Stepping across boundaries
Sue Morris Profiles her collaboration with media academics Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker on their project ‘I can say this with absolute certainty. I was there’ (1), which explored issues around memory and historical record.
My collaboration with Greg McLaughlin and Stephen Baker from the University of Ulster developed from a knowledge and understanding of each other’s practice and concerns – specifically where they intersected and diverged. Early on, it became clear that working together could offer us interesting insights and alternatives to how we approach, conceptualise, rationalise and materialise our respective practices – artistic and academic – as well as the opportunity to present these findings to a wider and more diverse audience.
The starting point for the project was in early 2013 when Greg and Stephen were writing their book, The British Media and Bloody Sunday (Intellect Books, 2014). Some of the ideas and preoccupations in this text chimed with those that inform my art practice – especially the connections they were making between notions of the private and public, and the inherent conflicts that define the domestic space in the midst of civil conflict. In this regard, they were developing ideas explored in their previous book, The Propaganda of Peace (Intellect Books, 2010). My work has been informed by internal / external ‘realities’ – of the individual act of remembering, often in direct opposition to more formal, authoritative accounts. Recent work, such as Hortus Conclusus (2) and Seomra Úna (3), have questioned the oppositions of truth / untruth, public / private space, the dynamics within the domestic space and how the outside world encroaches upon it, pushing it beyond the personal.
Our debates were always lively and I found it easy to engage with Greg and Stephen’s openness and their concern to appeal to an audience beyond the academic, particularly in the area of community education, North and South. They were keen to communicate their ideas in the very different form and discipline of contemporary visual art – an opportunity perhaps to explore the possibilities of what they call ‘research by practice’. The collaboration has been, we think, a fruitful crossover of discipline, form and approach and here I want to reflect back on its formation and development, funding and placement, as well as consider its implications for my future practice.
Formation and development
The first few months of 2013 were about dialogue: an exploration of the conflict between first-hand, eyewitness testimony to violence and the noise of distraction and distortion, ie official / unofficial propaganda, media reporting and the casual, domestic consumption of media messages. To that end, we decided to open up the scope of our inquiry and make connections between Bloody Sunday in Derry, 1972, the miners’ strike in Britain in 1984 and the Hillsborough football stadium disaster in Sheffield, 1989 (4). The work situated this consumption in the everyday setting of the kitchen, a space with which the viewer could immediately identify. It alluded to the public / private oppositions and contradictions that the stated events provoked both for those directly involved and those who received information about the events in highly mediated contexts. Thus, the title I can say this with absolute certainty. I was there, paraphrased rather than transcribed verbatim the words of Father Daly moments after the shootings on Bloody Sunday – an ironic commentary on what happens to the language of the eyewitness account over a period of time.
These ideas and concerns were re-presented and re-articulated within an audio-visual framework requiring research of original sources – news reports, eyewitness testimonies and photographs – and the outline design of a multimedia installation.
Funding and placement
The scale and ambition of our project were very much determined and shaped by the level of funding and also the space that we obtained. We first submitted our proposal to EVA International, Ireland’s Biennial of Contemporary Visual Art in Limerick City, 2014. While we were shortlisted for the event, we were ultimately unsuccessful, but by that time we had made a successful application for funding to the Arts Council of Northern Ireland / National Lottery Fund, who awarded us a modest but invaluable grant to cover specified material costs, with additional funding support from the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster.
We secured the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast as a venue for March 2014. An initial site visit to the Crescent to review the space proved instrumental to the progression and shape of the work. The gallery space comprises three interconnecting rooms, allowing for three autonomous elements that could be experienced both separately and as part of the whole. The two smaller, more intimate spaces at either end, linked by the main gallery, accommodated reconstructions of a kitchen with one reflecting the other. The table and its settings in the far room stood in semi-darkness under a stark spotlight, rendered almost entirely in black and white; the detritus of the table – crockery and condiment containers – were embedded in pâpier maché newsprint. In direct contrast, the first room was brighter, more homely, with the table and its detritus situated in a more naturalised context.
Accompanying the installations were two sound pieces. In the first room, whispered eyewitness testimonies alluded to the inner voice of the individual witness in an act of remembering and forgetting, of asserting the facts of what he / she had seen. The soundscape in the far room mixed the din of domestic life – vacuum cleaner, washing machine, kettle on the boil, etc – with incoming radio news, insidiously seeping into the everyday. The central space had two slideshow montages of images from Bloody Sunday, the miners’ strike and the Hillsborough football stadium disaster, projected in a continuous loop on opposing walls. Working in opposition both within and between the two montages, the images spoke of the deliberation, manipulation and noise that disrupt original representation.
Implications for future practice
Throughout this one-year project, our meetings often ended with a discussion of the benefits and implications of our collaboration for our practice and our modes of research, which up until then differed in some significant ways. As a visual artist, I work on a very unstructured, connotative level, looking to present to the viewer layers of ambiguity, ambivalence and opposition without seeking to explain. Greg and Stephen, on the other hand, operate on a set of explicit research questions, progress a logical, structured inquiry based on evidence and, finally, assert an argument. Nonetheless, it became very clear to us as we progressed with this project that some of these disciplinary boundaries were beginning to blur and open up new modes of inquiry, research and practice. Instead of tentatively reaching across boundaries, we found ourselves able to step across them in an act of creative exploration of each other’s terrain. The collaboration also allowed us to be more ambitious with the work, to exploit to the full our different disciplinary skills and craft and also the extensive space that the Crescent Arts Centre provided.
While interdisciplinary collaboration is common practice amongst academics like Greg and Stephen, my art practice has been more solitary and independent – though more recently I have collaborated with other visual artists in various projects. My work with Greg and Stephen, however, has marked something of a new departure for me in terms of crossing disciplinary boundaries and exchanging ideas and perspectives in a new and dynamic praxis.
Sue Morris is a contemporary visual artist from London and has practiced in Ireland since 1992. She has exhibited in Ireland, the UK, the USA and most recently in Vienna as part of the International Cultural Programme for Ireland’s Presidency of the EU.
Greg McLaughlin from Derry and Stephen Baker from Belfast are lecturers in Media at the University of Ulster, Coleraine. They are authors of The Propaganda of Peace: The role of media and culture in the Northern Ireland peace process (Intellect Books, 2010) and The British Media and Bloody Sunday (Intellect Books, 2014).
1. The installation was shown at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast, 4 – 23 March 2014. It was supported by an award from the Arts Council Northern Ireland / National Lottery Fund, with additional support from the Centre for Media Research at the University of Ulster.
Published in Visual Arts Ireland May/June 2014
2. Kunstverein, Baden bie Wien, Austria, 24 November 2012 –13 March 2013; MuseumOrth, Austria, 27 April – 23 June 2013.
3. Site-responsive installation, AIR Cló and the Living Archive, May 2013.
4. 2014 marks the 25th Anniversary of Hillsborough (15 April) and the 30th Anniversary of the Miners’ Strike.