- 16 Jul 18
With their hugely creative public artworks, featuring such famous faces as Stormzy, The Rolling Stones and Kendrick Lamar, SUBSET have breathed new life into public spaces in Dublin. But bureaucratic laws have pitted them directly against Dublin City Council.
March 30, 2017. London-based musician Stormzy, the man who became a poster child for grime’s mainstream takeover, is taking a selfie at Haymarket in North Dublin. Behind him is a monumental artwork, painted in honour of his performance at the Olympia Theatre. He couldn’t look happier.
February 8, 2018. Rap’s biggest name is smiling self-consciously at a crowd of 14,000 people at the 3Arena. “I heard y’all painted a picture of me on a wall,” says Compton born hip-hop superstar Kendrick Lamar. “No one’s ever done that before.”
Two pieces of art. Both of which gained immediate iconic status when they were first revealed. The makers of which are regarded by Dublin City Council as having committed two criminal acts.
The 'culprits'? A dozen individuals based in south Dublin, who simply want to make public art.
REGULATORS VS INNOVATORS
Hot Press has ventured out to the offices of the Subset collective, found in an annexed part of a local church in Rathgar. Inside, under previously hallowed arched beams, the members of the group are busily at work. The walls are dotted with spray cans, books, and framed pictures of some of their most recognisable creations. Our photographer is told to take photos of whatever he likes as long as he doesn’t catch anyone’s idndividual face.
Their spokesperson explains why. “Subset, for us, is a vision shared by a collection of people. The idea of an individual doesn’t resonate with us, because everything we do is a team project. Therefore, we don’t like to provide anything that will cause an association with an individual, as opposed to the whole.”
Their anonymous nature notwithstanding, Subset are not secretive about their work or their aims. Having previously been part of a group called Rabbit Hole Productions, Subset was conceived by a group of artists who wanted to make art, and who saw the benefit of working with businesses for commercial reasons, while still being uncompromising in their artistic aspirations.
“It’s using commerce as a vehicle for art and art as a vehicle for commerce,” explains the Subset spokesman. “A lot of people don’t particularly agree with that – for multiple reasons – but we feel that this is the best outlet of expression for us as a collective.”
What this means is that Subset are a group of businessmen and women, as well as artists. But they are very particular about the kind of work they do – and who they do it for. The various members present on the day we call indicate that they did not set out to take on the Council or become martyrs for public artwork. Their dispute comes down to a difference in ideology and the frustrating amount of red tape which stops them functioning in the way they’d like.
“It basically boils down to them being regulators and us being innovators. They have to regulate a system, whereas we’re trying to create new aspects of it. That then probably becomes unsettling for them, and the fear kicks in, especially when that’s coupled with something which is considered new and ‘out there’. The work we’re doing, the content we’re commenting on, and the way in which we’re pushing that out to the general public – it’s disconcerting for a place with very rigid structures.”
At the moment, Subset’s particular brand of creativity has thrown them into uncharted legal waters. The Council have argued that, despite obtaining consent of the building owners before doing any work, Subset’s work is in violation of the Planning and Development Act (2004), which prohibits a major alteration to the exterior of a building. There is also no planning process application for public art, meaning that the procedure of having to apply for any type of outdoor artwork would almost certainly involve huge amounts of time and money. The Council recently issued a statement on this issue. “Murals on a building constitute development,” they explained, “and as such require planning permission through the usual planning application process.” These processes can take anywhere from three to six months, which Subset have said would be virtually unworkable as a model – business or otherwise.
“Our strength, our originality, our edge, comes from operating beyond these arbitrary limitations. It’s about doing stuff the way you believe it to be true and not adhering to a system just because something was written in black and white and stored in a filing cabinet years ago and declared law. That’s not enough: if you want us to change, give us a proper reason.
“The Council are operating one way. Then there’s us, and we’re operating another way. They say that the way we are operating is illegal, but that’s based on a system that we don’t believe in. If we were doing something negative – if anything we were doing was having a poor impact on the city, country, nation – if there was a large amount of people rallying against what we’re doing… then fair enough. But that’s not the case.”
THE GREY AREA PROJECT
In recent months, Subset have upped the ante. To raise awareness of their quandary they’ve set up the Grey Area Project. First, they created a petition, calling for the “licensing of public spaces for the delivery of large scale public artworks”, which has been signed by nearly 5,000 people [at the time of print]. Secondly, they’ve created a passionate eight-minute documentary, which sets out the work that Subset do, what they see as the intransigence of the Council, and why they’re appealing for change. To tie in with this, they hosted an exhibition at the Point Square in Dublin’s Docklands where all proceeds went to homeless charity ICHH. Thirdly, they’ve teamed up with other Dublin artists to relentlessly cover Dublin’s walls in murals. And finally, they worked with architecture firm GoKu to compile a comprehensive framework for discussions about how to change the current, restrictive laws (which you can read at the bottom of this article).
“We’ve already given the framework to the Head of Planning, the Head of Enforcement and a senior representative of the Arts Department. We had about an hour and forty-five minutes discussion with the Council, just back-and-forth, and there was no animosity. I imagine they were expecting us to be quite immature about this, but we were very well versed in the situation by the time we got to meet them. We talked about the benefits of what we’re doing, acknowledging the drawbacks too and making clear that what we’re doing isn’t perfect by any means. We’re finding our feet in an industry we’ve effectively created.
“So, we had a chat, submitted the framework to them, and they told us we had two days to cease and desist with the Grey Area Project or they’d have to approach the situation by legal means. We explained to them that we weren’t going to stop, because taking a back step like that would pretty much be like admitting defeat. Our whole argument crumbles once we do it.”
Have they reached out to any other politicians?
“We’ve also sent the framework by register post and email to the Minister of Arts and the Minister for Housing and Planning. We sent the email a few weeks ago, then by post – that was over six weeks ago. We still haven’t heard anything back.”
The spokesman leaves our interview at one point to take a call – coincidentally from the Dublin Council. He looks exhausted by the time he’s finished. He explains that he’s been dealing with calls, letters of warning, and reprimands for months now. Subset make clear that they do not have a team of legal experts working round the clock to resolve the issue. They’re appealing to the public to help them out of what they see as a Kafkaesque position.
“We’re almost thankful to the City Council,” he sighs. “You know – ‘out of the dark grows the flower’. What propels us forward is the obstacles we overcome, the hurdles we have to jump. By no means are we unsatisfied with our lot. But is it tough? Yeah. It’s a lot of work. And it’s difficult for creatives to be curtailed like this. Not that we’re actually curtailed because we’re doing what we’re going to do anyway. But at the same time, we’re not trying to be hard men, we didn’t set out to go against the authorities. We just wanted things to be simpler. So it’s frustrating.”
For now though, Subset are continuing with their Grey Area Project. It’s a labour of love for them, even if it does land them in legal hot water.
“This is the thing I’m most proud of, out of everything I’ve ever done. And it’s not because of what we did, but because of the fact that the entire community has come behind it. Individuals, groups, suppliers, visitors. It’s good to be young, and in a creative circle in Dublin at the moment, it’s inspiring.”
Find out more at subset.ie. You can also sign their petition and read the Public Art Framework Propsoal at charge.org