Making ‘Are We There Yet ?’

The incredible thing about this project is the speed with which it has begun to take shape.

There was a certain amount of circular faffing at the start, but then its final form made itself clear and from that point on it has been trundling along steadily. This is always a good sign.  Of course this must be tempered with the risk of simply falling into a too familiar route, and repeating what’s gone before. But equally if it is just ‘not working’ then probably it’s not supposed to.

Some projects just grow legs of their own.

This one has proved particularly enjoyable because of the involvement of other living beings! so often artwork is made alone with the materials and not much else, it’s been a real pleasure to be deeply involved with the shared memories of other protagonists as well as my own vision of what it needs to be.

The Project

The Old Fire Station building in Rathmines has a long and interesting history. The walk through of the site was amazing, the building just has so much character. 

The brief was to make a work that both responded to this and also recognised its newest incarnations as an art centre. The work should also be something that had a specific presence on the opening night AND would be kept in situ afterwards. So, no pressure!

First instincts suggested something techy, interactive and installed. But I began to move away from this to something more tactile. I was also acutely aware of the needs of the building. I didn’t want to interfere with the fabric of the building in any way,and I knew that there would be other art works going into it in the future, so whatever I added must be something that would politely take a back seat when something else held the  lime light. A sound piece – my first thought – was NOT going to cut the mustard! I was also aware that people and other artworks of various dimensions would have to be moved around in the space, so intrusive objects or wires were not an option. Surprising sometimes how the practicalities will influence the finished work.

In fact, the idea that presented itself in the end fit all these requirements. And it was this, a series of constructions, that I chose in the end.  One area of the building that defied this approach was the bathrooms, and yet I didn’t want to ignore them so these had a companion piece approach. A temporary installation on the night, and also one that would wash away.  I kept this to myself till I was certain it would work!

The next stage was to start researching for the constructions.

Background to the project

the MART building has had several incarnations over the last two hundred or so years and the brief was to respond to this with a work that referenced the history without being historical, and to make something that would both be part of the opening night event and also stay in place afterwards.

this is how the idea for the constructions evolved, first of all to make objects in advance but also to have an object created on the opening night by visitor to the exhibitions – they too would leave their mark and their record would then also form part of the whole.

I began by finding out more about the history and more importantly about the people who inhabited the space. initially the dates  I was working to were inaccurate, but in the end we got that sorted out with only minor delays. (It is at moment like these that I meet my inner pedant).

The Building went up in the early part of the 19th C, probably with people living in it by 1837, this was just the tail end of the Georgian period, the transitional moment to Victorian. The house was a posh residence  in a village on the outskirts of Dublin, pretty much surrounded by fields but a busy spot none the less.

By 1899 it had become a library which remained until 1914 when it was handed over to the newly formed municipal Fire Service.  At this stage the current front gallery was where the fire tenders were parked, there is even a circular trapdoor in the ceiling for a fireman’s pole. The next group to use it was Civil Defence who arrived in 1982 and stayed till 1993. From then on it was pigeons until MART took it on in 2009 until the opening – now  – in 2013. This was the starting point. A record of people and their activates in the same location over 176 years. (Oh, and there’s a ghost too).

Research Visits

July 22:  Civil Dense HQ & the National Museum

Was invited to visit the HQ of the Civil Defence in Dublin and went to the Collins Barracks Museum to research for the residence.

The Civil Defence have an office near the Croppy Acre, to get in the gate takes quite a feat of daring crossing several traffic lanes on a bend and aiming for a gap on a corner. I was welcomed in by Bernie and James and shown around the collection of historic materials and around the complex, giving a really good insight into what goes on there. It’s very varied, what stuck in my head was a big training diorama of the station, lots of model buildings. that and dials and tubes – I was very impressed with a Geiger counter!


The costume collections in the National Museum were a useful source of imagery and mood for the residence, as were the furnished rooms and silver collection.  I was tweeting about it when I got a DM from the museum PR department, were and want was a ‘AWTY’ ?  – They were relieved to hear it wasn’t an exhibit they hadn’t hear of.


Aug 2: the Fire Service Archive

Just back from the fire service museum and training centre in Marino.  A-Mazing! And Firemen to boot!


Not surprisingly Fire Engine red became an important element, although not from the tenders, but from the many 19th Century red painted wooden carts. Soot and blackened surfaces got noticed, and lined paper, as many records were kept. The centre had quite a lot unexpected items. A big collection of model fire engines donated over the years by enthusiasts, a lot of badges and plaques. Posters and paintings by firemen.

We all clambered into the training house, soot on the ceilings, but mostly just dark.  The lights were turned off to show me,  as dark as Kilkenny caves.  the Batman made a boot print for me, hard enough to make and to find suitable dust. the atmosphere inside the fake ‘scene’ was quite disturbing.


Paul told me that a firemen could hear what the fire was going to do next.  you could hear it, sense from its particular sound what it was going to do next. It might be minding its own business and then you would hear a hiss and know something was going to change, something that told you to move.  It sounded like an elemental being with a will of its own. Now firemen wear helmets over their ears, how do they listen to the fire?

The Breathing Apparatus (BA’s)  make that sucky sound associated with divers, to check for sounds of life everyone stops breathing inside and listens out carefully.

I came  away with a bit from an old burnt and blackened fire helmet, just the right material. And a strong impression of over painted red wood, the sort of thing that’s been repainted a few times too often, so  its got layers and is that odd dead official shade.

The Rest

It’s surprisingly hard to find pigeon feathers when you need them! There’s a lot of Magpie feathers around though, maybe there’s a connection. 

The old loos are just too much fun, like something straight out of Harry Potter. They have old brown and cream tiles all over every surface, and that lovely hollow sound only got in proper institutional facilities.

I had a planned to put down ephemeral footprints using prints taken from the firemen and from images of wet foot prints. I would use the sort of wipe away chalk shops use on their windows to write signs. But in the end they didn’t run with this. Pity, I had some nice footprints all ready to go.

Any remaining research  – old libraries  –  was done online, searching Google images and checking reference books

MAKING the Constructions


I started by collecting found materials and various objects I needed to use, like painting with things instead of pigment. I also wanted to make receptacles for each construction, and to make sure each one was relevant. This first stage took about 10 days to complete with a lot of waiting for layers and glue to dry.


So, wax encrusted wood for the Residence lined with patterned paper and jacquard. The Civil Defence had to be in a biscuit tin, with a lot of enamel. Fire engine red and black for the Fire Service,  a reproduction of a book spine for the library. I had thought to use a hollowed out book but then decided it might be too heavy. It also proved very hard to find something suitable. 


The pigeon construction took a lot of effort, chopping down an old wooden crate and then reconstructing and painting it the way  wanted it.

The constructions are put together.

I discovered the joys of Epoxy Resin – WOW – it’ll glue anything to anything. I just don’t know how long these hovering objects will resist gravity.


The house was full of fumes of various glues and paints, I had to repaint the fire engine red a few times to get the right shade. I discovered the historical dates were a bit later than I thought so went with shiny red enamel in the end, and brass fittings for the Fire service. I have been rummaging around in charity stores for weeks sourcing the materials.  In the end I had to go to a builder suppliers for the brass, I got lucky though the Blackrock Builders Suppliers who gave me a bundle of just want I needed for two euro – just enough bendy bits of brass piping to give the right impression.  I had to put weights on the objects to make sure they stuck on. The Fire Service box is looking good and it had been the one that gave me most problems.


After a while I got the library sorted out, searching long and hard for old books to cannibalise for the spines, but of course as soon as I started looking there were none to be found! In the end – pure luck! I found a new delivery of old books in my favourite hunting ground for stuff  –  the community shop in Dun Laoghaire  – and got a bundle of the perfect old spines there, and these formed the core of the library construction.

The Civil Defence construction took a bit of resourcing too.  I decided it should include a trophy, there seemed to be a lot of those, and ideally a lot more badges would have been included but I couldn’t find any. I think these things suddenly become fashionable and then they all disappear. I expect some festival goers are festooned with old badges in the mud somewhere right now feeling uber cool.

I had acrylic, oil, stone, emulsion and enamel paint all on the go at once.  Copious amounts of PVA, nails and staples and hammers. There was a LOT of construction involved. And fun.


The Last Piece

Aug 21: I talk to McGregor’s Plastics.  And of course I could have done this weeks ago but I didn’t so now with 10 days to go I am looking for the plastic – Perspex case in fact – for the final element of the construction.

I call McGregor Plastics and talk to Bernard. thank goodness I did – there are logistical issues – the Perspex can be brittle, I will need a shelf doe it to sit on, it may need to be screwed onto the shelf – ‘to stop some eejit knicking it’  he advises, but I am thinking stability. I have to talk to Matt about this, they have assured me they can mount anything on the wall, but is this a bridge too far?

The case must be robust enough to take people dropping in items, and clear and strong enough  to remain in place as the display. I may need to fiddle with the objects to make the repository look good, and it may need to have hole drilled in the base to be screwed to the shelf, so in that case when do I make any adjustments? If it is full of stuff, it can’t be screwed in, I am thinking about how to navigate this now.

In the end I go in and Brendan spends a long time explaining the technical requirements, and I point excitedly at various shapes of curved Perspex constructions. The shape and requirements are settled. It will be curved edges and have wings for securing to the wall, be an enclosed box with a lid. It will sit on a shelf. I hope my idea for it will work on the night!

It will be ready for collection just in time.


The inaugural MART opens on Sept Wednesday 4th at 6pm with an event on the following Saturday 7th at 7pm.


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