2008 Tim Stott
… I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low. Give me insight into today, and you may have the antique and future worlds.

Ralph W. Emerson, ‘The American Scholar’, 1837

I never had chance to listen to Mr Michael McCarthy, the ex-docker employed by Seamus Nolan to conduct horse-drawn tours of Cork’s docklands last autumn. I hear that Mr McCarthy did not always hold court with grand tales as he drove his passengers through the area, that occasionally he seemed rather to hold something back, making his exchanges opaque, sometimes abrupt; ambiguous, at the very least. Although the greater part of passengers appear to have thoroughly enjoyed their time in the company of Mr McCarthy, some were bound to be disappointed, especially if they brought with them expectations of a familiar, if perhaps more personable, version of the guided heritage tour. Whatever the quality of the exchanges between passengers and guide, whatever the dynamics of their performance before one another, we who were not party to these local and short-lived conversations know only further tales, recounted afterwards, no more nor less trustworthy than tales generally are. Docks Tours turns upon the complexity of such primary conversations, even on those occasions when they are lacking – the quality of the work is indexed to the quality of conversation – yet it makes no attempt to represent them.

Establishing a frame to facilitate conversation is widespread across collaborative arts practices. As Grant Kester notes, artists are now required more to provide context than content. Once judgement no longer has its locus provided by a physical object, it moves to ‘the condition and character of dialogical exchange itself,’ entailing a shift in an artist’s role to one who is now required to listen, to open his or herself to ‘dependence and intersubjective vulnerability,’ to ‘exchange territories,’ to work in the interstices between participants, and to engage in, or encourage in others, non-competitive forms of exchange.

As he frames a section of the everyday life of Cork city, Nolan demonstrates with admirable astuteness and economy the skill of providing a context and setting something aside for the playing out of exemplary problems. Unlike most of those artists advocated by Kester, however, Nolan does not employ conversation towards the realisation of projects of reconciliation, problem resolution, or the representation of marginal and otherwise unheard voices. Strictly speaking, Nolan does not employ conversation at all. With Docks Tours, conversations remain an obscure and possibly duplicitous figure at the core of the work. Although they are framed and staged to some degree, the exchanges between passengers and guide are not made more transparent or more accountable, and they return significantly little to the discourse of urban regeneration that seeks mobile and spectacular representations of a city renewing itself.

Less than a sceptical assertion of some unintelligible absence at the heart of conversation, we find with Docks Tours something that almost reads as a tactic, a modest but firm refusal either to provide significant cultural content to a city developing its commodity status or to reproduce the social relationship that facilitates this development. For there is something ineradicably tricky about these tours, something that Nolan aptly describes as genuinely inauthentic, especially if they are understood for what they appear to be: a personal account of a vanishing common world. An authenticity imagined to be lost has no currency in this recursive telling of tales, despite the high premium that it otherwise might acquire in the regeneration process. All that is lost is the performance that tells a tale, a performance then mourned, reiterated and displaced in the tale-telling of others.

So, to describe Nolan’s work as an extraordinary gift, as John Kelly does in his review of it, is to hear only half the story. Nolan gives what is already held in common, something which is not really his to give and which he exercises no proprietal rights over – the telling of tales. What is truly extraordinary about Nolan’s gift is that he discloses what is, like the purloined letter, hidden in plain view: namely, that throughout this everyday tale-telling the legitimacy and possibility of the past and future are at every moment open to thought.

Giving is not without its problems, its debts and promises. As a commissioned artist, as one who can give, Nolan does not ignore his situation. In any number of ways, economic and cultural relations are at stake in the perceptual and aesthetic management of an area preparing for or undergoing regeneration, and Docks Tours is no exception. Between Nolan and Mr McCarthy the relation is one of management to labour; after all, a party is being paid (with the carriage used for the tours) to perform. Yet, as is so rarely the case, this is, let us say, management without direction. In particular, Mr McCarthy is allowed to retain the political dignity of withdrawing wholly or in part the performance of his labour from this agreement without forfeiting it, by choosing to remain uncommunicative or else by controlling the release of information, whether real or imagined, into the conversation. Also, Mr McCarthy does not receive a wage for his troubles, but instead keeps the material means that make his performance possible – the carriage, in other words.

The relationship here, then, although it mimics the predominant model of short-term, project-based immaterial labour, significantly differs from this model in at least two ways. Firstly, and perhaps most importantly, Mr McCarthy is not required to make accountable his decisions as a performer and nor is he required to invest his own subjectivity in preparations for the spectacular reworking of the docklands’ past. The only stipulation made by Nolan concerning the conversations to take place during the tours was that Mr McCarthy could discuss the artwork but was to give no clear answer as to its meaning, its form, or his own possible role within it. Other than that, the only demands made of him were those of his passengers. Secondly, and modestly (how could it be otherwise?), in payment for his labour the potential for continued performance passes fully into Mr McCarthy’s possession, for him to exercise or not as he sees fit: his decision is not to be forced nor pre-empted even by the admittedly loose contractual conditions of the initial work. In this way, the work and the capacity to work passes into common hands.

One of Nolan’s primary concerns, it seems to me, is to approach and remain near, if only for a short period of time, to the uneventful richness of the common – what is at stake in it and what is hidden in it by its very ordinariness. The question to be faced each time is: how does one interpret this ordinariness without claiming mastery of it, without looking to have the final word on its meaning or value? In other words: how does one outwit the hero in oneself and in others, the hero being, as Barthes describes it, the one who makes a scene; the one who ‘has the last word’? And perhaps to do this, finally, one must cheat, however slightly, whether as artist or guide, with the licence that one is given.


Barthes, R. A Lover’s Discourse: Fragments, translated by Richard Howard, Cape, London, 1979
Cavell, S. ‘The Ordinary as the Uneventful (A Note on the Annales Historians)’ in Themes Out of School: Effects and Causes, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1984
Cavell, S. ‘The Uncanniness of the Ordinary’ in In Quest of the Ordinary: Lines of Scepticism and Romanticism, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1988
Kester, G. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2004
Kelly, J. ‘The Spectacle of Expectation in Public,’ Circa online, 2008

Posted By: Tim Stott (