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The work of Irish artist Gareth Kennedy explores the social role of the craft in the 21st century and generates “communities of interest” around the production and interpretation of new material cultures. By implementing an anthropological approach as an operational aesthetic, these works draw on the particular social, cultural and economic histories of a place. The results often include architectural or designed structures, films, handmade objects, as well as live performative events that bring these physical entities to life in specific public contexts.
Kennedy has produced and shown work both nationally and internationally. His practice to date includes public art works, educational projects, exhibitions, residencies and collaborations. In 2009, he co-represented Ireland at the 53rd Venice Biennale with artist Sarah Browne and her collaborative practice, Kennedy Browne.
ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | Gareth, we met in 2015 in Dublin, during my residency at Fire Station Studios. You were working there at that time. Before starting with a series of more specific questions, I would like to know what your interests are and how your work as an artist fits into them.
GARETH KENNEDY | Over the last decade or so I have been preoccupied with the social agency of the handmade and craft processes in the context of our pervasively digitised contemporary moment. Projects are typically very embedded and evolve over time generating ‘communities of interest’ around the production and performance of experimental material cultures. In recent years projects have explored ideas such as folk fiction, invented traditions, critical anachronism, haptic knowledge, skill transmission, and the idea of encounters in material cultures both contemporary and past. Outcomes have manifested not only in contemporary art contexts but also ethnographic, folkloric, heritage, craft and archaeological contexts. The projects benefit from both strong ‘on the ground’ community participation and also inputs from professional academic disciplines creating layered and complex outcomes. Current work continues to draw on the museum archive as a resource, but has also taken a more explicit ecological turn.
ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | In that meeting at Fire Station, in addition to talking about some of your projects, I remember that you discovered me “HANDS Irish traditional crafts”, a collection of documentaries made by David Shaw-Smith for RTÉ -Raidió Teilifís Éireann- between 1978 and 1989. That material helped me to define and confirm a series of interests that have accompanied me since then. In one way or another, that meeting has affected my way of analyzing the importance of these processes within art and, although I do not really focus on the manual question, I confess that there is something in the notion of handcraft that attracts me very especially and that inevitably it is linked to my way of understanding art. At what point were these questions introduced into your practice?
GARETH KENNEDY | I am very pleased ‘HANDS’ made an impression on you! For me the 37 films represent a kind of Salvage Ethnography, capturing modes of production just as they are on the cusp of obsolescence. I think they have a resonance not just in an Irish context but in an expanded European arena. The last economic recession and the very public demise of the so called Celtic Tiger were the crucible of my interest in handcraft. This is also contemporaneous with Richard Sennett’s influential The Craftsman and the work of Glenn Adamson on the invention of craft and thinking through craft. I was interested in something I heard about in times of economic boom people invest in high design products, and in recession they want something crafted, heritage, vintage. I am interested in these relationships with material cultures relative to economic boom and bust cycles. I examine this renewed interest in terms of historical cycles, for example the the Arts and Craft movement in late 19th Century Britain was coeval with the social upheavals around mass production, urbanisation and industrialisation. Today’s upheavals revolve around the pervasive digitisation and datafication of our social and economic lives. I see my interest in handcraft as a form of critical anachronism… why hand make things on the cusp of the 4th industrial revolution and algorithmic governance? What critical knowledge and experience can this use of anachronism generate without being a nostalgic, sentimental or reactive outcome?
Gareth Kennedy, Ikea Lobster Pots
ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | Two of your projects related to this research on crafts in Ireland included an analysis of what the arrival of IKEA has meant in recent decades. I am referring to “IKEA Butter Churn for Gneeveguilla”, in which through a collective action in the town of Gneeveguilla you initiated a fictitious popular custom or rite. Also the project in the Aran Islands, where with the help of the Inís Oírr Island Caoladoirí, you transformed IKEA furniture into lobster pots. Or the Post Colony project. Can we talk about those works?
GARETH KENNEDY | The Irish situation and its relationship to modernity and place is particular. Historically the South of Ireland (todays Republic) never really experienced an industrial revolution, unlike the shipyards and flax mills of Northern Ireland. Ireland was treated as something like a bread basket but also a labour resource under British Imperial rule. After independence, an inward looking nationalism that promoted the rural, the catholic and the agrarian spurned modernity. It was only from the 1960’s that the country courted foreign industrial investment. You might say the modern project began henceforth and belatedly in Ireland. With membership of the EEC (later the EU) Ireland evolved into a well placed gateway for American multinationals to access the European market. Hence the current concentration of pharmaceuticals and Silicon Valley tech here. This kind of delay, or leap frog effect saw Ireland skip industrialisation, experience modernity later, and then hit late capitalism and post modernity with a bang! IKEA arrived in Ireland belatedly in 2009 due to planning laws simply not allowing for a retail unit of it’s size. The two projects you speak of performed encounters in material cultures, where IKEA furnitures purchased from the new store in Dublin were brought to fringe rural locations and ‘cannabalised’ to form objects resonant of folk artefacts. “IKEA Butter Churn for Gneeveguilla” saw IKEA tables converted into a butter churn and also a cask to hold butter. A contemporary invented tradition was then staged where villagers were invited to a house, left empty from the construction bubble, to collectively make enough butter to fill the cask. This cask was then brought to the local bog where it was buried to preserve it as bog butter and a future archaeological anomaly. A less involved work was staged on Inís Oírr, one of the Aran Islands off the west coast where Caoladoirí (basket weavers), were charged with converting a rattan IKEA lamp, hand woven in Vietnam into a functioning lobster pot for use on the islands.
Post Colony was an immersive 10 day workshop as filmset in Killarney National Park in the Southwest of Ireland exploring the colonial and early industrial history of what later became a romanticised and today a touristed landscape. Here volunteers set up a green woodworking encampment deep in the park to enact woodworking and charcoal making practices which would have been used in early industrial exploitation of Irish woodlands from the late 16th century on. In place of native hardwoods the invasive species Rhododendron ponticum (which has Iberian roots, and ironically is endangered there with climate change) was utilised. A 5th generation ‘woodwright’ mentored this process while I filmed the process, masquerading as a visual anthropologist of sorts.
The two IKEA works were filmed on Super8, and Post Colony on 16mm as what I call ‘Folk Fictions’. Again, I am interested in how analogue celluloid creates an anachronistic effect. However the datum of the film is identifiable through car models, fashion and mobile phone types. Folk Fictions and how they play with temporalities are definitely not intended to be period reenactments!
Gareth Kennedy, Post Colony. Photogrph Brian Cregan
ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | I remember that that afternoon we talked about “The Uncomfortable Science”, a project that you had developed in 2014 in Bolzano for the Museum of Tyrolean Popular Art about popular culture in that territory. The project also delved into the staging of customs/traditions, but in that case the fiction was part of the historical fact, and therefore it was not necessary to create it but rather to put it in dialogue with a series of insertions that you were articulating.
GARETH KENNEDY | This was a very important work for me to address the dark and reactionary underbelly of the words ‘tradition’ and ‘folk’, which are such preserves of the reactionary right but need not be. The work was produced in more reflective times perhaps (pre 2016). I was invited by Curator of Ar/ge Kunst in Bolzano, Emanuele Guidi, to undertake the first One Year Project there. Emanuele was interested in how I would respond to the surfeit of folk culture as heritage and touristic backdrop to this Alpine territory. As a German speaking region annexed by Italy after WW1, South Tyrol has a problematic history with regard to ideologically compromised scientific disciplines deployed in the region – Italian geographers and Austrian ethnographers both created myths of the ‘true origins’ of this people and place. My research focused on the so called Die Option, a 1939 agreement between the Axis powers, planning the relocation of the German speaking population. In a break with Nationalist Socialist ideology, the cultural and ethnic German population was given a choice between Blut oder Boden (blood or soil), i.e. a choice between relocating within the Third Reich and retaining their Germanic culture and identity, or becoming entirely Italianised. Almost forgotten about, but arguably the largest folklore/linguistic field investigation in history, a Kulturkommission was dispatched by Himmler to exhaustively document the material, linguistic, folk and music customs of this Alpine people. Their culture was to be preserved and made available to them after relocation to the newly occupied territories of the Tatra Mountains, Burgundy or the Crimea – this was ‘salvage ethnography’ by political diktat. My commission happened at an auspicious time when certain archives of the anthropologists involved became publicly available for the first time in 75 years. I was also very unsettled by the publication and dissemination of Nazi produced material, from books, to costumes, to postcards, in the post war period right up to the present day. I wished to enquire into how these representations dangerously influenced ideas of tradition and folk culture in the region. In response I commissioned traditional wooden mask carvers from across South Tyrol and Tyrol to carve masks of key figures from this fractious history and paired them with original archival material from their spurious research. This exhibition then became a public forum to unpack and deconstruct this material and it’s influences on identity formation today in the South Tyrol. The following year, with support from Künstlerhaus Büchsenhausen, the project crossed the Alps and was presented in an expanded form in the Tiroler Volkskunstmuseum in Innsbruck. This was especially charged as the Austrian presidential elections were ongoing at the time, with the far right wing candidate openly wearing a cornflower, the emblem of Nazi sympathisers in 1930’s Austria.
Gareth Kennedy. The Uncomfortable Science. Photograph L. Artamonow
ÁNGEL CALVO ULLOA | Since 2005 you have been working in collaboration with the artist Sarah Browne under the name Kennedy Browne. Although your solo projects may seem very different from those signed as Kennedy Browne, there is also that fictional narrative that, although applied to another field, maintains a certain parallel with them.
GARETH KENNEDY |I feel very fortunate to enjoy this long collaboration with Sarah Browne, which continues to surprise and challenge us both, and which parallels my solo work. Kennedy Browne has focused on neoliberal narratives and their deconstruction and execution on camera. Kennedy Browne is an explicitly digital beast, raised largely on the Internet. The key milestones in the formation of his identity are our birth years: 1979, when Thatcher came to power in the United Kingdom, and 1981, when Reagan was invested in the United States. These early terms presaged the 40-year-old neoliberal experiment that continues to collapse around us in the Western world. Kennedy Browne’s approach so far has been limited to this period of time, but he also uses Web 2.0 platforms to try to excavate meaning and elaborate useful narratives from this economic paradigm. Real stories and verifiable facts are composed into fictional scripts that avatars perform in front of the camera. In fact, in the same way that both methodologies deploy fiction, we hope to critically and incively manifest narratives that are useful for our time. Both practices have rigorous research methods and hold that while truth is a moving target, and making absolute claims about it is extremely dangerous, lies remain lies and must be invoked and addressed directly. In reality, we did not invent anything. All this just to say that Kennedy Browne is reforming. Our recent retrospective exhibitions at the Krannert Museum of Art in Illinois and The Hugh Lane in Dublin have brought this last decade to a close, and we are now in a new evolving paradigm, and we need to reorient ourselves!
 Bog Butter – The national Museum of Ireland has several dozen bog butters in it’s collection dating from 2500BC to 1600AD, an extraordinary cultural continuity of using the bog to preserve butter presumably as food reserve but also for ritual purposes.