Around Ballybough, Dublin, everybody knows women who did time in the Magdalen Laundry on Sean McDermott Street. The women went in there as young as 14, sometimes sent by the courts, and some are still there, they say. Stories of abuse have been passed down, but also of rebellion: one local woman used to help those inside escape and, when she couldn't, she would throw packets of cigarettes over the wall. The laundry now is half pulled-down. The outer wall that runs along Railway Street ends suddenly a few metres up; the upper half has been knocked down to the top of a white cross engraving. Still, it casts a shadow of dereliction, giving the lie to the polish of urban regeneration on neighbouring streets.
On a corner across from the laundry, underneath the stacked balconies of the Liberty House flats, Sinead Hayden tells of the "so-called 'fallen' women" who found themselves inside those walls. Hayden was raised nearby, and is raising her own family in Ballybough, a few streets away. Her short history of the laundry has a personal touch, for Hayden, like the women listening to her, knew local women who had spent time inside.
Her small audience are a diverse lot. There are a few of her neighbours from Ballybough, women with young families, like her, who left school early, and are now studying together for the further-education equivalent of the Leaving Cert (with Fetac). There are a couple of artistic types, associated with the nearby Firestation Studios and the Lab, Dublin City Council's arts space on Foley Street. And there is a blonde, bouncing, 21-year-old from Florida named Casey Craig, who is threatening to burst at any moment into a showtune from the Broadway musical Wicked.
Hayden finishes her oration, and Craig, a drama student at NYU, invites all the women in the group to come and stay with her in New York. "We can have a slumber party!" she beams. "She's mad, isn't she," says one of the local women, fondly, though.
This unlikely gathering is the result of an improbable art project. Brokered by Create, a national agency that supports artists working in the community, a group of students from Dublin's art colleges have partnered with visiting students from NYU's Tisch School of the Arts to develop art projects with diverse community groups across Dublin.
While Casey Craig (with Emma Geraghty, from DIT) was wandering the streets of Ballybough, helping the women's group to develop a local history walking tour, her student colleagues Caitriona Rogerson and Siobhan Carroll were riding one of Dublin's buses.
Rogerson and Carroll, both at NCAD, were perplexed by the anonymity of commuting in Dublin, and were intrigued to see if they could find, or help create, a kind of community amongst commuters. So they took themselves down to the No 53 terminus, on Eden Quay, one day, and got on board the 9.20am bus with a collapsible plastic trolley and a supply of tea, coffee and cakes. An hour later, they had completed the round trip to East Wall, had convinced the bus driver they weren't with Naked Camera, and had introduced themselves to a busload of curious Dublin folk.
Four weeks of free cakes later, and the pair were well known to the regulars on the 9.20 No 53. Then came the crunch: would any of them let the students follow them when they got off the bus? A half dozen or so did, and the girls photographed their volunteers both on the bus, and in their personal lives off it.
Those photographs, in striking large prints, are now hanging on the wall of the Lab gallery, above a row of installed Dublin Bus seats. The artists' idea is that "the bus becomes a window into people's lives, instead of a socially-isolated place", they say. But it's not just about their art: they have produced a newsletter to be distributed on the bus, have set up an email address (email@example.com) to try and keep the communication with commuters alive, and are planning a celebratory busking concert on board in the coming weeks.
As Rogerson and Carroll sit hunched over their Mac laptop in a corner of the Lab, other groups of brightly-coloured students are putting together their own installations. A couple are wallpapering a 'sitting-room' in a corner; others are building a pond. Some have made films with their community groups, others have used online media. One group developed a board game with recovering drug addicts, then created a Google map based on the geography of the addicts' lives.
All installations are on show at the Lab till next Thursday, as part of the show, 'From Context to Exhibition'. (The Ballybough walking tour will be documented in an installation. Dog-walking tours are ongoing during the week.) Casey Craig says the project "opened my eyes to a whole other type of art practice". She had to travel from New York for that; most readers, fortunately, can have their eyes opened for less trouble.
'From Context to Exhibition' runs at the Lab, Dublin City Council Gallery, Foley Street, Dublin 1, till April 30, 10am to 6pm daily, admission free. www.create-ireland.ie