Thursday, 5 March 2015

The Mystery of the Museum Rest and the dead drop

This is the twisting tale of two adjacent buildings in Stoneybatter. Both have almost disappeared, physically speaking, yet somehow they continue to tell their stories. In their crumbling, decaying state they have become a piece of art.

But where to begin? Near the end of their lives as a collection of bricks and mortar I guess. Even at the height of the property boom madness, Dublin had way too many derelict buildings. Often large tracts of them, passed by, unwanted, left to rot away, sometimes even ignored by the builders and speculators.

One such unwanted property was number 6 Benburb Street, near the Dice Bar and the corner of Queen Street. It used to be a shop, had been empty for a year or two and...

No, stop the lights, I tell a lie. Sometimes the empty buildings around town were wanted. Wanted by kids, cats, pigeons, squatters, scrap hunters, junkies, or homeless people looking for a night's sleep.

But time's arrow and the second law of thermodynamics always have their way in the end: roofs and gutters leak, windows are broken, doors smashed, the rain seeps in, timbers rot, weeds grow, junk accumulates, nature begins to take hold again, things fall apart.

Or there's a fire.

For some strange reason the fires in abandoned buildings across the city seem to cluster around bank holiday weekends. On St Patrick's Day in 2012 there were several fires in the city; one was at 6 Benburb Street.

The blaze spread next door to the Museum Rest pub at number 5. And such is the age we live in - in Dublin they say you're never more than eight yards away from a camera-phone - quite a few people filmed or photographed the scene during the next hours and days...

After the blaze the two buildings were gutted. That's "gutted" in the fire-damaged building sense, or the fresh mackerel sense, not the overpaid-soccer-star-who-has-just-missed-a-sitter sense. The two buildings' insides were filleted, most of the structure that held them up was gone or about to go.

The architectural experts and engineers declared them unsafe and beyond saving. Hegarty Demolition were called in to demolish the upper storeys. The two houses are next to the Luas line, so there were no trams between Heuston Station and the city centre that week.

To recap: there was a fire, most of number 6 and the pub next door had to be torn down, and that's about as much as - or much more than - many Dubliners knew or cared about the affair.

A slight inconvenience. That's all it meant for a few thousand commuters for a week after the Paddy's Day celebrations. Just a couple of paragraphs in your Metro Herald, "An Incident" on AA Roadwatch, an inconvenient roundabout journey if you were travelling to and from the railway station or to a Luas stop out in the suburbs.

After that it just meant yet a couple more derelict sites to ignore on your daily commute into Abbey Street or Jervis with Doireann Ní Bhriain.

I'm no architectural expert. Nor, thank goodness, is the main character in my detective novels, Moss Reid. But even I can grasp that the two houses were both (for want of a better phrase) rather special old museum pieces.

They have a long and rich history. In architecture-speak, they were originally gable-fronted in the Dutch Billy manner, and Dutch Billys are rare in Dublin. And seriously old. As the Dublin Civic Trust puts it in a detailed analysis of what made the two buildings special...

"...they likely date to the 1720s and were built as part of a regular terrace of houses on the main road leading to the newly built Royal Barracks, now Collins Barracks. They can be seen as 'developed' on Charles Brooking's map of 1727 and more specifically outlined on John Rocque’s map of 1756."

That's old. Think of it. The 1720s: two buildings older than the French Revolution and the Declaration of Independence in the 13 American colonies, older even than Gay Byrne or George III in Alan Bennett's Madness of King George. 

So these two buildings could tell you stories. Three centuries of them, of the succeeding generations who lived and loved and worked in them, of residents and tenants and landlords and barmen and shop girls and customers who went to them for their daily shopping or an evening pint. All this in a very old working-class enclave (which until very recently was also one of the city's most notorious red-light districts).

In October 2011 the Wasted on Archaeology blog - which seemed to be based across the road from the two houses - contrasted the Dutch Billy with the city's far more well-known Georgian townhouse architecture:

"The Billy form has continued to intrigue me over the years and as my political consciousness developed I began to see these buildings as ciphers for the hidden built history of the city’s working-class, a narrative dominated by an undue concentration on the Georgian town houses of the elite."

The mad thing is that although these two buildings were a matching pair, by 2012 only one of them - the already derelict number 6 - had made it onto the RPS (the city council's Record of Protected Structures) as a listed structure.

Number 5 - which was still intact before the fire, still a working pub and still in far better nick at the time as far as I know - poor number 5 didn't make it onto the list. That was probably down to the rendering on its front. I don't understand that bit.

You'd feel sorry for the pub's owners. It used to be a lively old-fashioned place run by the Bradish family. In fact everything about the place was old-fashioned, in the good old sense.

In the Noughties the building had a goth-black exterior, its front window had stuffed animals and stained glass. A couple of years before the fire the frontage was redecorated: some black was kept, as was the old-fashioned gold lettering (though the "t" in "Museum Rest" was still AWOL), and the rest of the facade became a fire-engine red.

Inside, the decor used to be striped green wallpaper and wooden floors; long, narrow seats in green leather; old walking sticks hanging from the walls; framed pictures of Dublin in the rare aul times; a wood-burning stove in the corner; a TV almost always bubbling away with the racing or a match; and the Erin Go Bragh GAA club doing their Friday night lotto draw. About the only thing missing was the spit and sawdust.

We all assumed the pub took its name (its ultimate name before the fire I mean) from the National Museum further down the road. Yet Collins Barracks only became a museum in 1997, so they must have renamed the pub shortly after that.

What was it called before that? I can't remember, though in the 1950s and 1960s it was the Regal.

Here's a 1971 photo from the Dublin City Library's archives, with a shiny Morris Minor parked in front. Sandwiched between two shops, the bar may have been going through bad times back then too, judging by the corrugated sheeting...

After the fire of 2012, somebody painted cartoon-black doors and grey shutters on number 6, as if it were a mirror twin from a primitivist art class.

Then in May 2014 the council granted planning permission for a new three-storey-over-basement building on the site of number 5, with a "reinstated public house" on the ground floor/basement, and a two-bedroom apartment above with a roof garden.

The planning permission specified that the developer would need to employ an archaeologist, so who knows what older histories might be unearthed during the excavation and construction work.

The 'Talk Through Me' project

But there is another strange twist in the story of the two buildings. In May 2014 number 5 finally became listed, not as a protected structure this time but as part of the "Talk Through Me" art project.

Embedded in the mortar of the remaining front wall is a USB memory stick. Sticks were also implanted in four derelict buildings at Fishamble Street, Usher's Quay, Parnell Street and 30 Manor Street in Stoneybatter.

As the project's anonymous artist explains:

Talk Through Me is a public artwork that aims to engage the Dublin public in a conversation regarding the histories of the many derelict properties littering the city. 
During the course of this ongoing project, USB flash drives were covertly installed into derelict buildings across the city. 
Their fortunes having changed with the many booms and recessions that they have faced, each building starts a new exchange with the viewer, acting as a conduit to offer an alternative possibility for production and distribution free from the panoptic surveillance of the internet.
The USB flash drives embedded within these buildings offer the viewer/ converser an opportunity to upload or download information and opinions in an off the grid environment, the conversation starting with the voice of the building itself, a covertly obtained sound recording from within its walls, loaded onto the USB. 
The choice to use USB drives as the medium is a deliberate one, not only do they provide an anonymous, technologically untraceable space for engagement, but they also offer the possibility of future obsolescence. 
Susceptible to the elements and to technological advancement, any discussions saved to these drives will eventually become inaccessible, remaining lodged within the building as an antiquated splinter.
The flash drive is still there - though I reckon it's embedded in number 6 Benburb Street rather than number 5. It's still rusting away, still jutting out from the wall by a little over a centimetre, as unobvious as the head of an old nail.

And what data does the USB stick contain? Who is the artist? What is the next twist in the story?

Sorry, I haven't a clue. Really. It's a complete mystery.

I guess I got a bit scared about the idea of my laptop having unprotected sex (of the digital variety) with a USB stick against a wall on Benburb Street.

If you know any more about the project, please tell us below.

You can see the USB key sticking out at the very bottom left of the above photo. Apologies that the rusty old thing is a bit blurry in the pic below, but you get the general idea...

The 'Dead Drops' project

Postscript: at first I thought it was a highly original art project about dereliction and public spaces (albeit off-the-grid ones). You could almost see the spy fiction already.

Then I came across the Dead Drops art project, which was started in 2010 by German artist Aram Bartholl in New York City. Even its very title mimicks classic espionage lingo...
‘Dead Drops’ is an anonymous, offline, peer to peer file-sharing network in public space. USB flash drives are embedded into walls, buildings and curbs accessible to anybody in public space. Everyone is invited to drop or find files on a dead drop. Plug your laptop to a wall, house or pole to share your favorite files and data. Each dead drop is installed empty except a readme.txt file explaining the project.

Bartholl had an art project at MoMA in New York in a 2011 show - the show had the same "Talk to Me" title. Go figure.

The ‘Dead Drops’ website has a database/map of USB dead drops around the world. For Ireland, it doesn't list the Museum Rest in Dublin, though apparently  there used to be a 2GB USB drop at Fade Street in the city centre, and a 32GB one at Old Abbey Street in Howth, across from the harbour, as well as one in Navan and two in Northern Ireland.