Household, Belfast

Current MA ACW student Ciara Hickey was one of the curators of the Household art festival which took place in Belfast between 22-24 August 2012. Here she writes about the festival and the motivations behind its establishment. This article was previously published in Paper Visual Art Journal and is reprinted here with their kind permission.

The domestic space has a significant, if niche, presence in the ever-expanding sphere of contemporary art discourse. It is most notably discussed in the much referenced exhibition Chambres D’Amis held in Ghent in 1986, in which residents of 58 privately owned houses hosted work by artists selected by the Museum van Hedendaagse Kunst, under the curatorial direction of Jan Hoet.

Ruth Evans and Helen McDonnell, installation shot (2012) Photo: Simon Mills Photography; Image courtesy the artists and Household Belfast.

In recent years the domestic space has become more associated with a range of DIY initiatives that aim to challenge conventional exhibition spaces and actively reject the market-driven, hierarchical structures of the art world. However, more than merely providing a convenient solution to exhibiting art in a period of recession, it is one of the most complex and unpredictable environments in which to make and encounter artwork. The rich potential of domestic spaces was what attracted five Belfast-based artists and curators* (Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell, Eoin Dara, Alissa Kleist, Kim McAleese, and Ciara Hickey) to organise Household, a contemporary art event held in artists’ homes in the Ormeau Road area of Belfast on the weekend of the 24th, 25th and 26th of August, 2012.

Household incorporated over 80 artists and over 30 locations and events that included performance art, installation, sculpture, painting, posters, sound art, gigs, foraging workshops, architectural tours, new and site specific pieces of theatre, film screenings, programmed talks, a free fry-up in the local park (feeding over 100 people), Japanese and Irish language classes and a protest party at Ormeau Park gates. Visitors found their way through the labyrinthine streets of the Ormeau with maps designed by Ormeau Road resident and graphic designer Tom Hughes. Each house was recognised by a cluster of balloons outside bearing the Household logo.

Martin Boyle, Domestos, Balfour Avenue, white shopping bag, shopping, nails, 2012; Image courtesy the artist and Household.

The project began as a response to the unique dynamic of the Ormeau Road, its increasingly large population of creative people and its village-like feel. The organisers/curators initially approached 10 ‘households’ of visual artists with the invitation to open up their homes as a space for public exhibition. After this received an enthusiastic response, the invitation was extended to musicians, actors, graphic designers, a tattoo artist, filmmakers, a psychologist, a chef, and other creative people living in the area. As publicity grew around the exhibition, (thanks to the marketing efforts of artist Ruaidhrí Lennon), the organisers began to receive requests to take part from local residents. These events were all included in the programme.

The participating households presented a broad range of works and events. Artists used the opportunity to consider their practice in relation to their home environment and local surroundings and explored the unique dynamic of the private sphere made public. Many artists were drawn to the inherent drama and implied narratives that present themselves in abundance within the domestic space. Tonya McMullan and Colm Clarke presented a series of nightly performances titled umwelt in the front yard of their home, a once grand town house on South Parade. A ‘dream machine’ (an obsolete artefact of the psychedelic 1960s era) was positioned in the large bay window overlooking the front yard, which bathed the yard in a yellow, flickering light. For the final performance of the weekend Clarke and McMullan performed a tribute to Neil Armstrong. They posed as a young, suburban couple of the 1960s, ballroom dancing in the yellow light of the front yard to an incongruous soundtrack of 60s space-themed music. In a simple gesture, they created a piece that was poignant and inclusive as spectators were invited to join them for a final dance.

Catherine Devlin, Domestos, Balfour Avenue, white wheelie bin, shed (2012); Image courtesy the artist and Household.

In Domestos on Balfour Avenue, nine artists were asked to intervene with the existing fabric of the house. Martin Boyle nailed a plastic bag full of shopping to the ceiling. Catherine Devlin followed this surreal and humorous gesture by placing a white wheelie bin on top of the back yard shed. Placed on a make-shift plinth, this most mundane object of domestic existence became an iconic pop statement viewable from the landing window. Upstairs in the bedroom, Mairéad Dunne created a dream-like installation in the shells of old TV monitors stacked beside the bed. Removing the screens, Dunne inserted new scenes laden with gothic, fairytale motifs. In the dining area, Colin Darke showed work made during his recent residency at the British School at Rome. What looked like a commonplace fruit bowl on a table held decaying apples carved with a word or sentence of political rhetoric.

Colin Darke, eating apples, fruit bowl (2012); Image courtesy the artist and Household.

On Ava Avenue, Miguel Martin subverted the notions of sanctuary and comfort usually associated with a home with his macabre performance Heimlich, demonstrative of Martin’s interest in the uncanny. The living room was transformed into a disconcerting space reminiscent of a David Lynch dream sequence. The space was dark except for the bright static of a TV set. Subtle changes were made to the layout of the furniture to create a confusing and distorted sense of spatial awareness. A pile of human hair lay heaped underneath the tilted sofa bathed in the flicker of a strobe light, capturing the essence of the uncanny; the simultaneous attraction and repulsion of familiar objects. For those who lingered a little longer in the room, the realisation that the artist was present, lying in darkness under a cloth on a table, was chilling and absurd.

Miguel Martin: Heimlich, installation (detail), 2012. Photo: Simon Mills Photography; Image courtesy the artist and Household.

House of Sandwich, a house on Delhi Parade, was transformed by the four artists living there. Cian Donnelly constructed an enchanted cave in the dining room. This kitschy, artificial environment provided the setting for a number of immersive performances in which Donnelly explored the ongoing fictional narrative he has constructed over a number of years. Prior to the exhibition, Sighle Bhreathnach-Cashell invited couples to stay the night in her bedroom that she had adapted for each couple; the remnants of each visit were on display during the weekend. Bhreathnach-Cashell described her interest in the project in terms of the absurd reality that is forced upon artists as they interact with their work as part of their often banal and daily routines.

Many of the artists involved revelled in the participatory potential of the project. In House of Song, Matthew Rodger and Gemma McMahon collected songs that charted the passing of a day. This culminated in a communal sea shanty session on the Saturday evening. Rob Hilken organised a mass fry-up in the Ormeau Park on Sunday morning, and Claire Hall held an elaborate disco in her back yard inspired by the New York community block party of 1970s New York.

Josephine McCormick at Household, 2012. Photo: Simon Mills Photography; Image courtesy the artist and Household.

A series of talks were held which opened up questions on contemporary housing. Ray Cashell, Chairperson of Shelter NI Campaign for the Homeless spoke about occupiers’ rights and what makes or prevents a house from being a ‘home’. In another talk, Belfast Exposed director Pauline Hadaway defended privacy and private space. She emphasised the power of the private and indeed the domestic space in the formation of cultural and political agency.

Dorothy Hunter at Household, 2012. Photo: Simon Mills Photography; Image courtesy the artist and Household.

Household in many ways functioned as a platform for agency for both visitors and participants alike. It invited a neighbourhood community to experience a broad range of contemporary art practices, view work by many local artists, meet their neighbours, and expand and share their knowledge of the local area. With no funding, and only simple agreements drawn up between the artists and organisers, the success of the project essentially hinged on the trust between the visitor, and the resident of the home whose threshold they crossed. Visitors were reminded that they were ‘guests’ in people’s houses rather than anonymous strangers. The goodwill and generosity of everyone involved (including the visitors) was one of the most satisfying and valuable outcomes of the project. These outcomes have encouraged the development of new projects in 2013 that will further explore how people encounter contemporary art in the framework of hospitality and the alternative space.

Ciara Hickey is Belfast-based curator and currently works at Belfast Exposed.

Edited by:
Alissa Kleist is an artist and curator based in Belfast. She is co-director at Catalyst Arts and a co-curator of the PRIME collective.

*All 5 curators shared an pre-existing interest in working with alternative and domestic spaces; Dara and McAleese currently curate Satis House, an art space in their home; Bhreathnach Cashell curated the Residence project with her sister Sinéad in a SHAC Housing flat from 2008-2009; Hickey co-ran Space Delawab from 2008- 2010 with Claire Hall and Keith Winter in the house in which they lived; Kleist co-curates the PRIME Collective. Please see links for more information.

List of participating artists:
Robert Anderson, Helen Tubridy, Charlotte Bosanquet, Ruaidhrí Lennon, Emma Campbell, Amy Brooks, Rob Hilken, Paul Murphy, Tonya McMullan, Colm Clarke, Una Hickey, Ricki O’Rawe, Jack Geary, Bronagh McCrudden, Gemma McMahon, Matthew Rodger, Rosaleen Hickey, Tom Hughes, Liam Crichton, Andrew Wood, Gus Sutherland, Michael Dzjaparidze, Una Monaghan, Ita Monaghan, Meadhba Monaghan, Catherine Devlin, Jenny Keane, Colin Darke, Mary Cowan, Mairéad Dunne, Ann Quail, Breda Lynch, Hugh O’Donnell Martin Boyle, Cian Donnelly, Philip Hession, Sighle Bhreathnach Cashell, Alessandra Giacinti , Ruth Evans, Helen McDonnell, Jack Hughes, Susan Hughes, Dermot Hughes, Mary Hughes, Adam Bargoff, Josephine McCormick, John Macormac, Dorothy Hunter, Mark Caffrey, Clinton Kirkpatrick, Michael O’Halloran, Andrew Elder, Ben Behzadafshar, Claire Hall, Marty Carter, Miguel Martin, Claire Miskimmin, Lyndsey McDougall, Tim Weir, Darcie Graham, Hannah Casey, Rosie Burrowes, Marie Quiery, Sophie Aghajanian, Nick Boyle, Ryan Moffett, Margaret McCrum, Geraldine Boyle, Tim Farrell, Sean Walshe, Johanna Leech, Beth Milligan, Katrina Sheena Smyth, Jane Butler, David Mahon, Philip McCrilly, Hannah McBride, Mark DeConinck, Nathan Crothers, Heather Floyd & Nobuko Masumara

Satis House: