Feature: Nathan O'Donnell - action: printing

Updated: 6 days ago


By Nathan O'Donnell


When I uncoupled the bike for the first time in months from the lamppost outside my house I could see the tyres were flat. It was a sunny afternoon, mid-lockdown. I had to go to the print shop in town to print copies of a zine I’d put together but I wasn’t in any huge hurry. There was time enough for me to walk my bike up to the bike shop on Aughrim Street. I was thinking a lot, at this time, not so much about the work – the work wasn’t happening, or it wasn’t happening in the customary way – but the actions that surround the work, the actions that are also in some ways part of the work. When I got to the bike shop there were three people standing outside already, waiting, all holding bikes – serious bikes, racers, with detachable water bottles and proper lights and helmets and shinguards. I figured they were queuing. There were queues outside every shop now. I pulled my bike in and stood behind them. The actions that surround the work. They didn’t turn or acknowledge me or say anything, just carried on their conversation. I was there maybe three or four minutes when, from across the road, a woman and a young girl, maybe nine, approached the bike shop, both in shorts and flipflops, both with bikes, though their bikes were much less serious than the other people’s bikes, their bikes had big frames wrapped with floral-patterned vinyl and big white saddles and, on the young girl’s bike, golden tassels hanging from the handlebars. The older woman and the girl who may have been grandmother and granddaughter walked past the other people with bikes and went straight to the door of the bike shop. A man came out to serve them. The other people with bikes didn’t say anything. I realised then that these other people with bikes were not queuing after all. But what were they doing, these three people with bikes, standing outside a bike shop? Were they waiting on a friend? No one was allowed to enter the bike shop so I didn’t understand how that could be. Maybe they knew the owner or one of the people working in the bike shop, though they were not interacting with anyone but themselves. They seemed to be completely disconnected from the bike shop, like they had just casually happened to run into one another on the street and it was a simple coincidence that all three of them had bikes and they had met outside the bike shop. Or else they had decided to meet at the bike shop, even though they had no need of the bike shop, simply because they all had bikes and liked bikes so this was a way of expressing their general approbation of bikes and bike shops. But why had they not done me the courtesy to let me know they were not queuing, when I was obviously queuing behind them? I had been leading an online discussion group with other artists, during lockdown, and we’d been talking about this. It was one of the other artists, Sarah, who put it in my head. She was talking about how all these actions that surround the work – going to the supply shop or to the post office, doing studio visits, just fucking meeting people, in your mask, getting shit printed – have become so pronounced now in ways that are unlike anything we remember: magnified and vigilant and fraught. The grandmother pointed to the wheels of her and her granddaughter’s bikes. Both sets of tyres were completely mangled, the thick plastic casing burst, sagging, grinding on the ground. I wondered how they had both managed to blow both tyres so spectacularly. The woman turned to the assembled cyclists, and me, who she had skipped in the queue, and commented on the closeness of the day. ‘I’m sweating,’ she said. The other cyclists ignored her as they had ignored me. She had skipped me in the queue so I ignored her too. She said it again. Again no one responded. The guy who worked in the bike shop took their destroyed bikes inside and told them to come back Tuesday. The zine was just a reassembly of things I’d written before. I took parts at random, or mostly random, and cobbled them together with images from my phone. I couldn’t make anything new. Under the conditions, I couldn’t bring myself to make anything new. Once they were gone, I pushed my bike toward the guy at the bike shop door. I said I’d just taken it out of the shed even though I don’t have a shed. It was rusty, with cobwebs on it, and I wanted to somehow explain that away. I had actually been mildly fixating on this on my way up Aughrim Street. You see I knew the tyres probably just needed a pump. I knew that was all that was wrong. But I didn’t have a pump and it was easier to bring it to the bike shop than to go and find and buy a pump and bring it home and do the work myself. So I pretended to not know the tyres just needed a pump, I said I wasn’t sure, could it be a slow puncture or something, and then I acted surprised when he said no, they probably just need air, and then he went to get the pump and do this very easy minor job for me. I pretended to be surprised that it was so easy to fix, like I could have just fixed it myself had I realised – even though I had realised, and I hadn’t fixed it. When he was done, he handed the bike back to me and I made as if to pay, knowing he wouldn’t take payment, and he shook his head and said, ‘look, if you have any problems, bring it back to me here’. I guess you get used to it, a certain kind of either deeply impractical or constitutionally entitled city cyclist who can’t even be bothered to pump their own tyres. He didn’t seem to mind. He was smiling. I imagine lots of other people do the same. I imagine many of these other people are also gay men. I imagine this as an ‘unmanly’ thing to do; like if I were really invested in my own masculinity I’d have been ashamed to ask this other man to do this simple practical thing I could easily have done myself. Was I performing this shame a little, in acting surprised at the ease with which the problem could be solved? When the truth was I knew and didn’t care because ultimately this was easier. Maybe I was overthinking it. In any case I was grateful to the bike guy, as I cycled away, down Manor Street and toward the city, for maintaining our little fiction. On the first page of the zine, I wrote: ‘I made this zine in April 2020. I couldn’t think. I wasn’t writing anything new. I was in this state of suspension, I couldn’t understand how anyone could write in this state of suspension. All I could think to do was to find new ways of circulating things that already existed.’ When I got to Nassau Street there was a man from the council, or at least I think he was a man from the council, with an implement, he was holding it like a camera but I don’t think it was a camera, he was pointing it at a large steel structure protruding from the ground, a steel frame with a digital panel in the middle on which was an ad for a chain of petrol stations, like he was measuring it, with his camera or not-camera. There are several of these steel structures pitted around Dublin; I know I had seen them before but had never really stopped to take them in. When I looked it up later, I saw that these structures were referred to by the advertising company who produces them as ‘digipanels’; they are part of ‘Dublin’s first one-street digital network’, with structures across the city, all stamped with the Dublin City Council logo. This company also manages the advertisements on the city’s bus shelters and tram and rail hoardings, and a network of digital billboards, as well as what are referred to on the website as ‘Europanels’ and ‘digipoles’. I was trying to lock my bike at one of the bike stands near the digipanel, next to the entrance to the building within which the print shop was located, but I couldn’t get my lock to work. It was one of those U-shaped locks which is straight at one end but with a little curl at the other where the U is supposed to be fixed back into the handle. I had managed to open it and hook it around my bike but now I couldn’t get the key to turn and close it again I couldn’t get the curly bit to go back in the handle. The actions that surround the work. I was standing there, fiddling with it, getting exasperated, while the man from the council stood nearby, regarding the digital advertising, pointing his camera at it and then putting it down again. At one point the lock fell on the ground and I shouted ‘O for the love of fuck’ and the man from the council turned around and laughed like he felt it too, like this sense of frustration was a common and ever-present form of feeling available as if on tap, like an underground current or something, like water that’s always flowing, always there. I laughed as well. With the assembled artists’ group, on Zoom, we had a discussion about our work, kind of, though we didn’t really talk about the specifics of our work. Instead we talked about the challenges we were facing – the incapacity, now, to think in terms of the longer-term generative self-sustaining processes which we all seemed to feel was our most important work. We were all just focusing on commissions, or throwaway things, fragments, parts. And this was liberating in one way but it was also fucked. We turned away from each other, then, the council man to carry on documenting the digipanel or whatever it was he’d been doing before I interrupted and I to go on wrestling with my lock.

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Nathan O'Donnell is a Dublin-based writer and researcher, and one of the co-editors of the Irish journal of contemporary art criticism,Paper Visual Art. He has published in several magazines, journals, and has written exhibition texts and worked collaboratively with other artists and writers; he has also delivered a number of public art projects and educational initiatives. His first solo exhibition,The Centre for Indisciplinary Research, opened at the Illuminations Gallery in Maynooth University in March 2020. He has been a research fellow at the Irish Museum of Modern Art since 2017 and he will be writer-in-residence at Maynooth University 2020–21.


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