The Possibility of an Archive (2015)

Outdoor video projection, 7 minutes duration, looped
18 September 2015 from dusk to 21:30
Commission for ‘…the lives we live’, Grangegorman Public Art


Original Press Release:

‘…the lives we live’ Grangegorman Public Art is very pleased to present ‘The Possibility of an Archive’ by the Irish artist Alan Phelan.

Phelan’s site specific projection is a special commission for Culture Night 2015 and coincides with the launch of a new phase of public art commissions arising from per cent for art as part of the redevelopment of this new urban quarter in Grangegorman. The piece is a video projection onto an exterior stairwell of animated text that references the rich historical context of the site.

The records of the former mental health institutions that were in the Grangegorman area are now mostly held in the National Archives. With the strict accessibility conditions to this material Phelan has created a work that presents streams of institutional and bureaucratic words and phrases that reveal the changing sensitivities in language that have described the people occupying the site then and now into the future.

Sources stem from column headings of historical registers as well as keywords from the professions of mental health, education, and archive administration. Together the animated texts present possibilities, or rather the difficulty in the representation and use of such material.

As Phelan discusses, “there is a contradiction in an archive without records which this site and work now presents but this incredible history is embedded in this part of the city and is not forgotten. With the development of the new university campus there are just too many connections between education and mental health to explore for artists. The potential of a long term engagement through careful negotiation, consideration and sensitivity should provide for a rich outcome in future projects around this site.”

Phelan also works in the archive sector and more recently this has influenced several projects that have looked at institutional histories and art collections within a gallery and museum context. It is from this perspective that he has developed this new work which offers a prospect of a history that is not forgotten, but temporarily unavailable, a subtle and sombre reflection on a complicated and troubled history.

This work is typical of Phelan’s his wider practice where he often uses language and text in approaching complex and sometimes conflicting ideas around history, politics and culture. This can result in an organisational structure, like his use of only the italic words from a philosophical book to configure a large mixed body of work; or the playful pun of selecting artists to work with whose name sounded similar to his own; or using the random occurrence of text embedded graphically in a collection of images to create dialogue for a film.

Thanks to the many who helped over the short lifespan of this work including Jenny Haughton, Nora Rahill, Jonathan Sammon, John Beattie, Fran Quigley, Brian Donnelly, HSE Art Committee, and Noel Kelly.


About ‘…the lives we live’ Grangegorman Public Art

Arising from the Grangegorman Arts Strategy (2012), a new phase of commissions supported through the Per Cent for Art Scheme considers the potential for public art and the vision for commissioning. A Public Art Working Group comprising representatives from community, Health Services Executive (HSE), Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT) and the Grangegorman Development Agency and chaired by Ciaran Benson will oversee a series of commissioning pathways during the period 2015-2017.

For press inquiries, please contact: 01 402 4140 or email for information on ‘…the lives we live’ Grangegorman Public Art.


Essay from ‘…the lives we live’ Grangegorman Public Art Book, published March 2021

Alan Phelan

“The Possibility of an Archive” was a special commission for Culture Night 2015, a large outdoor video projection on the covered stairwell of a utilities building on the emerging TU Grangegorman campus. The piece became visible after dusk on the perforated metal sheeting enclosing the stairs, with animated words moving up and down the four storey structure. The text was culled from historic records, as well as current education and health professional glossaries (1).

The piece was planned as a monumental projection for this large blank surface which would eventually be closed off by adjacent new structures. As a services building, it looked like an anonymous records storage facility, possibly even an archive, as they are often blank and windowless. The utility of my descriptive artwork seemed appropriate and yet this location proved uneasy. There is a new mental health facility (2) nearby, which maybe walled off from the university campus but some patients watched from balconies during the set up. The line of slight prevented them from seeing the work later that evening however, so again remaining problematic because of exclusion.

The possibility for offensive exposure was therefore close, of expressions too close to the reality behind nearby walls. Maybe this is why “The Possibility of an Island” (3) 2005 novel by Michel Houellebecq served as an appropriate kind of inspiration for the title of the work. It just happened to be a book I had recently read and yet its bleak post-human dystopia was not something I directly inferred. The book does offers an interesting analogy of a future plight for a cloned humanity riddled with residual memories, unable to break from history or personal memory.

Grangegorman will always have its history and that will be carried though the historic architecture as well as folk, local and national records. The task of representing this in an artwork is all but impossible, and could only be a possibility. The potential is monumental, the history so tragic as to be unrepresentable. The twenty-two tons of records transferred to the National Archives represent this history.

Access to any of these records is however difficult. It is strict and appropriately respectful (4). Meetings with representatives from the health authority were even necessary to explain my intentions. The sequence of words between the historic register admission headings were a result of this process which are also synonyms for control (5).

This rendered the whole piece devoid of people, stories, conditions – of any recorded information at all. Regulations protect identity, yet eliminated the possibility of human detail in this work. Only the categories survive the process, the classification headings that in themselves describe the medical science of the time. Through each era, cultural and societal prejudice is revealed; secular or religious power and morality that was given, accepted or in charge.

The glut of terminology offered no judgement, hierarchy or authority; no success or failure of various heath systems and institutions. The spectacle of this was important to present. The contrast of languages was active, obviously because the words were moving but working against each other, in opposite directions. A basic visual device to represent the huge changes that time has brought and see different systems emerge.

A more obvious French intellectual to ground the piece would have been Michel Foucault but I did not want the work to depend on anything but the missing detail from the records. His controversial and contested book “Madness and Civilisation” offers many insights into mental health over centuries, laying the framework for institutions like those at Grangegorman. And so to end with a quote from him. “Confinement hid away unreason, and betrayed the shame it aroused; but it explicitly drew attention to madness, pointed to it. If, in the case of unreason, the chief intention was to avoid scandal, in the case of madness that intention was to organize it (6).”


(1) On the left side moving up were keywords or terms from education, learning, and teaching; on the right side keywords associated with mental health, including clinical, diagnostic and treatment phraseology. Both accessed the massive contemporary professional vocabularies, found through online resources. This filled the sides with a random stream of words and terminology. These were contrasted by the centre texts, which moved downwards in small sections. These were headings from registers for patient admissions from 1814-1827; 1863-1868; 1947-50; and 1971-72. Only four ledger books were used from the many held in the National Archives, with the title and date remaining visible for the sequence while the various different and changing categories unfolded. In between each sequence was a list of words which expressed the restricted access to detailed personal information.

(2) The Phoenix Care Centre is located on the North Circular Road and shares an entrance with the TU campus. This is in effect the legacy mental health facility at the original location, open however only since 2013, with a small 54 beds in comparison to what was there before. As the HSE describes it, there are beds of varying intervention requirements for service users of the Dublin North City Mental Health Services.

(3) “The Possibility of an Island”, Michel Houellebecq, translated by Gavin Bowd, originally published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005 (ebook version Phoenix, 2014).

(4) See the “Report on Historical Mental Health Records Seminar”, held at Royal Irish Academy, 16 May 2019, specifically the paper by Brian Donnelly outlining access parameters. The seminar marked the beginning of a partnership between the Royal Irish Academy, the Grangegorman Development Agency, the Health Service Executive, Technological University Dublin, Dublin City Council and the National Archives, Ireland to develop a 3-year project on the history of Grangegorman. Report available on

(5) For a broader overview of hospital archives see, “Survey of Hospital Archives in Ireland”, funded by the Wellcome Trust, undertaken by the National Archives, available at

(6) See page 81, “Madness And Civilization: A History Of Insanity In The Age Of Reason”, Michel Foucault, Vintage Books Edition, 1988, Random House 1965.


I would like to thank the following for their assistance in making this project:
Jenny Haughton, Nora Rahill, Jonathan Sammon, John Beattie, Fran Quigley, Brian Donnelly, HSE Art Committee, and Noel Kelly.