Mick Wilson


It was some months ago Jeanette Doyle mentioned to me that she had developed a proposal to work with participants in “The Star Project”: a group of women who have stabilised their drug use and meet every day. A common part of the experience of these women, she explained, was not simply the drug-use but the many different things that attend prolonged drug-use; the related issues around community acceptance, employment, social standing, and respect. The opportunity to work in this context and with this particular group of women emerged from Breaking Ground II in Ballymun. This scheme, which has provided many different opportunities for artists to work in the area, in several different ways ranging from direct involvement with local people to large-scale public projects, includes directly commissioning artists to make new work. Doyle had been selected by a panel comprising both people involved in the art world and representatives from the local area, who suggested that she would work with the Star project which had also applied to the commissioning process specifically requesting to work with an artist. The project would be loosely structured around making portraits of the women, providing a structure to allow other things to happen.

I was taken through her plan over coffee one afternoon.

The project would begin in the early summer and would entail meeting on a weekly basis for a regular morning session with the group. Over the duration of this sequence of meetings various activities would evolve. On the one hand there

would be a number of services brought in and provided to the group by various well-respected professionals: a relaxation class by Rex Dunlop, individual facial treatments by Priscilla Kelly; access to elite designer clothes by Deborah Veale and so forth. On the other hand the group would be asked to create a series of images using drawing, collage and photography, and to generate a personal archive of the process in some form of scrap-book, gathering materials and images of particular interest to each participant. Alongside these activities other processes would take place: a non-intrusive video-filming of hand movements and gestures during the various activities of the project and a photo-shoot, for which the women would construct portrayals of themselves that used media images and glamour shots as points of reference. The core of this process was the opportunity to engage in the cultivation of a self-image and to have access to a certain type of luxury and self-care. All activities would have a clear opportunity for opt-out if anyone did not wish to participate, and all of the proposed outcomes, such as the photo-shoot, would be negotiable and subject to change if the group so wished. The photographic images thus produced would pass through a further translation process, as they would be used as the basis for a series of painted portraits. The project outline that Doyle presented was to be a framework for negotiation and discussion.

Immediately I was struck by three sets of issues that the project seemed to raise:

(i) What might it mean to gift in this orchestrated way from a position of relative privilege to those who are relatively disenfranchised?

(ii) What might it mean to promote a self-consciousness of appearance among this group of women, given the familiar criticism of the “beauty myth” as a means of disempowering women?

(iii) What might it mean to enter temporarily into an existing milieu of such complex personal, social and professional agendas, seeking trust and acquiring a certain amount of power and control? What might the public face of this activity be? In whose interests would it be?

Versions of these questions have a longstanding a history in socially-engaged or socially-motivated practices, and they have been given renewed currency with the emergence of the “relational aesthetics” debate in mainstream European art of the 1990s. These questions continue to challenge our thinking about how art might operate its exuberant play within a social world but not simply reproduce the already-given uninterrogated habits of that world. This is no simple matter.

Drifting from conversation into interrogation - the consequence of a bad habit acquired from teaching in an art college - I asked all these familiar questions in turn: the question of power; the question of self-consciousness and “the model consumer”; the question of conflicting agendas. What struck me in Doyle's response was that she had already considered each of these questions in some detail, but had opted not to see them in an overly simplified or one- dimensional way.

Doyle explained that her “main consideration for the project was that it should be about pleasure, particularly pleasure in the body”. It was not intended to be neither a missionary project of moral improvement nor a therapeutic intervention. It was in a broad sense a discursive project: it would not claim to resolve all the questions raised, but would try to have these questions surface in an open-ended way: “it allows for discussion and dispute”. Both the members of the Star project themselves and the various people involved in enabling the current project would be represented in the final series of portraits that would be produced from the project's process. The portrayal of people in the group and those outside the group in the same manner and format would be “a strategy for denying the reading of the group as other”. Furthermore, in relation to the problem of the familiar 'make-over' scenario (made popular by so many television programmes) it would be important that there was no before-and-after set-up being proposed, and that the women would have control over the images produced.

Taking-over and re-working the language of advertising and fashion - through the scrapbook process, through making images, through constructing the self-portrayal that would ultimately be the basis of the portrait - was to be a strategy for empowerment of the women. It would facilitate them to place themselves inside the 'frame' and at the same time to negotiate that frame.

It is now some months later and the project is almost complete. Speaking yesterday on the phone about how things evolved and what might need to be written about the work, I am struck by Doyle's recognition of the persistence of these questions, but also the way in which these are not shied away from or ignored.

It seems important also that asking these questions does not obscure the utopian moment in the work. The utopian moment is that aspect of the work that imagines an exchange that exceeds the simple operation of a market transaction or a

display of power. The utopian moment is hinted at in the images of women laughing as they play before the camera and before each other, each one responding to the others' presence just out-of-frame. The utopian moment is further suggested in the apparently outrageous suggestion that the modest means of production of a small art project can engage the machinery of the mass-media spectacle of glamour and consumption. The utopian moment is finally in the proposition that people can communicate and interact in ways that exceed the social roles, social scripts and institutional frames that they have been given in ways that have consequence, in ways that open up new and unscripted possibilities.

While putting these lines together in relation to this project I was reminded of Doyle's 1996 solo show in Dublin's City Arts Centre Gallery “In A Good Light.” That show, while very different in form and process, also engaged questions of glamour images and the culture of the body beautiful. I was surprised to find an interesting resonance of the current project with this earlier work. In that show there was a large photographic image entitled The Last Drink which was a blow-up of a domestic photograph. I wrote about the image at the time in the following terms:

The Last Drink extends the bid for glamour made by a friendly and celebratory bunch of women on a nineteen-seventies girls' night out. As this image approaches the scale of the billboard the failure of their bid for glamour becomes even more apparent. But there is something about the ordinariness, the pastness of the image, the undercutting of their own poses by the women, the mutual ironising, and the pleasure in each other's company, which retrieves their self-presentation from failure and establishes their historical negotiation of their own particular time, place and status. (from the exhibition notes).


The Last Drink

'The Last Drink'

(Photo from the collection of  Phyllis Deery)
Scanachrome laminated into Formica.
2134mm x 4267mm
City Arts Centre Dublin 1996/7
Photo Simon Phelan

This is not to suggest that the same reading may simply be applied to this current work, but rather to note the continuity of this concern with the
presentation of the self in the everyday, the negotiation of glamour and with a “particular time, place and status”. This ongoing engagement by the artist foregrounded for me the significance of the current interaction and exchange with the Star project group, which is central to the new work. This interaction both recruits the participants into an exercise of reflective agency through the work of managing and cultivating appearances and it recruits the artist - not as an objective outsider providing critical commentary but as someone also invested - as someone caught up in the subject matter and problematic of the work.

Mick Wilson is an artist, writer and educator. He is currently Head of Research & Postgraduate Development at NCAD.