Artist intervention, Ballymun, Dublin.

The artwork was an intervention by Augustine O’Donoghue, developed in response to the public art commission, Amaptocare (2003-ongoing), by internationally renowned artist, Jochen Gertz, in Ballymun, Dublin. The intervention was a critical exploration by O Donohue of some of the ideas and issues surrounding the project in the context of the regeneration process in Ballymun.

Gertz’s public art commission consisted of inviting members of the public to buy trees from him, which would be planted in Ballymun. People who bought the trees were asked the question: “If this tree could speak, what would it say for you?” Their answers would then be inscribed on a metal plaque beside the tree. The names of those who bought trees were also due to be inscribed into the granite surface of Ballymun’s new Civic Plaza and spot-lit. O’Donoghue’s intervention involved buying four of the trees, and through the opportunity to respond to Gertz’s question, attempted to open up dialogue within the work. The four pieces of text she composed were placed alongside the trees she purchased in Ballymun.


“A little practical study of Democracy”- The best Democracy a 1% sculpture can buy”

When the Ballymun towers were built in the 1960’s they were referred to as “Irelands greatest housing scheme”[1], in turn they became iconic symbols of the problems of social failure. The largest regeneration program ever undertaken in Ireland is now taking place in Ballymun where it is hoped that lessons of past social failures have been learned in the development of a new Ballymun. Jochen Gertz has been commissioned to create a new artwork for Ballymun called Amaptocare. The work has been commissioned in the context of the largest urban regeneration program in Europe and is seen by many as one of the most significant public art commissions in Ireland. An examination of this project has been of influence in the development of my work throughout the year. I would also see a critique of Amaptocare as a healthy and necessary contribution to the regeneration process.

The following is a brief description of Johan Gertz Amaptocare in Ballymun. When Gertz first visited Ballymun he noticed that there were no trees in the area and developed his project from this initial observation. His artwork involved the planting of trees, people are being asked to donate the trees at a cost of €50 up to €295 depending on the type of trees they select (the donation price will be matched by Ballymun Regeneration Limited (BRL) and used to buy trees at a special rate from Coillte for Amaptocare. A metal lectern will be placed beside the donated tree containing written text that responds to the question “if this tree could speak what would it say for you?” The names of the donors will be engraved in the new civic plaza where a pavement map of the new Ballymun will be created. Dotted throughout the map will be a series of bright lights each of these will mark the site of a tree donated for Ballymun. Gertz describes his project as “a little practical study of democracy” “I think we have a democracy but we don’t have an adequate culture of democracy. People are mainly bored. People don’t know what it means, what’s going on, they couldn’t care less; they’re not bothered. So that’s the problem. People stay home”[2]

“What I’m proud of is to contribute to democracy, to the authorship of people. I cannot be the authors for others, they have to be the authors themselves”[3]

Gertz refers to paying for the trees as a donation and says he wants to give people the opportunity to give back. He sees the financial transaction as a crucial concept in the work, as viewers become participants through this process, a way of giving back and showing you care.

“It is important to make the people of Ballymun authors of their own trees and their own environment. I think if poor people want to do what rich people do, they should be able to give something not only receive subsidies or houses”[4]

But just how democratic is Gertz’s work? Afterall Gertz’s project is only open to those who can afford to pay the necessary €50 to €295 that Gertz is charging for the trees. Considering the socio-economic situation of many of the residents of Ballymun, many residents may not be able to afford the cost of the trees and thus are excluded from participation.

Perhaps the work is more a reflection of a capitalist society where those who have money get to participate and have their voice heard more fully than those who don’t an experience that many people in Ballymun community have fought against over the years. Does Gertz model reinforce a model of a capitalist’s society, whereby the only means of participation are through consumption?

No alternative to hard cash was offered to residents, for example a barter system where time, energy, work or creativity could have been exchanged in return for a tree. Neither were residents offered the possibility that they could grow a tree (at no financial cost) from an acorn or cutting and nurture it at home until it grew and then donated the tree to the project. It would be possible less sexy, but would have had the added value for the participant to say “I grew that”.

While I have heard an easy payment system was in place for the trees, at the end of the day. Easy payment still requires you have the available funds in the first place. This however does not relate to my own experience, after expressing interest in participation, a week later I received an email to say I needed to have my money in by the end of the week if I wanted to secure the trees.

“It is interesting to note that Gertz has stated, “If people simply cannot afford to donate towards the cost of a tree we will look towards businesses and corporate donations to sponsor the trees”[5]

Surely if an artist acknowledges that residents may not be able to afford the trees then a way should be found that would allow them be part of a public artwork in their community, rather than disregard them because they are too poor in favour of “business and corporate interests” who have the ready cash (tax deductible no doubt ??).

I find it incredible that you can have the situation where you have a member of the Ballymun community working in a low paid job for a multinational company and unable to afford the cost needed for participation in the project and on the other hand you have multinational company or bank buying a tree (the cost would be a minuscule irrelevance to the company) which allows them to have the opportunity to participate in the project in Ballymun community.

According to Gertzs logic of caring, if a company buys a tree it’s their way of showing they care, despite the fact that it is of no financial cost to the employee from the company buying the tree, on the other hand it could be a huge financial burden for someone who doesn’t have the money.

I would also question the suitability of having the names of the patrons: those who have donated money to buy a tree for the project (“people who care”) engraved and lit up in the public square. This may lead to a feeling of exclusion by those who were unable to afford the donation costs or disagree with it in principal, that they feel they shouldn’t have to pay to show that they care. It could be viewed as a public declaration that they are not one of the “people who care.” Surely a public art commission for the area should avoid exclusion of this sort.

What about all the people from Ballymun that have volunteered and contributed their time, energy, goodwill and hard work in all sorts of shapes and forms down through the years and who will continue to do so for the community long after Gertz disappears from the area. The artwork does not acknowledge these people rather it acknowledges those who show they care through the medium of handing over money.

Gertz has been quoted many times telling people that his project is an opportunity for people to give back, or as the application brochure he sent out to people reads “this is your chance to improve the future of Ballymun”. Does he assume that the people in Ballymun are not giving back, or not giving enough in the first place? Or is it that your “giving back” is only measured in terms of your involvement in Gertz’s project.

“You can’t receive if you don’t give, people often can react to good things as if they are bad,” If you are poor it can seem that you are the object of being granted things, being compensated, I want to do something that isn’t about receiving. I wanted to ask people to give something”. [6]

“A funny thing happens. People can’t appreciate what they have or what they get. I know that in the past Ballymun had a stigma about it, which has to do partly with the not caring for the thing that’s offered. I want to do something that wasn’t about receiving. I want people to give something.”[7]

Question: Why is there a regeneration process happening in Ballymun and hence that Gertz is working in Ballymun? Answer: in no small part it is due to the decades long commitment of the residents of Ballymun who have worked voluntarily, organised, coordinated, campaigned and fought for the betterment of their community, for proper housing policy and in turn the generation process that is now happening in the area.

From reading through the various comments and statements Gertz makes I get the underlining feeling from what the artist says, that somehow people in Ballymun should be more grateful for what they are getting. I think it is worth pointing out that much of the problems of Ballymun have been the result of bad planning decisions by the government, decades of implementing unsuccessful housing policies and lack of government support and investment in the area. This has resulted in untold hardship for the people in the area over the years. What people are now receiving through the regeneration process is something that has been fought hard for and has been a long time coming.

Another aspect which I find problematic, is around the written inscription that accompanies the trees. There is a lot emphasis in his project relates to “authorship” which he constantly refers to “I cannot be the authors for others, they have to be the authors themselves” etc.

While he seems to be talking about authorship in a wide sense, I am curious how the meaning translates when people compose their text for the plaques for the trees i.e. how much of an influence does Gertz have on what appears on it. In relation to the text that appears on the plaque he has stated

“I’m like a medieval scribe. I write down in a nice way what they say to me. Something of what they say will be recorded on a lectern beside each tree.”[8]

So, how much of an author are people in the work after all. Surely, the power in the piece would lie in the fact that people would be using their own language, their own expressions and way of saying things that would be unique to them and their area. That the language used was an expression and reflection of the person and their culture as much as the message they wanted to get across. Instead the artists will decide a “nice way” to say what people want to say. This could be read as a disempowering act and would seem to go against what that artists purports the piece to be all about. It also has a whiff of elitism about it.

When Gertz arrived in Ballymun to decide on what project to develop, it was the lack of trees in the area that resulted in him coming up with the idea for this project. He has stated that “if you look around poor places have no trees; rich places have trees. I don’t know why?”[9]

The answer could be said that the lack of trees is a visualisation of the lack of government support to economically deprived areas. So, then we could ask the question- should this be the responsibility of Ballymun Regeneration Limited and the government to provide adequate trees in the Ballymun area. If they are provided for rich areas why should poor areas not get the same provisions and why should the people of Ballymun be asked to pay for something that the government is failing to provide.

It is interesting to note that BRL who commissioned Gertz to do create the piece, sold part of the public park in Ballymun to GAMA construction for €15 million to develop private apartments on. Despite having a budget of €3.5 billion, BRL say they need the money to provide social amenities in the area. It seems rather conflicting on one hand to be commissioning an artist to do a project that’s concerned with greening up the area (and asking the residents to pay for it) and on the other they are selling off land in the community that’s in public ownership and use.

GAMA construction has been employed by BRL to undertake many construction projects in the regeneration process, GAMA’s treatment of its workers in Ballymun was brought to national prominence some time ago when the full scale of its exploitation of its workers was made public. The people of Ballymun responded immediately to show they cared through their solidarity with the workers by supporting them on the picket line and joining their demonstrations, donating food to the workers when their bosses tried to starve them into submission by stopping their food supply, collecting money for them, amongst other deeds. This type of “caring” does not hold any exchange value for participation in Gertz project, a monetary exchange (“your way to show you care”) is the ticket to participation.

Another point that is worth mentioning in relation to donations is when he talks about Ballymun he says “This is a region that is poor where you get subsidies to get what is lacking and I say “No things must be donated.”[10] However the trees that people buy or as he describes it (donate) are being subsidised by BRL and also Coillte who are giving them at a discounted price to the project.

In a way this commission may suit BRL very much. They get an artist in to do a project that covers the cost of a job that is their responsibility (i.e. planting trees) and in the same process getting people to pay for it themselves, all under the banner of having an internationally renowned artist doing a mega art commission in the area. It seemed the project relied heavily on advertising in the local newspaper to encourage people to buy a tree for the project. At times it looked like a product you buy into rather than an expression of “care” for the area. The project seemed to adopt a type of celebrity endorsement concept, for example, the local newspaper carried short stories or pictures of celebrities who had bought a tree for the project and alongside it they would carry an ad for Amaptocare. Another example of this is an article in the newspaper detailing various tree planting projects around the world by celebrity rock stars and film starts and then beside it offering local people the opportunity to be part of Gertz’s work.

As I have previously mentioned, I don’t think contributions in financial terms can be a measure of how much one “cares”. However, it is interesting to note that I spotted a notice beside an advertisement for Gertz’s trees in a local newspaper. It was a thank you note from Tesco shopping centre thanking the people of Ballymun for the donations they received during the year; they collected over €18,000 for Childline the largest amount collected out of all the Tesco branches in Dublin.

Another business model seems to have been adapted when Amaptocare ran a competition for a trip to Paris; they offered the 500th person who bought a tree a trip to Paris. Padraig Brennan of McCabe Builders who have large contracts with Ballymun Regeneration Limited sponsored the trip. McCabe Builders in turn were able to receive their own bit of publicity from the project when photographs of the winner along with the sponsors and artists appeared in the local media. “The lucky 500th donor will be able to climb the Eiffel Tower visit the wonderful art galleries, museums and do some Christmas shopping Parisian style”[11]

Surly a public art project of this scale does not need to accept a free holiday from a company to entice people to be part of the project. To me it seems to point to some fundamental flaws within the project when the project uses enticements like this, as part of a public art project whose success depends on engagement of the community. Somehow the way the project has engaged with the participants of the community in Ballymun along the lines of a commercial enterprise is not a model I feel appropriate for the success of a community art project.

Considering the amount of staff, voluntary students and paid staff, support, press coverage etc over the last two years the project has received, only 635 people have bought trees which seems like a very small amount of people. This has netted the project over €45,000.

I have no doubt, that for many people that have bought into the idea, that it is a very special opportunity to be part of a community project in their area. However, as I have discussed, I feel as a project, which is about community engagement and authorship, it is fundamentally flawed.

Gertz once said, “The art is not the arts end. If you do something through art it is to give people a sense of how something could be.” For me his work has provoked thoughts and ideas and a sense of how something can be. Perhaps this is the success of Gertz’s work. However, the ideology his work conjures up in my mind is in opposition to the ideology that underpins Gertz’s Amaptocare. It will be interesting to see how over time Amaptocare will pan out. Let’s hope it doesn’t aspire to follow in the footsteps of the tower blocks of Ballymun.

As Jochen Gertz invited members of the public to participate in his project and offered them the opportunity to write what the tree would say for them if it could talk I decided to take up his invitation. I bought four trees in the Ampactocare project and used this opportunity as a way to critique and challenge some of the issues that the work raised for me. I wrote four paragraphs one for each tree to discuss some relevant points in the work.

As part of the project participants meet the artist. I met and presented Gertz with my contributions. Gertz was less than happy with my proposed text for the trees. I was treated in a very rude, condescending and aggressive manner. At points the conversation deteriorated into a childlike tantrum when he started giving me the thumbs down sign, making farting noised to explain to me that’s what he thought of my ideas.

Throughout our conversation he repeatedly informed me that he was an international artist and I didn’t know what I was talking about. He attempted to undermine my choice of text by mocking it and telling me what I had written down was “so basic and naïve” and I “didn’t understand anything” unlike himself who had years of experience and questioned what experience I had to make those comments.

Gertz claimed I was trying to speak for the poor people of Ballymun, but didn’t know what I was talking about. He claimed I was talking about my ideas yet claiming to talk for poor people. He pressed home the point that he had worked in Ballymun and talked to hundreds of people in the area and claimed he knew what he was talking about, contrary to me who didn’t know what I was talking about. When we discussed the idea of planting trees in Ballymun should be the responsibility of the government he suggested I go off and become a politician if I wanted to change things.

Gertz questioned why I couldn’t write down anything positive, stating that everting that I was writing down was negative and that out of all the people that took part in the project I was the only individual to write something negative. When I suggested that I felt what I had written down was a positive contribution to the project, he totally dismissed and rubbished my suggestion.

When I presented the second text, a text concerned with BRL selling land to GAMMA he muttered in a real mocking tone “oh so we are onto international politics now are we?”

I was unable to find any point of connection with him regarding my ideas.

Probably the most shocking comments of all came when he informed me, I was like a Stalinist trying to impose my idea of things. This is a project that Gertz describes as a contribution to democracy and invited members of the public to write what text they wanted, then when somebody arrives with an idea that are different than his they are accused of being a Stalinist!


While I am aware that my contributions challenge some of the ideology that underpins his work, as it was obvious I hold a different perspective and ideology than he does, I thought respecting other people’s opinion was an essential part of democracy. In that sense it seems Gertz has failed his own “little practical study of democracy”.

For me, I don’t see my contributions in black and while terms: I am right and Gertz is wrong but as an opportunity to question and open up dialogue within the work. Gertz’s work offered me the opportunity to speak and so I did. I see my contribution as a positive and necessary contribution to the regeneration  process in Ballymun.

1 Frank McDonald (2000) The Construction of Dublin , edn., Cork : Gordon

2 Colin Murphy (2005) Ballymun: a no-fly zone for birds, Available at: (Accessed: 19th September 2005).

3 Colin Murphy (2005) Ballymun: a no-fly zone for birds, Available at: (Accessed: 19th September 2005).

4 Roberta Grey (2004) ‘Tree Cheers’, Sunday Tribune , 30 May, p.10

5 Aidan Dunne (2004) ‘Power to the People’, Irish Times , 6 February, p. 10.

6 Aidan Dunne (2004) ‘Power to the People’, Irish Times , 6 February, p. 10.

7 Aidan Dunne (2004) ‘Power to the People’, Irish Times , 6 February, p. 10.

8 Aidan Dunne (2004) ‘Power to the People’, Irish Times , 6 February, p. 10.

9 Aidan Dunne (2004) ‘Power to the People’, Irish Times , 6 February, p. 10.

10 Aidan Dunne (2004) ‘Power to the People’, Irish Times , 6 February, p. 10.

11 Amaptocare Advertisment (2004) ”, Concrete News, 6(9)


The four intervention texts 

Text 1

How democratic is the artwork amaptocare? After all, the project is only open to those who can afford to pay the necessary €50 to €295 that the artists is charging for the trees. Considering the socio-economic situation of many of the residents of Ballymun, many not be able to afford the costs of the trees and thus are excluded from participation. Perhaps the works are more a reflection of a capitalist’s society, where those who have money get to participate and have their voice and concerns heard more fully then those who are less well off, an experience many residents of Ballymun community have experienced and fought against over the years. What do you think?

Text 2

I would question the suitability of engraving the names of patrons (people who care) onto the civic plaza this may lead to a feeling of exclusion for those who were unable to afford to make a donation or those who disagree with the project on principle. It could be seen as a public reminder that they are not one of the people who care. Ballymun is full of people who have volunteered and contributed their time, energy, goodwill and hard work in all shapes and forms down through the years and will continue to do so. The artwork does not acknowledge these people; rather it acknowledges those that show they care through the act of handing over money. Surely a publicly funded art commission for the area should avoid this sort of exclusion.

Text 3

It is interesting to note, that Ballymun Regeneration Limited who commissioned the artist to do this public artwork, sold part of the public park in Ballymun to GAMMA Construction for €15 million for the development of private houses and apartments. Despite having a budget of billions, BRL say they need the money to provide social amenities in the area. It seems rather conflicting on one hand to be commissioning an artist to do a project that’s concerned with greening up the area (and asking the residents to pay for it) and on the other hand they are selling off public park land in Ballymun community that’s in public ownership and use.

Text 4

The problem with this project is that you have to pay for the right to publicly declare that you care. No alternatives to money were offered to residents for the purchase of a tree. Why not develop a barter system, where time energy and creativity could have been exchanged for a tree? Should the residents of Ballymun have to pay money to be part of a publicly funded art project in their community? Should providing trees in the area be the responsibility of the government and not the residents?


Installation, The Digital Hub, Dublin.

For O’Donoghue’s installation at The Digital Hub in Dublin in 2006, her four texts were exhibited on the wall, accompanied by a written essay, which elaborates on these textual responses, teasing out and challenging some of the ideology around the work. The audience was also invited to respond to and interact with the ideas being put forward, by writing comments on the walls. Copies of the essay were available for the public to take away.

Shown alongside this work was an installation based on the Movimentos dos Trabalhadores Rurais Sem Terra (MST) Landless Workers’ Movement in Brazil. The installation examined this socio-economic model as a concrete alternative to the capitalist system and ideology. The MST is the largest social organisation in Latin America, an agrarian movement in a country that has the most unequal land distribution in the world – less than 3% of the population own 2/3 of the land which crops can be grown on. The MST has mobilised thousands of people, often those living on the margins of society, to occupy unused land until legal ownership of the property is granted. Their aim is not just to acquire land for the landless, but also to create communities in which the formerly excluded become active, socially engaged citizens. The movement formed just over 20 years ago but they now occupy land 3/4 the size of the Republic of Ireland, with over half a million people now living on the land.

The installation was made up of various elements, including lightboxes which contained photographic images from a MST camp in São Paulo in Brazil, documenting their land, bean crops and nurseries. The MST are involved in a nationwide programme in Brazil that involves replanting trees across the country. When individuals come to work with them in their nursery, no monetary exchange takes place; instead, workers are given fruit trees. In this way, people can learn to make their own nurseries and in time, will have fruit to eat from their own trees. Information about the movement, as well as bean plants from the MST in Brazil, were available for the public to take home and grow.