Space and Collaboration

Monica Flynn interviews Rachel Brown and Brighdin Farren about their curatorial project Brown & Bri.

An interview on behalf of the Visual Artists News Sheet, May-June 2010,published by Visual Artists Ireland.  All Images selected by Brown & Bri from the photographic archive at Belfast Exposed Photography’.

Monica Flynn: How did your collaboration begin?
Brighdin Farren: Rachel and I joined Catalyst Arts in Belfast in 2007 as directors. During the summer of 2008 we worked on The Garden Project and thought we should work together more. Neither Rachel nor I knew Belfast or each other before 2007, so Catalyst gave us a very direct route into the heart of the contemporary art scene and a comprehensive understanding of how it functions and maintains itself, we could therefore see how we could build on this.

Rachel Brown:  I moved to Belfast solely for Catalyst and arrived here not knowing the city or anyone in it. Naïve as it sounds, I found the experience completely inspiring. Being at Catalyst placed me in the middle of an existing community, where Bri and I developed similar ideas for how to contribute locally.

MF: What in particular about Belfast interests you both?

RB: Belfast has a great base and tradition of artist-led, grassroots initiatives. I have a lot of respect for the work that is being produced and how the scene here supports that production – including how it has supported us.

BF: Belfast is a gem. It doesn’t give much away to the uninitiated, you have to spend time, to look and listen, but as you do, it becomes very apparent that it’s a special place. Not unique. There are a lot of post-conflict cities, a lot of places with quality product and poor infrastructure, but for Rachel and I, the attraction lies in the potential.

MF: Can you briefly outline your curatorial approach?

BF: Brown & Bri is a curatorial project. Our work is very much a creative practice and in some ways difficult to define. We are interested in the machinery of the art world, interpreting its formats and functions and discovering how we as curators or artists or two people working together can contribute.

RB: Design by committee can be problematic but the feeling of being a necessary part of something good – a genuine collaboration – is what we’re trying to instigate with Brown & Bri for both ourselves and the people we work with. Overall we are concerned with space and collaboration.

MF: Would ideas like Mary Jane Jacob’s interest in creating a non-authoritarian ‘spaces of permission’ (1) have influenced your approach?

RB: I wouldn’t use the word ‘permission’, but we are interested in providing the frameworks that allow work to happen. The restrictions and opportunities that we encounter here in Belfast are shaping what we do more than anything else.

We’re learning a very broad trade through the very specific case study of Belfast. Some individuals and organisations here have been supportive and influential – including Hugh Mulholland, Pauline Hadaway, John Duncan and Factotum.

Artists who work collaboratively are of interest to us, for example Broomberg & Chanarin, who we’re working with currently on a commission for the new gallery at Belfast Exposed. Or Elmgreen and Dragset. The Centrifugal project is also interesting to us (of which Daniel Jewesbury and Aisling O’Beirn are the Belfast wing). More generally, Paul O’Neill’s writings have been very useful in trying to define what it is we’re doing.

BF: I think ‘permission’ for us is as much of a complex term for us as it was for Mary Jane Jacob. While we manoeuvre ourselves into positions of being able to allocate practical and necessary things, like funds and venues, we do try to approach making work, curating exhibitions and in turn steering experiences with subtlety and sensitivity.

We are concerned with creating space for artists and for audiences. Each requires different considerations, in order to provide a sense of support without necessarily determining or demanding outcomes. Our key concerns are to create an environment that allows for rest; along with constructing experiences of working with us that leave our collaborators / audiences with understandings that have arisen quite intuitively.

I like Mary Jacobs’s thoughts about listening (2), to listen helps to build an awareness of why you’re doing something, whatever it is, and for whom you’re doing it.

MF: Your approach brings to mind Agamben’s idea of the ‘coming community’ (3) – in that you utilise social occasions that encourage connections.

BF: Your parallel makes sense, at least in the beginnings of what we try to do. However it is important for us though that the majority of times there is a realisable outcome, whether that’s a photograph, an exhibition, an event or initiating an ongoing collaborative relationship.

Creating and orchestrating circumstances for certain selected people to meet is a large part of what we do. Food is an important tool we use to help with this. Meeting and inviting interesting artists to come to Belfast and in turn having them meet with local practitioners generates a certain discussion. Meeting and inviting curators, critics and collectors into Belfast generates another, different, discussion; that of a greater awareness and interest in the good contemporary art being produced here.

RB: We’re concerned with Ireland’s position on the peripheries and how that affects its artistic output and international profile. The Northern Irish arts scene is of exceptional quality, wonderfully self-sufficient and largely free of bullshit. We want to support that. Often that’s through establishing and strengthening existing links locally and generating a more active, supportive (though not necessarily larger) arts audience. The next stage of this is to establish and strengthen links further afield, pricking the ‘bubble’ of the scene here with new work and new connections.

MF: Are you specifically aiming to engender a greater confidence and dismantle the sense of being on the periphery?

BF: Most people I know that devote their time to making art or would call themselves professional artists or photographers – they have plenty of confidence. They don’t necessarily need outside appraisal or approval.

Through working with other organisation’s budgets, we’ve brought interesting arts practitioners over to visit, but the main funding bodies here don’t allow for applications to bring curators, critics, collectors, which is frustrating. We’ve never been funded as an organisation, which is fine as we’re relatively new. However, you find ways. For example, we, along with the Contemporary Arts Society in London are organizing a group of 18 curators and collectors from major galleries and museums throughout the UK to visit Belfast in September 2010.

RB: Being on the periphery isn’t necessarily a bad thing – I wouldn’t want to dismantle that. The periphery of Europe is where we are. But where’s the centre? London, Berlin or Venice every two years? Our aim with bringing people over is just to open up new paths a little, whether to the ‘centres’ or to other peripheries. The arts community here has a huge amount to offer to other communities.

MF: So you don’t really think, as such that the Irish art scene is too turned in on itself?

RB: I don’t think we’re too turned in on ourselves. But I don’t think we reach out enough either though. Basically, the two should go together and find a balance – generating local energy and pushing for international profile.

BF: In an ideal efficient world, everyone has a fixed purpose and defined role that they can focus on and get really good at. Obviously that doesn’t happen, especially in a smaller city or region. Everyone here is stretched and we all on some level have to work as ambassadors. The contemporary art community is already working in these ways, looking out, looking in, bringing out and bringing in. We need more initiatives, agencies or official bodies whose role it is to shine a spotlight on this.

MF: Gatherings, be they collections of archive material or people seem to be important to what you do.

BF: It’s fair to say we are really excited by collections of photographs and of people. One of our current projects is working with Belfast Exposed Photography on commissioning and developing new work in response to their photographic archive of over 500,000 negatives. This is a huge project for us, which has several strands. It’s an amazing resource, both for research and focus for photographers, artists and academics as well as for us.

Less output driven projects would be The Sunday Society, Blind Date, Free Time and Sundays in Spring. These are about encounters and possibility. For example The Sunday Society relies on and is shaped entirely by the people who buy into it. Anyone can join the society, as long as they eat lunch with us and pay a fiver for it. Their fiver also allows them to submit an idea for a small-scale project. All the money goes into a kitty, which builds up until the society decides to cap it – at around a few hundred pounds. Over one of the lunches, society members vote on all the ideas proposed so far. Whichever idea gets the most votes gets all the money. So far we’ve collected a dozen or so proposals.

RB: This is just beginning really – our role in it is to host, coordinate and lead discussion when necessary. We try to keep a really light hand with it though, as it isn’t supposed to be Brown & Bri thing. We will shape the society and its decisions, but only as much as anyone who attends every one.

Our aims for the Sunday Society are similar to our aims for the Beggar’s Banquet, which we hosted as part of the Exchange Mechanism project at Belfast Exposed recently. We invited artists, architects, arts council and city council representatives, policy makers from home and further afield along with the public to attend a banquet. We had thirty guests around a banqueting table in the gallery for a three-course meal. The subject of the dinner table conversation was set out in the invitation – “A country that doesn’t invest in culture, is a country without a soul …how do we argue for the value of our work in the wake of economic crisis and cuts?” Everyone was invited to prepare a short toast to an event, individual, exhibition, policy or idea of their choice. We decided who would sit next to whom, people had to pass and pour for their neighbours. Certain dishes were for sharing … it was orchestrated, but hopefully in a subtle way.

Since Bri and I were cooking, we had to just set the scene and leave it. All we could hear were intermittent clink-clink-clinking of knives on glasses as people began toasts. It was better that way, I think. We had to exercise a bit of restraint – asking people to talk about their ideas is one of those things that shouldn’t be over-worked.


1. Mary Jane Jacob, “Making Space for Art”, in What Makes A Great Exhibition, Paula Marincola, Ed. (Philadelphia: Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative/Pew Charitable Trusts, 2006)

2. Ibid.

3. Giorgio Agamben, “The Coming Community”, Trans. Michael Hardt, from Theory Out of Bounds Series Volume 1, University of Minnesota Press, 1993


About Monica Flynn, visual artist, organiser, cultural freelancer

My work encompasses drawing, audio-visual media, photography and text, which I present as portraiture; staged events and as works co-authored with the audience. I also work in the area of event management, CPD for visual artists and as a freelance cultural project manager. One strand within my work at present reflects on groups and group action and the creation of events and happenings where I can engage others in dialogue or shared experience. At its core this work aims to explore the connections between the individual, the collective and our belief systems. Asking questions about collective agency and how we think and work in concert. I occasionally write responses to other artists’ works which can be found on my blog. I am a co-founder and board member of The Market Studios with Claire Behan and Deirdre Morrissey.
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