Wednesday, 30 March 2016

Slack space #1: Temple Bar

Slack space. That's those abandoned places you come across along the street, the empty shops and warehouses and other buildings just crying out to be taken over and transformed by the likes of artists, cultural groups, squatters and/or homeless people.

From book #1 onwards, the Dublin settings in the Moss Reid series have involved a slack space or two. Since the recession there's been a lot of them about.

But believe it or not, the term comes from the world of computer storage, disk fragmentation and digital forensics. Wikipedia currently has a damn good definition of it as...
"The unused space at the end of a file in a file system that uses fixed size clusters (so if the file is smaller than the fixed block size then the unused space is simply left). Often contains deleted information from previous uses of the block."
(And in modern crime fiction, of course, users' ignorance of how their PCs manage memory is a frequent theme, because while incriminating content may seem to be gone it's still there all the time, large fragments tucked away in various storage locations and easy to retrieve.)

But back to slack space in the sense of how artists and cultural organisations fill in these unused spaces in a cityscape. Slack space is cheap or even free, and it's almost inevitably in the "wrong" area of town.

A classic example in Dublin is Temple Bar back in the 1980s. The district was seriously run down, many of the properties were in poor repair or derelict, and the State-owned transport company CIÉ was beginning to amass a landbank to build a new bus station there.

During this landbanking process, the company made the sensible decision not to demolish these buildings but to rent them out on cheap short-term lets to artists, galleries, small restaurants and boutique retailers.

Budding young bands would rehearse there too, and afterwards down pints in the Norseman (to a time-traveller from today the pub would be unrecognisable). They'd also gig in a narrow cellar around the corner on Dame Street called the Underground (now Club Lapello, a strip joint).

But after protests about the looming destruction of this historic part of town, the bus terminus plan fell through; in the early 1990s the authorities intervened to turn Temple Bar into Dublin’s official "cultural quarter", its "south bank".

Several major arts organisations established themselves in the district. Some have become important flagship projects and are still around today, such as the Irish Film Institute, the Gallery of Photography, the Project arts centre and TBGS (Temple Bar Gallery + Studios).

But creating a city's "officially designated arts zone" by committee, reining in a relatively organic process in order to turn it into a more top-down one, can be fraught with unforeseen consequences.

Between the grand plans and quangos, before you know it they've put up the metaphorical fairy lights, revamped the cobbles, knocked down a few Georgian houses on Essex Quay, put up several dysfunctional new buildings, dragged in the brand gurus to design a new logo for the area, got the tourism board to fly in a few travel writers for freebie weekend-aways, and driven the actual artists and "bohemians" out of the bohemian district.

Temple Bar evolved into a tourist trap, the Temple of Bars. It was overpriced, overhyped and absolutely heaving with stag and hen parties, drunks and pickpockets. It's not so bad first thing in the morning, but my Moss Reid character would normally steer well clear of the kip later on - particularly after midnight, when its streets can turn pretty ugly.

Do a search on Google for "Temple Bar" videos: nowadays you're more likely to get late-night running street battles, or gardai hassling buskers, rather than the more safe and sanitised French clip I've dug up for this blog post.

The clip's tagline near the end says it all really: "A Temple Bar, c'est tous les jours la St Patrick!!"

Yes indeed. Nowadays in Temple Bar every day is St Patrick's Day, with more diddley-eye music pubs than artist studios. Which may suit the tourists and publicans and our Arts and Heritage Minister, but it doesn't do much for the artists around the city any more.

If you're looking for the latest slack space, it's to be found elsewhere now...