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How great thou art: Facebook embraces Irish creativity

Dublin HQ of the social media giant is a hotbed of artistic activity and dynamism

Over the last two years, a number of artists, Irish or with strong Irish links, have participated in Facebook's artist-in-residence programme and/or made site-specific commissioned work for its head office on Grand Canal Square next to the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

Most of the work is of significant scale and site-specific. The programme is overseen by curator Josephine Kelliher (of the Rubicon Gallery).

The growing list of artists involved includes Rhona Byrne, Anita Groener, Maggie Madden, Lucy McKenna, The Project Twins (James and Michael Fitzgerald), Gabhann Dunne, Anna Doran, Patrick Michael Fitzgerald, Richard Forrest, Sam Le Bas, Miranda Blennerhassett, Nevercrew and James Earley.

Shortly, works by Mark Joyce and Vanessa Donoso Lopez will be added.

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Dublin became Facebook’s international headquarters quite early on in its history, in 2008, starting with a team of about 40 people.

It moved into its current premises a little over two years ago, in mid-2014, and has already secured the adjoining building.

That start-up team of 40 has grown, and grown exponentially since the latest move, to something in the region of 1,500, a number that breaks down into 52 teams and a startling 72 nationalities.

They are overseen by Irishman Gareth Lambe – his mother is Basque and he has fluent Spanish – who previously worked for PayPal.

They deal with the myriad layers of Facebook activity in the EU, the Middle East and Africa (EMEA) – with a considerable majority of its members, that is to say.

Dublin is the largest office outside the company's home base in Menlo Park, California (not to mention its pending data centre in Clonee, Co Meath).

Creative energy

Lambe is extremely supportive of the art programme.

“I love that it’s not a question of commissioning art for the lobby. It is for the employees, and it is derived from our culture as a company. The artists come in and meet us, they get to know us, and they integrate.

“We hope that it’s mutually beneficial. Facebook is innovative. Innovation and creativity are absolutely central, and we see the role of the artists as very much part of that. We don’t tell them what to do. That’s up to them.”

He and Kelliher point to the value of “a porous corporate community”; one that is not closed off and inward looking, but invites unpredictable creative energy from outside the corporate boundary.

Facebook is an exemplary business of the digital age. It is everywhere and nowhere. It exists primarily in the virtual space created by the social exchanges between well over 1.5 billion people.

It materialises fleetingly on the touch-screens of smartphones and vanishes as easily. At the same time, as its offices demonstrate, it does also touch down in the real world. Apart from Menlo Park and Dublin, there are substantial offices at Lake Union Seattle and in New York.

It would be an understatement to say that, as a company, Facebook had a steep learning curve.

As with other internet-based enterprises, it was in uncharted territory.

Established by Mark Zuckerberg and friends only in 2004, it effectively took the idea of the American university student directory – the original, literal "face book" – and launched it into the vast virtual space generated by mobile communications technology and the internet.

Initially conceived as a relatively contained academic entity, after halting, sporadic and sometimes acrimonious beginnings it became apparent that the online social network was uncannily well-suited to rapidly developing technology, especially the emergent smartphone.

Mysterious world

Just 10 years ago, Facebook opened membership to anyone over 13 years old with an email address. Almost immediately afterwards, the first iPhone ushered in the touch-screen age and Facebook blossomed.

You might think that when Facebook looked to placing art in its buildings, it would accentuate its virtual nature and aim for correspondingly virtual art.

As the artists involved in its Irish programme have learned, that is not the case.

Quite the reverse, in fact.

“Facebook is,” says Kelliher, “this mysterious, virtual world, but as you discover when you spend time here, and as Anita [Groener] discovered, it’s also a world of living, breathing people. Anita decided to try to draw a picture of this complex, diverse community.”

Groener, who is Dutch by birth though long resident in Ireland, produced a dazzling wall-mounted installation that addresses the cultural diversity of the Facebook community and diversity in general. It's a "people-map" that visualises myriad individual voices and connections.

In line with the Silicon Valley ethos that it more or less invented, Facebook is famously unorthodox when it comes to the concept of the office.

It actively aims for an unfinished, open-ended, work-in-progress aesthetic.

Daniel Libeskind had designed the Dublin building, but Frank Gehry, the architectural poet of structural surprise, is Facebook's house architect, and he refashioned the interior, importing his trademark floating plywood panels, disrupting predictability, opening up unexpected spaces, views and angles – and some of the building's inner workings.

The uniform grid of workstation cubicles is conspicuously absent.

There are indeed workstations, but they are open and exceptionally generous in scale. Worktables in expansive rows are obliquely angled rather than being set in a grid.

Open spaces appear throughout, alternative activities are accommodated and encouraged, uniformity is absent.

Quietly persuasive

The site-specific art is distributed throughout and is part of the environment. Workers live with it, encountering it daily, and they are even encouraged to try for themselves some of the means by which it is made.

Like Groener, Miranda Blennerhassett picked up on the heterogeneous cultural mix of 72 nationalities sharing one location.

Working from floor to floor, she created a subtle succession of hand-painted wallpaper designs, drawing on decorative conventions from Renaissance Italy, Morocco, Islamic wall tiles, vernacular Scandinavia and belle époque France. It's very clever and quietly persuasive.

Rhona Byrne refers to the practice of teamwork, and our capacity to create personal spaces in office settings. Her “Huddlewear” consists of shared, wearable structures, “social clothing”.

Lucy McKenna has made a beautiful sculptural interpretation of the visualisation of information. It hovers in a Gehry void.

Maggie Madden was already making extraordinarily fine sculptural constructions using strands of fibre optic cable and is completely at home in the context.

In the café, Gabhann Dunne made a great sequence of detailed botanical murals of edible and medicinal plants.

Patrick Michael Fizgerald has consistently used the idea of networks in his paintings and his mural is a brilliantly vibrant celebration of desire paths – the routes we create informally on the received structures we inherit, be they physical, technological, emotional or intellectual.

All of this work addresses the nature of Facebook’s activities but also much more besides.

Bold experiment

The reasons why Facebook did not opt for virtual corporate art have to do with Zuckerberg himself and with the artist Drew Bennett who initiated and is in charge of the residency programme in Menlo Park.

In 2007, Zuckerberg visited Bennett's studio near San Francisco Bay and engaged him to make murals for the company's offices, then in Palo Alto. Bennett worked for four months, out of office hours – that is, through the night.

In fact, Zuckerberg had, right from the beginning, engaged artists who made actual, physical artworks, though initially with a rougher edge, typified by the exuberant expressionism of muralist and street artist David Choe who, wisely as it happened, accepted company shares instead of cash for his original commission.

In time, Zuckerberg came back to Bennett, who instituted the current more diverse, structured artist-in-residence programme.

Bennett’s conviction was and is that “a dialogue between many different visual languages is inherently more interesting than any one visual language alone”.

At heart, he is set against picking up art in galleries or auction houses and committed to bringing artists into the office environment.

The artists become for a time workers – for a fee rather than for stock options. Facebook also runs what it calls an Analog Research Lab at Menlo, an exceptionally well resources screen-print workshop that invites worker participation.

Some of the work, in the form of posters, can been seen throughout the buildings. There is a very productive Irish offshoot, the Analogue Lab outpost.

Something of the street art, strongly graphic mood exemplified by Choe is evident in some of the work in Grand Canal Square, in pieces by James Earley, Sam Le Bas, Nevercrew (Christian Rebecchi and Pablo Togni) and The Project Twins (who really are twins, James and Michael Fitzgerald).

Overall though, it is the tremendous range of the work in the building that is especially impressive, and in tune with Gehry’s liking for the unexpected and unforeseen.

In terms of the relations between business and art, the programme is a bold experiment that justifies the company’s claims for innovative thinking.