“I like talking to a brick wall- it’s the only thing in the world that never contradicts me!”― Oscar Wilde
I’m writing this a year and a half after the initial incident, because it is not merely about that incident. It is allegorical, it is about how we conduct ourselves, and it is how we better the collective Irish Art World.
The Institute of Real Art (IRA) debuted in October 2015 with several articles released on topics ranging from Amanda Coogan being a State Agent, IMMA and Imperialism, to a review of a review I wrote. The author: Cac O’Day. Cleary a pseudonym, at least to Irish eyes and ears.
Over the last five years Cac has become a bit of a controversy for his writing, but he has also exhibited, and written for Circa. During this time – no doubt aided by his jarring turns in writing and unclear positioning in reviews – he defied all guesses as to his true identity. I was an early candidate – no doubt due to a collaborative nom-de-plume we used to develop Shower of Kunst. Another guess was someone from The Lads Society – an anarcho-feminist NCAD ‘inside joke’ meme group. I had long suspected it was a collaboration of a couple based in Kilkenny.
These are all wrong, so I went ahead and asked directly, but first…
Basic Space Dublin had scheduled Cac in late 2018 to do a guest lecture in the Hugh Lane Sculpture Hall for the 8th of March 2019 as part of their Basic Talks series. Days before, Basic Space cancelled the event without explanation. Cac, incensed, wanting answers, was told that his practice did not fit with the personal and organisational values of the Basic Space Directors. Basic Space paid his fee, while deleting all traces of the planned event from their website and Facebook. No official statement on the event nor cancellation can be found. When I asked this year, Basic Space responded: “We are not interested in making any comments on it as this issue has taken up a huge amount of our time already.”
I can understand why Cac was angry, it was massively disrespectful to him and an 11th hour Cancellation without explanation can damage reputation and career. He writes about this in Basic Decency. As it turns out, it was probably hasty curation that brought him there in the first place, which does not speak well of Basic Space.
After a year of following up on the Cancellation directly with the Hugh Lane (to their credit they responded to and followed up on Cac’s requests, urging Basic Space to make a public statement) and with the Freedom of Information Act he eventually received a stack of heavily redacted emails. Despite these deletions, the story became much clearer. Based on the content of the complaints posted by Cac on the IRA website, under the title Nude Descending a Staircase (after Duchamp) , it is visible that Basic Space received ‘tip-offs’ from 2 people. They accused Cac of sexism, borderline harassment, and homophobia. Since the email mentions harassment, I am compelled to think the complainers are the subject. Perhaps one is a founder of the project, and the other a prominent young artist slash curator? Perhaps their complaints were revenge for a bad review? A quick scan of the IRA site, using the process of elimination, one may ascertain that the offending writings are Rio Queers, Preview Review: Hannah Fitz / Knock Knock, and Kerry Gold, a piece on Kerry Guinane’s Dublin Central Dáil candidacy press conference in 2016.
Rio Queers written by guest author “Mick ‘The Bull’ Daly” takes a position of ‘defending’ queers as disabled. The extensive footnoting provides some more serious context and grounding for the satire. He discusses the ‘othering’ in both the words, queer and disabled, noting ‘strangeness’ as a stigmatization associated with the words. The Institute of Real Art Twitter also has #disability in its bio. Rio Queers is indeed strange, but purposefully hyper-reactionary and non-sensical. While not necessarily fun or funny, it is definite satire.
Questions do arise in Preview Review: Hannah Fitz / Knock Knock. In this review it is unclear what grounds satire has for ad hominem descriptions beyond the work, which almost seem resentful. For example, Cac describes Hannah Fitz as “using an overworked imperfectness”, (legitimate criticism), but follows with: “…that’s just perfect for the upstairs bathroom” (demeaningly domestic).
Kerry Gold is written by “Volunteer Daimyo O’Brien” and mocks the press conference the artist held and her outfit. There are several ‘male chauvinist’ hiccups throughout. However, the main article is not a political critique of her Dail candidacy, that is saved for the long footnotes which accuse Guinan of opportunistically and hypocritically benefitting from the very system she claims to critique. Ultimately he dismisses her as a careerist “feminist attack bitch” embarking on a vanity project while playing the part of a radical. Interestingly, in what is now regarded as a classic Trump-ian move, I wasn’t permitted by Guinan to attend this very same press conference.
Who is Basic Space?
Basic Space started like many other school collectives: as a way to continue studio life after college. These are frequently created, but rarely last more than a few years. Basic Space is the exception, exceeding a decade.
They catapulted into the Irish Art World, quickly becoming the darlings of the Dublin art scene. They were young Dublin artists, a new generation descendant mainly from established middle class families of the South Side. It helped that they and their work looked the part, and that they received important press coverage early on. They fit perfectly into the constructs of ‘National Identity’ in the Irish Art World.
The collective (which evaded self-definition for several years, even though they functioned as a closed membership collective) enjoyed free space from the Dublin City Vacant Space Initiative near their college in two different venues, the second being on Marrowbone Lane. They received generous studio grant awards, totaling over 25,000 between 2013 and 2016, a time others were being cut. They were popular and became the ‘go-to’ group of young artists in Ireland.
Basic Space initiated a number of experimental approaches to making group shows and for me this was their best moment. However, it was short-lived as the original leadership moved on. They began to re-invent themselves, putting out an open-call for Directors just before the Marrowbone Lane space was lost. The group membership changed, as did the organisation. Since, there has been a rotating Directorship and a “programme of residencies, exhibitions and educational events” like the performances and artist talks of Basic Talks at the Hugh Lane Gallery. They currently state that they, among other things, “operate a representative programme, prioritising practices by women, black/brown, disabled and queer artists”.
Who is Cac O’Day?
Cac O’Day is the Director of The Institute of Real Art, and a pseudonym of Benjamin Robinson. I’m still skeptical, but the story checks out.
Who is Benjamin Robinson?
Benjamin Robinson is “a writer and visual artist. He was born in 1964 in Northern Ireland, and attended, briefly, Limerick College of Art & Design in the 1980s.” He has published work under this name for Paper Visual Art, Gorse, and The Honest Ulsterman. They are experimental and predate Cac O’Day by a few years. His writing style varies from Cac, however, all read believably as the same author.
Benjamin Robinson’s project, the Institute of Real Art, describes its approach as a “para-critical engagement with Contemporary Art.” Para-critical could be understood as deformed criticism. He actively engages with this concept and references it frequently.
What is the matter with Cac O’Day?
Cac and the Institute of Real Art have several redeeming qualities. The article titling is often pithy, e.g. “Crouching Gillick, Flying Tiger”. He draws attention to the language we use to talk about art and how politically loaded it is. He does so by overloading it. He underscores the power of words, and more, the power of the review, arguably successfully enough to cause his own cancellation. Obtuse, absurd, and obscure references make up many of his articles. He frequently proposes – with image and title – new or fictional works, sometimes discussing them at length as though they exist. Real events are interspersed with fictional press releases, psuedonymic “Volunteer” writers, announcements, and statements. Perhaps Cac is offering not just an alter ego, but an alter art world?
Stream of thought critical absurdities coupled with a network of fiction created around the simultaneously real and fake Institute for Real Art. There is a sense of mocking authority: the piece simply titled New Director starts with “The new Director of The Institute of Real Art is Cac O’Day” and goes on from there with various congratulations… indeed, artistically-minded satire. Poetically, it is from all this non-sense, from the rare references and insinuations, that a feeling is conjured from absurdity.
One of the problems I have with his writing is that it is unclear what is necessarily being critiqued due to the lack of earnestness coupled with awkward, and sometimes offensive, phrases. What does he stand for I wonder? The work is hard to read and sift through. He takes arbitrary turns based on an assumption of reference points driven by whim. Thus, it lacks a larger narrative. Is he teasing something out? Clearly he is addressing subjects head on as in Garrett Phelan Sounds Like Bull, but what exactly is the commentary, critique, or endorsement? I can’t tell if this approach is due to a blind spot or if this is a set of challenges presented by the alter ego? I had come to think of him as a somewhat annoying combination between Monty Python and Surrealism; hovering between Irish criticism and macho satire. Is it cathartic or pure art? The articles often don’t perform to expectation, instead offering a disjointed experience of blending fiction into reality. Which can raise ethical questions in the age of ‘Fake News’. However, all that said, it is very hard to take this persona seriously.
Was there ever any doubt this was a fictional name; some type of parody and critique; fiction itself? Cac writes (about himself): “O’Day is known for his use of both provocative materials such as a brass neck with more contemporary, synthetic alternatives, often bridging the divide between neurological dysfunction and utilitarian satire.” Ireland has numerous examples of the pairing of anonymity and satire, from The Phoenix magazine, @FintanOToolbox or countless other Twitter accounts, Waterford Whispers, The Lads Society, The Rubber Bandits, or my favourite: Ununquadium an utterly fictional 2012 exhibit that didn’t happen and only existed in press release form replete with images of purposefully misidentified art (I still have no idea who did this, but am assuming a clever grad student). Straying off topic slightly, it must be asked: what does this say about the society we operate in? Is it a place where truthfulness is so unwelcome that to tell the truth one must go into hiding?
I think we can all accept and appreciate satire in principle, and in practice if it is not aimed at our values or beliefs. The question then becomes more broadly: what is taboo? The writing reminds me of the ‘What about men?‘ reoccurring skit on Portlandia that triumphed absurd fictional men’s rights activists. While I think Cac pushes back at cultural norms, especially Liberal assumptions, I’ve never believed he is a threat. Pest? Maybe. I honestly find the writing balancing precariously between somewhat baffling and downright silly.
In an angry piece written after the incident, Cac satirises Basic Space through an announcement of a fictional event of burning copies of Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal. He paints them as a humourless organisation that wishes to tidy-up history, with only a thin understanding of it. He alludes to the infamous Nazi book burnings in the 1930’s. He makes the point: intolerance is the enemy. What isn’t as commonly known is that the Nazis regularly used public humiliation as a tool of dehumanisation and social control.
Cancel Culture is a contemporary phenomenon that wishes to edit the violating party from view completely and sometimes historically. Swipe left. It is a fact that Cancel Culture is at minimum public outcry, but in it’s extreme… public humiliation and shaming. Nicholas Grossman writes that Cancel Culture is “drawing the lines of socially acceptable expression and determining appropriate responses to transgressing those norms.” The result of being Cancelled is a denial of life resources; of opportunities; of employment or if an object: removal from museums and public spaces. It has hastened a climate of vigilantism and also bullying. It is far too often an internet-based mob mentality using insufficient or distorted evidence, sometimes lies, to silence dissent.
Fueled by social media, this emanates largely from the United States, and represents a shift in how ‘politics’ are done. It is often criticised along bi-partisan lines there, but protests in general are surfacing. A Letter on Justice and Open Debate argued “that stifled free speech is creating an “intolerant climate” within society”, it was signed by a range of US intellectual aristocracy, from Wynton Marsalis to Noam Chomsky. Barack Obama’s video on purity asks people to be tolerant of others’s mistakes and a recent New Yorker piece looks to the absurdities of Cancel Culture in Young Adult literature. +972 Magazine published False charges of antisemitism are the vanguard of cancel culture, and states “The knee-jerk invocation of antisemitism is meant to do one thing: silence people, whether by getting them fired or labeling them and their ideas illegitimate — in other words, canceling them.” The many examples are exhausting.
Similarly, attempts to shut down art are increasingly common. However, people aren’t taking the time to unpack the art or don’t know to. This is particularly dangerous because that is a prerequisite to understanding pretty much all art. Examples include: Kenneth Goldsmith’s readymade poetry reading of Michael Brown’s autopsy at the Ivy League college Brown University, Dana Schutz’s Whitney Biennial painting of Emmett Till, or Bjarne Melgaard black remakes of Allen Jones’s 1969 Chair. Woke culture has ushered in an environment of immediate intolerant reactions, too often based on insistence at limited evidence, ‘colour-coding’, and superficial or myopic interpretations.
The Irish Sweep
What happened to Cac O’Day was something of a different nature than Cancel Culture. There was nothing public about it. It wasn’t a collective decision like a boycott. It wasn’t doxing. It was something far more culturally Irish. It was a Quiet Cancellation. A silencing through dis-association. I believe there was no grand motive (all the more reason not to go public), it’s actually just fear and self interest. In Ireland confrontation is normally avoided as it is a) unpleasant and b) may detract from one’s reputation. The best way to remove the ‘pest’ is behind closed doors.
Letting this learned bullying behavior continue without comment reinforces the message that it works. Perhaps you don’t care about Cac, but by not intervening you are permitting a culture of unaccountability and manipulation to grow. All too frequently these Cancellations brush under the carpet – the Irish Sweep – that which is transgressive, not deemed appropriate to the mainstream, or is viewed as improper or unbecoming. These all revolve around the construct of decency, so the Cancellers can also tick a virtuous box.
I don’t think it is a stretch to say that preventing political discussion is a tactic of established power, not those who challenge it. As such, these events and those like them become democratic issues.
Censorship in Ireland has a prominent history. The Catholic Church regularly banned books in the 20th century. Troubles, blasphemy, abortion. Particularly troubling is the partnership of the Irish state and Catholic institutions, as seen in the notorious Magdalene Laundries, which were “reinforced by the implementation of national mechanisms of stigmatisation and shaming.”
Today, micro level preventative censorship seems to be the most common as artists or gallery managers remove, or alter the work, so as to avoid public ire. Still, a number of higher profile contemporary examples exist: the government order to censor Maser’s Repeal the 8th mural at Project Arts Center, or the attempt to remove Shane Cullen’s Republican Prison Messages at Luan in Athlone, and, of course, when the “drag troupe Glitter Hole had their Drag Story Time children’s event cancelled by Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Libraries following a homophobic backlash.”
Ireland has experienced painful censorship and cruel periods of public shaming, especially of women, all usually politically motivated. As Carol Ballantine writes for RTE: “we would do well to recognise the mechanics of political stigma and shame in the present day” to prevent this culture from reoccurring.
There are so many walls in Ireland: Bronze age walls. Monastic walls. Castle walls. The walls of Derry. Walled gardens. Magdalene Laundry walls. Prison walls. ‘Peace’ walls. Who builds these walls? Who decides who gets inside or out of these walls? Do we want more walls?
Ireland and its art scene is fundamentally a nationalist project. It is dominated by a professional managerial sub-class (PMSc) that makes tasteful decisions to promote the representation of Irish contemporary culture and to reward selected artists. Ireland is perpetually in a position of proving itself to, and ‘keeping up’ with, international currents. Ultimately, it is competing with and imitating existing systems and not pioneering its own, and has a pretty well conceived notion of what it needs to be perceived as. Today, the Irish Art World is Woke, and seeks to appear virtuous by rushing to highlight its diversity of ‘marginalised’ peoples amidst the very small and homogenous Irish Art World.
What also manifests amongst the PMSc are power cliques. A lot more could be said about this, but more or less these are private unofficial groupings of gatekeepers: academics, directors, and the artists, that determine what is ‘good’. They owe no one an explanation as they are not official entities, rather influential spheres. The modus operandi is to viciously categorize, ostracize, or promote people. Careers of friends are prioritised, opposition is silenced, a strong sentiment of propriety guides, and a thoroughly bourgeois notion of national representation prevails. As a result, the Irish Art World doesn’t want feedback, criticism, or commentary. No one wants unpredictable responses. The point of all interactions in the Irish Art World – often now on social media – is to enhance itself, to look better, feel better, and ultimately to be more popular. To reinforce popularity is how you succeed in these walled cicles of Ireland. It is not to say these patterns don’t exist elsewhere, they are merely more dominant in Ireland. This is the system, and it is replicated by everyone in the Irish Art World. These are guarded, walled circles like the ancient Cathairs.
Everything is wrong with this bureaucratic closed door system. Everything. It doesn’t always perform incorrectly, but it is wrong on principle and can never advance quickly enough, act spontaneously enough, or accommodate the numerous artists on the island sufficiently enough. Nor was it intended to. It was merely intended to adapt and catch up to the structures and infrastructures of Europe and the USA. As I’ve said countless times in Ireland: democracy, transparency, and joined up thinking need to be systemically embraced to produce a deliberate alternative. No tenable system to promote the Irish Art World can be built out of opportunism and pettiness.
What will benefit the individuals populating the Irish Art World is deep thinking about how we can go about making this Art World better. I am not against Ireland being well represented internationally, in fact I am for it. I am, however, against unchecked and behind-the-scenes individual warfare, and thin and guarded attempts to raise the national profile without making the Art World in Dublin exemplary, strong, and welcoming in every sense of those words.
Further, there is far too much Cancelling, bullying, silencing, or personal boycotting. The Woke are not trying to intellectually defeat you with arguments and evidence, they are trying to replace you with power plays and social moves. This, in addition to the context of more generalised Irish social phenomenons of begrudgery, cronyism, shaming, censorship, make for a troublingly undemocratic, bureaucratic, and opaque professional landscape.
The point is how a place and a community decide – and if they decide at all – how they go about their business. Woke-ness with its Cancel Culture uses unprincipled means, always justified by the ends. While this is clearly a demonstration of petty tactics, it also doesn’t change systems, merely replaces those who inhabit existing systems.
All these walls. Some are sanctuaries for the elite, others are prisons.
The real problem for me is how Cac’s, or really Benjamin’s, Cancellation was made. Wokeists wield power through social smears. Strings were pulled. Popularity and power influenced the decision to silence an unwanted critic. Cac was left out of the conversation. He was never asked to clarify and defend his work. Using privileged positions – earned and otherwise – two people exerted revenge through their influence, behind the scenes, without explanation. It was fast-track punishment and devaluation.
In a broadly progressive society that is changing rapidly and shedding its religious backwards-ness as well as it’s literal poverty, it is not unimportant to ask how we go about making an art scene, and how we go about achieving our goals. Bullying, begrudging, and cancelling are not only ethically questionable tactics, but they are also all too frequently administered with scant or incomplete information.
The correct and principled thing to have done is to allow the performance to go on, and if need be: confront and critique the work. If Cac is a ‘literal fascist’, then reveal that for all to see. The reality is, he is far from that. Flawed? Perhaps. Satirist? Clearly. Let people see and make up their own minds.
The point is not to sympathise with Benjamin Robinson, but to eliminate the shitty behaviour that cancelled him.
By Jim Ricks, 2020.