Joanne Olivia interviews the guerrilla artists known as Subset on their work and goals for the future.
I met with a Subset spokesperson in their studio inside a church building in Rathgar. Preparing for the interview ruled out asking any personal questions, since Subset prefer to be seen as collective, rather than individual people. Despite their work being followed and viewed by over 10,000 people globally, they find social media “unsettling.” This is because their work is carried out illegally, and they, understandably, want to have control over who knows about them.
The multidisciplinary art studio is mainly known for its large scale murals around Dublin’s city centre. Speaking about the legality of their work is unavoidable. Over the last year, their paintings have stirred up a lot of discussions about large scale outdoor artwork in Dublin, which is currently regulated by the Council’s Planning and Development Act. This Act requires artists to apply for planning permission for installation of such artwork, which Subset frequently fails to do.
Currently, Subset puts up their artwork and paints over it once they have received a letter from the council, asking them to do so. This procedure has taken from as little as three days to as long as one year, making it difficult for them to work as a business.
Given the scale of the artwork and the current laws in place, I found it fascinating to learn that they can only recall one or two incidences where people tried to interfere while they were painting a wall
The painting that first brought a lot of attention to the group was a giant photo-realistic mural of the Grime artist Stormzy, painted on a wall just off the Smithfield Market in Dublin 7. The group had to remove it towards the end of last year. Given the scale of the artwork and the current laws in place, I found it fascinating to learn that they can only recall one or two incidences where people tried to interfere while they were painting a wall, to which they argued, “it is only illegal from the perspective of the Planning and Development Act, but we had permission from the building’s owner.”
When asked if they have ever applied for planning permission for any of their murals, they openly stated they have not and that they did not feel it was suitable, “rightly or wrongly that’s just how we felt.” When quizzed for more details as to why it was not suitable, they spoke about long application times and read an excerpt from the current City Art Council’s mission, which encourages the temporary use of unused sites and buildings for art installations. “That is their current policy, but then if you look at their other stuff [Dublin City Council Planning and Development Act], it is all contradictory.”
Looking towards the future, they hope on changing the council’s policies to be more accommodating. To achieve this, they put together a proposal in which they suggest more flexible licenses, with a faster registration process to the council. “Obviously we understand that this is not going to be accepted immediately, but we want to have a conversation, where we are sitting at the table as equals.”
Their ideal outcome from the discussions would be for the artist’s community to have the possibility to use council approved spaces, for a determined period of time, at an administrative fee. The most important part is that the space would be signed off by Dublin City Council for all types of artwork (given they are not defamatory, derogatory, or similar) and not just one pre-approved art piece. Another key part, is that the artwork in question would no longer be approved by the department of Planning and Development but by members of the art community.
In their ambitious mission to turn Dublin into an outdoor art gallery, they would not only love to see changes for established artists but also believe that outlets and spaces for young people could reduce vandalism and enhance the aesthetic of neglected areas. “Right now there is no place for people who show an interest in it [graffiti] and want to progress, opposed to just tag a building.” They compare the situation to that of children playing football in a “ball game prohibited” area, due to the lack of football pitches. “We are not saying that it is going to eliminate it [vandalism] but we believe that most people are trying to do the right thing, if they can.”
The project runs during the months of March and April and aims to highlight the current situation with the Council through “a revolutionary measure.”
When they discussed some of their other pieces, they preferred to speak about their artistic work rather than their commercial projects, “art is the main thing we want to do.” Since the current laws make that difficult and discussions for change will take a long time, they started a project called “Grey Area”, which is entirely artistic and run without clients. “Just art for art’s sake.” The project runs during the months of March and April and aims to highlight the current situation with the Council through “a revolutionary measure.”
Over the last weeks several murals were already put up in collaboration with many other artists, such as the Irish muralist and illustrator Dan Leo. “Grey Area” is planned to end on the 22nd of April with a total completion of 25 murals around Dublin city.
To find out more about Subset you can follow @Subset on Instagram or @SubsetDublin on Twitter.