Arts co-operative draws on ‘free space’ to create a community-focused ethos

A ‘social experiment’ in arts and cultural participation faces a precarious future

At Exchange Dublin all decisions are made collectively. Photograph: Dave Meehan

At Exchange Dublin all decisions are made collectively. Photograph: Dave Meehan


At Exchange Dublin, a free space run by an arts co-operative on Exchange Street in west Temple Bar, all decisions are made collectively. Participants at the weekly Wednesday meetings sit in a circle greeting contributions to the floor with hand gestures popularised by the Occupy movement.

Making a triangle with your fingers, for example, means you have a point of order. Waving your hands with palms outward indicates agreement. “Let’s jazz hands,” jokes one volunteer, when she wants to take the temperature on an issue.

For four years the Exchange has been serving as an open access, alcohol-free, all-ages space for a variety of art and community endeavours – vegan groups, youth groups, exhibitions, language classes, martial arts classes and dance classes. (There’s a West African dance class in progress when I arrive). On Mondays the vegan collective Ruuts and Shuuts host a Kindness Cafe which offers free food to homeless people, while Open Cinema provide celluloid entertainment.

“Formerly, this space sold highly priced sofas,” says Thomas Stewart, one of the volunteers.

Stewart is a friendly, sandal-wearing young man who occasionally adopts strange contorted poses mid-conversation (it’s a t’ai chi-type exercise that’s particularly good for the lower back, he tells me). “The Exchange was set up with the assistance of Project Arts Centre and Temple Bar Cultural Trust and Dublin County Council in order to provide an intergenerational space and an intercultural space,” he explains.

“It’s a sort of social experiment in terms of how arts and cultural participation and production could be done.”

Standing outside the venue (the African drumming was getting a bit loud) Stewart and fellow volunteers Teene Bapping Chol and Luanne Gilligan-Gaye tell me about the venue’s open-door, community-focused ethos.

There are 24 volunteers in total. They are no longer connected to the Project Arts Centre and none of the original founders, such as former political candidate Dylan Haskins, is still involved.

Gilligan-Gay has a background in community work and activism, sometimes busks as “the Invisible Man” and got involved here soon after the Exchange hosted an exhibition of kaleidoscopes made by her husband Paul Gay.

Teene Bapping Chol (20) walked by one evening during an event hosted by the storytelling group Milk and Cookies and has been volunteering ever since.

“This is an attempt to generate a community,” says Stewart. And there’s a buzz of activity. One of Paul Gay’s kaleidoscopes is still in the centre of the main room.

There’s the African drumming and dancing. A man and a woman are wandering around with a film camera. (“It’s art!” says the woman). Bapping Chol is preparing to do some stand-up comedy later in the evening. A weathered-looking man with a rucksack comes in and makes a cup of coffee. Coffee is probably one of our biggest expenses,” says Babbing Chol.

Drawing class
At one point there’s a bit of a dispute about the gallery space. “A girl from the drawing class wanted to draw on the walls, but there’s an exhibition on and the people exhibiting didn’t want her to,” explains Gilligan-Gaye. “Part of this,” says Stewart, “is about people learning how to work together.”

Anyone can visit, or, with a bit of planning, exhibit at the Exchange. This open approach leads to some interesting exhibits. “A young man was in last week,” says Luanne Gilligan-Gaye. “He had a sign up, a definition of ‘exchange’. He started with a triangle on the wall and then painted around it again and again until it filled the whole wall.

And the next day he drew a rectangle and did it all again.”

The place gives people a creative outlet, says Stewart. “A lot of people from 16 to 30 don’t have jobs and we provide a space where they can get busy doing projects.”

Later, at the meeting, visitors of varying ages, nationalities and backgrounds outline projects they would like to use the space for (the proposals include a short film production and a photography exhibition) while the rest assent with the aforementioned “jazz hands”. Some people are succinct and to the point. Some ramble.

A man asks if there are plans to do anything special on Culture Night to which Stewart responds: “It’s Culture Night here seven nights a week for 365 days a year, so nothing different.”

However, the future of Exchange Dublin is in doubt. As control of the building passes from the soon-to-be defunct Temple Bar Cultural Trust to Dublin City Council, the volunteers have been given an ultimatum. Some neighbours maintain that congregating young people have been the cause of antisocial behaviour and the collective has been given until the end of September to address these issues or leave the space.

“It has become chaotic,” explains Councillor Mannix Flynn, formerly a supporter of the project. “At this point it’s not working and it’s impacting negatively on businesses and residents . . . but if they adjust their game I can’t see why they would be kicked out the door.”

Unique nature
Volunteers stress the unique nature of what they do and say they are doing their best to address any issues their neighbours might have. They feel a bit abandoned. “When there’s a crash, spaces open up because nobody wants to do anything [commercial] with them,” says Stewart. “[Groups like Exchange Dublin] bring activity and value to neighbourhoods but when the areas gentrify they get moved on.

Some say, ‘Oh, that’s terribly nice as a pop up’ but they’re really against anything being here on a prolonged basis . . . We believe spaces like this should exist in the city.”