“Hello, thank you for choosing this pursuit,” Bill Harris says calmly, like the host at a luxury spa.
His voice stands in stark contrast to the surroundings of Dublin City Council’s office at Wood Quay on the cold, grey Bank Holiday Monday in late October.
A security guard wanders the grounds, and a few pedestrians, who are looking for a shortcut to Temple Bar. But for eight minutes, the smooth voice of the artist, also known as Bull Horris, brings life and colour to the scene.
His pre-recorded monologue guides listeners around the grassy area and its amphitheatre.
The council’s headquarters are a utopia, Harris says, as his “Pleaser” audio tour of the capital unfurls through the listeners’ headphones.
Synthesizers groan and whistle, blending into a mood piece that could have come from an old sci-fi film. “Upon these grounds, decisive decisions are made,” he says.
Observe how the lanyard-wearing council workers carry themselves, he says. Ask a security guard where the toilets are. Think of three steps towards a municipal utopia.
Harris’ ‘Pleaser’ audio tour is accessed through a geolocation app, and activates as participants stroll through different locations in the city, including the Liberties, Smithfield and Stephen’s Green.
As the user enters the zones that Harris has marked off on the map, his playful, flirtatious voice returns, accompanied by slick and sultry musical tracks, many of which originate from gay porn film soundtracks.
Like much of his work, each segment is a rumination on the concept of pleasure, be it an invitation to envisage an ideal future Dublin, or by giving a suggestive instruction, like seeking out a public toilet – an allusion to their historic role as cruising spots.
He got the idea from his own Dublin wanderings, he says. Whether vacant buildings or hives of activity, they would give him pause, he says.
“I would think about how interesting a place was, what it was exactly, and if I could go in, and if not, why?” he says.
Artist and photographer Brian Teeling says there is a playful subversiveness to Harris’ work.
“He’ll take something like Google Maps, something so ingrained in how we traverse the city, and he’ll use that to create a hidden cultural map, of gems and treasures,” said Teeling.
Harris’ work is hopeful, Teeling says. “He’s telling you to look at where we live, to look at what is possible. That’s really a nice aspect of his practice, this hope, because it is in a lot of short supply at the moment.”
Pleasure is the overarching theme in Harris’ work. In conversations, he tends to use it in the place of the tamer word “activity”, as it carries a sexually charged overtone.
He loves it because it is almost a dirty word, he says. “Especially in the case of ‘bodily pleasure’.”
People see that as disgusting, says Harris. “And a lot of that is down to a kind of Catholic virtue in this culture, which believes that you shouldn’t concern yourself with anything that isn’t ascribed to a higher level of being.”
The subjectivity of the word fascinates him, says Harris. Pursuit of pleasure is treated as both sinful and meaningful, he says.
Take the old Victorian public toilets, which were once scattered across the city. They were closed due to antisocial behaviour, he says.
“That was some of the most social behaviour for some people,” he says. “These were spaces for closeted gay men who couldn’t find pleasure elsewhere in the city.”
Such desires exist under the surface in the city and shouldn’t be shunned, he says.
Through a work like “Pleaser”, Harris seeks to portray this as a subtext to the city, as when he suggests his audience pay a visit to the toilets in the council’s office.
The musical backdrop to the walking tour is partially composed from old pornographic soundtracks, he says. “And I’ll lead people down to the old toilets on Kevin Street, because these used to be a cruising spot for men.”
For the audio tour map, he created his own taxonomy of pleasure. “Financial pleasure” marked hives of development, hotels or luxury apartments.
“Spiritual pleasure” spots included St Audoen’s Park, where he encouraged listeners to find a comfortable bench and guided them through a meditation of sorts.
For “Physical pleasure” sites, he introduced his audience to places like The Four Corners of Hell, a crossroads on Kevin’s Street once infamous for having a pub on each corner.
“Pleaser” stemmed from his fascination with the pursuit of pleasure in Dublin city, he said, in late May, as he strolled from the National College of Art and Design on Thomas Street to the vacant Rupert Guinness Theatre on Watling Street.
“A place like this would be a spiritual, non-productive pleasure, somewhere you can sit and enjoy a performance,” he says.
The inverse, productive pleasure, involves financial gain, he says. “Places that involve non-productive pleasure are often taken away. It’s not something prioritised in the city.”
An ideal club
Just after 1pm on the October bank holiday Monday, Harris was sawing away at a large plank of painted-white wood.
Harris was putting the finishing touches on his latest show, Foil Curtains and Fog Machines, which ran last Thursday at the Douglas Hyde Gallery on Nassau Street.
The inaugural exhibition was to be part of the gallery’s new late-opening series, Late Thursdays.
Harris’ vision was to reimagine the space as his ideal nightclub, somewhere that represents the capital’s queer arts and music community, as well as exhibiting those aspects of a club which please him personally.
He was on the ground floor of a unit in the heart of the Dublin Industrial Estate in Glasnevin. A collective of artists recently took over the lease and repurposed it as a DIY performance and communal space.
The shutters on its doors and windows were partially down.
On the walls were different posters for gigs and club nights. In the corner of the room was a wooden cart, used to distribute the Ecliptic newsletter, and other independent publications and zines.
On the floor were large pieces of pink carpet, which Harris had cut into clouds, stars and floral-ish abstract shapes.
The carpet had been used at the recent launch of the Andy Warhol exhibition in the Hugh Lane Gallery, before Harris salvaged and chopped it up, says Harris. “It was rolled out, like a red carpet, and they weren’t going to be using it afterwards, so I got it.”
Harris co-organises a club night called Tender. His idea for Foil Curtains and Fog Machines grew out of that. “From the time we started that, I always wanted a fog machine,” he says.
Health and safety concerns had stopped him, he says. “It’s been a struggle to get one, and it’s frustrating if you open a club, if you don’t have the thing that will create the atmosphere of an actual club.”
Foil curtains meanwhile, he says, were always a staple of DIY nights he organised outside of standard nightclubs. “These are always something I’ve made a big deal out of.”
These are the features of his ideal club, a space that is both ephemerally romantic and temporarily glamourous, he says. “This was always going to be something directly related to pleasure, but I wanted that to be the undertone here.”
“I spent a lot of time thinking about what I take great pleasure in seeing at these parties where you can dance, feel a sense of community and do what you want, because you’re in a space where you feel comfortable as yourself,” he says.
On the first Thursday in November at around 7.30pm, warping drum beats and a high-pitched voice echoed from the entrance to the Douglas Hyde Gallery.
The beats bounced against the concrete walls that led into the Trinity College Arts Block as a thinning crowd of students exited the library and walked out onto Nassau Street.
Below in the gallery’s main space, the DJ and electronic music producer Roo Honeychild stood against the painted backdrop of a castle and round tower.
She wore a chainmail hood, and she sang into a microphone, with her vocals manipulated.
Harris had tried to build a small castle for Honeychild to perform in, he says. “I wanted her on a scaffold, looking down, performing for us. But due to health and safety, that wasn’t possible.”
Through the show, he wants to blend the feeling of being in playschool with the more grandiose concept of utopia, he says.
He had mounted foil curtains to the walls – and pieces of the Andy Warhol pink carpet, chopped up to resemble child-like clouds and stars.
There were different DJ set-ups in three corners of the room, from a simple laptop on a white pedestal to a more elaborate blend of turntables and synthesizers.
It was Dublin’s club culture as an installation. Harris had asked some of his favourite performers to showcase bits of the city’s nightlife that he adored.
The centrepiece was a performance by dancer Nick Nikolau and Tadhg Kinsella, founder of the electronic music and visual arts organisation Dublin Modular.
While Nikolaou pirouetted about the space in a black dress, waving a long red veil over their head, Kinsella delivered a set of minimalist beats, dizzyingly sped up and slowed down, and paired with birdsong samples.
There wasn’t a fog machine, says Harris, laughing. “Yeah, even in a gallery, you can’t have that.”
The idea was to celebrate and recreate the alternative and DIY club settings that exist or existed in the city, says Tadgh Kinsella. “By bringing it into a gallery, it allowed people to see something maybe they hadn’t experienced before.”
Fundamentally, Harris wanted to boil down a nightclub to its purest elements, the ones that offer spiritual pleasure, he says.
The atmosphere is so often spoiled by the need to put a bar near the dance floor, he says.
But that is an example of a club owner trying to turn a non-productive pleasure into a productive one by reaping a profit, says Harris. “That always ruins it, by encouraging everyone to get really drunk.”
People shouldn’t need to drink to enjoy these spaces, he says. “That’s something I hate. We can’t even envision an alcohol-free dance floor.”