree with a kind of really solid heart wood. It has always been a form of sculpture, a symbol for this planet ever since the Druids, who are called after the oak.” The environmental artwork literally brought the gallery onto the streets. 

One person who might have a special understanding of this model of intervention is Rostrevor local, Paul Clerkin. A carpenter by trade, Paul has always had a fascination with trees. He identified all the tree species in Kilbroney park, including thirteen different types of oak in the adjoining forests, and created a tree trail to promote an understanding of the varieties that were planted over the centuries. With local organisation, Light 2000, Paul produced the book, “Trees of Kilbroney Park,” which is a combination of dendrology, poetry, and visual art. The impact of Paul’s project and subsequent publication cannot be overstated and has led not only to an appreciation but a preservation of the trees, not to mention a wonderful promotion of the value of the local environment. This combination echoes much of the aspirations of “Shifting Tides” and its focus on the lough. 

Along both its shores, the Carlingford Lough area is a wondrous gallery of natural sculpture. The work of Light 2000, Paul Clerkin, Rostrevor Action Respecting the Environment, Love Your Lough–all voluntary–has so far steered the authorities in their responsibilities towards it. As such, the Shifting Tides team understands that the current project is not a reinvention of the wheel. There is a rich heritage of local communities endeavouring to preserve and improve their environment through the understanding that a healthy shoreline leads to a healthy lough. By always remembering that art is everywhere and that everyone is an artist, we can remember too that this sort of transformative work can be best realised through collective action and collective practice.

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