JONATHAN CUMMINS DISCUSSES ‘WHEN I LEAVE THESE LANDINGS’, AN EVOLVING FILM INSTALLATION PROJECT BASED ON CONVERSATIONS WITH POLITICAL PRISONERS, WHICH HAS THUS FAR BEEN PRESENTED IN PARIS AND MARSAILLE AND IS BEING SHOWCASED THIS YEAR IN DUBLIN AND DERRY ALONGSIDE A MAJOR SEMINAR EVENT ENTITLELED ‘THE IMPOSSIBLE CONVERSATION’.
Jason Oakley: Could you briefly introduce the films that comprise When I Leave These Landings?
Jonathan Cummins: The work began in a prison as a conversation with four anti-agreement political prisoners. This resulted in the five-film installation ‘When I Leave These Landings’ (2004 – 2009). These are frank intimate documents that touch on subjects such as the impact of intense ideological belief on the self and on family members, and mediation of life from within prison.
‘Go Home’ (2010 – 2013), a four-film work, extends the conversation with the same men to that period of time after release from prison. In terms of narrative, the work considers returning home to family and to society, leaving a paramilitary organisation behind and resituating the self within all this. The work reflects on home and its relation to the self. Can we move too far from home to return? And if so, what then?
Out The Road (2011 – ), the last in the series, focuses on the families of the men featured, looking at the impact of having a close family member involved in political violence, and how this positions a family in society. The staging of the work tilts the audience towards a slightly more civic engagement in that it’s not purely cinematic but concerned with layout and awareness of others in the space.
In developing the work, I was concerned with the relationships that had developed with the people involved. Underpinning the narrative form of the work is an engagement that reflects on themes such as listening, encountering difference and the ownership we take for the closed institutions that are ultimately in our care. If there is politics in the work it is located here, in this movement from closed institution to civic space.
JO: Did you work on these alone or with a team?
JC: I worked on the first phase of the project alone, from filming through to editing. This was necessary as this work was made in prison and it was essential to protect everyone involved and the process. When you bring camera or sound people into the room, and all that equipment, you can break the intimacy.
Research took the form of meetings and conversations beforehand and I tried to insure that there were no surprises for the sitter. The work is also an act of hosting so the location matters. All three works were filmed in an art studio setting and this is an important thread in the work. The studio is a place where there can be some sort of truth, free speech and protection.
Go Home and Out the Road were filmed on high-resolution cameras and I worked with cinematographers Nuria Roldos and Volker EhIers and the post-production facility, Screen Scene. In this instance I worked with the editor Martha Meyler, who had a great feel for the project.
JO: How do you support your practice?
JC: I received funding for ‘Out the Road’ from Derry’s City of Culture artist award and this made a big difference in terms of developing the work. I teach part-time with Belfast School of Art and for many years I worked part-time with NCAD’s Prison Art Programme, which is how the project got started.
JO: How and why did the partner organisations come on board?
JC: The first installation in Dublin this year was very much embedded in NCAD, having emerged through the NCAD Prison Art Programme, which was run by Brian Maguire when he was Head of Fine Art at NCAD. NCAD maintained this interest as the project developed. Declan McGonagle, the Director of NCAD, had seen related work when he was Director of Interface in Belfast and he invited me to discuss the work at one of the seminars he was running, which is where Siún Hanrahan saw it.
Declan was involved in the exhibition and symposium in Paris along with Siún and Brian. Aislinn O’Donnell saw the exhibition at Le Centre Culturel Irlandais in Paris (18 June – 12 July 2009) and she participated in the symposium ‘It’s Our Prison’. With these elements in place, a conversation started with Michael Dempsey and Barbara Dawson at Dublin City Gallery, The Hugh Lane and the idea of a collaborative exhibition strategy took shape with NCAD Gallery, Hugh Lane and Void. Aislinn and Siún convened for ‘The Impossible Conversation’, a series of talks along with Declan and other contributors (NCAD and Hugh Lane, Dublin 18 April – 31 May 2013 and VOID, Derry 23 November 2013 – January 2014). It was a step-by-step process and everyone I have mentioned was instrumental in bringing this work into the world. The mix of colleges and public galleries was important, as was the movement of the exhibition from the South to the North.
The project was shown this year in Marseille (25 – 27 June 2013) as a part of a large group exhibition and conference organised by Lieux Fictifs (www.lieuxfictifs.org) – a really interesting group of artists and filmmakers from Marseille. The event focused on the relationship between the prison and the outside world.
JO: Was the context – the beginning of the decade of centenaries / commemorations of Irish independence – of any relevance?
JC: I don’t see the work as part of an interpretive process. That said, I do see a link if we take a position that the state was never fully formed. By this I don’t mean partition, rather that the relationship between citizen and state and the responsibility we as citizens take for our history, our institutions and those within them.
JO: Your films are based on long-term engagements with your subjects…
JC: Yes. I could speak about this process in terms of methodologies and so forth, but it’s more useful for me to think about it in terms of attentiveness towards another and how we carry ourselves when making work that involves someone’s life.
For me, the shows in Dublin were a success because the men and the families I worked with were also present and they were happy with the work. I see the films as visual documents that tell of a relationship built over many years. There is access there because there is trust, which was built over time. Those I worked with are co-researchers. There are sensitivities in the work and everyone involved has a right to inclusion, withdrawal, to use his or her name and also to anonymity. That’s what we all agreed, and that was our starting point. For example, the face of one of the men was obscured in the exhibition in Dublin. One of the films was only added for the last week of exhibition as per the wishes of that man. Context matters too. I didn’t seek funding from funds with socially motivated schemes that might have the potential to frame the work and words of the participants.
JO: What do you think artists can bring to documentary, and visa versa?
JC: The issues are not straightforward; one world feeds another. Nonetheless, the gallery certainly puts a different light on work. The films in ‘When I Leave These Landings’ are long, as they privilege the speaker and his or her story. As a form, this is not sustainable for TV or cinema but it is possible in a gallery setting where it is easier for an audience to choose their level of engagement. The gallery, especially if it’s a public space, has a different relationship with society. It can operate as part of civic space and one that’s linked with notions of culture and identity. While very few people are bothered with contemporary art, they do care about what happens in their cultural and civic spaces, as they are often perceived as representing them in a way that cinema or TV do not.
JO: Do you see the projects as being solely about its declared subject matter?
JC: The work operates at a number of levels and can be read as such, but I wanted to take a position around the ‘human’ in art and its difficulties in the context of material that draws in politics, history and geography. I was resolute in retaining the face, the voice and identity – with all its thorniness. Contemporary lens-based practice often downplays personal and biographical perspectives in order to present a more ‘porous’ opportunity for audiences to construct meanings – but identity is part of this process.
I think that as a society we struggle when we attempt to form and then embrace singular positions of identity and shared values, even when we approach the venture with a disposition of inclusiveness or indeed humanity. As soon as we agree what and who to include, there is something or someone else to grapple with that has not been included. There will always be others, and new difficulties. Perhaps a willingness to accept the absolute awkwardness of our social nature might be useful, more so than notions of the inclusive society or broader notions of humanity.
When I Leave These Landings opened at Void in the Shirt Factory, Derry, 23 November 2013 and was accompanied by further iterations of ‘The Impossible Conversation’.
Jonathan Cummins has exhibited and screened his film-based practice at: the Centre Culturel Irlandais, Paris; Rencontres Internationales Paris / Berlin / Madrid; Hugh Lane; NCAD Gallery and he regularly contributes to art and academic events. Cummins studied sociology at Trinity College Dublin and has an MFA in Media Art from University of California Los Angeles (UCLA). He is a member of Void’s curating committee. Cummins has curated exhibitions by artists such as Eija-Liisa Ahtila, John Gerrard and Phil Collins. He teaches part-time with Belfast School of Art and Design and worked for 10 years with the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) Prison Art Programme.