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People’s Land Trust Project progress report

Excerpt from the report written for the COMMISSIONING AND CURATING CONTEMPORARY PUBLIC ART course with Valand Academy at the University of Gothenburg.  
The progress report outlines the work undertaken through 2020 on the People’s Land Trust art project.

As the climate becomes wetter and tides higher, Cork city centre is undergoing a difficult transition. A river runs into the city splits and re-joins, exiting the city centre into Cork Harbour. This tidal river and the hills to the north and south create a basin that floods more and more often, damaging businesses and homes. Protesters claim that engineering works, proposed to stop flooding, will destroy the fabric and character of the city centre. An ideological clash is underway expressed by campaigns based on citizens right to the city and business’s right to trade without interruption. (Harvey, 2012) At the same moment in 2019, the city boundaries have been extended with an intention to increase the population of the city 300% by 2040. Land hoarding, national housing policy and the privatisation of public land, sit alongside a growing realisation among those who watch out for market advantage, that cheaper higher ground is worth investing in. In this context, the People’s Land Trust art project is asking the questions, how do we shape the urban places we live in? How can we do this in a collective way? How do we build a collective process and take responsibility for imaging the future? How can we construct a common vision of urban land use that applies to the present moment, yet transcends it to embrace unknown future possibilities. How do we collectively construct new social imaginaries?


The project has developed at a much slower rate than any project I’ve developed as a visual artist to date. The artwork has been carried out in partnership with artists, Colette Lewis and Elinor Rivers. We’ve been working together since early 2018, aligning through collaborative approaches to investigating the interrelationships of space, place and people. We’ve been experimenting and devising artistic methodologies, widely using performative actions, trans-pedagogical and dialogical strategies. The project sits on a shared understanding of our motivations and drives to practice social art. Those motivations in the Peoples Land Trust project broadly include; To engage with the lack of community-led grass roots processes of imagining the future city. To creatively problematise the use of urban land and resources and reflect on custodianship in urban places. To create a social art project within the dynamic transaction between – land law, community of place and artistic processes of enquiry. Within these motivations we have an opportunity to take into account the wider interconnected and future critical concerns of ecology, population, climate, social relations, public policy, cultural practices, city infrastructure, interspecies inhabitation, etc. We’re in continuous discussion, establishing and re-establishing the concerns that we use as a lens to shape this shared practice.


The political historian Avery Gordon suggests that asking what you’re against, is not the important question, what we are for, guides us towards what we want. She recommends rather than always responding to the latest urgency, we need to commit to the long game, building capacities and modes of working that can be scaled up later. (Gordon, 2020) On the hills to the north of the Lee river, you’ll find large pockets of the least economically resourced people in the city, sitting next to wealthy enclaves, yet that diversity has huge potential towards collective action. Developing the project we’ve brought together two methodological frameworks, a radical school (People’s Land Trust School) and the Community Land Trust model, as tools for civic engagement. (Brugeura, 2012) This projects creative process is initiated in the potentialities of bringing these two radical models together. It points to an interesting question that the writer Simon O’Sullivan poses, what affects are a body of people capable of generating? What might that body of people become? What ‘becoming’s’ might emerge that are usually unknown and unavailable to the individual body. (O’Sullivan, 2005)



As an expanded practice the Peoples Land Trust project is both a critique of the present and a call to the future. (O’Sullivan, 2005) A Community Land Trust (CLT) is a community-led mechanism for holding land in perpetuity for use by a community, developed out of ideas of common ownership and the stewardship of land or natural resources for future community benefit. Using the CLT framework, the artwork engages the model as a tool to transcend individual need and market driven modes of land ownership. CLT’s call for stewardship not speculation. CLT’s first developed in rural locations in the US in the late 1960’s and later in the 1980’s in urban spaces. The mechanism or model grew out of community activism, it was developed under the civil rights movement where black communities in Southern US organised to buy land as part of their struggle to gain the right to vote. Later in the ‘80’s the mechanism re-emerged across the US. CLT’s are adapted, by the communities who use the model, to the conditions and places they are applied in. This mechanism requires a community to investigate, debate, experiment, reflect, negotiate, and question. For our project the model offers a structuring apparatus and a focus for an emergent artistic process, for exchange, performativity, contestation and forms of deliberation as collective aesthetic experience. In other words, we understand the use of the CLT model as a device, or as Ranciere calls it, a ‘mediating third term’, an object, or story through which an artist can mediate collective experience, stimulate the production of new social knowledge or capture the public imaginary. (Rancière J. &., 2009) Advocates of the CLT tell us that the three aspects of the model; ‘Community’, ‘Land’ and ‘Trust’ have equal importance and need equal attention. Those using the model often face difficulty when ‘Community’ is formed tokenistically rather than in a grassroots way. The CLT objective of operating from within a cohesive group is a difficult and challenging goal. The Peoples Land Trust is interested in the problematics at play; how does a group of diverse people come together to share knowledge, dream and plan? How are relations created in a specific community? How do we notice what the dominant consensus obscures? How does a community sustain its existence when this includes obligations as much as entitlements. ‘Land’ is often understood as a resource, but a resource for who, what and when? Models of use are derived from different ideological positions that need to be unpacked. ‘Land ownership’ in Ireland is a complex and troubled concept, a challenging political terrain to traverse. As a model of land ownership the CLT is not without problematics, land in collective ownership can be interpreted by some as a type of enclave which mirrors the problematics of private ownership, this is a proposition to tease out. (Hilton, 2017) To begin we will explore models such as ‘the commons’ to imagine alternative ownership where principles include, “equal access, reciprocity between what is given and what is taken, collective decision making, and power from the ground up, derived from tested abilities and continually shifting through different subjects depending on the tasks to be performed…and egalitarian decision making”, as Caffentzis and Federici have described. (Caffentzis, 2014) Within the People’s Land Trust’s creative processes, we have an opportunity to expands these propositions to include wider ethical responsibilities to other species who live with us and share the resources that Land signifies. We may draw on Guattari’s idea of ‘ecosophy’, to develop an expanded understanding of the meaning of ecology as a realm involving the environmental, the social and the mental. (Guattari 2000)

While ‘Trust’ is the legal framework with the CLT, we might also interpret it as responsibility. Extrapolating from the concept of custodianship, a Trust can be interpreted as a type of long-term radical care in perpetuity. This points to an ethical question and a projection beyond ourselves; to others who we don’t know and cannot fully understand, to physical changes and manifestations of the places we inhabit, that we may not have the capacity to recognise. We might ask ourselves, as we project forward to inhabitation beyond our lifetime from our place in the present, how are our ethical positions informed in order to deal with this extreme timeframe? The Community Land Trust incidentally, is described as both a movement and a model. Over the past months we have become aware of a rising interest across Europe and in Ireland. A campaign is emerging in a number of European countries to see legal structures and policies written to allow for the CLT model to operate under their conveyancing laws. However communities in Belgium for instance, have found legal ‘work arounds’. The legal Trust framework is a potential space where this art project might contribute at a national policy level. Choosing to name the project the People’s Land Trust, (PLoT) plays on the title Community Land Trust. PLoT refers to plots or parcels of land, but People’s Land Trust, also plays with a particular resonance that the word ’People’ has in the city. A popular local joke declares that Cork city is the ‘Peoples Republic of Cork, the real capital. This cheekily references local feelings of competition with Irelands Capital city, Dublin. Switching out ‘Community’ with ‘People’s’ in the community land trust model, embeds the concept in the local context.



Over the course of the year, the project has generated a strong network of support with key community members and organisations on the northside. It’s supported on the ground by two groups in particular, Cork City Partnership (CCP) and Learning Neighbourhoods, both Cork City Council funded initiatives. In the CCP we have one particular advocate, a community development officer who has worked on the northside of the city for over twenty years. She was born in the locality, starting out in local activism and advocacy, and now working for the Partnership. The support is non-financial, but the groups give advice from their long-term community work, access to their community communication networks, introductions to community members. We’ve also developed a growing network of support from different grassroots community members including wardens and community project leaders who have given us feedback at different stages, they’ve talked to people about the project and introduced us to potential collaborators. As we developed the initial ideas, we discussed with our community advocates, how best to gather a community around a shared interest in future urban land use. In one of these discussions it was suggested by the CCP that we initially, ‘run a short course’. The CCP has huge experience and understanding of how people come together and what attracts interest. This is advice we took seriously and began to work through the possibilities that this suggestion offered. . Working through these ideas the ‘course’, transformed into the Peoples Land Trust School, a radical school, a creative and practical blend of art-making and pedagogy forming a transpedagogical space. (Helguera, 2011). Rosalind Krauss’s description of the expanded field of pedagogy in art, is central to our interpretation of the school. The expanded field of pedagogy recognises the creative performativity of the act of education, the collective construction of knowledge and the understanding of an artwork as a tool for understanding the world. This trans-pedagogical form of artmaking, Helguera has written, does not point at itself, but instead focusses on the social process of exchange. (Helguera, 2011) (Krauss, 1979) At a practical level, we’ve maintained the structural format of ‘a short course’, as it acts as a way to facilitate moments, short commitments and progressions. We propose to run a number of different six-week courses, meeting for 3hrs a week. Participants can choose if they want to continue their engagement with the project after the initial course, but ideally those who choose to stay with the school will influence or directly dictate the content of following courses. Also we realise, as it became more apparent that COVID-19 restrictions have a limiting effect on the number of people who can assemble for activities, this format has a practical advantage; meeting for educational activities is permitted under government restrictions. In the long run, the School can potentially host all sorts of instantiations, a market stall, library, pop-up cinema, café, workspace, public event and so on.


Conscious of being tasked with the difficult balance between, on the one hand offering an alternative pedagogical model, while at the same time outwardly projecting a conventional ‘course’ format, it means that the art project must explicitly describe the schools ideological position. We’ve agreed that the Peoples Land Trust School must declare its intention to introduce an alternative form of knowledge production and sharing, it must enact that claim, which we understand requires that we work with transparency and must prefigure horizontal relations. We are currently navigating this terrain, both in sharing the descriptions of the school activities, through the call for participation into the project, and also through the actions and activities that all of the course participants engage with, in the school. Over time we, as a community of learners, will enter into to the politics of the project and figure out for ourselves alternative ways to activate or enact change. We are building an ‘expanded art practice as the production of prototype subjectivities… from within the collective’. (O’Sullivan, 2005)


Several activities are running in parallel to bring the Peoples Land Trust School into existence. First, we’ve worked with our community network to reach participants, shifting the call out as much as possible, to include invitations coming from our advocates within the northside community. We followed their advice, creating flyers that can be handed directly from community representatives to residents who they feel would have an interest in the project. We’ve also left flyers in community hubs and posted them in community centres, cafes, libraries, and shops. A locally produced community newsletter, Mayfield Matters, also offered to publish an article briefly describing the art project, the CLT model and the radical school ethos.

New group exploring future land use in Cork’s northside.

Over the past month you may have come across a series of three billboards on the northside of the city with the words ‘Future, Land, Commons’. A new group of people are coming together over 2020/21 on the northside of Cork city to think creatively around the Community Land Trust model of urban land ownership. Ideas are being explored through a long-term art project called the People’s Land Trust initiated by three local artists Colette Lewis, Marilyn Lennon and Elinor Rivers. The project explores the model of the Community Land Trust as a way of opening up new thinking and possibilities in Cork City around the way we use and care for urban land into the future. Community Land Trust’s (CLT’s) first developed in rural locations in the US in the late 60’s and later in the 80’s in urban city spaces. The mechanism or model grew out of community activism, working from the civil rights movement and the idea of a ‘liveable city’. The model puts an emphasis on stewardship not speculation. Over time, local communities have developed ways to ethically own and manage land that benefits people both in the present and for the future. Under this model, city land is owned by the CLT forever. Land is leased by the Trust for activities, homes, buildings and structures that the community agrees are of benefit to the community. There are now hundreds of CLTs in the United States as well as in Canada, Australia, the UK and Belgium. While ‘Land Trusts’ exist in Ireland, a Community Land Trust model has yet to be established here. Currently, the People’s Land Trust art project is creating a ‘Radical School’ as a way to bring interested people together and to grow a new community with shared know-how. ‘Radical Schools’ are an alternative space for learning that has its roots in 1960’s South America. The thinking behind them is that learning can happen in an equal participatory way with everyone’s experience being valued and shared. In The People’s Land Trust School people will come together to learn about the Community Land Trust model and use their shared understanding to imagine how it could be adapted for Cork. This Autumn/Winter, the People’s Land Trust School will be running a short course in the northside of the city. Questions to be explored include; how do we as a community imagine approaches to collective stewardship and ownership of urban land? How do we leave a legacy of care for the land we live on for future generations? How do we take into account our changing world, work/life balance, and the sharing and enjoyment of outside space? What practical actions can we take to address climate change and the need to cultivate biodiversity? Activities will include walks/field trips, screenings, map-making, talks by local experts, discussions and creative workshops drawing on the history of land use in Ireland, local folklore, ecology and ‘future imagining” 

Mayfield Matters Newsletter, article . Published Oct-Nov edition

As mentioned in the Mayfield Matters article we also launched a billboard art project, ‘Future, Land, Commons’, to seed further interest in the project. The posters drew on a constructivist aesthetic, a type of propaganda for our social purposes. The billboards were posted in three northside city locations for almost three months from September, which we coordinated to launch on Culture Night 2020, giving the project a broader city-wide audience.


Building the short course, or programme of activities, was informed by our interpretation of the expanded field of pedagogy in art. As stated earlier, we relied on a number of values; the creative performativity of the act of education; the collective construction of knowledge and the understanding of an artwork as a tool for understanding the world. Developing a provisional six week programme, we proposed three starting points, • Participatory Decision Making • The Community Land Trust Model • Creative thinking to imagine, co-shape and co-build… Building on a foundation of participatory decision making, we imagine school activities as an interactive and interdisciplinary fusion of discussions, performative actions, screenings, creative workshops, field trips and invited contributors that might take into account wider interconnected future concerns of population, climate, social relations, cultural practices, city infrastructure and interspecies inhabitation. To develop the initial programme of activities, we have researched and discussed themes with project informants such as, Berlin based architect, Sabine Horlitz, an expert in the USA CLT model, who agreed to mentor us with the aid of Arts Council of Ireland funding. She has initiated a grassroots project adapting the CLT model for Berlin. She is well connected to the European and US CLT networks and also understands the complexities and antagonisms of building communities. There is a strong possibility for inter-CLT community exchange through her relationship to the Peoples Land Trust School. We have researched and spoken to a network of people who are helping us to think about creative activities. For instance we learned from Eve Campbell, an Irish archaeologist, that there’s a precedent in Irish rural history for forms of community management of land. Eve has studied an ancient system of rural community resource sharing on the western seaboard of Ireland. The system illustrates a deep community held interpretation of resource value and equitable distribution. Her work opens up a space for thinking about, temporal dimensions, embodiment, mapping and community negotiation. Simon O’Sullivan writes that the virtual is ‘the realm of the ‘not-yet-actualised’: a space of potentiality’. In an expanded art practice, he writes that ‘all materials might play a part in actualising these virtualities: maps, photographs, architectural plans – and any and all manipulations of these materials: drawing, painting – making and marking’. (O’Sullivan, 2005) We are developing an initial six-week course of activities that allows potentialities to manifest through these materials and processes. We are initiating a creative process that invites us all to become active interpreters of the processes, ideas, strategies and tools used in the school, and to translate these into our own lives. (Rancière J. &., 2009)


We have been offered a number of locations across the northside of the city to hold the People’s Land Trust School, including community centres, CCP training spaces, and two northside art spaces. The preferred location will depend on the participants needs. Moving the schools activities across different northside spaces is a potential option that accommodates a sense that the project belongs to the whole community. Non-traditional art spaces – Cork City Partnership building.


Under the suggestion of the CCP we asked anyone interested in participating on the short course to fill out an Expression of Interest form. We created a simple form based on one that is used across the northside by people interested in participating in various activities. The form asks a couple of questions, location, gender, age range, previous participation in community based activities, and contact details. We also used the form to ask permission to hold the information in line with GDPR regulations. In the event that we’re overwhelmed with potential participants the Expression of Interest form allows us to try to create as diverse a group as possible for the first iteration of the school and still hold contact details for another iteration. We received fifteen expressions of interest for the course, which we hoped would take place over October and November 2020. However COVID-19 government restrictions entered a higher level, this meant that we couldn’t find a venue that would host the School, only existing educational groups were permitted to use the spaces on the northside that we intended to use. We decided to contact all of our potential participants and suspend the course, but extended an invitation to meet together as a group offering various options. Ten of the potential participants agreed to the suggestion.



We are currently a group of fifteen, twelve participants from the northside who have signed up for the ‘short course’ along with us three artists. As the ‘short course’ has had to be cancelled until the new year we suggested that the group meet informally online. Ten participants took up the first invitation to meet the group on Zoom, the agreed platform. While participatory decision making, the CLT model and the ethos of the radical school were very briefly introduced, the main body of the zoom call was spent sharing and listening to each other tell short stories in response to two provocations mailed out in advance. We realised from this meeting that a group of three friends have joined the group who know each other from a local university, this is a dynamic we had not expected. We have noted that it mirrors our three member artist partnership and may reflect something back to us about ourselves in the group dynamic. The first meeting felt slightly unbalanced in terms of gender, there were only three men in the group. This led us to follow up on a suggestion to invite a young man known to one of our northside advocates who believed he would be interested in the project. He agreed and joined our second meeting. As a group we’ve met online twice, we’ve realised that this has created an interesting space, a pre-course moment, where our interactions are setting a precedent for School inter-relations. It’s already testing our desire to prefigure the ethos, power dynamics and creative approach of the entire project. Getting to know each other, school participants. At the end of the first meeting we extended an invitation to ‘a watch party’, an online gathering to watch a documentary together which traces twenty years of the Dudley Street Neighbourhood Initiative (DSNI), a ground-breaking community organised CLT in Boston, USA. This and other documentaries introduce the CLT’s histories of solidarity and its Civil Rights roots. As three artists who have been immersed in this material for almost a year, we consciously sat back and chose to listen more than speak in the discussion afterwards. At the end when a conversation began in response to the documentary, what became apparent was how aspects of the community organising depicted in the documentary were picked up and mapped back to the participants own experience, cross referencing and relating moments in the documentary to northside spaces, or personal stories. At one point in the documentary, a DSNI grassroots leader has a difficult negotiation with the city authorities. The community is asking permission to be able to use ‘designated authority’ to purchase a number of plots of land within a triangle in the Dudley street neighbourhood. We know this as compulsory purchase. This is a highly contentious act that the DSNI is requesting. The DSNI representative rolls a map of the world, inside the map of the Dudley street triangle, that is being taken into the meeting. At the meeting tension is high, as the map is rolled out the DSNI representative says, ‘this is all we’re asking for’, revealing the map of the world. It’s a joke that breaks the tension. In relation to the whole world the purchase of the small triangle of neighbourhood land should be a less difficult negotiation. (Mahan, 2016) Remarking on this moment, one of our school participants, pointed out this strategy with reference to the tactics of the twentieth century Irish union and labour leader James Connolly. The shared screening of this documentary is the beginning of a process of shared translation and adaption.


Rather than being an internalised process, when working in partnership creative thinking processes become externalised and exposed. As a partnership, writing funding creates a moment for alignment. We debate the detail of our project description and plans. The process reflects how we work together in the studio, we remain as open as possible to where a starting point leads to, it’s an ongoing creative act, a performance and an exploration of ambiguity. Working in this way is slower than working individually, it builds listening skills, we argue over detail, take positions, negotiate, evaluate and renegotiate, it’s a creative process. To date we’ve applied for four different funding streams, we’ve received two research and development funds, one from the local authority arts office and the second for research and development of collaborative arts from the Arts Council of Ireland. These funds have meant that we have secured fees for both a mentor, who I described earlier, and a witness writer Dr Noelle English who comes from a literary theory background, who we meet, on average, once every three weeks to reflect on the process so far. We decided to ask a writer to witness the work from early on, conscious that as a durational practice, tracking the project from within and from outside the work (non-artist practitioner) would give an interesting double perspective. Neither the format that her work will take, nor the context that her work will be disseminated in, have been fully decided, we are all happy to let that emerge as she herself interprets her particular interpretation of witnessing. Since presenting to the course a week before this text will be submitted, we received the news that we have been awarded the Arts Council Arts Participation Project Award. We decided to avoid applying for a number of art in context or collaborative arts awards. Those particular funding application criteria assume a core aspect of the artwork is to begin work within an existing defined community. Often applications for art in context or collaborative art must come from a community, who commission the artist to work with them. This model does not work for us. Through the Peoples Land Trust art project, a community is emerging, forming, becoming. Instead, we follow Miwon Kwon’s proposal of the idea of community as “a necessarily unstable and “inoperative” spectre, in order to think beyond formulaic prescriptions of community to open onto an altogether different model of collectivity and belonging”. (Kwon, 2004)


This report is written to reflect back on the theoretical and operational processes that scaffold the Peoples Land Trust social art practice as we’ve developed them over the past year. This moment in the project, is just before the School’s first short course is launched. Structures have been set up which are provisional and open for participant re-structuring and cocreativity. This proposition is about to be tested, from here on we hope that the voices and interrelationships in the project will diversify. We intend to use this report to initiate critical co-reflection on the artwork into the future as the project continues to unfold in action. To that end, I’ve concluded the report with a set of five questions for the future work. The questions at this point relate to the problematics community formation, our immediate concern. Five questions for future work.

1. How do we avoid creating a homogenous group? – how do we include the outsider, the trickster, the provocateur, or those ‘who don’t understand’?

2. How do we include dissensus, opposition to the status quo?

3. How do we set up a space where the distribution of power is negotiated, where participants can rethink, reimagine their place in the project?

4. How do we interrupt comfortable roles, comfortable questions, comfortable propositions?

5. How do we interrupt which identities the community recognises as worth listening too, who has a claim to what?

New problematics will emerge, hopefully those will be addressed collectively through action, right now this is where we are.

Marilyn Lennon’s website


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Davis, J. A.-T. (2020). On Common Ground: International Perspectives on the Community Land Trust. Terra Nostra Press. Gordon, A. (2020, December 9-10). Panel Discussion – Create Networking Day. Harvey, D. (2012). Rebel cities : from the right to the city to the urban revolution . London; New York: Verso.

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Mahan, L. L. (2016). Gaining Ground: Building Community on Dudley Street. (New Day Films) Retrieved 2020 November, from Holding Ground Film Productions:

O’Sullivan, S. (2005). Four Moments for an Expanded Practice (following Deleuze, following Spinoza). Issues in Contemporary Aesthetics, May , pp. 67-9.

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Rancière, J. (1991). The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Rancière, J. (2013). The politics of aesthetics : the distribution of the sensible. London: Bloomsbury.


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