Responding to the theme of Freespace of this year’s Biennale, Free Market highlights the generosity, humanity and possibilities of the Irish rural market town, within an experiential pavilion that is provocative and informative.
The rural town is an important place in Ireland, with a unique identity. These towns are characterised by distinct urban cultures and engrained systems of social, cultural and commercial exchange. While many of these towns are now facing significant economic challenges, Free Market questions the common story of their decline and explores the opportunities and solutions that can be found within the towns themselves.
In particular the exhibition focuses on the market places around which many rural towns were built. Historically, these were the economic and social hubs of the surrounding rural communities. Since the early twentieth century however, many of these market places have seen their function as a place for exchange and encounter reduced. Free Market reasserts the rural market place as a public place of social, political and cultural exchange, central to community cohesion and resilience.
The theme of Free Market emerged from the shared interests of the six curators who are all passionate about the public spaces and lives of Irish towns and in various ways have been working on this theme for many years.
As well as incorporating stories from towns right across Ireland, Free Market focuses on 10 selected towns as case studies. These market towns, with populations of between 1,500 and 5,000 people, demonstrate various urban forms, typical challenges facing towns today, and also the unique identity that characterises rural market towns in Ireland.
Free Market imagines a vibrant future for Irish rural towns but also highlights that urgent change is required. While there are swathes of well-intentioned policies, plans and frameworks relating to towns, there is a disconnect between people and plans, a lack of actual change and many poor planning decisions being made on the ground.
Free Market highlights three interconnected ways to provoke change: changes in policy, changes in behaviour and changes in how design happens. The curators believe that people must be placed at the heart of this conversation and that exchange can be fostered within the very core of towns to strengthen their communities. They have chosen to focus not on grand masterplans but on the opportunities within the everyday.
The concept of exchange is central to how the Free Market pavilion is experienced and brought to life by its visitors as it provides a series of engaging spaces to interact with the various displays, establish connections and exchange ideas. The pavilion has been designed to resonate with the characteristics of a typical Irish market place through its spaces, proportion, texture, colour and sound. Within the overall structure of the pavilion architectural models and drawings describe the historic, contemporary and aspirational conditions of the towns and these overlap with contextual soundscapes, stories, photographs and writings.
Visitors are provided with the opportunity to linger on steps reading the pavilion’s newspaper, Free Market News, browse through the Town Bookshelf, a collection of books related to towns in Ireland and around the world and sit in snug seats and listen to the audio work, Sound Travels, while they watch passers-by. Patterned tiling evokes the thresholds and doorways of the typical shops and bars that surround Irish market squares, while places to perch recall the generosity of window cills, as they offer an informal place for pause, chance meetings or a chat.
Building on the generosity of the Freespace theme and the curators’ own approach to collaborative working, Free Market acknowledges the wealth of thinking and research that has already been undertaken on the subject of Irish rural towns. Examining and documenting the everyday life of towns, the exhibition incorporates new commissions and existing work from a broad range of contributors: architects, poets, artists, planners, heritage consultants, small business owners, graphic designers, theorists, critics, policy makers, community activists, photographers.
Bringing together a multiplicity of viewpoints and voices was central to the curators’ concept for Free Market and by including the work of fiction writers, artists, poets and playwrights to explore the character and nuance of the language and life of small towns, it provides a space for ‘deep curiosity, imagination and creativity’, in direct response to the Freespace manifesto.
Free Market is conceived as an ongoing project and the exhibition at the Biennale di Venezia is just the starting point of a longer process. The pavilion has been specifically designed as a light weight modular structure that can be transported back to Ireland in 2019, where it will tour some of the featured towns, gathering more findings and directly engaging with the people who live there. Rather than being shown in dedicated venues, the pavilion design allows for it to be positioned in various configurations on the market places themselves, where it will provide a place to discuss, debate and contribute to the Free Market project. The tour will culminate in a symposium on the future of towns, which will be an opportunity to share all that has been learned along the way and prompt action.
“Our ambition for Free Market is that it will be a catalyst for change in these towns, which are critical to the character of the country. Action is needed but should be generated from within the towns themselves in response to their own needs, opportunities and unique character. We hope that by presenting Free Market at La Biennale di Venezia that we can inspire new conversations about the resilience of rural towns not just in Ireland but also in an international context,” Co-curators Jeffrey Bolhuis, Jo Anne Butler, Miriam Delaney, Tara Kennedy, Laurence Lord and Orla Murphy.
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