Raimi Gbadamosi

Bree Hocking discusses espionage and smart dust with Exchange Mechanism curator Raimi Gbadamosi

Raimi Gbadamosi, a tall man dressed in the sleek, all-black costume of the international artist, leans in intently and points to a photo grid on the wall sporting images of spy movies, Morse code and various surveillance devices.

‘The last item is smart dust,’ he says. ‘This dust is literally thrown onto people and then it can be used to tell where they’ve been. They can use it to track you.’

While the sci-fi style technology is still under development, its potential to impinge on civil liberties is tremendous, making it apt for consideration in Exchange Mechanism, a new exhibit at Belfast Exposed which questions ‘the demands and denials of freedom in contemporary life'.

Over the next two months, the British-born Gbadamosi, the show’s curator, envisions the gallery functioning as a classic Habermassian public sphere, with its main, ground-level space playing host to civic debates and roundtables on topics ranging from human rights to censorship to urban design.

Visitors can drop in for informal discussion, and a variety of UTV political documentaries are available for viewing during the show’s run.

Unlike most art exhibits, which focus on the visual experience, ‘in this exhibition people are going to come to act as well,’ says Gbadamosi. ‘The only way that it will function is because people are engaging with the mechanism,’ he adds, meaning ‘the exchange of ideas one to the other'.

Gbadamosi hopes such engagement will give people a sense of agency (as well as remind them of their responsibilities as citizens) – something he feels has been lost in an era of diminishing public space and civil liberties, where government surveillance and travel restrictions are on the rise.

‘The role of the politicians as it appears now is to convince people that they will keep them safe. And because they are going to keep them safe from things that are invisible, it is almost impossible to prove they have done their job properly,’ he says.

In Belfast, ‘people need to be reminded that the end of violence does not mean the end of a particular struggle. For people to state their position as political entities, if that disappears, then the very things that people were fighting for from the start will go away'.

As such, an effort was made to broaden the exhibit’s audience beyond the usual brie and Chablis crowd. Signs were posted around town, and thousands of exhibit newspapers were printed and distributed. Medals will even be awarded to active participants.

In a reversal of its traditional role as a space of exclusivity, the art gallery is now one of the few places capable of functioning as a purely public space, Gbadamosi asserts. ‘The closest thing to public space indoors is the shopping mall. People require space that is not mediated through commerce, [where] you don’t have to sit down for a coffee.’

Gbadamosi is hardly alone in his concerns. In Dublin, Temple Bar Gallery and Studios recently launched the exhibit, re: public, a similarly interactive show probing the state of the public sphere and its implications for democratic participation.

Exchange Mechanism, which coincides with the reopening of Belfast Exposed after a significant refurbishment including the creation of new gallery space upstairs, is certainly more participatory than your typical art exhibit.

From the moment visitors enter the yellow, black and white striped gallery space, they are challenged to engage with the objects on display. At the entrance, Acitore Z Artezione’s wooden board game ‘Active X’ invites attendees to sit and explore notions of control and chance – to literally dominate space.

Upstairs, Gail Ritchie’s ‘Ein Kleiner Vogel’ or ‘A Little Bird Told Me That’ looks at the reality and fantasy of espionage and surveillance in both Germany and Britain through a mix of installation, image and text.

Nearby, Joanna Karolini’s ‘Zarathustra’ – an illuminated plywood and plastic box covered with crystal shards – serves as a meditation on the transformative power of the individual.

Gbadamosi’s film ‘This is Not a Fiction,’ comprised of images from the Belfast Exposed’s half-million strong photo archive, projects a continuous stream of local life onto a wall and begs the question: precisely how are our archives and, ultimately, our histories constructed? How do societies construct fictions?

At the show’s opening party last week, however, the mood was more celebratory than reflective. In the main gallery space, a DJ spun classic 1980s dance tunes, while a tattooed drummer who bore an uncanny resemblance to the Irish actor Colin Farrell attacked his kit with frenetic, infectious intensity. Clusters of hipsters grooved to the beats.

Fabian Schuppert, a researcher at Queen’s University, cast a critical eye over the scene. Schuppert said he was sympathetic with the exhibit’s organising principles but was sceptical about its political reach. ‘Most of the people here I’ve seen before at openings here,’ he said. ‘Tonight, it’s not really a public space – yet.’

Exchange Mechanism is on view until April 9 at Belfast Exposed, located at 23 Donegall Street. For more information and a complete list of events associated with the exhibit, visit www.belfastexposed.org.