New writing for
For Whom?
byAlice Lyons

The heart of public art is relational.  But what is a public?  Alice Lyons recounts her thinking about the 'multiplicity of publics' reflected in language in a commission called 'Staircase Poems' in Carrick-on-Shannon, County Leitrim.

Whom is a laden, resonant word in the context of public art because in its very construction (who + m) it connotes a relational meaning. Whom has no reason to exist without a preposition for which it is the object (e.g., for, with, by, against). Much in the same way, public art is rendered meaningless, or at least has a questionable existence, without an audience for which it is the object. Whether a project purports to be a question, a conversation, a warning, a happening, a lament, a celebration, a shout, a mirror, it needs an audience to complete what it has set in motion. The heart of public art is relational. But what is a public?

A few years ago, I was approached by the arts officer for County Leitrim, Caoimhín Corrigan, with an idea for a direct public art commission.  The old courthouse in Carrick-on-Shannon was in the process of being renovated and turned into an arts centre (to be called The Dock), and he thought my work, which embraces poetry and visual art, might be the right fit for the project. Corrigan had already done a good bit of thinking about the commission.  He had identified both a crucial place in the building as the site for the artwork and a primary audience he wanted to address.

The site for the commission was the central staircase in The Dock.  He knew that visitors would come into the foyer and have a look around, but how to get them up the stairs to the first floor, where the visual arts galleries are located?  The staircase became the focal point, as Corrigan put it,  “making that which might have been the hurdle act like the bridge.” Likewise, Corrigan was thinking about the Dock’s audience: the “public” of the greater Carrrick-on-Shannon region, which includes County Leitrim and reaches into Roscommon, Longford and Sligo.  How, once they came in to the building—and at that, a building with some grim and painful associations as it was for many years the fulcrum of colonial rule when it served as the Courthouse–might they be encouraged to return?  Thus emerged the idea of a project on the staircase that changed monthly for a year.  If people came through the doors in September and encountered a poem on the stairs, they might want to come back to see a new poem in November, and so on.

So, a large part of my work was in thinking about the idea of the publics who might walk into the building and read words on the staircase risers. For whom was I writing? The challenge for me, over the course of a year and twelve poems, was to break up the monolith of “The Public of the greater Carrick-on-Shannon region” into some of its actual, kaleidoscopic facets.

There are so many lenses with which one might try to see a large number of people who have in common with each other, in the very least, a similar address. Mostly, I paid attention to their language(s). The first line of the first poem in the series came directly from a neighbour whom I met in front of the old courthouse when it was covered in blue hoarding and scaffold and was not yet re-invented as The Dock:  “No, I never had reason to go into that place, thanks be to God,” he said. That kicked the whole thing off with a poem pieced together from the architects’ notes for renovating–making good– a building that had a sordid history.

Some poems focused on the particularities of speech of the natives of the region.  I always loved it when locals—people who had been rained on their entire lives– told me the weather was “shockin’” and “dirty,” so in October, I made those words “rain” down the wall and the staircase.  Other poems addressed the new communities in Carrick, the Kurds who came as refugees, for example, and the Poles who came to work. One poem appeared in English and Polish, the point being, of course, that language is an instrument of power and to feature Polish on the main staircase of a cultural space is to give it a measure of sanction.

I was curious about the impact on a community of having a world-class writer–John McGahern– in their ranks, living among them, writing of their place. So I collected chunks of language I overheard when people spoke of him, his recent book and sadly, of his death which occurred that year. Then I filled the walls and staircase with those statements: another fragment of that unwieldy, abstract entity–the public.

My own proclivities slanted the poems and thus the project, toward language and migration and literature. Another person would have investigated the multiplicity of the Carrick public in a completely different way—necessarily so. In the case of the staircase project, the idea was that in trying to address a plethora of publics, using a sort of scattershot approach, I might cast a wider net. Other public art projects might target a very specific audience (see the list of featured projects for examples). The salient point being, whatever the answer, that in the commissioning process careful thought be given the words for whom.

Author’s biography: Alice Lyons is the author of two collections of poems speck (Netherlea, forthcoming, 2009) and Staircase Poems (The Dock, 2006). She is the recipient of the Patrick Kavanagh Award for poetry and the Ireland Chair of Poetry award as well as Bursaries in literature from An Chomhairle Ealoine/The Arts Council in 2003 and 2007.  She participated in AFTER, a series of artist-led public art interventions in Counties Leitrim and Roscommon in 2008, the outcome of a residency with artist Alfredo Jaar.  Currently, she is directing a film based on her poem The Polish Language supported by the Frameworks Animation Award from RTÉ/The Irish Film Board/The Arts Council.

The Dock
Alice Lyons (Blog)
Alice Lyons
Alfredo Jaar