Opinion: Joe Caslin's large-scale work in public spheres around contemporary issues can be seen as a kind of advocacy journalism

Last summer, a large paste-up mural by street artist Joe Caslin focused on the Controlled Drugs and Harm Reduction Bill by depicting key figures in the discussion surrounding the decriminalisation of drug use in Ireland. Caslin is best known for his 2015 work, The Claddagh Embrace, which adorned a wall on Georges’ Street in the centre of Dublin at the time of the same-sex marriage referendum. A sister piece was installed on Caher Castle, Co. Galway. Other notable work by Caslin in this medium includes his Achill-Henge Installation, 2013, as part of his Our Nations Sons series which seeks to tackle male youth alienation through monumental depiction. 

The scale of these works bars us from considering them as covert creations, as is normally the case with street art, rather they demand to be understood as commissioned commentaries in the public sphere. In the case of The Claddagh Embrace and later The Volunteers, the work is a specific commentary on the political moment. In Caslin’s work, we see a kind of street art as advocacy journalism.

Initially we may be drawn to these images for their ability to engage the local site. Anyone who witnessed The Claddagh Embrace as it peeked down Dame Street in the spring of 2015 will recognise this engagement. Then we may be drawn to the way in which the piece represents a contemporary issue in its choice of depicted subject.

The Claddagh Embrace by Joe Caslin

But beyond site-specificity and content of these works, the art of Joe Caslin is particularly curious for its formal features. As temporary creations, they engage in a form of street theatre. Central to any theatrical act is the simultaneous live presence of the work and the beholder.

This is a street theatre that reminds us of the durational terms of the image in public space. Not unlike the surrounding advertising, graffiti, political posters, and to a lesser extent street signs, these are artworks with lifespans.They are not delivered to the street to be permanent.

To reflect on this street theatre it is suitable to note the forthcoming 50th anniversary of the key events of 1968. The large scale workers and student strike which occurred in France of May of that year produced a sophisticated understanding of protest as an art form, namely in the form of the theatre of the street. From students confronting the police, to mass occupation of the streets and barricades to graffiti slogans such as "Sous les pavés, la plage!" ("Beneath the street, the beach"), the urban environment was recognised as the stage on which protest would be artistically performed.

From RTÉ's The Big Picture, The Artist and the Hoodie: a closer look at the artwork on the grounds of RTÉ by street artist and teacher Joe Caslin. 

The most significant aesthetic movement associated with these events was the avant-gardeism of Guy Debord and the Situationist International. Recognising a world where rebellion will be eventually commodified as spectacle, Debord identified artistic techniques of temporarily derive (drifting) and détournement (reworking) to challenge the accepted atmosphere of the urban landscape.

In the temporary spectacles of Caslin, we are called both to reflect on the political message but also to witness the live degradation of the image. The destiny of the work, like yesterday’s newspapers, is the bin. Here we realise that there is an aesthetic pleasure of the ripped paper that we enjoy. While the drama of peeling paper may not hold the attention of every passer-by, it certainly offers us an opportunity to reflect on the form of art in terms of degradation and crucially to do so in a public setting.

From RTÉ One's Claire Byrne Live, Joe Caslin talks about mental health services in Ireland

The biodegradable paper that we know will not last commands a particular attention. This is an attention that cannot be fully appreciated in photographic reproduction. The ubiquity of image documentation, from CCTV surveillance to the thousands of images in our smart phones, challenges this degradation. Yet it can only do so at an inter-passive or delegated remove. The photograph, even where it captures the rip and rain, is necessarily a failure as it reduces the environment to an abstract space and thus undermines the political force of the work. These pieces are consumed by the weather and as such point to an ecological and environmental consumption, a shallow appreciation akin to ruin porn.

How we consume images under capitalism has been a central concern of critical theory for well over a century. The metaphor of unquestioning image consumption has been repeatedly seen as a negative approach to culture. Susan Sontag, for example, argued that we ought to diet on images. The noteworthy aspect of Caslin’s work is undoubtedly its reversal of the agent of image consumption. 

The Volunteers by Joe Caslin. Photo: Connell Vaughan

In short, this is work that asks to be considered in the present, even remembered but not preserved. This is an aesthetic attitude derived from the temporary nature of the works form. In the almost annual launch of each new piece, we are sporadically reminded of cycles of degradation and resilience in modern life where we are routinely confronted with and endless stream of images and the disposable nature of the printed page.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ