The fifth post in our series celebrating Gender, Place and Culture turning 25, is by Lorna O’Hara, a feminist activist and final year PhD student at the Department of Geography, Maynooth University (Ireland). Here Lorna explores abortion rights activism and the power of public art in Dublin, Ireland, which forms the focus of her current research.
To find out more about how the journal is marking it’s 25th year, you can read Editor Pamela Moss’s post here. Please also follow us on Twitter and Facebook and include the hashtag #GPC@25. If you’d like to contribute to the series, please contact us at email@example.com.
On the 8th of July 2016 the Repeal the 8th mural by well-known Irish graffiti artist Maser was unveiled on the exterior wall of the Project Arts Centre in Temple Bar in Dublin, Ireland (image 1). Just over two weeks later the mural, which called for the repeal of the 8th Amendment, a law that equates a grown woman’s life to that of a foetus, had been taken down. The removal was ordered by Dublin City Council Planning, on the grounds that the mural violated planning law. This was also prompted by a number of complaints from “pro-life” supporters that the centre had received regarding the piece (O’Sullivan, 2016).
Image 1: The mural created by Maser on the exterior wall of the Project Arts Centre, Temple Bar, Dublin. (Source: author, 2016)
To me, the mural’s removal was a further slap in the face to the women of Ireland who not only lack full bodily autonomy already, but have also had to endure a number of other hurtful and stigmatising anti-choice messages, including false images of “aborted” foetuses, that have been plastered in a range of public spaces, from bus stops to billboards. In recent years women have had their senses assaulted by the likes of the Youth Defence’s infamous ‘Abortion Tears Her Life Apart’ outdoor billboard campaign back in 2012, as well as their insensitively placed anti-abortion ad truck in 2013 (see Image 2), which at one point occupied a space just outside the Rape Crisis Centre (Hosford, 2013). Ironically, Cora Sherlock, spokesperson for the anti-choice group Precious Life, in her critique of the mural lamented that there wasn’t “the slightest chance that it [The Project Arts Centre] would have allowed, for example, a mural being placed on its building giving voice to women’s feelings of abortion regret” (quoted in Brophy, 2016). Such a statement is particularly incongruous considering the fact that Youth Defence’s campaign, which has already occupied enough public space in its attempt to conquer hearts and minds was exactly that; an image of a young woman’s “abortion regret”.
Image 2: Youth Defence’s anti-abortion billboard parked outside the National Rape Crisis Centre, Lower Leeson Street, Dublin (source: Broadsheet, 2013)
Of course the removal of the mural did little to silence the Repeal the 8th Campaign. Within a few hours of its removal the hashtag #repealthe8th was trending on Twitter and newsfeeds were filled with tweets expressing indignation at what has been deemed “anti-choice censorship”. For Andrea Horan of The HunReal Issues, the group that originally commissioned the mural, the removal was perhaps more for generating debate and discussion about the campaign. Ultimately the controversy created by the mural not only succeeded in being, what Sarah Pierce, Chair of the Board of the Project Arts Centre described “a reminder that art matters” (quoted in O’Sullivan, 2016) but also a reminder that, as geographer Doreen Massey (2005) argued a long time ago, that space matters too.
Social power and social resistance are always spatial (Cresswell, 1996). The built environment is the materialisation of meaning, meanings that are created by dominant groups in society (ibid). Street art acts as a challenge to the authority of public urban space and serves as “an evocative form of place making, ranging from pure resistance and contestation to public place beautification” (Visconti, 2010: 513). Street art can be a particularly powerful and transgressive tool for challenging the hegemonic male meanings that are typically built into public urban space (see McDowell and Sharp, 1997). Despite the fact that the piece itself was created by a male artist, in a country where women’s bodies have been particularly controlled and regulated by the state — from Magdalene Laundries and symphysiotomies to its current restrictive abortions laws – the mural is a powerful public challenge to the dominant power structures shaping our public urban landscapes at multiple scales. Furthermore, it’s placement outside, rather than inside the gallery, in such a prominent public space in the heart of Dublin is an important part of its power. Indeed, this was exactly the point of the mural according to Horan “I wanted to make feminism accessible, where you didn’t have to be academic to engage […] we wanted to open the issues up to people who aren’t necessarily engaged in politics and currents affairs and to make something they wanted to engage in” (quoted in Fegan, 2016).
Image 3: The mural the day before removal (source: Author, 2016)
The fact that this was the first time that Project Arts had ever received a planning order to remove a piece (O’Sullivan, 2016) speaks volumes about who owns and has control over public space and hence over discourse in Ireland; indeed it would appear that only those who can afford to run big public advertisement campaigns can presume to speak so openly about abortion. While the original mural has been painted over, it has since become one of the most recognisable symbols of the Repeal movement nationally and internationally, appearing online, on T-shirts/bodies, posters and flyers, and projected onto buildings both inside and outside of Dublin. Technology, which has become so embedded in the material space of the city, merging on and offline spaces, has given street art – which has traditionally been an extremely transient urban art form –a certain degree of permanence. It’s now clearer than ever that painting over this mural was purely a symbolic act, which only ended up adding more fuel to the rapidly growing pro-choice movement in Ireland.
“Repeal 8th” appears in the windows of the building facing the Project Arts Centre just hours after the mural’s removal (Source: Panti Bliss, 2016)
Brophy, D (2016) ‘Repeal the 8th’ mural in Temple Bar removed due to planning rules. The Journal [Online] 25 July 2016. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/mural-removed-temple-bar-2894027-Jul2016/ (last accessed: 26 July 2016)
Cresswell, T. (1996). In place-out of place: geography, ideology, and transgression. U of Minnesota Press.O’Hara, L (2016)
Fegan, J (2016) Complaints over ‘Repeal the 8th’ art in Temple Bar. Irish Examiner [Online] 19 July 2016. Available at: http://www.irishexaminer.com/ireland/complaints-over-repeal-the-8th-art-in-temple-bar-411022.html (last accessed: 26 July 2016).
Freeman, M (2012) Anti-abortion billboards ‘do not speak for majority of women’. The Journal [Online] 17 June 2012. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/abortion-billboards-pro-life-choice-ireland-490249-Jun2012/ (last accessed: 26 July 2016).
Hosford, P (2013) Billboard company discontinues Youth Defence campaign after Rape Crisis Centre incident. The Journal [Online] 25 July 2016. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/admobile-company-drops-youth-defence-after-rape-crisis-incident-969637-Jun2013/ (last accessed: 26 July 2016)
Lord, S (2012) Column: This campaign is offensive – and flies in the face of the facts. The Journal [Online] 22 June 2012. Available at: http://www.thejournal.ie/readme/abortion-billboards-youth-defence-pro-choice-495237-Jun2012/ (last accessed: 26 July)
Massey, D (2005) For Space. London: Sage Publications.
McDowell, L., & Sharpe, J. P. (1997). Space, gender, knowledge: Feminist readings. London: Arnold.
O’Hara, L (2016) Street Harassment: Creative Place-based interventions. Unpublished paper presented at: Conference of Irish Geographers. Dublin, 5-7 May 2016.
O’Sullivan, K (2016) Maser Artwork Subject to Planning Permission to Be Taken Down. The Project Arts Centre [Online]. 25 July 2016. Available at: http://projectartscentre.ie/maser-artwork-subject-planning-permission-taken/ (last accessed: 26 July 2016)
Visconti, L. M., Sherry, J. F., Borghini, S., & Anderson, L. (2010). Street art, sweet art? Reclaiming the “public” in public place. Journal of Consumer Research, 37(3), 511-529.