VAN November/December 2010: Sites of Becoming
Bryonie Reid Discusses ‘Fields Of Vision’, a Project Initiated by the Leitrim Sculpture Centre in 2008, from her Perspective as a Cultural Geographer.
In 2008 the administrators of the raft of funding known as ‘Peace III’ called for tenders from arts organisations planning research, activities and events addressing the legacy of politico-religious conflict in Irish border counties (1). The Leitrim Sculpture Centre responded to a brief requiring four arts-based events to examine ideas of identity and victimhood, and history and experiences of the conflict, and engage with school children. After an open call, artists Diane Henshaw, Andrew Dodds, Seoidín O’Sullivan and Moira Tierney were chosen to implement proposals for both workshops with schools and their own work, the results of which were exhibited at the Sculpture Centre this year as ‘Fields of Vision’. (2) With the Sculpture Centre’s director, Sean O’Reilly, as curator and Hayley Fox-Roberts as schools facilitator, I was involved with the project as a cultural geographer. In this article I discuss certain of its processes and outcomes: first, the special strictures placed on visual art projects by Peace III funding; second, the relationship within the project between visual art and cultural geography; and third, the exhibited work, read through the lens of cultural geography (3).
I am conscious from my own research of the profound complexity of conflict in Northern Ireland, and was perturbed by the extent to which this complexity was unacknowledged in the brief, which stemmed from the Special European Union Programmes Body (SEUPB). The Sculpture Centre received money with the stipulation that it “organise arts-based events focusing on exploring identities and victimhood” and “use the arts as a medium to portray history and experiences of conflict’, while ‘involving schools and youth groups in peace and reconciliation based arts projects” (4). The remit requires an overlap between art practice and community work, and while many artists make community engagement central to their work, the wording here is sufficiently blunt to have necessitated careful consideration of the way forward.
Although ‘identities’ and ‘history’ are conceptually broad enough to interpret in ways appropriate to art practice and working with children, the term ‘victimhood’ has multiple, contradictory and painful meanings for people affected by the Troubles. Not only is it a raw subject to broach, but I question whether it is a suitable subject for children born and brought up since the ceasefires of the mid-1990s and geographically at some distance from the epicentres of violence. Likewise, ‘experiences of the conflict’ may be substantially meaningless to a post-ceasefire generation. A strength of all arts, visual, literary and performative, is that they push beyond ‘the shackles of identity and definition’, alluding to meaning without closing it down, and each artist involved in ‘Fields of Vision’ expressed serious concerns about being asked to address in their practices concepts which were simultaneously vague, limiting and simplistic (5). During the project it became an important (and occasionally challenging) part of the curatorial and exegetic role to read the artists’ work in the light of the funders’ brief, finding and making clear the connections between the two without compromising the artists’ integrity.
My contribution to the project concerns its relationship with cultural geography. Having common interests in landscape and place in visual art, Sean O’Reilly asked me to be involved in the formal application for funding and then in an ongoing consultative and interpretive capacity. Geography was central to the project, given its siting on the Irish border, and we decided to view the notions of identity and victimhood and history and experiences of the conflict through the lens of landscape. This would ground the amorphous conceptual framework within which artists were being asked to work and offer them a means of approaching the requisite subjects obliquely and sensitively.
We suggested that these notions could be traced in material and representational landscapes, and that a geographical methodology would be productive in understanding local landscapes and the effect of the border, and help the artists to circumvent the pitfalls evident in the original brief. Changes in the landscapes of the Leitrim and Fermanagh border over the last forty or fifty years (including the geography of smuggling, the closure of border roads, abandonment of farms, transport infrastructures, the presence or absence of community facilities, forestry and recent housing developments) tell stories about politico-religious difference, local and national economies, rural, urban and suburban living in Ireland, negotiating an international border and political violence. Implicit throughout are ideas of identity, victimhood, history and conflict, and the artists could deal with these ideas through examining landscapes in ways fitting their own interests and methods.
As the project evolved, the issue of the relationship between the artists’ work and the pieces produced with them by children during the schools workshops arose. Initially I certainly thought of these workshops as a necessity to secure funding, but a distraction from the real conclusion to the project, the artists’ exhibition (6). The limitations of such thinking eventually became clear. While it had been envisaged at the outset that the children’s work and the artists’ work would be produced and exhibited separately, for at least three of the artists the workshop process resulted in the children making work integral to what they were producing themselves, either conceptually or materially, and they requested a combined exhibition (7).
Diane Henshaw, in her work Drawing Music, displayed recordings of traditional music from Leitrim and Fermanagh alongside drawings representing the melding of cultural and material landscapes in a distinctive border setting. Several showed the Leitrim village of Kiltyclogher, abutting the border and blighted by the closure of border roads during the Troubles. One resembled a bird’s eye view of the village and surrounding landscape, evoking both its cross-border connections and recent history of geographical isolation. Another spoke of the vagaries of border economies through a disused petrol pump. Henshaw’s schools groups produced four large collaborative drawings. Three were marked respectively ‘Garrison’, ‘Killesher’ and ‘Kiltyclogher’, and other clues to their siting were discernible through illustrations of landscape features and collaged copies of old photographs. These public geographies were layered with the children’s private geographies, with ‘Miss Doherty’s house’ marked on one drawing, offering interestingly subjective and personal views of particular border landscapes.
Andrew Dodds’s piece, End Times, emphasised direct engagement with cross-border landscapes under the guidance of local ecologist Anja Rosler, with evidence from the children’s encounters with these landscapes displayed in the gallery. This included a digital film of the children exploring the former demesne of Glenfarne in Leitrim, now heavily wooded, finding and identifying various forms of flora and fauna as they walked. Photographs taken by the children during another expedition to the nearby Florencecourt estate in Fermanagh were also shown, as well as the tools they used to collect and categorise, the gathered objects and materials and their drawings, all arranged by the artist.
Dodds’s work referred to partition, and the effects of their respective locations North and South of the border on Glenfarne’s and Florencecourt’s recent histories cannot help but point to the parallel histories of the border and the two states it divides. The recent pasts of the demesnes were approached from an ecological perspective, so that rather than explicitly outlining political and social histories of the border, Dodds alluded to them by looking at their geographical effects. By presenting his work with the children’s he allowed for multiple individual perspectives on border landscapes and their meanings.
Seoidín O’Sullivan brought together several works, including a text and image by Lorcan O’Toole of the Golden Eagle Trust, kites made by the school children and digital films depicting the launching of the children’s kites in her work, Mapping Flight. The group followed the movements of a tagged eagle chick who wandered from Donegal into Fermanagh and Leitrim. It was poisoned at some point on its journey, and the kites were flown at the foot of Truskmore in north Leitrim, one of its roosting spots. Sited near the border, the work made strong allusion to its paradoxical presence and absence (for humans as well as animals) through juxtaposing the physical freedom of movement of the eagle with the impact on it of moving between states with differing regulations and conventions. The idea of shared landscapes made wry comment on border histories of division and conflict, while the violence done to the eagle chick also reflected subtly on the history of political violence on the border.
Are We There Yet?, by Moira Tierney, consisted of two Super 8 film loops blown up to 16mm, made by the children and the artist (see figure three). The children’s films addressed the idea of the border elliptically, with only ambiguous or fleeting signs such as variations in accent and references to the BBC in their commentaries locating the sequences geographically. One group’s re-enactment of a Star Wars narrative, and the inclusion of police in another’s role play may be read to evoke the border’s troubled past, but the tone was light-hearted, again tendering a child’s view of his or her border locality as ordinary, familiar and shaped by forces other than national politics. Through Tierney’s eyes, the border was shown to be both banal and strange, unexceptional rural views giving way to the fortress-like aspect of a police barracks. The decision to include all stutters, jumps and flares resulting from the film’s processing reinforced the sense of cognitive dissonance arising from the border’s topographical invisibility together with its social, economic and political effects, manifested in the landscape on either side.
Despite the special and occasionally difficult conditions imposed on ‘Fields of Vision’ as a result of its Peace III funding, the artists maintained the particularity and honesty of their individual approaches. The interweaving of the children’s with the artists’ work in the exhibition points towards the integral part played by the workshops in the artists’ research and practice. For a cultural geographer, the four bodies of work offer fresh and creative engagements with a complex border landscape, and constitute a rich resource for interpretation and discussion of the border. All reveal the border to be what J.K. Gibson-Graham call ‘a site of becoming’, historically and geographically embedded but nonetheless fluid (8).
1. Peace III Programme money is administered through the European Union’s European Regional Development Fund which is managed by the Special European Union Programmes Body.
2. The exhibition ran from 11th June to 31st July 2010.
3. At the time of the project, Hayley Fox-Roberts worked for Community Connections, a community development project based in west Fermanagh, north Leitrim and north-west Cavan. Her existing relationships with schools in the border area were invaluable in setting up the schools workshops for the artists.
4. All quotes from contract between ‘Leitrim County Council (Lead Partner) on behalf of County Leitrim Peace III Partnership with The Dock (Contractor) – Lead Partner with Leitrim Sculpture Centre’. The Dock in Carrick-on-Shannon and the Leitrim Sculpture Centre were able to apply together for one tranche of funding, splitting both the money and the required outcomes between the two organisations.
5. Reginald Shepherd, ‘The Other’s Other: Against Identity Poetry’, pp648-660 in Michigan Quarterly Review, vol. 42 no.4, 2003, p648.
6. This was a personal view only, not a matter of agreement between the curator, schools facilitator and me. In fact, we did not discuss it until at the stage of planning the exhibition.
7. The exhibition included the following new works: ‘Border Lines’ and ‘Drawing Music’ by Diane Henshaw; ‘End Times’, by Andrew Dodds; ‘Mapping Flight’ by Seoidín O’Sullivan; and ‘Are We There Yet?’ by Moira Tierney, with soundtrack including music from Macdara Smith and the Bahh Band, courtesy of Brian Fleming. Due to constraints of space I have neither mentioned nor explained in detail every piece of work included in the exhibition.
8 .J.K. Gibson-Graham, A Postcapitalist Politics, Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press, 2006, pxxvii.