Art meets activism to highlight housing crisis

by Rachel Cunningham
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Rachel Cunningham

Artists and activists have come together to give a voice to the real people and lives behind Ireland’s housing crisis in Multi-Story’s, ‘The Apology’. The performance, which premiered online on Tuesday last offers the public apology that the organisers feel remains conspicuously absent from Ireland’s public discourse. 

Presented as part of an online gathering of housing activists, people affected by the crisis, community groups, artists and other interested parties, this was the first public act from ‘Multi-Story – Creative Engagement for Housing Change’, a project by artists Fiona Whelan, Feidlim Cannon and Housing Action Now.

Housing Action Now (HAN) is a collective of community workers, researchers, activists and artists concerned with the growing housing crisis in Ireland. HAN member and spokesperson for the event, John Bissett, explained to the Dublin Gazette: “There’s a history of working with the arts as a medium to display political and economic struggles, from street demonstrations to music and theatre performances. One of the great things about the arts is that people are interested in participating and it leaves a lasting effect.

“We began two years ago, thinking that we would do this project in person, but it’s all been done online. We’ve done workshops with different groups and organisations from all over the country, like traveller groups, people from direct provision, public housing groups, tenants unions, etc. That mixture of people has come together to create the essence of ‘The Apology’.”

RTE Screenshot from “The Apology”

“This project involves a meeting of arts and activism. The arts with their potential to tell stories, make hidden realities visible and move and connect people emotionally and activism, with all its strategies for social change,” said artist Fiona Whelan.

She continued: “When arts and activism meet, alternative realities can be imagined into existence. ‘The Apology’ is part of that reimagining. It takes the form of a performative apology, which publicly acknowledges the failures of the state with regards to housing policy and provision in this country.”

Mr Bissett stated: “The problem at the heart of the Irish housing system is that housing has become a commodity for profit. We have created an ‘apology’ from An Taoiseach to remind him that it is the responsibility of the state to provide secure, affordable and appropriate housing for everyone who needs it.

“Through issuing an apology on his behalf, we are sending a message to the government that housing justice is not about profit for an elite, it is about valuing all people in Ireland, equally, by providing secure, affordable and appropriate public housing.”

“In 2016, we had Alan Kelly’s housing plan, in 2018, we had Eoghan Murphy’s housing plan, in 2020, we had Darragh O’Brien’s. So far, nothing has changed significantly. The state remains captive to the market model of housing, which thrives on scarcity and high rent.

“We are now in a worse position than we were in 2007. It’s down to private actors controlling and monopolising the housing system and the state won’t take them on”, Mr Bisset concluded.

A member of the initiative, who lives in direct provision and asked to remain anonymous, said: “Direct provision is an inhumane system. Some centres are badly managed, where whole families, including children, are all living in one room. The worst part is that it isolates us from the wider community, making us live on the edge of society. We want an end to the direct provision system and, instead, to be given the chance to live within the community so that we can contribute to Irish society.”

Mitch Hamilton from the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU), added: “After nearly a decade living in Dublin, I’ve endured mould, cramped spaces, poor maintenance and rents increasing faster than I can afford. I’ve witnessed illegal evictions where the powers of justice and public order were used to aid abusive landlords forcing people from their homes rather than defend those most vulnerable in our society.”

Multi-Story is supported by Create, the national development agency for collaborative arts, through the Arts Council’s Commissions Award 2020.

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