I met Steve when studying my masters in Limerick, and his unique way of working meant he was one of the first people I wanted to interview. I’m really excited to share his practice as I have already crowbared his name into many a conversation about art (as many will attest to)
Lets start off with Heavy Metal Detector – that’s a really unique project, especially for music fans!
I’m actually not that into metal! I appreciate it, but it is a more an ethnographic interest. I just think that it’s a very special community and a global community. I’ve met a few people from different countries who are involved in it, and it’s huge. They are a very passionate community, and I think that is passion that we all could do with more of in our life.
I found in art, just as in music, people will often stick exclusively to certain types of genres and won’t check out pretty much anything else. There have been a lot of studies on the similarity of the neural mapping of people who are listening to different musical styles, and it is very interesting. But the same areas of the brain are triggered in people who listen to classical music as those who listen to metal, and that makes sense because the two genres are very theatrical. So they kind of speak to people who like that kind of thing in their music. So when I heard that, I wondered how do we broach that chasm separation of musical taste, and what kind of platform do we create?
Whatever rituals that we seem to find ourselves in, people will dictate what kind of type of artwork they will encounter because associations they create with taste. These are the things that separate us from hearing local sounds.
And how does the project work?
Usually it’s aimed toward some kind of arts festivals, biennales– places where the communities that are predominately participating in the project are going in with an open mind, to experience something different. They are either creative practitioners themselves and they have an idea of what kind of artwork they like, or they’re the general public who are going to see art as it should be. I saw an opportunity in that.
It’s always local bands that are part of the project – I initially started with the local bands in Helsinki, and I’ve done it now in Eindhoven, Amsterdam, twice in the UK. And I’ll be doing it again in September in Bournemouth and I’ve done it in Moscow as well. Anywhere I do it, I reach out to local scenes, and that’s kind of the spirit of the project. well there is a lot around people every day. People don’t seem to realise just how much is around them – I use the detectors that show us how much metal is in our environment as a kind of analogy to local music.
You also have an interesting piece relating to Athlone can you talk a bit about that?
A lot of people don’t know this but Athlone, it was the centre of broadcasting in Ireland, with Raidio na hEireann. So there were two radio transmitters in Ireland prior to the building of the radio transmitter in Athlone in 1927 – there was one in Dublin and one in Cork. But they were low-scale and they didn’t really transmit outside of the cities.
The government at this time, they had two largescale projects that the created at the foundation of the state (before it became a Republic). So they built Ardnacrusha, which is the hydroelectric dam at the end of the Shannon in Clare, and they also built the Moydrun electric transmitter in Athlone. Athlone is in a unique situation in Ireland… it has four generations of broadcasting and that is quite rare in Europe. It’s particularly rare in Athlone. It’s a big town, and a nice town, but it’s not a major city. It was the terminus for many different things like the rail lines, but now you have to go to Dublin or to Galway to get to Sligo. But even before the rail network, everything else went through Athlone because the Shannon goes through Athlone, and it connected Athlone to other parts of the country. So, it made sense then to use the canal networks to bring a lot of the equipment and rail network to Athlone, and then to Moydrum.
Athlone has an original Marconi transmitter – England doesn’t even have any anymore. I recall Marconi worked throughout much of Ireland forming the transatlantic broadcasting technology. Up and after independence. I think it got too fussy for him…. a lot of his Anglo-Irish patrons upped and jumped ship. They were getting pushed out, the big houses were getting burnt down. To be on the site of Moydrum, it is a big house and it is the cover of U2’s album, The Unforgettable Fire. I’m not a big U2 fan but you can look it up!
So I thought all this history was really interesting, and for the project I wanted to work with that history in mind. So we would build crystal set radios, and the idea was to make a documentary about this history and about this workshop, and then broadcast it through AM radio waves and then listen to it through these crystal set radios. The Luan had an open call which I applied for, and I didn’t get it. I thought: ah crap, well anyway look I did all this research, so I’ll try and pull it off myself. So, I applied for Arts Council funding. And I got enough to produce the project myself, and then I contacted the Luan. And they were like, alright! I guess I explained my case a bit better the second time round. This is how galleries work, you can’t just roll up and expect to get anywhere. Only applying to open calls all the time, no-one will ever know what the hell you’re doing, you must be that bit bolder. They lent me the use of their space downstairs for the exhibition aspect of the project, I did a workshop and I collaborated with the local radio station Athlone Community Radio. It’s part of the Craol networks, which is a kind of community radio network in Ireland, and they have an office near Limerick.
Anyway, I was in touch with this woman called Mary Lennon who was the director of the station, and then through art networks, I was in touch with Owen Francis McCormack who was in the same year as me in college. I also knew his brother Cathal when he would come up to visit Eóin, and Cathal had also done work with the community radio station as well. Anyway, he sorted me out and helped me with the project. We also had participants from the local graphic design course from Athlone Institute of Technology, and we had some participants through open call through the radio station.
When I kind of came up with the idea, I didn’t realise how powerful your transmitter needs to be for crystal set to pick it up. AM radio will amplify a signal, whereas a crystal set has no amplification, because there’s no power going through it except the radio waves, so you could pick up radio on them because that is still being broadcast on AM. But that is about the only thing being broadcast on AM except for on the low wave you get a lot of churches in rural communities that broadcast sermons so that the infirm or the housebound can listen to mass. The cathedral in Athlone. That was the idea to see out this project through this community focused workshop, and that is what we did. And it was a great success – everyone was pretty was happy in terms of participation. It was part of this online exhibition called Project Anywhere which is based out of New School Parsons in New York. Sean …… I had gotten in that year.
And that helped a lot, in terms of funding and getting people to take the project more seriously. In that way external accreditation is very useful – the crowd in New York don’t know me from Adam, but the crowd at home are ‘this guy, we should know about him if he is working in New York and abroad’! It’s a way to communicate that you can produce what you claim to be capable of. You must show these signifiers. That’s the aim of the game I wouldn’t knock anyone for it. People won’t know unless you tell them. Don’t assume that people will know that you are this really talented fella, because at the end of the day, they are people with jobs. They would love to be reading e-mails from everyone, but they have to talk to some superior who is in charge of their funding or whatever depending on how the model of their institute works.
Your work seems to have a DIY aesthetic that shows through, and not only in your efforts to get projects going. Is it intentional?
I’m not so concerned with aesthetics. Aesthetics are just going to happen. I’m not saying that I’m anti-aesthetic, that’s a ridiculous position to put yourself in – there’s aesthetic in everything, you can kind of choose to author it I suppose – but I’m not trying not to be aware of the traditional aesthetic authorship that is in fine art for the most part. Because I feel that it is very contrived, and a lot of people are doing things and they don’t really know why they have made things look a certain way. The appearance is just something that is going to happen. I’m more interested in the mechanics of how participatory art works. I kind of do have some aesthetic acknowledgements, I have cultural references within the work, but they’re more kind of like easter eggs to broader ideas. Because ideally those ideas are kind of written in how the ideas are integrated. I suppose because I stop at a certain point where other people might make it look finished, you know? And not really focusing on the core of what it is that is the work.
If I was to say there’s anything that truly ties my work together, it would be that I’m interested in cultural coding. I’m interested in language too. For me, the focus on music and language is one and the same and it is also to do with technology. There is a way of figuring out our environment through these mediums.
Saying that, socially engaged art often has detractors why do you think that is?
Yeah, that kind of cynicism, it comes about for a reason. That is because a lot of stuff that says it’s socially engaged really isn’t what it says it is, and it’s given a lot of social practice a bad name as a result. I think there is just a culture that has evolved from the idea of social practice, collaborative art, whatever you want to call it. That form of art making has wound up filling a gap in local councils’ budgets as a replacement in some cases to social workers, because these projects are cheaper. I think it’s a mistake to conflate the two.
Saying that, I don’t think the majority of people are worn out by actual socially engaged practice. I just think a lot of people are protective of their discipline in a dogmatic way, in the same sense that people are protective of their religion, but I think that there are two sides to it… it has kind of gotten a bad name for itself, but there is an irrational side to that scepticism.
I would like to touch on something that is important to me, and get your thoughts on it: dyslexia. We have both been diagnosed with it, and we both have gone through the educational system.
Dyslexia is a nebulous thing, I think a lot of things get lumped in together with – it’s because it is hard to pin it down as any one thing. There are probably hundreds of different reading disabilities, and I wasn’t severely dyslexic. After having a period in my life where everyone else could read and I couldn’t read, I learned to read a lot quicker than my peers. After fourth class, once I did learn to read, I kind of went very quickly from there. But I think the main thing was that it affected me creatively, and I think a lot of dyslexics have had a similar experience. When many of us were in school and tried to pretend that we were doing work, and also during time when people were reading, we had to invert into our own minds and our imaginations. And meanwhile the schools weren’t identifying that we were having trouble reading. I think they are a lot better now today. I think a lot of dyslexics wound up in art college because they were doodling in their books the whole time. None of the scribbly stuff made any sense to them! That period in my life formed me as a person, but I wouldn’t say I’m a dyslexic, because I don’t think it’s fair on people who actually struggle with language problems for me to say that I am still a dyslexic, because it doesn’t affect my day to day life. I make mistakes when I’m spelling, but I get by with spellcheck.
Let’s talk a bit about your influences.
I’m a bit of an artistic misanthrope – I don’t get really fanboy-ish about other artists. I can appreciate good work but I don’t get into someone’s practice so much. There are a few people that I kind of generally like what they do, like Mark Manders the sculptor – I used to be really into him while I was in college. I do feel if you say that if you say you like an artist, people look for their influence in what you do. saying that I really like my peers. In Helsinki in particular, there is like a ton of amazing artists that I’ve met. Looking back, the majority of the reasons why I make things is because the so much of mainstream art really annoys me. I think the stuff that gets attention is put on a pedestal, and there is far more interesting stuff being made by marginalised artists. Artists who don’t have a whole press office behind them putting their name forward. And when people ask you, what artist are you into? I don’t know. Not to sound like a big hipster,I really don’t care for it. it’s just how I feel. I really don’t like the overhyping of certain work. I don’t want to look at it. I don’t want anyone telling me what is good – I want to decide for myself.
When it comes to painting, I understand there is a history there, and I like a lot of painting… you have to ask what you’re doing when you are physically participating with an art form that has existed for five hundred-odd years. When you think of Renaissance period, there are aspects to painting that are so redundant… remnants of tradition.
So, people don’t ask. There are a lot of good painters we have today been a lot of painters are just focused on pigment which I think is just amazing I think it’s interesting. But then the question is what kind of pigment are we talking about? So, we are talking about pigment and we are talking about paint and pigment through painting and painting through painting and that is cool but then what? I kinda get a bit bored cos people are continuing to have the same conversations and they are not getting to any more of a point, and I’m not saying I do is better or something huge gaps between what I do. But that is what makes art good when there is actual huge cognitive dissonance in what we are doing cos it’s not meant to be perfect it’s not a science.
I could talk about writers that I really like?
If I was going to say writers I would have to say Warren Ellis. That was one of the first people who introduced me to a lot. My school of philosophy was all though these comic book writers that would insert philosophy into their work – Grant Morrison, Garth Ennis. There was a point in time where I was buying anything with Warren Ellis name on it. Another one is Paul Chadwick, who wrote Concrete which used to be under the Dark Horse imprint. Even aspects of comics I like Thargs editorial in 2000AD.
A good book that I got recently is Sonic Warfare by Steve Goodman. He is a DJ and academic. he is more famous for being a DJ than being an academic but it’s a cool book that I’m enjoying reading.
Reading seems to be a big influence and core part of your practice.
I’ll admit, we all bought into this idea of artistic research. I’m as guilty as anyone for doing it. We have to look at the history of artistic research, because in the nineties it came about… it came about because artists wanted to access funding and because institutions expect the scientific model in funding applications. This is why we are all trad disciplinary stuff, or really deep end self-referential art for artists.
I just don’t know how people don’t read a lot about before they go about their practice, you know? You’re making an artwork about something, you are saying you have some sort of authority about the subject, unless you are very airy fairy and all about experiential stuff (and I wouldn’t totally rule that out or detract from that). There are different ways of being creative, but for me, everything creative is: you’re presenting to the public. That indicates you have something to say about a subject, some sort of insight, ergo some sort of authority. I wouldn’t be so brash as to say that I am the utmost authority or that I’m an expert, but I feel that when I say something, I have done what I can to research what I am talking about.
But at the same time… how can you not want to know about things?
You can find out more about Steve’s work through his website link below