A Hard Place
Author: Ronnie Close
Duration: 5 mins
This practice-led PhD research project in photography works towards a contribution to the notion of historical narrative, through the exploring of the role of memory in the reconstruction of identity. This submission is composed of a video work that explores the memorial residue of individuals who have experienced a transcending of the self, through acts of martyrdom. Republican and loyalist ex-hunger strikers from the 1980s Northern Irish conflict were interviewed and disclose a set of contested cultural beliefs that form their individual and collective identities.
The function and role of memory in the reconstruction of identity and experience directs the practice. The camera has been used to explore the absence and trace of these memorial experiences. Audio interviews with the ex-hunger strikers have been made and their testimonies reveal an inner voice, unknown and public, emblematic and intimate. The visual component is suggestive and draws attention to sites of incidence. In the video work ‘A Hard Place’ the traditional12th of July Loyalist bonfires have been transformed to become metaphorical of the ex-hunger striker’s condition: attractive and repulsive, violent and sublime. The opposing political views are merged into a hybrid hunger striker figure who represents the multi-vocal dialectic of cultural difference. The loyalist ex-hunger strikers interviews from their 1987 prison protest establishes an axis between these separate communities. These testimonies can be read as translations of experience that become transference of myth, which is either consumed or rejected. The video work interprets the hunger striker’s records and the role these myths play in the formation of personal and collective identity.
The video work explores the motivational mechanism of martyrdom and is insightful and suggestive of the reconstruction process. This video format is a schism to documentary film orthodoxy and creates a residue of the still photographic experience.
Methodology and Outcomes
The methodological approach to video found in the work ‘A Hard Place’ has been underpinned by the separation of the audio/ visual strands and developed to be part of a larger body of work. The removal of the interviewee unhinges the audio/ visual data and thereby creates a contemplative gap. The audio treatment has used insightful phrases and passages from the interviews. The resonance and dissonance of the imagery is significant and the removal of the interviewee visually positions the work within an art practice discourse.
The absence of direct representation avoids empathy, which was troublesome given the violent past of these hunger strikers. This discomfort was an impediment between the work and the audience.
A psychological reading of these testimonies employs the Lacanian model of desire as a key motivational force within the human condition. In this hypothesis desire occupies the space between the real organic self and constructed or imposed identity or signifying subject, that’s formed primarily through the learning of language. The republican hunger striker’s experience transformed the self and overcame a fear of death by a process ideological appropriation and a close-knit endemic culture. This becomes applicable to this generation of republicans, in particular the 1981 hunger strike group. Their desire emerged from the rejection of the host symbolic order (the Northern Irish state) and its replacement with one their own rendering; heightenedthrough the process of learning the Irish language. Republican resurrective martyrdom signifies a psychological reordering of defeat and is an abstraction from reality. The legitimatisation of the Irish republican cause through death is an obsession with blood sacrifice.1 The loyalist hunger strike had no traditional ideological base and was a reaction to the endured prison conditions. They have been forgotten in the recent ‘Troubles’ reconciliation narrative and this offers an insight into the fragmentary and marginalized nature of loyalist paramilitary groups and their loyalist working class culture.
The still photographic works form another element of this research project and draw attention to a series of surfaces and artefacts. These objects have been photographed and create an aperture into memory and experience, alluding to what has been. The Long Kesh/ Maze prison walls in Northern Ireland were contested surfaces themselves, for instance during the ‘Dirty Protest’2 excrement was spread on these cell walls. These photographic works become part of a mapping process of these surfaces and how they, like memory itself, are replaced or fictionalised to accommodate the patina of trauma. These receptive surfaces became a repository of a social conflict history. These surfaces and artefacts are already poised on the boundary of expiry. The Maze prison is a site of social memory that languishes as a decaying edifice and exists, like Northern Ireland, in indeterminate lacunae, passively expectant. This site, once a formidable fortress of state power, has become emblematic of antebellum societal failure. The photographic work is immersed in this evocative environment, not to memorialise but rather to visualise in a problemised form. The Republican community has engaged in a process of re-enactment or simulation of experience that has led to the creation an industry of conflict; as part of a process of remembrance and could be viewed as a ‘Troubles’ theme park reality. Photographic practice has disclosed a reading of identity and place in the construction of historical knowledge.
This practice-led research positions itself at the centre of a body of integrated texts that form an overarching structure. The photography and video practice interrogates the historical subject and should not be considered as an illustrative or passive component but rather as a core mechanism of the research. It is designed outside of a documentary or ethnographic-based framework and should be interpreted as a more fine art-based practice, ambiguously resolved through photographic practice. The practice questions notions of historical truth and how this process occurs, with memory an unreliable narrator in the formation of knowledge. A number of interpretative signposts have emerged from this empirical process and have informed the direction of the theoretical research. The video work can be reviewed as part of trans-disciplinary research project that examines the relationship between still and moving image work.
“The archive is created at precisely the moment when the memory that one is trying to preserve is about to disintegrate.” Jacques Derrida, Archive Fever, A Freudian Impression, 1996.
1. The last decade has witnessed a remarkable resurgence of ideological movements throughout the world. In the Middle East, Islamic fundamentalism has emerged as a potent political force. In the so-called Third World, and in one region of the British Isles, revolutionary nationalism continues to join battle with imperialist power. Terry Eagleton, Ideology, An Introduction, Verso, 1991, London.
2. This protest began in 1976 when Republicans refused to wear prison uniforms as a reaction to the removal of political status. The protest escalated in 1977 to what was known as the No Wash/ Dirty Protest where they did not wash and used their cells as toilets. These conditions directly led to the first hunger strike in 1980 and subsequent ones.
All reviews refer to original research statements which have been edited in response to what follows
Review 1: Accept subject to rewrite of statement, which contains minor grammatical mistakes
The contributor’s description of his work as recognisable as art-practice offers an aesthetic context for his minimalist reflection on the experiences of male prisoners during the ‘Troubles’ in the North of Ireland.
The still images are a series of 15 single shots that capture the traces of murals, graffiti, sunspots on cell walls, and pages of worn books. A dead bird lies on the floor. There is no sound track.
The video is suggestive and the images are evocative. Audiences without previous information about the North’s prisons might struggle to grasp the symbols and appreciate the dark corners. But the video soundtrack offers us connections and opens possibilities for interpretations.
The written contribution shows a strong theoretical underpinning to the contribution, and includes insights such as the ‘short video format is a schism to film orthodoxy and creates a residue of the photographic experience.’ However, it occasionally suffers from over-deterministic reading of the work, e.g. is it inevitable that ‘the removal of direct representation avoids empathy’? There is also evidence of a struggle to theorise in an accessible way, e.g. ‘uneasy ecology of the visual with the audio records in an interdisciplinarity of form’.
At its most illuminating, it analyses the intentions and effects of creative strategies, e.g. the separation of audio and video in the moving image site and it tackles issues of identity formation. More could have been written about the claim that that the ‘hunger strike experience transformed the self and overcame a fear of death by a process of ideological appropriation’, when this is not how Billy saw it, commenting that he did not do it ‘for a big political ideology. Doing it for my friends’.
There is much that might have been reflected on in the production. One example is the use of split screens that sometimes contrast, such as the bare foot resting close by the television screen opposite shadows seemingly reconstructing a prison cell accompanying Gerard’s voiceover, and sometimes complement, such as the tilted-up hand-held camera moving along corridors of wire in split-screen opposite directions with Billy’s voiceover.
In summary, this is an intriguing audio visual work that finds a place for itself in the discourses of memory telling, photographic tracing and identity formation. The writing contribution begins the process of interpretation, offering readings and contextualisation, and requires responses from audiences to fulfil the work’s ambitions.
Notes on Supporting Statement
P1 paragraph 2, line 4 from ‘20th century and are …’ to ‘20th century are…’
P1 paragraph 3, line 6 from ‘is of suggestive manner focuses…’ to ‘is of a suggestive manner and focuses…’
P2 paragraph 3, line 8 from ‘environment, however not…’ to environment, not…’
P3 paragraph 1, line 9 from ‘and loyalists however in particular…’ to ‘and loyalists, in particular…’
Review 2: Accept subject to rewrite of statement.
The project comprises a DVD containing collection of still images and video piece plus accompanying research notes.
The imaging work is reasonably well achieved and seeks to avoid the usual photojournalistic clichéd representations of this subject matter. The artist consciously seeks to question existing documentary modes and to place their work within ‘an art practice discourse’. A less generous judgement might be that this approach, like much of the fine art appropriation of documentary subject matter and language, produces a sub-documentary form with lower production values and public communicational achievement than traditional well-crafted documentary film approaches. The written statement could be seen as an attempt to ‘talk up’ work that does not meet the exacting communicational requirements of documentary cinema. The jury is out on that one.
In any case whatever the merits of the imaging work, the written statement of research questions is not well written and is on occasions ungrammatical, inelegant and unclear. Here and there the discourse becomes jargonistic. While it may seem to intellectually legitimise the imaging approach taken by employing postructuralist waffle, the account does little to address the dilemmas confronted in such work. In a contradictory manner the artist seeks to deconstruct documentary codes yet at the same time to provide witness to important historical events, albeit via the fragmentary conduit of memory. This tension could be a production one but it is not foregrounded in the work.
In the resubmitted written statement the artist should be asked to evaluate their approach in comparison to traditional documentary film approaches to this important topic.