Alternative Spaces

Nay McArdle takes a look at Dublin’s ever-expanding roster of alternative social spaces.

Bursting with life, Dublin’s creative community is richer than it’s ever been. Disillusioned by the political and economic situation, more people seek fulfilment from the arts. The Irish demographic changed remarkably with the millennium as horizons were broadened by the skilled workforce of both Irish and foreign nationals in the creative industries, and students embraced Humanities once more after a preceeding trend for business courses and degrees. The boom years left people accustomed to a higher quality of life but as fortunes changed, expensive socialising fell out of favour. With a taste of the finer things still tangible, people are unwilling to scale back their habits and return to the odd cinema trip at the weekend. Rather than watch support for the arts decline, proactive organisations throughout the capital have attempted to develop a cultural environment that is sympathetic to people’s needs and means by way of creative communities promoting comprehensive social spaces. Accessible to both artists and audiences, the short-term ideal is to provide affordable events while the bigger picture aims to restructure the cultural landscape to provide a sustainable source of inspiration for all.

While artistic spaces are nothing new, until recently different arenas of interest were divided and at odds with fine art, literature, music and dance, design, photography, film and theatre buffs all set apart and compartmentalised into particular scenes that operated seperately. Bridging the gaps and encouraging a cross-section of interests means that audiences remain fresh and new content at exhibitions, installations, performances and screenings gain further exposure amongst the community as a whole.

Music shows in such locations are rapidly proving popular amongst Dublin’s independent scene. House gigs were once common but with stringent noise pollution laws, these days they’re difficult to organise, although they do occasionally still take place. The Internet has seen a blurring of definition when it comes to ‘DIY’ bands as just about anyone with a computer and the capacity to make music can self-promote and release as they see fit. Eschewing the traditional format of booking agents and promoters to source locations for gigs is something that certainly fits in with the independent ethos of DIY, as rather than paying to rent a generic venue, they have the freedom to experiment with the performance environment. Admission prices to gigs in social spaces remain about the same as normal venues as there are still considerable overheads. Hire costs vary from wildly expensive studios to modest rents or even just a split share of the door. There may be further expenses such as PA hire and security but with a good location, these costs can be recouped by a good turn out. One reason that these kind of gigs are doing well is that almost all the performance venues are BYOB. Alcohol is legal in private premises (Irish law states that it is an offence to be intoxicated in public but places no restrictions on its consumption) and as a result, it’s far cheaper to bring your own booze along to a show. Besides the financial savings, a venue without a bar means a safer environment for everyone when alcohol is consumed at a moderate pace, plus non-drinkers find themselves on neutral territory. The absence of the pub trade also grants greater leeway in terms of choosing a suitable hour to kick off proceedings. From the early crowd who’ve just left work to the night owls who don’t leave the house until after dark, breaking away from licensing hours brings a lot more flexibility.

Gigs in unconventional spaces are considerably different to those which take place in main street music venues. While most gig-goers are happy to attend a show as long as the sound is good and surroundings are clean not everyone is accustomed to the alternative experience. There are people who enjoy the pub environment and find it difficult to relax outside their comfort zone. Some spaces function as professional galleries or studios and are finished to a high quality to reflect this while others can be simple, utilitarian settings with scant seating, minimal toilet facilities and smoking areas that range from small and unheated to nothing more than standing on the street.

One example of such a show took place in the Clarendon Basement on March 26th. The launch of Catscars’ debut album Construction on White Plague Records, it was always going to be best-suited to an alternative venue. Tucked away on a backstreet in the city centre and accessed by venturing down a narrow staircase and dark tunnel entrance, the basement is literally one of Dublin’s underground spaces, long and roomy with a low ceiling and odd layout. Conducive to the electronic sounds of the bands, when the live music had finished, the broad expanse of floorspace was kept busy by DJs and dancers while others hung back and chatted or smoked in the large courtyard outside. An extremely laid-back vibe spread across the night as people relaxed, knowing they wouldn’t be shepherded into a different part of the building. Despite being a sold-out show and obviously busy, it wasn’t uncomfortably packed and for me, one of the most satisfying aspects of the night was the lack of familiar faces – there were so many new people there.

The reason the Clarendon Basement proved to be a good choice of venue for Catscars’ launch is the affiliation with a loose collection of musicians who used to perform house gigs under the name of the Box Social. Catscars, along with a broad spectrum of artists including Children Under Hoof, Patrick Kelleher, Hunter-Gatherer, School Tour, Angkorwat, Ilex_ and many other experimental musicians all played together in the south Dublin suburbs. Those shows, unlike gigs, were not formal competition to the wider music scene nor promoted to the general public and instead gained a reputation by word of mouth amongst like-minded music fans. By the time the Box Social wound down a year ago the musicians involved had garnered enough practice and support to take to the regular gig circuit with confidence, bringing in a decent crowd and sweet bookings almost immediately.

Aside from the Clarendon basement, the majority of alternative performance spaces are not aimed towards hosting music events but can be hired for such. Most places have a busy daytime schedule with classes and workshops which help generate income, and many are selective about the type of events they’re prepared to endorse on their premises. It’s worth taking into account the wider programme that these centres put on in order to find the most suitable location.

Some other active premises in the city are listed below. If you’re interested in booking these spaces, rents are available on request:

Seomra Spraoi, founded in 2004, relocated to Belvedere Court in 2008. Maintained by donations and volunteers, this not-for-profit endeavour is dedicated to autonomous community with emphasis on the arts. A meeting point/drop-in centre with a varied schedule of events for adults and children that encompasses exhibitions, workshops, performances, lectures, screenings and gigs, there’s also a vegan cafe, library and internet access.

Block T in Smithfield sits above a Chinese market and was used by Logikparty to launch their High Risk Narcissist EP last August. While the large, low-ceilinged warehouse room has occasionally been used for gigs, the wider use of the building is aimed at providing artists with small studios. Independent record label and promoters Skinny Wolves have also used Block T for gigs.

Just around the corner, The Complex is a professional space aimed towards spoken word events and performance art such as theatre and dance. Recent events there include the Wrestling and Slam Poetry fundraiser for Upstart along with Milk And Cookies, a storytelling collective of guest speakers and open mike spots. The Complex is also a popular choice amongst organisations for launches and functions.

Situated in Arbour Hill/Stoneybatter, The Joinery Gallery is perhaps Dublin’s most popular space for alternative culture with a regular schedule of art exhibitions and audiovisual installations. Bands like Children Under Hoof, Cian Nugent, Drunken Boat and The Dinah Brand have been particularly well-received in these surroundings.

On the finer end of the scale, Rutland Place in the north inner city is home to Hello Operator, an impressive Georgian building that adds design and technology to its rota of music, film and workshop schedule. Sounds of System Breakdown recently performed there and they hold a monthly Sunday afternoon Higgs Boson Cafe gathering.

Highly specialised and expensive, the D-Light Studios on North Clarence Street are housed in an imposing stone warehouse, set up by photographer Agata Stoinska out of frustration with a lack of versatile studio spaces in Dublin.

The city’s most central space, the Exchange centre in Temple Bar has generated a good response since opening its doors in 2009. Due to the all-ages policy and residental location, loud BYOB gigs do not take place. Cultivating a friendly and welcoming environment for groups and individuals with a gallery and performance space, activities include the children’s Melodic Mayhem workshops, Stitch’n’Bitch craft sessions, comedy shows and visual arts exhibitions.

On the south side of Dublin on Pembroke Street, the Centre For Creative Practices is an attractive, busy hub of activity with very reasonable hire rates. Its programme ranges from writing and photography workshops to installations and performances from artists all over the world.

The Dublin Food Co-Op is something of a hiddden gem in Newmarket, Dublin 8, a huge space and the regular site for Young Hearts Run Free shows which have been received to high acclaim by music fans. By day it doubles as a food market and has been used for film screenings and as an art gallery.

LaCatedral Studios is also situated in Dublin 8 and along with dance, theatre, fashion and book readings, recently hosted Owensie’s album launch in the Back Loft venue. Two specialised studios on a rotational basis provide residencies for new artists and the venue has been used for photography and fringe theatre.

One final observation on the role of social spaces is their impact on the local community. The Joinery has been welcomed in the terraced residential area of Stoneybatter as the gallery owners are highly considerate of the surrounding neighbours and gigs are always wrapped up by 11pm. Places like Smithfield with strong local history are the ideal location for creative premises as there’s a vast array of dormant retail and office space left over from the building boom coupled with apartment blocks that are home to young professionals. Too much commercialisation can sap the personality of an area and a lively cultural calendar is the ideal way to bring colour to the community. Another aspect is the communal resource that many of these centres deliver to people of all ages and ethnicities in terms of encouraging a cross-cultural platform for the arts. CFCP on Pembroke Street has a particularly rich and varied programme of multicultural events.

Shortly after opening Exchange Dublin faced noise complaints from neighbouring tenants and downscaled its music schedule. The loss of a venue is always disappointing but a positive aspect to the situation was that it gave the centre an opportunity to emphasise its purpose as an all-ages daily meeting place with exhibitions, spoken word events and comedy performances. Situated in the heart of Dublin city, it provides a necessary entry point to the arts for students and young people. One particularly interesting development was the decision of the Greystones Theatre in Wicklow to voluntarily rescind its alcohol license in 2009. Instead of a bar, patrons of the theatre were invited to sign up for free membership and attend concerts with their own refreshments if they so wished. This helped bring new people to the newly-built arena, considered one of the country’s finest venues for acoustic quality, while stimulating local residents’ interest in the arts and contributing to the commercial industry of the small seaside town.

Although Dublin is famous for its varied nightlife, there’s been an obvious lack of alternatives to the entertainment industry most citizens accept as the norm. Pubs and clubs are easy choices and great fun but there is an excitement that comes from being somewhere unusual, especially if you’re hearing something new or returning to see how a different performer transforms a familiar place. If the alternative creative culture continues to gather pace in Ireland we could see key changes in how the arts affect the lives of ordinary people from all walks of life and if there’s anything the people need now, it’s change. Similar movements in other countries and have been instrumental to the development of new art and music scenes, such as the Beat Generation of poets in Fifties San Francisco and the second-wave Techno culture in late Eighties Berlin that saw underground raves unify the previously estranged young population. At this moment in time Ireland is battling with what it is as opposed to what it wants to be. The future is unwritten; with the right resources it will soon take form, in words, pictures or sound, all you have to do is get involved.

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