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Getting visual art

Visual artist, shane finan talks to robbie brennan about his work and his strong belief in the interactive nature of art and for the onlooker to experience it as much as possible


Artist Steve Finan.

Artist Steve Finan.

Artist Steve Finan.

Artist Steve Finan.


Artist Steve Finan.


Visual artist Shane Finan is careful of his step as he negotiates the clutter of his studio floor on Manorhamilton’s Main Street.

My mobile phone has 400 billion transistors that are made of semiconductor material,” he says, eyes fixed downwards as he pauses on one leg to quickly calculate where best to place his slowly descending foot.

He picks a spot between lengths of wooden fence posts, computer monitors wired to circuit boards and a keyboard, and brings his foot down like Neil Armstrong with the Apollo 11 moon lander.

“We don’t really put a lot of thought into the processes and work that goes into creating every single one of those. There are more of those in the mobile phone in my pocket than there are stars in our galaxy.”

The 35-year-old Glencar native is reaching the end of a two-month artist’s residency in the Leitrim village and what lies around him is the disassembled parts of the installation he will be exhibiting in the Sculpture Centre this coming Friday, August 13.

Amidst the debris stands three wooden posts, three monitors flat to the floor with screens facing the ceiling and arranged inside a hexagon of loose sleepers.

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“The installation is about connection and disconnection. I’m interested in the point of disconnection between the object and where it came from,” he says and crouches to the keyboard, hits a button to enliven the monitors and percusses the keys with his fingers.

One by one, the screens fill with triangles of traced lines inside of which play short video clips of a sea mouse - an unknowable thing that looks like writhing honeycomb - a menacing-looking tick and a pleasant-looking sheep.

“I’m using nature and technology,” he says. “I don’t see those things as separate. Because time and geology went into the creation of microchips. These aren’t disconnected things. I don’t see nature as one thing and technology another.”

He produces a pack of white plastic cards and, again, circumnavigates the machinery and detritus to touch one to the top of the three standing posts. Another monitor lights up with three triangles, each holding inside it a fragment of an image – a car, a discarded oil can, algae on a lake.

He explains that the use of the shapes is mathematical symbolism, the hexagon being the sum of six triangles, a triangle having three points.

“The philosopher Henry David Thoreau used to keep three chairs in his house,” he says. “The reason he did that was because he said one chair was for himself, the second was for a conversation and the third meant a crowd. Anything more than two people means there’s a broader conversation to be had because it brings in strings from all sorts of different places.

“I always like things to be in threes in my installations because it guarantees there will always be three people using a thing. You, me and another person could be standing at one of these card readers, and we could all be scanning different cards and having things come up, which creates a point of conversation between three people.

“I did another piece in England along a similar line, except it was six people, and they figured out the meaning of the piece through their conversation as they went.

“So, it’s almost forcing people to communicate. It’s one of the reasons I love interactivity. It forces connection to happen both inside the piece and outside.” A past pupil of Summerhill College and an undergraduate student of art at IT Sligo, Finan says it was his master’s degree in interactive digital media that really shaped his development as an artist. Now, he says he looks to traditional forms for guiding principles more than inspiration.

“When I went back to do my masters, it was specifically because I wanted to make things that people could play with, like card readers and buttons. I found that people always stood back from a painting and said, ‘What does it mean?’. That’s cool but I’d rather people engaged with the work.

“I don’t want to be answering questions. It’s not about words, it’s visual art so you should experience it and get into it. With interactive installations, no-one ever asks you what it means, they just go for it. They push a button and flick a switch and scan a card and that’s enough.

“Code is a medium for me, much like paint is for a painter. I would describe myself as a painter as much as anything else. All my favourite artists are painters who don’t paint. The filmmaker David Lynch was a painter. He is brilliant because he sees things as a painter and puts things together that way. And I think I do that. I think about colour, form, composition, line and how things come together at the end. I just do it with code.”

Soldering devices, snips, screwdrivers, screws, paper bags and bits of this and that are scattered here and there, giving the white-washed room a hassled and caffeinated look, the kind produced when good order is lost to obsession.

One wonders if there’s not a certain irony at play: space and isolation were needed to produce this art designed to bring people together, art based on technology which is itself known for producing in its user a specific sort of malaise, as much as an exalting sense of community. As far as the malaise goes, the artist believes his pieces will show that the disease can also be the cure.

“One of the critiques of technology is that it can also individualise,” he says. “Part of the reason I use technology in my work isn’t because I think it’s really cool but because I think there are problems with it and those problems can be overcome as well.

“Take contactless technology, for instance. In our Covid times, tapping bank cards all the time is a very individualistic thing. Indeed, even the creation of your individual bank account is very individualistic as you’re tied to this specific number and position in the banking universe. I’m presenting something that’s collective and combined.”

Now a resident of Blessington, Co. Wicklow, Finan founded and ran an art space in Market Yard in Sligo town between 2009 and 2011.

He says that the ambitions of Irish artists are often limited by a scarcity of funding. Even if he has been lucky enough to receive bursaries this year, hopes of a prolonged period of financial security are in vain.

“I’m a self-employed sole trader, I do my accounts and pay my taxes. I have to get money to do these things so there’s funding from the Sculpture Centre to be an exhibition resident, but then I also got funding from Wicklow Arts Office to come here, and funding from the Arts Council of Ireland to just be an artist this year which has allowed me to do these things, and have the pressure off when I go to replace materials and not have to sweat the expense. But it’s a constant struggle because next year isn’t long coming around.”

As he enters the final stages of his residency, Finan is now handing over his electronic baby to the high-priest technicians at the Sculpture Centre who are now working to install each element and polish the overall aesthetic.

Again, he is pleased to have the expertise at hand, even if he does wish for more time and greater resources to broaden its scope.

“Most of the artists I admire do weird things. If I had the resources, I’d love to build the Sculpture Centre into a space that’s entirely manipulated so you’d have to crawl in through a door to get in, and stuff like that. I want people to feel differently when they walk out the other side of the room,” he says.

“Until this goes up, I don’t think I’ll be able to fully describe it. These things often don’t make sense until the very end. I didn’t even come here with this in mind.

“There’s a process to figuring this stuff out. I don’t remember when I said I’d make a giant hexagon but this what’s happening. The fence posts I bought last year on Adverts. I thought I’d use them to build raised beds in the garden, and then I thought they might be useful for artworks.

“And they sat there because I didn’t have a project for them. Before I left Blessington, I was thinking about this project and I had in my mind things like disconnection, fencing, boundaries and borders… so I said I’d bring them down on the off chance that they’d be useful. And then when I got here, I thought, ‘Ah this will work’. That’s the motif.”

The public launch of Shane’s interactive exhibition take places from 5pm-8pm at the Leitrim Sculpture Centre, Manorhamilton on Friday, August 13, and will run until September 10.